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Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour By Robert Smith Surtees Characters: 13754

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The loud peal of the Jawleyford Court door-bell, announcing Mr. Sponge's arrival, with which we closed the last chapter, found the inhabitants variously engaged preparing for his reception.

Mrs. Jawleyford, with the aid of a very indifferent cook, was endeavouring to arrange a becoming dinner; the young ladies, with the aid of a somewhat better sort of maid, were attractifying themselves, each looking with considerable jealousy on the efforts of the other; and Mr. Jawleyford was trotting from room to room, eyeing the various pictures of himself, wondering which was now the most like, and watching the emergence of curtains, carpets, and sofas from their brown holland covers.

A gleam of sunshine seemed to reign throughout the mansion; the long-covered furniture appearing to have gained freshness by its retirement, just as a newly done-up hat surprises the wearer by its goodness; a few days, however, soon restores the defects of either.

All these arrangements were suddenly brought to a close by the peal of the door-bell, just as the little stage-tinkle of a theatre stops preparation, and compels the actors to stand forward as they are. Mrs. Jawleyford threw aside her silk apron, and took a hasty glance of her face in the old eagle-topped mirror in the still-room; the young ladies discarded their coarse dirty pocket-handkerchiefs, and gently drew elaborately fringed ones through their taper fingers to give them an air of use, as they took a hasty review of themselves in the swing mirrors; the housemaid hurried off with a whole armful of brown holland; and Jawleyford threw himself into attitude in an elaborately carved, richly cushioned, easy-chair, with a Disraeli's Life of Lord George Bentinck in his hand. But Jawleyford's thoughts were far from his book. He was sitting on thorns lest there might not be a proper guard of honour to receive Mr. Sponge at the entrance.

Jawleyford, as we said before, was not the man to entertain unless he could do it 'properly'; and, as we all have our pitch-notes of propriety up to which we play, we may state that Jawleyford's note was a butler and two footmen. A butler and two footmen he looked upon as perfectly indispensable to receiving company. He chose to have two footmen to follow the butler, who followed the gentleman to the spacious flight of steps leading from the great hall to the portico, as he mounted his horse. The world is governed a good deal by appearances. Mr. Jawleyford started life with two most unimpeachable Johns. They were nearly six feet high, heads well up, and legs that might have done for models for a sculptor. They powdered with the greatest propriety, and by two o'clock each day were silk-stockinged and pumped in full-dress Jawleyford livery; sky-blue coats with massive silver aiguillettes, and broad silver seams down the front and round their waistcoat-pocket flaps; silver garters at their crimson plush breeches' knees: and thus attired, they were ready to turn out with the butler to receive visitors, and conduct them back to their carriages. Gradually they came down in style, but not in number, and, when Mr. Sponge visited Mr. Jawleyford, he had a sort of out-of-door man-of-all-work who metamorphosed himself into a second footman at short notice.

'My dear Mr. Sponge!-I am delighted to see you!' exclaimed Mr. Jawleyford, rising from his easy-chair, and throwing his Disraeli's Bentinck aside, as Mr. Spigot, the butler, in a deep, sonorous voice, announced our worthy friend. 'This is, indeed, most truly kind of you,' continued Jawleyford, advancing to meet him; and getting our friend by both hands, he began working his arms up and down like the under man in a saw-pit. 'This is, indeed, most truly kind,' he repeated; 'I assure you I shall never forget it. It's just what I like-it's just what Mrs. Jawleyford likes-it's just what we all like-coming without fuss or ceremony. Spigot!' he added, hailing old Pomposo as the latter was slowly withdrawing, thinking what a humbug his master was-'Spigot!' he repeated in a louder voice; 'let the ladies know Mr. Sponge is here. Come to the fire, my dear fellow,' continued Jawleyford, clutching his guest by the arm, and drawing him towards where an ample grate of indifferent coals was crackling and spluttering beneath a magnificent old oak mantelpiece of the richest and costliest carved work. 'Come to the fire, my dear fellow,' he repeated, 'for you feel cold; and I don't wonder at it, for the day is cheerless and uncomfortable, and you've had a long ride. Will you take anything before dinner?'

'What time do you dine?' asked Mr. Sponge, rubbing his hands as he spoke.

'Six o'clock,' replied Mr. Jawleyford, 'six o'clock-say six o'clock-not particular to a moment-days are short, you see-days are short.'

'I think I should like a glass of sherry and a biscuit, then,' observed Mr. Sponge.

And forthwith the bell was rung, and in due course of time Mr. Spigot arrived with a tray, followed by the Miss Jawleyfords, who had rather expected Mr. Sponge to be shown into the drawing-room to them, where they had composed themselves very prettily; one working a parrot in chenille, the other with a lapful of crochet.

The Miss Jawleyfords-Amelia and Emily-were lively girls; hardly beauties-at least, not sufficiently so to attract attention in a crowd; but still, girls well calculated to 'bring a man to book,' in the country. Mr. Thackeray, who bound up all the home truths in circulation, and many that exist only in the inner chambers of the heart, calling the whole 'Vanity Fair,' says, we think (though we don't exactly know where to lay hand on the passage), that it is not your real striking beauties who are the most dangerous-at all events, that do the most execution-but sly, quiet sort of girls, who do not strike the beholder at first sight, but steal insensibly upon him as he gets acquainted. The Miss Jawleyfords were of this order. Seen in plain morning gowns, a man would meet them in the street, without either turning round or making an observation, good, bad, or indifferent; but in the close quarters of a country house, with all the able assistance of first-rate London dresses, well flounced and set out, each bent on doing the agreeable, they became dangerous. The Miss Jawleyfords were uncommonly well got up, and Juliana, their mutual maid, deserved great credit for the impartiality she displayed in arraying them. There wasn't a halfpenny's worth of choice as to which was the best. This was the more creditable to the maid, inasmuch as the dresses-sea-green glacés-were rather dashed; and the worse they looked, the likelier they would be to become her property. Half-dashed dresses, however, that would look rather seedy by contrast, come out very fresh in the country, especially in winter, when day begins to close in at four. And here we may ob

serve, what a dreary time is that which intervenes between the arrival of a guest and the dinner hour, in the dead winter months in the country. The English are a desperate people for overweighting their conversational powers. They have no idea of penning up their small talk, and bringing it to bear in generous flow upon one particular hour; but they keep dribbling it out throughout the live-long day, wearying their listeners without benefiting themselves-just as a careless waggoner scatters his load on the road. Few people are insensible to the advantage of having their champagne brisk, which can only be done by keeping the cork in; but few ever think of keeping the cork of their own conversation in. See a Frenchman-how light and buoyant he trips into a drawing-room, fresh from the satisfactory scrutiny of the looking-glass, with all the news, and jokes, and tittle-tattle of the day, in full bloom! How sparkling and radiant he is, with something smart and pleasant to say to every one! How thoroughly happy and easy he is; and what a contrast to phlegmatic John Bull, who stands with his great red fists doubled, looking as if he thought whoever spoke to him would be wanting him to endorse a bill of exchange! But, as we said before, the dread hour before dinner is an awful time in the country-frightful when there are two hours, and never a subject in common for the company to work upon. Laverick Wells and their mutual acquaintance was all Sponge and Jawleyford's stock-in-trade; and that was a very small capital to begin upon, for they had been there together too short a time to make much of a purse of conversation. Even the young ladies, with their inquiries after the respective flirtations-how Miss Sawney and Captain Snubnose were 'getting on'? and whether the rich Widow Spankley was likely to bring Sir Thomas Greedey to book?-failed to make up a conversation; for Sponge knew little of the ins and outs of these matters, his attention having been more directed to Mr. Waffles than any one else. Still, the mere questions, put in a playful, womanly way, helped the time on, and prevented things coming to that frightful deadlock of silence, that causes an involuntary inward exclamation of 'How am I to get through the time with this man?' There are people who seem to think that sitting and looking at each other constitutes society. Women have a great advantage over men in the talking way; they have always something to say. Let a lot of women be huddled together throughout the whole of a livelong day, and they will yet have such a balance of conversation at night, as to render it necessary to convert a bedroom into a clearing-house, to get rid of it. Men, however, soon get high and dry, especially before dinner; and a host ought to be at liberty to read the Riot Act, and disperse them to their bedrooms, till such times as they wanted to eat and drink.

A most scientifically sounded gong, beginning low, like distant thunder, and gradually increasing its murmur till it filled the whole mansion with its roar, at length relieved all parties from the labour of further efforts; and, looking at his watch, Jawleyford asked Mrs. Jawleyford, in an innocent, indifferent sort of way, which was Mr. Sponge's room; though he had been fussing about it not long before, and dusting the portrait of himself in his green-and-gold yeomanry uniform, with an old pocket-handkerchief.

'The crimson room, my dear,' replied the well-drilled Mrs. Jawleyford; and Spigot coming with candles, Jawleyford preceded 'Mr. Sponge' up a splendid richly carved oak staircase, of such gradual and easy rise that an invalid might almost have been drawn up it in a garden-chair.

Passing a short distance along a spacious corridor, Mr. Jawleyford presently opened a door to the right, and led the way into a large gloomy room, with a little newly lighted wood fire crackling in an enormous grate, making darkness visible, and drawing the cold out of the walls. We need scarcely say it was that terrible room-the best; with three creaking, ill-fitting windows, and heavy crimson satin-damask furniture, so old as scarcely to be able to sustain its own weight. 'Ah! here you are,' observed Mr. Jawleyford, as he nearly tripped over Sponge's luggage as it stood by the fire. 'Here you are,' repeated he, giving the candle a flourish, to show the size of the room, and draw it back on the portrait of himself above the mantelpiece. 'Ah! I declare here's an old picture of myself,' said he, holding the candle up to the face, as if he hadn't seen it for some time-'a picture that was done when I was in the Bumperkin yeomanry,' continued he, passing the light before the facings. 'That was considered a good likeness at the time,' said he, looking affectionately at it, and feeling his nose to see if it was still the same size. 'Ours was a capital corps-one of the best, if not the very best in the service. The inspecting officer always spoke of it in the highest possible terms-especially of my company, which really was just as perfect as anything my Lord Cardigan, or any of your crack disciplinarians, can produce. However, never mind,' continued he, lowering the candle, seeing Mr. Sponge didn't enter into the spirit of the thing; 'you'll be wanting to dress. You'll find hot water on the table yonder,' pointing to the far corner of the room, where the outline of a jug might just be descried; 'there's a bell in the bed if you want anything; and dinner will be ready as soon as you are dressed. You needn't make yourself very fine,' added he, as he retired; 'for we are only ourselves: hope we shall have some of our neighbours to-morrow or next day, but we are rather badly off for neighbours just here-at least, for short-notice neighbours.' So saying, he disappeared through the dark doorway.

The latter statement was true enough, for Jawleyford, though apparently such a fine open-hearted, sociable sort of man, was in reality a very quarrelsome, troublesome fellow. He quarrelled with all his neighbours in succession, generally getting through them every two or three years; and his acquaintance were divided into two classes-the best and the worst fellows under the sun. A stranger revising Jawleyford after an absence of a year or two, would very likely find the best fellows of former days transformed into the worst ones of that. Thus, Parson Hobanob, that pet victim of country caprice, would come in and go out of season like lamb or asparagus; Major Moustache and Jawleyford would be as 'thick as thieves' one day, and at daggers drawn the next; Squire Squaretoes, of Squaretoes House, and he, were continually kissing or cutting; and even distance-nine miles of bad road, and, of course, heavy tolls-could not keep the peace between lawyer Seedywig and him. What between rows and reconciliations, Jawleyford was always at work.

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