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Ask Mamma By R. S. Surtees Characters: 27352

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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THE Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt balls had long been celebrated for their matrimonial properties, as well for settling ripe flirtations, as for bringing to a close the billing and cooing of un-productive love, and opening fresh accounts with the popular firm of "Cupid and Co." They were the greenest spot on the memory's waste of many, on the minds of some whose recollections carried them back to the romping, vigorous Sir Roger de Coverley dances of Mr. Customer's time,-of many who remembered the more stately glide of the elegant quadrille of Lord Martingal's reign, down to the introduction of the once scandalising waltz and polka of our own. Many "Ask Mamma's" had been elicited by these balls, and good luck was said to attend all their unions.

Great had been the changes in the manners and customs of the country, but the one dominant plain gold ring idea remained fixed and immutable. The Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt ball was expected to furnish a great demand for these, and Garnet the silversmith always exhibited an elegant white satin-lined morocco case full in his window, in juxtaposition with rows of the bright dress-buttons of the hunt, glittering on beds of delicate rose-tinted tissue paper.

All the milliners far and wide used to advertise their London and Parisian finery for the occasion, like our friend Mrs. Bobbinette,-for the railway had broken through the once comfortable monopoly that Mrs. Russelton and the Hinton ones formerly enjoyed, and had thrown crinoline providing upon the country at large. Indeed, the railway had deranged the old order of things; for whereas in former times a Doubleimnpshire or a Neck-and-Crop shire sportsman was rarely to be seen at the balls, aud those most likely under pressure of most urgent "Ask Mamma" circumstances, now they came swarming down like swallows, consuming a most unreasonable quantity of Champagne-always, of course, returning and declaring it was all "gusberry." Formerly the ball was given out of the Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt funds; but this unwonted accession so increased the expense, that Sir Moses couldn't stand it, dom'd of he could; and he caused a rule to be passed, declaring that after a certain sum allowed by the club, the rest should be paid by a tax on the tickets, so that the guest-inviting members might pay for their friends. In addition to this, a sliding-seale of Champagne was adopted, beginning with good, and gradually relaxing in quality, until there is no saying but that some of the late sitters might get a little gooseberry. Being, however, only a guest, we ought not perhaps to be too critical in the matter, so we will pass on to the more general features of the entertainment.

We take it a woman's feelings and a man's feelings with regard to a ball are totally different and distinct.

Men-unmarried men, at least-know nothing of the intrinsic value of a dress, they look at the general effect on the figure. Piquant simplicity, something that the mind grasps at a glance and retains-such as Miss Yammerton's dress in the glove scene-is what they like. Many ladies indeed seem to get costly dresses in order to cover them over with something else, just as gentlemen build handsome lodges to their gates, and then block them out of sight by walls.

But even if ball-dresses were as attractive to the gentlemen as the ladies seem to think them, they must remember the competition they have to undergo in a ball-room, where great home beauties may be suddenly eclipsed by unexpected rivals, and young gentlemen see that there are other angels in the world besides their own adored ones. Still balls are balls, and fashion is fashion, and ladies must conform to it, or what could induce them to introduce the bits of black of the present day into their coloured dresses, as if they were just emerging from mourning. Even our fair friends at Yammerton Grange conformed to the fashion, and edged the many pink satin-ribboned flounces of their white tulle dresses with narrow black lace-though they would have looked much prettier without.

Of all the balls given by the members of the Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt, none had perhaps excitcd greater interest than the one about to take place, not only on account of its own intrinsic merits as a ball, but because of the many tender emotions waiting for solutions on that eventful evening. Among others it may be mentioned that our fat friend the Woolpack, whose portrait adorns page 241, had confided to Mrs. Rocket Larkspur, who kept a sort of register-office for sighers, his admiration of the fair auburn-haired Flora Yammerton; and Mrs. Rocket having duly communicated the interesting fact to the young lady, intimating, of course, that he would have the usual "ten thousand a year," Flora had taken counsel with herself whether she had not better secure him, than contend with her elder sister either for Sir Moses or Mr. Pringle, especially as she did not much fancy Sir Moses, and Billy was very wavering in his attentions, sometimes looking extremely sweet at her, sometimes equally so at Clara, and at other times even smiling on that little childish minx Harriet. Indeed Mrs. Rocket Larkspur, in the multiplicity of her meddling, had got a sort of half-admission from that young owl, Rowley Abingdon, that he thought Harriet very pretty, and she felt inclined to fan the flame of that speculation too.

Then Miss Fairey, of Yarrow Court, was coming, and it was reported that Miss de Glancey had applied for a ticket, in order to try and cut her out with the elegant Captain Languisher, of the Royal Hollyhock Hussars. Altogether it was expected to be a capital ball, both for dancers and lookers-on.

People whose being's end and aim is gaiety, as they call converting night into day, in rolling from party to party, with all the means and appliances of London, can have little idea of the up-hill work it is in the country, getting together the ingredients of a great ball. The writing for rooms, the fighting for rooms-the bespeaking of horses, the not getting horses-the catching the train, the losing the train-above all, the choosing and ordering those tremendous dresses, with the dread of not getting those tremendous dresses, of their being carried by in the train, or not fitting when they come. Nothing but the indomitable love of a ball, as deeply implanted in a woman's heart as the love of a hunt is in that of a man, can account for the trouble and vexation they undergo.

But if 'tis a toil to the guests, what must it be to the givers, with no friendly Grange or Gunter at hand to supply everything, guests included, if required, at so much per head! Youth, glorious youth, comes to the aid, aud enters upon the labour with all the alacrity that perhaps distinguished their fathers.

Let us now suppose the absorbing evening come; and that all-important element in country festivities, the moon shining with silvery dearness as well on the railway gliders as on the more patient plodders by the road. What a converging there was upon the generally quiet town of Hinton; reminding the older inhabitants of the best days of Lord Martingal and Mr. Customer's reigns. What a gathering up there was of shining satins and rustling silks and moire antiques, white, pink, blue, yellow, green, to say nothing of clouds of tulle; what a compression of swelling eider-down and watch-spring petticoats; and what a bolt-upright sitting of that happy pride which knows no pain, as party after party took up and proceeded to the scene of hopes and fears at the Fox and Hounds Hotel and Posting House.

The ball-room was formed of the entire suite of first-floor front apartments, which, on ordinary occasions, did duty as private rooms-private, at least, as far as thin deal partitions could make them so-and the supper was laid out in our old acquaintance the club-room, connected by a sort of Isthmus of Suez, with a couple of diminutive steps towards the end to shoot the incautious becomingly, headforemost, into the room.

Carriages set down under the arched doorway, and a little along the passage the Blenheim was converted into a cloak-room for the ladies, where the voluminous dresses were shook out, and the last hurried glances snatched amid anxious groups of jostling arrivals. Gentlemen then emerging from the commercial room rejoined their fair friends in the passage, and were entrusted with fans and flowers while, with both hands, they steered their balloon-like dresses up the red druggetted staircase.

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Gentlemen's balls have the advantage over those given by ladies, inasmuch as the gentlemen must be there early to receive their fair guests; and as a ball can always begin as soon as there are plenty of gentlemen, there are not those tedious delays and gatherings of nothing but crinoline that would only please Mr. Spurgeon.

The large highly-glazed, gilt-lettered, yellow card of invitation, intimated nine o'clock as the hour; by which time most of the Hinton people were ready, and all the outlying ones were fast drawing towards the town. Indeed, there was nothing to interfere with the dancing festivities, for dinner giving on a ball night is not popular with the ladies-enough for the evening being the dance thereof. Country ladies are not like London ones, who can take a dinner, an opera, two balls, and an at-home in one and the same night. As to the Hinton gentlemen, they were very hospitable so long as nobody wanted anything from them; if they did, they might whistle a long time before they got it. If, for instance, that keeper of a house of call for Bores, Paul Straddler, saw a mud-sparked man with a riding-whip in his hand, hurrying about the town, he would after him, and press him to dine off, perhaps, "crimped cod and oyster sauce, and a leg of four year old mutton, with a dish of mince pies or woodcocks, whichever he preferred;" but on a ball night, when it would be a real convenience to a man to have a billet, Paul never thought of asking any one, though when he met his friends in the ball, and heard they had been uncomfortable at the Sun or the Fleece, he would exclaim, with well-feigned reproach, "Oh dash it, man, why didn't you come to me?"

But let us away to the Fox and Hounds, and see what is going on.

To see the repugnance people have to being early at a ball, one would wonder how dancing ever gets begun. Yet somebody must be there first, though we question whether any of our fair readers ever performed the feat; at all events, if ever they did, we will undertake to say they have taken very good care not to repeat the performance.

The Blurkinses were the first to arrive on this occasion, having only themselves to think about, and being anxious, as they said, to see as much as they could for their money. Then having been duly received by Sir Moses and the gallant circle of fox-hunters, and passed inwardly, they took up a position so as to be able to waylay those who came after with their coarse compliments, beginning with Mrs. Dotherington, who, Blurkins declared, had worn the grey silk dress she then had on, ever since he knew her.

Jimmy Jarperson, the Laughing Hy?na, next came under his notice, Blurkins telling him that his voice grated on his ear like a file; asking if any body else had ever told him so.

Mrs. Rocket Larkspur, who was duly distended in flaming red satin, was told she was like a full-blown peony; and young Treadcroft was asked if he knew that people called him the Woolpack.

Meanwhile Mrs. Blurkins kept pinching and feeling the ladies' dresses as they passed, making a mental estimate of their cost. She told Miss Yammerton she had spoilt her dress by the black lace.

A continuously ascending stream of crinoline at length so inundated the room, that by ten o'clock Sir Moses thought it was time to open the ball; so deputing Tommy Heslop to do the further honours at the door, he sought Lady Fuzball, and claimed the favour of her hand for the first quadrille.

This was a signal for the unmated ones to pair; and forthwith there was such a drawing on of gloves, such a feeling of ties, such a rising on tiptoes, and straining of eyes, and running about, asking for Miss This, and Miss That, and if anybody had seen anything of Mrs. So-and-so.

At length the sought ones were found, anxiety abated, and the glad couples having secured suitable vis-à-vis, proceeded to take up positions.

At a flourish of the leader's baton, the enlivening "La Traviata" struck up, and away the red coats and black coats went sailing and sinking, and rising and jumping, and twirling with the lightly-floating dresses of the ladies.

The "Pelissier Galop" quickly followed, then the "Ask Mamma Polka," and just as the music ceased, and the now slightly-flushed couples were preparing for a small-talk promenade, a movement took place near the door, and the elegant swan-like de Glancey was seen sailing into the room with her scarlet-geranium-festooned dress set off with eight hundred yards of tulle! Taking her chaperone Mrs. Roseworth's arm, she came sailing majestically along, the men all alive for a smile, the ladies laughing at what they called her preposterous dimensions.

But de Glancey was not going to defeat her object by any premature condescension; so she just met the men's raptures with the slightest recognition of her downcast eyes, until she encountered the gallant Captain Languisher with lovely Miss Fairey on his arm, when she gave him one of her most captivating smiles, thinking to have him away from Miss Fairey in no time.

But Miss de Glancey was too late! The

Captain had just "popped the question," and was then actually on his way to "Ask Mamma," and so returned her greeting with an air of cordial indifference, that as good as said, "Ah, my dear, you'll not do for me."

Miss de Glancey was shocked. It was the first time in her life that she had ever missed her aim. Nor was her mortification diminished by the cool way our hero, Mr. Pringle, next met her advances. She had been so accustomed to admiration, that she could ill brook the want of it, and the double blow was too much for her delicate sensibilities. She felt faint, and as soon as she could get a fly large enough to hold herself and her chaperone, she withdrew, the mortification of this evening far more than counterbalancing all the previous triumphs of her life.

One person more or less at a ball, however, is neither here nor there, and the music presently struck np again, and the whirling was resumed, just as if there was no such person as Miss de Glancey in existence. And thus waltz succeeded polka, and polka succeeded quadrille, with lively rapidity-every one declaring it was a most delightful ball, and wondering when supper would be.

At length there was a lull, and certain unmistakeable symptoms announced that the hour for that superfluous but much talked of meal had arrived, whereupon there was the usual sorting of consequence to draw to the cross table at the top of the room, with the pairing off of eligible couples who could be trusted alone, and the shirking of Mammas by those who were not equally fortunate. Presently a movement was made towards the Isthmus of Suez, on reaching which the rotund ladies had to abandon their escorts to pilot their petticoats through the straits amid the cries of "take care of the steps!" "mind the steps at the end!" from those who knew the dangers of the passage. And thus the crinoline came circling into the supper room-each lady again expanding with the increased space, and reclaiming her beau. Supper being as we said before a superfluous meal, it should be light and airy, something to please the eye and tempt the appetite; not composed of great solid joints that look like a farmer's ordinary, or a rent-day dinner with "night mare" depicted on every dish. The Hit-im and Hold-im shire hunt balls had always been famous for the elegance of their supper, Lord Ladythorne kindly allowing his Italian confectioner, Signor Massaniello, to superintend the elegancies, that excited such admiration from the ladies as they worked their ways or wedged themselves in at the tables, but whose beauty did not save them from destruction as the evening advanced. At first of course the solids were untouched, the tongues, the hams, the chickens, the turkeys, the lobster salads, the nests of plover eggs, the clatter patter being relieved by a heavy salvo of Champagne artillery. Brisk was the demand for it at starting, for the economical arrangement was as well known as if it had been placarded about the room. When the storm of corks had subsided and clean plates been supplied, the sweets, the jellies, the confectionery were attacked, and occasional sly sorties were made against the flower sugar vases and ornaments of the table. Then perspiring waiters came panting in with more Champagne fresh out of the ice, and again arm-extended the glasses hailed its coming, though some of the Neck-and-Crop-shire gentlemen smacked their lips after drinking it, and pronounced it to be No. 2. Nevertheless they took some more when it came round again. At length the most voracious cormorant was appeased, and all eyes gradually turned towards the sporting president in the centre of the cross table.

We have heard it said that the House of Commons is the most appalling and critical assembly in the world to address, but we confess we think a mixed party of ladies and gentlemen at a sit-down supper a more formidable audience.

We don't know anything more painful than to hear a tongue-tied country gentleman floundering for words and scrambling after an idea that the quick-witted ladies have caught long before he comes within sight of his subject. Theirs is like the sudden dart of the elastic greyhound compared to the solemn towl of the old slow-moving "southern" hound after its game.

Sir Moses, however, as our readers know, was not one of the tongue-tied sort-on the contrary, he had a great flow of words and could palaver the ladies as well as the gentlemen. Indeed he was quite at home in that room where he had coaxed and wheedled subscriptions, promised wonders, and given away horses without the donees incurring any "obligation." Accordingly at the fitting time he rose from his throne, and with one stroke of his hammer quelled the remaining conversation which had been gradually dying out in anticipation of what was coming. He then called for a bumper toast, and after alluding in felicitous terms to the happy event that so aroused the "symphonies" of old Wotherspoon, he concluded by proposing the health of her Majesty the Queen, which of course was drunk with three times three and one cheer more. The next toast, of course, was the ladies who had honoured the Ball with their presence, and certainly if ever ladies ought to be satisfied with the compliments paid them, it was on the present occasion, for Sir Moses vowed and protested that of all beauties the Hit-im and Hold-im shire beauties were the fairest, the brightest, and the best; and he said it would be a downright reflection upon the rising generation if they did not follow the Crown Prince of Prussia's excellent example, and make that ball to be the most blissful and joyous of their recollections. This toast being heartily responded to, Sir Moses leading the cheers, Sir Harry Fuzball rose to return thanks on behalf of the ladies, any one of whom could have done it a great deal better; after which old Sir George Persiflage, having arranged his lace-tipped tie, proposed the health of Sir Moses, and spoke of him in very different terms to what Sir Moses did of Sir George at the hunt dinner, and this, answer affording Sir Moses another opportunity-the good Champagne being exhausted-he renewed his former advice, and concluded by moving an adjournment to the ball-room. Then the weight of oratory being off, the school broke loose as it were, and all parties paired off as they liked. Many were the trips at the steps as they returned by the narrow passage to the ball-room. The "Ask Mamma" Polka then appropriately struck up, but polking being rather beyond our Baronet's powers he stood outside the ring rubbing his nose and eyeing the gay twirlers, taking counsel within himself what he should do. The state of his household had sorely perplexed him, aud he had about come to the resolution that he must either marry again or give up housekeeping and live at Hinton. Then came the question whom he should take? Now Mrs. Yammerton was a noted good manager, and in the inferential sort of way that we all sometimes deceive ourselves, he came to the conclusion that her daughters would be the same. Clara was very pretty-dom'd if she wasn't-She would look very well at the head of his table, and just at the moment she came twirling past with Billy Pringle, the pearl loops of her pretty pink wreath dancing on her fair forehead. The Baronet was booked; "he would have her, dom'd if he wouldn't," and taking courage within himself as the music ceased, he claimed her hand for the next quadrille, and leading her to the top of the dance, commenced joking her about Billy, who he said would make a very pretty girl, and then commenced praising herself. He admired her and everything she had on, from the wreath to her ribbon, and was so affectionate that she felt if he wasn't a little elevated she would very soon have an offer. Then Mammas, and Mrs. Rocket Larkspurs, and Mrs. Dotherington, and Mrs. Impelow, and many other quick-eyed ladies followed their movements, each thinking that they saw by the sparkle of Clara's eyes, and the slight flush of her pretty face, what was going on. But they were prématuré. Sir Moses did not offer until he had mopped his brow in the promenade, when, on making the second slow round of the room, a significant glance with a slight inclination of her handsome head as she passed her Mamma announced that she was going to be Lady Mainchance!

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Hoo-ray for the Hunt Ball!

Sold again and the money paid! as the trinket-sellers say at a fair.

Another offer and accepted say we. Captain and Mrs. Languisher, Sir Moses and Lady Mainchance. Who wouldn't go to a Hit-im-and-Hold-im-shire hunt ball?

Then when the music struck up again, instead of fulfilling her engagements with her next partner. Clara begged to be excused-had got a little headache, and went and sat down between her Mamma and her admiring intended; upon which the smouldering fire of surmise broke out into downright assertion, and it ran through the room that Sir Moses had offered to Miss Yammerton. Then the indignant Mammas rose hastily from their seats and paraded slowly past, to see how the couple looked, pitying the poor creature, and young gentlemen joked with each other, saying-"Go thou and do likewise." and paired off to the supper room to acquire courage from the well iced but inferior Champagne.

And so the ardent ball progressed, some laying the foundations for future offers, some advancing their suits a step, others bringing them to we hope, a happy termination. Never was a more productive hunt ball known, and it was calculated that the little gentleman who rides so complacently on our first page exhausted all his arrows o the occasion.

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When the mortified Miss de Glancey returned to her lodgings at Mrs. Sarsnet the milliner's, in Verbena Crescent, she bid Mrs. Roseworth good-night, and dismissing her little French maid to bed, proceeded to her own apartment, where, with the united aid of a chamber and two toilette-table candles, she instituted a most rigid examination, as well of her features as her figure, in her own hand-mirror and the various glasses of the room, and satisfied herself that neither her looks nor her dress were any way in fault for the indifference with which she had been received. Indeed, though she might perhaps be a little partial, she thought she never saw herself looking better, and certainly her dress was as stylish and looming as any in the ball-room.

Those points being satisfactorily settled, she next unclasped the single row of large pearls that fastened the bunch of scarlet geraniums into her silken brown hair; and taking them off her exquisitely modelled head, laid them beside her massive scarlet geranium bouquet and delicate kid gloves upon the toilette-table. She then stirred the fire; and wheeling the easy-chair round to the front of it, took the eight hundred yards of tulle deliberately in either hand and sunk despondingly into the depths of the chair, with its ample folds before her. Drawing her dress up a little in front, she placed her taper white-satined feet on the low green fender, and burying her beautiful face in her lace-fringed kerchief, proceeded to take an undisturbed examination of what had occurred. How was it that she, in the full bloom of her beauty and the zenith of her experience, had failed in accomplishing what she used so easily to perform? How was it that Captain Langnisher seemed so cool, and that supercilious Miss eyed her with a side-long stare, that left its troubled mark behind, like the ripple of the water after a boat. And that boy Pringle, too, who ought to have been proud and flattered by her notice, instead of grinning about with those common country Misses?

All this hurt and distressed our accomplished coquette, who was unused to indifference and mortification. Then from the present her mind reverted to the past; aud stirring the fire, she recalled the glorious recollections of her many triumphs, beginning with her school-girl days, when the yeomanry officers used to smile at her as they met the girls out walking, until Miss Whippey restricted them to the garden during the eight days that the dangerous danglers were on duty. Next, how the triumph of her first offer was enhanced by the fact that she got her old opponent Sarah Snowball's lover from her-who, however, she quickly discarded for Captain Capers-who in turn yielded to Major Spankley.

Dicer, and the grave Mr. Woodhouse all in tow together, each thinking himself the happy man and the others the cat's-paw, until the rash Hotspur Smith exploded amongst them, and then suddenly dwindled from a millionaire into a mouse. Other names quickly followed, recalling the recollections of a successful career. At last she came to that dread, that fatal day, when, having exterminated Imperial John, and with the Peer well in hand, she was induced, much against her better judgment, to continue the chase, and lose all chance of becoming a Countess. Oh, what a day was that! She had long watched the noble Earl's increasing fervour, and marked his admiring eye, as she sat in the glow of beauty and the pride of equestrianism; and she felt quite sure, if the chase had ended at the check caused by the cattle-drover's dog, he would have married her. Oh, that the run should ever have continued! Oh, that she should ever have been lured on to her certain destruction! Why didn't she leave well alone? And at the recollection of that sad, that watery day, she burst into tears and sobbed convulsively. Her feelings being thus relieved, and the fire about exhausted, she then got out of her crinoline and under the counterpane.

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