Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Bird of Paradise

Chapter VI. Madame Pompadour and the Ambrosial High-Priest

Chapter VI. Madame Pompadour and the Ambrosial High-Priest.

From the East India Docks, London, as medical officer of the sailing-ship "Harbinger," Eugene sailed for the scene of the Afghan War. Through the translucent blue of the Mediterranean, the scorching Red Sea and the fair Trade winds, he reached Bombay. Soon after the outbreak ended, and he finally sailed for the purlieus of his youth and his home by the Atlantic Steamship Company's s.s. "Savannah." On the quay he was welcomed by his old parents and Christy-minstrel Dolly, who by leaps and bounds had risen to the position of third engineer in the service of the Mississippi Steam Navigation Company.

The six months in Chicago, stipulated by the young gentleman of the family, although he had gone there five years before, had not yet expired, but the extraction process was still in full swing. Letters arrived every mail from Brosie, explaining that he was fast becoming one of the greatest lights of the dental kosmos in America and other parts of the world, and urging his father to forward on to him every page 29dollar he could put his hands upon at once, as he was preparing to return and wanted to get together a full stock of instruments pertaining to mechanical and surgical dentistry.

In every letter he would conclude with the declaration of coming American independence: in that the ball was at his foot in Louisiana, and all he had to do was to kick it off, when out of it would roll a fortune for every one of his relations and friends. Two years he was preparing to return, working not a spinning treadle but a double-handled pump up till the day of his departure: one letter coming to his father asking for more and more, and another to his brother, the doctor, imploring him to send dollars by the hundred, without saying anything about it to "the old man."

One "General Wash," of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States of America, wrote several seemingly inspired letters, filling sheet after sheet of foolscap1 and extolling Brosie to the skies; but whether General Wash was in command of a Salvation army, or whether he was in charge of the American State militia, as distinct and alien to the Salvation army, nobody in Lily Cottage could divine. Judging from Brosie's former characteristics, it was surmised that General Wash was some beggarly old tap-room loafer who had been ironically or facetiously nick-named "The General."

All this time the young gentleman was riding the high horse in Chicago. He had obtained his certificate as Doctor of Dental Surgery years before he returned, and was simply painting the city of Chicago red. Dinners, where champagne and rich viands covered the table a quarter of a mile long, all the students of Chicago College, Apricot Street, were supplied with by poor old Christopher Whitworth's money. Race-meetings, where the cheques for instruments were melted in backing some outsider that always remained an outsider; faro-banks, lotteries and policy-shops; methodical losses at nap, spoil five, and sing-tai-loo; bouquets, the size of frying-pans, as presents to barmaids, and wholesale convivial shoutings for the crowd inside and outside the bars of the cafés were, when all was said and done, potential grounds for Brosie's necessitous appeals. Indeed, it was looked upon as a perfect feat and a miracle that he could feed so many with the money which he received from Lily Cottage.

Shortly after his brother, the Doctor of Medicine, had arrived in America, he received an appointment to carry on the practice of a deceased medical man at Augusta, on behalf of the widow, a comely lady, who had been left by her departing husband in debt and with the legacy of thirteen children to support. In this appointment he remained eighteen months, playing a sort of game of chivey or chess against the efforts of the forlorn lady to keep him friendly with her step-daughter, and dodging the charms of the fair Caroline herself.

Caroline was a gay and petite blonde, with large, mellow blue eyes as big as saucers, and a fine contralto voice. A piebald pony spanked along every morning with Carrie a couple of miles to the residence of a pro-page 30prietor of a bone-mill. The proprietor of "The Sun Bone Mill" was known by the name of Hind, and his wife, who was generally known as Madame Pompadour, that being her nom de plume as a costumière before she married Hind, had all the airs and graces of a lady-in-waiting at the court in the time of Queen Anne, if not more. Madame was highly proficient in all the fashionable fiddle-faddle of the town. The bone-miller was doing a roaring trade at the time, and had been polished up by the courtly and prim Madame Pompadour, alias Mrs. Hind the fifth, before he made his début amongst the fin de siécle society of her friends.

He was a very crude, diminutive, smart, wiry looking old man about sixty-seven, with full-blown cheeks, a stubbly red beard and a moustache like a worn-out scrubbing brush; but after four years' tuition at the hands of his fifth and prudish wife, he could handle a knife and fork with any man of his age in the town, and was even so fastidious as to manipulate them around a bunch of grapes. Sometimes, however, if he felt sure nobody was looking, he would suck his fingers, drink the wine out of the decanter, and wipe his mouth with the table-cloth.

There was a splendid school within a stone's throw of the bone-miller's mansion, but it looked far more aristocratic to have a special governess coming to the place; so Carrie, whose mother was an old friend of Madame Pompadour, received the patronage of the appointment and one hundred dollars a year.

A lout of a groom, with a soft slouch hat on the back of his head and a pipe stuck eternally in his mouth, would bustle up the piebald pony to within a hundred yards of the mansion, when Carrie would alight behind a big tree to shut out the profile of the lout and the pipe from the view of the high-born Madame. Then the piebald pony would spank back again and take the doctor on his rounds among the lodge patients2; spank up to the bone-miller's to bring Carrie home to dinner; wait till Carrie had her dinner; spank back to the bone-miller's again, return to take the doctor to see some more lodge patients; spank home with him, and spank up and down again for Carrie.

Madame had a dress, if she liked to put it on, for every day in the year; but her chief and very effective affectation was a costume of Royal blue foulard3, carrying out the idea of falling water, with rippling lines of white on a blue ground; while on the left side of the front nestled some beautiful pink roses, from which fell a rain of violets: Parisian black bonnet and a natty black sunshade with a very long handle and a black ribbon tied around it in the middle. The sunshade seemed to be always in mourning for the bone-miller's former wives—none of her own people were dead. She would pick up with any conceited bit of a boy, and so entrance him that he would follow her home all the way the piebald pony had to spank so many times a day. The boys appeared to afford good practice to Madame for flirtation. She would look down into their faces with a gloriously curving smile, and a face like the diagrams of the rising sun in Ayer's Almanac4, bend low her head, and with overweening grace rear it into a page 31vertical position again as if she were describing the arc of a circle with her head in the air, and had a gate-spring in her corset to enable her to do it properly. Some thought that the beads off the black bonnet were constantly dropping down her back, and she was manœuvering to let them drop out altogether.

In every point of etiquette of the drawing-room, the quiet evening, the musical evening, at dinner, in church, the street, the afternoon, a garden party, the ball-room, and indeed in all matters pertaining to calisthenic deportment and vanity in general, she had few rivals. Even the pronunciation of her words was studied with the view of adding primness and prettiness to her lips. She was ungrammatically voluble in speech, profuse in gesture, and altogether highly voyânte and theatrical.

Strange! everybody who knew her said there was no affectation whatever about Madame, albeit there was not a drop of Gallic blood in her composition, and that all her actions were perfectly in consonance with her inborn nature. Another theory, that she was a trifle deficient, was hinted at, and a story that she had, in a fit of puerperal5 mania, painted a new-born bone-miller all over with tar and stuck feathers in it, lent some weight to this proposition. Still, she carried the sunshade before the alleged playful peculiarity. The little bone-miller died. Poor little bone-miller!

"Rudolph, my dear," said Madame one morning to the old bone-miller, "the Bishop of South America is coming to Augusta next week, and I am going to send cards to a few (two hundred) of my friends, requesting the pleasure of their company in meeting him, my dear. What day, my dear, will you be going to New Orleans?"

"Thursday, my dear," replied Rudolph, and he brushed the rouge off her face with the worn-out scrubbing brush kissing her, and going out shouted—"Never mind me, my dear, fire away with the Bishop—so long, my dear."

Madame issued two hundred pretty blue cartes d'invitation, gilded on the edges, with an ear turned down at the right hand corner, daisies imprinted on them, and returnable for Thursday. With her own hands, she helped in the kitchen with the sociable afternoon cakes, petit fours, and other knick-knacks, and tapped the admiral6 of every barrel of wine the old bone-miller had in the cellar.

For Thursday she wore an apple-green satin gown and a brocaded train, of pale citron colour, lined with bright orange satin, and covered with yellow and white daisies: the bodice tres decolletée, and trimmed with a kind of Lorne sleeve lace. Before getting out of bed on Thursday she practised sundry evolutions, after the manner of a juggler, with a large swansdown fan. Calling up all her powers of fascination, she received each guest in the handsome and spacious drawing-room.

From the city came first a fawning and impudent barrister, bringing with him his dowdy down-in-the-mouth wife, with an air of aristocratic morgue7 about her, to whom, from her regular page 32fecundity, attached the complimentary title of "the Cow." A swarm of small fry then swam in, followed by a thick flight of the insect tribe, each little atomy receiving an elaborate Indian salaam, the swansdown fan adding considerably to the effect, always maintaining its proper position, according to the book of rules on etiquette for the afternoon and evening, and working like an automaton in perpetual unison with Madame's peachy face.

Caroline carolled, that she could never forget one night in June upon the Sabine River, to her own accompaniment, and accompanied the barrister who, unasked, sang—"The Happy Princess,"8 avowing before Madame, in one part of the song, that the happy Princess followed him, while "the Cow" languished in the corner like a figure from the waxworks.

Eugene arrived in his ordinary clothes, which, if he had taken off his coat, would have disclosed blood on his shirt sleeves. This, however, did not detract from the profundity of the salaaming salutation, and Madame looked as if she had got a crick in the back after it was performed. Indeed, Madame seemed to show a penchant for Whitworth, and unfurled a lengthy rigmarole of rubbish into one of his ears and out of the other.

His brother, Dolly, who had discarded the Christy minstrel costume for a few days holiday, had received an invitation, and came in the rig of a midshipman, with a brass-bound coat, blue serge bell-bottomed pants, and a badge with the name of Shaw, Savill and Co. on it in brass letters. Perhaps, he thought there might be a hornpipe wanted at the fancy-dress ball in honour of the Bishop, if not a shanty. When questioned if he sang, he replied with another question—if anybody had a concertina or two bones in his waistcoat pocket. Nobody had a concertina or two bones anywhere, so he rendered the solo of "The Hairy Man from Egypt," without music. He then consulted his silver watch, the size of a plate, and coolly walked out of the room to borrow a mouth-organ from the servant in the kitchen.

The last song, touching upon scriptural history, brought the Bishop, whose delay up till then had kept Madame's pulses falling fast; but every symptom of apoplexy set in when the butler put his powdered head into the room and announced the Venerable the Moderator of the Synod of Melanesia, and almost in the same breath "His Lordship, the Bishop of South America."

Two Titanic salaams, two great oscillations of the fan, and the chiefs of of the Church militant were informed that they were as welcome as the flowers of May.

The Venerable the Moderator of the Synod appeared to have brought a guitar with him. He fell, in his habitual patriarchal way, upon the neck of Madame and upon the necks of all the ladies, young and old, and kissed them all in turn; while the brusque Dolly returned wondering if the Moderator was old Hind, the bone-miller. Then, pulling up the baggy knees of his trousers, the venerable man page 33flopped down upon an ottoman and took the green baize cover off the guitar. When the cover was taken off it was not a guitar. It was a gridiron. He felt anxious to show it to Madame, as it was something new, and he had recently brought it from New York. It looked like two frying-pans tied together, open face to open face, and had special grooves for catching the gravy. Not a drop could escape. He carried it about the town, smacking his chops, with the object of explaining to the ladies what an invention it was and what wonders came from New York.

The Venerable man was a perfect bon mouche and gourmet, and he would never accept an invitation unless he had been to the house before and felt sure of a good feed. If a duck was left on the table, on the party leaving the house, he would slip into the room again and slip the duck into his pocket or his hat. On his return from New York, during his sojourn in Augusta, wherever he visited, the gridiron accompanied him, and his fatherly old chops would slober over the young ladies at every opportunity, until some reporter satirised him in the newspapers, in an article headed—"The Patriarch of the Tropic of Capricorn and the Gridiron." The patriarch threatened to crack the skull of the reporter for ridiculing him; the old-gooseberry proprietor of the paper apologised and the patriarch kissed the girls never any more.

His Lordship the Bishop was a man about 6ft. 4in. high. His face was like that of Apollo. He was one of the few great beacon lights of the church and was esteemed throughout the length and breadth of the States. A great historian and a paragon orator, he discoursed before thousands hermeneutics, apologetics, Celtic heathendom, the writings of the Talmud, and Zoroastrianism.

He had no ear for music. His stalwart and statuesque form stood leaning against the mantel-piece most of the afternoon talking to Whitworth, the Bar coming up occasionally to examine and cross-examine the bishop after putting everybody else in the room with his eye-glass through the ordeal of the witness box. The bishop had known Eugene before at the London University, and, when at the outset Madame had proffered a mutual introduction, she was check-mated by the bishop saying he had known him before; whereupon the face of the hostess assumed an expression of disconcerted morgue as she sniffed at the bouquet of Catherine Mermet9 and yellow roses brought by Caroline.

Shortly after, she approached Eugene and drawing him away from the bishop, "Dr. Whitworth," she said, "Carrie is going to sing and might I in all due difference and in all due observance to the proprieties and in all due difference to high and proper decorum together with the full knowledge that your entente cordials with Carrie is so great in her own proper home which needless for me to remark is your own proper home as well as Carrie's proper home and in all due respect to her dear Ma my very esteemed and amiable friend who is doing me the honour of her company this evening and with all the modesty I hope and trust and always will possess suggest that you should be so gracious as to conduct her to the page 34piano and to stand beside Carrie on the right hand side which is needless for me to remark according to the book of etiquette for the drawing-room is the true position for the gentleman while we listen to Carrie's charming and mellifluous voice."

"With the greatest of pleasure, Madame," said Eugene. "in fact, I was just going to do what you say;" but he looked as if he wasn't thinking of Carrie.

He stalked over to the piano, where the young lady was already sitting. He asked her to wink her eye when she wanted him to turn over a page of the music which she intended to play instead of singing a song. It was a piece like Brahm's variations of a theme by Haydn—"The Ride of the Walkyries." Afterwards, she sang to "the Cow's" accompaniment, that if to remember her would give him pain, he could remember her no more, for which everybody but the bishop said 'thank-you.' It sounded like a spoken, subdued, little chorus. After a play the Roman actors used to say "nunc plaudite."10 Madame led off and directed the chorus with the fan, while Eugene, whose manners and ignorance of the etiquette for the drawing-room were positively execrable, left Carrie standing at the piano with "the Cow," and went out with his lordship to have a smoke in the stable.

After a game of "beggar my neighbour," charades and "hunt the slipper," the Bar, having examined and cross-examined every witness in the room, proceeded to address the jury with a long recitation declaring he was not mad, and when dinner was announced it seemed as if Madame had obtained a loan of St. John's bells for the occasion.

Madame field-marshalled the guests. Bar presumptiously appropriated most of the young ladies, examining and cross-examining them closely with the eye-glass on the march. His lordship showed Madame where her own dining-room lay, after she had made the little arrangement that Eugene should pilot in Caroline. This arrangement, however, was a bad one. Carrie did not forget that Eugene had left her unceremoniously at the piano, and he was afraid to open his mouth in case Carrie would snap his nose off, so that, thinking there was sufficient noise, Eugene and his protégé marched in silence behind the Synod and "the Cow."

Who should be perched at the head of the table in the dining-room, holding the carving knife and fork with the handles downwards and the points up in the air, but the old bone-miller himself! He had missed the train to the city, and would not miss "the evening" for the world. He was very glad to see the bishop, and told his lordship to make himself at home and not to break any bones over the thing. The young gentlemen, especially the Bar, attended in a most chivalrous manner and cavalierly style to the requirements of the young ladies. Poor Carrie was left to look after herself, Eugene going once the length of begging her pardon for his inadvertence in not passing her the salad in the silver-plated caviar dish surrounded by little wells for holding cracked ice. So great was the floral decoration of the table that the guests could not see their opposite neighbours.

page 35

"Do have one of my rosaniline11 jellies, Dr. Whitworth: I must confess I made it myself," said Madame, her voice escaping from among the nosegays, and putting one on a plate which the waiter placed under his nose. It looked like a sea-anemone. He frowned at it, and thinking it was alive, tickled it up with the fork, while Dolly, at the far end of the table, in martyrdom, sat looking very much like a jelly-fish out of water, or casting side-long glances at his brother. The jelly looked almost perfect in colouring, but he felt suspicious of the noté hurlante12 of its aniline vices.

Soon, with proper and preconcerted action, as the old bone-miller sat simpering and grinning at the powerful phrases of the majestic bishop, Madame rose upborne like a queen-bee, and all the bees swarmed after her back to the drawingroom hive.

"I am afraid, Dr. Whitworth," said Madame, sitting down beside him on the flower-figured sofa, "you do not enjoy my evening. I had some hopes you would enjoy my evening and not to make a story too long which is I maintain one of the principal rules in conversation brevity is the soul of wit as the poet says and according to the recentest works on etiquette for the table and thinking that as how we should all have the felicity of listening to that love-inspiring contracting and mellifluous voice which howsomever you often have the pleasure of living in the same house as the exquisite contralto owner and as most of the ladies at my drawing-room this afternoon remark that loved recollections and blighted hopes and hearts and darts find congenial soil in a quiet evening it occurred to me as I was about to say that something akin to fond memories might find also a blissful home in a musical evening which however is scarcely to the point as I may say as the saying goes inasmuch as not knowing how often yon might have the treat of hearing those mellifluous tones to remind you of the voice of the martingale in your own home which by the way is Carrie's home as well it occurred to me as I was just about to remark when the dinner-gongs rang that it might have been expected that it would have contributed in some measure to your enjoyment of my evening to hear those tones floating in the air and wafted upon the sighing breeze among some of my dear respected friends who all think in due difference that you would be a very fortunate man if as I was going to say——"

The Flying Dutchman, always shrinking and purblind in surroundings of vanity, had gone home, but old Hind the bone-miller and the venerable the Moderator, after finishing all the brands on the table, floundered into the drawingroom as red as two turkey-cocks, and both as merry and as jolly as the old wine-god himself. After the Bar had impeached the prisoners, appeared for the defence, and crown-prosecuted them and addressed the jury on their behalf, his lordship summed up the evidence, the jury returned their verdict of Guilty without leaving the box, and the roystering bacchanalians were sentenced by the head of the Church to execration, exorcism and excommunication for life.

page 36

The venerable the Moderator subsided on the sofa into a sonorous oboe-tuned sleep, while the old bone-miller roamed at large like a Russian bear intoxicated and let loose in the room, and every one of the jury poked borax13 at him, while Eugene began to enjoy the evening at last.

The musical evening having thus reached the proper climax, the church, the operating theatre, and the court rose for the night, sine noete14; the bees dispersed to their proper homes, and followed not the queen into her own hive. The piebald pony spanked along in a howling slanting thunder-storm, with Carrie, the doctor, the Bar, the Cow, two débutantes, young ladies of sweet seventeen, the lout, slouch hat and pipe, while one of the bees returned to the hive just as the queen was putting on her nightdress. He jangled the bell so hard that the Russian bear opened the door, and found it was the venerable the Moderator of the Synod, who held his foot between the door and the doorpost and insisted on seeing Madame.

The humming voice from the bedroom directed the bear to show the Church into the dining-room, where Madame, after re-robing, followed him, and the bear went out for more "auld Scottie" whisky; returning with which, he found the Church pouring forth some rigmarole from the psalms of David in knee-worship before Madame.

"Have a 'doch an' dhuris15,'" said the bear.

"Right you are, old man," said the Church, as it staggered up again on its foundation, and fell with a flopping plish-plash succussion of the contents of its commodious abdomen upon the dining-room floor.

Next morning as the servant entered to sweep the room she found the Moderator lying there as if he were dead; while the old bone-miller, still drunk, lay beside him inaudibly whispering in his ear.

1 A long folio writing- or printing-paper, varying in size. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 Lodge practice - whereby a physician provided care for the members of a [generally fraternal] society in exchange for an annual salary determined by the size of lodge membership. Beito 1994.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

3 A thin flexible material of silk, or of silk mixed with cotton. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

4 A popular American almanac; in its heyday, it was printed in 21 different languages. Rickards and Twyman 2000.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

5 Relating to a period of time after childbirth. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

6 Took a surreptitious drink. Related to myths surrounding the return of the body of Lord Nelson.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

7 A haughty and superior demeanour. OED Online, n.1

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

8 The Departure. Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

9 A pale pink tea-rose. Some references contemporary to Dutton include Otago Witness 23 August 1894. andGebbie Jr. 1895.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

10 Now applaud.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

11 A reddish-brown base used in making a number of red dyes; or any of the dyes thus made. OED Online. (See also 'aniline'.)

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

12 Uncertain; Possibly 'note of alarm'; hurlante is 'howling'.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

13 To poke fun at or mock. Green 2005.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

14 Probably an error for sine nocte, 'without (a full) night'.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

15 'Deoch an doris', a parting drink, literally 'drink at the door' (Gaelic). OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]