The party in the drawing-room--I had walked straight in, you understand, without ringing the bell, or giving any notice of my approach-- consisted of four laughing rosy children, of ages from about fourteen down to ten, who were, apparently, all coming towards the door (I found they were really walking backwards), while their mother, seated by the fire with some needlework on her lap, was saying, just as I entered the room, "Now, girls, you may get your things on for a walk."
To my utter astonishment--for I was not yet accustomed to the action of the Watch "all smiles ceased', (as Browning says) on the four pretty faces, and they all got out pieces of needle-work, and sat down. No one noticed me in the least, as I quietly took a chair and sat down to watch them.
When the needle-work had been unfolded, and they were all ready to begin, their mother said "Come, that's done, at last! You may fold up your work, girls." But the children took no notice whatever of the remark; on the contrary, they set to work at once sewing--if that is the proper word to describe an operation such as I had never before witnessed. Each of them threaded her needle with a short end of thread attached to the work, which was instantly pulled by an invisible force through the stuff, dragging the needle after it: the nimble fingers of the little sempstress caught it at the other side, but only to lose it again the next moment. And so the work went on, steadily undoing itself, and the neatly-stitched little dresses, or whatever they were, steadily falling to pieces. Now and then one of the children would pause, as the recovered thread became inconveniently long, wind it on a bobbin, and start again with another short end.
At last all the work was picked to pieces and put away, and the lady led the way into the next room, walking backwards, and making the insane remark "Not yet, dear: we must get the sewing done first." After which, I was not surprised to see the children skipping backwards after her, exclaiming "Oh, mother, it is such a lovely day for a walk!"
In the dining-room, the table had only dirty plates and empty dishes on it. However the party--with the addition of a gentleman, as good-natured, and as rosy, as the children--seated themselves at it very contentedly.
You have seen people eating cherry-tart, and every now and then cautiously conveying a cherry-stone from their lips to their plates? Well, something like that went on all through this ghastly--or shall we say 'ghostly'?---banquet. An empty fork is raised to the lips: there it receives a neatly-cut piece of mutton, and swiftly conveys it to the plate, where it instantly attaches itself to the mutton already there. Soon one of the plates, furnished with a complete slice of mutton and two potatoes, was handed up to the presiding gentleman, who quietly replaced the slice on the joint, and the potatoes in the dish.
Their conversation was, if possible, more bewildering than their mode of dining. It began by the youngest girl suddenly, and without provocation, addressing her eldest sister. "Oh, you wicked story-teller!" she said.
I expected a sharp reply from the sister; but, instead of this, she turned laughingly to her father, and said, in a very loud stage-whisper, "To be a bride!"
The father, in order to do his part in a conversation that seemed only fit for lunatics, replied "Whisper it to me, dear."
But she didn't whisper (these children never did anything they were told): she said, quite loud, "Of course not! Everybody knows what Dotty wants!"
And little Dolly shrugged her shoulders, and said, with a pretty pettishness, "Now, Father, you're not to tease! You know I don't want to be bride's-maid to anybody!"
"And Dolly's to be the fourth," was her father's idiotic reply.
Here Number Three put in her oar. "Oh, it is settled, Mother dear, really and truly! Mary told us all about it. It's to be next Tuesday four weeks--and three of her cousins are coming; to be bride's-maids-- and--"
"She doesn't forget it, Minnie!" the Mother laughingly replied. "I do wish they'd get it settled! I don't like long engagements."
And Minnie wound up the conversation--if so chaotic a series of remarks deserves the name--with "Only think! We passed the Cedars this morning, just exactly as Mary Davenant was standing at the gate, wishing good-bye to Mister---I forget his name.