THE GREAT TAMASHA COOKBOOK AND FAMILY
Tried in the Fire
From the unfinished MS., circa 1899: Our India Days
Chapter 7: Summer Proposals & Summary Disposals
The proposals. Er—yes. Possibly we should not be telling you young people all this—Very well, dear ones, if you wish for it. But if your Mamma asks what you did this morning, Madeleine, you had best just say that you and your brother strolled in the shrubbery with Antoinette—and it will not be a lie, will it, for you have just come back!
What was that, Mr Thomas? Your Papa laughed as heartily as any over the scene with Forbes memsahib? Oh, good gracious! We scarce intended—no, well, Antoinette wished to write it all down, but… Publication? Nonsense, dear boy! Private circulation amongst members of the family and close friends, possibly, but it could scarce be of any wider interest. Most certainly you are friends, Madeleine—Your Mamma laughed? Ye—Antoinette, dearest, one does not say that one wishes another lady were one’s mamma. It is most disloyal! Well, well, our own dearest stepmamma had a delightful sense of humour, too, and in fact Tess recalls her laughing very much at persons such as the apkee-wastees who hung on the sleeves of the Governor’s entourage in Calcutta—write “toad-eaters”, Antoinette. Yes, toadies, Mr Thomas: Tonie is right: all this talk of our girlhood has caused us to lapse into the vernacular of those past days. Even more than usual, as Tiddy says!
The First Proposal: Mr Edward Wells Offers His Hand & Heart
(The story largely in Great-Aunt Tiddy’s own words)
Ned Wells was the first of our beaux to press his suit—though very much later Ponsonby sahib was to admit to us that his money would have been on Mr Gordon-Smythe: Tamasha’s agent, who had his finger well on the pulse of everything that went on in the district, had long since informed his new master that Sir Aubrey Gordon-Smythe’s estates were somewhat encumbered. Injudicious speculations on the part of both the present incumbent and his father, apparently. Added to which, Sir Aubrey in his youth had been a gambler. Possibly a reason why he did not now encourage his sons to go up to London.
Tiddy led Ponsonby’s younger nephew by the hand into his study. She was looking maidenly. The good-looking Ned, who, the household at Tamasha had by now had more than enough time to discover, was even vainer than the unlamented Mr Feathers of Calcutta fame, and far more self-important, was for once smiling rather than pouting.
“Mr Edward wishes to speak to you, my dear guardian,” she cooed.
“Oh?” said Ponsonby sahib on a vague note, looking up from the piles of paper on his desk. “If it be about a loan, Ned, I have already informed your mother that I am not come home with the intention of encouraging my relatives to get themselves into debt.”
“No—ah—certainly not, sir!” he gasped, turning purple.
“It is on a more personal matter, dear sir,” cooed Tiddy.
“Yes?” he said unencouragingly.
“Oh, how stern you are, dearest guardian!” she gasped, releasing the luckless Mr Edward’s hand in order to clasp both of hers affectingly at her bosom.
“I hope I am not that, but a reasonable man,” he said evenly. “What is it, Ned?”
Mr Edward was somewhat shaken, but not enough. He flashed the even white teeth at him. “Sir, I was wondering—we were both wondering—that is, hoping—if you would do me the great honour of allowing me to pay my addresses to Miss Tiddy.”
“I see,” said his uncle, looking at him thoughtfully. “What can you offer her, Ned?”
Mr Edward was perceived to stutter. Very clearly the boot was so much on the other foot that it had not occurred to him that he might be expected to contribute anything—save his glorious person, of course—to the union. “Well—ah, well, sir, as you know, out of course, we are not ill-connected!”
“I don’t think a great-grandmother who was the daughter of an earl who never bothered to call once on his descendants, let alone invite them to his d— country seat, can be said to count for all that much, Ned. But let us list it as a point on your side, by all means. –Or do you not care for earls?” Ponsonby demanded of Tiddy.
Not at all taken aback, she responded, with a great rolling of the eyes and fluttering of the lashes: “Oh, I am sure they are all very well in their way, but I confess I am not vitally interested in them, dear sir!”
“No, well, there you are. Half a point for the earl, I think.”
“Uncle Gil,” he said, very red, and forgetting to flash the teeth, “you are jesting, of course. Pray allow me to assure you I can offer Miss Tiddy the assurance of my undying devotion.”
“Creditable,” said Ponsonby sahib on a dry note. “If belated. Is that it? What about the ability to support her?”
He gaped. Clearly his intention was to support her on her share of our Papa’s fortune.
“Well? I could recommend you to the Calcutta office of Lucas & Pointer.”
“What? No!” he gasped in horror. “I ain’t a tradesman, Uncle Gil!”
“So much the worse for you, then. You don’t fancy an army career? You are a little old. But an you applied yourself, you might get your majority by the time you were forty.”
“Mamma would not countenance that for an instant,” he said, the pout returning.
“She has certainly writ as much to me, in the past.” He gave him a searching look. “Though if I were to talk her round, would you care for it, Ned?”
“N— Um, hussars?” he ventured.
“No: my own old regiment, in India.”
“I do not wish to go to any horrid, dirty place like that,” said Mr Edward, looking and sounding about five years of age, and spoilt with it. “And, in fact, allow me to inform you, sir, have not been brought up to consider myself to need to.”
“No, apparently you’ve been brought up to be entirely lazy and self-seeking, and to count yourself a cut above the most of your acquaintance,” said Ponsonby without heat.
“Oh, sir! Surely that is a little cruel?” gasped Tiddy.
“It is very cruel, and unjust!” said Mr Edward, visibly taking courage from this support.
“Yes. Because he is not entirely lazy, at all. He rides a horse very nicely, and often does so quite early in the mornings. Not before his breakfast, out of course,” she said dulcetly. “And he can box, too, and that is quite energetic. Though on consideration of the face, he has given it up since leaving his school.”
“Quite. It would not do to spoil one’s prospects, when one’s face is one’s fortune,” said Ponsonby sahib drily, picking up his pen. “Go away, Ned. I don’t believe for an instant you are in love with Tiddy, and even if you were I should not permit her to throw herself away on a fortune-hunting parasite.”
“Oh, but that is so unfair, dear sir,” cooed Tiddy. “For it is the way of the world, after all.”
He dipped his pen in the standish but looked up at her drily. “Mm. Do you want him?”
“Not at all. I just thought that he should be permitted enough rope to hang himself.” She opened the door very wide. “Good-day,” she said airily to Mr Edward.
“Buh-but— You encouraged me!” he spluttered.
Calmly Tiddy replied: “Yes. It was hard to believe that anyone could be so puffed up in his own conceit as not to see that the mixture of condescension and flattery which you appear to think is courtship was having no effect whatsoever on my affections, so I let you keep on.”
“You are an unfeeling little flirt, Miss!” he spluttered.
“That would be better than being an incorrigible fortune-hunter; but what is really odd about the thing,” she said thoughtfully, “is that I did not have to flirt at all. You were encouraged enough by the spectacle of yourself paying court without my help.”
“Get out,” said Ponsonby sahib faintly. “You as well, Tiddy.”
Tiddy raised one eyebrow at him, and vanished.
This story occasioned a great deal of hilarity, the dear great-aunts concluding: Well, yes! Though looking back, one cannot help but feel a certain pity for the silly, spoilt young man. –Dear girls, you are too young to be able to see that he was largely made by his circumstances. Rise above them, Mr Thomas? That is certainly the accepted Christian stance, is it not? Your Papa’s suggestion that you should take Orders has a certain merit, then. Er—no, Antoinette, we are not tired at all, but by all means ring for a tray of tea.
(After the tea.) If you wish to know what then took place between uncle and nephew, fetch Ponsonby sahib’s letters to Lord Sleyven and Dr Little, Antoinette, dear.
The Aftermath to Mr Edward Wells’s Proposal
(As reconstructed by A.J.T., from Ponsonby sahib’s letters)
[Largely as in the words of the original MS, with some additions
from the letters found in the tin trunk. –K.W.]
“Sir, I assure you that my intentions were of the most honourable—”
“No, they were not, Ned. Though I grant you that they most certainly conformed to the manners and mores which you have been raised to accept as both normal and desirable. But you’ve known the girl a bare two months: surely that is precipitate, even for one of your upbringing?”
“Sir, permit me to say, you are insulting my Mamma, to speak so!”
“Rubbish. She’s my sister, d— it. Was this precipitate proposal prompted by nothing more than a desire to grab a fortune once it was thrust under your nose, or were there more urgent pecuniary reasons of which your mother has failed to apprise me?”
Ned looked at him sulkily.
“Are—you—in—debt?” said his uncle very clearly.
“N— It is only a temporary embarrassment!” he said angrily.
“Until you can chisel the cash out of your mother—quite. She has lately mentioned to me that she has become tired of paying your debts, Ned, much though she doats upon you. She did not mention the latter point: it is self-evident. –How much?”
Pouting horribly, Ned revealed the sum total. “Thereabouts,” he added sulkily.
“Gambling debts? Your tailor? What?”
“My tailor?” he said with a nasty laugh. “I should rather think not! Old Green can wait! No, well they are debts of honour, largely,” he admitted sulkily.
“I see. Well, I shall not make the mistake of giving you money. But you may hand me all your outstanding bills, including that of your unfortunate tailor.”
“What about my IOUs?” he said feebly.
“Advise your creditors to apply to me within the next month. And be so good as to favour me, this afternoon, with an exact list of them.”
Sulkily Ned expressed his gratitude.
“This is the only time I shall pay any of your debts, and I’m doing it for your mother’s sake, not yours. Now get out.”
Pouting horribly, Mr Edward got.
Mrs Wells did not beard her brother in his study in the wake of this interview. Instead, she waited until after the tea-tray. Tiddy and her two older sisters retired early, which left Josie and Mlle Dupont, plus the two Wells boys: Ned pouting, and the stolid Graham attempting laboriously to flirt with Josie. Fruitlessly: the game had palled, and the name “Welling” had been heard several times in the course of the evening. The young men were informed they might play a game of billiards. Either they were accustomed to obey their mother unquestioningly, the which by now would not, actually, have surprised Ponsonby sahib, or she had previously informed them of her plans. In any case, they went. That left Josie and Mlle Dupont.
“My dear Josie, it is high time you got your beauty sleep,” said Mrs Wells briskly.
“Pooh, it is early,” said Josie, with a pout worthy of Mr Edward Wells himself.
Mademoiselle rose. “My dear, Mrs Wells is so vairy right: we do not want any bags to appear under those perfect eyes, now do we? And rappelez-vous, your Aunt Mary writes that Lord Welling may be in the district vairy soon!”
Josie bounced up. “Of course!” she agreed with a titter. “I wonder if he will find that the neighbourhood compares very well with the land round his estate? By the by, Mademoiselle, did I mention that he is a close relative of the Marquis of Rockingham?” Smirking, and not neglecting to direct a spiteful glance at Mrs Wells, she exited with Mlle Dupont.
“Is that true?” demanded Catherine grimly of her brother.
“Mm?” said Ponsonby vaguely into his book.
“This Lord Whoever-he-be of whom Josie speaks so frequently but of whom it appears Kent has not as yet been vouchsafed a glimpse!” she said angrily. “Is he a close relative—or any sort of relative, come to that—of the Marquis of Rockingham?”
“Goodness, don’t you know, Catherine? –No, sorry! I do not know of my own knowledge, but certainly Miss Partridge has conceded that he is. And I think she has the whole of the English peerage and baronetage in her head?”
“Very amusing,” she said grimly.
“Said to be around Graham’s age, owns a respectable estate over near the border of Wales, and reported by both of Josie’s older sisters, though I grant you they phrased it much more kindly, to be next thing to an imbecile, but quite good-natured. And very good-looking, though Josie does not care for fair curls and blue eyes in a man. –Her very words.”
“And do you approve of his suit?”
“How can, I, Catherine? I have never laid eyes on the man. I do know Josie is not in love with him, but then, I doubt if the emotion be within her capacity.”
His sister frowned. After a moment she said: “Persons of our class need not occupy themselves with that emotion, I think.”
“I wouldn’t recommend such persons to marry without it. Though I concede it don’t seem to guarantee the success of a match, any more than its absence does.”
His sister gave him a baffled glare.
“Did you want to discuss something?” he said, relenting slightly.
“Yes. I wished, firstly, to express my appreciation for your settling Ned’s debts.”
“I told him, and I’ll tell you, that it is the only time I shall do so. Pray do not mention the family name: he is not a Ponsonby, in spite of your card; and I do not consider that the possession of any sort of name absolves a man from taking responsibility for his actions. If he gets into debt again, he can get himself out again as best he may, like the rest of the world. And if you are silly enough to subsidise him, that is your affair entirely.”
She frowned. “I have told him that I am not prepared to frank his gambling.”
“However, he is not a bad boy.”
“He is a not a boy at all,” said his uncle unemphatically.
“Er—no. But very young, still.”
“Rubbish. If you wish to know why I did not accept his offer for Tiddy, his being twenty-five and never having done anything but run up debts he cannot afford to settle is most certainly one reason. It would not perhaps weigh so heavily with me if he were truly in love with the girl, but he is not.”
“He admires her very much,” said his mother stiffly.
“Catherine, he does not admire her very much, though he may do so a little; and he most certainly has no grasp at all of her true character.”
Mrs Wells tried to smile. “She is a naughty little teaze, of course, but she is very young—”
“Not too young to see through Master Ned. He will never have her while I am above ground,” he said sweetly, “so give it up.”
His sister was very flushed. After a moment she said: “He is your own connection, after all. And their father was a mere tradesman.”
“Not mere, but I take your point. I am not objecting to Ned’s birth, merely to his complete lack of character.”
“That is very unkind,” she said tightly.
“But true. If you were to stop paying his debts and agree to his going into the Army—”
“No!” she cried. “I do not wish that career for him!”
“In that case, I think we can never hope to see him make anything of himself.”
“Many young ladies have shown a preference for him,” said his mother in a shaking voice.
“May we stop discussing this? Tiddy is far too young to marry, in any case.”
“Very well,” she said stiffly.
Ponsonby waited but she did not reintroduce the topic of Josie; so he rose, bade her goodnight, and went out. He was aware that his last remark had only resulted in giving her hope that if Ned hung on until Tiddy was older, he would change his mind and let him have her. Well, Catherine would discover in the course of time that it was a misplaced hope.
There is a letter which relates what happened next—thank you, Mr Thomas, do read it out. Er—Madeleine, dear, perhaps he will “edit” it, as you put it, a little, for a gentleman will always write more freely to another gentleman, but—Yes, Antoinette, it is your family history, but—Girls, please! Mr Thomas will read it to us and then we shall leave it to his judgement whether or no he should pass it to Antoinette.
The Second Proposal, Which Tonie Found Unwelcome
(As transcribed by A.J.T., from Ponsonby sahib’s letter to Dr Little)
Another despatch from our beleaguered sadar. Though at the moment it is more a series of Gold Cup Stakes than a siege, here at HQ. Mr Gordon-Smythe was first past the post on Antonia Cup Day. The form book indicated he would place well, and the state of the ground was apparently not seen as a deterrent. –Dry as dust, dear fellow, like the maidan in a drought. Though not, as will be revealed, as hard, I’m glad to say.
In contrast to Ned, he made an offer in form to the young lady’s guardian, unsupported by the presence of the young lady. I conceded that he had known Miss Antonia for some time. The hearty Mr Gordon-Smythe was terribly pleased by this and returned: “Oh, absolutely, sir! Neighbours, y’know!” Not suspecting the reply would be that I had thought his Mamma did not encourage visits over the past half dozen years. He produced an embarrassed laugh and the information that he was not always at home, but got on over to Tamasha pretty often, and had always admired Miss Tonie.
To this I returned: “So you said. Is she not a bit old for you?”
“No such thing!” he gasped, turning scarlet. –Had he had this very conversation with his formidable mamma? It seemed, on reflection, only too likely. I did not make the point, and Mr Gordon-Smythe added helpfully that he was the older son. I could have sent him about his business, but he is not ineligible and I thought Tonie should be given the chance to decide whether or no she wanted him. So I agreed to ascertain if she wished to receive his addresses, and he left with profuse thanks.
There was no hope, of course, that the news that he had called would not be all over the house. Tonie came into the study looking wary. “Has it seemed to you,” I said slowly, “that there has of late weeks been something warmer than heretofore in Mr Gordon-Smythe’s manner towards yourself?” The poor girl went very red and returned angrily: “I suppose one may say that his manner has been warmer! For before someone spread it all around the district that we are to have large portions—and one would not need three guesses to hazard it was that Partridge woman, the creature’s tongue never stops—he never so much as looked at me!”
Well, quite. So I said, as gently as I could: “That is more or less what I had conjectured. I must tell you that he has requested permission to pay you his addresses, Tonie. Can you care for him?” Still very red, she snapped: “He is a noddy!” I did not argue with that, but said: “And you are a sensible young woman. Such matches can work out very well. That is, if the woman can be content to rule the roost and content with a husband who is pleased to let her. He is the elder son: he will have the property.”
She was still very annoyed and returned: “He will if Sir Aubrey—who has never set his foot across Tamasha’s threshold, I may add—has not gambled it or mortgaged it all away!” I perfectly agreed, though noting that Mr Gordon-Smythe had assured me the estate is entailed, and added: “Your position in the district—indeed, in Society—would be assured. I am sure your Aunt Mary Allenby would advise you to think seriously about this offer, Tonie.” She gnawed on her lip, frowning. I could not but reflect, watching her, that it was rather a pity that daily life does not offer her more occasions for provocation: she is, really, quite magnificent when angry: the big blue-grey eyes flash, the cheeks take on a pink flush, and her face gains all the animation it normally lacks. Eventually she said: “I concede the justice of that remark, sir.”—The flush and the sparkle in the eyes, alas, were fading.—“May I ask what your own advice would be?”
My advice, very simply, was not to marry a man whom she did not love. I addressed her as “my dear”, poor girl, and whether it was that which she had not expected, or the reply itself, or both, I cannot tell, but she was quite shaken, thanked me unsteadily and asked if she might think it over. And went out, quite evidently holding back tears. Well! She is not as cool and heartless as she affects to be, poor d— girl. And if ever I have the luck to get that clergyman fellow, Walsingham-Smyth, at the end of my fist—!
Tonie did not bring the matter up again until the following day. I would have expected one of her common sense to have slept on it. On the other hand, when a young woman needs to apply common sense to the matter of a proposal—! “I have thought Mr Gordon-Smythe’s offer over very carefully, sir,” she said grimly. “and I quite recognise that it would be an excellent match. Granted that the offer was made out of a sense of the pecuniary advantage he might gain from it, I can scarce call myself flattered by it. Nevertheless Mountfoot Place is a considerable property and the position of its mistress would not be a wholly disagreeable one. I dare say our natures would be compatible enough. He is a pleasant enough fellow, who enjoys the country life. However, I do not feel that there is any need to be precipitate about the thing. In that connection, sir, may I respectfully enquire what your plans are in regard to my sisters and myself?”
I was not wholly pleased by this attitude, but could not claim that it was not sensible, so I merely replied, did she mean, which of them did I mean to marry? The which duly shocked her, and she assured the burra-sahib that she should not dream of making such an impertinent enquiry She had meant, merely, did I intend a further London Season for them after their period of mourning? I granted that a Season was a possibility, but ventured that I had thought I might take them all back to India for a few months next spring. She did not manage not to look horrified, but said most properly that they would comply with my wishes. I asked if she cared so much for London, then, and got the reply that she enjoyed its amenities but had not meant that, precisely.
Circumlocutions have their place, but I confess I had had enough of ’em at this point, and said outright: “No: you meant that you might find something preferable to a Gordon-Smythe in that great sea. –London.” To which Miss Antonia replied, proper but determined: “That was certainly my thought, yes, Colonel.” Looking me in the eye, what is more; good for her! I reminded her, lightly enough, that there are plenty of good fellows out in India, too, to which she could not but agree, though going rather red.
I explained that I have responsibilities which will call me back to Calcutta early next year but allowed that it was possible we might find someone to chaperon them in London. And asked how that affected her answer to Mr Gordon-Smythe? She replied primly that she thought it would be best to tell him that she feels his offer is too precipitate, given that they hardly know each other. I could not prevent myself returning drily: “But that he may still hope, eh?” To which Miss Tonie replied very firmly indeed: “I would not put it in so many words.”
“No, quite,” I said. “What a pity you were not a boy: you could have gone into the firm with Henry: you would have negotiated some excellent deals for him, I have no doubt. Very well, I shall tell him that.” She had flushed up—gratification, partly, I think—and said: “You are too good, Colonel. But the responsibility for answering his offer should, I think, be mine. After all, I am of age.” I conceded that and suggested that as he had applied to me in the first instance, perhaps we should see him together, the which went down very well.
Mr Gordon-Smythe was duly seen and appeared quite blank at hearing the word “precipitate.” So I pointed out that in spite of those half-dozen years in the neighbourhood, they had not really seen very much of each other. He stuttered but produced the word “prospects,” at which I assured him we understand that he is the eldest son. Mightily cheered by this, he said: “I spoke to Papa, sir, and although the dower house is in need of considerable repairs, it could be made into a jolly little place, and he is very agreeable to our having it!” This was pretty good, on its own, but the innocent Tonie made it even better by adding faintly: “In need of considerable repairs? Colonel, it is a ruin!”
So I said that I dared say that together they might scrape up the wherewithal to repair it—and neither of ’em spotted me! I was beginning to think they were better suited than I had assumed! Mr G.-S. in fact agreed heartily and added: “And in the meantime, sir, Papa assures me that we might have our own suite of rooms in the west wing. And if you should care for it, Miss Tonie, Firefly’s latest filly may be yours, and they are always the smoothest rides in the world, y’know! And my Aunt Lilian was used to drive a pony cart, and though my sisters don’t care to, Papa assures me that with a lick of paint it will be spruce as nothing! And no question but what he will procure you a steady little fellow to pull it. –Dare say you won’t care to hunt, will you?” he ended on a sad note.
The young lady was reduced to looking at him limply but managed to utter: “No, my riding is not in that class, sir. But you are being too precipitate.” The last word unfortunately not with malice aforethought!
I suggested that if he were to ask her again, perhaps next March? Mr G.-S. gulped, very took aback, the cheerful red-cheeked face falling. “Using the interval,” I added, allowing a certain grimness to creep into me tone, “to become better acquainted with Miss Antonia, so that the both of you may determine whether you would really suit.”
“Er—yes. Absolutely, sir. March. Just as you say!” he gulped. “And pray permit me to say, Miss Tonie, that I am everlastingly grateful that you have given me cause to hope.” Miss Antonia replying, limp but proper: “Not at all, Mr Gordon-Smythe,” he produced a brave smile and a deep bow. I rang the bell, inviting him cordially to come to call and noting that I should even allow him to tool Miss Tonie about in the trap, that sort of thing. The which over-encouragement produced not only fervent thanks but the sad remark that March is an awful long way off. Up to this point I had thought him—well, a fortune-hunter, but simple rather than venal, not in Ned’s class at all, but at this I was on the qui vive and asked baldly if there were some pressing reason he required to be affianced before then? Mr Gordon-Smythe is, demonstrably, slow; but not that slow. “No, absolutely not, sir!” he gasped, turning very red. “Assure you! Only, thing is, Mamma was expecting it to be sooner. I mean—well, March! Dashed if I know what I shall say to her, Colonel!”
“Just tell her,” I said soothingly, “that that is what I said. And that of course you could not argue with me.” To which the noddy returned: “No, rather not, sir! Well, if you say so, I shall.” And, bowing deeply and kissing Tonie’s hand, got himself out of the room. I looked limply at the girl, managing to produce nothing more helpful than: “You are right about his being a noddy. Well, never mind. You have left your options open: very sensible of you.” To which Miss Antonia returned primly: “Thank you, sir. And thank you for seeing him with me.” I could barely dredge up a smile. I waved her away and, frankly, sank my head in my hands. Common sense on the one side and a mixture of simple cupidity and simple-mindedness on the other is no sort of basis for a happy marriage, and there is little doubt, for she is bright enough, that she can see it! Could any young woman of sensibility actually prefer that fate to that of being a spinster for the rest of her days? My God.
Forgive me for boring on. The iron has entered into me soul!
Yours, as ever,
The letter having been read out by Mr Thomas, our dear great-aunts, all of whom had smiled very much at it, conceded: Indeed, Antoinette, the comparison with Charlotte Lucas must spring to mind! You agree, Madeleine? Have you read the book, too, dear? Well, now! It was a great favourite of ours when we were young, but we had no notion it would still have its appeal, in these modern days! None of our girls could support the book at your ages. –The characters very finely observed, Mr Thomas, but most of the gentlemen maintained it was a women’s book—writ by a lady for her sex, you see—but Ponsonby sahib enjoyed it fully as much as we! By all means try it, dear sir. There is a copy on the shelves here. Er, yes, Mr Collins is very funny, Madeleine, but the comparison with the Reverend Mr Frimpton is a little unjust. You think Mrs Frimpton is more like Lady Catherine de Burgh, Antoinette? Oh, dear. Well, if one can imagine her Ladyship in that walk of life, the comparison is not altogether inapposite. –Yes, Rogers? Time for the midday meal? Oh, good gracious! Well, come along, everyone…
(Later the same day.) More? Dear young people, you are gluttons for punishment! No, no, we are not in the least tired, we have all had a refreshing little nap this afternoon. You wish to stay and hear it, Matt? Dearest boy, we are still telling Antoinette and her friends about our silly beaux. No, of course you are not a brat, but—Well, no, you are right: the little ones have very little notion of how to play a proper game of croquet. By all means join us, then.—Mr Thomas, you are very kind, but be warned, Matt is a positive demon when one’s ball looks like threatening his position!—Now, Tess promises that the story will not put her to the blush, at her age, and so we shall tell it! Er, yes, Matt, you may write the title. Just put “Miss Lucas Receives—er—an Overture”, dearest boy. Ponsonby sahib’s letters will aid you if you wish for fuller details than we can recall, Antoin—No, Matt, you are not yet old enough to read them—and they are all in that very black, crabbed hand of his, you know, dear boy! And, indeed, as Mr Thomas says, it will be best if he reads them on Antoinette’s behalf. Matt, why is a crooked letter and zed’s no better! Please stop asking pointless questions. Do you wish to stay for the story, or not? Very well, then.
Miss Lucas Receives an Overture (The Third Proposal)
The next hopeful swain to press his suit was Sir William Hathaway. “The squire”, as he liked to be known in spite of the baronetcy, was a man of an impatient temperament. Possibly this was why he took the opportunity of approaching Tess herself, rather than her trustee, on a warm August afternoon. Or possibly it was because he was afraid Ponsonby himself would be before him? However this might be, Ponsonby sahib was wrong, as he was to realise very soon, not to take due warning when Alfred, that sympathetic look yet again in his eye, appeared in the study with the message that Sir William was come, and he had a new waistcoat, fine as fivepence. Pinkish, it were. Broidery on it an’ all.
“Yes, well, call me when it’s time for tiffin,” he said vaguely into the mounds of paper on his desk.
“Yessir,” said the footman, retreating.
Ponsonby sahib re-buried himself in the papers, reflecting that it was more than time he got himself a capable aide—secretary, rather; and that if only the London office could recommend someone utterly trustworthy, with sufficient initiative but not too much of the misplaced variety, capable of taking over in his absence but not likely to wish to take over his command behind his back— Yes, well. Men of the like of Horace Balbir Palmer, he had long since discovered, were few and far between. As it was, he had the option of spending hours and hours interviewing candidates and then wasting months finding out that the fellow chosen was not suitable after all, or struggling on. Since he was not yet sufficiently au fait with the ins and outs of Henry John Lucas’s vast business interests to trust himself to recognise what tasks should be delegated and what not, or which papers could be safely signed and which needed further investigation, he was struggling on.
He was just reflecting that it was quite warm, and he should open the windows, when Alfred burst in unceremoniously. “Colonel! Miss Tess, she’s calling out!” Not pausing to ask why the fellow had not rushed in and rescued her himself, Ponsonby shot to his feet, flung the French windows wide, ran along the terrace and burst into the little sitting-room just as Sir William’s large red face was forcing itself upon Miss Lucas’s shocked and tearful one.
Sir William Hathaway was a tall, bulky man, several stone heavier than Ponsonby. This, however, made no difference, as the awed Alfred was to report to his peers in the kitchen.
Alfred’s Report, as Recounted by Great-Aunt Tiddy
(Transcribed to the best of the reporter’s ability)
“’E run straight up to ’im, grabbed ’im by the arm, and twisted it up somethink cruel! Sir William, ’e lets out a screech like what you never ’eard, reminded me of my old Grandpa sticking the pig for the Christmas ’am, and tries to swing round and ’it ’im, only the Colonel, I dunno what ’e does, exact, but ’e sort of twists, and ’eaves ’im across the room like ’e was a feather, and splat! ’E ends up against the wall right at the other side of the room! And the little table goes down like a ninepin, all broke!”
“That nice little occasional table what Mistress was very fond of,” noted Wilkes, the parlourmaid, disapprovingly.
“That’s right,” agreed Harker stolidly. “Throwing him a cross-buttock is what you mean, I collect, my lad,” he added loftily to Alfred.
“No! Nothink like it!” he scoffed. “I tell yer, one minute ’e’s got ’im by the arm and Sir William’s swinging that fist of ’is at ’im,”—the avidly listening servants all nodded: Sir William’s fist was well known in the district—“and next minute, splat! Against the wall, and Mistress’s little table in splinters under ’im!”
“Good for ’im,” noted Mrs Gutteridge, the cook, grimly.
“Eh? Oh, the Colonel! Too right, Mrs Gutteridge!”
“Did ’e get off ’ome, after that?” asked Michael, the head footman.
Alfred smirked. Michael had delegated the onerous duties of showing the young ladies’ too-frequent callers into the sitting-room and of answering the Colonel’s too-frequent bell to him. “No; ’e starts to get up, see, and says somethink rude like what you never ’eard, and the Colonel—’e was as cool as a cucumber right up to that minute, you never seen nothing like it—well, ’e turns red as fire and grabs ’im by the collar an’ shouts: ‘You are h’unfit to kiss the ’em of Miss Lucas’s garment, and never show yer face in this ’ouse again, yer dirty, rotten scoundrel!’ And twists ’is arm up again and drags ’im out to the front door with ’is very own ’ands and throws ’im down the steps! Now!”
There was a general sigh of appreciation and Wilkes admitted regretfully: “I wish I’d of seen it.”
“Serve you right for sitting in ’ere sopping up tea while some of us was working!” responded Alfred self-righteously.
“I was on duty! I was waiting for Miss to ring for the tea!” she cried indignantly.
“That she were,” conceded Mrs Gutteridge. “Did ’e break it?”
“What?” said Alfred feebly.
“’Is arm! Sir William’s arm, when ’e flung ’im out! Did ’e break it?”
“Not as such, I don’t think,” he admitted regretfully. “But ’e slunk off grabbing it, like this.” –Here he did a lifelike imitation of Sir William slinking off clutching his arm, to general noises of approval. And there was a unanimous expression of approbation for Colonel Ponsonby’s actions. Though after a moment Michael did note dubiously: “Can’t say as I can see the Colonel saying ‘yer dirty, rotten scoundrel,’ Alf.”
“Quite,” agreed Mr Harker weightily.
“N—Um, maybe ’e only said dirty scoundrel. But it was in there somewhere!” he said aggressively.
“We believe yer,” said Cook tolerantly. “Come on, now, yer might as well have a slice of fruit-cake—”
“One moment, Mrs Gutteridge, if you please,” said Mr Harker awfully, holding up a meaty hand. No-one of the Tamasha household had ever felt the weight of it, but in its way, it was every bit as feared as was Sir William’s hand. The younger members of the staff duly quailed. “Why, if I may make so bold as to enquire,” said the butler with awful irony, “were you not in there somewhere yourself, me lad?”
“I was,” he said limply. “I saw it all with me own eyes, Mr ’Arker.”
“Mr Harker,” corrected the butler, the H very aspirate. “Not that. Before. Unless I’m mistook, you heard Miss call out. Why did you not rush in there immediate?”
Alfred’s stammering attempts at self-exculpation were overridden by a masterful condemnation of his complete course of conduct during the afternoon, and the slice of her best fruit-cake, Cook was given to understand, would not be required. Resignedly Mrs Gutteridge offered it to the butler himself…
“Why didn’t you get in there?” asked Wilkes, when the door of his pantry had safely closed upon Mr Harker.
“Why do you think?” retorted Alfred with feeling. “Ruddy Sir William’s twice as ’eavy as me and ’alf again as tall!”
The younger servants conceded feelingly he had a point, though Wilkes did note: “The Colonel ain’t much bigger than what you are, Alf Bunnit.”
“So what?” he cried, turning scarlet. “’E’s got the knack!”
“’E’ll ’ave learnt it in India,” noted Mrs Gutteridge on a dry note. “Or that’s what them daft Black women’ll be claiming, mark my words.”
Michael nodded happily. “That Sushila, she’ll be right pleased to ’ear you left Miss Tess alone with ’im while you rushed off to fetch the Colonel! And lucky you are that Colonel Ponsonby didn’t ’aul you over the coals for it, as well!”
“That’ll do,” interposed Cook calmly, as Alfred turned bright red. “It turned out all right in the end, and what I say is, ’e’s a right-down gent to ’is boot-straps, and don’t no-one dare to say different in my kitchen!”
No-one had been going to, exactly, although certain remarks had been passed in re Lieutenant-Colonel Ponsonby’s awful coats. So certain persons avoided Cook’s eye. And that formidable lady noted: “And that’s the sitting-room bell, now: the Master’ll be sending for that Sushila to come down to Miss Tess, or my name’s not Martha Gutteridge. And if I’m not mistook, you’re still on duty, Alfred.”
Alfred scowled, but took himself off.
“Well,” concluded Cook, her massive form shaking slightly, “the Colonel must of said somethink to ’im, and I dunno what, but it’ll of been good, you mark my words!”
Cook was right, of course. Ponsonby sahib had stood at the top of Tamasha’s sufficiently imposing flight of steps, breathing hard, while the cowed Sir William, clutching the aforesaid arm, took himself off. At which point the over-excited Alfred had incautiously drawn attention to himself by crying: “Hurrah! You beat ’im ’ollow, sir!”
Ponsonby had turned slowly. “Mm. I shall not ask why my aid was requested. I doubt you could have dealt with a fellow of his size yourself. And I recognise that your earlier reference to the pink waistcoat was a hint that he had come to urge his suit upon Miss Tess, which I foolishly overlooked. But in future I would be extremely grateful if you would refrain from hinting, and just say right out what you mean. I think that will be all, thank you.”
After which he had gone back to the sitting-room, leaving the very red-faced footman to his reflections. It had been a full five minutes before Alfred Bunnit was sufficiently himself again to rush out to the back regions and report.
There! You had no idea our dearest Tiddy was such a mimic, had you? She has ever had an ear for languages and dialects, since she was a tot. –That is a very logical question, Matt: she knew what was said in the kitchen partly from Cook and partly from Wilkes, the parlourmaid. Very possibly your Mamma would say it was gossiping with the servants, though we are sorry to hear it. One should not forget that those who serve us are persons, too. Of course you would have thrown the horrid man down the steps, too, dearest boy, of course! Three cheers for Ponsonby sahib, indeed! Hip, hip, hooray!
Well, yes, Antoinette, Tess was upset, very naturally, but as you will gather, the episode’s repercussions were not altogether unfortunate for the household at Tamasha. Tess will tell you the next in her own words.
Tess Tells of the Aftermath of her Unfortunate Encounter with Sir William
I was sitting on the sofa, sobbing quietly, when Ponsonby sahib came in to me again. Much later I was to learn that the poor dear man was conscious of a certain irritation with me—and small wonder! What a goose! Well, I was not very old, and had never had to deal with a man of Sir William’s type before. Our dearest Ponsonby sahib sat down quietly beside me and put his arm round my shaking shoulders. After a moment he said quietly: “It was not so very dreadful, my dear.”
“He is so—horrid!” I shuddered.
“Well, yes,” he agreed temperately.
“I can assure you,” I said, “that I gave him no cause at all to believe his advances might be welcome, sir.”
“No,” he said slowly. “But I think you did not give him sufficient discouragement.”
“I—I could hardly be impolite.”
He did not tell me, as many men might at this juncture, that I could and should! “No, well, that type of man is not apt to take even the strongest of hints, so perhaps you might remember for the future that outright discouragement is the only tactic that will work. And it was not sensible to see him alone.”
“No. Alfred showed him in,” I said, sniffing into my very damp handkerchief.
Ponsonby sahib handed me his own handkerchief. “I know. I will instruct Harker in future to make quite sure that the servants all know that no gentlemen are to be shown in when any of you girls are alone.”
“I did not mean to imply,” I said quickly, “that it was Alfred’s fault; he is scarce more than a boy. And Tiddy was here, earlier; he probably thought she was still with me. It was just that once he was in here, I—um—was taken unawares.”
“Yes. Where is Mlle Dupont? Or my sister, come to that?” Mrs Wells and her elder son were still at Tamasha, but at least Mr Ned had gone. I explained that they, Tonie and Josie had driven into the village to call on Miss Partridge, at which he asked whether I did not wish to go, and I had to confess that poor Miss Partridge meant well, but her hints about Sir William had lately become embarrassing.
My unfortunate guardian at this replied: “Tess, if you could see that his attentions were becoming more marked, and even the little Partridge woman had remarked as much, why in God’s name did you not tell me?”
I could only say that I could not truly tell, but I that I supposed I hoped it would come to naught. And began to weep again in spite of myself.
“No, very well,” said the poor, dear man heavily. “Don’t cry. A kiss is not so very dreadful, after all.”
I shuddered and confessed: “He—he is gross! And he—he held me.”
—Mr Thomas, your reaction is understandable—and yours, too, dearest Matt, though running a man through for what is not, after all, a capital offence is somewhat harsh!
Now, Ponsonby sahib, though of course a man of right feeling, had the sense to appear unmoved by this awful revelation and in fact replied in a manner calculated to prevent a further hysterical outburst from me: “Men are apt to do that, when they kiss a female. Though I can understand you did not enjoy the sensation, when it was Sir William in question. Don’t worry, he will not show his face at Tamasha again.”
“No,” I said, smiling through my tears. “Thank you so much, Colonel!”
“It was my pleasure. Shall I ring for your woman?”
I should not have let him, but I did, and of course there ensued a half-hour of exclamation, lamentation and tears. It ended in Sushila Ayah’s prostrating herself at his feet and kissing them and Ponsonby sahib’s saying crossly in the woman’s own language: “That’s enough! The man merely kissed your mistress, and if you had the sense of a two-year-old child you would have warned her never to allow herself to be alone with a fellow of his type!” To which he of course received the reply that she had done so a lakh of times, but the huzzoor was perfectly correct, and she would tell the Missy baba again directly, if not sooner, and the defender of the poor was her father and her mother… Oh, dear! One can only conclude that dearest Ponsonby sahib deserved a medal!
—No, er, in this instance, not only for having punched Sir William and thrown him out, Matt, dearest boy! But, as Tiddy says, he did more or less receive Tamasha’s equivalent of a medal for valour, for when he retreated to his study the desk was seen to bear a silver tray containing a decanter of Madeira, a glass, and a giant slice of dark fruit-cake, the like of which he had never as yet been offered in our house. He had not ordered up these nor any other refreshments, but he duly ate and drank. It was wonderful cake, the sort his mother had been used to serve at Christmas. And from that day on, not a single word about the Colonel’s awful coats was to be heard in the kitchen of Tamasha, and Mrs Gutteridge’s best dark fruit-cake made a regular appearance whenever Colonel Ponsonby was present for tiffin!
Kindly our dear great-aunts agreed with Matt that the fruit-cake was indeed, almost as good as a “real” medal. Adding: But also, you see, the episode caused the servants not only to admire Ponsonby sahib but to accept him, instead of seeing him as some sort of feringhee interloper, and then, it showed our dear Tess what an excellent man he was! And Tonie, of course, when she told her of it, though his kindness and good sense over Mr Gordon-Smythe’s proposal had already given her more than an inkling. –The man who inherited Mountfoot Place, Matt. So terribly sad that his only son died at sea—and the brother, of course, had eight—or was it nine?—yes, nine daughters, but no sons, so the property went to a cousin in the end. Your Great-Aunt Tonie might have had it? But dearest boy, had she married Mr Gordon-Smythe, she would not have had the children she did and your generation would not be who you are and—and everything would be different! …Exactly, Matt: it is all tied together. You have a most logical mind, and that, we venture to suggest, you get from your paternal grandparents!
(A day or two later. Mr Thomas and Madeleine again visiting at Tamasha.) Such a delightful afternoon: perhaps we are to have a summer this year, after all! How lovely the climbers are in full leaf, and one is so comfortable out here on the terrace with the awnings up—yes, rather as one would in India, Madeleine. So who won the croquet match? Ah-hah! Said we not that our dear Matt is a demon with a croquet mallet, Mr Thomas? You know, days like this remind us so much of that summer at Tamasha after Ponsonby sahib came home… Tell more? Are you not sick of it yet, dear ones? Well— But where are the children? Pray do not say “locked up,” Matt, persons who do not know us would get quite the wrong impression! Well, if Nurse is seeing they have a rest, perhaps we might. –Thank you, Mr Thomas, but we have already had our share of the nimboo panee, so you energetic ones must share it amongst you. Of course he knows what it is, Matt! –Oh! Lemonade, Mr Thomas, though in India one would use limes instead, so much more refreshing and fragrant! Er, well, what followed Ponsonby sahib’s gallantry was largely callers and gossip, Matt—Very well, dear boy, write that down if you wish.
Ponsonby Sahib’s Gallantry Was Followed by Callers & Gossip (Matt’s heading)
We ladies and Colonel Ponsonby were taking tea on the terrace on a languid August afternoon. Ponsonby sahib had recently caused a succession of large awnings to be slung over this exposed area: although for most of the year it was too cold and windy to be a comfortable place to sit, during the warmest months it was far too hot: the flags seemed to concentrate the sun’s heat and reflect it back at one. It was, he had decided grimly, typical of his countrymen’s idea of grand architecture: designed to impress rather than to function, and thus as uncomfortable as possible. The only wonder was that those who had gone out to India had adopted the idea of the verandah instead of preferring to suffer! The awnings made the area very pleasant indeed, though there had been a terrible fuss about putting them up, most of the outdoor staff and half the indoor becoming involved.
“One apprehends,” said Mrs Forbes with a titter, working the eyelashes to great effect, “that the list of beaux presenting themselves at Tamasha has been diminished, lately! May one make so bold as to congratulate you on your gallantry, dear Colonel?”
We girls avoided one another’s eyes, as our guardian passed a plate of small cakes. “I sent Sir William Hathaway off with a flea in his ear for attempting to force his unwanted attentions on Tess, if that be what you mean.”
Somehow, as such women do, Forbes memsahib managed to take a cake, simper admiringly at him, direct a glance of spurious sympathy at Tess, and nod approval of the cake, all at the once.
“Indeed: it is all over the village, dear sir!” gushed Miss Bartlett, baring her horse-like teeth at him. “You were so brave!”
“One cannot imagine who could have spread the story, ma’am,” he said formally, passing her the cakes.
“Your Alfred told my Carter,” explained little old Miss Partridge, nodding her black silk bonnet with its three upstanding plumes—grey, black and white—at him. Dear Miss Partridge was accustomed to be a trifle overdressed for a small country village. True, next Forbes memsahib she paled into insignificance. Today it was apricot, with frills, bows, and bows on the frills, draped with trailing scarves, and topped off with apricot roses and feathers jostling for position on the girlish straw bonnet…
“After that,” said Mrs Forbes with a merry giggle worthy of a girl of sixteen, “it was all round the village!”
Young Adrian Forbes grinned. “Aye. Congratulations, sir. One gathers you used a cunning Indian trick to immobilise the fellow, not to say, leapin’ upon him like a tiger, meanwhile throwing him a cross-buttock worthy of the great Mendoza himself—”
“Stop it with this, Forbes,” said Ponsonby sahib heavily, passing him the dark fruit-cake.
Still grinning, Forbes took a slice. “Well, whatever it was, the word is that it was good!”
“Yes: the locals drank several rounds to your health, tactfully for unspecified reasons, in the tap t’other night,” added Mr Junius Brutus Partridge.
Alas, at this point Tiddy, who had held up wonderfully well this far, collapsed in giggles of the most agonising sort.
“Control yourself, Tiddy,” said our guardian unemotionally. “We all know that Sir William is unpopular in the neighbourhood.”
“Yes,” said Tonie grimly, directing a minatory look at the culprit. And, since poor Tess’s cheeks were now glowing, patting her hand comfortingly.
“Unspecified—reasons!” gasped Tiddy, collapsing again.
“Thanks, Miss Tiddy,” said Mr Partridge, grinning all over his fresh young face.
“It is true that since it happened,” said Josie on an eager note, “we have had a constant stream of persons appearing at the back door with offerings of goodness knows what!”
“Oh, certainement!” agreed Mlle Dupont brightly. “The housekeeper reports there have been eggs, several fowl, live or dressed I did not inquire, and pots of preserves, some of a more dubious variety which the good Cook would not care to offer the household, and quite bushels of green vegetables!”
“Lakhs of beans,” agreed Tiddy. “And some honeycombs from an anonymous person.”
Miss Bartlett gave a gasp and clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Well, yes,” Tiddy conceded, twinkling at her. “It probably was Mr Davey Bunnit: they came the day after, and he is Alfred’s uncle. But one is not mentioning the fact, you see.”
“Of course!” agreed Miss Partridge fervently, clasping her little claw-like hands together at her flat bosom, what time Miss Bartlett nodded her bony head very hard.
“I say!” said young Mr Forbes merrily. “Something is being kept from us, here, Brute!”
“Well, it is village gossip, sir,” said Josie on a wary note.
“Oh, but do tell!” cried Mrs Forbes, clasping her hands in the same way as Miss Partridge, but, oddly, with very much more effect.
“Mr Davey Bunnit is famed for his bees,” said Josie, eyeing Ponsonby sahib uncertainly.
“Tell it, Josie, we are all in dreadful suspense,” he murmured.
Brightening, Josie fluttered her eyelashes at the two young men, and proceeded: “You see, Sir William tried to bully Bunnit into supplying honey free to Hathaway Hall, for the bees had—um—grazed, well, that is not the word, but whatever bees do, you see, in his fields. But Bunnit refused, because it is not a tied cottage, and now that Will Bunnit has retired from his position, none of the family is dependent upon him.” She stopped, dimpling hopefully.
“I see,” said Mr Forbes kindly.
“Y—Um, was that it?” said Junius Brutus Partridge numbly.
“Oh, well, you see, they have been sworn enemies from that day forth!” she cooed.
“I see,” he said feebly.
“Josie is possibly the worst storyteller in the world, but those are the facts,” agreed Tiddy.
“Oh, absolutely, my dear! And the things Sir William has been heard to say about the poor man!” cried Miss Partridge, holding up her hands in horror.
“I get it, Aunt Myrtle,” said the young man, smiling.
“But of course! One quite sees, Josie, my dear,” cooed Mrs Forbes.
As the last fluttering apricot frill vanished, quite some time later in the day, our naughty Tiddy, alas, did not hesitate to rub salt in poor Ponsonby sahib’s wounds. “Oh, my dear guardian! You were so brave!”
“Stop that, Tiddy,” said the poor man. “—Might I beg you ladies, the next time Forbes memsahib arrives in full panoply, to count me out of the tea party?”
“Of course, Colonel,” agreed Tess. “And I do beg your pardon.”
“But Cook doesn’t give us the dark fruit-cake if you’re not with us!” cried Tiddy in anguish.
Ponsonby had been about to go indoors. He paused. “Ah. Then I gather it was you who sent me an urgent message informing me that Tess was receiving visitors on the terrace?”
Tiddy went dark red and cried angrily: “So? She was!”
“Yes. The implication was that she was alone. I know that both of the footmen are witless: that does not mean you should take advantage of the fact.”
“You only had to stick your head out to see that she was not—”
“Quite. Sighting Forbes memsahib and being sighted by her, and then beating a hasty retreat?” he suggested icily.
Tiddy scowled. “No.”
“No. Find yourself something to occupy your mind, Tiddy. Mlle Dupont, perhaps you could set her to a course of reading for the rest of the summer?”
“Certainly, monsieur. What would you suggest?” responded the little retired governess primly.
His eyes twinkled. “What about the French classics? Racine?”
“I hate old Racine!” cried Tiddy angrily. “He is a tedious old bore!”
“No, I fancy you are thinking of old Corneille,” he said courteously.—Dear Mademoiselle choked, and clapped a hand to her mouth.—“Racine it shall be, then, until you make the discovery that he is not an old bore,” he said, opening the French door. He paused. “Where is Catherine, this afternoon? Or was she favoured with advance warning of the invasion?”
“She has driven over to call on Lady Gordon-Smythe,” said Tonie on a grim note.
“Then I can only apologise for her, Tonie,” he said courteously, going indoors.
In his wake we four Lucas sisters exchanged uncertain glances, what time Mlle Dupont remained expressionless.
Eventually Tonie said grimly: “You asked for every syllable of that, Tiddy.”
“Yes, and in any case, Cook would give you fruit-cake any time you care to ask her, we all know you are her favourite,” noted Josie nastily.
“Pooh! I hate him! I don’t care if he did knock horrible old Sir William down! And I hate old Racine, and I won’t do it!” screamed Tiddy, turning scarlet and rushing indoors.
“I must apologise for Tiddy, Mademoiselle,” said Tess stiffly.
“Not at all, my dear; her behaviour is scarce your responsibility,” she replied brightly. “Dear me! It is all food for thought, is it not?”
“Er—is it?” said Tonie limply, since Tess merely gave Mademoiselle a bewildered look and Josie shrugged and pouted.
“Mais si. Obviously he did not care to have his gallantry discussed by those silly women, but that is a nothing. He was certainly not pleased by Tiddy’s deception, but nevertheless I think the Racine was a— Bother, I have forgot the English expression! Eugh—Over… Ah! Overreaction!” she said brightly. “An overreaction to the situation, non?”
“He does not care to see Tiddy practise anything underhand,” said Tess faintly.
“No, indeed, my dear, you are so vairy right! And she does not care, I think, to see him so vairy clearly in your good books!”
Tess stared at her. “Dear Mademoiselle, when he was so very gallant and—and supportive of me? How could I not feel the utmost gratitude to him?”
“Exactly,” said Tonie, putting a supporting arm round her sister’s waist and attempting to give Mademoiselle a minatory look.
Our dear Mlle Dupont was impervious to minatory looks, we assure you! “Oh, quite, my dear,” she said in a pleased voice, trotting inside.
After a moment Tonie noted grimly: “If she was implying what I think she was—”
“Tiddy has always been her favourite,” said Josie crossly, “and it is plain as the nose on your face that she intends her for him!”
“My dears, what are you talking about?” quavered Tess. “First Tiddy is Cook’s favourite, and now Mademoiselle’s?”
Frowning, Tonie replied: “That is true enough. But Josie’s implication is that Tiddy was so naughty and rude today because she does not like the fact that you are softening towards Colonel Ponsonby.”
After a moment Tess went very red and gasped: “No! It is not like that at all!”
“So you don’t want him?” asked Tonie bluntly.
“No,” said Tess, tears in her eyes, pressing a handkerchief to her mouth. “How could you, Tonie?”
“Very well, then. I shall say no more,” she said stiffly.
Trying to smile, Miss Lucas hastened indoors.
“Why are you so upset?” demanded Tonie baldly of the pouting Josie. “Have you decided he is not so old and ugly, after all?”
“No!” she shouted angrily. “He is old and ugly! But it is plain as the nose on your face that Tiddy is his favourite, too! And all that stuff about silly old French books was just a nothing! And if she is to have his share of Papa’s fortune as well, it is not fair!” She burst into tears and rushed inside, sobbing loudly.
“Jealous,” said Tonie drily to herself. “Well, that is nothing new. Added to which, Mr Forbes did not invite her to drive out with him this afternoon.” She took up her stitchery.
A few moments passed peacefully, and then Sushila Ayah rushed out and broke into agitated speech. Missy Tess baba was upset, and what had they been saying in front of her—
“No-one said anything, you silly woman,” said Tonie sourly—perforce in the ayah’s language, Sushila’s English being apt to desert her in times of stress, that was, most of the time. “And no-one is forcing her to take Ponsonby sahib. Go away.”
Weeping and attempting to kiss Missy Tonie’s foot, Sushila represented to her that Missy Tess was turning into an old woman before their eyes, etcetera, and so forth. Devotedness, Dr Goodenough, Goodenough memsahib, Forbes memsahib, and Ponsonby sahib’s fortune all being in there somewhere.
“Go away,” said Tonie clearly. “Missy Tess shall not take Ponsonby sahib if she cannot care for him. And Dr Goodenough is a fool, but a fool does not necessarily make a bad husband. Now, GET OUT!”
Snuffling, Sushila Ayah got.
Tonie stitched on grimly…
We learned very much later that Ponsonby sahib had heard it all: his study window was open. He grimaced to himself. “Yes… ” he said vaguely, half under his breath.
Not as funny as all that, Matt? Er, no, dear boy. Do you wish to run and pl—No. Then just pop inside and ring the bell: we shall order up some refreshment. Your Great-Aunt Tonie has shewn the good Cook how to make the savoury biscuits which we call sev guttiah—though without the aniseed which our Sushila Ayah was used to add, as most of the family dislike it.
Sev Guttiah (Savoury “Worms”)
In India these small, savoury biscuits are eaten as we might savoury cheese biscuits, for they do not know our English cheddar.
Sieve 6 oz. of besan [chickpea flour] with 1 teaspoon each of turmerick, chilli powder or cayenne, & salt. Rub in 2 oz. of ghee [or oil] & add 1/2 teaspoon of aniseed (if liked) & 1 teaspoon black pepper. Gradually add 1/4 pint of water, mixing well to a dough. Knead well for at least 5 minutes. Rest for an hour. Then put it into a forcing bag with a nozzle about 1/8 inch in diameter. Heat some clean oil in a frying pan. When a small lump of dough immediately sizzles in it & comes to the surface, it is ready. Squeeze long strips of dough into the fat & fry until golden brown & crisp. Very good served hot, and will store well in an airtight tin for several weeks.
No, there are no sujee biscuits today, Matt: do you not remember what your Mamma said? John told you there are cocoanut cakes, instead? Er—yes, there are. –Indian style, Madeleine. Cook was very pleased to have the receet, for the children’s Uncle Henry has sent a great deal of desiccated cocoanut and there are so few English receets that call for it. –There you are, John. Please ask Cook to send up the savoury sev biscuits—yes, the ones that look like hard little brown worms, quite right! And a plate of the narial—er, cocoanut cakes, she will know. And some more nimboo panee, and perhaps a pot of the new tea that Mr Henry sent? Thank you, John. –And while he is fetching it all, you shall hear of our dear Tiddy’s second proposal!
Miss Angèle Lucas Receives The Fourth of the Flattering Proposals at Tamasha
(The story largely in Great-Aunt Tiddy’s own words)
Miss Angèle was discovered in picturesque pose—sprig muslin, picture hat and all—under a large old tree. Mr George Gordon-Smythe, not having taken Tonie’s tepid reception of his brother’s offer as a hint unto himself, approached eagerly. “Good afternoon, Miss Tiddy! What a picture you present, if I may say so! What are you reading: some pretty novel, is it?”
It was Andromaque. Tiddy had not been exposed to it since the age of fifteen, and she was now enjoying it tremendously. “Nothing,” she said hastily.
Smiling eagerly, he came to sit beside her. Fortunately she had a rug, so his good buckskins were not at risk of green smears. “I say! You are not half clever!” he said admiringly, eyeing the volume. “Don’t read of a word of the stuff, meself!”
“No? But have you not just lately come down from Oxford?” said Tiddy, recollecting her self-appointed rôle and achieving a coo almost in the Forbes memsahib class.
“Oh, rather! Jolly good fun, y’know! But one does not do this sort of stuff there, y’see! It was all Greek and Latin: fubsy stuff, won’t bore a young lady with it!”
“No? I know some Latin,” said Tiddy dulcetly, fluttering the lashes. “‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’.” She glanced at the flowers he was holding. “That is Horace, I think?”
The deceived Mr George gave a superior laugh. “No, no! That is the great Virgil!”
“Oh, yes? Was not the reference to the Trojan horse?” she cooed, eyeing the flowers.
“Oh, exactly! Well done! –I say, do allow me to present this little token!” he beamed.
She looked at the bulging pale blue eyes, the reddish English skin and the abundant light brown, wavy hair with dislike, and accepting the flowers with a simper, removed the picture hat and began inserting blooms into its riband.
Mr George watched with a pleased smirk. “Delightful!” he beamed as she replaced the hat.
“You are flattering me, I fear,” rejoined Tiddy, fluttering her lashes and wondering if she was going to scream.
“No one could!” replied Mr George fervently, seizing her hand. “I say, Miss Tiddy, you must be aware of my very great admiration.”
“No,” said Tiddy baldly.
He blinked. “Eh?”
“No,” she repeated, withdrawing her hand from his unpleasantly warm and sweaty one.
“Er—oh! Allow me to say that it is in fact much more than admiration; much warmer indeed!” he urged, getting rather close to her.
“Pooh. It has always seemed to me that you admire Josie much more than myself. Though I suppose I am an easier target, since she has so many beaux.”
“Whuh-what? No such thing! It has always been yourself: surely you cannot be unaware of my growing devotion?” he urged eagerly, edging towards her again.
“Mr Gordon-Smythe, please stop this edging,” said Tiddy on a grim note. “You are pushing me off the rug.”
“What— Oh! Beg pardon, I’m sure! Would not discommode you, of all people in the world!” He seized her hand again. “Pray allow me to express my undying devotion!”
“Ugh!” cried Tiddy, jerking back in startled distaste as he then kissed the hand warmly.
Mr George gave her a hurt, surprised look, but rallied. “I dare say that was too precipitate for an inexperienced little maiden like yourself, but you must forgive the natural fervour of a man who admires you, nay, I venture to say, loves you deeply with every fibre of his being!”
Tiddy got up, scowling. “What a lie. –Do not bother to say any more, for inexperienced though I am, I can see that every syllable of that last speech was rehearsed! If you had any true feelings for me at all, you would not care to prepare a speech!”
Young Mr George also scrambled up. “Yes, I would!” he cried indignantly. “You don't understand what a fellow may feel at such a moment! Every fellow is nervous, y’know, when he pops the question!”
Tiddy paused. “Well, yes. But I’m sorry: there was no feeling apparent to me in that speech, nervous or not. And if this is an offer, I am refusing it.”
“Of course it is an offer!” he said crossly.
“Then I repeat, I am refusing it. And I dare say one ought to say one is flattered, at least I am sure I have read a scene in a book where a lady did, but as I am not, I shall not say so. You may go home and tell your mother that you have even less hope of me than your brother does of Tonie.”
“I say! That ain’t fair!” he cried loudly.
“It’s true, though. And if Lady Gordon-Smythe refuses to let Miss Gordon-Smythe and Miss Mary visit ever again, I should be very glad if you would tell them both that I am sorry for it. –Don’t dare to take my hand again!” she cried as he reached for it.
“You might at least hear a fellow out!” cried the now perspiring, red-faced Mr George.
“No, because it will be all lies. You never looked twice at me before Miss Partridge spread it all round the district that Ponsonby sahib is come home to marry one of us and let the rest of us have our fortunes. Go away before I scream!” cried Tiddy angrily.
“But I do love you!” he cried.
Tiddy put her hands over her ears, opened her mouth, and screwed her eyes tight shut.
At this point even George Gordon-Smythe perceived that the thing was useless. “Very well, I’m going; but it’s true!” he said crossly.
“I shall scream,” she warned.
Hastily Mr George beat a retreat.
“Pooh!” said Tiddy with a scornful toss of her head as the buckskins vanished round the corner of the house. “Piffling!” She sat down again and took up the Racine. “Ooh, wonderful: like a drink of cold water,” she said to herself with satisfaction, as she reached the end of her page. Smiling, she turned over…
There! And we trust you will not claim Great-Aunt Tiddy is heartless, Antoinette. Quite right, dear: just his amour propre! –You do not wish ever to marry a lady at all, Matt? No boy of your age ever did!—He was the man who later had the nine daughters, yes, Madeleine, but they were destined not to be Tiddy’s!—A frightful fellow, Mr Thomas? Alas, we all thought so, in our youth, but poor innocent Mr George, he was so sure his suit could not fail... Yes, Matt, dear boy, hand Madeleine the narial cakes, that’s right!
Narial Cakes [Coconut Cakes]
Take equal amounts of cocoanut and soft brown sugar with about 2/3 the quantity of mixed chopped almonds and cashoo nuts. If none are to hand, all almonds may be used. Say, if a cup of narial is used, 2/3 of a cup of nuts. To a cup of the cocoanut add half a cup of boiling water or a little more. Stir briskly, & leave it to sit for an hour. Strain the liquid through double muslin, squeezing hard to release all the cocoanut milk. Fry the dry cocoanut gently in 2 good spoonfuls of ghee, stirring until it browns, but it must not burn. Stir in 2 egg yolks mixed with a little of the cocoanut milk, all of the sugar, and a teaspoonful each of ground jaffatree [mace] & cinnamon, & 2 of finely grated nutmeg. Cook a little while, stirring, add the rest of the cocoanut milk, boil to a porridge-like consistency. Stir in the nuts & cook until ready to set, when it is spooned into a greased dish. Make sure to smooth out evenly. Mark up in squares & leave to cool. Then cut up & serve.
Now, what do you think, Madeleine? …We love them, too, though not many of the children’s parents generation care for the flavour of jaffatree. Very well, dear, if you are sure your Mamma would care for the receet, Antoinette shall write it out. And if she has no cocoanut, we may send over a supply. Almost a ton, yes, Matt! It is a receet from South India in origin, and as Tess learnt it, starts off: “Take a nice fresh cocoanut.” No, no, the desiccated does as well! Not baked at all, no: one does not have to judge the temperature of one’s oven or anything of that sort: Indian cakes are so much easier to make than English ones! Tell your Mamma they keep well for a fortnight or so in an airtight tin, Madeleine. –Not in our house? No, indeed, Matt! And if none of the adults wishes for it, you may have the last one!
(The following evening.) But Antoinette, dearest, we thought that you were to favour us with the new piece, this evening? Dear girl, just because your parents are dining out tonight is no reason to neglect your music. Now, come along! …That was lovely, dearest. Indeed, you have quite your Grandmamma’s lightness of touch: Josie used to play those little Mozart pieces so prettily. Er, yes, she was determined to send to her hopeful admirer to the rightabout, but have you not had enough of our silly swains? Very well, then, dear: fetch your pencil and notebook.
Now, this is what we had both from Josie herself and, much later, from our dear Ponsonby sahib. We shall tell it as a tale you might read in a book, for so it seems to us, so many years later. Amusing—yes, Antoinette, but a little sad also, as you will see.
The Fifth Proposal: Miss Joséphine’s Admirer Presses His Suit
On the evening in question Josie, giggling horridly and fluttering the lashes so that they resembled nothing so much as the blooms on a ginger bush being lashed by the monsoonal winds, allowed the smirking Graham Wells to take her off to observe the art of billiards as demonstrated by his manly self.
“Catherine, will you step into my study for a moment?” said Ponsonby sahib, rising.
His sister followed him with a very cautious look on her thin face.
“Josie,” said Ponsonby without preamble once she was seated, “is encouraging Graham for the pleasure of tossing him aside as she would an old shoe.”
Catherine went very red.
“Certainly she is a vain little Miss. On the other hand, Graham is a self-serving ass.”
“What do you have against us?” she cried bitterly.
He paused. “I’m sorry. Nothing, really. Merely the fact that you and your sons seem to expect they may walk into this house and take a Lucas daughter as and when they please.”
“But we are your family!” she cried with tears in her eyes.
“Catherine,” he said heavily, “that makes it worse. Cannot you see that it would be entirely dishonourable to allow my connections to become affianced to my wards when I know they do not care the snap of their fingers for them?”
“That may come in time. Certainly Graham sincerely admires Josie. And such things are quite accepted,” she said tightly, the chiselled nostrils flickering. “You have no right to address me in such terms, Gil.”
“I have every right,” he said with a sigh. “Think about it.” He held the door for her.
Catherine rose, her lips tight. “So you will not permit it, an she accepts him?”
“She will not accept him. She may refer him to me, in which case I shall refuse on her behalf. But an she did accept him, rest assured I should never permit it. Please do not make me lose my temper.”
His sister’s fists clenched. “Lose your temper? I cannot recall your doing so since the age of two! You are the most coldly calculating creature that ever walked, Gilbert Ponsonby, and unfeeling and unnatural into the bargain! Graham can offer that vulgar little cit’s daughter an excellent name and a handsome estate, and if you think that any Lord This, That or t’Other will come up to scratch, you have another think coming! We shall leave this house first thing tomorrow!”
“Very well,” he said calmly.
Breathing heavily, his sister walked off.
Ponsonby hesitated and then went along to the billiards room.
As he went in, Miss Josie was just fluting: “Oh! I cannot imagine what I have done to give you to suppose that your advances would be welcome, sir!”
“I can,” he noted drily, “but on the other hand, I can also see that you meant none of it. Graham, you will not pay your addresses to any of my wards.”
“What do you mean?” he gasped, turning purple.
“You are not in love with Josie, and she, I collect, is not in love with you. Is that right, Josie?” he said sternly.
Alas, Miss Joséphine failed to sustain her part, and collapsed in helpless giggles, shaking the golden ringlets terrifically. “No!” she managed to gasp through the giggles.
“No, quite. In the case she did want you, I should require a long engagement, during which you would be required to show your mettle, not to say, prove yourself worthy of her.” He did his best to ignore her renewed bursts of giggles and added: “But the question don’t arise.”
“Uncle Gil, surely you are jesting,” said Graham hoarsely.
“No. Does that look like a blushing maiden ready to receive your addresses? –No. I have already had a word with your mother, and she is expecting you to be ready to leave first thing tomorrow. You had best go and see to your packing.”
“Sir, I think you do not realise, and Miss Josie does not realise, what I can offer—”
“She don’t want a mere mister, and if you haven’t realised that by this time, you are an even greater noddy than I took you for. Go,” said Ponsonby brutally, holding the door wide.
“I shall not give up,” said Graham feebly.
“Pooh!” squeaked Josie, collapsing in yet another paroxysm. “Go away!”
Scowling, Graham went.
Ponsonby sahib eyed his red-faced, shaking ward tolerantly. “I suppose I should not encourage you. But since his heart was not involved— Just tell me this: how many of ’em have you turned down in such summary fashion?”
“Dozens, dear sir!” she gasped.
“Mm. Well, the Wellses are leaving. You—uh—you’d best go and tell your sisters all about it,” he said limply, holding the door for her.
Beaming, Josie danced off to do so.
Hurriedly Ponsonby sahib closed the door of the billiards room. Then he broke down and laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. Though subsequently he was driven to mutter: “Well, she is as hard-hearted and self-seeking as both Graham and Ned rolled into one. And not much brighter. But really: not to be able to see the difference between a girl who wants them and one who is merely leading them on—?” Shaking his head, he drifted over to the window, pulled the curtain aside and looked out into the velvety night which had now descended on the spreading lawns of Tamasha.
“I suppose,” he owned at last with a grimace, “that they have never known the real thing, poor young devils. For as far as I can see, young women of their class are as much in the business of hunting down a suitable face and fortune as the male side could ever be. And in spite of the giggles, just as cold-blooded and cold-headed about it. Well, I can protect his girls from the fortune-hunters, as no doubt Henry intended, but if he imagined I’d be capable of protecting them from themselves…” He sighed, and leant his forehead against the cool glass of the pane.