Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX TO AUTHORS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The Sprowle Party
By Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)
 
[Elsie Venner. A Romance of Destiny. 1861.]

“MR. and Mrs. Colonel Sprowle’s compliments to Mr. Langdon and requests the pleasure of his company at a social entertainment on Wednesday evening next.
  1
  “Elm St.    Monday.”  2
 
  On paper of a pinkish color and musky smell, with a large S at the top, and an embossed border. Envelope adherent, not sealed. Addressed,
 Langdan, Esq.
            Present.
  3
  Brought by H. Frederic Sprowle, youngest son of the Colonel,—the H. of course standing for the paternal Hezekiah, put in to please the father, and reduced to its initial to please the mother, she having a marked preference for Frederic. Boy directed to wait for an answer.  4
 
  “Mr. Langdon has the pleasure of accepting Mr. and Mrs. Colonel Sprowle’s polite invitation for Wednesday evening.”  5
 
  On plain paper, sealed with an initial.  6
 
  In walking along the main street, Mr. Bernard had noticed a large house of some pretensions to architectural display, namely, unnecessarily projecting eaves, giving it a mushroomy aspect, wooden mouldings at various available points, and a grandiose arched portico. It looked a little swaggering by the side of one or two of the mansion-houses that were not far from it, was painted too bright for Mr. Bernard’s taste, had rather too fanciful a fence before it, and had some fruit-trees planted in the front yard, which to this fastidious young gentleman implied a defective sense of the fitness of things, not promising in people who lived in so large a house, with a mushroom roof and a triumphal arch for its entrance.  7
  This place was known as “Colonel Sprowle’s villa” (genteel friends),—as “the elegant residence of our distinguished fellow-citizen, Colonel Sprowle” (Rockland Weekly Universe),—as “the neew haouse” (old settlers),—as “Spraowle’s Folly” (disaffected and possibly envious neighbors),—and in common discourse, as “the Colonel’s.”  8
  Hezekiah Sprowle, Esquire, Colonel Sprowle of the Commonwealth’s Militia, was a retired “merchant.” An India merchant he might, perhaps, have been properly called; for he used to deal in West India goods, such as coffee, sugar, and molasses, not to speak of rum,—also in tea, salt fish, butter and cheese, oil and candles, dried fruit, agricultural “p’dóose” generally, industrial products, such as boots and shoes, and various kinds of iron and wooden ware, and at one end of the establishment in calicoes and other stuffs,—to say nothing of miscellaneous objects of the most varied nature, from sticks of candy, which tempted in the smaller youth with coppers in their fists, up to ornamental articles of apparel, pocket-books, breast-pins, gilt-edged Bibles, stationery,—in short, everything which was like to prove seductive to the rural population. The Colonel had made money in trade, and also by matrimony. He had married Sarah, daughter and heiress of the late Tekel Jordan, Esq., an old miser, who gave the town-clock, which carries his name to posterity in large gilt letters as a generous benefactor of his native place. In due time the Colonel reaped the reward of well-placed affections. When his wife’s inheritance fell in, he thought he had money enough to give up trade, and therefore sold out his “store,” called in some dialects of the English language shop, and his business.  9
  Life became pretty hard work to him, of course, as soon as he had nothing particular to do. Country people with money enough not to have to work are in much more danger than city people in the same condition. They get a specific look and character, which are the same in all the villages where one studies them. They very commonly fall into a routine, the basis of which is going to some lounging-place or other, a bar-room, a reading-room, or something of the kind. They grow slovenly in dress, and wear the same hat forever. They have a feeble curiosity for news, perhaps, which they take daily as a man takes his bitters, and then fall silent and think they are thinking. But the mind goes out under this regimen, like a fire without a draught; and it is not very strange if the instinct of mental self-preservation drives them to brandy-and-water, which makes the hoarse whisper of memory musical for a few brief moments, and puts a weak leer of promise on the features of the hollow-eyed future. The Colonel was kept pretty well in hand as yet by his wife, and though it had happened to him once or twice to come home rather late at night with a curious tendency to say the same thing twice and even three times over, it had always been in very cold weather,—and everybody knows that no one is safe to drink a couple of glasses of wine in a warm room and go suddenly out into the cold air.  10
  Miss Matilda Sprowle, sole daughter of the house, had reached the age at which young ladies are supposed in technical language to have come out, and thereafter are considered to be in company.  11
  “There’s one piece o’ goods,” said the Colonel to his wife, “that we ha’n’t disposed of, nor got a customer for yet. That’s Matildy. I don’t mean to set her up at vaandoo. I guess she can have her pick of a dozen.”  12
  “She’s never seen anybody yet,” said Mrs. Sprowle, who had had a certain project for some time, but had kept quiet about it. “Let’s have a party, and give her a chance to show herself and see some of the young folks.”  13
  The Colonel was not very clear-headed, and he thought, naturally enough, that the party was his own suggestion, because his remark led to the first starting of the idea. He entered into the plan, therefore, with a feeling of pride as well as pleasure, and the great project was resolved upon in a family council without a dissentient voice. This was the party, then, to which Mr. Bernard was going. The town had been full of it for a week. “Everybody was asked.” So everybody said that was invited. But how in respect of those who were not asked? If it had been one of the old mansion-houses that was giving a party, the boundary between the favored and the slighted families would have been known pretty well beforehand, and there would have been no great amount of grumbling. But the Colonel, for all his title, had a forest of poor relations and a brushwood swamp of shabby friends, for he had scrambled up to fortune, and now the time was come when he must define his new social position.  14
  This is always an awkward business in town or country. An exclusive alliance between two powers is often the same thing as a declaration of war against a third. Rockland was soon split into a triumphant minority, invited to Mrs. Sprowle’s party, and a great majority, uninvited, of which the fraction just on the border line between recognized “gentility” and the level of the ungloved masses was in an active state of excitement and indignation.  15
  “Who is she, I should like to know?” said Mrs. Saymore, the tailor’s wife. “There was plenty of folks in Rockland as good as ever Sally Jordan was, if she had managed to pick up a merchant. Other folks could have married merchants, if their families wasn’t as wealthy as them old skinflints that willed her their money,” etc., etc. Mrs. Saymore expressed the feeling of many besides herself. She had, however, a special right to be proud of the name she bore. Her husband was own cousin to the Saymores of Freestone Avenue (who write the name Seymour, and claim to be of the Duke of Somerset’s family, showing a clear descent from the Protector to Edward Seymour (1630),—then a jump that would break a herald’s neck to one Seth Saymore (1783),—from whom to the head of the present family the line is clear again). Mrs. Saymore, the tailor’s wife, was not invited, because her husband mended clothes. If he had confined himself strictly to making them, it would have put a different face upon the matter.  16
  The landlord of the Mountain House and his lady were invited to Mrs. Sprowle’s party. Not so the landlord of Pollard’s Tahvern and his lady. Whereupon the latter vowed that they would have a party at their house too, and made arrangements for a dance of twenty or thirty couples, to be followed by an entertainment. Tickets to this “Social Ball” were soon circulated, and, being accessible to all at a moderate price, admission to the “Elegant Supper” included, this second festival promised to be as merry, if not as select, as the great party.  17
  Wednesday came. Such doings had never been heard of in Rockland as went on that day at the “villa.” The carpet had been taken up in the long room so that the young folks might have a dance. Miss Matilda’s piano had been moved in, and two fiddlers and a clarinet-player engaged to make music. All kinds of lamps had been put in requisition, and even colored wax-candles figured on the mantel-pieces. The costumes of the family had been tried on the day before: the Colonel’s black suit fitted exceedingly well; his lady’s velvet dress displayed her contours to advantage; Miss Matilda’s flowered silk was considered superb; the eldest son of the family, Mr. T. Jordan Sprowle, called affectionately and elegantly “Geordie,” voted himself “stunnin’”; and even the small youth who had borne Mr. Bernard’s invitation was effective in a new jacket and trousers, buttony in front, and baggy in the reverse aspect, as is wont to be the case with the home-made garments of inland youngsters.  18
  Great preparations had been made for the refection which was to be part of the entertainment. There was much clinking of borrowed spoons, which were to be carefully counted, and much clicking of borrowed china, which was to be tenderly handled,—for nobody in the country keeps those vast closets full of such things which one may see in rich city houses. Not a great deal could be done in the way of flowers, for there were no green-houses, and few plants were out as yet; but there were paper ornaments for the candlesticks, and colored mats for the lamps, and all the tassels of the curtains and bells were taken out of those brown linen bags in which, for reasons hitherto undiscovered, they are habitually concealed in some households. In the remoter apartments every imaginable operation was going on at once,—roasting, boiling, baking, beating, rolling, pounding in mortars, frying, freezing; for there was to be ice-cream to-night of domestic manufacture;—and in the midst of all these labors, Mrs. Sprowle and Miss Matilda were moving about, directing and helping as they best might, all day long. When the evening came, it might be feared they would not be in just the state of mind and body to entertain company….  19
  The Colonel himself had been pressed into the service. He had pounded something in the great mortar. He had agitated a quantity of sweetened and thickened milk in what was called a cream-freezer. At eleven o’clock, A.M., he retired for a space. On returning, his color was noted to be somewhat heightened, and he showed a disposition to be jocular with the female help,—which tendency, displaying itself in livelier demonstrations than were approved at headquarters, led to his being detailed to out-of-door duties, such as raking gravel, arranging places for horses to be hitched to, and assisting in the construction of an arch of winter-green at the porch of the mansion.  20
  A whiff from Mr. Geordie’s cigar refreshed the toiling females from time to time: for the windows had to be opened occasionally, while all these operations were going on, and the youth amused himself with inspecting the interior, encouraging the operatives now and then in the phrases commonly employed by genteel young men,—for he had perused an odd volume of “Verdant Green,” and was acquainted with a Sophomore from one of the fresh-water colleges.—“Go it on the feed!” exclaimed this spirited young man. “Nothin’ like a good spread. Grub enough and good liquor, that’s the ticket. Guv’nor’ll do the heavy polite, and let me alone for polishin’ off the young charmers.” And Mr. Geordie looked expressively at a handmaid who was rolling gingerbread, as if he were rehearsing for “Don Giovanni.”  21
  Evening came at last, and the ladies were forced to leave the scene of their labors to array themselves for the coming festivities. The tables had been set in a back room, the meats were ready, the pickles were displayed, the cake was baked, the blanc-mange had stiffened, and the ice-cream had frozen.  22
  At half past seven o’clock, the Colonel, in costume, came into the front parlor, and proceeded to light the lamps. Some were good-humored enough and took the hint of a lighted match at once. Others were as vicious as they could be,—would not light on any terms, any more than if they were filled with water, or lighted and smoked one side of the chimney, or sputtered a few sparks and sulked themselves out, or kept up a faint show of burning, so that their ground glasses looked as feebly phosphorescent as so many invalid fireflies. With much coaxing and screwing and pricking, a tolerable illumination was at last achieved. At eight there was a grand rustling of silks, and Mrs. and Miss Sprowle descended from their respective bowers or boudoirs. Of course they were pretty well tired by this time, and very glad to sit down,—having the prospect before them of being obliged to stand for hours. The Colonel walked about the parlor, inspecting his regiment of lamps. By-and-by Mr. Geordie entered.  23
  “Mph! mph!” he sniffed, as he came in. “You smell of lamp-smoke here.”  24
  That always galls people,—to have a newcomer accuse them of smoke or close air, which they have got used to and do not perceive. The Colonel raged at the thought of his lamps’ smoking, and tongued a few anathemas inside of his shut teeth, but turned down two or three wicks that burned higher than the rest.  25
  Master H. Frederic next made his appearance, with questionable marks upon his fingers and countenance. Had been tampering with something brown and sticky. His elder brother grew playful, and caught him by the baggy reverse of his more essential garment.  26
  “Hush!” said Mrs. Sprowle,—“there’s the bell!”  27
  Everybody took position at once, and began to look very smiling and altogether at ease.—False alarm. Only a parcel of spoons,—“loaned,” as the inland folks say when they mean lent, by a neighbor.  28
  “Better late than never!” said the Colonel, “let me heft them spoons.”  29
  Mrs. Sprowle came down into her chair again as if all her bones had been bewitched out of her.  30
  “I’m pretty nigh beat out a’ready,” said she, “before any of the folks has come.”  31
  They sat silent awhile, waiting for the first arrival. How nervous they got! and how their senses were sharpened!  32
  “Hark!” said Miss Matilda,—“what’s that rumblin’?”  33
  It was a cart going over a bridge more than a mile off, which at any other time they would not have heard. After this there was a lull, and poor Mrs. Sprowle’s head nodded once or twice. Presently a crackling and grinding of gravel;—how much that means, when we are waiting for those whom we long or dread to see! Then a change in the tone of the gravel-crackling.  34
  “Yes, they have turned in at our gate. They’re comin’! Mother! mother!”  35
  Everybody in position, smiling and at ease. Bell rings. Enter the first set of visitors. The Event of the Season has begun.  36
  “Law! it’s nothin’ but the Cranes’ folks! I do believe Mahala’s come in that old green delaine she wore at the Surprise Party!”  37
  Miss Matilda had peeped through a crack of the door and made this observation and the remark founded thereon. Continuing her attitude of attention, she overheard Mrs. Crane and her two daughters conversing in the attiring-room, up one flight.  38
  “How fine everything is in the great house!” said Mrs. Crane,—“jest look at the picters!”  39
  “Matildy Sprowle’s drawins,” said Ada Azuba, the eldest daughter.  40
  “I should think so,” said Mahala Crane, her younger sister,—a wide-awake girl, who hadn’t been to school for nothing, and performed a little on the lead pencil herself. “I should like to know whether that’s a haycock or a mountain!”  41
  Miss Matilda winced; for this must refer to her favorite monochrome, executed by laying on heavy shadows and stumping them down into mellow harmony,—the style of drawing which is taught in six lessons, and the kind of specimen which is executed in something less than one hour. Parents and other very near relatives are sometimes gratified with these productions, and cause them to be framed and hung up, as in the present instance.  42
  “I guess we won’t go down jest yet,” said Mrs. Crane, “as folks don’t seem to have come.”  43
  So she began a systematic inspection of the dressing-room and its conveniences.  44
  “Mahogany four-poster,—come from the Jordans’, I cal’late. Marseilles quilt. Ruffles all round the piller. Chintz curtings,—jest put up,—o’ purpose for the party I’ll lay ye a dollar.—What a nice wash-bowl!” (Taps it with a white knuckle belonging to a red finger.) “Stone chaney.—Here’s a bran’-new brush and comb,—and here’s a scent-bottle. Come here, girls, and fix yourselves in the glass, and scent your pocket-handkerchers.”  45
  And Mrs. Crane bedewed her own kerchief with some of the eau de Cologne of native manufacture,—said on its label to be much superior to the German article.  46
  It was a relief to Mrs. and the Miss Cranes when the bell rang and the next guests were admitted. Deacon and Mrs. Soper,—Deacon Soper of the Rev. Mr. Fairweather’s church, and his lady. Mrs. Deacon Soper was directed, of course, to the ladies’ dressing-room, and her husband to the other apartment, where gentlemen were to leave their outside coats and hats. Then came Mr. and Mrs. Briggs, and then the three Miss Spinneys, then Silas Peckham, Head of the Apollinean Institute, and Mrs. Peckham, and more after them, until at last the ladies’ dressing-room got so full that one might have thought it was a trap none of them could get out of. In truth, they all felt a little awkwardly. Nobody wanted to be first to venture down-stairs. At last Mr. Silas Peckham thought it was time to make a move for the parlor, and for this purpose presented himself at the door of the ladies’ dressing-room.  47
  “Lorindy, my dear!” he exclaimed to Mrs. Peckham,—“I think there can be no impropriety in our joining the family down-stairs.”  48
  Mrs. Peckham laid her large, flaccid arm in the sharp angle made by the black sleeve which held the bony limb her husband offered, and the two took the stair and struck out for the parlor. The ice was broken, and the dressing-room began to empty itself into the spacious, lighted apartments below.  49
  Mr. Silas Peckham slid into the room with Mrs. Peckham alongside, like a shad convoying a jelly-fish.  50
  “Good evenin’, Mrs. Sprowle! I hope I see you well this evenin’. How’s your haälth, Colonel Sprowle?”  51
  “Very well, much obleeged to you. Hope you and your good lady are well. Much pleased to see you. Hope you’ll enjoy yourselves. We’ve laid out to have everything in good shape,—spared no trouble nor ex”——  52
  ——“pense,”—said Silas Peckham.  53
  Mrs. Colonel Sprowle, who, you remember, was a Jordan, had nipped the Colonel’s statement in the middle of the word Mr. Peckham finished, with a look that jerked him like one of those sharp twitches women keep giving a horse when they get a chance to drive one….  54
  The guests were now arriving in the drawing-room pretty fast, and the Colonel’s hand began to burn a good deal with the sharp squeezes which many of the visitors gave it. Conversation, which had begun like a summer shower, in scattering drops, was fast becoming continuous, and occasionally rising into gusty swells, with now and then a broad-chested laugh from some Captain or Major or other military personage,—for it may be noted that all large and loud men in the unpaved districts bear military titles.  55
  Deacon Soper came up presently, and entered into conversation with Colonel Sprowle.  56
  “I hope to see our pastor present this evenin’,” said the Deacon.  57
  “I don’t feel quite sure,” the Colonel answered. “His dyspepsy has been bad on him lately. He wrote to say, that, Providence permittin’, it would be agreeable to him to take a part in the exercises of the evenin’; but I mistrusted he didn’t mean to come. To tell the truth, Deacon Soper, I rather guess he don’t like the idee of dancin’, and some of the other little arrangements.”  58
  “Well,” said the Deacon, “I know there’s some condemns dancin’. I’ve heerd a good deal of talk about it among the folks round. Some have it that it never brings a blessin’ on a house to have dancin’ in it. Judge Tileston died, you remember, within a month after he had his great ball, twelve year ago, and some thought it was in the natur’ of a judgment. I don’t believe in any of them notions. If a man happened to be struck dead the night after he’d been givin’ a ball” (the Colonel loosened his black stock a little, and winked and swallowed two or three times), “I shouldn’t call it a judgment,—I should call it a coincidence. But I’m a little afraid our pastor won’t come. Somethin’ or other’s the matter with Mr. Fairweather. I should sooner expect to see the old Doctor come over out of the Orthodox parsonage-house.”  59
  “I’ve asked him,” said the Colonel.  60
  “Well?” said Deacon Soper.  61
  “He said he should like to come, but he didn’t know what his people would say. For his part, he loved to see young folks havin’ their sports together, and very often felt as if he should like to be one of ’em himself. ‘But.’ says I, ‘Doctor, I don’t say there won’t be a little dancin’.’ ‘Don’t!’ says he, ‘for I want Letty to go’ (she’s his grand daughter that’s been stayin’ with him), ‘and Letty’s mighty fond of dancin’. You know,’ says the Doctor, ‘it isn’t my business to settle whether other people’s children should dance or not.’ And the Doctor looked as if he should like to rigadoon and sashy across as well as the young one he was talkin’ about. He’s got blood in him, the old Doctor has. I wish our little man and him would swop pulpits.”  62
  Deacon Soper started and looked up into the Colonel’s face, as if to see whether he was in earnest.  63
  Mr. Silas Peckham and his lady joined the group.  64
  “Is this to be a Temperance Celebration, Mrs. Sprowle?” asked Mr. Silas Peckham.  65
  Mrs. Sprowle replied, “that there would be lemonade and srub for those that preferred such drinks, but that the Colonel had given folks to understand that he didn’t mean to set in judgment on the marriage in Canaan, and that those that didn’t like srub and such things would find somethin’ that would suit them better.”  66
  Deacon Soper’s countenance assumed a certain air of restrained cheerfulness. The conversation rose into one of its gusty paroxysms just then. Master H. Frederic got behind a door and began performing the experiment of stopping and unstopping his ears in rapid alternation, greatly rejoicing in the singular effect of mixed conversation chopped very small, like the contents of a mince-pie,—or meat pie, as it is more forcibly called in the deep-rutted villages lying along the unsalted streams….  67
  The “great folks,” meaning the mansion-house gentry, were just beginning to come; Dudley Venner and his daughter had been the first of them. Judge Thornton, white-headed, fresh-faced, as good at sixty as he was at forty, with a youngish second wife, and one noble daughter, Arabella, who, they said, knew as much law as her father, a stately, Portia-like girl, fit for a premier’s wife, not like to find her match even in the great cities she sometimes visited; the Trecothicks, the family of a merchant (in the larger sense), who, having made himself rich enough by the time he had reached middle life, threw down his ledger as Sylla did his dagger, and retired to make a little paradise around him in one of the stateliest residences of the town, a family inheritance; the Vaughans, an old Rockland race, descended from its first settlers, Toryish in tendency in Revolutionary times, and barely escaping confiscation or worse; the Dunhams, a new family, dating its gentility only as far back as the Honorable Washington Dunham, M. C., but turning out a clever boy or two that went to college, and some showy girls with white necks and fat arms who had picked up professional husbands: these were the principal mansion-house people. All of them had made it a point to come; and as each of them entered, it seemed to Colonel and Mrs. Sprowle that the lamps burned up with a more cheerful light, and that the fiddles which sounded from the uncarpeted room were all half a tone higher and half a beat quicker….  68
  The dancing went on briskly. Some of the old folks looked on, others conversed in groups and pairs, and so the evening wore along, until a little after ten o’clock. About this time there was noticed an increased bustle in the passages, with a considerable opening and shutting of doors. Presently it began to be whispered about that they were going to have supper. Many, who had never been to any large party before, held their breath for a moment at this announcement. It was rather with a tremulous interest than with open hilarity that the rumor was generally received.  69
  One point the Colonel had entirely forgotten to settle. It was a point involving not merely propriety, but perhaps principle also, or at least the good report of the house,—and he had never thought to arrange it. He took Judge Thornton aside and whispered the important question to him,—in his distress of mind, mistaking pockets and taking out his bandanna instead of his white handkerchief to wipe his forehead.  70
  “Judge,” he said, “do you think, that, before we commence refreshing ourselves at the tables, it would be the proper thing to—crave a—to request Deacon Soper or some other elderly person—to ask a blessing?”  71
  The Judge looked as grave as if he were about giving the opinion of the Court in the great India-rubber case.  72
  “On the whole,” he answered, after a pause, “I should think it might, perhaps, be dispensed with on this occasion. Young folks are noisy, and it is awkward to have talking and laughing going on while a blessing is being asked. Unless a clergyman is present and makes a point of it, I think it will hardly be expected.”  73
  The Colonel was infinitely relieved. “Judge, will you take Mrs. Sprowle in to supper?” And the Colonel returned the compliment by offering his arm to Mrs. Judge Thornton.  74
  The door of the supper-room was now open, and the company, following the lead of the host and hostess, began to stream into it, until it was pretty well filled.  75
  There was an awful kind of pause. Many were beginning to drop their heads and shut their eyes, in anticipation of the usual petition before a meal; some expected the music to strike up,—others, that an oration would now be delivered by the Colonel.  76
  “Make yourselves at home, ladies and gentlemen,” said the Colonel; “good things were made to eat, and you’re welcome to all you see before you.”  77
  So saying, he attacked a huge turkey which stood at the head of the table; and his example being followed first by the bold, then by the doubtful, and lastly by the timid, the clatter soon made the circuit of the tables. Some were shocked, however, as the Colonel had feared they would be, at the want of the customary invocation. Widow Leech, a kind of relation, who had to be invited, and who came with her old, back-country-looking string of gold beads round her neck, seemed to feel very serious about it.  78
  “If she’d ha’ known that folks would begrutch cravin’ a blessin’ over sech a heap o’ provisions, she’d rather ha’ staid t’ home. It was a bad sign, when folks wasn’t grateful for the baounties of Providence.”  79
  The elder Miss Spinney, to whom she made this remark, assented to it, at the same time ogling a piece of frosted cake, which she presently appropriated with great refinement of manner,—taking it between her thumb and forefinger, keeping the others well spread and the little finger in extreme divergence, with a graceful undulation of the neck, and a queer little sound in her throat, as of an m that wanted to get out and perished in the attempt.  80
  The tables now presented an animated spectacle. Young fellows of the more dashing sort, with high stand-up collars and voluminous bows to their neckerchiefs, distinguished themselves by cutting up fowls and offering portions thereof to the buxom girls these knowing ones had commonly selected.  81
  “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or of the—under limb?”  82
  The first laugh broke out at this, but it was premature, a sporadic laugh, as Dr. Kittredge would have said, which did not become epidemic. People were very solemn as yet, many of them being new to such splendid scenes, and crushed, as it were, in the presence of so much crockery and so many silver spoons, and such a variety of unusual viands and beverages. When the laugh rose around Roxy and her saucy beau, several looked in that direction with an anxious expression, as if something had happened,—a lady fainted, for instance, or a couple of lively fellows come to high words.  83
  “Young folks will be young folks,” said Deacon Soper. “No harm done. Least said soonest mended.”  84
  “Have some of these shell-oysters?” said the Colonel to Mrs. Trecothick.  85
  A delicate emphasis on the word shell implied that the Colonel knew what was what. To the New England inland native, beyond the reach of the east winds, the oyster unconditioned, the oyster absolute, without a qualifying adjective, is the pickled oyster. Mrs. Trecothick, who knew very well that an oyster long out of his shell (as is apt to be the case with the rural bivalve) gets homesick and loses his sprightliness, replied, with the pleasantest smile in the world, that the chicken she had been helped to was too delicate to be given up even for the greater rarity. But the word “shell-oysters” had been overheard; and there was a perceptible crowding movement towards their newly discovered habitat, a large soup tureen.  86
  Silas Peckham had meantime fallen upon another locality of these recent mollusks. He said nothing, but helped himself freely, and made a sign to Mrs. Peckham.  87
  “Lorindy,” he whispered, “shell-oysters!”  88
  And ladled them out to her largely, without betraying any emotion, just as if they had been the natural inland or pickled article.  89
  After the more solid portion of the banquet had been duly honored, the cakes and sweet preparations of various kinds began to get their share of attention. There were great cakes and little cakes, cakes with raisins in them, cakes with currants, and cakes without either; there were brown cakes and yellow cakes, frosted cakes, glazed cakes, hearts and rounds, and jumbles, which playful youth slip over the forefinger before spoiling their annular outline. There were moulds of blo’monje, of the arrowroot variety,—that being undistinguishable from such as is made with Russia isinglass. There were jellies, which had been shaking, all the time the young folks were dancing in the next room, as if they were balancing to partners. There were built-up fabrics, called Charlottes, caky externally, pulpy within; there were also marangs, and likewise custards,—some of the indolent-fluid sort, others firm, in which every stroke of the teaspoon left a smooth, conchoidal surface like the fracture of chalcedony, with here and there a little eye like what one sees in cheeses. Nor was that most wonderful object of domestic art called trifle wanting, with its charming confusion of cream and cake and almonds and jam and jelly and wine and cinnamon and froth; nor yet the marvellous floating-island,—name suggestive of all that is romantic in the imaginations of youthful palates.  90
  “It must have cost you a sight of work, to say nothin’ of money, to get all this beautiful confectionery made for the party,” said Mrs. Crane to Mrs. Sprowle.  91
  “Well, it cost some consid’able labor, no doubt,” said Mrs. Sprowle. “Matilda and our girls and I made ’most all the cake with our own hands, and we all feel some tired; but if folks get what suits ’em, we don’t begrudge the time nor the work. But I do feel thirsty,” said the poor lady, “and I think a glass of srub would do my throat good; it’s dreadful dry. Mr. Peckham, would you be so polite as to pass me a glass of srub?”  92
  Silas Peckham bowed with great alacrity, and took from the table a small glass cup, containing a fluid reddish in hue and subacid in taste.  93
  This was srub, a beverage in local repute, of questionable nature, but suspected of owing its tint and sharpness to some kind of syrup derived from the maroon-colored fruit of the sumac. There were similar small cups on the table filled with lemonade, and here and there a decanter of Madeira wine, of the Marsala kind, which some prefer to, and many more cannot distinguish from, that which comes from the Atlantic island.  94
  “Take a glass of wine, Judge,” said the Colonel; “here is an article that I rather think ’ll suit you.”  95
  The Judge knew something of wines, and could tell all the famous old Madeiras from each other,—“Eclipse,” “Juno,” the almost fabulously scarce and precious “White-top,” and the rest. He struck the nativity of the Mediterranean Madeira before it had fairly moistened his lip.  96
  “A sound wine, Colonel, and I should think of a genuine vintage. Your very good health.”  97
  “Deacon Soper,” said the Colonel, “here is some Madary Judge Thornton recommends. Let me fill you a glass of it.”  98
  The Deacon’s eyes glistened. He was one of those consistent Christians who stick firmly by the first miracle and Paul’s advice to Timothy.  99
  “A little good wine won’t hurt anybody,” said the Deacon. “Plenty,—plenty,—plenty. There!” He had not withdrawn his glass, while the Colonel was pouring, for fear it should spill, and now it was running over.  100
  ——It is very odd how all a man’s philosophy and theology are at the mercy of a few drops of a fluid which the chemists say consists of nothing but C4O2H4. The Deacon’s theology fell off several points towards latitudinarianism in the course of the next ten minutes. He had a deep inward sense that everything was as it should be, human nature included. The little accidents of humanity, known collectively to moralists as sin, looked very venial to his growing sense of universal brotherhood and benevolence.  101
  “It will all come right,” the Deacon said to himself,—“I feel a joyful conviction that everything is for the best. I am favored with a blessed peace of mind, and a very precious season of good feelin’ toward my fellow-creturs.”  102
  A lusty young fellow happened to make a quick step backward just at that instant, and put his heel, with his weight on top of it, upon the Deacon’s toes.  103
  “Aigh! What the ’f d’ didos are y’ abaout with them great huffs o’ yourn?” said the Deacon, with an expression upon his features not exactly that of peace and good-will to men. The lusty young fellow apologized; but the Deacon’s face did not come right, and his theology backed round several points in the direction of total depravity.  104
  Some of the dashing young men in stand-up collars and extensive neckties, encouraged by Mr. Geordie, made quite free with the “Madary,” and even induced some of the more stylish girls—not of the mansion-house set but of the tip-top two-story families—to taste a little. Most of these young ladies made faces at it, and declared it was “perfectly horrid,” with that aspect of veracity peculiar to their age and sex.  105
  About this time a movement was made on the part of some of the mansion-house people to leave the supper-table. Miss Jane Trecothick had quietly hinted to her mother that she had had enough of it. Miss Arabella Thornton had whispered to her father that he had better adjourn this court to the next room. There were signs of migration,—a loosening of people in their places,—a looking about for arms to hitch on to.  106
  “Stop!” said the Colonel. “There’s something coming yet.——Ice-Cream!”  107
  The great folks saw that the play was not over yet, and that it was only polite to stay and see it out. The word “Ice-Cream” was no sooner whispered than it passed from one to another all down the tables. The effect was what might have been anticipated. Many of the guests had never seen this celebrated product of human skill, and to all the two-story population of Rockland it was the last expression of the art of pleasing and astonishing the human palate. Its appearance had been deferred for several reasons; first, because everybody would have attacked it, if it had come in with the other luxuries; secondly, because undue apprehensions were entertained (owing to want of experience) of its tendency to deliquesce and resolve itself with alarming rapidity into puddles of creamy fluid; and, thirdly, because the surprise would make a grand climax to finish off the banquet.  108
  There is something so audacious in the conception of ice-cream, that it is not strange that a population undebauched by the luxury of great cities looks upon it with a kind of awe and speaks of it with a certain emotion. This defiance of the seasons, forcing Nature to do her work of congelation in the face of her sultriest noon, might well inspire a timid mind with fear lest human art were revolting against the Higher Powers, and raise the same scruples which resisted the use of ether and chloroform in certain contingencies. Whatever may be the cause, it is well known that the announcement at any private rural entertainment that there is to be ice-cream produces an immediate and profound impression. It may be remarked, as aiding this impression, that exaggerated ideas are entertained as to the dangerous effects this congealed food may produce on persons not in the most robust health.  109
  There was silence as the pyramids of ice were placed on the table, everybody looking on in admiration. The Colonel took a knife and assailed the one at the head of the table. When he tried to cut off a slice, it didn’t seem to understand it, however, and only tipped, as if it wanted to upset. The Colonel attacked it on the other side and it tipped just as badly the other way. It was awkward for the Colonel. “Permit me,” said the Judge,—and he took the knife and struck a sharp slanting stroke which sliced off a piece just of the right size, and offered it to Mrs. Sprowle. This act of dexterity was much admired by the company.  110
  The tables were all alive again.  111
  “Lorindy, here’s a plate of ice-cream,” said Silas Peckham.  112
  “Come, Mahaly,” said a fresh-looking young fellow with a saucerful in each hand, “here’s your ice-cream;—let’s go in the corner and have a celebration, us two.” And the old green delaine, with the young curves under it to make it sit well, moved off as pleased apparently as if it had been silk velvet with thousand-dollar laces over it.  113
  “Oh, now, Miss Green! do you think it’s safe to put that cold stuff into your stomick?” said the Widow Leech to a young married lady, who, finding the air rather warm, thought a little ice would cool her down very nicely. “It’s jest like eatin’ snowballs. You don’t look very rugged; and I should be dreadful afeard, if I was you”——  114
  “Carrie,” said old Dr. Kittredge, who had overheard this,—“how well you’re looking this evening! But you must be tired and heated;—sit down here, and let me give you a good slice of ice-cream. How you young folks do grow up, to be sure! I don’t feel quite certain whether it’s you or your older sister, but I know it’s somebody I call Carrie, and that I’ve known ever since”——  115
  A sound something between a howl and an oath startled the company and broke off the Doctor’s sentence. Everybody’s eyes turned in the direction from which it came. A group instantly gathered round the person who had uttered it, who was no other than Deacon Soper.  116
  “He’s chokin’! he’s chokin’!” was the first exclamation,—“slap him on the back!”  117
  Several heavy fists beat such a tattoo on his spine that the Deacon felt as if at least one of his vertebræ would come up.  118
  “He’s black in the face,” said Widow Leech,—“he’s swallered somethin’ the wrong way. Where’s the Doctor?—let the Doctor get to him, can’t ye?”  119
  “If you will move, my good lady, perhaps I can,” said Dr. Kittredge, in a calm tone of voice.—“He’s not choking, my friends,” the Doctor added immediately, when he got sight of him.  120
  “It’s apoplexy,—I told you so,—don’t you see how red he is in the face?” said old Mrs. Peake, a famous woman for “nussin” sick folks—determined to be a little ahead of the Doctor.  121
  “It’s not apoplexy,” said Dr. Kittredge.  122
  “What is it, Doctor? what is it? Will he die? Is he dead?—Here’s his poor wife, the Widow Soper that is to be, if she a’n’t a’ready”——  123
  “Do be quiet, my good woman,” said Dr. Kittredge.—“Nothing serious, I think, Mrs. Soper.—Deacon!”  124
  The sudden attack of Deacon Soper had begun with the extraordinary sound mentioned above. His features had immediately assumed an expression of intense pain, his eyes staring wildly, and, clapping his hands to his face, he had rocked his head backward and forward in speechless agony.  125
  At the Doctor’s sharp appeal the Deacon lifted his head.  126
  “It’s all right,” said the Doctor, as soon as he saw his face. “The Deacon had a smart attack of neuralgic pain. That’s all. Very severe, but not at all dangerous.”  127
  The Doctor kept his countenance, but his diaphragm was shaking the change in his waistcoat-pockets with subterranean laughter. He had looked through his spectacles and seen at once what had happened. The Deacon, not being in the habit of taking his nourishment in the congealed state, had treated the ice-cream as a pudding of a rare species, and, to make sure of doing himself justice in its distribution, had taken a large mouthful of it without the least precaution. The consequence was a sensation as if a dentist were killing the nerves of twenty-five teeth at once with hot irons, or cold ones, which would hurt rather worse.  128
  The Deacon swallowed something with a spasmodic effort, and recovered pretty soon and received the congratulations of his friends. There were different versions of the expressions he had used at the onset of his complaint,—some of the reported exclamations involving a breach of propriety, to say the least,—but it was agreed that a man in an attack of neuralgy wasn’t to be judged of by the rules that applied to other folks.  129
 
 
CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX TO AUTHORS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors