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   Chapter 21 THE GATHERING.—THE GRAND SPREAD ITSELF.

Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 21305

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


IF a dinner-party in town, with all the aids and appliances of sham-butlers, job-cooks, area-sneak-entrés, and extraneous confectionary, causes confusion in an establishment, how much more so must a party in the country, where, in addition to the guests, their servants, their horses, and their carriages, are to be accommodated. What a turning-out, and putting-up, and make-shifting, is there! What a grumbling and growling at not getting into the best stable, or at not having the state-vehicle put into the coach-house. If Solomon had not combined the wisdom of his namesake, with the patience of Job, he would have succumbed to the pressure from without. As it was, he kept persevering on until having got the last shandry-dan deposited under the hay house, he had just time to slip up-stairs to "clean himself," and be ready to wait at dinner.

But what a commotion the party makes in the kitchen! Everybody is in a state of stew, from the gallant Betty Bone down to the hind's little girl from Bonnyriggs Farm, whom they have "got in" for the occasion.

Nor do their anxieties end with the dishing-up of the dinner; for no sooner is it despatched, than that scarcely less onerous entertainment, the supper for the servants, has to be provided.

Then comes the coffee, then the tea, then the tray, and then the carriages wanted, then good night, good night, good night; most agreeable evening; no idea it was so late; and getting away. But the heat, and steam, and vapour of the kitchen overpowers us, and we gladly seek refuge in the newly "done-up" drawingroom.

In it behold the Major!-the Major in all the glory of the Yammerton harrier uniform, a myrtle-green coat, with a gold embroidered hare on the myrtle-green velvet collar, and puss with her ears well back, striding away over a dead gold surface, with a raised burnished rim of a button, a nicely-washed, stiffly-starched, white vest, with a yellow silk one underneath, black shorts, black silk stockings, and patent leather pumps. He has told off his very rare and singularly fine port wine, his prime old Madeira, matured in the West Indies; his nutty sherry, and excellently flavoured claret, all recently bought at the auction mart, not forgetting the ginger-pop-like champagne,-allowing the liberal measure of a pint for each person of the latter, and he is now trying to cool himself down into the easy-minded, unconcerned, every-day-dinner-giving host.

Mrs. Yammerton too, on whom devolves the care of the wax and the modérateurs, is here superintending her department-seeing that the hearth is properly swept, and distributing the Punches, and Posts, and "Ask Mamma's" judiciously over the fine variegated table-cover. She is dressed in a rich silvery grey-with a sort of thing like a silver cow tie, with full tassels, twisted and twined serpent-like into her full, slightly streaked, dark hair.

The illumination being complete, she seats herself fan in hand on the sofa, and a solemn pause then ensues, broken only by Billy's and Monsieur's meanderings over-head, and the keen whistle of the November wind careering among the hollies and evergreens which the Major keeps interpreting into wheels.

Then his wife and he seek to relieve the suspense of the moment by speculating on who will come first.

"Those nasty Tightlaces for a guinea," observed the Major, polishing his nails, while Mrs. Yammerton predicted the Larkspurs.

"No, the Tights," reiterated the Major, jingling his silver; "Tights always comes first-thinks to catch one unprepared-"

At length the furious bark of the inhospitable terrier, who really seemed as if he would eat horses, vehicle, visitors, and all, was followed by a quick grind up to the door, and such a pull at the bell as made the Major fear would cause it to suspend payment for good-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring it went, as if it was never going to stop.

"Pulled the bell out of the socket, for a guinea," exclaimed the Major, listening for the letting down of steps, iron or recessed-recessed had it.

"Mrs. D." said the Major-figuring her old Landaulet in his mind.

"Ladies evidently," assented Mrs. Yammerton, as the rustle of silks on their way to the put-to-rights Sanctum, sounded past the drawing-room door. The Major then began speculating as to whether they would get announced before another arrival took place, or not.

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Presently a renewed rustle was succeeded by the now yellow-logged, brown-backed Bumbler, throwing open the door and exclaiming in a stentorian voice, as if he thought his master and mistress had turned suddenly deaf, "Mrs. and Miss Dothering-ton!" and in an instant the four were hugging, and grinning, and pump-handling each other's arms as if they were going into ecstacies, Mrs. Dotherington interlarding her gymnastics with Mrs. Yammerton, with sly squeezes of the hand, suited to soto voce observations not intended for the Major's ears, of "so 'appy to ear it! so glad to congratulate you! So nice!" with an inquisitive whisper of-"which is it? which is it? Do tell me!"

****

Bow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow went the clamorous Fury again; Ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring went the aggravated bell, half drowning Mrs. Yammerton's impressive "O dear! nothin' of the sort-nothin' of the sort, only a fox-hunting acquaintance of the Major's-only a fox-hunting acquaintance of the Major's." And then the Major came to renew his affectionate embraces, with inquiries about the night, and the looks of the moon-was it hazy, or was it clear, or how was it?

"Mr. and Mrs. Rocket Larkspur!" exclaimed the Bumbler, following up the key-note in which he had pitched his first announcement and forthwith the hugging and grinning was resumed with the new comers, Mrs. Larkspur presently leading Mrs. Yammerton off sofawards, in order to poke her inquiries unheard by the Major, who was now opening a turnip dialogue with Mr. Rocket-yellow bullocks, purple tops, and so on. "Well, tell me-which is it '?" ejaculated Mrs. Rocket Larkspur, looking earnestly, in Mrs. Yammerton's expressive eyes-"which is it repeated she, in a determined sort of take-no-denial tone.

"Oh dear! nothin' of the sort-nothin' of the sort, I assure you!" whispered Mrs. Yammerton anxiously, well knowing the danger of holloaing before you are out of the wood.

"Oh, tell me-tell me," whispered Mrs. Rocket, coaxingly; "I'm not like Mrs.----um there, looking at Mrs. Dotherington, who would blab it all over the country."

"Really I have nothing to tell," replied Mrs. Yammerton serenely.

"Why, do you mean to say he's not after one of the----um's?" demanded Mrs. Rocket eagerly.

"I don't know what you mean," laughed Mrs. Yammerton.

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Bow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow went the terrier again, giving Mrs. Yammerton an excuse for sidling off to Mrs. "um," who with her daughter were lost in admiration at a floss silk cockatoo, perched on an orange tree, the production of Miss Flora. "Oh, it was so beautiful! Oh, what a love of a screen it would make; what would she give if her Margaret could do such work," inwardly thinking how much better Margaret was employed making her own-we will not say what.

Bow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow went Fury again, the proceeds of this bark being Mr. and Mrs. Tightlace, who now entered, the former "'oping they weren't late," as he smirked, and smiled, and looked round for the youth on whom he had to vent his "British Sportsman" knowledge-the latter speedily drawing Mrs. Yammerton aside-to the ladies know what. But it was "no go" again. Mrs. Yammerton really didn't know what Mrs. Tightlace meant. No; she really didn't. Nor did Mrs. Tightlace's assurance that it was "the talk of the country," afford any clue to her meaning-but Mrs. Tightlace's large miniature brooch being luckily loose, Mrs. Yammerton essayed to fasten it, which afforded her an opportunity of bursting into transports of delight at its beauty, mingled with exclamations as to its "wonderful likeness to Mr. T.," though in reality she was looking at Mrs. Tightlace's berthe, to see whether it was machinery lace, or real.

Then the grand rush took place; and Fury's throat seemed wholly inadequate to the occasion, as first Blurkins's Brougham, then Jarperson's Gig, next the corn-cutter's calèche, and lastly, Hetherington's Dog-cart whisked up to the door, causing a meeting of the highly decorated watered silks of the house, and the hooded enveloped visitors hurrying through the passage to the cloak-room.

By the time the young ladies had made their obeisances and got congratulated on their looks, the now metamorphosed visitors came trooping in, flourishing their laced kerchiefs, and flattening their chapeaux mèchaniques as they entered. Then the full chorus of conversation was established; moon, hounds, turnips, horses.

Parliament, with the usual-"Oi see by the papers that Her is gone to Osborne," or, "Oi see by the papers that the Comet is coming;" while Mrs. Rocket Larkspur draws Miss Yammerton aside to try what she can fish out of her. But here comes Fine Billy, and if ever hero realised an author's description of him. assuredly it is our friend, for he sidles as unconcernedly into the room as he would into a Club or Casino, with all the dreamy listlessness of a thorough exquisite, apparently unconscious of any change having taken place in the part. But if Billy is unconscious of the presence of strangers, his host is not, and forthwith he inducts him into their acquaintance-Hetherington's, Hy?na's, and all.

It is, doubtless, very flattering of great people to vote all the little ones "one of us," and not introduce them to anybody, but we take leave to say, that society is considerably improved by a judicious presentation. We talk of our advanced civilisation, but manners are not nearly so good, or so "at-ease-setting," as they were with the last generation of apparently stiffer, but in reality easier, more affable gentlemen of the old school. But what a note of admiration our Billy is! How gloriously he is attired. His naturally curling hair, how gracefully it flows; his elliptic collar, how faultlessly it stands; his cravat, how correct; his shirt, how wonderfully fine; and, oh! how happy he must be with such splendid sparkling diamond studs-such beautiful amethyst buttons at his wrists-and such a love of a chain disporting itself over his richly embroidered blood-stone-buttoned vest. Altogether, such a first-class swell is rarely seen beyond the bills of mortality. He looks as if he ought to be kept under a glass shade. But here comes the Bumbler, and now for the agony of the entertainment.

The M

ajor, who for the last few minutes has been fidgetting about pairing parties off according to a written programme he has in his waistcoat pocket, has just time to assign Billy to Mrs. Rocket Larkspur, to assuage her anguish at not being taken in before Mrs. Crickleton, when the Bumbler's half-fledged voice is heard proclaiming at its utmost altitude-"dinner is sarved!" Then there is such a bobbing and bowing, and backing of chairs, and such inward congratulations, that the "'orrid 'alf'our" is over, and hopes from some that they may not get next the fire-while others wish to be there. Though the Major could not, perhaps, manage to get twenty thousand men out of Hyde Park, he can, nevertheless, manouvre a party out of his drawing-room into his dining-room, and forthwith he led the way, with Mrs. Crickleton under his arm, trusting to the reel winding off right at the end. And right it would most likely have wound off had not the leg-protruding Bumbler's tongue-buckle caught the balloon-like amplitude of Mrs. Rocket Larkspur's dress and caused a slight stoppage-in the passage,-during which time two couples slipped past and so deranged the entire order of the table. However, there was no great harm done, as far as Mrs. Larkspur's consequence was concerned, for she got next Mr. Tightlace, with Mr. Pringle between her and Miss Yammerton, whom Mrs. Larkspur had just got to admit, that she wouldn't mind being Mrs. P----, and Miss having been thus confidential, Mrs. was inclined, partly out of gratitude,-partly, perhaps, because she couldn't help it-to befriend her. She was a great mouser, and would promote the most forlorn hope, sooner than not be doing.

We are now in the dining-room, and very smart everything is. In the centre of the table, of course, stands the Yammer ton testimonial,-a "Savory" chased silver plated candelabrum, with six branches, all lighted up, and an ornamental centre flower-basket, decorated with evergreens and winter roses, presented to our friend on his completing his "five and twentieth year as master of harriers," and in gratitude for the unparalleled sport he had uniformly shown the subscribers.

Testimonialising has become quite a mania since the Major got his, and no one can say whose turn it may be next. It is not everybody who, like Mr. Daniel Whittle Harvey with the police force one, can nip them in the bud; but Inspector Field, we think, might usefully combine testimonial-detecting with his other secret services. He would have plenty to do-especially in the provinces. Indeed London does not seem to be exempt from the mania, if we may judge by Davis the Queen's huntsman's recent attempt to avert the intended honour; neatly informing the projectors that "their continuing to meet him in the hunting field would be the best proof of their approbation of his conduct." However, the Major got his testimonial; and there it stands, flanked by two pretty imitation Dresden vases decorated with flowers and evergreens also. And now the company being at length seated and grace said, the reeking covers are removed from the hare and mock turtle tureens, and the confusion of tongues gradually subsides into sip-sip-sipping of soup. And now Jarperson, having told his newly caught footman groom to get him hare soup instead of mock turtle, the lad takes the plate of the latter up to the tureen of the former, and his master gets a mixture of both-which he thinks very good.

And now the nutty sherry comes round, which the Major introduces with a stuttering exordium that would induce anyone who didn't know him to suppose it cost at least 80s. a-dozen, instead of 36s. (bottles included); and this being sipped and smacked and pronounced excellent, "two fishes" replace the two soups, and the banquet proceeds, Mr. Tightlace trying to poke his sporting knowledge at Billy between heats, but without success, the commoner not rising at the bait, indeed rather shirking it.

A long-necked green bottle of what the Bumbler called "bluecellas," then goes its rounds; and the first qualms of hunger being appeased, the gentlemen are more inclined to talk and listen to the luncheon-dining ladies. Mrs. Rocket Larkspur has been waiting most anxiously for Billy's last mouthful, in order to interrogate him, as well as to London fashion, as to his opinions of the Miss "ums." Of course with Miss "um" sitting just below Billy, the latter must be done through the medium of the former,-so she leads off upon London.

"She supposed he'd been very gay in London?"

"Yarse," drawled Billy in the true dandified style, drawing his napkin across his lips as he spoke.

Mrs. Rocket wasn't so young as she had been, and Billy was too young to take up with what he profanely called "old ladies."

"He'd live at the west-end, she s'posed?"

"Yarse," replied Billy, feeling his amplified tie.

"Did he know Billiter Square?"

"Yarse," replied he, running his ringed fingers down his studs. "Was it fashionable?" asked Mrs. Rocket. (She had a cousin lived there who had asked her to go and see her.)

"Y-a-a-rse, I should say it is," drawled Billy, now playing with a bunch of trinkets, a gold miniature pistol, a pearl and diamond studded locket, a gold pencil-case, and a white cornelian heart, suspended to his watch-chain. "Y-a-a-rse, I should say it is," repeated he; adding "not so fashionable as Belgrave."

"Sceuse me, sare," interrupted Monsieur Jean Rougier from behind his master's chair, "Sceuse me, it is not fashionable, sare,-it is not near de Palace or de Park of Hyde, sare, bot down away among those dem base mechanics in de east-beyond de Mansion 'Ouse, in fact."

"Oh, ah, y-a-a-rse, true," replied Billy, not knowing where it was, but presuming from Mrs. Larkspur's inquiry that it was some newly sprung-up square on one of the western horns of the metropolis.

Taking advantage of the interruption, Mr. Tightlace again essayed to edge in his "British Sportsman" knowledge beginning with an inquiry if "the Earl of Ladythorne had a good set of dogs this season?" but the Bumbler soon cut short the thread of his discourse by presenting a bottle of brisk gooseberry at his ear. The fizzing stuff then went quickly round, taxing the ingenuity of the drinkers to manoeuvre the frothy fluid out of their needlecase-shaped glasses. Then as conversation was beginning to be restored, the door suddenly flew open to a general rush of returning servants. There was Soloman carrying a sirloin of beef, followed by Mr. Crickleton's gaudy red-and-yellow young man with a boiled turkey, who in turn was succeeded by Mr. Rocket Larkspur's hobbledehoy with a ham, and Mr. Tightlace's with a stew. Patés and c?telettes, and minces, and messes follow in quick succession; and these having taken their seats, immediately vacate them for the Chiltern-hundreds of the hand. A shoal of vegetables and sundries alight on the side table, and the feast seems fairly under weigh.

But see! somehow it prospers not!

People stop short at the second or third mouthful, and lay down their knives and forks as if they had had quite enough. Patties, and cutlets, and sausages, and side-dishes, all share the same fate!

"Take round the champagne," says the Major, with an air, thinking to retrieve the character of his kitchen with the solids. The juicy roast beef, and delicate white turkey with inviting green stulling, and rich red ham, and turnip-and-carrot-adorned stewed beef then made their progresses, but the same fate attends them also. People stop at the second or third mouthful;-some send their plates away slily, and ask for a little of a different dish to what they have been eating, or rather tasting. That, however, shares the same fate.

"Take round the champagne," again says the Major, trying what another cheerer would do. Then he invites the turkey-eaters-or leavers, rather-to eat beef; and the beef eaters-or leavers-to eat turkey: but they all decline with a thoroughly satisfied 'no-more-for-me' sort of shake of the head.

"Take away!" at length says the Major, with an air of disgust, following the order with an invitation to Mrs. Rocket Larkspur to take wine. The guests follow the host's example, and a momentary rally of liveliness ensues. Mrs. Rocket Larkspur and Mr. Tight-lace contend for Fine Billy's ear; but Miss Yammerton interposing with a sly whisper supersedes them both. Mrs. Rocket construes that accordingly. A general chirp of conversation is presently established, interspersed with heavy demands upon the breadbasket by the gentlemen. Presently the door is thrown open, and a grand procession of sweets enters-jellies, blancmanges, open tarts, shut tarts, meringues, plum pudding, maccaroni, black puddings,-we know not what besides: and the funds of conviviality again look up. The rally is, however, but of momentary duration. The same evil genius that awaited on the second course seems to attend on the third. People stop at the second or third mouthful and send away the undiminished plates slily, as before. Home venture on other dishes-but the result is the same-the plate vanishes with its contents. There is, however, a great run upon the cheese-Cheshire and Gloucester; and the dessert suffers severely. All the make-weight dishes, even, disappear; and when the gentlemen rejoin the ladies in the drawing-room they attack the tea as if they had not had any dinner.

At length a "most agreeable evening" is got through; and as each group whisks away, there is a general exclamation of "What a most extraordinary taste everything had of-----" What do you think, gentle reader?

"Can't guess! can't you?"

"What do you think, Mrs. Brown?"

"What do you think, Mrs. Jones?

"What do you, Mrs. Robinson?"

"What! none of you able to guess! And yet everybody at table hit off directly!"

"All give it up?" Brown, Jones, and Robinson?

"Yes-yes-yes."

"Well then, we'll tell you":-

"Everything tasted of Castor oil!"

"Castor oil!" exclaims Mrs. Brown.

"Castor oil!" shrieks Mrs. Jones.

"Castor oil!" shudders Mrs. Robinson.

"O-o-o-o! how nasty!"

"But how came it there?" asks Mrs. Brown.

"We'll tell you that, too-"

The Major's famous cow Strawberry-cream's calf was ill, and they had tapped a pint of fine "cold-drawn" for it, which Monsieur Jean Rougier happening to upset, just mopped it up with his napkin, and chucking it away, it was speedily adopted by the hind's little girl in charge of the plates and dishes, who imparted a most liberal castor oil flavour to everything she touched.

And that entertainment is now known by the name of the "Castor Oil Dinner."

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