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   Chapter 20 CARDS FOR A SPREAD.

Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 13559

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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THE Major's ménage not admitting of two such great events as a hunt and a dinner party taking place on the same day, and market interfering as well, the hunt again had to be postponed to the interests of the table. Such an event as a distinguished stranger-the friend of an Earl, too-coming into the country could not but excite convivial expectations, and it would ill become a master of hounds and a mother of daughters not to parade the acquisition. Still, raising a party under such circumstances, required a good deal of tact and consideration, care, of course, being taken not to introduce any matrimonial competitor, at the same time to make the gathering sufficiently grand, and to include a good bellman or two to proclaim its splendour over the country. The Major, like a county member with his constituents, was somewhat hampered with his hounds, not being able to ask exactly who he liked, for fear of being hauled over the coals, viz. warned off the land of those who might think they ought to have been included, and altogether, the party required a good deal of management. Inclination in these matters is not of so much moment, it being no uncommon thing in the country for people to abuse each other right well one day, and dine together the next. The "gap" which the Major prized so much with his hounds, he strongly objected to with his parties.

Stopping gaps, indeed, sending out invitations at all in the country, so as not to look like stopping gaps, requires circumspection, where people seem to have nothing whatever to do but to note their neighbours' movements. Let any one watch the progress of an important trial, one for murder say, and mark the wonderful way in which country people come forward, long after the event, to depose to facts, that one would imagine would never have been noticed-the passing of a man with a cow, for instance, just as they dropped their noses upon their bacon plates, the suspension of payment by their clock, on that morning, or the post messenger being a few minutes late with the letters on that day, and so on. What then is there to prevent people from laying that and that together, where John met James, or Michael saw Mary, so as to be able to calculate, whether they were included in the first, second, or third batch of invitations? Towns-people escape this difficulty, as also the equally disagreeable one of having it known whether their "previous engagements" are real or imaginary; but then, on the other hand, they have the inconvenience of feeling certain, that as sure as ever they issue cards for a certain day, every one else will be seized with a mania for giving dinners on the same one. No one can have an idea of the extent of London hospitality-who has not attempted to give a dinner there. Still, it is a difficult world to please, even in the matter of mastication, for some people who abuse you if you don't ask them to dine, abuse you quite as much if you do. Take the Reverend Mr. Tightlace, the rector, and his excellent lady, for instance. Tightlace was always complaining, at least observing, that the Yammertons never asked them to dine-wondered "why the Yammertons never asked them to dine, was very odd they never asked them to dine," and yet, when Miss Yammerton's best copper-plate handwriting appeared on the highly-musked best cream-laid satin note-paper, "requesting, &c." Tightlace pretended to be quite put out at the idea of having to go to meet that wild sporting youth, who, "he'd be bound to say, could talk of nothing but hunting." Indeed, having most reluctantly accepted the invitation, he found it necessary to cram for the occasion, and having borrowed a copy of that veteran volume, the "British Sportsman," he read up all the long chapter on racing and hunting, how to prepare a horse for a hunting match or plate; directions for riding a hunting match or plate; of hunting the hare, and hunting the fox, with directions for the choice of a hunter, and the management of a hunter; part of which latter consisted in putting him to grass between May and Bartholomew-tide, and comforting his stomach before going out to hunt with toasted bread and wine, or toasted bread and ale, and other valuable information of that sort-all of which Tightlace stored in his mind for future use-thinking to reduce his great intellect to the level of Billy's capacity.

Mr. and Mrs. Rocket Larkspur, of Ninian Green, were also successfully angled for and caught; indeed, Mrs. Larkspur would have been much disappointed if they had not been invited, for she had heard of Billy's elegant appearance from her maid, and being an aspiring lady, had a great desire to cultivate an acquaintance with high life, in which Billy evidently moved. Rocket was a good slow sort of gentleman-farmer, quite a contrast to his fast wife, who was all fire, bustle, and animation, wanting to manage everybody's house and affairs for them. He had married her, it was supposed, out of sheer submission, because she had made a dead set at him, and would not apparently be said "nay" to. It is a difficult thing to manouvre a determined woman in the country, where your habits are known, and they can assail you at all points-church, streets, fields, roads, lanes, all are open to them; or they can even get into your house under plea of a charity subscription, if needs be. Mrs. and Miss Dotherington, of Goney Garth, were invited to do the Morning Post department, and because there was no fear of Miss Dotherington, who was "very amiable," interfering with our Billy. Mrs. Dotherington's other forte, besides propagating parties, consisted in angling for legacies, and she was continually on the trot looking after or killing people from whom she had, or fancied she had, expectations. "I've just been to see poor Mrs. Snuff," she would say, drawing a long face; "she's looking wretchedly ill, poor thing; fear she's not long for this world;" or, with a grin, "I suppose you've heard old Mr. Wheezington has had another attack in the night, which nearly carried him off." Nothing pleased her so much as being told that any one from whom she had expectations was on the wane. She could ill conceal her satisfaction.

So far so good; the party now numbered twelve, six of themselves and six strangers, and nobody to interfere with Fine Billy. The question then arose, whether to ask the Blurkinses, or the Faireys, or the Crickletons, and this caused an anxious deliberation. Blurkins was a landowner, over whose property the Major frequently hunted; but then on the other hand, he was a most disagreeable person, who would be sure to tread upon every body's corns before the evening was over. Indeed, the Blurkins' family, like noxious vermin, would seem to have been sent int

o the world for some inscrutable purpose, their mission apparently being to take the conceit out of people by telling them home truths. "Lor' bless us! how old you have got! why you've lost a front tooth! declare I shouldn't have known you!" or "Your nose and your chin have got into fearful proximity," was the sort of salute Blurkins would give an acquaintance after an absence. Or if the "Featherbedfordshire Gazette," or the "Hit-im and Hold-im shire Herald" had an unflattering paragraph respecting a party's interference at the recent elections, or on any other subject, Blurkins was the man who would bring it under his notice. "There, sir, there; see what they say about you!" he would say, coming up in the news-room, with the paper neatly folded to the paragraph, and presenting it to him.

The Faireys of Yarrow Court were the most producible people, but then Miss was a beauty, who had even presumed to vie with the Yammertons, and they could not ask the old people without her. Besides which, it had transpired that a large deal box, carefully covered with glazed canvas, had recently arrived at the Rosedale station, which it was strongly suspected contained a new dinner dress from Madame Glace's in Hanover Street; and it would never do to let her sport it at Yammerton Grange against their girl's rather soiled-but still by candle-light extremely passable-watered silk ones. So, after due deliberation, the Faireys were rejected.

The Crickletons' claims were then taken into consideration.

Crick was the son of Crickleton, the late eminent chiropodist of Bolton Row, whom many of our readers will remember parading about London on his piebald pony, with a groom in a yellow coat, red plush breeches, and boots; and the present Crickleton was now what he called "seeking repose" in the country, which, in his opinion, consisted in setting all his neighbours by the ears. He rented Lavender Lodge and farm, and being a thorough Cockney, with a great inclination for exposing his ignorance both in the sporting and farming way, our knowing Major was making rather a good thing of him. At first there was a little rivalry between them, as to which was the greater man: Crickleton affirming that his father might have been knighted; the Major replying, that as long as he wasn't knighted it made no matter. The Major, however, finding it his interest to humour his consequence, compromised matters, by always taking in Mrs. Crickleton, a compliment that Crick returned by taking in Mrs. Yammerton. Though the Major used, when in the running-down tack, to laugh at the idea of a knight's son claiming precedence, yet, when on the running-up one, he used to intimate that his friend's lather might have been knighted, and even sometimes assigned the honour to his friend himself. So he talked of him to our Billy.

The usual preponderating influence setting in in favour of acceptances, our host and hostess were obliged to play their remaining card with caution. There were two sets of people with equal claims-the Impelows of Buckup Hill, and the Baskyfields of Lingworth Lawn; the Impelows, if anything, having the prior claim, inasmuch as the Yammertons had dined with them last; but then, on the other hand, there was a very forward young Impelow whom they couldn't accommodate, that is to say, didn't want to have; while, as regarded the Baskyfields, old Basky and Crickleton were at daggers drawn about a sow Basky had sold him, and they would very likely get to loggerheads about it during the evening. A plan of the table was drawn up, to see if it was possible to separate them sufficiently, supposing people would only have the sense to go to their right places, but it was found to be impracticable to do justice to their consequence, and preserve the peace as well; so the idea of having the Baskyfields was obliged to be relinquished. This delay was fatal to the Impelows, for John Giles, their man-of-all-work, having seen Solomon scouring the country on horseback with a basket, in search of superfluous poultry, had reported the forthcoming grand spread at the Grange to his "Missis"; and after waiting patiently for an invitation, it at length came so late as to be an evident convenience, which they wouldn't submit to; so after taking a liberal allowance of time to answer, in order to prevent the Yammertons from playing the same base trick upon any one else, they declined in a stiff, non-reason-assigning note. This was the first check to the hitherto prosperous current of events, and showed our sagacious friends that the time was past for stopping gaps with family people, and threw them on the other resources of the district.

The usual bachelor stop-gaps of the neighbourhood were Tom Hetherington, of Bearbinder Park, and Jimmy Jarperson, of Fothergill Burn, both of whom had their disqualifications; Jarperson's being an acute nerve-shaking sort of laugh, that set every one's teeth on edge who heard it, and earned for him the title of the Laughing Hy?na; the other's misfortune being, that he was only what may be called an intermediate gentleman, that is to say, he could act the gentleman up to a pint of wine or so, after which quantity nature gradually asserted her supremacy, and he became himself again.

Our friend Paul Straddler, of Hinton, at one time had had the call of them both, but the Major, considering that Straddler had not used due diligence in the matter of Golden-drop, was not inclined to have him. Besides which, Straddler required a bed, which the Major was not disposed to yield, a bed involving a breakfast, and perhaps a stall for his horse, to say nothing of an out-of-place groom Straddler occasionally adopted, and who could eat as much as any two men. So the Laughing Hy?na and Hetherington were selected.

And now, gentle reader, if you will have the kindness to tell them off on your fingers as we call them over, we will see if we have got country, and as many as ever the Major can cram into his diningroom. Please count:-

Major, Mrs., three Misses Yammerton and Fine Billy...6

The Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Tightlace......................2

Mr. and Mrs. Rocket Larkspur.........................2

Mrs. and Miss Dotherington...........................2

Mr. and Mrs. Blurkins................................2

Mr. and Mrs. Crickleton..............................2

The Hy?na, and Hetherington..........................2

18

All right! eighteen; fourteen for dining-room chairs, and four for bedroom ones. There are but twelve Champagne needle-cases, but the deficiency is supplied by half-a-dozen ale glasses at the low end of the table, which the Major says will "never be seen."

So now, if you please, we will go and dress-dinner being sharp six, recollect.

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