The Adventures of Philip on his way through the World, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Volume I.

Chapter 1

Doctor Fell.

“Not attend her own son when he is ill!” said my mother. “She does not deserve to have a son!” And Mrs. Pendennis looked towards her own only darling whilst uttering this indignant exclamation. As she looked, I know what passed through her mind. She nursed me: she dressed me in little caps and long-clothes: she attired me in my first jacket and trousers: she watched at my bedside through my infantile and juvenile ailments: she tended me through all my life: she held me to her heart with infinite prayers and she held me to her heart with infinite prayers and blessings. She is no longer with us to bless and pray; but from heaven, where she is, I know her love pursues me; and often and often I think she is here, only invisible.

“Mrs. Firmin would be of no good,” growled Dr. Goodenough. “She would have hysterics, and the nurse would have two patients to look after.”

“Don’t tell me,” cries my mother, with a flush on her cheeks. “Do you suppose if that child” (meaning, of course, her paragon) “were ill, I would not go to him?”

“My dear, if that child were hungry, you would chop off your head to make him broth,” says the doctor, sipping his tea.

“Potage à la bonne femme,” says Mr. Pendennis. “Mother, we have it at the club. You would be done with milk, eggs, and a quantity of vegetables. You would be put to simmer for many hours in an earthen pan, and — ”

“Don’t be horrible, Arthur!” cries a young lady, who was my mother’s companion of those happy days.

“And people when they knew you would like you very much.”

My uncle looked as if he did not understand the allegory.

“What is this you are talking about? potage à la — what d’ye call ’em?” says he. “I thought we were speaking of Mrs. Firmin, of Old Parr Street. Mrs. Firmin is doosid delicate woman,” interposed the major. “All the females of that family are. Her mother died early. Her sister, Mrs. Twysden, is very delicate. She would be of no more use in a sick room than a — than a bull in a china-shop, begad! and she might catch the fever, too.”

“And so might you, major!” cries the doctor. “Aren’t you talking to me, who have just come from the boy? Keep your distance, or I shall bite you.”

The old gentleman gave a little backward movement with his chair.

“Gad, it’s no joking matter,” says he; “I’ve known fellows catch fevers at — at ever so much past my age. At any rate, the boy is no boy of mine, begad! I dine at Firmin’s house, who has married into a good family, though he is only a doctor, and — ”

“And pray what was my husband?” cried Mrs. Pendennis.

“Only a doctor, indeed!” calls out Goodenough. “My dear creature, I have a great mind to give him the scarlet fever this minute!”

“My father was a surgeon and apothecary, I have heard,” says the widow’s son.

“And what then? And I should like to know if a man of one of the most ancient families in the kingdom — in the empire, begad! — hasn’t a right to pursoo a learned, a useful, an honourable profession. My brother John was — ”

“A medical practitioner!” I say, with a sigh.

And my uncle arranges his hair, puts his handkerchief to his teeth, and says —

“Stuff! nonsense — no patience with these personalities, begad! Firmin is a doctor, certainly — so are you — so are others. But Firmin is a university man, and a gentleman. Firmin has travelled. Firmin is intimate with some of the best people in England, and has married into one of the first families. Gad, sir, do you suppose that a woman bred up in the lap of luxury — in the very lap, sir — at Ringwood and Whipham, and at Ringwood House in Walpole Street, where she was absolute mistress, begad — do you suppose such a woman is fit to be nurse-tender in a sick room? She never was fit for that, or for anything except — ” (here the major saw smiles on the countenances of some of his audience) “except, I say, to preside at Ringwood House and — and adorn society, and that sort of thing. And if such a woman chooses to run away with her uncle’s doctor, and marry below her rank — why, I don’t think it’s a laughing matter, hang me if I do.”

“And so she stops at the Isle of Wight, whilst the poor boy remains at the school,” sighs my mother.

“Firmin can’t come away. He is in attendance on the Grand Dook. The prince is never easy without Firmin. He has given him his Order of the Swan. They are moving heaven and earth in high quarters; and I bet you even, Goodenough, that that boy whom you have been attending will be a baronet — if you don’t kill him off with your confounded potions and pills, begad!”

Dr. Goodenough only gave a humph and contracted his great eyebrows.

My uncle continued —

“I know what you mean. Firmin is a gentlemanly man — a handsome man. I remember his father, Brand Firmin, at Valenciennes with the Dook of York — one of the handsomest men in Europe. Firebrand Firmin, they used to call him — a red-headed fellow — a tremendous duellist: shot an Irishman — became serious in after life, and that sort of thing — quarelled with his son, who was doosid wild in early days. Gentlemanly man, certainly, Firmin. Black hair: his father had red. So much the better for the doctor; but — but — we understand each other, I think, Goodenough? and you and I have seen some queer fishes in our time.”

And the old gentleman winked and took his snuff graciously, and, as it were, puffed the Firmin subject away.

“Was it to show me a queer fish that you took me to Dr. Firmin’s house in Parr Street?” asked Mr. Pendennis of his uncle. “The house was not very gay, nor the mistress very wise, but they were all as kind as might be; and I am very fond of the boy.”

“So did Lord Ringwood, his mother’s uncle, like him,” cried Major Pendennis. “That boy brought about a reconciliation between his mother and her uncle, after her runaway match. I suppose you know she ran away with Firmin, my dear?”

My mother said “she had heard something of the story.” And the major once more asserted that Dr. Firmin was a wild fellow twenty years ago. At the time of which I am writing he was Physician to the Plethoric Hospital, Physician to the Grand Duke of Gröningen, and knight of his order of the Black Swan, member of many learned societies, the husband of a rich wife, and a person of no small consideration.

As for his son, whose name figures at the head of these pages, you may suppose he did not die of the illness about which we had just been talking. A good nurse waited on him, though his mamma was in the country. Though his papa was absent, a very competent physician was found to take charge of the young patient, and preserve his life for the benefit of his family, and the purpose of this history.

We pursued our talk about Philip Firmin and his father, and his grand-uncle the earl, whom Major Pendennis knew intimately well, until Dr. Goodenough’s carriage was announced, and our kind physician took leave of us, and drove back to London. Some who spoke on that summer evening are no longer here to speak or listen. Some who were young then have topped the hill and are descending towards the valley of the shadows. “Ah,” said old Major Pendennis, shaking his brown curls, as the doctor went away; “did you see, my good soul, when I spoke about his confrère, how glum Goodenough looked? They don’t love each other, my dear. Two of a trade don’t agree, and besides I have no doubt the other doctor-fellows are jealous of Firmin, because he lives in the best society. A man of good family, my dear. There has already been a great rapprochement; and if Lord Ringwood is quite reconciled to him, there’s no knowing what luck that boy of Firmin’s may come to”

Although Dr. Goodenough might think but lightly of his confrère, a great portion of the public held him in much higher estimation: and especially in the little community of Grey Friars, of which the kind reader has heard in previous works of the present biographer, Dr. Brand Firmin was a very great favourite, and received with much respect and honour. Whenever the boys at that school were afflicted with the common ailments of youth, Mr. Sprat, the school apothecary, provided for them; and by the simple, though disgusting remedies which were in use in those times, generally succeeded in restoring his young patients to health. But if young Lord Egham, (the Marquis of Ascot’s son, as my respected reader very likely knows) happened to be unwell, as was frequently the case, from his lordship’s great command of pocket-money and imprudent fondness for the contents of the pastrycook’s shop; or if any very grave case of illness occurred in the school, then, quick, the famous Dr. Firmin, of Old Parr Street, Burlington Gardens, was sent for; and an illness must have been very severe, if he could not cure it. Dr Firmin had been a school-fellow, and remained a special friend, of the head-master. When young Lord Egham, before mentioned (he was our only lord, and therefore we were a little proud and careful of our darling youth), got the erysipelas, which swelled his head to the size of a pumpkin, the doctor triumphantly carried him through his illness, and was complimented by the head-boy in his Latin oration on the annual speech-day for his superhuman skill and godlike delight salutem hominibus dando. The head-master turned towards Dr. Firmin, and bowed: the governors and bigwigs buzzed to one another, and looked at him: the boys looked at him: the physician held his handsome head down towards his shirt-frill. His modest eyes would not look up from the spotless lining of the broad-brimmed hat on his knees. A murmur of applause hummed through the ancient hall, a scuffling of young feet, a rustling of new cassocks among the masters, and a refreshing blowing of noses ensued, as the orator polished off his period, and then passed to some other theme.

Amidst the general enthusiasm, there was one member of the auditory scornful and dissentient. This gentleman whispered to his comrade at the commencement of the phrase concerning the doctor the (I believe of Eastern derivation) monosyllable “Bosh!” and he added sadly, looking towards the object of all this praise, “He can’t construe the Latin — though it is all a parcel of humbug.”

“Hush, Phil!” said his friend; and Phil’s face flushed red, as Dr. Firmin, lifting up his eyes, looked at him for one moment; for the recipient of all this laudation was no other than Phil’s father.

The illness of which we spoke had long since passed away. Philip was a schoolboy no longer, but in his second year at the university, and one of half-a-dozen young men, ex-pupils of the school, who had come up for the annual dinner. The honours of this year’s dinner were for Dr. Firmin, even more than for Lord Ascot in his star and ribbon, who walked with his arm in the doctor’s into chapel. His lordship faltered when, in his after-dinner speech, he alluded to the inestimable services and skill of his tried old friend, whom he had known as a fellow-pupil in those walls — (loud cheers) — whose friendship had been the delight of his life — a friendship which he prayed might be the inheritance of their children. (Immense applause; during which Dr. Firmin struggled with his emotion.)

The doctor’s speech was perhaps a little commonplace; the Latin quotations which he used were not exactly novel; but Phil need not have been so angry or illbehaved. He went on sipping sherry, glaring at his father, and muttering observations that were anything but complimentary to his parent. “Now look,” says he, “he is going to be overcome by his feelings. He will put his handkerchief up to his mouth, and show his diamond ring. I told you so! It’s too much. I can’t swallow this — this sherry. I say, you fellows, let us come out of this, and smoke somewhere.” And Phil rose up and quitted the dining-room, just as his father was declaring what a joy, and a pride, and a delight it was to him to think that the friendship with which his noble friend honoured him was likely to be transmitted to their children, and that when he had passed away from this earthly scene (cries of “No, no!” “May you live a thousand years!") it would be his joy to think that his son would always find a friend and protector in the noble, the princely house of Ascot.

We found the carriages waiting outside Grey Friars’ Gate, and Philip Firmin, pushing me into his father’s, told the footman to drive home, and that the doctor would return in Lord Ascot’s carriage. Home then to Old Parr Street we went, where many a time as a boy I had been welcome. And we retired to Phil’s private den in the back buildings of the great house: and over our cigars we talked of the Founder’s -day Feast, and the speeches delivered; and of the old Cistercians of our time; and how Thompson was married, and Johnson was in the army; and Jackson (not red-haired Jackson, pig-eyed Jackson,) was first in his year, and so forth; and in this twaddle we were most happily engaged, when Phil’s father flung open the tall door of the study.

“Here’s the governor!” growled Phil; and in an undertone, “what does he want?”

“The governor,” as I looked up, was not a pleasant object to behold. Dr. Firmin had very white false teeth, which perhaps were a little too large for his mouth, and these grinned in the gas-light very fiercely. On his cheeks were black whiskers, and over his glaring eyes fierce black eyebrows, and his bald head glittered like a billiard-ball. You would hardly have known that he was the original of that melancholy philosophic portrait which all the patients admired in the doctor’s waiting-room.

“I find, Philip, that you took my carriage,” said the father; “and Lord Ascot and I had to walk ever so far for a cab!”

“Hadn’t he got his own carriage? I thought, of course, he would have his carriage on a State-day, and that you would come home with the lord,” said Philip.

“I had promised to bring him home, sir!” said the father.

“Well, sir, I’m very sorry,” continued the son, curtly.

“Sorry!” growls the other.

“I can’t say any more, sir, and I am very sorry,” answers Phil; and he knocked the ash of his cigar into the stove.

The stranger within the house hardly knew how to look on its master or his son. There was evidently some dire quarrel between them. The old man glared at the young one, who calmly looked his father in the face. Wicked rage and hate seemed to flash from the doctor’s eyes, and anon came a look of wild pitiful supplication towards the guest, which was most painful to bear. In the midst of what dark family mystery was I? What meant this cruel spectacle of the father’s terrified anger, and the son’s scorn?

“I— I appeal to you, Pendennis,” says the doctor, with a choking utterance and ghastly face.

“Shall we begin ab ovo, sir?” says Phil. Again the ghastly look of terror comes over the father’s face.

“I— I promise to bring one of the first noblemen in England,” gasps the doctor, “from a public dinner, in my carriage; and my son takes it, and leaves me and Lord Ascot to walk! — Is it fair, Pendennis? Is it the conduct of a gentleman to a gentleman; of a son to a father?”

“No, sir,” I said gravely, “nothing can excuse it.” Indeed I was shocked at the young man’s obduracy and undutifulness.

“I told you it was a mistake!” cries Phil, reddening. “I heard Lord Ascot order his own carriage; I made no doubt he would bring my father home. To ride in a chariot with a footman behind me, is no pleasure to me, and I would far rather have a Hansom and a cigar. It was a blunder, and I am sorry for it — there! And if I live to a hundred I can’t say more.”

“If you are sorry, Philip,” said the father, “it is enough.” “You remember, Pendennis, when — when my son and I were not on this — on this footing,” and he looked up for a moment at a picture which was hanging over Phil’s head — a portrait of Phil’s mother; the lady of whom my own mother spoke, on that evening when we had talked of the boy’s illness. Both the ladies had passed from the world now, and their images were but painted shadows on the wall.

The father had accepted an apology, though the son had made none. I looked at the elder Firmin’s face, and the character written on it. I remembered such particulars of his early history as had been told to me; and I perfectly recalled that feeling of doubt and misliking which came over my mind when I first saw the doctor’s handsome face some few years previously, when my uncle first took me to the doctor’s in Old Parr Street; little Phil being then a flaxen-headed, pretty child, who had just assumed his first trousers, and I a fifth-form boy at school.

My father and Dr. Firmin were members of the medical profession. They had been bred up as boys at the same school, whither families used to send their sons from generation to generation, and long before people had ever learned that the place was unwholesome. Grey Friars was smoky, certainly; I think in the time of the plague great numbers of people were buried there. But had the school been situated in the most picturesque swamp in England, the general health of the boys could not have been better. We boys used to hear of epidemics occurring in other schools, and were almost sorry that they did not come to ours, so that we might shut up, and get longer vacations. Even that illness which subsequently befel Phil Firmin himself attacked no one else — the boys all luckily going home for the holidays on the very day of poor Phil’s seizure; but of this illness more anon. When it was determined that little Phil Firmin was to go to Grey Friars, Phil’s father bethought him that Major Pendennis, whom he met in the world and society, had a nephew at the place, who might protect the little fellow, and the major took his nephew to see Dr. and Mrs. Firmin one Sunday after church, and we had lunch at Old Parr Street, and there little Phil was presented to me, whom I promised to take under my protection. He was a simple little man; an artless child, who had not the least idea of the dignity of a fifth-form boy. He was quite unabashed in talking to me and other persons, and has remained so ever since. He asked my uncle how he came to have such odd hair. He partook freely of the delicacies on the table. I remember he hit me with his little fist once or twice, which liberty at first struck me with a panic of astonishment, and then with a sense of the ridiculous so exquisitely keen, that I burst out into a fit of laughter. It was, you see, as if a stranger were to hit the Pope in the ribs, and call him “Old boy;” as if Jack were to tweak one of the giants by the nose; or Ensign Jones to ask the Duke of Wellington to take wine. I had a strong sense of humour, even in those early days, and enjoyed this joke accordingly.

“Philip!” cries mamma, “you will hurt Mr. Pendennis.”

“I will knock him down!” shouts Phil. Fancy knocking me down, — ME, a fifth-form boy!

“The child is a perfect Hercules,” remarks the mother.

“He strangled two snakes in his cradle,” says the doctor, looking at me. (It was then, as I remember, I felt Dr. Fell towards him.)

“La, Dr. Firmin!” cries mamma, “I can’t bear snakes. I remember there was one at Rome, when we were walking one day; a great, large snake, and I hated it, and I cried out, and I nearly fainted; and my uncle Ringwood said I ought to like snakes, for one might be an agreeable rattle; and I have read of them being charming in India, and I dare say you have, Mr. Pendennis, for I am told you are very clever; and I am not in the least; I wish I were; but my husband is, very — and so Phil will be. Will you be a very clever boy, dear? He was named after my dear papa, who was killed at Busaco when I was quite, quite a little thing, and we wore mourning, and we went to live with my uncle Ringwood afterwards; but Maria and I had both our own fortunes; and I am sure I little thought I should marry a physician — la, one of uncle Ringwood’s grooms, I should as soon have thought of marrying him! — but, you know, my husband is one of the cleverest men in the world. Don’t tell me, — you are, dearest, and you know it; and when a man is clever I don’t value his rank in life; no, not if he was that fender; and I always said to uncle Ringwood, ‘Talent I will marry, for talent I adore;’ and I did marry you, Dr. Firmin, you know I did, and this child is your image. And you will be kind to him at school,” says the poor lady, turning to me, her eyes filling with tears, “for talent is always kind, except uncle Ringwood, and he was very — ”

“A little more wine, Mr. Pendennis?” said the doctor — Doctor Fell still, though he was most kind to me. “I shall put my little man under your care, and I know you will keep him from harm. I hope you will do us the favour to come to Parr Street whenever you are free. In my father’s time we used to come home of a Saturday from school, and enjoyed going to the play.” And the doctor shook me cordially by the hand, and, I must say, continued his kindness to me as long as ever I knew him. When we went away, my uncle Pendennis told me many stories about the great earl and family of Ringwood, and how Dr. Firmin had made a match — a match of the affections — with this lady, daughter of Philip Ringwood, who was killed at Busaco; and how she had been a great beauty, and was a perfect grande dame always; and, if not the cleverest, certainly one of the kindest and most amiable women in the world.

In those days I was accustomed to receive the opinions of my informant with such respect that I at once accepted this statement as authentic. Mrs. Firmin’s portrait, indeed, was beautiful: it was painted by young Mr. Harlowe, that year he was at Rome, and when in eighteen days he completed a copy of the Transfiguration, to the admiration of all the Academy; but I, for my part, only remember a lady weak, and thin, and faded, who never came out of her dressing-room until a late hour in the afternoon, and whose superannuated smiles and grimaces used to provoke my juvenile sense of humour. She used to kiss Phil’s brow; and, as she held the boy’s hand in one of her lean ones, would say, “Who would suppose such a great boy as that could be my son?” “Be kind to him when I am gone,” she sighed to me, one Sunday evening, when I was taking leave of her, as her eyes filled with tears, and she placed the thin hand in mine for the last time. The doctor, reading by the fire, turned round and scowled at her from under his tall shining forehead. “You are nervous, Louisa, and had better go to your room, I told you you had,” he said, abruptly. “Young gentlemen, it is time for you to be off to Grey Friars. Is the cab at the door, Brice?” And he took out his watch — his great shining watch, by which he had felt the pulses of so many famous personages, whom his prodigious skill had rescued from disease. And at parting, Phil flung his arms round his poor mother, and kissed her under the glossy curls; the borrowed curls; and he looked his father resolutely in the face (whose own glance used to fall before that of the boy), and bade him a gruff goodnight, ere we set forth for Grey Friars.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07