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   Chapter 47 A CATASTROPHE.—A TêTE-à-TêTE DINNER

Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 16007

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


ON, Sir, Sir, please step this way! please step this way!" exclaimed the delirium tremems footman, rushing coatless into the room where our hero and Mr. Gaiters were,-his shirt-sleeves tucked up, and a knife in hand, as if he had been killing a pig, though in reality he was fresh from the knife-board.

"Oh, Sir, Sir, please step this way!" repeated he, at once demolishing the delicate discussion at which our friend and Mr. Gaiters had arrived.

"What's ha-ha-happened?" demanded Billy, turning deadly pale; for his cares were so few, that he couldn't direct his fears to any one point in particular.

"Please, sir, your 'oss has dropped down in a f-f-fit!" replied the man, all in a tremble.

"Fit!" ejaculated Billy, brushing past Gaiters, and hurrying out of the room.

"Fit!" repeated Gaiters, turning round with comfortable composure, looking at the man as much as to say, what do you know about it?

"Yes, f-f-fit!" repeated the footman, brandishing his knife, and running after Billy as though he were going to slay him.

Dashing along the dark passages, breaking his shins over one of those unlucky coal-scuttles that are always in the way, Billy fell into an outward-bound stream of humanity,-Mrs. Margerum, Barbara the housemaid, Mary the Lanndrymaid, Jones the gardener's boy, and others, all hurrying to the scene of action.

Already there was a ring formed round the door, of bare-armed helpers, and miscellaneous hangers-on, looking over each other's shoulders, who opened a way for Billy as he advanced.

The horse was indeed down, but not in a fit; for he was dying, and expired just as Billy entered. There lay the glazy-eyed hundred-guinea Napoleon the Great, showing his teeth, reduced to the mere value of his skin; so great is the difference between a dead horse and a live one.

"Bad job!" said Wetun, who was on his knees at its head, looking up; "bad job!" repeated he, trying to look dismal.

"What! is he dead?" demanded Billy, who could hardly realise the fact.

"Dead, ay-he'll never move more," replied Wetun, showing his fast-stiffening neck.

"By Jove! why didn't you send for the doctor?" demanded Billy.

"Doctor! we had the doctor," replied Wetun, "but he could do nothin' for him."

"Nothin' for him!" retorted Billy; "why not?"

"Because he's rotten," replied Wetun.

"Rotten! how can that be?" asked our friend, adding, "I only bought him the other day!"

"If you open 'im you'll find he's as black as ink in his inside, rejoined the groom, now getting np in the stall and rubbing his knees.

"Well, but what's that with?" demanded Hilly. "It surely must be owing to something. Horses don't die that way for nothing."

"Owing to a bad constitution-harn't got no stamina," replied Wetun, looking down upon the dead animal.

Billy was posed with the answer, and stood mute for a while.

"That 'oss 'as never been rightly well sin he com'd," now observed Joe Bates, the helper who looked after him, over the heads of the door-circle.

"I didn't like his looks when he com'd in from 'unting that day," continued Tom Wisp, another helper.

"No, nor the day arter nonther," assented Jack Strong, who was a capital hand at finding fault, and could slur over his work with anybody.

Just then Mr. Gaiters arrived; and a deferential entrance was opened for his broadcloth by the group before the door.

The great Mr. Gaiters entered.

Treating the dirty blear-eyed Wetun more as a helper than an equal, he advanced deliberately up the stall and proceeded to examine the dead horse.

He looked first np his nostrils, next at his eye, then at his neck to see if he had been bled.

"I could have cured that horse if I'd had him in time," observed he to Billy with a shake of the head.

"Neither you nor no man under the sun could ha' done it," asserted Mr. Wetun, indignant at the imputation.

"I could though-at least he never should have been in that state," replied Gaiters coolly.

"I say you couldn't!" retorted Wetun, putting his arms a-kimbo, and sideling up to the daring intruder, a man who hadn't even asked leave to come into his stable.

A storm being imminent, our friend slipped off, and Sir Moses arrived from Henerey Brown &, Co.'s just at the nick of time to prevent a fight.

So much for a single night in a bad stable, a result that our readers will do well to remember when they ask their friends to visit them-"Love me, love my horse," being an adage more attended to in former times than it is now.

"Ah, my dear Pringle! I'm so sorry to hear about your horse! go sorry to hear about your horse!" exclaimed Sir Moses, rushing forward to greet our friend with a consolatory shake of the hand, as he came sauntering into the library, flat candlestick in hand, before dinner. "It's just the most unfortunate thing I ever knew in my life; and I wouldn't have had it happen at my house for all the money in the world-dom'd if I would," added he, with a downward blow of his fist.

Billy could only reply with one of his usual monotonous "y-a-r-ses."

"However," said the Baronet, "it shall not prevent your hunting to-morrow, for I'll mount you with all the pleasure in the world-all the pleasure in the world," repeated he, with a flourish of his hand.

"Thank ye," replied Billy, alarmed at the prospect; "but the fact is, the Major expects me back at Yammerton Grange, and--"

"That's nothin!" interrupted Sir Moses; "that's nothin; hunt, and go there after-all in the day's work. Meet at the kennel, find a fox in five minutes, have your spin, and go to the Grange afterwards."

"O, indeed, yes, you shall," continued he, settling it so, "shall have the best horse in my stable-Pegasus, or Atalanta, or Old Jack, or any of them-dom'd if you shalln't-so that matter's settled."

"But, but, but," hesitated our alarmed friend, "I-I-I shall have no way of getting there after hunting."

"O, I'll manage that too," replied Sir Moses, now in the generous mood. "I'll manage that too-shall have the dog-cart-the thing we were in to-day; my lad shall go with you and bring it back, and that'll convey you and your traps 'and all altogether. Only sorry I can't ask you to stay another week, but the fact is I've got to go to my friend Lord Lundyfoote's for Monday's hunting at Harker Crag,"-the fact being that Sir Moses had had enough of Billy's company and had invited himself there to get rid of him.

The noiseless Mr. Bankhead then opened the door with a bow, and they proceeded to a tête-à-tête dinner, Cuddy Flintoff having wisely sent for his things from Heslop's house, and taken his departure to town under pretence, as he told Sir Moses in a note, of seeing Tommy White's horses sold.

Cuddy was one of that numerous breed of whom every sportsman knows at least one-namely, a man who is always wanting a horse, a "do you know of a horse that will suit me?" sort of a man. Charley Flight, who always walks the streets like a lamplighter and doesn't like to be cheeked in his stride, whenever he sees Cuddy crawling along Piccadilly towards the Corner, puts on extra steam, exclaiming as he nears him, "How are you, Cuddy, how are you? I don't know of a horse that will suit you!" So he gets past without a pull-up.

But we are keeping the soup waiting-also the fish-cod sounds rather-for Mrs. Margerum not calculating on more than the usual three days of country hospitality,-the rest day, the drest day, and the pressed day,-had run out of fresh fish. Indeed the whole repast bespoke the exhausted larder peculiar to the end of the week, and an adept in dishes might have detected some old friends with new faces. Some rechauffers however are quite as good if not better than the original dishes-hashed venison for instance-though in this case, when Sir Moses inquired for the remains of the Sunday's haunch, he was told that Monsieur had had it for his lunch-Jack being a safe bird to lay it upon, seeing that he had not returned from the race. If Jack had been

in the way then, the cat would most likely have been the culprit, or old Libertine, who had the run of the house.

Neither the Baronet nor Billy however was in any great humour for eating, each having cares of magnitude to oppress his thoughts, and it was not until Sir Moses had imbibed the best part of a pint of champagne besides sherry at intervals, that he seemed at all like himself. So he picked and nibbled and dom'd and dirted as many plates as he could. Dinner being at length over, he ordered a bottle of the green-sealed claret (his best), and drawing his chair to the fire proceeded to crack walnuts and pelt the shells at particular coals in the fire with a vehemence that showed the occupation of his mind. An observing eye could almost tell which were levelled at Henerey Brown, which at Cuddy Flintoff, and which again at the impudent owner of Tippy Tom.

At length, having exhausted his spleen, he made a desperate dash at the claret-jug, and pouring himself out a bumper, pushed it across to our friend, with a "help yourself," as he sent it. The ticket-of-leave butler, who understood wine, had not lost his skill during his long residence at Portsmouth, and brought this in with the bouquet in great perfection. The wine was just as it should be, neither too warm nor too cold; and as Sir Moses quailed a second glass, his equanimity began to revive.

When not thinking about money, his thoughts generally took a sporting turn,

Horses and hounds, and the system of kennel,

Leicestershire saga, and the hounds of old Moynell,

as the song says; and the loss of Billy's horse now obtruded on his mind.

"How the deuce it had happened he couldn't imagine; his man, Wetun,-and there was no better judge-said he seemed perfectly well, and a better stable couldn't be than the one he was in; indeed he was standing alongside of his own favourite mare, Whimpering Kate,-'faith, he wished he had told them to take her out, in case it was anything infectious,-only it looked more like internal disease than anything else.-Wished he mightn't be rotten. The Major was an excellent man,-cute,--" and here he checked himself, recollecting that Billy was going back there on the morrow. "A young man," continued he, "should be careful who he dealt with, for many what were called highly honourable men were very unscrupulous about horses;" and a sudden thought struck Sir Moses, which, with the aid of another bottle, he thought he might try to carry out. So apportioning the remains of the jug equitably between Billy and himself, he drew the bell, and desired the ticket-of-leave butler to bring in another bottle and a devilled biscuit.

"That wine won't hurt you," continued he, addressing our friend, "that wine won't hurt you, it's not the nasty loaded stuff they manufacture for the English market, but pure, unadulterated juice of the grape, without a headache in a gallon of it so saying, Sir Moses quaffed off his glass and set it down with evident satisfaction, feeling almost a match for the owner of Tippy Tom. He then moved his chair a little on one side, and resumed his contemplation of the fire,-the blue lights rising among the red,-the gas escaping from the coal,-the clear flame flickering with the draught. He thought he saw his way,-yes, he thought he saw his way, and forthwith prevented any one pirating his ideas, by stirring the fire. Mr. Bankhead then entered with the bottle and the biscuit, and, placing them on the table, withdrew.

"Come, Pringle!" cried Sir Moses cheerfully, seizing the massive cut-glass decanter, "let's drink the healths of the young ladies at--, you know where," looking knowingly at our friend, who blushed. "We'll have a bumper to that," continued he, pouring himself out one, and passing the bottle to Billy.

"The young ladies at Yammerton Grange!" continued Sir Moses, holding the glass to the now sparkling fire before he transferred its bright ruby-coloured contents to his thick lips. He then quailed it off with a smack.

"The young ladies at Yammerton Grange!" faltered Billy, after filling himself a bumper.

"Nice girls those, dom'd if they're not," observed the Baronet, now breaking the devilled biscuit. "You must take care what you're about there, though, for the old lady doesn't stand any nonsense; the Major neither."

Billy said he wasn't going to try any on--.

"No-but they'll try it on with you," retorted Sir Moses; "mark my words if they don't."

"O, but I'm only there for hunting," observed Billy, timidly.

"I dare say," replied Sir Moses, with a jerk of his head, "I dare say,-but it's very agreeable to talk to a pretty girl when you come in, and those are devilish pretty girls, let me tell you,-dom'd if they're not,-only one talk leads to another talk, and ultimately Mamma talks about a small gold ring."

Billy was frightened, for he felt the truth of what Sir Moses said. They then sat for some minutes in silence, ruminating on their own affairs,-Billy thinking he would be careful of the girls, and wondering how he could escape Sir Moses's offer of a bump on the morrow,-Sir Moses thinking he would advance that performance a step. He now led the way.

"You'll be wanting a horse to go with the Major's harriers," observed he; "and I've got the very animal for that sort of work; that grey horse of mine, the Lord Mayor, in the five-stalled stable on the right; the safest, steadiest animal ever man got on to; and I'll make you a present of him, dom'd if I won't; for I'm more hurt at the loss of yours than words can express; wouldn't have had such a thing happen at my house on any account; so that's a bargain, and will make all square; for the grey's an undeniable good 'un-worth half-a-dozen of the Major's-and will do you some credit, for a young man on his preferment should always study appearances, and ride handsome horses; and the grey is one of the handsomest I ever saw. Lord Tootle-ton, up in Neck-and-crop-shire, who I got him of, gave three 'under'd for him at the hammer, solely, I believe, on account of his looks, for he had never seen him out except in the ring, which is all my eye, for telling you whether a horse is a hunter or not; but, however, he is a hunter, and no mistake, and you are most, heartily welcome to him, dom'd if you're not; and I'm deuced glad that it occurred to me to give him you, for I shall now sleep quite comfortable; so help yourself, and we'll drink Foxhunting," saying which. Sir Moses, who had had about enough wine, filled on a liberal heel-tap, and again passed the bottle to his guest.

Now Billy, who had conned over the matter in his bedroom before dinner, had come to the conclusion that he had had about hunting enough, and that the loss of Napoleon the Great afforded a favourable opportunity for retiring from the chase; indeed, he had got rid of the overpowering Mr. Gaiters on that plan, and he was not disposed to be cajoled into a continuance of the penance by the gift of a horse; so as soon as he could get a word in sideways, he began hammering away at an excuse, thanking Sir Moses most energetically for his liberality, but expressing his inability to accept such a magnificent offer.

Sir Moses, however, who did not believe in any one refusing a gift, adhered pertinaciously to his promise,-"Oh, indeed, he should have him, he wouldn't be easy if he didn't take him," and ringing the bell he desired the footman to tell Wetun to see if Mr. Pringle's saddle would fit the Lord Mayor, and if it didn't, to let our friend have one of his in the morning, and "here!" added he, as the man was retiring, "bring in tea."-And Sir Moses being peremptory in his presents, Billy was compelled to remain under pressure of the horse.-So after a copious libation of tea the couple hugged and separated for the night, Sir Moses exclaiming "Breakfast at nine, mind!" as Billy sauntered up stairs, while the Baronet ran off to his study to calculate what Henerey Brown & Co. had done him out of.

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