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

Chapter 6

Pulvis Et Umbra Sumus.

The first and only Earl of Ringwood has submitted to the fate which peers and commoners are alike destined to undergo. Hastening to his magnificent seat of Whipham Market, where he proposed to entertain an illustrious Christmas party, his lordship left London scarcely recovered from an attack of gout to which he has been for many years a martyr. The disease must have flown to his stomach, and suddenly mastered him. At Turreys Regum, thirty miles from his own princely habitation, where he had been accustomed to dine on his almost royal progresses to his home, he was already in a state of dreadful suffering, to which his attendants did not pay the attention which his condition ought to have excited; for when labouring under this most painful malady his outcries were loud, and his language and demeanour exceedingly violent. He angrily refused to send for medical aid at Turreys, and insisted on continuing his journey homewards. He was one of the old school, who never would enter a railway (though his fortune was greatly increased by the passage of the railway through his property); and his own horses always met him at Popper’s Tavern, an obscure hamlet, seventeen miles from his princely seat. He made no sign on arriving at Popper’s, and spoke no word, to the now serious alarm of his servants. When they came to light his carriage-lamps, and look into his postchaise, the lord of many thousand acres, and, according to report, of immense wealth, was dead. The journey from Turreys had been the last stage of a long, a prosperous, and, if not a famous, at least a notorious and magnificent career.

“The late John George Earl and Baron Ringwood and Viscount Cinqbars entered into public life at the dangerous period before the French Revolution; and commenced his career as the friend and companion of the Prince of Wales. When his Royal Highness seceded from the Whig party, Lord Ringwood also joined the Tory side of politicians, and an earldom was the price of his fidelity. But on the elevation of Lord Steyne to a marquisate, Lord Ringwood quarrelled for awhile with his royal patron and friend, deeming his own services unjustly slighted as a like dignity was not conferred on himself. On several occasions he gave his vote against Government, and caused his nominees in the House of Commons to vote with the Whigs. He never was reconciled to his late Majesty George IV., of whom he was in the habit of speaking with characteristic bluntness. The approach of the Reform Bill, however, threw this nobleman definitively on the Tory side, of which he has ever since remained, if not an eloquent, at least a violent supporter. He was said to be a liberal landlord, so long as his tenants did not thwart him in his views. His only son died early; and his lordship, according to report, has long been on ill terms with his kinsman and successor, Sir John Ringwood, of Appleshaw, Baronet. The Barony has been in this ancient family since the reign of George I., when Sir John Ringwood was ennobled, and Sir Francis, his brother, a Baron of the Exchequer, was advanced to the dignity of a Baronet by the first of our Hanoverian sovereigns.”

This was the article which my wife and I read on the morning of Christmas eve, as our children were decking lamps and looking-glasses with holly and red berries for the approaching festival. I had despatched a hurried note, containing the news, to Philip on the night previous. We were painfully anxious about his fate now, when a few days would decide it. Again my business or curiosity took me to see Mr. Bradgate the lawyer. He was in possession of the news, of course. He was not averse to talk about it. The death of his client unsealed the lawyer’s lips partially: and I must say Bradgate spoke in a manner not flattering to his noble deceased client. The brutalities of the late nobleman had been very hard to bear. On occasion of their last meeting his oaths and disrespectful behaviour had been specially odious. He had abused almost every one of his relatives. His heir, he said, was a prating Republican humbug. He had a relative (whom Bradgate said he would not name) who was a scheming, swaggering, swindling lickspittle parasite, always cringing at his heels, and longing for his death. And he had another relative, the impudent son of a swindling doctor, who had insulted him two hours before in his own room; — a fellow who was a pauper, and going to propagate a breed for the workhouse; for, after his behaviour of that day, he would be condemned to the lowest pit of Acheron, before he (Lord Ringwood) would give that scoundrel a penny of his money. “And his lordship desired me to send him back his will,” said Mr. Bradgate. “And he destroyed that will before he went away: it was not the first he had burned. And I may tell you, now all is over, that he had left his brother’s grandson a handsome legacy in that will, which your poor friend might have had, but that he went to see my lord in his unlucky fit of gout.” Ah, mea culpa! mea culpa! And who sent Philip to see his relative in that unlucky fit of gout? Who was so worldly-wise — so Twysden-like, as to counsel Philip to flattery and submission? But for that advice he might be wealthy now; he might be happy; he might be ready to marry his young sweetheart. Our Christmas turkey choked me as I ate of it. The lights burned dimly, and the kisses and laughter under the mistletoe were but melancholy sport. But for my advice, how happy might my friend have been! I looked askance at the honest faces of my children. What would they say if they knew their father had advised a friend to cringe, and bow, and humble himself before a rich, wicked old man? I sate as mute at the pantomime as at a burial; the laughter of the little ones smote me as with a reproof. A burial? With plumes and lights, and upholsterers’ pageantry, and mourning by the yard measure, they were burying my Lord Ringwood, who might have made Philip Firmin rich but for me.

All lingering hopes regarding our friend were quickly put to an end. A will was found at Whipham, dated a year back, in which no mention was made of poor Philip Firmin. Small legacies — disgracefully shabby and small, Twysden said — were left to the Twysden family, with the full-length portrait of the late earl in his coronation robes, which, I should think, must have given but small satisfaction to his surviving relatives; for his lordship was but an ill-favoured nobleman, and the price of the carriage of the large picture from Whipham was a tax which poor Talbot made very wry faces at paying. Had the picture been accompanied by thirty or forty thousand pounds, or fifty thousand — why should he not have left them fifty thousand? — how different Talbot’s grief would have been! Whereas when Talbot counted up the dinners he had given to Lord Ringwood, all of which he could easily calculate by his cunning ledgers and journals in which was noted down every feast at which his lordship attended, every guest assembled, and every bottle of wine drunk, Twysden found that he had absolutely spent more money upon my lord than the old man had paid back in his will. But all the family went into mourning, and the Twysden coachman and footman turned out in black worsted epaulettes in honour of the illustrious deceased. It is not every day that a man gets a chance of publicly bewailing the loss of an earl his relative. I suppose Twysden took many hundred people into his confidence on this matter, and bewailed his uncle’s death and his own wrongs whilst clinging to many scores of button-holes.

And how did poor Philip bear the disappointment? He must have felt it, for I fear we ourselves had encouraged him in the hope that his grand-uncle would do something to relieve his necessity. Philip put a bit of crape round his hat, wrapped himself in his shabby old mantle, and declined any outward show of grief at all. If the old man had left him money, it had been well. As he did not, — a puff of cigar, perhaps, ends the sentence, and our philosopher gives no further thought to his disappointment. Was not Philip the poor as lordly and independent as Philip the rich? A struggle with poverty is a wholesome wrestling match at three or five and twenty. The sinews are young, and are braced by the contest. It is upon the aged that the battle falls hardly, who are weakened by failing health, and perhaps enervated by long years of prosperity.

Firmin’s broad back could carry a heavy burden, and he was glad to take all the work which fell in his way. Phipps, of the Daily Intelligencer, wanting an assistant, Philip gladly sold four hours of his day to Mr. Phipps: translated page after page of newspapers, French and German; took an occasional turn at the Chamber of Deputies, and gave an account of a sitting of importance, and made himself quite an active lieutenant. He began positively to save money. He wore dreadfully shabby clothes, to be sure: for Charlotte could not go to his chamber and mend his rags as the Little Sister had done: but when Mrs. Baynes abused him for his shabby appearance — and indeed it must have been mortifying sometimes to see the fellow in his old clothes swaggering about in Madame Smolensk’s apartments, talking loud, contradicting and laying down the law — Charlotte defended her maligned Philip. “Do you know why Monsieur Philip has those shabby clothes?” she asked of Madame de Smolensk. “Because he has been sending money to his father in America.” And Smolensk said that Monsieur Philip was a brave young man, and that he might come dressed like an Iroquois to her soirée, and he should be welcome. And Mrs. Baynes was rude to Philip when he was present, and scornful in her remarks when he was absent. And Philip trembled before Mrs. Baynes; and he took her boxes on the ear with much meekness; for was not his Charlotte a hostage in her mother’s hands, and might not Mrs. General B. make that poor little creature suffer?

One or two Indian ladies of Mrs. Baynes’ acquaintance happened to pass this winter in Paris, and these persons, who had furnished lodgings in the Faubourg St. Honoré, or the Champs Elysées, and rode in their carriages with, very likely, a footman on the box, rather looked down upon Mrs. Baynes for living in a boarding-house, and keeping no equipage. No woman likes to be looked down upon by any other woman, especially by such a creature as Mrs. Batters, the lawyer’s wife, from Calcutta, who was not in society, and did not go to Government House, and here was driving about in the Champs Elysées, and giving herself such airs, indeed! So was Mrs. Doctor Macoon, with her lady’s -maid, and her man-cook, and her open carriage, and her close carriage. (Pray read these words with the most withering emphasis which you can lay upon them.) And who was Mrs. Macoon, pray? Madame Béret, the French milliner’s daughter, neither more nor less. And this creature must scatter her mud over her betters who went on foot. “I am telling my poor girls, madame,” she would say to Madame Smolensk, “that if I had been a milliner’s girl, or their father had been a pettifogging attorney, and not a soldier, who has served his sovereign in every quarter of the world, they would be better dressed than they are now, poor chicks! — we might have a fine apartment in the Faubourg St. Honoré — we need not live at a boarding-house.”

“And if I had been a milliner, Madame la Générale,” cried Smolensk, with spirit, “perhaps I should not have had need to keep a boarding-house. My father was a general officer, and served his emperor too. But what will you? We have all to do disagreeable things, and to live with disagreeable people, madame!” And with this Smolensk makes Mrs. General Baynes a fine curtsey, and goes off to other affairs or guests. She was of the opinion of many of Philip’s friends. “Ah, Monsieur Philip,” she said to him, “when you are married, you will live far from that woman; is it not?”

Hearing that Mrs. Batters was going to the Tuileries, I am sorry to say a violent emulation inspired Mrs. Baynes, and she never was easy until she persuaded her general to take her to the ambassador’s, and to the entertainments of the citizen king who governed France in those days. It would cost little or nothing. Charlotte must be brought out. Her aunt, McWhirter, from Tours, had sent Charlotte a present of money for a dress. To do Mrs. Baynes justice, she spent very little money upon her own raiment, and extracted from one of her trunks a costume which had done duty at Barrackpore and Calcutta. “After hearing that Mrs. Batters went, I knew she never would be easy,” General Baynes said, with a sigh. His wife denied the accusation as an outrage, said that men always imputed the worst motives to women, whereas her wish, heaven knows, was only to see her darling child properly presented, and her husband in his proper rank in the world. And Charlotte looked lovely, upon the evening of the ball; and Madame Smolensk dressed Charlotte’s hair very prettily, and offered to lend Auguste to accompany the general’s carriage; but Ogoost revolted, and said, “Non, merci! he would do anything for the general and Miss Charlotte — but for the générale, no, no, no!” and he made signs of violent abnegation. And though Charlotte looked as sweet as a rosebud, she had little pleasure in her ball, Philip not being present. And how could he be present, who had but one old coat, and holes in his boots?

So, you see, after a sunny autumn, a cold winter comes, when the wind is bad for delicate chests, and muddy for little shoes. How could Charlotte come out at eight o’clock through mud or snow of a winter’s morning, if she had been out at an evening party late over night? Mrs. General Baynes began to go out a good deal to the Paris evening parties — I mean to the parties of us Trojans — parties where there are forty English people, three Frenchmen, and a German who plays the piano. Charlotte was very much admired. The fame of her good looks spread abroad. I promise you that there were persons of much more importance than the poor Vicomte de Garçon-boutique, who were charmed by her bright eyes, her bright smiles, her artless, rosy beauty. Why, little Hely of the Embassy actually invited himself to Mrs. Doctor Macoon’s, in order to see this young beauty, and danced with her without ceasing. Mr. Hely, who was the pink of fashion, you know; who danced with the royal princesses; and was at all the grand parties of the Faubourg St. Germain. He saw her to her carriage, a very shabby fly, it must be confessed; but Mrs. Baynes told him they had been accustomed to a very different kind of equipage in India. He actually called at the boarding-house, and left his card, M. Walsingham Hely, attaché à l’Ambassade de S. M. Britannique, for General Baynes and his lady. To what balls would Mrs. Baynes like to go? to the Tuileries? to the Embassy? to the Faubourg St. Germain? to the Faubourg St. Honoré? I could name many more persons of distinction who were fascinated by pretty Miss Charlotte. Her mother felt more and more ashamed of the shabby fly, in which our young lady was conveyed to and from her parties; — of the shabby fly, and of that shabby cavalier who was in waiting sometimes to put Miss Charlotte into her carriage. Charlotte’s mother’s ears were only too acute when disparaging remarks were made about that cavalier. What? engaged to that queer redbearded fellow, with the ragged shirt-collars, who trod upon everybody in the polka? A newspaper writer, was he? The son of that doctor who ran away after cheating everybody? What a very odd thing of General Baynes to think of engaging his daughter to such a person!

So Mr. Firmin was not asked to many distinguished houses, where his Charlotte was made welcome; where there was dancing in the saloon, very mild negus and cakes in the salle-à-manger, and cards in the lady’s bed-room. And he did not care to be asked; and he made himself very arrogant and disagreeable when he was asked; and he would upset tea-trays, and burst out into roars of laughter at all times, and swagger about the drawing-room as if he was a man of importance — he indeed — giving himself such airs, because his grandfather’s brother was an earl! And what had the earl done for him, pray? And what right had he to burst out laughing when Miss Crackley sang a little out of tune? What could General Baynes mean by selecting such a husband for that nice, modest young girl?

The old general sitting in the best bed-room, placidly playing at whist with the other British fogies, does not hear these remarks, perhaps, but little Mrs. Baynes with her eager eyes and ears sees and knows everything. Many people have told her that Philip is a bad match for his daughter. She has heard him contradict calmly quite wealthy people. Mr. Hobday, who has a house in Carlton Terrace, London, and goes to the first houses in Paris, Philip has contradicted him point blank, until Mr. Hobday turned quite red, and Mrs. Hobday didn’t know where to look. Mr. Peplow, a clergyman and a baronet’s eldest son, who will be one day the Rev. Sir Charles Peplow of Peplow Manor, was praising Tomlinson’s poems, and offered to read out at Mr. Badger’s — and he reads very finely, though a little perhaps through his nose — and when he was going to begin, Mr. Firmin said, “My dear Peplow, for heaven’s sake don’t give us any of that rot. I would as soon hear one of your own prize poems.” Rot, indeed! What an expression! Of course Mr. Peplow was very much annoyed. And this from a mere newspaper writer. Never heard of such rudeness! Mrs. Tuffin said she took her line at once after seeing this Mr. Firmin. “He may be an earl’s grand-nephew, for what I care. He may have been at college, he has not learned good manners there. He may be clever, I don’t profess to be a judge. But he is most overbearing, clumsy and disagreeable. I shall not ask him to my Tuesdays; and Emma, if he asks you to dance, I beg you will do no such thing!” A bull, you understand, in a meadow, or on a prairie with a herd of other buffalos, is a noble animal: but a bull in a china-shop is out of place; and even so was Philip amongst the crockery of those little simple tea-parties, where his mane, and hoofs, and roar, caused endless disturbance.

These remarks concerning the accepted son-in-law Mrs. Baynes heard and, at proper moments, repeated. She ruled Baynes; but was very cautious, and secretly afraid of him. Once or twice she had gone too far in her dealings with the quiet old man, and he had revolted, put her down and never forgiven her. Beyond a certain point, she dared not provoke her husband. She would say, “Well, Baynes, marriage is a lottery: and I am afraid our poor Charlotte has not pulled a prize:” on which the general would reply, “No more have others, my dear!” and so drop the subject for the time being. On another occasion it would be, “You heard how rude Philip Firmin was to Mr. Hobday?” And the general would answer, “I was at cards, my dear.” Again she might say, “Mrs. Tuffin says she will not have Philip Firmin to her Tuesdays, my dear:” and the general’s rejoinder would be, “Begad, so much the better for him!” “Ah!” she groans, “he’s always offending some one!” “I don’t think he seems to please you much, Eliza!” responds the general: and she answers, “No, he don’t, and that I confess; and I don’t like to think, Baynes, of my sweet child given up to certain poverty, and such a man!” At which the general with some of his garrison pharses would break out with a “Hang, it, Eliza, do you suppose I think it is a very good match?” and turn to the wall, and, I hope, to sleep.

As for poor little Charlotte, her mother is not afraid of little Charlotte: and when the two are alone the poor child knows she is to be made wretched by her mother’s assaults upon Philip. Was there ever anything so bad as his behaviour, to burst out laughing when Miss Crackley was singing? Was he called upon to contradict Sir Charles Peplow in that abrupt way, and as good as tell him he was a fool? It was very wrong certainly, and poor Charlotte thinks, with a blush, perhaps, how she was just at the point of admiring Sir Charles Peplow’s reading very much, and had been prepared to think Tomlinson’s poems delightful, until Philip ordered her to adopt a contemptuous opinion of the poet. And did you see how he was dressed? a button wanting on his waistcoat, and a hole in his boot?

“Mamma!” cries Charlotte, turning very red. “He might have been better dressed — if — if — ”

“That is, you would like your own father to be in prison, your mother to beg her bread, your sisters to go in rags, and your brothers to starve, Charlotte, in order that we should pay Philip Firmin back the money of which his father robbed him! Yes. That’s your meaning. You needn’t explain yourself. I can understand quite well, thank you. Good-night. I hope you’ll sleep well. I shan’t, after this conversation. Goodnight, Charlotte!” Ah, me! O course of true love, didst thou ever run smooth? As we peep into that boarding-house; whereof I have already described the mistress as wakeful with racking care regarding the morrow; wherein lie the Miss Bolderos, who must naturally be very uncomfortable, being on sufferance, and as it were in pain, as they lie on their beds; — what sorrows do we not perceive brooding over the nightcaps? There is poor Charlotte who has said her prayer for her Philip; and as she lays her young eyes on the pillow, they wet it with their tears. Why does her mother for ever and for ever speak against him? Why is her father so cold when Philip’s name is mentioned? Could Charlotte ever think of any but him? Oh, never, never! And so the wet eyes are veiled at last; and close in doubt and fear and care. And in the next room to Charlotte’s, a little yellow old woman lies stark awake; and in the bed by her side an old gentleman can’t close his eyes for thinking — my poor girl is promised to a beggar. All the fine hopes which we had of his getting a legacy from that lord are over. Poor child, poor child, what will become of her?

Now, Two Sticks, let us fly over the river Seine to Mr. Philip Firmin’s quarters: to Philip’s house, who has not got a penny; to Philip’s bed, who has made himself so rude and disagreeable at that tea-party. He has no idea that he has offended anybody. He has gone home perfectly well pleased. He has kicked off the tattered boot. He has found a little fire lingering in his stove, by which he has smoked the pipe of thought. Ere he has jumped into his bed he has knelt a moment beside it; and with all his heart — oh! with all his heart and soul — has committed the dearest one to heaven’s loving protection! And now he sleeps like a child.

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