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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XI. Descensus Averni

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That fair hostess, in all the beauty of her shoulders, rose to greet him, from a table where six or eight guests yet lingered over flowers and wine. The gentlemen were smoking, and some of the ladies were trying to look at ease with cigarettes. Malbone knew the whole company, and greeted them with his accustomed ease. He would not have been embarrassed if they had been the Forty Thieves. Some of them, indeed, were not so far removed from that fabled band, only it was their fortunes, instead of themselves, that lay in the jars of oil.

"You find us all here," said Mrs. Ingleside, sweetly. "We will wait till the gentlemen finish their cigars, before driving."

"Count me in, please," said Blanche, in her usual vein of frankness. "Unless mamma wishes me to conclude my weed on the Avenue. It would be fun, though. Fancy the dismay of the Frenchmen and the dowagers!"

"And old Lambert," said one of the other girls, delightedly.

"Yes," said Blanche. "The elderly party from the rural districts, who talks to us about the domestic virtues of the wife of his youth."

"Thinks women should cruise with a broom at their mast-heads, like Admiral somebody in England," said another damsel, who was rolling a cigarette for a midshipman.

"You see we do not follow the English style," said the smooth hostess to Philip. "Ladies retiring after dinner! After all, it is a coarse practice. You agree with me, Mr. Malbone?"

"Speak your mind," said Blanche, coolly. "Don't say yes if you'd rather not. Because we find a thing a bore, you've no call to say so."

"I always say," continued the matron, "that the presence of woman is needed as a refining influence."

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Malbone looked round for the refining influences. Blanche was tilted back in her chair, with one foot on the rung of the chair before her, resuming a loud-toned discourse with Count Posen as to his projected work on American society. She was trying to extort a promise that she should appear in its pages, which, as we all remember, she did. One of her attendant nymphs sat leaning her elbows on the table, "talking horse" with a gentleman who had an undoubted professional claim to a knowledge of that commodity. Another, having finished her manufactured cigarette, was making the grinning midshipman open his lips wider and wider to receive it. Mrs. Ingleside was talking in her mincing way with a Jew broker, whose English was as imperfect as his morals, and who needed nothing to make him a millionnaire but a turn of bad luck for somebody else. Half the men in the room would have felt quite ill at ease in any circle of refined women, but there was not one who did not feel perfectly unembarrassed around Mrs. Ingleside's board.

"Upon my word," thought Malbone, "I never fancied the English after-dinner practice, any more than did Napoleon. But if this goes on, it is the gentlemen who ought to withdraw. Cannot somebody lead the way to the drawing-room, and leave the ladies to finish their cigars?"

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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