Catherine: a story, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 10

Showing how Galgenstein and Mrs. Cat recognise each other in Marylebone Gardens — And how the Count drives her home in his carriage.

About a month after the touching conversation above related, there was given, at Marylebone Gardens, a grand concert and entertainment, at which the celebrated Madame Amenaide, a dancer of the theatre at Paris, was to perform, under the patronage of several English and foreign noblemen; among whom was his Excellency the Bavarian Envoy. Madame Amenaide was, in fact, no other than the maitresse en titre of the Monsieur de Galgenstein, who had her a great bargain from the Duke de Rohan-Chabot at Paris.

It is not our purpose to make a great and learned display here, otherwise the costumes of the company assembled at this fete might afford scope for at least half-a-dozen pages of fine writing; and we might give, if need were, specimens of the very songs and music sung on the occasion. Does not the Burney collection of music, at the British Museum, afford one an ample store of songs from which to choose? Are there not the memoirs of Colley Cibber? those of Mrs. Clark, the daughter of Colley? Is there not Congreve, and Farquhar — nay, and at a pinch, the “Dramatic Biography,” or even the Spectator, from which the observant genius might borrow passages, and construct pretty antiquarian figments? Leave we these trifles to meaner souls! Our business is not with the breeches and periwigs, with the hoops and patches, but with the divine hearts of men, and the passions which agitate them. What need, therefore, have we to say that on this evening, after the dancing, the music, and the fireworks, Monsieur de Galgenstein felt the strange and welcome pangs of appetite, and was picking a cold chicken, along with some other friends in an arbour — a cold chicken, with an accompaniment of a bottle of champagne — when he was led to remark that a very handsome plump little person, in a gorgeous stiff damask gown and petticoat, was sauntering up and down the walk running opposite his supping-place, and bestowing continual glances towards his Excellency. The lady, whoever she was, was in a mask, such as ladies of high and low fashion wore at public places in those days, and had a male companion. He was a lad of only seventeen, marvellously well dressed — indeed, no other than the Count’s own son, Mr. Thomas Billings; who had at length received from his mother the silver-hilted sword, and the wig, which that affectionate parent had promised to him.

In the course of the month which had elapsed since the interview that has been described in the former chapter, Mr. Billings had several times had occasion to wait on his father; but though he had, according to her wishes, frequently alluded to the existence of his mother, the Count had never at any time expressed the slightest wish to renew his acquaintance with that lady; who, if she had seen him, had only seen him by stealth.

The fact is, that after Billings had related to her the particulars of his first meeting with his Excellency; which ended, like many of the latter visits, in nothing at all; Mrs. Hayes had found some pressing business, which continually took her to Whitehall, and had been prowling from day to day about Monsieur de Galgenstein’s lodgings. Four or five times in the week, as his Excellency stepped into his coach, he might have remarked, had he chosen, a woman in a black hood, who was looking most eagerly into his eyes: but those eyes had long since left off the practice of observing; and Madam Catherine’s visits had so far gone for nothing.

On this night, however, inspired by gaiety and drink, the Count had been amazingly stricken by the gait and ogling of the lady in the mask. The Reverend O’Flaherty, who was with him, and had observed the figure in the black cloak, recognised, or thought he recognised, her. “It is the woman who dogs your Excellency every day,” said he. “She is with that tailor lad who loves to see people hanged — your Excellency’s son, I mean.” And he was just about to warn the Count of a conspiracy evidently made against him, and that the son had brought, most likely, the mother to play her arts upon him — he was just about, I say, to show to the Count the folly and danger of renewing an old liaison with a woman such as he had described Mrs. Cat to be, when his Excellency, starting up, and interrupting his ghostly adviser at the very beginning of his sentence, said, “Egad, l’Abbe, you are right — it IS my son, and a mighty smart-looking creature with him. Hey! Mr. What’s-your-name — Tom, you rogue, don’t you know your own father?” And so saying, and cocking his beaver on one side, Monsieur de Galgenstein strutted jauntily after Mr. Billings and the lady.

It was the first time that the Count had formally recognised his son.

“Tom, you rogue,” stopped at this, and the Count came up. He had a white velvet suit, covered over with stars and orders, a neat modest wig and bag, and peach-coloured silk-stockings with silver clasps. The lady in the mask gave a start as his Excellency came forward. “Law, mother, don’t squeege so,” said Tom. The poor woman was trembling in every limb, but she had presence of mind to “squeege” Tom a great deal harder; and the latter took the hint, I suppose, and was silent.

The splendid Count came up. Ye gods, how his embroidery glittered in the lamps! What a royal exhalation of musk and bergamot came from his wig, his handkerchief, and his grand lace ruffles and frills! A broad yellow riband passed across his breast, and ended at his hip in a shining diamond cross — a diamond cross, and a diamond sword-hilt! Was anything ever seen so beautiful? And might not a poor woman tremble when such a noble creature drew near to her, and deigned, from the height of his rank and splendour, to look down upon her? As Jove came down to Semele in state, in his habits of ceremony, with all the grand cordons of his orders blazing about his imperial person — thus dazzling, magnificent, triumphant, the great Galgenstein descended towards Mrs. Catherine. Her cheeks glowed red-hot under her coy velvet mask, her heart thumped against the whalebone prison of her stays. What a delicious storm of vanity was raging in her bosom! What a rush of long-pent recollections burst forth at the sound of that enchanting voice!

As you wind up a hundred-guinea chronometer with a twopenny watch-key — as by means of a dirty wooden plug you set all the waters of Versailles a-raging, and splashing, and storming — in like manner, and by like humble agents, were Mrs. Catherine’s tumultuous passions set going. The Count, we have said, slipped up to his son, and merely saying, “How do, Tom?” cut the young gentleman altogether, and passing round to the lady’s side, said, “Madam, ’tis a charming evening — egad it is!” She almost fainted: it was the old voice. There he was, after seventeen years, once more at her side!

Now I know what I could have done. I can turn out a quotation from Sophocles (by looking to the index) as well as another: I can throw off a bit of fine writing too, with passion, similes, and a moral at the end. What, pray, is the last sentence but one but the very finest writing? Suppose, for example, I had made Maximilian, as he stood by the side of Catherine, look up towards the clouds, and exclaim, in the words of the voluptuous Cornelius Nepos,

‘Aenaoi nephelai
‘Arthoomen phanerai
Droseran phusin euageetoi, k.t.l. 5

5 Anglicised version of the author’s original Greek text.

Or suppose, again, I had said, in a style still more popular:—

The Count advanced towards the maiden. They both were mute for a while; and only the beating of her heart interrupted that thrilling and passionate silence. Ah, what years of buried joys and fears, hopes and disappointments, arose from their graves in the far past, and in those brief moments flitted before the united ones! How sad was that delicious retrospect, and oh, how sweet! The tears that rolled down the cheek of each were bubbles from the choked and moss-grown wells of youth; the sigh that heaved each bosom had some lurking odours in it — memories of the fragrance of boyhood, echoes of the hymns of the young heart! Thus is it ever — for these blessed recollections the soul always has a place; and while crime perishes, and sorrow is forgotten, the beautiful alone is eternal.

“O golden legends, written in the skies!” mused De Galgenstein, “ye shine as ye did in the olden days! WE change, but YE speak ever the same language. Gazing in your abysmal depths, the feeble ratioci —”

* * *

There, now, are six columns6 of the best writing to be found in this or any other book. Galgenstein has quoted Euripides thrice, Plato once, Lycophron nine times, besides extracts from the Latin syntax and the minor Greek poets. Catherine’s passionate embreathings are of the most fashionable order; and I call upon the ingenious critic of the X—— newspaper to say whether they do not possess the real impress of the giants of the olden time — the real Platonic smack, in a word? Not that I want in the least to show off; but it is as well, every now and then, to show the public what one CAN do.

6 There WERE six columns, as mentioned by the accurate Mr. Solomons; but we have withdrawn two pages and three-quarters, because, although our correspondent has been excessively eloquent, according to custom, we were anxious to come to the facts of the story.

Mr. Solomons, by sending to our office, may have the cancelled passages. — O.Y.)

Instead, however, of all this rant and nonsense, how much finer is the speech that the Count really did make! “It is a very fine evening — egad it is!” The “egad” did the whole business: Mrs. Cat was as much in love with him now as ever she had been; and, gathering up all her energies, she said, “It is dreadful hot too, I think;” and with this she made a curtsey.

“Stifling, split me!” added his Excellency. “What do you say, madam, to a rest in an arbour, and a drink of something cool?”

“Sir!” said the lady, drawing back.

“Oh, a drink — a drink by all means,” exclaimed Mr. Billings, who was troubled with a perpetual thirst. “Come, mo — Mrs. Jones, I mean. you’re fond of a glass of cold punch, you know; and the rum here is prime, I can tell you.”

The lady in the mask consented with some difficulty to the proposal of Mr. Billings, and was led by the two gentlemen into an arbour, where she was seated between them; and some wax-candles being lighted, punch was brought.

She drank one or two glasses very eagerly, and so did her two companions; although it was evident to see, from the flushed looks of both of them, that they had little need of any such stimulus. The Count, in the midst of his champagne, it must be said, had been amazingly stricken and scandalised by the appearance of such a youth as Billings in a public place with a lady under his arm. He was, the reader will therefore understand, in the moral stage of liquor; and when he issued out, it was not merely with the intention of examining Mr. Billings’s female companion, but of administering to him some sound correction for venturing, at his early period of life, to form any such acquaintances. On joining Billings, his Excellency’s first step was naturally to examine the lady. After they had been sitting for a while over their punch, he bethought him of his original purpose, and began to address a number of moral remarks to his son.

We have already given some specimens of Monsieur de Galgenstein’s sober conversation; and it is hardly necessary to trouble the reader with any further reports of his speeches. They were intolerably stupid and dull; as egotistical as his morning lecture had been, and a hundred times more rambling and prosy. If Cat had been in the possession of her sober senses, she would have seen in five minutes that her ancient lover was a ninny, and have left him with scorn; but she was under the charm of old recollections, and the sound of that silly voice was to her magical. As for Mr. Billings, he allowed his Excellency to continue his prattle; only frowning, yawning, cursing occasionally, but drinking continually.

So the Count descanted at length upon the enormity of young Billings’s early liaisons; and then he told his own, in the year four, with a burgomaster’s daughter at Ratisbon, when he was in the Elector of Bavaria’s service — then, after Blenheim, when he had come over to the Duke of Marlborough, when a physician’s wife at Bonn poisoned herself for him, etc. etc.; of a piece with the story of the canoness, which has been recorded before. All the tales were true. A clever, ugly man every now and then is successful with the ladies; but a handsome fool is irresistible. Mrs. Cat listened and listened. Good heavens! she had heard all these tales before, and recollected the place and the time — how she was hemming a handkerchief for Max; who came round and kissed her, vowing that the physician’s wife was nothing compared to her — how he was tired, and lying on the sofa, just come home from shooting. How handsome he looked! Cat thought he was only the handsomer now; and looked more grave and thoughtful, the dear fellow!

The garden was filled with a vast deal of company of all kinds, and parties were passing every moment before the arbour where our trio sat. About half-an-hour after his Excellency had quitted his own box and party, the Rev. Mr. O’Flaherty came discreetly round, to examine the proceedings of his diplomatical chef. The lady in the mask was listening with all her might; Mr. Billings was drawing figures on the table with punch; and the Count talking incessantly. The Father Confessor listened for a moment; and then, with something resembling an oath, walked away to the entry of the gardens, where his Excellency’s gilt coach, with three footmen, was waiting to carry him back to London. “Get me a chair, Joseph,” said his Reverence, who infinitely preferred a seat gratis in the coach. “That fool,” muttered he, “will not move for this hour.” The reverend gentleman knew that, when the Count was on the subject of the physician’s wife, his discourses were intolerably long; and took upon himself, therefore, to disappear, along with the rest of the Count’s party; who procured other conveyances, and returned to their homes.

After this quiet shadow had passed before the Count’s box, many groups of persons passed and repassed; and among them was no other than Mrs. Polly Briggs, to whom we have been already introduced. Mrs. Polly was in company with one or two other ladies, and leaning on the arm of a gentleman with large shoulders and calves, a fierce cock to his hat, and a shabby genteel air. His name was Mr. Moffat, and his present occupation was that of doorkeeper at a gambling-house in Covent Garden; where, though he saw many thousands pass daily under his eyes, his own salary amounted to no more than four-and-sixpence weekly — a sum quite insufficient to maintain him in the rank which he held.

Mr. Moffat had, however, received some funds — amounting indeed, to a matter of twelve guineas — within the last month, and was treating Mrs. Briggs very generously to the concert. It may be as well to say that every one of the twelve guineas had come out of Mrs. Polly’s own pocket; who, in return, had received them from Mr. Billings. And as the reader may remember that, on the day of Tommy’s first interview with his father, he had previously paid a visit to Mrs. Briggs, having under his arm a pair of breeches, which Mrs. Briggs coveted — he should now be informed that she desired these breeches, not for pincushions, but for Mr. Moffat, who had long been in want of a pair.

Having thus episodically narrated Mr. Moffat’s history, let us state that he, his lady, and their friends, passed before the Count’s arbour, joining in a melodious chorus to a song which one of the society, an actor of Betterton’s, was singing:

“’Tis my will, when I’m dead, that no tear shall be shed,
No ‘Hic jacet’ be graved on my stone;
But pour o’er my ashes a bottle of red,
And say a good fellow is gone,
My brave boys!
And say a good fellow is gone.”

“My brave boys” was given with vast emphasis by the party; Mr. Moffat growling it in a rich bass, and Mrs. Briggs in a soaring treble. As to the notes, when quavering up to the skies, they excited various emotions among the people in the gardens. “Silence them blackguards!” shouted a barber, who was taking a pint of small beer along with his lady. “Stop that there infernal screeching!” said a couple of ladies, who were sipping ratafia in company with two pretty fellows.

“Dang it, it’s Polly!” said Mr. Tom Billings, bolting out of the box, and rushing towards the sweet-voiced Mrs. Briggs. When he reached her, which he did quickly, and made his arrival known by tipping Mrs. Briggs slightly on the waist, and suddenly bouncing down before her and her friend, both of the latter drew back somewhat startled.

“Law, Mr. Billings!” says Mrs. Polly, rather coolly, “is it you? Who thought of seeing you here?”

“Who’s this here young feller?” says towering Mr. Moffat, with his bass voice.

“It’s Mr. Billings, cousin, a friend of mine,” said Mrs. Polly, beseechingly.

“Oh, cousin, if it’s a friend of yours, he should know better how to conduct himself, that’s all. Har you a dancing-master, young feller, that you cut them there capers before gentlemen?” growled Mr. Moffat; who hated Mr. Billings, for the excellent reason that he lived upon him.

“Dancing-master be hanged!” said Mr. Billings, with becoming spirit: “if you call me dancing-master, I’ll pull your nose.”

“What!” roared Mr. Moffat, “pull my nose? MY NOSE! I’ll tell you what, my lad, if you durst move me, I’ll cut your throat, curse me!”

“Oh, Moffy — cousin, I mean —’tis a shame to treat the poor boy so. Go away, Tommy; do go away; my cousin’s in liquor,” whimpered Madam Briggs, who really thought that the great doorkeeper would put his threat into execution.

“Tommy!” said Mr. Moffat, frowning horribly; “Tommy to me too? Dog, get out of my ssss ——” SIGHT was the word which Mr. Moffat intended to utter; but he was interrupted; for, to the astonishment of his friends and himself, Mr. Billings did actually make a spring at the monster’s nose, and caught it so firmly, that the latter could not finish his sentence.

The operation was performed with amazing celerity; and, having concluded it, Mr. Billings sprang back, and whisked from out its sheath that new silver-hilted sword which his mamma had given him. “Now,” said he, with a fierce kind of calmness, “now for the throat-cutting, cousin: I’m your man!”

How the brawl might have ended, no one can say, had the two gentlemen actually crossed swords; but Mrs. Polly, with a wonderful presence of mind, restored peace by exclaiming, “Hush, hush! the beaks, the beaks!” Upon which, with one common instinct, the whole party made a rush for the garden gates, and disappeared into the fields. Mrs. Briggs knew her company: there was something in the very name of a constable which sent them all a-flying.

After running a reasonable time, Mr. Billings stopped. But the great Moffat was nowhere to be seen, and Polly Briggs had likewise vanished. Then Tom bethought him that he would go back to his mother; but, arriving at the gate of the gardens, was refused admittance, as he had not a shilling in his pocket. “I’ve left,” says Tommy, giving himself the airs of a gentleman, “some friends in the gardens. I’m with his Excellency the Bavarian henvy.”

“Then you had better go away with him,” said the gate people.

“But I tell you I left him there, in the grand circle, with a lady; and, what’s more, in the dark walk, I have left a silver-hilted sword.”

“Oh, my Lord, I’ll go and tell him then,” cried one of the porters, “if you will wait.”

Mr. Billings seated himself on a post near the gate, and there consented to remain until the return of his messenger. The latter went straight to the dark walk, and found the sword, sure enough. But, instead of returning it to its owner this discourteous knight broke the trenchant blade at the hilt; and flinging the steel away, pocketed the baser silver metal, and lurked off by the private door consecrated to the waiters and fiddlers.

In the meantime, Mr. Billings waited and waited. And what was the conversation of his worthy parents inside the garden? I cannot say; but one of the waiters declared that he had served the great foreign Count with two bowls of rack-punch, and some biscuits, in No. 3: that in the box with him were first a young gentleman, who went away, and a lady, splendidly dressed and masked: that when the lady and his Lordship were alone, she edged away to the further end of the table, and they had much talk: that at last, when his Grace had pressed her very much, she took off her mask and said, “Don’t you know me now, Max?” that he cried out, “My own Catherine, thou art more beautiful than ever!” and wanted to kneel down and vow eternal love to her; but she begged him not to do so in a place where all the world would see: that then his Highness paid, and they left the gardens, the lady putting on her mask again.

When they issued from the gardens, “Ho! Joseph la Rose, my coach!” shouted his Excellency, in rather a husky voice; and the men who had been waiting came up with the carriage. A young gentleman, who was dosing on one of the posts at the entry, woke up suddenly at the blaze of the torches and the noise of the footmen. The Count gave his arm to the lady in the mask, who slipped in; and he was whispering La Rose, when the lad who had been sleeping hit his Excellency on the shoulder, and said, “I say, Count, you can give ME a cast home too,” and jumped into the coach.

When Catherine saw her son, she threw herself into his arms, and kissed him with a burst of hysterical tears; of which Mr. Billings was at a loss to understand the meaning. The Count joined them, looking not a little disconcerted; and the pair were landed at their own door, where stood Mr. Hayes, in his nightcap, ready to receive them, and astounded at the splendour of the equipage in which his wife returned to him.

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