The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xxv

A Visit to Some Country Snobs

Of the dinner to which we now sat down, I am not going to be a severe critic. The mahogany I hold to be inviolable; but this I will say, that I prefer sherry to marsala when I can get it, and the latter was the wine of which I have no doubt I heard the ‘cloop’ just before dinner. Nor was it particularly good of its kind; however, Mrs. Major Ponto did not evidently know the difference, for she called the liquor Amontillado during the whole of the repast, and drank but half a glass of it, leaving the rest for the Major and his guest.

Stripes was in the livery of the Ponto family — a thought shabby, but gorgeous in the extreme — lots of magnificent worsted lace, and livery buttons of a very notable size. The honest fellow’s hands, I remarked, were very large and black; and a fine odour of the stable was wafted about the room as he moved to and fro in his ministration. I should have preferred a clean maidservant, but the sensations of Londoners are too acute perhaps on these subjects; and a faithful John, after all, IS more genteel.

From the circumstance of the dinner being composed of pig’s-head mock-turtle soup, of pig’s fry and roast ribs of pork, I am led to imagine that one of Ponto’s black Hampshires had been sacrificed a short time previous to my visit. It was an excellent and comfortable repast; only there WAS rather a sameness in it, certainly. I made a similar remark the next day’.

During the dinner Mrs. Ponto asked me many questions regarding the nobility, my relatives. ‘When Lady Angelina Skeggs would come out; and if the countess her mamma’ (this was said with much archness and he-heing) ‘still wore that extraordinary purple hair-dye?’ ‘Whether my Lord Guttlebury kept, besides his French chef, and an English cordonbleu for the roasts, an Italian for the confectionery?’

‘Who attended at Lady Clapperclaw’s conversazioni?’ and ‘whether Sir John Champignon’s “Thursday Mornings” were pleasant?’ ‘Was it true that Lady Carabas, wanting to pawn her diamonds, found that they were paste, and that the Marquis had disposed of them beforehand?’ ‘How was it that Snuffin, the great tobacco-merchant, broke off the marriage which was on the tapis between him and their second daughter; and was it true that a mulatto lady came over from the Havanna and forbade the match?’

‘Upon my word, Madam,’ I had begun, and was going on to say that I didn’t know one word about all these matters which seemed so to interest Mrs. Major Ponto, when the Major, giving me a tread or stamp with his large foot under the table, said —‘Come, come, Snob my boy, we are all tiled, you know. We KNOW you’re one of the fashionable people about town: we saw your name at Lady Clapperclaw’s SOIREES, and the Champignon breakfasts; and as for the Rubadubs, of course, as relations ——’

‘Oh, of course, I dine there twice a-week,’ I said; and then I remembered that my cousin, Humphry Snob, of the Middle Temple, IS a great frequenter of genteel societies, and to have seen his name in the MORNING POST at the tag-end of several party lists. So, taking the hint, I am ashamed to say I indulged Mrs. Major Ponto with a deal of information about the first families in England, such as would astonish those great personages if they knew it. I described to her most accurately the three reigning beauties of last season at Almack’s: told her in confidence that his Grace the D—— of W—— was going to be married the day after his Statue was put up; that his Grace the D—— of D—— was also about to lead the fourth daughter of the Archduke Stephen to the hymeneal altar:— and talked to her, in a word, just in the style of Mrs. Gore’s last fashionable novel.

Mrs. Major was quite fascinated by this brilliant conversation. She began to trot out scraps of French, just for all the world as they do in the novels; and kissed her hand to me quite graciously, telling me to come soon to caffy, UNG PU DE MUSICK O SALONG— with which she tripped off like an elderly fairy.

‘Shall I open a bottle of port, or do you ever drink such a thing as Hollands and water?’ says Ponto, looking ruefully at me. This was a very different style of thing to what I had been led to expect from him at our smoking-room at the Club: where he swaggers about his horses and his cellar: and slapping me on the shoulder used to say, ‘Come down to Mangelwurzelshire, Snob my boy, and I’ll give you as good a day’s shooting and as good a glass of claret as any in the county.’—‘Well,’ I said, ‘I like Hollands much better than port, and gin even better than Hollands.’ This was lucky. It WAS gin; and Stripes brought in hot water on a splendid plated tray.

The jingling of a harp and piano soon announced that Mrs. Ponto’s ung PU DE MUSICK had commenced, and the smell of the stable again entering the dining-room, in the person of Stripes, summoned us to CAFFY and the little concert. She beckoned me with a winning smile to the sofa, on which she made room for me, and where we could command a fine view of the backs of the young ladies who were performing the musical entertainment. Very broad backs they were too, strictly according to the present mode, for crinoline or its substitutes is not an expensive luxury, and young people in the country can afford to be in the fashion at very trifling charges. Miss Emily Ponto at the piano, and her sister Maria at that somewhat exploded instrument, the harp, were in light blue dresses that looked all flounce, and spread out like Mr. Green’s balloon when inflated.

‘Brilliant touch Emily has — what a fine arm Maria’s is,’ Mrs. Ponto remarked good-naturedly, pointing out the merits of her daughters, and waving her own arm in such a way as to show that she was not a little satisfied with the beauty of that member. I observed she had about nine bracelets and bangles, consisting of chains and padlocks, the Major’s miniature, and a variety of brass serpents with fiery ruby or tender turquoise eyes, writhing up to her elbow almost, in the most profuse contortions.

‘You recognize those polkas? They were played at Devonshire House on the 23rd of July, the day of the grand fête.’ So I said yes — I knew ’em quite intimately; and began wagging my head as if in acknowledgment of those old friends.

When the performance was concluded, I had the felicity of a presentation and conversation with the two tall and scraggy Miss Pontos; and Miss Wirt, the governess, sat down to entertain us with variations on ‘Sich a gettin’ up Stairs.’ They were determined to be in the fashion.

For the performance of the ‘Gettin’ up Stairs,’ I have no other name but that it was a STUNNER. First Miss Wirt, with great deliberation, played the original and beautiful melody, cutting it, as it were, out of the instrument, and firing off each note so loud, clear, and sharp, that I am sure Stripes must have heard it in the stable.

‘What a finger!’ says Mrs. Ponto; and indeed it WAS a finger, as knotted as a turkey’s drumstick, and splaying all over the piano. When she had banged out the tune slowly, she began a different manner of ‘Gettin’ up Stairs,’ and did so with a fury and swiftness quite incredible. She spun up stairs; she whirled up stairs: she galloped up stairs; she rattled up stairs; and then having got the tune to the top landing, as it were, she hurled it down again shrieking to the bottom floor, where it sank in a crash as if exhausted by the breathless rapidity of the descent. Then Miss Wirt played the ‘Gettin’ up Stairs’ with the most pathetic and ravishing solemnity: plaintive moans and sobs issued from the keys — you wept and trembled as you were gettin’ up stairs. Miss Wirt’s hands seemed to faint and wail and die in variations: again, and she went up with a savage clang and rush of trumpets, as if Miss Wirt was storming a breach; and although I knew nothing of music, as I sat and listened with my mouth open to this wonderful display, my CAFFY grew cold, and I wondered the windows did not crack and the chandelier start out of the beam at the sound of this earthquake of a piece of music.

‘Glorious creature! Isn’t she?’ said Mrs. Ponto. ‘Squirtz’s favourite pupil — inestimable to have such a creature. Lady Carabas would give her eyes for her! A prodigy of accomplishments! Thank you, Miss Wirt’— and the young ladies gave a heave and a gasp of admiration — a deep-breathing gushing sound, such as you hear at church when the sermon comes to a full stop.

Miss Wirt put her two great double-knuckled hands round a waist of her two pupils, and said, ‘My dear children, I hope you will be able to play it soon as well as your poor little governess. When I lived with the Dunsinanes, it was the dear Duchess’s favourite, and Lady Barbara and Lady Jane McBeth learned it. It was while hearing Jane play that, I remember, that dear Lord Castletoddy first fell in love with her; and though he is but an Irish Peer, with not more than fifteen thousand a year, I persuaded Jane to have him. Do you know Castletoddy, Mr. Snob? — round towers — sweet place-County Mayo. Old Lord Castletoddy (the present Lord was then Lord Inishowan) was a most eccentric old man — they say he was mad. I heard his Royal Highness the poor dear Duke of Sussex —(SUCH a man, my dears, but alas! addicted to smoking!)— I heard his Royal Highness say to the Marquis of Anglesey, “I am sure Castletoddy is mad!” but Inishowan wasn’t in marrying my sweet Jane, though the dear child had but her ten thousand pounds POUR TOUT POTAGE!’

‘Most invaluable person,’ whispered Mrs. Major Ponto to me. ‘Has lived in the very highest society:’ and I, who have been accustomed to see governesses bullied in the world, was delighted to find this one ruling the roast, and to think that even the majestic Mrs. Ponto bent before her.

As for my pipe, so to speak, it went out at once. I hadn’t a word to say against a woman who was intimate with every Duchess in the Red Book. She wasn’t the rosebud, but she had been near it. She had rubbed shoulders with the great, and about these we talked all the evening incessantly, and about the fashions, and about the Court, until bed-time came.

‘And are there Snobs in this Elysium?’ I exclaimed, jumping into the lavender-perfumed bed. Ponto’s snoring boomed from the neighbouring bed-room in reply.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00