Catherine: a story, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 2

In which are depicted the pleasures of a sentimental attachment.

It will not be necessary, for the purpose of this history, to follow out very closely all the adventures which occurred to Mrs. Catherine from the period when she quitted the “Bugle” and became the Captain’s lady; for although it would be just as easy to show as not, that the young woman, by following the man of her heart, had only yielded to an innocent impulse, and by remaining with him for a certain period, had proved the depth and strength of her affection for him — although we might make very tender and eloquent apologies for the error of both parties, the reader might possibly be disgusted at such descriptions and such arguments: which, besides, are already done to his hand in the novel of “Ernest Maltravers” before mentioned.

From the gentleman’s manner towards Mrs. Catherine, and from his brilliant and immediate success, the reader will doubtless have concluded, in the first place, that Gustavus Adolphus had not a very violent affection for Mrs. Cat; in the second place, that he was a professional lady-killer, and therefore likely at some period to resume his profession; thirdly, and to conclude, that a connection so begun, must, in the nature of things, be likely to end speedily.

And so, to do the Count justice, it would, if he had been allowed to follow his own inclination entirely; for (as many young gentlemen will, and yet no praise to them) in about a week he began to be indifferent, in a month to be weary, in two months to be angry, in three to proceed to blows and curses; and, in short, to repent most bitterly the hour when he had ever been induced to present Mrs. Catherine the toe of his boot, for the purpose of lifting her on to his horse.

“Egad!” said he to the Corporal one day, when confiding his griefs to Mr. Brock, “I wish my toe had been cut off before ever it served as a ladder to this little vixen.”

“Or perhaps your honour would wish to kick her downstairs with it?” delicately suggested Mr. Brock.

“Kick her! why, the wench would hold so fast by the banisters that I COULD not kick her down, Mr. Brock. To tell you a bit of a secret, I HAVE tried as much — not to kick her — no, no, not kick her, certainly: that’s ungentlemanly — but to INDUCE her to go back to that cursed pot-house where we fell in with her. I have given her many hints —”

“Oh, yes, I saw your honour give her one yesterday — with a mug of beer. By the laws, as the ale run all down her face, and she clutched a knife to run at you, I don’t think I ever saw such a she-devil! That woman will do for your honour some day, if you provoke her.”

“Do for ME? No, hang it, Mr. Brock, never! She loves every hair of my head, sir: she worships me, Corporal. Egad, yes! she worships me; and would much sooner apply a knife to her own weasand than scratch my little finger!”

“I think she does,” said Mr. Brock.

“I’m sure of it,” said the Captain. “Women, look you, are like dogs, they like to be ill-treated: they like it, sir; I know they do. I never had anything to do with a woman in my life but I ill-treated her, and she liked me the better.”

“Mrs. Hall ought to be VERY fond of you then, sure enough!” said Mr. Corporal.

“Very fond; — ha, ha! Corporal, you wag you — and so she IS very fond. Yesterday, after the knife-and-beer scene — no wonder I threw the liquor in her face: it was so dev’lish flat that no gentleman could drink it: and I told her never to draw it till dinner-time —”

“Oh, it was enough to put an angel in a fury!” said Brock.

“Well, yesterday, after the knife business, when you had got the carver out of her hand, off she flings to her bedroom, will not eat a bit of dinner forsooth, and remains locked up for a couple of hours. At two o’clock afternoon (I was over a tankard), out comes the little she-devil, her face pale, her eyes bleared, and the tip of her nose as red as fire with sniffling and weeping. Making for my hand, ‘Max,’ says she, ‘will you forgive me?’ ‘What!’ says I. ‘Forgive a murderess?’ says I. ‘No, curse me, never!’ ‘Your cruelty will kill me,’ sobbed she. ‘Cruelty be hanged!’ says I; ‘didn’t you draw that beer an hour before dinner?’ She could say nothing to THIS, you know, and I swore that every time she did so, I would fling it into her face again. Whereupon back she flounced to her chamber, where she wept and stormed until night-time.”

“When you forgave her?”

“I DID forgive her, that’s positive. You see I had supped at the ‘Rose’ along with Tom Trippet and half-a-dozen pretty fellows; and I had eased a great fat-headed Warwickshire landjunker — what d’ye call him? — squire, of forty pieces; and I’m dev’lish good-humoured when I’ve won, and so Cat and I made it up: but I’ve taught her never to bring me stale beer again — ha, ha!”

This conversation will explain, a great deal better than any description of ours, however eloquent, the state of things as between Count Maximilian and Mrs. Catherine, and the feelings which they entertained for each other. The woman loved him, that was the fact. And, as we have shown in the previous chapter how John Hayes, a mean-spirited fellow as ever breathed, in respect of all other passions a pigmy, was in the passion of love a giant, and followed Mrs. Catherine with a furious longing which might seem at the first to be foreign to his nature; in the like manner, and playing at cross-purposes, Mrs. Hall had become smitten of the Captain; and, as he said truly, only liked him the better for the brutality which she received at his hands. For it is my opinion, madam, that love is a bodily infirmity, from which humankind can no more escape than from small-pox; and which attacks every one of us, from the first duke in the Peerage down to Jack Ketch inclusive: which has no respect for rank, virtue, or roguery in man, but sets each in his turn in a fever; which breaks out the deuce knows how or why, and, raging its appointed time, fills each individual of the one sex with a blind fury and longing for some one of the other (who may be pure, gentle, blue-eyed, beautiful, and good; or vile, shrewish, squinting, hunchbacked, and hideous, according to circumstances and luck); which dies away, perhaps, in the natural course, if left to have its way, but which contradiction causes to rage more furiously than ever. Is not history, from the Trojan war upwards and downwards, full of instances of such strange inexplicable passions? Was not Helen, by the most moderate calculation, ninety years of age when she went off with His Royal Highness Prince Paris of Troy? Was not Madame La Valliere ill-made, blear-eyed, tallow-complexioned, scraggy, and with hair like tow? Was not Wilkes the ugliest, charmingest, most successful man in the world? Such instances might be carried out so as to fill a volume; but cui bono? Love is fate, and not will; its origin not to be explained, its progress irresistible: and the best proof of this may be had at Bow Street any day, where if you ask any officer of the establishment how they take most thieves, he will tell you at the houses of the women. They must see the dear creatures though they hang for it; they will love, though they have their necks in the halter. And with regard to the other position, that ill-usage on the part of the man does not destroy the affection of the woman, have we not numberless police-reports, showing how, when a bystander would beat a husband for beating his wife, man and wife fall together on the interloper and punish him for his meddling?

These points, then, being settled to the satisfaction of all parties, the reader will not be disposed to question the assertion that Mrs. Hall had a real affection for the gallant Count, and grew, as Mr. Brock was pleased to say, like a beefsteak, more tender as she was thumped. Poor thing, poor thing! his flashy airs and smart looks had overcome her in a single hour; and no more is wanted to plunge into love over head and ears; no more is wanted to make a first love with — and a woman’s first love lasts FOR EVER (a man’s twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth is perhaps the best): you can’t kill it, do what you will; it takes root, and lives and even grows, never mind what the soil may be in which it is planted, or the bitter weather it must bear — often as one has seen a wallflower grow — out of a stone.

In the first weeks of their union, the Count had at least been liberal to her: she had a horse and fine clothes, and received abroad some of those flattering attentions which she held at such high price. He had, however, some ill-luck at play, or had been forced to pay some bills, or had some other satisfactory reason for being poor, and his establishment was very speedily diminished. He argued that, as Mrs. Catherine had been accustomed to wait on others all her life, she might now wait upon herself and him; and when the incident of the beer arose, she had been for some time employed as the Count’s housekeeper, with unlimited superintendence over his comfort, his cellar, his linen, and such matters as bachelors are delighted to make over to active female hands. To do the poor wretch justice, she actually kept the man’s menage in the best order; nor was there any point of extravagance with which she could be charged, except a little extravagance of dress displayed on the very few occasions when he condescended to walk abroad with her, and extravagance of language and passion in the frequent quarrels they had together. Perhaps in such a connection as subsisted between this precious couple, these faults are inevitable on the part of the woman. She must be silly and vain, and will pretty surely therefore be fond of dress; and she must, disguise it as she will, be perpetually miserable and brooding over her fall, which will cause her to be violent and quarrelsome.

Such, at least, was Mrs. Hall; and very early did the poor vain misguided wretch begin to reap what she had sown.

For a man, remorse under these circumstances is perhaps uncommon. No stigma affixes on HIM for betraying a woman; no bitter pangs of mortified vanity; no insulting looks of superiority from his neighbour, and no sentence of contemptuous banishment is read against him; these all fall on the tempted, and not on the tempter, who is permitted to go free. The chief thing that a man learns after having successfully practised on a woman is to despise the poor wretch whom he has won. The game, in fact, and the glory, such as it is, is all his, and the punishment alone falls upon her. Consider this, ladies, when charming young gentlemen come to woo you with soft speeches. You have nothing to win, except wretchedness, and scorn, and desertion. Consider this, and be thankful to your Solomons for telling it.

It came to pass, then, that the Count had come to have a perfect contempt and indifference for Mrs. Hall; — how should he not for a young person who had given herself up to him so easily? — and would have been quite glad of any opportunity of parting with her. But there was a certain lingering shame about the man, which prevented him from saying at once and abruptly, “Go!” and the poor thing did not choose to take such hints as fell out in the course of their conversation and quarrels. And so they kept on together, he treating her with simple insult, and she hanging on desperately, by whatever feeble twig she could find, to the rock beyond which all was naught, or death, to her.

Well, after the night with Tom Trippet and the pretty fellows at the “Rose,” to which we have heard the Count allude in the conversation just recorded, Fortune smiled on him a good deal; for the Warwickshire squire, who had lost forty pieces on that occasion, insisted on having his revenge the night after; when, strange to say, a hundred and fifty more found their way into the pouch of his Excellency the Count. Such a sum as this quite set the young nobleman afloat again, and brought back a pleasing equanimity to his mind, which had been a good deal disturbed in the former difficult circumstances; and in this, for a little and to a certain extent, poor Cat had the happiness to share. He did not alter the style of his establishment, which consisted, as before, of herself and a small person who acted as scourer, kitchen-wench, and scullion; Mrs. Catherine always putting her hand to the principal pieces of the dinner; but he treated his mistress with tolerable good-humour; or, to speak more correctly, with such bearable brutality as might be expected from a man like him to a woman in her condition. Besides, a certain event was about to take place, which not unusually occurs in circumstances of this nature, and Mrs. Catherine was expecting soon to lie in.

The Captain, distrusting naturally the strength of his own paternal feelings, had kindly endeavoured to provide a parent for the coming infant; and to this end had opened a negotiation with our friend Mr. Thomas Bullock, declaring that Mrs. Cat should have a fortune of twenty guineas, and reminding Tummas of his ancient flame for her: but Mr. Tummas, when this proposition was made to him, declined it, with many oaths, and vowed that he was perfectly satisfied with his present bachelor condition. In this dilemma, Mr. Brock stepped forward, who declared himself very ready to accept Mrs. Catherine and her fortune: and might possibly have become the possessor of both, had not Mrs. Cat, the moment she heard of the proposed arrangement, with fire in her eyes, and rage — oh, how bitter! — in her heart, prevented the success of the measure by proceeding incontinently to the first justice of the peace, and there swearing before his worship who was the father of the coming child.

This proceeding, which she had expected would cause not a little indignation on the part of her lord and master, was received by him, strangely enough, with considerable good-humour: he swore that the wench had served him a good trick, and was rather amused at the anger, the outbreak of fierce rage and contumely, and the wretched wretched tears of heartsick desperation, which followed her announcement of this step to him. For Mr. Brock, she repelled his offer with scorn and loathing, and treated the notion of a union with Mr. Bullock with yet fiercer contempt. Marry him indeed! a workhouse pauper carrying a brown-bess! She would have died sooner, she said, or robbed on the highway. And so, to do her justice, she would: for the little minx was one of the vainest creatures in existence, and vanity (as I presume everybody knows) becomes THE principle in certain women’s hearts — their moral spectacles, their conscience, their meat and drink, their only rule of right and wrong.

As for Mr. Tummas, he, as we have seen, was quite unfriendly to the proposition as she could be; and the Corporal, with a good deal of comical gravity, vowed that, as he could not be satisfied in his dearest wishes, he would take to drinking for a consolation: which he straightway did.

“Come, Tummas,” said he to Mr. Bullock “since we CAN’T have the girl of our hearts, why, hang it, Tummas, let’s drink her health!” To which Bullock had no objection. And so strongly did the disappointment weigh upon honest Corporal Brock, that even when, after unheard-of quantities of beer, he could scarcely utter a word, he was seen absolutely to weep, and, in accents almost unintelligible, to curse his confounded ill-luck at being deprived, not of a wife, but of a child: he wanted one so, he said, to comfort him in his old age.

The time of Mrs. Catherine’s couche drew near, arrived, and was gone through safely. She presented to the world a chopping boy, who might use, if he liked, the Galgenstein arms with a bar-sinister; and in her new cares and duties had not so many opportunities as usual of quarrelling with the Count: who, perhaps, respected her situation, or, at least, was so properly aware of the necessity of quiet to her, that he absented himself from home morning, noon, and night.

The Captain had, it must be confessed, turned these continued absences to a considerable worldly profit, for he played incessantly; and, since his first victory over the Warwickshire Squire, Fortune had been so favourable to him, that he had at various intervals amassed a sum of nearly a thousand pounds, which he used to bring home as he won; and which he deposited in a strong iron chest, cunningly screwed down by himself under his own bed. This Mrs. Catherine regularly made, and the treasure underneath it could be no secret to her. However, the noble Count kept the key, and bound her by many solemn oaths (that he discharged at her himself) not to reveal to any other person the existence of the chest and its contents.

But it is not in a woman’s nature to keep such secrets; and the Captain, who left her for days and days, did not reflect that she would seek for confidants elsewhere. For want of a female companion, she was compelled to bestow her sympathies upon Mr. Brock; who, as the Count’s corporal, was much in his lodgings, and who did manage to survive the disappointment which he had experienced by Mrs. Catherine’s refusal of him.

About two months after the infant’s birth, the Captain, who was annoyed by its squalling, put it abroad to nurse, and dismissed its attendant. Mrs. Catherine now resumed her household duties, and was, as before, at once mistress and servant of the establishment. As such, she had the keys of the beer, and was pretty sure of the attentions of the Corporal; who became, as we have said, in the Count’s absence, his lady’s chief friend and companion. After the manner of ladies, she very speedily confided to him all her domestic secrets; the causes of her former discontent; the Count’s ill-treatment of her; the wicked names he called her; the prices that all her gowns had cost her; how he beat her; how much money he won and lost at play; how she had once pawned a coat for him; how he had four new ones, laced, and paid for; what was the best way of cleaning and keeping gold-lace, of making cherry-brandy, pickling salmon, etc., etc. Her confidences upon all these subjects used to follow each other in rapid succession; and Mr. Brock became, ere long, quite as well acquainted with the Captain’s history for the last year as the Count himself:— for he was careless, and forgot things; women never do. They chronicle all the lover’s small actions, his words, his headaches, the dresses he has worn, the things he has liked for dinner on certain days; — all which circumstances commonly are expunged from the male brain immediately after they have occurred, but remain fixed with the female.

To Brock, then, and to Brock only (for she knew no other soul), Mrs. Cat breathed, in strictest confidence, the history of the Count’s winnings, and his way of disposing of them; how he kept his money screwed down in an iron chest in their room; and a very lucky fellow did Brock consider his officer for having such a large sum. He and Cat looked at the chest: it was small, but mighty strong, sure enough, and would defy picklocks and thieves. Well, if any man deserved money, the Captain did (“though he might buy me a few yards of that lace I love so,” interrupted Cat) — if any man deserved money, he did, for he spent it like a prince, and his hand was always in his pocket.

It must now be stated that Monsieur de Galgenstein had, during Cat’s seclusion, cast his eyes upon a young lady of good fortune, who frequented the Assembly at Birmingham, and who was not a little smitten by his title and person. The “four new coats, laced, and paid for,” as Cat said, had been purchased, most probably, by his Excellency for the purpose of dazzling the heiress; and he and the coats had succeeded so far as to win from the young woman an actual profession of love, and a promise of marriage provided Pa would consent. This was obtained — for Pa was a tradesman; and I suppose every one of my readers has remarked how great an effect a title has on the lower classes. Yes, thank Heaven! there is about a freeborn Briton a cringing baseness, and lickspittle awe of rank, which does not exist under any tyranny in Europe, and is only to be found here and in America.

All these negotiations had been going on quite unknown to Cat; and, as the Captain had determined, before two months were out, to fling that young woman on the pave, he was kind to her in the meanwhile: people always are when they are swindling you, or meditating an injury against you.

The poor girl had much too high an opinion of her own charms to suspect that the Count could be unfaithful to them, and had no notion of the plot that was formed against her. But Mr. Brock had: for he had seen many times a gilt coach with a pair of fat white horses ambling in the neighbourhood of the town, and the Captain on his black steed caracolling majestically by its side; and he had remarked a fat, pudgy, pale-haired woman treading heavily down the stairs of the Assembly, leaning on the Captain’s arm: all these Mr. Brock had seen, not without reflection. Indeed, the Count one day, in great good-humour, had slapped him on the shoulder and told him that he was about speedily to purchase a regiment; when, by his great gods, Mr. Brock should have a pair of colours. Perhaps this promise occasioned his silence to Mrs. Catherine hitherto; perhaps he never would have peached at all; and perhaps, therefore, this history would never have been written, but for a small circumstance which occurred at this period.

“What can you want with that drunken old Corporal always about your quarters?” said Mr. Trippet to the Count one day, as they sat over their wine, in the midst of a merry company, at the Captain’s rooms.

“What!” said he. “Old Brock? The old thief has been more useful to me than many a better man. He is as brave in a row as a lion, as cunning in intrigue as a fox; he can nose a dun at an inconceivable distance, and scent out a pretty woman be she behind ever so many stone walls. If a gentleman wants a good rascal now, I can recommend him. I am going to reform, you know, and must turn him out of my service.”

“And pretty Mrs. Cat?”

“Oh, curse pretty Mrs. Cat! she may go too.”

“And the brat?”

“Why, you have parishes, and what not, here in England. Egad! if a gentleman were called upon to keep all his children, there would be no living: no, stap my vitals! Croesus couldn’t stand it.”

“No, indeed,” said Mr. Trippet: “you are right; and when a gentleman marries, he is bound in honour to give up such low connections as are useful when he is a bachelor.”

“Of course; and give them up I will, when the sweet Mrs. Dripping is mine. As for the girl, you can have her, Tom Trippet, if you take a fancy to her; and as for the Corporal, he may be handed over to my successor in Cutts’s:— for I will have a regiment to myself, that’s poz; and to take with me such a swindling, pimping, thieving, brandy-faced rascal as this Brock will never do. Egad! he’s a disgrace to the service. As it is, I’ve often a mind to have the superannuated vagabond drummed out of the corps.”

Although this resume of Mr. Brock’s character and accomplishments was very just, it came perhaps with an ill grace from Count Gustavus Adolphus Maximilian, who had profited by all his qualities, and who certainly would never have given this opinion of them had he known that the door of his dining-parlour was open, and that the gallant Corporal, who was in the passage, could hear every syllable that fell from the lips of his commanding officer. We shall not say, after the fashion of the story-books, that Mr. Brock listened with a flashing eye and a distended nostril; that his chest heaved tumultuously, and that his hand fell down mechanically to his side, where it played with the brass handle of his sword. Mr. Kean would have gone through most of these bodily exercises had he been acting the part of a villain enraged and disappointed like Corporal Brock; but that gentleman walked away without any gestures of any kind, and as gently as possible. “He’ll turn me out of the regiment, will he?” says he, quite piano; and then added (con molta espressione), “I’ll do for him.”

And it is to be remarked how generally, in cases of this nature, gentlemen stick to their word.

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