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OF A TOWN THAT WOULD LAUGH AT THE GREAT;
AND HOW A DULL COMPANY WAS CURED BY AN IRISH SONG.
We left the Misses Buzza engaged in rowing their papa homewards. The Three Queens as they steered King Arthur to Avilion can have been no sadder pageant. It is true the Misses Buzza grieved for no Excalibur, but the Admiral had lost his cocked-hat.
Picture to yourself that procession: the journey past the jetties; the faces that grinned down from overhanging hulls, or looked out hurriedly at casements and grew pale; the blue-jerseyed Trojan lounging on the quay, and pausing in his whistle to stare; the Trojan maidens gazing, with arrested needle; the shipwrights dropping mallet and tar-pot; the ferrymen resting on their oars; the makers of ship's biscuit rushing out, with aprons flying, to see the sight; the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker--each and all agog. Then imagine the Olympian mirth that ran along the waterside when Troy saw the joke, and, hand on hip, laughed with all its lungs.
But even this was not the worst: no, nor the crowd of urchins that followed from the landing-stage and cheered at intervals. It was when Admiral Buzza looked up and spied the face of Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys at an upper window of "The Bower," that the cup of his humiliation indeed brimmed over.
Mrs. Buzza, "tittivating" at the mirror, heard the stir, and, presentient of evil, rushed down-stairs. She saw her lord restored to her, dear but damp. Yet she "nor swooned, nor uttered cry:" she simply sat violently and suddenly down upon the hall-chair, and piteously stared.
"Emily, get up!"
She did so.
"You are wet, my love," she ventured timorously.
"Wet! Woman, is this the time for airy persiflage?"
"My love," replied Mrs. Buzza, meekly, "nothing was further from my thoughts."
The Admiral glared upon her for a moment, but the retort died upon his lips. He flung his hands out with an appealing gesture and something like a sob.
"Emily," he cried, hoarsely, "Troy has laughed at me again. Put me to bed."
O forgiving heart of woman! In a moment her arms were about him, and her tears mingling with the general dampness of the Admiral's costume. Then, having wept her fill, she smiled a little, dried her eyes, and put the Admiral to bed.
Out of doors Troy still laughed at the mishap. The whole story was soon related (with infinite humour) by the unfilial Sam. Down at the "Man-o'-War," in the bar-parlour, for seven days it formed the sole topic of discussion; and Mr. Moggridge (who ought to have respected Sophia's father) even wrote a humorous ode upon the theme, beginning--
"Ye gods and little fishes . . ."
and full of the quaintest conceits. For seven days, from dawn to nightfall, the river off Kit's House was crowded with boat-loads of curious gazers, and the Steam-Tug Company (Limited) neglected its serious business to run special excursions to the scene of the catastrophe.
The Trojan maidens especially would stare at the Notice by the half-hour (that being the time allowed by the Steam-Tug Company), and hope, with much blushing and giggling, to catch a glimpse of Mr. Fogo. But the hermit remained steadily indoors.
Meanwhile the Admiral sulked in bed, and nursed his ill-humour. On Tuesday he was strangely softened and quiet; but:--
On Wednesday he recovered, and began to bully his wife as fiercely as ever.
On Thursday he broke the bell-rope again, and the servant gave warning.
On Friday he threatened to make his will, and refused his food.
On Saturday he was still fasting.
On Sunday he ate voraciously, drank four glasses of grog, and threw the wash-hand basin out of window.
On Monday Mrs. Buzza revolted, and took herself off, with the girls, to Miss Limpenny's party.
Yes. Miss Limpenny had mustered courage to put on her best brooch and call at "The Bower" with Lavinia. Nor did her daring end here; it took the form of a little three-cornered note on that very evening, and on the next morning Mr. and Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys accepted.
"Have great pleasure in accepting," read Miss Limpenny to her sister. "The very words. I'm sure it's most affable."
"We must have cheesecakes--the famous cheesecakes--of course," reflected Miss Lavinia, "and a dish of trifle, and jellies, and--oh, Priscilla!"
"Do you think a Tipsy Cake would be unbecoming?"
Miss Limpenny knit her brows over this bold proposal.
"I disapprove of the name," she said. "It has always seemed to me a trifle--ahem!--'fast,' if I may call it so. Still, we need not mention its name at supper, and the taste is undeniably grateful. But, Lavinia, I was thinking of a more important matter. Who are to be asked?"
"Why not everybody, Priscilla dear?"
"The Simpsons, for instance? It is true his father was a respectable solicitor, and even Mayor of Devonport I have heard, but Mr. Simpson's taste in badinage is such as I cannot always approve. It is very well in Troy here, where everybody knows them, but the Goodwyn-Sandys are certain to be most particular, and, Lavinia, that crimson gown of hers!"
"It is bright," assented Miss Lavinia.
"And the Saunders! What a pity the girls cannot be invited without the boys."
"The boys have always come before, Priscilla."
Miss Limpenny groaned. "To meet an Honourable, Lavinia!"
The leaven was working.
However, on the following Monday everybody was assembled in the little drawing-room. The Vicar was there in evening dress; the doctor and his wife; Mr. Simpson and Mrs. Simpson in the crimson gown; the Saunders boys in carpet slippers (at sight of which Miss Limpenny went hot and cold by turns); the Misses Buzza in book-muslin, with ultramarine sashes and bronze shoes laced sandal-wise; their mother in green satin and deadly terror lest the Admiral's voice should penetrate the party-wall. Mr. Moggridge was frowning gloomily in a corner at some humorous story of Sam Buzza's telling. In short, with the exception of their Admiral, all Trojan society had gathered to do honour to the new-comers.
Miss Limpenny, nervously toying with her best brooch, rose in a flutter as the door opened and admitted them.
"So afraid we are late! but the clocks at 'The Bower' have not yet recovered from their journey."
Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys gazed calmly about her. There was a rustle throughout the room; two pink spots appeared on Miss Limpenny's cheeks; she stumbled in her words of welcome. The Vicar frowned and looked puzzled.
Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys wore a low-necked gown!
It was a shock; but it passed. She was wonderfully pretty, all admitted, in her gown of a rich amber satin draped with delicate folds of black lace; around her white throat a diamond necklace glistened. How well I can remember her as she stood there toying with a button of her glove! And how mean and dowdy we all looked beside this glittering vision!
The Honourable Frederic Augustus Hythe Goodwyn-Sandys meanwhile stared at us all calmly but firmly through his eye-glass. I saw young Horatio Saunders meet that gaze and sink into his carpet slippers. I saw Mr. Moggridge frown terribly, and cross his arms. Sam Buzza came forward--
"Ah, how d'ye do? How d'ye do, Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys? Looking round for the governor? He's been in bed for a week."
I think we all envied Samuel Buzza at this moment.
"Ah, nothing serious, I hope?" drawled Mr. Goodwyn-Sandys.
"Serious, ha, ha! Haven't you heard--"
"Sam, dear!" expostulated Mrs. Buzza.
"All right, mother. He can't hear," and Sam plunged into the story.
The ice was broken. In a few moments a whist party was made up to include the Honourable Frederic, and Miss Limpenny breathed more freely. Mr. Moggridge was led up by Sam, and introduced.
"Ah, indeed! Mr. Moggridge, I have been so longing to know you."
Sam looked a trifle vexed. The poet simpered that he was happy.
"Of course I have been reading 'Ivy Leaves.' So mournful I thought them, yet somehow so attractive. How did you write it all?"
Mr. Moggridge confessed amiably that he "didn't quite know."
"Let me see; those lines beginning--"
'O give me wings to--to--'
"I forget for the moment how it goes on."
"'To fly away,'" suggested the bard.
"Ah, exactly; 'to fly away.' So simple--just what one would wish wings for, you know. It struck me very much when I read it. When did you think of it, Mr. Moggridge?"
The poet blushed and began to look uncomfortable.
"Ah! you are reticent. Excuse me; I ought not to probe a poet's soul. Still, I should like to be able to tell my friends--"
"The--the fact is," stammered Mr. Moggridge, "I--I thought of them-- in--my bath."
Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys leaned back and laughed--a pretty rippling laugh that shook the diamonds upon her throat. Sam guffawed, and by this action sprang that little rift between the friends that widened before long into a gulf.
"I shall ask you to copy them into my Album. I always victimise a lion when I meet one."
This was said with a glance full of compensation. Mr. Moggridge tried to look very leonine indeed. Across the room another pair of eyes gently reproached him. Never before had he tarried so long from Sophia's side. Poor little heart! beating so painfully beneath your dowdy muslin bodice. It was early yet for you to ache.
"Oh, ah, Dick Cheddar--knew him well," came in the sonorous tones of the Honourable Frederic from the whist-table. "So you were at College with him--first cousin to Lord Stilton--get the title if he only outlives the old man--good fellow, Dick--but drinks."
"Dear me," said the Vicar; "I am sorry to hear that. He was wild at Christchurch, but nothing out of the way. Why, I remember at the Aylesbury Grinds--"
Miss Limpenny, who did not know an Aylesbury Grind from a Bampton Lecture, yet detected an unfamiliar ring in the Vicar's voice.
"He fought a welsher," pursued the Vicar, "just before riding in a race. 'Rollingstone,' his horse was, and Cheddar's eyes closed before the second fence. 'Tom,' he called to me--I was on a mare called Barmaid--"
I ask you to guess the amazement that fell among us. He--our Vicar-- riding a mare called Barmaid! Miss Limpenny cast her eyes up to meet the descent of the thunderbolt.
"Lord Ballarat was riding too," the Vicar went on, "and young Tom Beauchamp, son of the Bishop--"
"Died of D.T. out at Malta with the Ninety-ninth," interpolated the Honourable Frederic.
"So I heard, poor fellow. Three-bottle Beauchamp we called him. I've put him to bed many a time when--"
It was too much.
"In the Great Exhibition of 1851," began Miss Priscilla severely.
But at this moment a dreadful rumbling shook the room. The chandeliers rattled, the egg-shell china danced upon the what-not, and a jarring sensation suddenly ran up the spine of every person in the company.
"It's an earthquake!" shouted the Honourable Frederic, starting up with an oath.
Miss Limpenny thought an earthquake nothing less than might be expected after such language. Louder and still louder grew the rumbling, until the very walls shook. Everybody turned to a ghastly white. The Vicar's face bore eloquent witness to the reproach of his conscience.
"I think it must be thunder," he gasped.
"Or a landslip," suggested Sam Buzza.
"Or a paroxysm of Nature," said Mr. Moggridge (though nobody knew what he meant).
"Or the end of the world," hazarded Mr. Goodwyn-Sandys.
"I beg your pardon," interposed Mrs. Buzza timidly, "but I think it may be my husband."
"Is your husband a volcano, madam?" snapped Mr. Goodwyn-Sandys, rather sharply.
Mrs. Buzza might have answered "Yes," with some colour of truth; but she merely said, "I think it must be his double-bass. My husband is apt in hours of depression to seek the consolation of that instrument."
"But, my dear madam, what is the tune?"
"I think," she faltered, "I am not sure, but I rather think, it is the 'Dead March' in Saul."
There was no doubt of it. The notes by this time vibrated piteously through the party-wall, and with their awful solemnity triumphed over all conversation. Tones became hushed, as though in the presence of death; and the Vicar, in his desperate attempts to talk, found his voice chained without mercy to the slow foot of the dirge. He tried to laugh.
"Really, this is too absurd--ha! ha! Tum-tum-tibby-tum." The effort ended in ghastly failure. Thrum-thrum-tiddy-thrum went the Admiral's instrument.
Miss Limpenny grew desperate. "Sophia," she pleaded, "pray sing us one of your cheerful ballads."
Sophia looked at Mr. Moggridge. He had always turned over the pages for her so devotedly. Surely he would make some sign now. Alas! all his eyes were for Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys.
"I will try," she assented with something dangerously like a sob.
She stepped to the "Collard" at a pace remorselessly timed to the "Dead March," and chose her ballad--a trifle of Mr. Moggridge's composition. It would reproach him more sharply than words, she thought. A cloud of angry tears blurred her sight as she struck the tinkling prelude.
"A month ago Lysander prayed To Jove, to Cupid, and to Venus--"
Thrum-thrum-thrum went the double bass next door. Mr. Moggridge looked up. How thin and reedy Sophia's voice sounded to-night! He had never thought so before.
"That he might die, if he betrayed A single vow that passed between us."
"Sweetly touching!" murmured Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys.
"O careless gods, to hear so ill, And cheat the maid on you relying; For false Lysander's thriving still, And 'tis Corinna lies a-dying."
"Is that all?" asked Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys as Sophia with flushed cheeks left the piano.
"That is all--a little effort not worth--"
"Oh, it is yours! But," with a sweet smile, "I ought to have guessed. You must write a song for me one of these days."
"Do you sing?" cried the delighted Mr. Moggridge.
Sam, who had been waiting for a chance to speak, shouted across the room--"I say, Miss Limpenny, Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys will sing if you ask her."
After very little solicitation, and with none of the coyness common to amateurs, she seated herself at the instrument, quietly pulled off her gloves, and dashed without more ado into a rollicking Irish ditty.
"Be aisy an' list to a chune That's sung uv bowld Tim, the dragoon; Sure, 'twas he'd niver miss To be stalin' a kiss-- Or a brace--by the light uv the moon, Aroon, Wid a wink at the man in the moon!"
"Really!" murmured Miss Limpenny. The keys of the decorous "Collard" clashed as they had never clashed before. The guests, at first shocked and startled, began to be carried away with the reckless swing of the music. The Vicar stared for a moment, and then began gradually to nod his head to the measure.
"You must sing the last line in chorus, please," said Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys from the piano--
"Wid a wink at the man in the moon!"
It was sung timidly at first. Nothing daunted, the performer plunged into the next verse--
"Rest his sowl in the arms uv owld Nick! For he's gone from the land uv the quick: But he's still makin' luv To the leddies above, An' be jabbers! he'll tache 'em the thrick, Avick, Niver fear but he'll tache 'em the thrick!"
There was no doubt this time. By the spirit of her mad singing, by some demon that rode upon her full and liquid voice, the whole company seemed possessed. Miss Limpenny looked furtively towards the Vicar. He was actually joining in the chorus! And what a chorus! She put her mittened palms to her ears, such a shout it was that went up.
"'Tis by Tim the dear saints'll set sthore, And 'ull thrate him to whiskey galore; For they've only to sip But the tip uv his lip, An' bedad! they'll be askin' for more, Asthore, By the powers! they'll be shoutin' 'Ancore'!"
It was no longer an assembly of dull and decent citizens: it was a room full of lunatics yelling the burden of this frantic Irish song. Laughingly, Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys rested her finger on the keys and looked around. These stolid Trojans had caught fire. There was the little Doctor purple all above his stock; there was the Vicar with inflated cheeks and a hag-ridden stare; there was Mr. Moggridge snapping his fingers and almost capering; there was Miss Limpenny with her under-jaw dropped and her eyes agape. They were charmed, bewitched, crazy.
Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys saw this, and broke into a silvery laugh. The infection spread. In an instant the whole room burst into a peal, a roar. They laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks; they held their sides and laughed again. She had them at her will.
There was no more wonder after this. At supper the talk was furious and incessant; Miss Lavinia spoke of a "tipsy-cake," and never blushed; the Vicar took wine with everybody, and told more stories of Three-bottle Beauchamp; even Sophia laughed with the rest, although her heart was aching--for still her poet neglected her and hung with her brother on the lips of Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys. I saw him bring the poor girl's cloak in the hall afterwards and receive the most piteous of glances. I doubt if he noticed it.
Outside, the Admiral's double-bass was still droning the "Dead March" to Miss Limpenny's laurestinus grove. It was the requiem of our decorum. Long after I was in bed that night I heard the voice of Mr. Moggridge trolling down the street--
"An' be jabbers! he'll tache 'em the thrick!"
Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys had "taught us the trick," indeed.
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