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- The Young Step-Mother - 70/124 -
on my account.'
Of which gracious permission Albinia was resolved to avail herself. She left all the insincerity to her husband, and would by no means allow grandmamma to abdicate the warm corner. She suspected that he wanted an introduction to Mrs. Nugent, and was resolved to defeat this object, unless he should condescend to make the request, so she was well satisfied to see him wedged in between papa and Sophy, while a prodigious quantity of Irish talk was going on between Mrs. Nugent and Mr. O'More, with contributions of satire from Mr. Ferrars which kept every one laughing except little Nora Nugent and Mary Ferrars, who were deep in the preliminaries of an eternal friendship, and held the ends of each other's crackers like a pair of doves. Lucy, however, was ill at ease at the obscurity which shrouded the illustrious guest, and in her anxiety, gave so little attention to her two neighbours, that Willie Ferrars, affronted at some neglect, exclaimed, 'Why, Lucy, what makes you screw your eyes about so! you can't attend to any one.'
'It is because Polly Silly is there,' shouted Master Maurice from his throne beside his mamma.
To the infinite relief of the half-choked Albinia, little Mary Ferrars, with whom her cousin had been carrying on a direful warfare all day, fitted on the cap, shook her head gravely at him, and after an appealing look of indignation, first at his mamma, then at her own, was overheard confiding to Nora Nugent that Maurice was a very naughty boy--she was sorry to say, a regular spoilt child.
'But how should you hinder Miss Kendal from attending?'
'I'll tell you, darling. Poor Lucy! she is very fond of me, and I dare say she wanted me to sit next to her, but you know she will have me for three days, and I have you only this one evening. I'll go and speak to her after tea, when we go into the drawing-room, and then she wont mind.'
Lucy, after an agony of blushes, had somewhat recovered on finding that no one seemed to apply her brother's speech, and when the benevolent Mary made her way to her, and thrust a hand into hers, only a feeble pressure replied to these romantic blandishments, so anxious was she to carry to Mrs. Kendal the information that Mr. Cavendish Dusautoy had been so obliging as to desire his servant to bring his guitar and key-bugle.
'We are much obliged,' said Albinia, 'but look at that face!' and she turned Lucy towards Willie's open-mouthed, dismayed countenance. You must tell him the company are not sufficiently advanced in musical science.'
'But mamma, it would gratify him!'
'Very likely'--and without listening further, Albinia turned to Willie, who had all day been insisting that papa should introduce her to the new game of the Showman.
Infinitely delighted to be relieved from the fear of the guitar, Willie hunted all who would play into another room; whence they were to be summoned, one by one, back to the drawing-room by the showman, Mr. Ferrars, who shrugged his shoulders at the task, but undertook it, and first called for Mrs. Kendal.
She found him stationed before the red curtains, which were closely drawn, and her husband and the three elder ladies sitting by as audience.
'Pray, madam, may I ask what animal you would desire to have exhibited to you, out of the vast resources that my menagerie contains. Choose freely, I undertake that whatever you may select, you shall not be disappointed.'
'What, not if I were to ask for a black spider monkey?' said Albinia, to whom it was very charming to be playing with Maurice again.
Mr. Kendal looked up in entertained curiosity, Mrs. Nugent smiled as if she thought the showman's task impossible, and Winifred stretched out to gain a full view.
'A black spider monkey,' he said, slowly. 'Allow me to ask, madam, if you are acquainted with the character of the beast?'
'It doesn't scratch, does it?' said she, quickly.
'That is for you to answer.'
'I never knew it do so. It does chatter a great deal, but it never scratched that I knew of.'
'Nor I,' said the showman, 'since it was young. Do you think age renders it graver and steadier?'
'Not a bit. It is always frisky and troublesome, and I never knew it get a bit better as it grew older.'
Winifred laughed outright. Mr. Kendal's lips were parted by his smile. 'I wonder what sort of a mother it would make?' said the showman.
'All animals are good mothers, of course.'
'I meant, is it a good disciplinarian?'
'If you mean cuffing its young one for playing exactly the same tricks as itself.'
'Exactly; and what would be the effect of letting it and its young one loose in a great scholar's study?'
'There wouldn't be much study left.'
'And would it be for his good?'
'Really, Mr. Showman, you ask very odd questions. Shall we try?' said Albinia, with a skip backward, so as to lay her hand on the shoulder of her own great scholar, while the showman drew back the curtain, observing--'I wish, ma'am, I could show "it and its young one" together, but the young specimen is unfortunately asleep. Behold the original black spider monkey!'
There stood the monkey, with sunny brown locks round the laughing glowing face, and one white paw still lying on the scholar's shoulder--while his face made no assurance needful that it was very good for him! The mirror concealed behind the curtains was the menagerie! Albinia clapped her hands with delight, and pronounced it the most perfect of games.
'And now let us have Willie,' said Mrs. Ferrars; 'it will conduce to the harmony of the next room.'
Willie, already initiated, hoped to puzzle papa as a platypus ornithoryncus, but was driven to allow that it was a nondescript animal, neither fish, flesh, nor good red-herring, useless, and very fond of grubbing in the mud; and if it were not at Botany Bay, it ought to be! The laughter that hailed his defence of its nose as 'well, nothing particular,' precipitated the drawing up of the curtain and his apparition in the glass: and then Nora Nugent being called, the inseparable Mary accompanied her, arm-in-arm, simpering an announcement that they liked nothing so well as a pair of dear little love-birds.
Oh, unpitying papa! to draw from the unsuspicious Nora the admission that they were very dull little birds, of no shape at all, who always sat hunched up in a corner without any fun, and people said their love was all stupidity and pretence; in fact, if she had one she should call it Silly Polly or Polly Silly!
To silence Willie's exultation in his sister's discomfiture, he was sent to fetch Lucy, whose impersonation of an argus pheasant would not have answered well but for a suggestion of Albinia, that she was eyes all over for any delinquency in school. Ulick O'More, owning with a sigh that he should like to see no beast better than a snipe, gave rise to much ingenuity by being led to describe it as of a class migratory, hard to catch, food for powder, given to long bills. There he guessed something, and stood on the defensive, but could not deny that its element was bogs, but that it had been seen skimming over water meadows, and finding sustenance in banks, whereupon the curtain rose. Ulick rushed upon the battles of his nation, and was only reduced to quiescence by the entrance of Sophy, who expressed a desire to see a coral worm, apparently perplexing the showman, who, to gain time, hemmed, and said, 'A very unusual species, ma'am,' which set all the younger ones in a double giggle, such as confused Sophy, to find herself standing up, with every one looking at her, and listening for her words. 'I thought you undertook for any impossibility in earth air or water.'
'Well, ma'am, do you take me for a mere mountebank? But when ladies and gentlemen take such unusual fancies--and for an animal that--you would not aver that it is often found from home?'
'Never, I should say.'
'Nor that it is accessible?'
'And why is it so, ma'am?'
'Why,' said Sophy, bewildered into forgetting her natural history, 'it lives at the bottom of the sea; that's one thing.'
'Where Truth lives,' said a voice behind.
'I beg to differ,' observed Albinia. 'Truth is a fresh water fish at the bottom of a well; besides, I thought coral worms were always close to the surface.'
'But below it--not in everybody's view,' said Sophy--an answer which seemed much to the satisfaction of the audience, but the showman insisted on knowing why, and whether it did not conceal itself. 'It makes stony caves for itself, out of sight,' said Sophy, almost doubting whether she spoke correctly. 'Well, surely it does so.'
'Most surely,' said an acclamation so general that she did not like it. If she had been younger, she would have turned sulky upon the spot, and Mr. Ferrars almost doubted whether to bring ont his final query. 'Pray, ma'am, do you think this creature out of reach in its self-made cave, at the bottom--no, below the surface of the sea, would be popular enough to repay the cost of procuring it.'
'Ah! that's too bad,' burst out the Hibernian tones. 'Why, is not
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