Thirteen at Table: 1876

Thirteen at Table.

The Wistarias give the nicest dinner in the Empire City. Their cook is a cordon bleu, a person whose soul lies in her art, who sends up a hot dinner, not one of those greasy, half-cold, unwholesome meals, that sour the temper and the stomach at one and the same moment.

The wines are of the rarest vintages, and always in good condition, the champagne being iced to a delicate coolness, refreshing to the palate after the highly spiced entree, and the claret at that mild warmth which the knowing ones irreverently term “the Sabbath calm.”

The table, too, is always laid to caress the eye; the light coming from wax-candles, with a mild radiance, while the silver and Dresden and flowers bespeak refinement, taste, aestheticism.

Wistaria was a large man, with a melancholy visage and a melancholy manner. He had a habit of looking out into the future with dreamy eyes, as if he was perpetually engaged in watching for the coming of some person or other, like Sister Anne in “Bluebeard.”

Mrs. Wistaria is a very elegant woman, well-read, gracious, and just that class of hostess who makes her house feel to her guests as though it was their own and not hers. By a graceful witchery she reverses things, acting as the guest, while in reality, the chatelaine.

There is one daughter of the house, and one son. Wynnie Wistaria is a bright girl of eighteen, with a murderous pair of black eyes, and lips ruddier than a cherry. Her teeth flash like diamonds, and her figure is one that Rossi would like to drape his luminous colored garments upon.

The son, Geoffrey, is a “swell,” a member of the Megatherium Club, a curled darling, who does Paris in Spring and Newport in the Fall. He is not a bad young fellow, but requires a lot of sitting upon.

Mr. Wistaria is a banker, lives in a palatial residence on Fifth Avenue, and is muchly trusted and respected.

I, James Hartopp, of the firm of Hartopp, Price & Hartopp, brokers, am twenty-eight years of age, tall, not bad-looking, wear my beard, and my share in the firm averages twenty thousand a year.

I met the Wistarias in Italy, in the Spring of ’76. We did Rome, Naples, and Venice together, and before we reached the Mount Cenis Tunnel on our return to Paris I found my heart had deserted to the colors of the piquant, fascinating, winsome Wynnie.

Why should I bore the reader with a physiological analysis of the condition of my feelings up to or subsequent to this palpitating period. Forbid it, ye gods! Olympus knows what I suffered and how I suffered, it is past now—the hopes, fears, agonies, distractions and—but I must not anticipate.

I received an invitation to dinner at No. — Filth Avenue for the 13th of April, 1876. The date is well engraven upon my memory.

At half-past seven o’clock I found myself in the superb drawing-room, and the first arrival.

I had a good minute to caress my beard to a point, to arrange the bow of my white choker, to adjust the pin of the bunch of flowers in my buttonhole, to wipe a speck of dust from my varnished boots, ere Wynnie appeared.

Didn’t she look lovely in diaphanous muslin, in a thousand rills and frills, and fringes and rosettes, and had she not, à deux mains, the bouquet that I had sent her during the day—a bouquet the size of a plum-pudding!

A few moments of delicious dalliance, and her mother rustled in, attired in all the finery of brocaded satin and rose-point and flashing diamonds.

“Ah, Mr. Hartopp. it’s so nice of you to be early— ‘on time,’ as the railway officials say. Punctuality is the soul of—dinner. By-the-way,” she added. ” a word in your ear,” taking me into a bay-window and letting down the lace curtains.

I did not know what was coming. She looked grave. My position toward Wynnie was doubtful. That I was an aspirant to her hand was true, but as yet I had not played my last stake, and there was another player at the same game—a Mr. Horace Upton.

This Upton was an Englishman and a snob. He could see nothing in America; Niagara was “an awfully jolly” jet of water; the Rocky Mountains were beastly; the country was uncivilized, and the cities were nothing but shanties and lager-beer saloons.

The fellow was born with a sneer, and his civility was an impertinence.

The Wistarias tolerated him on account of his great wealth, his father being the possessor of immense coal-mines in Westmoreland, and on account of the letter of introduction which he brought—an earnest recommendation from Lord Dacres.

Wynnie, on occasions, was singularly gracious to him, at others icy. I hated him “all along the line.”

“We shall be thirteen at dinner to-day, Mr. Hartopp; please do not take any notice of it, as Mr. Wistaria is singularly superstitious about this number. Little Bertie Marcy may come in to set us all right, but at this hour I have only just discovered the fact. I could ask no one.”

“Permit me to drop out, Mrs. Wistaria.”

“By no means, you, indeed! We could not possibly get on without you. You talk better across a table than any gentleman of my acquaintance. So you see I could not possibly spare you.”

This was intensely gratifying. There is no oil like subtle flattery—no incense so delicately pungent.

“l mean to mention the fact to my guests as they come in.”

“Would it not be better to trust to chance?”

“I do not care, in Mr. Wistaria’s present state of health, to trust anything to chance.”

The guests came floating and rustling in, and I observed Mrs. Wistaria imparting a word of caution to each.

Mr. Horace Upton arrived. He was the last comer, having the audacity to come at eight o’clock, being invited for half-past seven.

“I can do anything but be punctual,” he observed. “It’s a sort of institution that’s fit for you commercial people. We don’t recognize it in Belgravia.”

“I presume there is some punctuality in the coal pits,” I cut in, red-hot with anger.

Screwing his glass into the corner of his eye, he regarded me from head to foot as if I were some stuffed arrival of an extinct species.

“Ah!” he said.

I had the glorious triumph of taking Wynnie in to dinner. Oh, what an ecstatic thrill vibrated through me as, leaning—yea, leaning, not placing the tips of her fingers upon my coat-sleeve, but pressing her dainty little hand softly downward, and drawing close to me, until l became enveloped in the magic folds of her piquant toilet.

The soup was delicious. It was bisque a l’ecrevisse. When a man arrives at five and twenty he takes to his dinner. It is the budding of the flower that at fifty will give perfume to his life. The salmon cutlets were a study in their pinks and browns and creamy whites, while the Steinberger Cabinet wherewith they were washed down was fit for the table of Kaiser Wilhelm himself. At the entrees, the conversation becomes well turned on; all ice thaws upon the appearance of the cutlets, sweetbreads, and those poems in culinary art that appeal to the senses at this particular period of the ceremony. The accompanying champagne, too, set the tongue a-wagging, and the “whole machine” commences to “go.”

Mrs. Wistaria kept somewhat anxiously gazing at her husband, who sat at the foot of the table, silent, save when spoken to by Mrs. Spype Bodaby, who was on his right, or Mr. Duplex Sincote on his left. Mrs. Bodaby kept chatting to him in a chirpy but colorless manner, and his look was straight out through the windows, on to the avenue, or, for that matter, over to the North River or Jersey.

There was a silence—one of these strange lulls which seems to descend with the softness of snow.

No person seemed inclined to break it. Wynnie was trifling with a petal from one of the flowers of her bouquet. I was gazing rapturously at her shapely hand with its rosebud nails. The remainder of the company seemed more or less absorbed. I shall never forget that silence. I have been to the great Derby race, and felt the hush at the start.

I have been in the Corrida del Toros at Madrid, and have held my breath as the bull rushed forth to his doom.

And I have been at No. __ Fifth avenue, and have known the silence that for one brief moment held us on that I3th day of April, 1876.

Mr. Horace Upton broke it.

“By Jove,” he drawled, “we are thirteen at dinner.”

Mrs. Wistaria had omitted to warn him.

A dull, dead, ashen color seized the host’s face as if in a closing grip, stretching over it like the shadow of death.

Clinching his hands together, and with set teeth, he murmured:

“Thirteen! Can this be true?”

Mrs. Wistaria started to her feet, as did also her sister, Mrs. Penrose Gibbs.

“Certainly not,” cried Mrs. Wistaria, boldly flinging herself between Mr. Gibbs, a very small, inoffensive little man, whose wife rolled him bodily off his chair and beneath the table, “we are but twelve.”

Mr. Wistaria, still in the same attitude, counted, with glowing eves, the number of the guests.

“Twelve!” he muttered, a ray of relief flashing across his face, to be dispelled as quickly, as he hoarsely demanded, “Where is Gibbs?”

“Here,” uttered that unconscious personage, emerging from beneath the table, at the other side, though.

“Gad! I see it all now,” and, plunging his face in his hands, his fingers through his hair, our host seemed shaken by some terrible convulsion.

“George, dearest George, this is folly!” cried Mrs. Wistaria. “Madness! No person attaches the slightest feeling to dining thirteen.”

“I wish I could dine thirteen every day with such a dinner as this,” said Gibbs.

“We dined thirteen at the Stubbs’ several time last year as their ten married daughters with their husbands were stopping there, and we are all alive and well,” chirped Mrs. Spype Bodaby.

“I dined with thirteen fellows at the Star and Garter at Richmond, last year, and, by Jove, I’m the only one alive to-day

This speech came from Mr. Horace Upton, and a savage joy vibrated through me. He was nailing the coffin lid on his hopes.

Wynnie sprang to her father’s side, gently placing her arm around his neck. Mr. Wistaria’s hands were still closed upon his face, his fingers clutching his hair. Wynnie caressingly endeavored to remove them, but the grip was as firm as steel. The livid cheeks immediately beneath the ears were visible, as was also the ashen-hued chin.

A tremulous shudder passed over the man. We were all now dazed, helpless, confused.

Suddenly Mrs. Wistaria uttered a piercing shriek.

“Fly for Doctor Bribston! Help! Help!” she cried, in frenzied accents.

I was horrified to find a great stream of blood pouring down Mr. Wistaria’s chin—pouring in a bright, red rivulet.

I assisted in placing him upon the sofa, in a recumbent position, but in vain did we endeavor to remove his hands from his face.

When Doctor Bribston arrived, he cast one rapid glance at the prostrate form, grasped the pulse, laid his hand upon the heart, and shook his head.

Mr. Wistaria was dead.

He had died of heart disease.

During one of his sojourns in England, be had had his fortune told by a gypsy. This woman, after having examined his line of life, suddenly cast his palm from her, covering her face with her hands.

“Never!” she exclaimed, with a fierce solemnity— “never dine thirteen at table if you can avoid it, for you will die at the table.”

This strange prophecy sank into his very soul, and never would he sit at the table with this doomed number.

It was a strange coincidence. Very strange.

* * * *

I am married to Wynnie.

My wife and I dine out a good deal, and we entertain in proportion, but never shall I make one of thirteen

l have lost several good dinners through this superstition, call it what you will, but the ghastly recollection of that 13th of April, 1876, with all its other dark history can never be erased from my mind.

Frank Leslie’s Pleasant Hours, Volume 25

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  And a very happy Friday the 13th to all of you!

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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