Read CHAPTER VII. of The Bertrams Volume II, free online book, by Anthony Trollope, on ReadCentral.com.

MISS TODD’S CARD-PARTY.

Yes.  The great Miss Todd had arrived at Littlebath, and had already been talked about not a little.  Being a maiden lady, with no family but her one own maid, she lived in lodgings of course.  People at Littlebath, indeed, are much given to lodgings.  They are mostly a come-and-go class of beings, to whom the possession of furniture and the responsibilities of householding would be burdensome.  But then Miss Todd’s lodgings were in the Paragon, and all the world knows how much it costs to secure eligible rooms in the Paragon:  two spacious sitting-rooms, for instance, a bedroom, and a closet for one’s own maid.  And Miss Todd had done this in the very best corner of the Paragon; in that brazen-faced house which looks out of the Paragon right down Montpellier Avenue as regards the front windows, and from the back fully commands the entrance to the railway station.  This was Mrs. O’Neil’s house; and, as Mrs. O’Neil herself loudly boasted when Miss Todd came to inspect the premises, she rarely took single ladies, or any ladies that had not handles to their names.  Her very last lodger had been Lady McGuffern, the widow of the medical director of the great Indian Eyesore district, as Mrs. O’Neil called it.  And Lady McGuffern had paid her, oh! ever so much per week; and had always said on every Saturday ­“Mrs. O’Neil, your terms for such rooms as these are much too low.”  It is in such language that the widows of Scotch doctors generally speak of their lodgings when they are paying their weekly bills.

And these rooms Miss Todd had secured.  She had, moreover, instantly sent for Mr. Wutsanbeans, who keeps those remarkably neat livery stables at the back of the Paragon, and in ten minutes had concluded her bargain for a private brougham and private coachman in demi-livery at so much per week.  “And very wide awake she is, is Miss Todd,” said the admiring Mr. Wutsanbeans, as he stood among his bandy-legged satellites.  And then her name was down at the assembly-rooms, and in the pump-room, and the book-room, and in the best of sittings in Mr. O’Callaghan’s fashionable church, in almost less than no time.  There were scores of ladies desirous of being promoted from the side walls to the middle avenues in Mr. O’Callaghan’s church; for, after all, what is the use of a French bonnet when stuck under a side wall?  But though all these were desirous, and desirous in vain, Miss Todd at once secured a place where her head was the cynosure of all the eyes of the congregation.  Such was Miss Todd’s power, and therefore do we call her great.

And in a week’s time the sound of her loud but yet pleasant voice, and the step of her heavy but yet active foot, and the glow of her red cherry cheek were as well known on the esplanade as though she were a Littlebathian of two months’ standing.  Of course she had found friends there, such friends as one always does find at such places ­dear delightful people whom she had met some years before for a week at Ems, or sat opposite to once at the hotel table at Harrowgate for a fortnight.  Miss Todd had a very large circle of such friends; and, to do her justice, we must say that she was always glad to see them, and always treated them well.  She was ready to feed them at all times; she was not candid or malicious when backbiting them; she never threw the burden of her pleasures on her friends’ shoulders ­as ladies at Littlebath will sometimes do.  She did not boast either of her purse or her acquaintance; and as long as she was allowed to do exactly what she liked she generally kept her temper.  She had an excellent digestion, and greatly admired the same quality in other people.  She did not much care what she said of others, but dearly liked to have mischief spoken of herself.  Some one once had said ­or very likely no one had said it, but a soupçon of a hint had in some way reached her own ears ­that she had left Torquay without paying her bills.  It was at any rate untrue, but she had sedulously spread the report; and now wherever she ordered goods, she would mysteriously tell the tradesman that he had better inquire about her in Devonshire.  She had been seen walking one moonlight night with a young lad at Bangor:  the lad was her nephew; but some one had perhaps jested about Miss Todd and her beau, and since that time she was always talking of eloping with her own flesh and blood.

But Miss Todd was not a bad woman.  She spent much in feeding those who perhaps were not hungry; but she fed the hungry also:  she indulged a good deal in silk brocades; but she bought ginghams as well, and calicos for poor women, and flannel petticoats for motherless girls.  She did go to sleep sometimes in church, and would sit at a whist-table till two o’clock of a Sunday morning; but having been selected from a large family by an uncle as his heir, she had divided her good things with brothers and sisters, and nephews and nieces.  And so there were some hearts that blessed her, and some friends who loved her with a love other than that of her friends of Littlebath and Ems, of Jerusalem and Harrowgate.

And she had loved in her early days, and had been told and had believed that she was loved.  But evidence had come to her that her lover was a scamp ­a man without morals and without principle; and she had torn herself away from him.  And Miss Todd had offered to him money compensation, which the brute had taken; and since that, for his sake, or rather for her love’s sake, she had rejected all further matrimonial tenders, and was still Miss Todd:  and Miss Todd she intended to remain.

Being such as she was, the world of Littlebath was soon glad to get about her.  Those who give suppers at their card-parties are not long in Littlebath in making up the complement of their guests.  She had been there now ten days, and had already once or twice mustered a couple of whist-tables; but this affair was to be on a larger scale.

Miss Baker she had not yet seen, nor Miss Waddington.  The ladies had called on each other, but had missed fire on both occasions; but with Sir Lionel she had already renewed her intimacy on very affectionate terms.  They had been together for perhaps three days at Jerusalem, but then three days at Jerusalem are worth a twelvemonth in such a dull, slow place as London.  And Sir Lionel, therefore, and Miss Todd had nearly rushed into each other’s arms; and they both, without any intentional falsehood, were talking of each other all over Littlebath as old and confidential friends.

And now for Miss Todd’s party.  Assist me, my muse.  Come down from heaven, O, Calliope my queen! and aid me to spin with my pen a long discourse.  Hark! do you hear? or does some fond delusion mock me?  I seem to hear, and to be already wandering through those sacred recesses ­the drawing-rooms, namely, at Littlebath ­which are pervious only to the streams and breezes of good society.

Miss Todd stood at her drawing-room door as her guests were ushered in, not by the greengrocer’s assistant, but by the greengrocer himself in person.  And she made no quiet little curtsies, whispered no unmeaning welcomes with bated breath.  No; as they arrived she seized each Littlebathian by the hand, and shook that hand vigorously.  She did so to every one that came, rejoiced loudly in the coming of each, and bade them all revel in tea and cake with a voice that demanded and received instant obedience.

“Ah, Lady Longspade! this is kind.  I am delighted to see you.  Do you remember dear Ems, and the dear Kursaal?  Ah, me!  Well, do take some tea now, Lady Longspade.  What, Miss Finesse ­well ­well ­well.  I was thinking of Ostend only the other day.  You’ll find Flounce there with coffee and cake and all that.  You remember my woman, Flounce, don’t you?  Mrs. Fuzzybell, you really make me proud.  But is not Mr. Fuzzybell to be here?  Oh, he’s behind is he? well ­I’m so glad.  Ha! ha! ha!  A slow coach is he?  I’ll make him faster.  But perhaps you won’t trust him to me, I’m such a dangerous creature.  I’m always eloping with some one.  Who knows but I might go off with Mr. Fuzzybell?  We were near it you know at the end of that long walk at Malvern ­only he seemed too tired ­ha! ha! ha!  There’s tea and cake there, Mrs. Fuzzybell.  My dear Sir Lionel, I am delighted.  I declare you are five years younger ­we are both five years younger than when we were at Jerusalem.”

And so forth.  But Sir Lionel did not pass on to the tea-tables as did the Finesses and the Longspades.  He remained close at Miss Todd’s elbow, as though his friendship was of a more enduring kind than that of others, as though he were more to Miss Todd than Mrs. Fuzzybell, nearer than Miss Ruff who had just been assured at her entrance that the decks should be made ready for action almost at once.  A lion-hearted old warrior was Miss Ruff, ­one who could not stand with patience the modern practice of dallying in the presence of her enemies’ guns.  She had come there for a rubber of whist ­to fight the good fight ­to conquer or to die, and her soul longed to be at it.  Wait but one moment longer, Miss Ruff, and the greengrocer and I will have done with our usherings, and then the decks shall be cleared.

But we must certainly do the honours for our old friend Miss Baker.  Miss Todd, when she saw her, looked as though she would have fallen on her neck and kissed her; but she doubtless remembered that their respective head-dresses might suffer in the encounter.

“At last, dear Miss Baker; at last!  I am so delighted; but where is Miss Waddington? where is the bride-elect?” These last words were said in a whisper which was not perhaps quite as plainly audible at the other side of the Paragon as were the generality of Miss Todd’s speeches.  “Indisposed!  Why is she indisposed? you mean that she has love-letters to write.  I know that is what you mean.”  And the roar again became a whisper fit for Drury Lane.  “Well, I shall make a point of seeing her to-morrow.  Do you remember Jehoshaphat, dear Jehoshaphat?” And then having made her little answers, Miss Baker also passed on, and left Miss Todd in the act of welcoming the Rev. Mr. O’Callaghan.

Miss Baker passed on, but she did so slowly.  She had to speak to Sir Lionel, who kept his place near Miss Todd’s shoulder; and perhaps she had some secret hope ­no, not hope; some sort of an anticipation ­that her dear friend would give her the benefit of his arm for a few moments.  But Sir Lionel did nothing of the kind.  He took her hand with his kindest little squeeze, asked with his softest voice after his dear Caroline, and then let her pass on by herself.  Miss Baker was a bird easily to be lured to her perch, ­or to his.  Sir Lionel felt that he could secure her at any time.  Therefore, he determined to attach himself to Miss Todd for the present.  And so Miss Baker walked on alone, perhaps a little piqued at being thus slighted.

It was a strange sight to see the Rev. Mr. O’Callaghan among that worldly crowd of pleasure-seeking sinners.  There were, as we have said, three sets of people at Littlebath.  That Miss Todd, with her commanding genius and great power of will, should have got together portions of two of them was hardly to be considered wonderful.  Both the fast and heavy set liked good suppers.  But it did appear singular to the men and women of both these sets that they should find themselves in the same room with Mr. O’Callaghan.

Mr. O’Callaghan was not exactly the head and font of piety at Littlebath.  It was not on his altars, not on his chiefly, that hecatombs of needlework were offered up.  He was only senior curate to the great high-priest, to Dr. Snort himself.  But though he was but curate, he was more perhaps to Littlebath ­to his especial set in Littlebath ­than most rectors are to their own people.

Mr. O’Callaghan was known to be condescending and mild under the influence of tea and muffins ­sweetly so if the cream be plentiful and the muffins soft with butter; but still, as a man and a pastor, he was severe.  In season and out of season he was hot in argument against the devil and all his works.  He was always fighting the battle with all manner of weapons.  He would write letters of killing reproach to persons he had never known, and address them by post to ­

“John Jones, Esq., The Sabbath-breaker, 5 Paradise Terrace, Littlebath.”

or ­

   “Mrs. Gambler Smith,
   2 Little Paragon,
   Littlebath.”

Nothing was too severe for him.  One may say that had he not been a clergyman, and therefore of course justified in any interference, he would have been kicked from Littlebath to London and back again long since.  How then did it come to pass that he was seen at Miss Todd’s party?  The secret lay in Miss Todd’s unbounded power.  She was not as other Littlebathians.  When he unintentionally squeezed her hand, she squeezed his in return with somewhat of a firmer grasp.  When, gently whispering, he trusted that she was as well in spirit as in body, she answered aloud ­and all the larger Paragon heard her ­that she was very well in both, thank God.  And then, as her guests pressed in, she passed him on rapidly to the tea and cake, and to such generous supplies of cream as Mrs. Flounce, in her piety, might be pleased to vouchsafe to him.

“What, Mr. O’Callaghan!” said Sir Lionel into Miss Todd’s ear, in a tone of well-bred wonder and triumphant admiration.  “Mr. O’Callaghan among the sinners!  My dear Miss Todd, how will he like the whist-tables?”

“If he does not like them, he must just do the other thing.  If I know anything of Miss Ruff, a whole college of O’Callaghans would not keep her from the devil’s books for five minutes longer.  Oh, here is Lady Ruth Revoke, my dear Lady Ruth, I am charmed to see you.  When, I wonder, shall we meet again at Baden Baden?  Dear Baden Baden!  Flounce, green tea for Lady Ruth Revoke.”  And so Miss Todd continued to do her duty.

What Miss Todd had said of her friend was quite true.  Even then Miss Ruff was standing over a card-table, with an open pack in her hands, quite regardless of Mr. O’Callaghan.  “Come, Lady Longspade,” she said, “we are wasting time sadly.  It is ever so much after nine.  I know Miss Todd means us to begin.  She told me so.  Suppose we sit down?”

But Lady Longspade merely muttered something and passed on.  In the first place, she was not quite so eager as was Miss Ruff; and in the next, Miss Ruff was neither the partner nor the opponent with whom she delighted to co-operate.  Lady Longspade liked to play first-fiddle at her own table; but Miss Ruff always played first-fiddle at her table, let the others be whom they might; and she very generally played her tunes altogether “con spirito.”

Miss Ruff saw how Lady Longspade passed on, but she was nothing disconcerted.  She was used to that, and more than that.  “Highty-tighty!” was all she said.  “Well, Mrs. Garded, I think we can manage without her ladyship, can’t we?” Mrs. Garded said that she thought they might indeed, and stood by the table opposite to Miss Ruff.  This was Mrs. King Garded, a widow of great Littlebathian repute, to whom as a partner over the green table few objected.  She was a careful, silent, painstaking player, one who carefully kept her accounts, and knew well that the monthly balance depended mainly, not on her good, but on her bad hands.  She was an old friend, and an old enemy of Miss Ruff’s.  The two would say very spiteful things to each other, things incredible to persons not accustomed to the card-tables of Littlebath.  But, nevertheless, they were always willing to sit together at the same rubber.

To them came up smirking little Mr. Fuzzybell.  Mr. Fuzzybell was not great at whist, nor did he much delight in it; but, nevertheless, he constantly played.  He was taken about by his wife to the parties, and then he was always caught and impaled, and generally plucked and skinned before he was sent home again.  He never disported at the same table with his wife, who did not care to play either with him or against him; but he was generally caught by some Miss Ruff, or some Mrs. King Garded, and duly made use of.  The ladies of Littlebath generally liked to have one black coat at the table with them.  It saved them from that air of destitution which always, in their own eyes, attaches to four ladies seated at a table together.

“Ah, Mr. Fuzzybell,” said Miss Ruff, “you are the very person we are looking for.  Mrs. Garded always likes to have you at her table.  Sit down, Mr. Fuzzybell.”  Mr. Fuzzybell did as he was told, and sat down.

Just at this moment, as Miss Ruff was looking out with eager eyes for a fourth who would suit her tastes, and had almost succeeded in catching the eye of Miss Finesse ­and Miss Finesse was a silent, desirable, correct player ­who should walk up to the table and absolutely sit down but that odious old woman, Lady Ruth Revoke!  It was Mrs. Garded’s great sin, in Miss Ruff’s eye, that she toadied Lady Ruth to such an extent as to be generally willing to play with her.  Now it was notorious in Littlebath that she had never played well, and that she had long since forgotten all she had ever known.  The poor old woman had already had some kind of a fit; she was very shaky and infirm, and ghastly to look at, in spite of her paint and ribbons.  She was long in arranging her cards, long in playing them; very long in settling her points, when the points went against her, as they generally did.  And yet, in spite of all this, Mrs. King Garded would encourage her because her father had been Lord Whitechapel!

There was no help for it now.  There she was in the chair; and unless Miss Ruff was prepared to give up her table and do something that would be uncommonly rude even for her, the rubber must go on.  She was not prepared at any rate to give up her table, so she took up a card to cut for partners.  There were two to one in her favour.  If fortune would throw her ladyship and Mr. Fuzzybell together there might yet be found in the easiness of the prey some consolation for the slowness of the play.

They cut the cards, and Miss Ruff found herself sitting opposite to Lady Ruth Revoke.  It was a pity that she should not have been photographed.  “And now, Mr. Fuzzybell,” said Mrs. King Garded, triumphantly.

But we must for awhile go to other parts of the room.  Lady Longspade, Mrs. Fuzzybell, and Miss Finesse soon followed the daring example of Miss Ruff, and seated themselves with some worthy fourth compatriot.

“Did you see Miss Ruff?” said Lady Longspade, whose ears had caught the scornful highty-tighty of the rejected lady.  “She wanted to get me at her table.  But no, I thank you.  I like my rubber too, and can play it as well as some other people.  But it may cost too dear, eh, Mrs. Fuzzybell?  I have no idea of being scolded by Miss Ruff.”

“No, nor I,” said Mrs. Fuzzybell.  “I hate that continual scolding.  We are playing only for amusement; and why not play in good temper?” ­nevertheless Mrs. Fuzzybell had a rough side to her own tongue.  “It is you and I, Miss Finesse.  Shillings, I suppose, and ­” and then there was a little whispering and a little grinning between Lady Longspade and Mrs. Fuzzybell, the meaning of which was, that as the occasion was rather a special one, they would indulge themselves with half-a-crown on the rubber and sixpence each hand on the odd trick.  And so the second table went to work.

And then there was a third, and a fourth, and a fifth.  Miss Ruff’s example was more potent than Mr. O’Callaghan’s presence in that assembly.  That gentleman began to feel unhappy as there was no longer round him a crowd of listening ladies sufficient to screen from his now uninquiring eyes the delinquencies of the more eager of the sinners.  The snorting of the war-horse and the sound of the trumpet had enticed away every martial bosom, and Mr. O’Callaghan was left alone in converse with Mrs. Flounce.

He turned to Miss Todd, who was now seated near enough to the door to do honour to any late arriving guest, but near enough also to the table to help herself easily to cake.  His soul burned within him to utter one anathema against the things that he saw.  Miss Todd was still not playing.  He might opine that she objected to the practice.  Sir Lionel was still at her back; he also might be a brand that had been rescued from the burning.  At a little distance sat Miss Baker; he knew that she at any rate was not violently attached to cards.  Could he not say something?  Could he not lift up his voice, if only for a moment, and speak forth as he so loved to do, as was his wont in the meetings of the saints, his brethren?

He looked at Miss Todd, and he raised his eyes, and he raised his hands, but the courage was not in him to speak.  There was about Miss Todd as she stood, or as she sat, a firmness which showed itself even in her rotundity, a vigour in the very rubicundity of her cheek which was apt to quell the spirit of those who would fain have interfered with her.  So Mr. O’Callaghan, having raised his eyes considerably, and having raised his hands a little, said nothing.

“I fear you do not approve of cards?” said Miss Todd.

“Approve! oh no, how can I approve of them, Miss Todd?”

“Well, I do with all my heart.  What are old women like us to do?  We haven’t eyes to read at night, even if we had minds fit for it.  We can’t always be saying our prayers.  We have nothing to talk about except scandal.  It’s better than drinking; and we should come to that if we hadn’t cards.”

“Oh, Miss Todd!”

“You see you have your excitement in preaching, Mr. O’Callaghan.  These card-tables are our pulpits; we have got none other.  We haven’t children, and we haven’t husbands.  That is, the most of us.  And we should be in a lunatic asylum in six weeks if you took away our cards.  Now, will you tell me, Mr. O’Callaghan, what would you expect Miss Ruff to do if you persuaded her to give up whist?”

“She has the poor with her always, Miss Todd.”

“Yes, she has; the woman that goes about with a clean apron and four borrowed children; and the dumb man with a bit of chalk and no legs, and the very red nose.  She has these, to be sure, and a lot more.  But suppose she looks after them all the day, she can’t be looking after them all the night too.  The mind must be unbent sometimes, Mr. O’Callaghan.”

“But to play for money, Miss Todd!  Is not that gambling?”

“Well, I don’t know.  I can’t say what gambling is.  But do you sit down and play for love, Mr. O’Callaghan, and see how soon you’ll go to sleep.  Come, shall we try?  I can have a little private bet, just to keep myself awake, with Sir Lionel, here.”

But Mr. O’Callaghan declined the experiment.  So he had another cup of tea and another muffin, and then went his way; regretting sorely in his heart that he could not get up into a high pulpit and preach at them all.  However, he consoled himself by “improving” the occasion on the following Sunday.

For the next fifteen minutes Sir Lionel stood his ground, saying soft nothings to Miss Todd, and then he also became absorbed among the rubbers.  He found that Miss Todd was not good at having love made to her in public.  She was very willing to be confidential, very willing to receive flattery, attentions, hand-pressings, and the like.  But she would make her confidences in her usual joyous, loud voice; and when told that she was looking remarkably well, she would reply that she always did look well at Littlebath, in a tone that could not fail to attract the attention of the whole room.  Now Sir Lionel would fain have been a little more quiet in his proceedings, and was forced to put off somewhat of what he had to say till he could find Miss Todd alone on the top of a mountain.  ’Twas thus at least that he expressed his thoughts to himself in his chagrin, as he took his place opposite to Mrs. Shortpointz at the seventh and last establishment now formed in the rooms.

The only idlers present were Miss Baker and Miss Todd.  Miss Baker was not quite happy in her mind.  It was not only that she was depressed about Caroline:  her firm belief in the grammatical axiom before alluded to lessened her grief on that score.  But the conduct of Sir Lionel made her uncomfortable; and she began to find, without at all understanding why, that she did not like Miss Todd as well as she used to do at Jerusalem.  Her heart took Mr. O’Callaghan’s side in that little debate about the cards; and though Sir Lionel, in leaving Miss Todd, did not come to her, nevertheless the movement was agreeable to her.  She was not therefore in her very highest spirits when Miss Todd came and sat close to her on the sofa.

“I am so sorry you should be out,” said Miss Todd.  “But you see, I’ve had so much to do at the door there, that I couldn’t see who was sitting down with who.”

“I’d rather be out,” said Miss Baker.  “I am not quite sure that Mr. O’Callaghan is not right.”  This was her revenge.

“No; he’s not a bit right, my dear.  He does ­just what the man says in the rhymes ­what is it? you know ­makes up for his own little peccadilloes by damning yours and mine.  I forget how it goes.  But there’ll be more in by-and-by, and then we’ll have another table.  Those who come late will be more in your line; not so ready to peck your eyes out if you happen to forget a card.  That Miss Ruff is dreadful.”  Here an awful note was heard, for the Lady Ruth had just put her thirteenth trump on Miss Ruff’s thirteenth heart.  What Littlebathian female soul could stand that unmoved?

“Oh, dear! that poor old woman!” continued Miss Todd.  “You know one lives in constant fear of her having a fit.  Miss Ruff is horrible.  She has a way of looking with that fixed eye of hers that is almost worse than her voice.”  The fact was, that Miss Ruff had one glass eye.  “I know she’ll be the death of that poor old creature some of these days.  Lady Ruth will play, and she hardly knows one card from another.  And then Miss Ruff, she will scold.  Good heavens! do you hear that?”

“It’s just seven minutes since I turned the last trick of the last hand,” Miss Ruff had said, scornfully.  “We shall have finished the two rubbers about six in the morning, I take it.”

“Will your ladyship allow me to deal for you?” said Mr. Fuzzybell, meaning to be civil.

“I’ll allow you to do no such thing,” croaked out Lady Ruth.  “I can deal very well myself; at any rate as well as Miss Ruff.  And I’m not the least in a hurry;” and she went on slobbering out the cards, and counting them over and over again, almost as each card fell.

“That’s a double and a treble against a single,” said Lady Longspade, cheerfully, from another table; “six points, and five ­the other rubber ­makes eleven; and the two half-crowns is sixteen, and seven odd tricks is nineteen and six.  Here’s sixpence, Mrs. Fuzzybell; and now we’ll cut again.”

This was dreadful to Miss Ruff.  Here had her rival played two rubbers, won them both, pocketed all but a sovereign, and was again at work; while she, she was still painfully toiling through her second game, the first having been scored against her by her partner’s fatuity in having trumped her long heart.  Was this to be borne with patience?  “Lady Ruth,” she said, emitting fire out of her one eye, “do you ever mean to have done dealing those cards?”

Lady Ruth did not condescend to make any answer, but recommenced her leisurely counting; and then Miss Ruff uttered that terrific screech which had peculiarly excited Miss Todd’s attention.

“I declare I don’t like it at all,” said the tender-hearted Miss Baker.  “I think Mr. O’Callaghan was quite right.”

“No, my dear, he was quite wrong, for he blamed the use of cards, not the abuse.  And after all, what harm comes of it?  I don’t suppose Miss Ruff will actually kill her.  I dare say if we were playing ourselves we shouldn’t notice it.  Do you play cribbage?  Shall we have a little cribbage?” But Miss Baker did not play cribbage; or, at any rate, she said that she did not.

“And do tell me something about dear Caroline,” continued Miss Todd.  “I am so anxious to see her.  But it has been a very long engagement, hasn’t it? and there ought to be lots of money, oughtn’t there?  But I suppose it’s all right.  You know I was very much in love with young Bertram myself; and made all manner of overtures to him, but quite in vain; ha! ha! ha!  I always thought him a very fine fellow, and I think her a very lucky girl.  And when is it to be?  And, do tell me, is she over head and ears in love with him?”

What was Miss Baker to say to this?  She had not the slightest intention of making Miss Todd a confidante in the matter:  certainly not now, as that lady was inclined to behave so very improperly with Sir Lionel; and yet she did not know how to answer it.

“I hope it won’t be put off much longer,” continued Miss Todd.  “Is any day fixed yet?”

“No; no day is fixed yet,” replied Miss Baker, blushing.

Miss Todd’s ear was very quick.  “There is nothing the matter, I trust.  Well, I won’t ask any questions, nor say a word to anybody.  Come, there is a table vacant, and we will cut in.”  And then she determined that she would get it all out from Sir Lionel.

The parties at some of the tables were now changed, and Miss Baker and Miss Todd found themselves playing together.  Miss Baker, too, loved a gentle little rubber, if she could enjoy it quietly, without fear of being gobbled up by any Ruff or any Longspade; and with Miss Todd she was in this matter quite safe.  She might behave as badly as had the Lady Ruth, and Miss Todd would do no worse than laugh at her.  Miss Todd did not care about her points, and at her own house would as soon lose as win; so that Miss Baker would have been happy had she not still continued to sigh over her friend’s very improper flirtation with Sir Lionel.

And thus things went on for an hour or so.  Every now and again a savage yell was heard from some ill-used angry lady, and low growls, prolonged sometimes through a whole game, came from different parts of the room; but nobody took any notice of them; ’twas the manner at Littlebath:  and, though a stranger to the place might have thought, on looking at those perturbed faces, and hearing those uncourteous sounds, that there would be a flow of blood ­such a flow as angry nails may produce ­the denizens of the place knew better.  So the rubbers went on with the amount of harmony customary to the place.

But the scene would have been an odd one for a non-playing stranger, had a non-playing stranger been there to watch it.  Every person in the room was engaged at whist except Mrs. Flounce, who still remained quiescent behind her tea and cakes.  It did not happen that the party was made up of a number of exact fours.  There were two over; two middle-aged ladies, a maiden and a widow:  and they, perhaps more happy than any of the others, certainly more silent for neither of them had a partner to scold, were hard at work at double-dummy in a corner.

It was a sight for a stranger!  It is generally thought that a sad ennui pervades the life of most of those old ladies in England to whom fate has denied the usual cares and burdens of the world, or whose cares and burdens are done and gone.  But there was no ennui here.  No stockjobber on ’Change could go about his exciting work with more animating eagerness.  There were those who scolded, and those who were scolded.  Those who sat silent, being great of mind, and those who, being weak, could not restrain their notes of triumph or their notes of woe; but they were all of them as animated and intense as a tiger springing at its prey.  Watch the gleam of joy that lights up the half-dead, sallow countenance of old Mrs. Shortpointz as she finds the ace of trumps at the back of her hand, the very last card.  Happy, happy Mrs. Shortpointz!  Watch the triumph which illumines even the painted cheeks and half-hidden wrinkles of Lady Longspade as she brings in at the end of the hand three winning little clubs, and sees kings and queens fall impotent at their call.  Triumphant, successful Lady Longspade!  Was Napoleon more triumphant, did a brighter glow of self-satisfied inward power cross his features, when at Ulm he succeeded in separating poor Mack from all his friends?

Play on ladies.  Let us not begrudge you your amusements.  We do not hold with pious Mr. O’Callaghan, that the interchange of a few sixpences is a grievous sin.  At other hours ye are still soft, charitable, and tender-hearted; tender-hearted as English old ladies are, and should be.  But, dear ladies, would it not be well to remember the amenities of life ­even at the whist-table?

So things went on for an hour or so, and then Miss Baker and Sir Lionel again found themselves separated from the card-tables, a lonely pair.  It had been Sir Lionel’s cue this evening to select Miss Todd for his special attentions; but he had found Miss Todd at the present moment to be too much a public character for his purposes.  She had a sort of way of speaking to all her guests at once, which had doubtless on the whole an extremely hilarious effect, but which was not flattering to the amour propre of a special admirer.  So, faute de mieux, Sir Lionel was content to sit down in a corner with Miss Baker.  Miss Baker was also content; but she was rather uneasy as to how she should treat the subject of Caroline’s quarrel with her lover.

“Of course you saw George to-day?” she began.

“Yes, I did see him; but that was all.  He seemed to be in a tremendous hurry, and said he must be back in town to-night.  He’s not staying, is he?”

“No; he’s not staying.”

“I didn’t know:  when I saw that dear Caroline was not with you, I thought she might perhaps have better company at home.”

“She was not very well.  George went back to London before dinner.”

“Nothing wrong, I hope?”

“Well, no; I hope not.  That is ­you haven’t heard anything about it, have you, Sir Lionel?”

“Heard anything!  No, I have heard nothing; what is it?”

It may be presumed that such a conversation as this had not been carried on in a very loud tone; but, nevertheless, low as Miss Baker had spoken, low as Sir Lionel had spoken, it had been too loud.  They had chosen their places badly.  The table at which Lady Ruth and her party were sitting ­we ought rather to say, Miss Ruff and her party ­was in one corner of the room, and our friends had placed themselves on a cushioned seat fixed against the wall in this very corner.  Things were still going badly with Miss Ruff.  As Sindbad carried the old man, and could not shake him off, so did Miss Ruff still carry Lady Ruth Revoke; and the weight was too much for her.

She manfully struggled on, however ­womanfully would perhaps be a stronger and more appropriate word.  She had to calculate not only how to play her own hand correctly, but she had also to calculate on her partner’s probable errors.  This was hard work, and required that all around her should be undisturbed and silent.  In the midst of a maze of uncontrollable difficulties, the buzz buzz of Miss Baker’s voice fell upon her ears, and up she rose from her chair.

“Miss Todd,” she said, and Miss Todd, looking round from a neighbouring table, shone upon her with her rosy face.  But all the shining was of no avail.

“Miss Todd, if this is to be a conversazione, we had better make it so at once.  But if it’s whist, then I must say I never heard so much talking in my life!”

“It’s a little of both,” said Miss Todd, not sotto voce.

“Oh, very well; now I understand,” said Miss Ruff; and then she resumed her work and went on with her calculations.

Miss Baker and Sir Lionel got up, of course, and going over to the further part of the room continued their conversation.  She soon told him all she knew.  She had hardly seen George herself, she said.  But Caroline had had a long interview with him, and on leaving him had said that all ­all now was over.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” said Miss Baker, with her handkerchief to her eyes.  “What do you think, Sir Lionel?  You know they say that lovers always do quarrel, and always do make it up again.”

“George is a very headstrong fellow,” said Sir Lionel.

“Yes, that is what I have always felt; always.  There was no being sure with him.  He is so wild, and has such starts.”

“Has this been his doing?”

“Oh, yes, I think so.  Not but that Caroline is very spirited too:  I suppose somehow it came about between them.”

“He was tired of waiting.”

“That might have been a reason twelve months ago, but there was to be no more delay now; that is as I understood it.  No, it has not been that, Sir Lionel.  It makes me very unhappy, I know;” and Miss Baker again used her handkerchief.

“You mustn’t distress yourself, my dearest friend,” said Lionel.  “For my sake, don’t.  Oh, if you knew how it pains me to see you suffering in that way!  I think more of you in the matter than even of George; I do indeed.”  And Sir Lionel contrived to give a little pinch to the top of one of Miss Baker’s fingers ­not, however, without being observed by the sharp eyes of his hostess.

“But, Caroline!” sobbed Miss Baker, behind her handkerchief.  She was nicely ensconced in the depth of a lounging-chair, so that she could turn her face from the card-tables.  It is so sweet to be consoled in one’s misery, especially when one really believes that the misery is not incurable.  So that on the whole Miss Baker was not unhappy.

“Yes, dear Caroline,” said Sir Lionel; “of course I can say nothing till I have heard more of the matter.  But do you think Caroline really loves him?  Sometimes I have thought ­”

“So have I, sometimes; that is I used.  But she does love him, Sir Lionel; that is, if I know anything about it.”

“Ah, dearest friend, do you know anything about it? that is the very question I want to ask you.  Do you know anything about it?  Sometimes I have thought you knew nothing.  And then sometimes I have thought, been bold enough to think ­” And Sir Lionel looked intently at the handkerchief which covered her face; and Miss Todd looked furtively, ever and anon, at Sir Lionel.  “I declare I think it would do very well,” said Miss Todd to herself good-naturedly.

Miss Baker did not quite understand him, but she felt herself much consoled.  Sir Lionel was a remarkably handsome man; as to that she had made up her mind long since:  then he was a peculiarly gentlemanlike man, a very friendly man, and a man who exactly suited all her tastes.  She had for some weeks past begun to think the day tedious in which she did not see him; and now it was driven in upon her mind that conversation was a much pleasanter occupation than whist; that is, conversation with so highly-polished a man as Sir Lionel Bertram.  But, nevertheless, she did not quite understand what he meant, nor did she know how she ought to answer it.  Why need she answer him at all?  Could she not sit there, wiping her eyes softly and comfortably, and listen to what might come next?

“I sometimes think that some women never love,” said Sir Lionel.

“Perhaps they don’t,” said Miss Baker.

“And yet in the depth of many a heart there may be a fund of passion.”

“Oh, there may, certainly,” said Miss Baker.

“And in your own, my friend?  Is there no such fund there?  Are there no hidden depths there unexplored, still fresh, but still, perhaps still to be reached?”

Again Miss Baker found it easiest to lie well back into her chair, and wipe her eyes comfortably.  She was not prepared to say much about the depths of her own heart at so very short a notice.

Sir Lionel was again about to speak ­and who can say what might have come next, how far those hidden depths might have been tried? ­when he was arrested in the midst of his pathos by seeing Mrs. Garded and Mr. Fuzzybell each rush to a shoulder of Lady Ruth Revoke.  The colonel quitted his love for the moment, and hurried to the distant table; while Miss Baker, removing her handkerchief, sat up and gazed at the scene of action.

The quarrelling had been going on unabated, but that had caused little surprise.  It is astonishing how soon the ear becomes used to incivilities.  They were now accustomed to Miss Ruff’s voice, and thought nothing of her exclamations.  “Well, I declare ­what, the ten of spades! ­ha! ha! ha! well, it is an excellent joke ­if you could have obliged me, Lady Ruth, by returning my lead of trumps, we should have been out,” &c., &c., &c.  All this and more attracted no attention, and the general pity for Lady Ruth had become dead and passive.

But at last Miss Ruff’s tongue went faster and faster, and her words became sharper and sharper.  Lady Ruth’s countenance became very strange to look at.  She bobbed her head about slowly in a manner that frightened Mr. Fuzzybell, and ceased to make any remark to her partner.  Then Mrs. Garded made two direct appeals to Miss Ruff for mercy.

But Miss Ruff could not be merciful.  Perhaps on each occasion she refrained for a moment, but it was only for a moment; and Mrs. Garded and Mr. Fuzzybell ceased to think of their cards, and looked only at the Lady Ruth; and then of a sudden they both rose from their seats, the colonel, as we have said, rushed across the room, and all the players at all the tables put down their cards and stood up in alarm.

Lady Ruth was sitting perfectly still, except that she still bobbed her old head up and down in a strange unearthly manner.  She had about ten cards in her hand which she held motionless.  Her eyes seemed to be fixed in one continued stare directly on the face of her foe.  Her lower jaw had fallen so as to give a monstrous extension to her cadaverous face.  There she sat apparently speechless; but still she bobbed her head, and still she held her cards.

It was known at Littlebath that she had suffered from paralysis, and Mrs. Garded and Mr. Fuzzybell thinking that she was having or about to have a fit, naturally rushed to her assistance.

“What is the matter with her?” said Miss Ruff.  “Is anything the matter with her?”

Miss Todd was now at the old lady’s side.  “Lady Ruth,” said she, “do you find yourself not well?  Shall we go into my room?  Sir Lionel, will you help her ladyship?” And between them they raised Lady Ruth from her chair.  But she still clutched the cards, still fixed her eyes on Miss Ruff, and still bobbed her head.

“Do you feel yourself ill, Lady Ruth?” said Miss Todd.  But her ladyship answered nothing.

It seemed, however, that her ladyship could walk, for with her two supporters she made her way nearly to the door of the room.  There she stood, and having succeeded in shaking off Sir Lionel’s arm, she turned and faced round upon the company.  She continued to bob her head at them all, and then made this little speech, uttering each word very slowly.

“I wish she had a glass tongue as well, because then perhaps she’d break it.”  And having so revenged herself, she suffered Miss Todd to lead her away into the bedroom.  It was clear at least that she had no fit, and the company was thankful.

Sir Lionel, seeing how it was, left them at the door of the bedroom, and a few minutes afterwards Miss Todd, Mrs. Flounce, and Lady Ruth’s own maid succeeded in getting her into a cab.  It is believed that after a day or two she was none the worse for what had happened, and that she made rather a boast of having put down Miss Ruff.  For the moment, Miss Ruff was rather put down.

When Miss Todd returned to the drawing-room that lady was sitting quite by herself on an ottoman.  She was bolt upright, with her hands before her on her lap, striving to look as though she were perfectly indifferent to what had taken place.  But there was ever and again a little twitch about her mouth, and an involuntary movement in her eye which betrayed the effort, and showed that for this once Lady Ruth had conquered.  Mr. Fuzzybell was standing with a frightened look at the fireplace; while Mrs. King Garded hung sorrowing over her cards, for when the accident happened she had two by honours in her own hand.

When Miss Todd returned some few of her guests were at work again; but most of the tables were broken up.  “Poor dear old lady,” said Miss Todd, “she has gone home none the worse.  She is very old, you know, and a dear good creature.”

“A sweet dear creature,” said Mrs. Shortpointz, who loved the peerage, and hated Miss Ruff.

“Come,” said Miss Todd, “Parsnip has got a little supper for us downstairs; shall we go down?  Miss Ruff, you and I will go and call on Lady Ruth to-morrow.  Sir Lionel, will you give your arm to Lady Longspade?  Come, my dear;” and so Miss Todd took Miss Baker under her wing, and they all went down to supper.  But Miss Ruff said not another word that night.

“Ha! ha!” said Miss Todd, poking her fan at Miss Baker, “I see all about it, I assure you; and I quite approve.”

Miss Baker felt very comfortable, but she did not altogether understand her friend’s joke.