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   Chapter 50 THE SURPRISE.

Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 20827

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

IT is all very well for people to affect the magnificent, to give general invitations, and say "Come whenever it suits you; we shall always be happy to see you," and so on; but somehow it is seldom safe to take them at their word. How many houses has the reader to which he can ride or drive up with the certainty of not putting people "out," as the saying is. If there is a running account of company going on, it is all very well; another man more or less is neither here nor there; but if it should happen to be one of those solemn lulls that intervene between one set of guests going and another coming, denoted by the wide-apart napkins seen by a side glance as he passes the dining-room window, then it is not a safe speculation. At all events, a little notice is better, save, perhaps, among fox-hunters, who care less for appearances than other people.

It was Saturday, as we said before, and our friend the Major had finished his week's work:-paid his labourers, handled the heifers that had left him so in the lurch, counted the sheep, given out the corn, ordered the carriage for church in case it kept dry, and as day closed had come into the house, and exchanged his thick shoes for old worsted worked slippers, and cast himself into a semicircular chair in the druggeted drawing-room to wile away one of those long winter evenings that seem so impossible in the enduring length of a summer day, with that best of all papers, the "Hit-im and Hold-im shire Herald." The local paper is the paper for the country gentleman, just as the "Times" is the paper for the Londoner. The "Times" may span the globe, tell what is doing at Delhi and New York, France, Utah, Prussia, Spain, Ireland, and the Mauritius; but the paper that tells the squire of the flocks and herds, the hills and dales, the births and disasters of his native district, is the paper for his money. So it was with our friend the Major. He enjoyed tearing the half-printed halfwritten envelope off his "Herald," and holding its damp sides to the cheerful fire until he got it as crisp as a Bank of England note, and then, sousing down in his easy chair to enjoy its contents, conscious that no one had anticipated them. How he revelled in the advertisements, and accompanied each announcement with a mental commentary of his own.

We like to see country gentlemen enjoying their local papers.

Ashover farm to let, conjured up recollections of young Mr.

Gosling spurting past in white cords, and his own confident prediction that the thing wouldn't last.

Burlinson the auctioneer's assignment for the benefit of his creditors, reminded him of his dogs, and his gun, and his manor, and his airified looks, and drew forth anathemas on Burlinson in particular, and on pretenders in general.

Then Mr. Napier's announcement that Mr. Draggleton of Rushworth had applied for a loan of four thousand pounds from the Lands Improvement Company for draining, sounded almost like a triumph of the Major's own principles, Draggleton having long derided the idea of water getting into a two-inch pipe at a depth of four feet, or of draining doing any good.

And the Major chuckled with delight at the thought of seeing the long pent-up water flow in pure continuous streams off the saturated soil, and of the clear, wholesome complexion the land would presently assume. Then the editorial leader on the state of the declining corn markets, and of field operations (cribbed of course from the London papers) drew forth an inward opinion that the best thing for the land-owners would be for corn to keep low and cattle to keep high for the next dozen years or more, and so get the farmers' minds turned from the precarious culture of corn to the land-improving practice of grazing and cattle-feeding.

And thus the Major sat, deeply immersed in the contents of each page; but as he gradually mastered the cream of their contents, he began to turn to and fro more rapidly; and as the rustling increased, Mrs. Yammerton, who was dying for a sight of the paper, at length ventured to ask if there was anything about the Hunt ball in it.

"Hunt ball!" growled the Major, who was then in the hay and straw market, wondering whether, out of the twenty-seven carts of hay reported to have been at Hinton Market on the previous Saturday, there were any of his tenants there on the sly; "Hunt ball!" repeated he, running the candle up and down the page; "No, there's nothin' about it here," replied he, resuming his reading.

"It'll be on the front page, my dear," observed Mrs. Yammerton, "if there is anything."

"Well, I'll give it you presently," replied the Major, resuming his reading; and so he wens on into the wool markets, thence to the potato and hide departments, until at length he found himself floundering among the Holloway Pills, Revalenta Food, and "Sincere act of gratitude," &c., advertisements; when, turning the paper over with a wisk, and an inward "What do they put such stuff as that in for?" he handed it to his wife: while, John Bull like, he now stood up, airing himself comfortably before the fire.

No sooner was the paper fairly in Mamma's hands, than there was a general rush of the young ladies to the spot, and four pairs of eyes were eagerly glancing up and down the columns of the front page, all in search of the magical letter "B" for Ball. Education-Fall in Night Lights-Increased Bate of Interest-Money without Sureties-Iron and Brass Bedsteads-Glenfield Starch-Deafness Cured-German Yeast-Insolvent Debtor-Elkington's Spoons-Boots and Shoes,-but, alas! no Ball.

"Yes, there it is! No it isn't," now cried Miss Laura, as her blue eye caught at the heading of Mrs. Bobbinette the milliner's advertisement, in the low corner of the page, Mrs. Bobbinette, like some of her customers, perhaps, not being a capital payer, and so getting a bad place. Thus it ran-


-Mrs. Bobbinette begs to announce to the ladies her return from Paris, with every novelty in millinery, mantles, embroideries, wreaths, fans, gloves, &c.

"Mrs. Bobbinette be banged," growled the Major, who winced under the very name of milliner; "just as much goes to Paris as I do. Last time she was there I know she was never out of Hinton, for Paul Straddler watched her."

"Well, but she gets very pretty things at all events," replied Mrs. Yammerton, thinking she would pay her a visit.

"Aye, and a pretty bill she'll send in for them," replied the Major.

"Well, my dear, but you must pay for fashion, you know," rejoined Mamma.

"Pay for fashion! pay for haystacks!" growled the Major; "never saw such balloons as the women make of themselves. S'pose we shall have them as flat as doors next. One extreme always leads to another."

This discussion was here suddenly interrupted by a hurried "hush!" from Miss Clara, followed by a "hish!" from Miss Flora; and silence being immediately accorded, all ears recognised a rumbling sound outside the house that might have been mistaken for wind, had it not suddenly ceased before the door.

The whole party was paralysed: each drawing breath, reflecting on his or her peculiar position:-Mamma thinking of her drawingroom-Miss, of her hair-Flora, of her sleeves-Harriet, of her shabby shoes-the Major, of his dinner.

The agony of suspense was speedily relieved by the grating of an iron step and a violent pull at the door-bell, producing ejaculations of, "It is, however!"

"Him, to a certainty!" with, "I told you so,-nothing but liver and bacon for dinner," from the Major; while Mrs. Yammerton, more composed, swept three pair of his grey worsted stockings into the well of the ottoman, and covered the old hearth-rug with a fine new one from the corner, with a noble antlered stag in the centre. The young ladies hurried out of the room, each to make a quick revise of her costume.

The shock to the nervous sensibilities of the household was scarcely less severe than that experienced by the inmates of the parlour; and the driver of the fly was just going to give the bell a second pull, when our friend of the brown coat came, settling himself into his garment, wondering who could be coming at that most extraordinary hour.

"Major at home?" asked our hero, swinging himself out of the vehicle into the passage, and without waiting for an answer, he began divesting himself of his muffin-cap, cashmere shawl, and other wraps.

He was then ready for presentation. Open went the door. "Mr. Pringle!" announced the still-astonished footman, and host and hostess advanced in the friendly emulation of cordiality. They were overjoyed to see him,-as pleased as if they had received a consignment of turtle and there was a haunch of venison roasting before the fire. The young ladies presently came dropping in one by one, each "so astonished to find Mr. Pringle there!" Clara thinking the ring was from Mr..Jinglington, the pianoforte-tuner; Flora, that it was Mr. Tightlace's curate; while Harriet did not venture upon a white lie at all.

Salutations and expressions of surprise being at length over, the ladies presently turned the weather-conversation upon Pangburn Park, and inquired after the sport with Sir Moses, Billy being in the full glory of his pink and slightly soiled leathers and boots, from which they soon diverged to the Hunt ball, about which they could not have applied to any better authority than our friend. He knew all about it, and poured forth the volume of his information most freely.

Though the Major talked about there being nothing but liver and bacon for dinner, he knew very well that the very fact of there being liver and bacon bespoke that there was plenty of something else in the larder. In fact he had killed a south-down,-not one of your modern muttony-lambs, but an honest, home-fed, four-year-old, with its fine dark meat and rich gravy; in addition to which, there had been some minor murders of ugly Cochin-China fowls,-to say nothing of a hunted hare, hanging by the heels, and several snipes and partridges, suspended by the neck.

It is true, there was no fish, for, despite the railroad, Hit-im and Hold-im shire generally was still badly supplied with fish, but there was the useful substitute of cod-sounds, and some excellent mutton-broth; which latter is often better than half the soups one gets. Altogether there was no cause for despondency; but the

Major, having been outvoted on the question of requiring notice of our friend's return, of course now felt bound to make the worst of the case-especially as the necessary arrangements would considerably retard his dinner, for which he was quite ready. He had, therefore, to smile at his guest, and snarl at his family, at one and the same time.-Delighted to see Mr. Pringle back.-Disgusted at his coming on a Saturday.-Hoped our hero was hungry.-Could answer for it, he was himself,-with a look at Madam, as much as to say, "Come, you go and see about things and don't stand simpering there."

But Billy, who had eaten a pretty hearty lunch at Pangburn Park, had not got jolted back into an appetite by his transit through the country, and did not enter into the feelings of his half-famished host. A man who has had half his dinner in the shape of a lunch, is far more than a match for one who has fasted since breakfast, and our friend chatted first with one young lady, and then with another, with an occasional word at Mamma, delighted to get vent for his long pent-up flummery. He was indeed most agreeable.

Meanwhile the Major was in and out of the room, growling and getting into everybody's way, retarding progress by his anxiety to hurry things on.

At length it was announced that Mr. Pringle's room was ready; and forthwith the Major lit him a candle, and hurried him upstairs, where his uncorded boxes stood ready for the opening keys of ownership.

"Ah, there you are!" cried the Major, flourishing the composite candle about them; "there you are! needn't mind much dressing-only ourselves-only ourselves. There's the boot-jack,-here's some hot water,-and we'll have dinner as soon as ever you are ready." So saying, he placed the candle on the much be-muslined toilette-table, and, diving into his pocket for the key of the cellar, hurried off to make the final arrangement of a feast.

Our friend, however, who was always a dawdling leisurely gentleman, took very little heed of his host's injunctions, and proceeded to unlock and open his boxes as if he was going to dress for a ball instead of a dinner; and the whole party being reassembled, many were the Major's speculations and enquiries "what could he be about?" "must have gone to bed," "would go up and see," ere the glad sound of his opening door announced that he might be expected. And before he descended a single step of the staircase the Major gave the bell such a pull as proclaimed most volubly the intensity of his feelings. The ladies of course were shocked, but a hungry man is bad to hold, and there is no saying but the long-pealing tongue of the bell saved an explosion of the Major's. At all events when our friend came sauntering into the now illuminated drawing-room, the Major greeted him with, "Heard you coming, rang the bell, knew you'd be hungry, long drive from Sir Moses's here;" to which Billy drawled a characteristic "Yarse," as he extinguished his candle and proceeded to ingratiate himself with the now elegantly attired ladies, looking more lovely from his recent restriction to the male sex.

The furious peal of the bell had answered its purpose, for he had scarcely got the beauties looked over, and settled in his own mind that it was difficult to say which was the prettiest, ere the door opened, the long-postponed dinner was announced to be on the table, and the Major, having blown out the composites, gladly followed the ladies to the scene of action.

And his host being too hungry to waste his time in apologies for the absence of this and that, and the footboy having plenty to do without giving the dishes superfluous airings, and the gooseberry champagne being both lively and cool, the dinner passed off as pleasantly as a luncheon, which is generally allowed to be the most agreeable sociable meal of the day, simply because of the absence of all fuss and pretension. And by the time the Major had got to the cheese, he found his temper considerably improved. Indeed, so rapidly did his spirits rise, that before the cloth was withdrawn he had well-nigh silenced all the ladies, with his marvellous haryers,-five and thirty years master of haryers without a subscription,-and as soon as he got the room cleared, he inflicted the whole hunt upon Billy that he had written to him about, an account of which he had in vain tried to get inserted in the Featherbedfordshire Gazette, through the medium of old 'Wotherspoon, who had copied it out and signed himself "A Delighted Stranger." Dorsay Davis, however, knew his cramped handwriting, and put his manuscript into the fire, observing in his notice to correspondents that "A Delighted Stranger" had better send his currant jelly contributions to grandmamma, meaning the Hit-im and Hold-im shire Herald. So our friend was victimised into a viva voce account of this marvellous chase, beginning at Conksbury corner and the flight up to Foremark Hill and down over the water meadows to Dove-dale Green, &c., interspersed with digressions and explanations of the wonderful performance of the particular members of the pack, until he scarcely knew whether a real run or the recital of one was the most formidable. At length the Major, having talked himself into a state of excitement, without making any apparent impression on his guest's obdurate understanding, proposed as a toast "The Merry Haryers," and intimated that tea was ready in the drawing room, thinking he never had so phlegmatic an auditor before. Very different, however, was his conduct amid the general conversation of the ladies, who thought him just as agreeable as the Major thought him the contrary. And they were all quite surprised when the clock struck eleven, and declared they thought it could only be ten, except the Major, who knew the odd hour had been lost in preparing the dinner. So he moved an adjournment, and proclaimed that they would breakfast at nine, which would enable them to get to church in good time. Whereupon mutual good-nights were exchanged, our friend was furnished with a flat candlestick, and the elder sisters retired to talk him over in their own room; for however long ladies may be together during the day, there is always a great balance of conversation to dispose of at last, and so the two chatted and talked until midnight.

Next morning they all appeared in looped-up dresses, showing the party-coloured petticoats of the prevailing fashion, which looked extremely pretty, and were all very well-a great improvement on the draggletails-until they came to get into the coach, when it was found, that large as the vehicle was, it was utterly inadequate for their accommodation. Indeed the door seemed ludicrously insufficient for the ingress, and Miss Clara turned round and round like a peacock contending with the wind, undecided which way to make the attempt. At last she chose a bold sideways dash, and entered with a squeeze of the petticoat, which suddenly expanded into its original size, but when the sisters had followed her example there was no room for the Major, nor would there have been any for our hero had not Mamma been satisfied with her own natural size, and so left space to squeeze him in between herself and the fair Clara. The Major then had to mount the coach box beside old Solomon, and went growling and grumbling along at the extravagances of fashion, and wondering what the deuce those petticoats would cost, he was presently comforted by seeing two similar ones circling over the road in advance, which on overtaking proved to contain the elegant Miss Bushels, daughters of his hind at Bonnyrigs farm, whereupon he made a mental resolution to reduce Bushel's wages a shilling a week at least.

This speedy influx of fashion and abundance of cheap tawdry finery has well nigh destroyed the primitive simplicity of country churches. The housemaid now dresses better-finer at all events-than her mistress did twenty years ago, and it is almost impossible to recognise working people when in their Sunday dresses. Gauze bonnets, Marabout feathers, lace scarfs, and silk gowns usurp the place of straw and cotton print, while lace-fringed kerchiefs are flourished by those whose parents scarcely knew what a pocket-handkerchief was. There is a medium in all things, but this mania for dress has got far beyond the bounds of either prudence or propriety; and we think the Major's recipe for reducing it is by no means a bad one.

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We need scarcely say, that our hero's appearance at church caused no small sensation in a neighbourhood where the demand for gossip was far in excess of the supply. Indeed, we fear many fair ladies' eyes were oftener directed to Major Yammerton's pew than to the Reverend Mr. Tightlace in the pulpit. Wonderful were the stories and exaggerations that ensued, people always being on the running-up tack until a match is settled, after which, of course, they assume the running-down one, pitying one or other victim extremely-wouldn't be him or her for anything-Mr. Tightlace thought any of the young ladies might do better than marry a mere fox-hunter, though we are sorry to add that the fox-hunter was far more talked of than the sermon. The general opinion seemed to be that our hero had been away preparing that dread document, the proposals for a settlement; and there seemed to be very little doubt that there would be an announcement of some sort in a day or two-especially when our friend was seen to get into the carriage after the gay petticoats, and the little Major to remount the box seat.

And when at the accustomed stable stroll our master of haryers found the gallant grey standing in the place of the bay, he was much astonished, and not a little shocked to learn the sad catastrophe that had befallen the bay.

"Well, he never heard anything like that!-dead! What, do you mean to say he absolutely died on your hands without any apparent cause?" demanded the Major; "must have been poisoned surely;" and he ran about telling everybody, and making as much to do as if the horse had still been his own. He then applied himself to finding out how Billy came by the grey, and was greatly surprised to learn that Sir Moses had given it him. "Well, that was queer," thought he, "wouldn't have accused him of that." And he thought of the gift of Little Bo-peep, and wondered whether this gift was of the same order.

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