'What a jolly old Jack it is!' cries the young fellow, with a clap of his hands. 'Look here, Jack; tell me; whose birthday is it?'
'Not yours, I know,' Mr. Jasper answers, pausing to consider.
'Not mine, you know? No; not mine, _I_ know! Pussy's!'
Fixed as the look the young fellow meets, is, there is yet in it some strange power of suddenly including the sketch over the chimneypiece.
'Pussy's, Jack! We must drink Many happy returns to her. Come, uncle; take your dutiful and sharp-set nephew in to dinner.'
As the boy (for he is little more) lays a hand on Jasper's shoulder, Jasper cordially and gaily lays a hand on HIS shoulder, and so Marseillaise-wise they go in to dinner.
'And, Lord! here's Mrs. Tope!' cries the boy. 'Lovelier than ever!'
'Never you mind me, Master Edwin,' retorts the Verger's wife; 'I can take care of myself.'
'You can't. You're much too handsome. Give me a kiss because it's Pussy's birthday.'
'I'd Pussy you, young man, if I was Pussy, as you call her,' Mrs. Tope blushingly retorts, after being saluted. 'Your uncle's too much wrapt up in you, that's where it is. He makes so much of you, that it's my opinion you think you've only to call your Pussys by the dozen, to make 'em come.'
'You forget, Mrs. Tope,' Mr. Jasper interposes, taking his place at the table with a genial smile, 'and so do you, Ned, that Uncle and Nephew are words prohibited here by common consent and express agreement. For what we are going to receive His holy name be praised!'
'Done like the Dean! Witness, Edwin Drood! Please to carve, Jack, for I can't.'
This sally ushers in the dinner. Little to the present purpose, or to any purpose, is said, while it is in course of being disposed of. At length the cloth is drawn, and a dish of walnuts and a decanter of rich-coloured sherry are placed upon the table.
'I say! Tell me, Jack,' the young fellow then flows on: 'do you really and truly feel as if the mention of our relationship divided us at all? _I_ don't.'
'Uncles as a rule, Ned, are so much older than their nephews,' is the reply, 'that I have that feeling instinctively.'
'As a rule! Ah, may-be! But what is a difference in age of half- a-dozen years or so? And some uncles, in large families, are even younger than their nephews. By George, I wish it was the case with us!'
'Because if it was, I'd take the lead with you, Jack, and be as wise as Begone, dull Care! that turned a young man gray, and Begone, dull Care! that turned an old man to clay.--Halloa, Jack! Don't drink.'
'Asks why not, on Pussy's birthday, and no Happy returns proposed! Pussy, Jack, and many of 'em! Happy returns, I mean.'
Laying an affectionate and laughing touch on the boy's extended hand, as if it were at once his giddy head and his light heart, Mr. Jasper drinks the toast in silence.
'Hip, hip, hip, and nine times nine, and one to finish with, and all that, understood. Hooray, hooray, hooray!--And now, Jack, let's have a little talk about Pussy. Two pairs of nut-crackers? Pass me one, and take the other.' Crack. 'How's Pussy getting on Jack?'
'With her music? Fairly.'
'What a dreadfully conscientious fellow you are, Jack! But _I_ know, Lord bless you! Inattentive, isn't she?'
'She can learn anything, if she will.'
'IF she will! Egad, that's it. But if she won't?'
Crack!--on Mr. Jasper's part.
'How's she looking, Jack?'
Mr. Jasper's concentrated face again includes the portrait as he returns: 'Very like your sketch indeed.'
'I AM a little proud of it,' says the young fellow, glancing up at the sketch with complacency, and then shutting one eye, and taking a corrected prospect of it over a level bridge of nut-crackers in the air: 'Not badly hit off from memory. But I ought to have caught that expression pretty well, for I have seen it often enough.'
Crack!--on Edwin Drood's part.
Crack!--on Mr. Jasper's part.
'In point of fact,' the former resumes, after some silent dipping among his fragments of walnut with an air of pique, 'I see it whenever I go to see Pussy.