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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 17883

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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AILWAYS have taken the starch out of country magnificence, as well as out of town.

Time was when a visitor could hardly drive up to a great man's door in the country in a po'chav-now it would be considered very magnificent-a bliss, or a one-oss fly being more likely the conveyance. The Richest Commoner in England took his departure from Tantivy Castle in a one-horse fly. into which he was assisted by an immense retinue of servants. It was about time for him to be gone for Mons. Jean Rougier had been what he called "boxaing" with the Earl's big watcher, Stephen Stout, to whom having given a most elaborate licking, the rest of the establishment were up in arms, and would most likely have found a match for Monsieur among them. Jack-that is to say, Mons. Jean-now kissed his hand, and grinned, and bowed, and bon-jour'd them from the box of the fly, with all the affability of a gentleman who has had the best of it.

Off then they ground at as good a trot as the shaky old quadruped could raise.

It is undoubtedly a good sound principle that Major and Mrs. Yammerton went upon, never to invite people direct from great houses to theirs; it dwarfs little ones so. A few days ventilation at a country inn with its stupid dirty waiters, copper-showing plate, and wretched cookery, would be a good preparation, only no one ever goes into an inn in England that can help it. Still, coming down from a first-class nobleman's castle to a third-class gentleman's house, was rather a trial upon the latter. Not that we mean to say anything disrespectful of Yammerton Grange, which, though built at different times, was good, roomy, and rough-cast, with a man-boy in brown and yellow livery, who called himself the "Butler," but whom the women-servants called the "Bumbler." The above outline will give the reader a general idea of the "style of thing," as the insolvent dandy said, when he asked his creditors for a "wax candle and eau-de-Cologne" sort of allowance. Everything at the Grange of course was now put into holiday garb, both externally and internally-gravel raked, garden spruced, stables strawed, &c. All the Major's old sheep-caps, old hare-snares, old hang-locks, old hedging-gloves, pruning-knives, and implements of husbandry were thrust into the back of the drawer of the passage table, while a mixed sporting and military trophy, composed of whips, swords and pistols, radiated round his Sunday hat against the wall above it.

The drawing-room, we need not say, underwent metamorphose, the chairs and sofas suddenly changing from rather dirty print to pea-green damask, the druggeted carpet bursting into cornucopias of fruit and gay bouquets, while a rich cover of many colours adorned the centre table, which, in turn, was covered with the proceeds of the young ladies' industry. The room became a sort of exhibition of their united accomplishments. The silver inkstand surmounted a beautiful unblemished blotting-book, fresh pens and paper stood invitingly behind, while the little dictionary was consigned, with other "sundries," to the well of the ottoman.

As the finishing preparations were progressing, the Major and Mrs. Yammerton carried on a broken discussion as to the programme of proceedings, and as, in the Major's opinion,

"There's nothing can compare,

To hunting of the hare,"

he wanted to lead off with a gallope, to which Mrs. Yammerton demurred. She thought it would be a much better plan to have a quiet day about the place-let the girls walk Mr. Pringle up to Prospect Hill to see the view from Eagleton Rocks, and call on Mrs. Wasperton, and show him to her ugly girls, in return for their visit with Mr. Giles Smith. The Major, on the contrary, thought if there was to be a quiet day about the place, he would like to employ it in showing Billy a horse he had to sell; but while they were in the midst of the argument the click of front gate sneck, followed by the vehement bow-wow-wow-wow-wow bark of the Skye terrier, Fury, announced an arrival, and from behind a ground-feathering spruce, emerged the shaky old horse, dragging at its tail the heavily laden cab. Then there was such a scattering of crinoline below, and such a gathering of cotton above, to see the gentleman alight, and such speculations as to his Christian name, and which of the young ladies he would do for.

"I say his name's Harry!" whispered Sally Scuttle, the housemaid, into Benson's-we beg pardon-Miss Benson's, the ladies'-maid's ear, who was standing before her, peeping past the faded curtains of the chintz-room.

"I say it's John!" replied Miss Benson, now that Mr. Pringle's head appeared at the window.

"I say it's Joseph!" interposed Betty Bone, the cook, who stood behind Sally Scuttle, at which speculation they all laughed.

"Hoot, no! he's not a bit like Joseph," replied Sally, eyeing Billy as he now alighted.

"Lank! he's quite a young gent," observed Bone.

"Young! to be sure!" replied Miss Henson; "you don't s'pose we want any old'uns here."

"He'll do nicely for Miss;" observed Sally.

"And why not for Miss F.?" asked Henson, from whom she had just received an old gown.

"Well, either," rejoined Sally; "only Miss had the last chance."

"Oh, curates go for nothin'!" retorted Benson; "if it had been a captin it would have been something like."

"Well, but there's Miss Harriet; you never mention Miss Harriet, why shouldn't Miss Harriet have a chance?" interposed the cook.

"Oh. Miss Harriet must wait her turn. Let her sisters be served first. They can't all have him, you know, so it's no use trying."

Billy having entered the house, the ladies' attention was now directed to Monsieur.

"What a thick, plummy man he is!" observed Benson, looking down on Rougier's broad shoulders.

"He looks as if he got his vittles well," rejoined Bone, wondering how he would like their lean beef and bacon fare.

"Where will he have to sleep?" asked Sally Scuttle.

"O, with the Bumbler to be sure," replied Bone.

"Not he!" interposed Miss Benson, with disdain. "You don't s'pose a reg'lar valley-de-chambre 'ill condescend to sleep with a footman! You don't know them-if you think that."

"He's got mouse catchers," observed Sally Scuttle, who had been eyeing Monsieur intently.

"Ay, and a beard like a blacking brush," whispered Bone.

"He's surely a foreigner," whispered Benson, as Monsieur's, "I say! take vell care of her!-leeaft her down j-e-a-ntly" (alluding to his own carpet bag, in which he had a bottle of rum enveloped in swaddling clothes of dirty linen) to the cabman, sounded upstairs.

"So he is," replied Benson, adding, after a pause, "Well, anybody may have him for me;"-saying which she tripped out of the room, quickly followed by the others.

Our Major having, on the first alarm, rushed off to his dirty Sanctum, and crowned himself with a drab felt wide-a-wake, next snatched a little knotty dog-whip out of the trophy as he passed, and was at the sash door of the front entrance welcoming our hero with the full spring tide of hospitality as he alighted from his fly.

The Major was overjoyed to see him. It was indeed kind of him, leaving the castle to "come and visit them in their 'umble abode." The Major, of course, now being on the humility tack.

"Let me take your cloak!" said he; "let me take your cap!" and, with the aid of the Bumbler, who came shuffling himself into his brown and yellow livery coat, Billy was eased of his wrapper, and stood before the now thrown-open drawing-room door, just as Mrs. Yammerton having swept the last brown holland cover off the reclining chair, had stuffed it under the sofa cushion. She, too, was delighted to see Billy, and thankful she had got the room ready, so as to be able presently to subside upon the sofa, "Morning Post" in hand, just as if she had been interrupted in her reading. The young ladies then dropped in one by one; Miss at the passage door, Miss Flora at the one connecting the drawingroom with the Sanctum, and Miss Harriet again at the passage door, all divested of their aprons, and fresh from their respective looking-glasses. The two former, of course, met Billy as an old acquaintance, and as they did not mean to allow Misa Harriet to participate in the prize, they just let her shuffle herself into an introduction as best she could. Billy wasn't quite sure whether he had seen her before or he hadn't. At first he thought he had; then he thought he hadn't; but whether he had or he hadn't, he knew there would be no harm in bowing, so he just promiscuated one to her, which she acknowledged with a best Featherey curtsey. A great cry of conversation, or rather of random observation, then ensued; in the midst of which the Major slipped out, and from his Sanctum he overheard Monsieur getting up much the same sort of entertainment in the kitchen. There was such laughing and giggling and "he-hawing" amo

ng the maids, that the Major feared the dinner would be neglected.

The Major's dining-room, though small, would accommodate a dozen people, or incommode eighteen, which latter number is considered the most serviceable-sized party in the country where people feed off their acquaintance, more upon the debtor and creditor system, than with a view to making pleasant parties, or considering who would like to meet. Even when they are what they call "alone," they can't be "alone," but must have in as many servants as they can raise, to show how far the assertion is from the truth.

Though the Yammertons sat down but six on the present occasion, and there were the two accustomed dumb-waiters in the room, three live ones were introduced, viz., Monsieur, the Bumbler, and Solomon, whose duty seemed to consist in cooling the victuals, by carrying them about, and in preventing people from helping themselves to what was before them, by taking the dishes off the steady table, and presenting them again on very unsteady hands.

No one is ever allowed to shoot a dish sitting if a servant can see it. How pleasant it would be if we were watched in all the affairs of life as we are in eating!

Monsieur, we may observe, had completely superseded the Bumbler, just as a colonel supersedes a captain on coming up.

"Oi am Colonel Crushington of the Royal Plungers," proclaims the Colonel, stretching himself to his utmost altitude.

"And I am Captain Succumber, of the Sugar-Candy Hussars," bows the Captain with the utmost humility; whereupon the Captain is snuffed out, and the Colonel reigns in his stead.

"I am Monsieur Jean Rougier, valet-de-chambre to me lor Pringle, and I sail take in de potage,-de soup," observed Rougier, coming down stairs in his first-class clothes, and pushing the now yellow-legged Bumbler aside.

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And these hobble-de-hovs never being favourites with the fair, the maids saw him reduced without remorse.

So the dinner got set upon the table without a fight and though Monsieur allowed the Bumbler to announce it in the drawing-room, it was only that he might take a suck of the sherry while he was away. But he was standing as bolt upright as a serjeant-major on parade when "me lor" entered the dining-room with Mrs. Yammerton on his arm, followed by the Graces, the Major having stayed behind to blow out the composites.

They were soon settled in their places, grace said, and the assault commenced.

The Major was rather behind Imperial John in magnificence, for John had got his plate in his drawing-room, while the Major still adhered to the good old-fashioned blue and red, and gold and green crockery ware of his youth.

Not but that both Mamma and the young ladies had often represented to him the absolute necessity of having plate, but the Major could never fall in with it at his price-that of German silver, or Britannia metal perhaps.

We dare say Fine Billy would never have noticed the deficiency, if the Major had not drawn attention to it by apologising for its absence, and fearing he would not be able to eat his dinner without; though we dare say, if the truth were known our readers-our male readers at least-will agree with us, that a good, hot well-washed china dish is a great deal better than a dull, lukewarm, hand-rubbed silver one. It's the "wittles" people look to, not the ware.

Then the Major was afraid his wine wouldn't pass muster after the Earl's, and certainly his champagne was nothing to boast of, being that ambiguous stuff that halts between the price of gooseberry and real; in addition to which, the Major had omitted to pay it the compliment of icing it, so that it stood forth in all its native imperfection. However, it hissed, and fizzed, and popped, and banged, which is always something exciting at all events; and as the Major sported needle-case-shaped glasses which he had got at a sale (very cheap we hope), there was no fear of people getting enough to do them any harm.

Giving champagne is one of those things that has passed into custom almost imperceptibly. Twenty, or five-and-twenty years ago, a mid-rank-of-life person giving champagne was talked of in a very shake-the-head, solemn, "I wish-it-may-last," style; now everybody gives it of some sort or other. We read in the papers the other day of ninety dozen, for which the holder had paid £400, being sold for 13s. 6d. a doz.! What a chance that would have been for our Major. We wonder what that had been made of.

It was a happy discovery that giving champagne at dinner saved other wine after, for certainly nothing promotes the conviviality of a meeting so much as champagne, and there is nothing so melancholy and funereal as a dinner party without it. Indeed, giving champagne may be regarded as a downright promoter of temperance, for a person who drinks freely of champagne cannot drink freely of any other sort of wine after it: so that champagne may be said to have contributed to the abolition of the old port-wine toping wherewith our fathers were wont to beguile their long evenings. Indeed, light wines and London clubs have about banished inebriety from anything like good society. Enlarged newspapers, too, have contributed their quota, whereby a man can read what is passing in all parts of the world, instead of being told whose cat has kittened in his own immediate neighbourhood.-With which philosophical reflections, let us return to our party.

Although youth is undoubtedly the age of matured judgment and connoisseurship in everything, and Billy was quite as knowing as his neighbours, he accepted the Major's encomiums on his wine with all the confidence of ignorance, and, what is more to the purpose, he drank it. Indeed, there was nothing faulty on the table that the Major didn't praise, on the old horse-dealing principle of lauding the bad points, and leaving the good ones to speak for themselves. So the dinner progressed through a multiplicity of dishes; for, to do the ladies justice, they always give good fare:-it is the men who treat their friends to mutton-chops and rice puddings.

Betty Bone, too, was a noble-hearted woman, and would undertake to cook for a party of fifty,-roasts, boils, stews, soups, sweets, savouries, sauces, and all! And so what with a pretty girl along side of him, and two sitting opposite, Billy did uncommonly well, and felt far more at home than he did at Tantivy Castle with the Earl and Mrs. Moffatt, and the stiff dependents his lordship brought in to dine.

The Major stopped Billy from calling for Burgundy after his cheese by volunteering a glass of home-brewed ale, "bo-bo-bottled," he said, "when he came of age," though, in fact, it had only arrived from Aloes, the chemist's, at Hinton, about an hour before dinner. This being only sipped, and smacked, and applauded, grace was said, the cloth removed, the Major was presently assuring Billy, in a bumper of moderate juvenile port, how delighted he was to see him, how flattered he felt by his condescension in coming to visit him at his 'umble abode, and how he 'oped to make the visit agreeable to him. This piece of flummery being delivered, the bottles and dessert circulated, and in due time the ladies retired, the Misses to the drawing-room, Madam to the pantry, to see that the Bumbler had not pocketed any of the cheese-cakes or tarts, for which, boy-like, he had a propensity.

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The Major, we are ashamed to say, had no mirror in his drawing-room, wherein the ladies could now see how they had been looking; so, of course, they drew to that next attraction-the fire, which having duly stirred, Miss Yammerton and Flora laid their heads together, with each a fair arm resting on the old-fashioned grey-veined marble mantel-piece, and commenced a very laughing, whispering conversation. This, of course, attracted Miss Harrier, who tried first to edge in between them, and then to participate at the sides; but she was repulsed at all points, and at length was told by Miss Yammerton to "get away!" as she had "nothing to do with what they were talking about."

"Yes I have," pouted Miss Harriet, who guessed what the conversation was about.

"No, you haven't," retorted Miss Flora.

"It's between Flora and me," observed Miss Yammerton dryly, with an air of authority.

"Well, but that's not fair!" exclaimed Miss Harriet.

"Yes it is!" replied Miss Yammerton, throwing up her head.

"Yes it is!" asserted Miss Flora, supporting her elder sister's assertion.

"No, it's not!" retorted Miss Harriet.

"You weren't there at the beginning," observed Miss Yammerton, alluding to the expedition to Tantivy Castle.

"That was not my fault," replied Miss Harriet, firmly; "Pa would go in the coach."

"Never mind, you were not there," replied Miss Yammerton tartly.

"Well, but I'll ask mamma if that's fair?" rejoined Miss Harriet, hurrying out of the room.

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