Catherine: a story, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 3

In which a narcotic is administered, and a great deal of genteel Society depicted.

When the Corporal, who had retreated to the street-door immediately on hearing the above conversation, returned to the Captain’s lodgings and paid his respects to Mrs. Catherine, he found that lady in high good-humour. The Count had been with her, she said, along with a friend of his, Mr. Trippet; had promised her twelve yards of the lace she coveted so much; had vowed that the child should have as much more for a cloak; and had not left her until he had sat with her for an hour, or more, over a bowl of punch, which he made on purpose for her. Mr. Trippet stayed too. “A mighty pleasant man,” said she; “only not very wise, and seemingly a good deal in liquor.”

“A good deal indeed!” said the Corporal. “He was so tipsy just now that he could hardly stand. He and his honour were talking to Nan Fantail in the market-place; and she pulled Trippet’s wig off, for wanting to kiss her.”

“The nasty fellow!” said Mrs. Cat, “to demean himself with such low people as Nan Fantail, indeed! Why, upon my conscience now, Corporal, it was but an hour ago that Mr. Trippet swore he never saw such a pair of eyes as mine, and would like to cut the Captain’s throat for the love of me. Nan Fantail, indeed!”

“Nan’s an honest girl, Madam Catherine, and was a great favourite of the Captain’s before someone else came in his way. No one can say a word against her — not a word.”

“And pray, Corporal, who ever did?” said Mrs. Cat, rather offended. “A nasty, ugly slut! I wonder what the men can see in her?”

“She has got a smart way with her, sure enough; it’s what amuses the men, and —”

“And what? You don’t mean to say that my Max is fond of her NOW?” said Mrs. Catherine, looking very fierce.

“Oh, no; not at all: not of HER; — that is —”

“Not of HER!” screamed she. “Of whom, then?”

“Oh, psha! nonsense! Of you, my dear, to be sure; who else should he care for? And, besides, what business is it of mine?” And herewith the Corporal began whistling, as if he would have no more of the conversation. But Mrs. Cat was not to be satisfied — not she — and carried on her cross-questions.

“Why, look you,” said the Corporal, after parrying many of these — “Why, look you, I’m an old fool, Catherine, and I must blab. That man has been the best friend I ever had, and so I was quiet; but I can’t keep it in any longer — no, hang me if I can! It’s my belief he’s acting like a rascal by you: he deceives you, Catherine; he’s a scoundrel, Mrs. Hall, that’s the truth on’t.”

Catherine prayed him to tell all he knew; and he resumed.

“He wants you off his hands; he’s sick of you, and so brought here that fool Tom Trippet, who has taken a fancy to you. He has not the courage to turn you out of doors like a man; though indoors he can treat you like a beast. But I’ll tell you what he’ll do. In a month he will go to Coventry, or pretend to go there, on recruiting business. No such thing, Mrs. Hall; he’s going on MARRIAGE business; and he’ll leave you without a farthing, to starve or to rot, for him. It’s all arranged, I tell you: in a month, you are to be starved into becoming Tom Trippet’s mistress; and his honour is to marry rich Miss Dripping, the twenty-thousand-pounder from London; and to purchase a regiment; — and to get old Brock drummed out of Cutts’s too,” said the Corporal, under his breath. But he might have spoken out, if he chose; for the poor young woman had sunk on the ground in a real honest fit.

“I thought I should give it her,” said Mr. Brock as he procured a glass of water; and, lifting her on to a sofa, sprinkled the same over her. “Hang it! how pretty she is.”

* * *

When Mrs. Catherine came to herself again, Brock’s tone with her was kind, and almost feeling. Nor did the poor wench herself indulge in any subsequent shiverings and hysterics, such as usually follow the fainting-fits of persons of higher degree. She pressed him for further explanations, which he gave, and to which she listened with a great deal of calmness; nor did many tears, sobs, sighs, or exclamations of sorrow or anger escape from her: only when the Corporal was taking his leave, and said to her point-blank — ” Well, Mrs. Catherine, and what do you intend to do?” she did not reply a word; but gave a look which made him exclaim, on leaving the room —

“By heavens! the woman means murder! I would not be the Holofernes to lie by the side of such a Judith as that — not I!” And he went his way, immersed in deep thought. When the Captain returned at night, she did not speak to him; and when he swore at her for being sulky, she only said she had a headache, and was dreadfully ill; with which excuse Gustavus Adolphus seemed satisfied, and left her to herself.

He saw her the next morning for a moment: he was going a-shooting.

Catherine had no friend, as is usual in tragedies and romances — no mysterious sorceress of her acquaintance to whom she could apply for poison — so she went simply to the apothecaries, pretending at each that she had a dreadful toothache, and procuring from them as much laudanum as she thought would suit her purpose.

When she went home again she seemed almost gay. Mr. Brock complimented her upon the alteration in her appearance; and she was enabled to receive the Captain at his return from shooting in such a manner as made him remark that she had got rid of her sulks of the morning, and might sup with them, if she chose to keep her good-humour. The supper was got ready, and the gentlemen had the punch-bowl when the cloth was cleared — Mrs. Catherine, with her delicate hands, preparing the liquor.

It is useless to describe the conversation that took place, or to reckon the number of bowls that were emptied; or to tell how Mr. Trippet, who was one of the guests, and declined to play at cards when some of the others began, chose to remain by Mrs. Catherine’s side, and make violent love to her. All this might be told, and the account, however faithful, would not be very pleasing. No, indeed! And here, though we are only in the third chapter of this history, we feel almost sick of the characters that appear in it, and the adventures which they are called upon to go through. But how can we help ourselves? The public will hear of nothing but rogues; and the only way in which poor authors, who must live, can act honestly by the public and themselves, is to paint such thieves as they are: not, dandy, poetical, rose-water thieves; but real downright scoundrels, leading scoundrelly lives, drunken, profligate, dissolute, low; as scoundrels will be. They don’t quote Plato, like Eugene Aram; or live like gentlemen, and sing the pleasantest ballads in the world, like jolly Dick Turpin; or prate eternally about “to kalon,”2 like that precious canting Maltravers, whom we all of us have read about and pitied; or die whitewashed saints, like poor “Biss Dadsy” in “Oliver Twist.” No, my dear madam, you and your daughters have no right to admire and sympathise with any such persons, fictitious or real: you ought to be made cordially to detest, scorn, loathe, abhor, and abominate all people of this kidney. Men of genius like those whose works we have above alluded to, have no business to make these characters interesting or agreeable; to be feeding your morbid fancies, or indulging their own, with such monstrous food. For our parts, young ladies, we beg you to bottle up your tears, and not waste a single drop of them on any one of the heroes or heroines in this history: they are all rascals, every soul of them, and behave “as sich.” Keep your sympathy for those who deserve it: don’t carry it, for preference, to the Old Bailey, and grow maudlin over the company assembled there.

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

Just, then, have the kindness to fancy that the conversation which took place over the bowls of punch which Mrs. Catherine prepared, was such as might be expected to take place where the host was a dissolute, dare-devil, libertine captain of dragoons, the guests for the most part of the same class, and the hostess a young woman originally from a country alehouse, and for the present mistress to the entertainer of the society. They talked, and they drank, and they grew tipsy; and very little worth hearing occurred during the course of the whole evening. Mr. Brock officiated, half as the servant, half as the companion of the society. Mr. Thomas Trippet made violent love to Mrs. Catherine, while her lord and master was playing at dice with the other gentlemen: and on this night, strange to say, the Captain’s fortune seemed to desert him. The Warwickshire Squire, from whom he had won so much, had an amazing run of good luck. The Captain called perpetually for more drink, and higher stakes, and lost almost every throw. Three hundred, four hundred, six hundred — all his winnings of the previous months were swallowed up in the course of a few hours. The Corporal looked on; and, to do him justice, seemed very grave as, sum by sum, the Squire scored down the Count’s losses on the paper before him.

Most of the company had taken their hats and staggered off. The Squire and Mr. Trippet were the only two that remained, the latter still lingering by Mrs. Catherine’s sofa and table; and as she, as we have stated, had been employed all the evening in mixing the liquor for the gamesters, he was at the headquarters of love and drink, and had swallowed so much of each as hardly to be able to speak.

The dice went rattling on; the candles were burning dim, with great long wicks. Mr. Trippet could hardly see the Captain, and thought, as far as his muzzy reason would let him, that the Captain could not see him: so he rose from his chair as well as he could, and fell down on Mrs. Catherine’s sofa. His eyes were fixed, his face was pale, his jaw hung down; and he flung out his arms and said, in a maudlin voice, “Oh, you byoo-oo-oo-tifile Cathrine, I must have a kick-kick-iss.”

“Beast!” said Mrs. Catherine, and pushed him away. The drunken wretch fell off the sofa, and on to the floor, where he stayed; and, after snorting out some unintelligible sounds, went to sleep.

The dice went rattling on; the candles were burning dim, with great long wicks.

“Seven’s the main,” cried the Count. “Four. Three to two against the caster.”

“Ponies,” said the Warwickshire Squire.

Rattle, rattle, rattle, rattle, clatter, NINE. Clap, clap, clap, clap, ELEVEN. Clutter, clutter, clutter, clutter: “Seven it is,” says the Warwickshire Squire. “That makes eight hundred, Count.”

“One throw for two hundred,” said the Count. “But stop! Cat, give us some more punch.”

Mrs. Cat came forward; she looked a little pale, and her hand trembled somewhat. “Here is the punch, Max,” said she. It was steaming hot, in a large glass. “Don’t drink it all,” said she; “leave me some.”

“How dark it is!” said the Count, eyeing it.

“It’s the brandy,” said Cat.

“Well, here goes! Squire, curse you! here’s your health, and bad luck to you!” and he gulped off more than half the liquor at a draught. But presently he put down the glass and cried, “What infernal poison is this, Cat?”

“Poison!” said she. “It’s no poison. Give me the glass.” And she pledged Max, and drank a little of it. “’Tis good punch, Max, and of my brewing; I don’t think you will ever get any better.” And she went back to the sofa again, and sat down, and looked at the players.

Mr. Brock looked at her white face and fixed eyes with a grim kind of curiosity. The Count sputtered, and cursed the horrid taste of the punch still; but he presently took the box, and made his threatened throw.

As before, the Squire beat him; and having booked his winnings, rose from table as well as he might and besought to lead him downstairs; which Mr. Brock did.

Liquor had evidently stupefied the Count: he sat with his head between his hands, muttering wildly about ill-luck, seven’s the main, bad punch, and so on. The street-door banged to; and the steps of Brock and the Squire were heard, until they could be heard no more.

“Max,” said she; but he did not answer. “Max,” said she again, laying her hand on his shoulder.

“Curse you,” said that gentleman, “keep off, and don’t be laying your paws upon me. Go to bed, you jade, or to — for what I care; and give me first some more punch — a gallon more punch, do you hear?”

The gentleman, by the curses at the commencement of this little speech, and the request contained at the end of it, showed that his losses vexed him, and that he was anxious to forget them temporarily.

“Oh, Max!” whimpered Mrs. Cat, “you — don’t — want any more punch?”

“Don’t! Shan’t I be drunk in my own house, you cursed whimpering jade, you? Get out!” and with this the Captain proceeded to administer a blow upon Mrs. Catherine’s cheek.

Contrary to her custom, she did not avenge it, or seek to do so, as on the many former occasions when disputes of this nature had arisen between the Count and her; but now Mrs. Catherine fell on her knees and, clasping her hands and looking pitifully in the Count’s face, cried, “Oh, Count, forgive me, forgive me!”

“Forgive you! What for? Because I slapped your face? Ha, ha! I’ll forgive you again, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh, no, no, no!” said she, wringing her hands. “It isn’t that. Max, dear Max, will you forgive me? It isn’t the blow — I don’t mind that; it’s —”

“It’s what, you — maudlin fool?”

“IT’S THE PUNCH!”

The Count, who was more than half seas over, here assumed an air of much tipsy gravity. “The punch! No, I never will forgive you that last glass of punch. Of all the foul, beastly drinks I ever tasted, that was the worst. No, I never will forgive you that punch.”

“Oh, it isn’t that, it isn’t that!” said she.

“I tell you it is that — you! That punch, I say that punch was no better than paw — aw-oison.” And here the Count’s head sank back, and he fell to snore.

“IT WAS POISON!” said she.

“WHAT!” screamed he, waking up at once, and spurning her away from him. “What, you infernal murderess, have you killed me?”

“Oh, Max! — don’t kill me, Max! It was laudanum — indeed it was. You were going to be married, and I was furious, and I went and got —”

“Hold your tongue, you fiend,” roared out the Count; and with more presence of mind than politeness, he flung the remainder of the liquor (and, indeed, the glass with it) at the head of Mrs. Catherine. But the poisoned chalice missed its mark, and fell right on the nose of Mr. Tom Trippet, who was left asleep and unobserved under the table.

Bleeding, staggering, swearing, indeed a ghastly sight, up sprang Mr. Trippet, and drew his rapier. “Come on,” says he; “never say die! What’s the row? I’m ready for a dozen of you.” And he made many blind and furious passes about the room.

“Curse you, we’ll die together!” shouted the Count, as he too pulled out his toledo, and sprang at Mrs. Catherine.

“Help! murder! thieves!” shrieked she. “Save me, Mr. Trippet, save me!” and she placed that gentleman between herself and the Count, and then made for the door of the bedroom, and gained it, and bolted it.

“Out of the way, Trippet,” roared the Count —“out of the way, you drunken beast! I’ll murder her, I will — I’ll have the devil’s life.” And here he gave a swinging cut at Mr. Trippet’s sword: it sent the weapon whirling clean out of his hand, and through a window into the street.

“Take my life, then,” said Mr. Trippet: “I’m drunk, but I’m a man, and, damme! will never say die.”

“I don’t want your life, you stupid fool. Hark you, Trippet, wake and be sober, if you can. That woman has heard of my marriage with Miss Dripping.”

“Twenty thousand pound,” ejaculated Trippet.

“She has been jealous, I tell you, and POISONED us. She has put laudanum into the punch.”

“What, in MY punch?” said Trippet, growing quite sober and losing his courage. “O Lord! O Lord!”

“Don’t stand howling there, but run for a doctor; ’tis our only chance.” And away ran Mr. Trippet, as if the deuce were at his heels.

The Count had forgotten his murderous intentions regarding his mistress, or had deferred them at least, under the consciousness of his own pressing danger. And it must be said, in the praise of a man who had fought for and against Marlborough and Tallard, that his courage in this trying and novel predicament never for a moment deserted him, but that he showed the greatest daring, as well as ingenuity, in meeting and averting the danger. He flew to the sideboard, where were the relics of a supper, and seizing the mustard and salt pots, and a bottle of oil, he emptied them all into a jug, into which he further poured a vast quantity of hot water. This pleasing mixture he then, without a moment’s hesitation, placed to his lips, and swallowed as much of it as nature would allow him. But when he had imbibed about a quart, the anticipated effect was produced, and he was enabled, by the power of this ingenious extemporaneous emetic, to get rid of much of the poison which Mrs. Catherine had administered to him.

He was employed in these efforts when the doctor entered, along with Mr. Brock and Mr. Trippet; who was not a little pleased to hear that the poisoned punch had not in all probability been given to him. He was recommended to take some of the Count’s mixture, as a precautionary measure; but this he refused, and retired home, leaving the Count under charge of the physician and his faithful corporal.

It is not necessary to say what further remedies were employed by them to restore the Captain to health; but after some time the doctor, pronouncing that the danger was, he hoped, averted, recommended that his patient should be put to bed, and that somebody should sit by him; which Brock promised to do.

“That she-devil will murder me, if you don’t,” gasped the poor Count. “You must turn her out of the bedroom; or break open the door, if she refuses to let you in.”

And this step was found to be necessary; for, after shouting many times, and in vain, Mr. Brock found a small iron bar (indeed, he had the instrument for many days in his pocket), and forced the lock. The room was empty, the window was open: the pretty barmaid of the “Bugle” had fled.

“The chest,” said the Count —“is the chest safe?”

The Corporal flew to the bed, under which it was screwed, and looked, and said, “It IS safe, thank Heaven!” The window was closed. The Captain, who was too weak to stand without help, was undressed and put to bed. The Corporal sat down by his side; slumber stole over the eyes of the patient; and his wakeful nurse marked with satisfaction the progress of the beneficent restorer of health.

When the Captain awoke, as he did some time afterwards, he found, very much to his surprise, that a gag had been placed in his mouth, and that the Corporal was in the act of wheeling his bed to another part of the room. He attempted to move, and gave utterance to such unintelligible sounds as could issue through a silk handkerchief.

“If your honour stirs or cries out in the least, I will cut your honour’s throat,” said the Corporal.

And then, having recourse to his iron bar (the reader will now see why he was provided with such an implement, for he had been meditating this coup for some days), he proceeded first to attempt to burst the lock of the little iron chest in which the Count kept his treasure, and, failing in this, to unscrew it from the ground; which operation he performed satisfactorily.

“You see, Count,” said he, calmly, “when rogues fall out there’s the deuce to pay. You’ll have me drummed out of the regiment, will you? I’m going to leave it of my own accord, look you, and to live like a gentleman for the rest of my days. Schlafen Sie wohl, noble Captain: bon repos. The Squire will be with you pretty early in the morning, to ask for the money you owe him.”

With these sarcastic observations Mr. Brock departed; not by the window, as Mrs. Catherine had done, but by the door, quietly, and so into the street. And when, the next morning, the doctor came to visit his patient, he brought with him a story how, at the dead of night, Mr. Brock had roused the ostler at the stables where the Captain’s horses were kept — had told him that Mrs. Catherine had poisoned the Count, and had run off with a thousand pounds; and how he and all lovers of justice ought to scour the country in pursuit of the criminal. For this end Mr. Brock mounted the Count’s best horse — that very animal on which he had carried away Mrs. Catherine: and thus, on a single night, Count Maximilian had lost his mistress, his money, his horse, his corporal, and was very near losing his life.

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