The Countess's Evening Party
It seemed to the children that the Count and his wife must live somewhere near the centre of the earth, for the underground passage appeared to have no ending.
However, the hen advanced with composure and confidence, and they could also hear the voices of the couple in front.
Fortunately torches were fixed to the wall at intervals, and these threw a flickering light upon a path which wound round and round and up and down in a most peculiar fashion.
"It must be the Countess's ‘evening’," observed the hen in a tone of satisfaction.
"She is very fond of society, and receives every fortnight.
Now, my dears, you will see something of high life down below; you don't happen to have a brush and comb with you, do you?"
Molly explained that they never carried such articles about with them; upon which the hen remarked pensively:
"Such yellow, yellow mops! Times are so bad, it seems almost a pity that so much golden money should be put into hair!"
Max and Molly had never thought of their curls in this light before, and hardly knew what to answer.
Fortunately, however, they reached the end of the passage at this moment, and found the Major and his companion standing before a large door, with a heavy knocker in the shape of a horse-shoe.
"We've knocked and we've rung, and we've knocked again and rung again, and he's shouted and I've shouted," said Madam Ducky-daddles, "but they are making so much noise inside that they can't hear us.
The hall porter ought to be reported, all the same.
What's the use of a porter who doesn't ouvrez la porte?
Brigadier, oblige me by giving the knocker another thump."
Major Cocky-locky was spared this trouble, however, for a little trap-door flew open and a raven in yellow-and-black livery popped out his head.
"Master's not at home," said he, "my lady's visiting the Duchess of Nozoo, and the children have got the German measles.
So you can't come in!"
This speech gabbled off at full speed, the raven winked his wicked eye and prepared to close the trapdoor.
But catching sight of Max and Molly, he paused with open beak.
"Bless my buttons," he muttered, "these must be the two I was particularly told to look out for! To think I was going to slam the door in their very faces!"
Here the great door swung back, and the party passed in, the porter bowing to the ground.
"Now, my dears, hold up your heads, turn out your toes, and try to look as if you were Somebody," whispered the hen; while Madam Ducky-daddles shook out her dress, and arranged the bow in her hair.
The noise was terrific.
There were sounds as of shuffling and stamping of heavy feet; of musical instruments all playing different tunes.
The Countess was evidently holding a very lively reception, and the twins were just wild with curiosity to know the meaning of the hubbub.
Suddenly the music, if it could be called such, stopped; then there was a tremendous scuffle, with much shouting and laughter.
After a little the music began again, and with it the stamping.
The folding doors flew open, and Max and Molly saw an amusing spectacle.
Down the whole length of a very large room seats were arranged for "musical chairs", and the Countess's guests were gaily trotting round and round, led by a stately turkey in a velvet coat, powdered wig, and buckled shoes, and followed by a procession of the oddest and most ill - assorted.
For there was Whittington's cat and Puss-in-boots, Mother Hubbard's dog, and the three bears who lived in the wood, the famous cow that jumped over the moon, Red Riding-hood's wolf, and Mary's lamb.
There, also, was the Cheshire cat and the white rabbit, the pig that wouldn't get over the stile, the rat that ate the malt, and the blackbird that snapped off the maid's nose in the garden.
Besides these well-known personages, there were foxes in scarlet hunting-coats, and geese in white brocade; peacocks with jewelled trains which got dreadfully in the way, and owls in judges’ wigs.
There were frolicsome kittens and long-legged puppies, a dormouse and a lizard, a kangaroo and half a dozen monkeys; all keeping one eye upon the chairs, and the other upon the person immediately in front.
The music suddenly stopped, and the general scramble began.
The turkey skipped into a seat; so did all the monkeys, who were nimble by nature.
The Cheshire cat, with a broad grin, slid into a chair under Jumbo's very trunk, while Alice sat down on the dormouse and nearly squashed him to death.
The bears found seats at once, but Mary's lamb.
went about bleating pitifully; a puppy and a peacock rushed for a vacant chair on the farther side, but the kangaroo took a flying leap, and was there first.
whispered Mrs. Henny-penny; and Max ducked his head, while Molly made her best curtsy.
The Countess was very handsome; she had bright eyes, and such gleaming teeth that they almost made you feel uncomfortable.
You could not help wondering, if the Countess gave a snap, where your head would be! She was richly dressed in brown satin trimmed with fur, and she wore a necklace of diamonds, which, however, were not so bright as her eyes.
"Why, Henny-penny, Cocky-locky, Ducky-daddles, Max and Molly, here you are at last! We had almost given you up; I am delighted to welcome you."
"Your ladyship is most kind," said Major Cocky-locky; "we are on our way to inform the King that the sky may be expected to fall any minute."
"When it does, we shall be able to catch larks," answered the Countess with a brilliant smile.
"Well, little one, what do you want?"
This was to the dormouse, who had pattered up, and was staring at Molly.
"It's a real little girl with real hair," said the dormouse in a surprised tone, touching her dress with a tiny paw.
Then he whispered mysteriously to her: "I say, which do you like best, nuts or acorns?"
"Nuts," replied Molly promptly, at which the dormouse nodded approvingly.
"That's right," said he; "and what I always say is, ‘the harder the crack, the sweeter the kernel’."
"Why are you not playing, lazy mite?"
asked the Countess, pinching his ear.
"They do sit upon me so," said Dor, plaintively.
"They seem to think I ought to have been a cushion."
"That is because you are so soft and fat," said the Countess.
"But run along, child, for we are just going in to supper, and here comes the Count to escort Molly.
Mind and not go to sleep as you did last time with your head on the cake."
"I truly couldn't help it, ma’am," sighed the dormouse.
"If you promise faithfully to keep your eyes open all supper-time," said the Countess, "you may sit on the other side of Molly."
"Which is the other side, please?"
asked Dor, anxiously; but the Countess laughed and told him to run away.
Count Foxy-woxy was very much like his wife in appearance, and his teeth looked even whiter and stronger than hers.
His manners, too, were very.
distinguished, and it was quite an education in polite deportment to see the way in which he saluted Mrs. Henny-penny and Madam Ducky-daddles.
If anything could have been finer, it was the way in which the great opera-singer slid backwards, and went down in such a wonderful dip that.
it looked as if she would never get up again.
But she did, much to the relief of her friends; and called the Count by five wrong names in less than two minutes.
"Supper! supper! supper!"
This magic word rang through the room with great and sudden effect.
"Musical chairs" ceased at once, and every single guest made for the door like a lamplighter.
Even the dormouse, who had already fallen asleep in the fender, jumped up, and scampered after the rest; while the Major and his two lady friends laid aside their dignity, and ran as fast as the others.
The Count with Molly on his arm, and the Countess and Max, were the only people who walked into the supper-room.
"Yes, it's a queer world, isn't it?"
observed the Countess, with the suspicion of a twinkle in her bright eyes.
"Molly says she thinks it gets queererer every day," he replied, "and so do I.
But we like it, oh, so very much! Nothing queer ever happened at home, not till we came to Dandelion Farm, and then the sky began to fall.
At least that was what the hen said, but Molly told me it was a bean; but we didn't care which, because we only wanted to see the King.
Have you ever seen the King, ma’am?"
"Lots of times, and the Queen too," answered the Countess, smiling.
"Oh, what are they like?"
cried Max eagerly.
"Ah! you must wait and see," said the Countess, roguishly.