Catherine: a story, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Another Last Chapter.

Mr. Hayes did not join the family the next day; and it appears that the previous night’s reconciliation was not very durable; for when Mrs. Springatt asked Wood for Hayes, Mr. Wood stated that Hayes had gone away without saying whither he was bound, or how long he might be absent. He only said, in rather a sulky tone, that he should probably pass the night at a friend’s house. “For my part, I know of no friend he hath,” added Mr. Wood; “and pray Heaven that he may not think of deserting his poor wife, whom he hath beaten and ill-used so already!” In this prayer Mrs. Springatt joined; and so these two worthy people parted.

What business Billings was about cannot be said; but he was this night bound towards Marylebone Fields, as he was the night before for the Strand and Westminster; and, although the night was very stormy and rainy, as the previous evening had been fine, old Wood good-naturedly resolved upon accompanying him; and forth they sallied together.

Mrs. Catherine, too, had HER business, as we have seen; but this was of a very delicate nature. At nine o’clock, she had an appointment with the Count; and faithfully, by that hour, had found her way to Saint Margaret’s churchyard, near Westminster Abbey, where she awaited Monsieur de Galgenstein.

The spot was convenient, being very lonely, and at the same time close to the Count’s lodgings at Whitehall. His Excellency came, but somewhat after the hour; for, to say the truth, being a freethinker, he had the most firm belief in ghosts and demons, and did not care to pace a churchyard alone. He was comforted, therefore, when he saw a woman muffled in a cloak, who held out her hand to him at the gate, and said, “Is that you?” He took her hand — it was very clammy and cold; and at her desire he bade his confidential footman, who had attended him with a torch, to retire, and leave him to himself.

The torch-bearer retired, and left them quite in darkness; and the pair entered the little cemetery, cautiously threading their way among the tombs. They sat down on one, underneath a tree it seemed to be; the wind was very cold, and its piteous howling was the only noise that broke the silence of the place. Catherine’s teeth were chattering, for all her wraps; and when Max drew her close to him, and encircled her waist with one arm, and pressed her hand, she did not repulse him, but rather came close to him, and with her own damp fingers feebly returned his pressure.

The poor thing was very wretched and weeping. She confided to Max the cause of her grief. She was alone in the world — alone and penniless. Her husband had left her; she had that very day received a letter from him which confirmed all that she had suspected so long. He had left her, carried away all his property, and would not return!

If we say that a selfish joy filled the breast of Monsieur de Galgenstein, the reader will not be astonished. A heartless libertine, he felt glad at the prospect of Catherine’s ruin; for he hoped that necessity would make her his own. He clasped the poor thing to his heart, and vowed that he would replace the husband she had lost, and that his fortune should be hers.

“Will you replace him?” said she.

“Yes, truly, in everything but the name, dear Catherine; and when he dies, I swear you shall be Countess of Galgenstein.”

“Will you swear?” she cried, eagerly.

“By everything that is most sacred: were you free now, I would” (and here he swore a terrific oath) “at once make you mine.”

We have seen before that it cost Monsieur de Galgenstein nothing to make these vows. Hayes was likely, too, to live as long as Catherine — as long, at least, as the Count’s connection with her; but he was caught in his own snare.

She took his hand and kissed it repeatedly, and bathed it in her tears, and pressed it to her bosom. “Max,” she said, “I AM FREE! Be mine, and I will love you as I have done for years and years.”

Max started back. “What, is he dead?” he said.

“No, no, not dead: but he never was my husband.”

He let go her hand, and, interrupting her, said sharply, “Indeed, madam, if this carpenter never was your husband, I see no cause why I should be. If a lady, who hath been for twenty years the mistress of a miserable country boor, cannot find it in her heart to put up with the protection of a nobleman — a sovereign’s representative — she may seek a husband elsewhere!”

“I was no man’s mistress except yours,” sobbed Catherine, wringing her hands and sobbing wildly; “but, O Heaven! I deserved this. Because I was a child, and you saw, and ruined, and left me — because, in my sorrow and repentance, I wished to repair my crime, and was touched by that man’s love, and married him — because he too deceives and leaves me — because, after loving you — madly loving you for twenty years — I will not now forfeit your respect, and degrade myself by yielding to your will, you too must scorn me! It is too much — too much — O Heaven!” And the wretched woman fell back almost fainting.

Max was almost frightened by this burst of sorrow on her part, and was coming forward to support her; but she motioned him away, and, taking from her bosom a letter, said, “If it were light, you could see, Max, how cruelly I have been betrayed by that man who called himself my husband. Long before he married me, he was married to another. This woman is still living, he says; and he says he leaves me for ever.”

At this moment the moon, which had been hidden behind Westminster Abbey, rose above the vast black mass of that edifice, and poured a flood of silver light upon the little church of St. Margaret’s, and the spot where the lovers stood. Max was at a little distance from Catherine, pacing gloomily up and down the flags. She remained at her old position at the tombstone under the tree, or pillar, as it seemed to be, as the moon got up. She was leaning against the pillar, and holding out to Max, with an arm beautifully white and rounded, the letter she had received from her husband: “Read it, Max,” she said: “I asked for light, and here is Heaven’s own, by which you may read.”

But Max did not come forward to receive it. On a sudden his face assumed a look of the most dreadful surprise and agony. He stood still, and stared with wild eyes starting from their sockets; he stared upwards, at a point seemingly above Catherine’s head. At last he raised up his finger slowly and said, “Look, Cat — THE HEAD— THE HEAD!” Then uttering a horrible laugh, he fell down grovelling among the stones, gibbering and writhing in a fit of epilepsy.

Catherine started forward and looked up. She had been standing against a post, not a tree — the moon was shining full on it now; and on the summit strangely distinct, and smiling ghastly, was a livid human head.

The wretched woman fled — she dared look no more. And some hours afterwards, when, alarmed by the Count’s continued absence, his confidential servant came back to seek for him in the churchyard, he was found sitting on the flags, staring full at the head, and laughing, and talking to it wildly, and nodding at it. He was taken up a hopeless idiot, and so lived for years and years; clanking the chain, and moaning under the lash, and howling through long nights when the moon peered through the bars of his solitary cell, and he buried his face in the straw.

* * *

There — the murder is out! And having indulged himself in a chapter of the very finest writing, the author begs the attention of the British public towards it; humbly conceiving that it possesses some of those peculiar merits which have rendered the fine writing in other chapters of the works of other authors so famous.

Without bragging at all, let us just point out the chief claims of the above pleasing piece of composition. In the first place, it is perfectly stilted and unnatural; the dialogue and the sentiments being artfully arranged, so as to be as strong and majestic as possible. Our dear Cat is but a poor illiterate country wench, who has come from cutting her husband’s throat; and yet, see! she talks and looks like a tragedy princess, who is suffering in the most virtuous blank verse. This is the proper end of fiction, and one of the greatest triumphs that a novelist can achieve: for to make people sympathise with virtue is a vulgar trick that any common fellow can do; but it is not everybody who can take a scoundrel, and cause us to weep and whimper over him as though he were a very saint. Give a young lady of five years old a skein of silk and a brace of netting-needles, and she will in a short time turn you out a decent silk purse — anybody can; but try her with a sow’s ear, and see whether she can make a silk purse out of THAT. That is the work for your real great artist; and pleasant it is to see how many have succeeded in these latter days.

The subject is strictly historical, as anyone may see by referring to the Daily Post of March 3, 1726, which contains the following paragraph:

“Yesterday morning, early, a man’s head, that by the freshness of it seemed to have been newly cut off from the body, having its own hair on, was found by the river’s side, near Millbank, Westminster, and was afterwards exposed to public view in St. Margaret’s churchyard, where thousands of people have seen it; but none could tell who the unhappy person was, much less who committed such a horrid and barbarous action. There are various conjectures relating to the deceased; but there being nothing certain, we omit them. The head was much hacked and mangled in the cutting off.”

The head which caused such an impression upon Monsieur de Galgenstein was, indeed, once on the shoulders of Mr. John Hayes, who lost it under the following circumstances. We have seen how Mr. Hayes was induced to drink. Mr. Hayes having been encouraged in drinking the wine, and growing very merry therewith, he sang and danced about the room; but his wife, fearing the quantity he had drunk would not have the wished-for effect on him, she sent away for another bottle, of which he drank also. This effectually answered their expectations; and Mr. Hayes became thereby intoxicated, and deprived of his understanding.

He, however, made shift to get into the other room, and, throwing himself upon the bed, fell asleep; upon which Mrs. Hayes reminded them of the affair in hand, and told them that was the most proper juncture to finish the business. 8

* * *

8 The description of the murder and the execution of the culprits, which here follows in the original, was taken from the newspapers of the day. Coming from such a source they have, as may be imagined, no literary merit whatever. The details of the crime are simply horrible, without one touch of even that sort of romance which sometimes gives a little dignity to murder. As such they precisely suited Mr. Thackeray’s purpose at the time — which was to show the real manners and customs of the Sheppards and Turpins who were then the popular heroes of fiction. But nowadays there is no such purpose to serve, and therefore these too literal details are omitted.

* * *

Ring, ding, ding! the gloomy green curtain drops, the dramatis personae are duly disposed of, the nimble candle snuffers put out the lights, and the audience goeth pondering home. If the critic take the pains to ask why the author, who hath been so diffuse in describing the early and fabulous acts of Mrs. Catherine’s existence, should so hurry off the catastrophe where a deal of the very finest writing might have been employed, Solomons replies that the “ordinary” narrative is far more emphatic than any composition of his own could be, with all the rhetorical graces which he might employ. Mr. Aram’s trial, as taken by the penny-a-liners of those days, had always interested him more than the lengthened and poetical report which an eminent novelist has given of the same. Mr. Turpin’s adventures are more instructive and agreeable to him in the account of the Newgate Plutarch, than in the learned Ainsworth’s Biographical Dictionary. And as he believes that the professional gentlemen who are employed to invest such heroes with the rewards that their great actions merit, will go through the ceremony of the grand cordon with much more accuracy and despatch than can be shown by the most distinguished amateur; in like manner he thinks that the history of such investitures should be written by people directly concerned, and not by admiring persons without, who must be ignorant of many of the secrets of Ketchcraft. We very much doubt if Milton himself could make a description of an execution half so horrible as the simple lines in the Daily Post of a hundred and ten years since, that now lies before us —“herrlich wie am ersten Tag,”— as bright and clean as on the day of publication. Think of it! it has been read by Belinda at her toilet, scanned at “Button’s” and “Will’s,” sneered at by wits, talked of in palaces and cottages, by a busy race in wigs, red heels, hoops, patches, and rags of all variety — a busy race that hath long since plunged and vanished in the unfathomable gulf towards which we march so briskly.

Where are they? “Afflavit Deus”— and they are gone! Hark! is not the same wind roaring still that shall sweep us down? and yonder stands the compositor at his types who shall put up a pretty paragraph some day to say how, “Yesterday, at his house in Grosvenor Square,” or “At Botany Bay, universally regretted,” died So-and-So. Into what profound moralities is the paragraph concerning Mrs. Catherine’s burning leading us!

Ay, truly, and to that very point have we wished to come; for, having finished our delectable meal, it behoves us to say a word or two by way of grace at its conclusion, and be heartily thankful that it is over. It has been the writer’s object carefully to exclude from his drama (except in two very insignificant instances — mere walking-gentlemen parts), any characters but those of scoundrels of the very highest degree. That he has not altogether failed in the object he had in view, is evident from some newspaper critiques which he has had the good fortune to see; and which abuse the tale of “Catherine” as one of the dullest, most vulgar, and immoral works extant. It is highly gratifying to the author to find that such opinions are abroad, as they convince him that the taste for Newgate literature is on the wane, and that when the public critic has right down undisguised immorality set before him, the honest creature is shocked at it, as he should be, and can declare his indignation in good round terms of abuse. The characters of the tale ARE immoral, and no doubt of it; but the writer humbly hopes the end is not so. The public was, in our notion, dosed and poisoned by the prevailing style of literary practice, and it was necessary to administer some medicine that would produce a wholesome nausea, and afterwards bring about a more healthy habit.

And, thank Heaven, this effect HAS been produced in very many instances, and that the “Catherine” cathartic has acted most efficaciously. The author has been pleased at the disgust which his work has excited, and has watched with benevolent carefulness the wry faces that have been made by many of the patients who have swallowed the dose. Solomons remembers, at the establishment in Birchin Lane where he had the honour of receiving his education, there used to be administered to the boys a certain cough-medicine, which was so excessively agreeable that all the lads longed to have colds in order to partake of the remedy. Some of our popular novelists have compounded their drugs in a similar way, and made them so palatable that a public, once healthy and honest, has been well-nigh poisoned by their wares. Solomons defies anyone to say the like of himself — that his doses have been as pleasant as champagne, and his pills as sweet as barley-sugar; — it has been his attempt to make vice to appear entirely vicious; and in those instances where he hath occasionally introduced something like virtue, to make the sham as evident as possible, and not allow the meanest capacity a single chance to mistake it.

And what has been the consequence? That wholesome nausea which it has been his good fortune to create wherever he has been allowed to practise in his humble circle.

Has anyone thrown away a halfpennyworth of sympathy upon any person mentioned in this history? Surely no. But abler and more famous men than Solomons have taken a different plan; and it becomes every man in his vocation to cry out against such, and expose their errors as best he may.

Labouring under such ideas, Mr. Isaac Solomons, junior, produced the romance of Mrs. Cat, and confesses himself completely happy to have brought it to a conclusion. His poem may be dull — ay, and probably is. The great Blackmore, the great Dennis, the great Sprat, the great Pomfret, not to mention great men of our own time — have they not also been dull, and had pretty reputations too? Be it granted Solomons IS dull; but don’t attack his morality; he humbly submits that, in his poem, no man shall mistake virtue for vice, no man shall allow a single sentiment of pity or admiration to enter his bosom for any character of the piece: it being, from beginning to end, a scene of unmixed rascality performed by persons who never deviate into good feeling. And although he doth not pretend to equal the great modern authors, whom he hath mentioned, in wit or descriptive power; yet, in the point of moral, he meekly believes that he has been their superior; feeling the greatest disgust for the characters he describes, and using his humble endeavour to cause the public also to hate them.

Horsemonger Lane: January 1840.

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