Catherine: a story, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 9

Interview between Count Galgenstein and Master Thomas Billings, when he informs the Count of his parentage.

I don’t know in all this miserable world a more miserable spectacle than that of a young fellow of five or six and forty. The British army, that nursery of valour, turns out many of the young fellows I mean: who, having flaunted in dragoon uniforms from seventeen to six-and-thirty; having bought, sold, or swapped during that period some two hundred horses; having played, say, fifteen thousand games at billiards; having drunk some six thousand bottles of wine; having consumed a reasonable number of Nugee coats, split many dozen pairs of high-heeled Hoby boots, and read the newspaper and the army-list duly, retire from the service when they have attained their eighth lustre, and saunter through the world, trailing from London to Cheltenham, and from Boulogne to Paris, and from Paris to Baden, their idleness, their ill-health, and their ennui. “In the morning of youth,” and when seen along with whole troops of their companions, these flowers look gaudy and brilliant enough; but there is no object more dismal than one of them alone, and in its autumnal, or seedy state. My friend, Captain Popjoy, is one who has arrived at this condition, and whom everybody knows by his title of Father Pop. A kinder, simpler, more empty-headed fellow does not exist. He is forty-seven years old, and appears a young, good-looking man of sixty. At the time of the Army of Occupation he really was as good-looking a man as any in the Dragoons. He now uses all sorts of stratagems to cover the bald place on his head, by combing certain thin grey sidelocks over it. He has, in revenge, a pair of enormous moustaches, which he dyes of the richest blue-black. His nose is a good deal larger and redder than it used to be; his eyelids have grown flat and heavy; and a little pair of red, watery eyeballs float in the midst of them: it seems as if the light which was once in those sickly green pupils had extravasated into the white part of the eye. If Pop’s legs are not so firm and muscular as they used to be in those days when he took such leaps into White’s buckskins, in revenge his waist is much larger. He wears a very good coat, however, and a waistband, which he lets out after dinner. Before ladies he blushes, and is as silent as a schoolboy. He calls them “modest women.” His society is chiefly among young lads belonging to his former profession. He knows the best wine to be had at each tavern or cafe, and the waiters treat him with much respectful familiarity. He knows the names of every one of them; and shouts out, “Send Markwell here!” or, “Tell Cuttriss to give us a bottle of the yellow seal!” or, “Dizzy voo, Monsure Borrel, noo donny shampang frappy,” etc. He always makes the salad or the punch, and dines out three hundred days in the year: the other days you see him in a two-franc eating-house at Paris, or prowling about Rupert Street, or St. Martin’s Court, where you get a capital cut of meat for eightpence. He has decent lodgings and scrupulously clean linen; his animal functions are still tolerably well preserved, his spiritual have evaporated long since; he sleeps well, has no conscience, believes himself to be a respectable fellow, and is tolerably happy on the days when he is asked out to dinner.

Poor Pop is not very high in the scale of created beings; but, if you fancy there is none lower, you are in egregious error. There was once a man who had a mysterious exhibition of an animal, quite unknown to naturalists, called “the wusser.” Those curious individuals who desired to see the wusser were introduced into an apartment where appeared before them nothing more than a little lean shrivelled hideous blear-eyed mangy pig. Everyone cried out “Swindle!” and “Shame!” “Patience, gentlemen, be heasy,” said the showman: “look at that there hanimal; it’s a perfect phenomaly of hugliness: I engage you never see such a pig.” Nobody ever had seen. “Now, gentlemen,” said he, “I’ll keep my promise, has per bill; and bad as that there pig is, look at this here” (he showed another). “Look at this here, and you’ll see at once that it’s A WUSSER.” In like manner the Popjoy breed is bad enough, but it serves only to show off the Galgenstein race; which is WUSSER.

Galgenstein had led a very gay life, as the saying is, for the last fifteen years; such a gay one, that he had lost all capacity of enjoyment by this time, and only possessed inclinations without powers of gratifying them. He had grown to be exquisitely curious and fastidious about meat and drink, for instance, and all that he wanted was an appetite. He carried about with him a French cook, who could not make him eat; a doctor, who could not make him well; a mistress, of whom he was heartily sick after two days; a priest, who had been a favourite of the exemplary Dubois, and by turns used to tickle him by the imposition of penance, or by the repetition of a tale from the recueil of Noce, or La Fare. All his appetites were wasted and worn; only some monstrosity would galvanise them into momentary action. He was in that effete state to which many noblemen of his time had arrived; who were ready to believe in ghost-raising or in gold-making, or to retire into monasteries and wear hair-shirts, or to dabble in conspiracies, or to die in love with little cook-maids of fifteen, or to pine for the smiles or at the frowns of a prince of the blood, or to go mad at the refusal of a chamberlain’s key. The last gratification he remembered to have enjoyed was that of riding bareheaded in a soaking rain for three hours by the side of his Grand Duke’s mistress’s coach; taking the pas of Count Krahwinkel, who challenged him, and was run through the body for this very dispute. Galgenstein gained a rheumatic gout by it, which put him to tortures for many months; and was further gratified with the post of English Envoy. He had a fortune, he asked no salary, and could look the envoy very well. Father O’Flaherty did all the duties, and furthermore acted as a spy over the ambassador — a sinecure post, for the man had no feelings, wishes, or opinions — absolutely none.

“Upon my life, father,” said this worthy man, “I care for nothing. You have been talking for an hour about the Regent’s death, and the Duchess of Phalaris, and sly old Fleury, and what not; and I care just as much as if you told me that one of my bauers at Galgenstein had killed a pig; or as if my lacquey, La Rose yonder, had made love to my mistress.”

“He does!” said the reverend gentleman.

“Ah, Monsieur l’Abbe!” said La Rose, who was arranging his master’s enormous Court periwig, “you are, helas! wrong. Monsieur le Comte will not be angry at my saying that I wish the accusation were true.”

The Count did not take the slightest notice of La Rose’s wit, but continued his own complaints.

“I tell you, Abbe, I care for nothing. I lost a thousand guineas t’other night at basset; I wish to my heart I could have been vexed about it. Egad! I remember the day when to lose a hundred made me half mad for a month. Well, next day I had my revenge at dice, and threw thirteen mains. There was some delay; a call for fresh bones, I think; and would you believe it? — I fell asleep with the box in my hand!”

“A desperate case, indeed,” said the Abbe.

“If it had not been for Krahwinkel, I should have been a dead man, that’s positive. That pinking him saved me.”

“I make no doubt of it,” said the Abbe. “Had your Excellency not run him through, he, without a doubt, would have done the same for you.”

“Psha! you mistake my words, Monsieur l’Abbe” (yawning). “I mean — what cursed chocolate! — that I was dying for want of excitement. Not that I cared for dying; no, d —— me if I do!”

“WHEN you do, your Excellency means,” said the Abbe, a fat grey-haired Irishman, from the Irlandois College at Paris.

His Excellency did not laugh, nor understand jokes of any kind; he was of an undeviating stupidity, and only replied, “Sir, I mean what I say. I don’t care for living: no, nor for dying either; but I can speak as well as another, and I’ll thank you not to be correcting my phrases as if I were one of your cursed schoolboys, and not a gentleman of fortune and blood.”

Herewith the Count, who had uttered four sentences about himself (he never spoke of anything else), sunk back on his pillows again, quite exhausted by his eloquence. The Abbe, who had a seat and a table by the bedside, resumed the labours which had brought him into the room in the morning, and busied himself with papers, which occasionally he handed over to his superior for approval.

Presently Monsieur la Rose appeared.

“Here is a person with clothes from Mr. Beinkleider’s. Will your Excellency see him, or shall I bid him leave the clothes?”

The Count was very much fatigued by this time; he had signed three papers, and read the first half-a-dozen lines of a pair of them.

“Bid the fellow come in, La Rose; and, hark ye, give me my wig: one must show one’s self to be a gentleman before these scoundrels.” And he therefore mounted a large chestnut-coloured, orange-scented pyramid of horsehair, which was to awe the new-comer.

He was a lad of about seventeen, in a smart waistcoat and a blue riband: our friend Tom Billings, indeed. He carried under his arm the Count’s destined breeches. He did not seem in the least awed, however, by his Excellency’s appearance, but looked at him with a great degree of curiosity and boldness. In the same manner he surveyed the chaplain, and then nodded to him with a kind look of recognition.

“Where have I seen the lad?” said the father. “Oh, I have it! My good friend, you were at the hanging yesterday, I think?”

Mr. Billings gave a very significant nod with his head. “I never miss,” said he.

“What a young Turk! And pray, sir, do you go for pleasure, or for business?”

“Business! what do you mean by business?”

“Oh, I did not know whether you might be brought up to the trade, or your relations be undergoing the operation.”

“My relations,” said Mr. Billings, proudly, and staring the Count full in the face, “was not made for no such thing. I’m a tailor now, but I’m a gentleman’s son: as good a man, ay, as his lordship there: for YOU a’n’t his lordship — you’re the Popish priest you are; and we were very near giving you a touch of a few Protestant stones, master.”

The Count began to be a little amused: he was pleased to see the Abbe look alarmed, or even foolish.

“Egad, Abbe,” said he, “you turn as white as a sheet.”

“I don’t fancy being murdered, my Lord,” said the Abbe, hastily; “and murdered for a good work. It was but to be useful to yonder poor Irishman, who saved me as a prisoner in Flanders, when Marlborough would have hung me up like poor Macshane himself was yesterday.”

“Ah!” said the Count, bursting out with some energy, “I was thinking who the fellow could be, ever since he robbed me on the Heath. I recollect the scoundrel now: he was a second in a duel I had here in the year six.”

“Along with Major Wood, behind Montague House,” said Mr. Billings. “I’VE heard on it.” And here he looked more knowing than ever.

“YOU!” cried the Count, more and more surprised. “And pray who the devil ARE you?”

“My name’s Billings.”

“Billings?” said the Count.

“I come out of Warwickshire,” said Mr. Billings.

“Indeed!”

“I was born at Birmingham town.”

“Were you, really!”

“My mother’s name was Hayes,” continued Billings, in a solemn voice. “I was put out to a nurse along with John Billings, a blacksmith; and my father run away. NOW do you know who I am?”

“Why, upon honour, now,” said the Count, who was amused — “upon honour, Mr. Billings, I have not that advantage.”

“Well, then, my Lord, YOU’RE MY FATHER!”

Mr. Billings when he said this came forward to the Count with a theatrical air; and, flinging down the breeches of which he was the bearer, held out his arms and stared, having very little doubt but that his Lordship would forthwith spring out of bed and hug him to his heart. A similar piece of naivete many fathers of families have, I have no doubt, remarked in their children; who, not caring for their parents a single doit, conceive, nevertheless, that the latter are bound to show all sorts of affection for them. His lordship did move, but backwards towards the wall, and began pulling at the bell-rope with an expression of the most intense alarm.

“Keep back, sirrah! — keep back! Suppose I AM your father, do you want to murder me? Good heavens! how the boy smells of gin and tobacco! Don’t turn away, my lad; sit down there at a proper distance. And, La Rose, give him some eau-de-Cologne, and get a cup of coffee. Well, now, go on with your story. Egad, my dear Abbe, I think it is very likely that what the lad says is true.”

“If it is a family conversation,” said the Abbe, “I had better leave you.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, no! I could not stand the boy alone. Now, Mister ah! — What’s-your-name? Have the goodness to tell your story.”

Mr. Billings was woefully disconcerted; for his mother and he had agreed that as soon as his father saw him he would be recognised at once, and, mayhap, made heir to the estates and title; in which being disappointed, he very sulkily went on with his narrative, and detailed many of those events with which the reader has already been made acquainted. The Count asked the boy’s mother’s Christian name, and being told it, his memory at once returned to him.

“What! are you little Cat’s son?” said his Excellency. “By heavens, mon cher Abbe, a charming creature, but a tigress — positively a tigress. I recollect the whole affair now. She’s a little fresh black-haired woman, a’n’t she? with a sharp nose and thick eyebrows, ay? Ah yes, yes!” went on my Lord, “I recollect her, I recollect her. It was at Birmingham I first met her: she was my Lady Trippet’s woman, wasn’t she?”

“She was no such thing,” said Mr. Billings, hotly. “Her aunt kept the ‘Bugle Inn’ on Waltham Green, and your Lordship seduced her.”

“Seduced her! Oh, ‘gad, so I did. Stap me, now, I did. Yes, I made her jump on my black horse, and bore her off like — like Aeneas bore his wife away from the siege of Rome! hey, l’Abbe?”

“The events were precisely similar,” said the Abbe. “It is wonderful what a memory you have!”

“I was always remarkable for it,” continued his Excellency. “Well, where was I — at the black horse? Yes, at the black horse. Well, I mounted her on the black horse, and rode her en croupe, egad — ha, ha! — to Birmingham; and there we billed and cooed together like a pair of turtle-doves: yes — ha! — that we did!”

“And this, I suppose, is the end of some of the BILLINGS?” said the Abbe, pointing to Mr. Tom.

“Billings! what do you mean? Yes — oh — ah — a pun, a calembourg. Fi donc, M. l’Abbe.” And then, after the wont of very stupid people, M. de Galgenstein went on to explain to the Abbe his own pun. “Well, but to proceed,” cries he. “We lived together at Birmingham, and I was going to be married to a rich heiress, egad! when what do you think this little Cat does? She murders me, egad! and makes me manquer the marriage. Twenty thousand, I think it was; and I wanted the money in those days. Now, wasn’t she an abominable monster, that mother of yours, hey, Mr. a — What’s-your-name?”

“She served you right!” said Mr. Billings, with a great oath, starting up out of all patience.

“Fellow!” said his Excellency, quite aghast, “do you know to whom you speak? — to a nobleman of seventy-eight descents; a count of the Holy Roman Empire; a representative of a sovereign? Ha, egad! Don’t stamp, fellow, if you hope for my protection.”

“D— n your protection!” said Mr. Billings, in a fury. “Curse you and your protection too! I’m a free-born Briton, and no —— French Papist! And any man who insults my mother — ay, or calls me feller — had better look to himself and the two eyes in his head, I can tell him!” And with this Mr. Billings put himself into the most approved attitude of the Cockpit, and invited his father, the reverend gentleman, and Monsieur la Rose the valet, to engage with him in a pugilistic encounter. The two latter, the Abbe especially, seemed dreadfully frightened; but the Count now looked on with much interest; and, giving utterance to a feeble kind of chuckle, which lasted for about half a minute, said —

“Paws off, Pompey! You young hangdog, you — egad, yes, aha! ‘pon honour, you’re a lad of spirit; some of your father’s spunk in you, hey? I know him by that oath. Why, sir, when I was sixteen, I used to swear — to swear, egad, like a Thames waterman, and exactly in this fellow’s way! Buss me, my lad; no, kiss my hand. That will do”— and he held out a very lean yellow hand, peering from a pair of yellow ruffles. It shook very much, and the shaking made all the rings upon it shine only the more.

“Well,” says Mr. Billings, “if you wasn’t a-going to abuse me nor mother, I don’t care if I shake hands with you. I ain’t proud!”

The Abbe laughed with great glee; and that very evening sent off to his Court a most ludicrous spicy description of the whole scene of meeting between this amiable father and child; in which he said that young Billings was the eleve favori of M. Kitch, Ecuyer, le bourreau de Londres, and which made the Duke’s mistress laugh so much that she vowed that the Abbe should have a bishopric on his return: for, with such store of wisdom, look you, my son, was the world governed in those days.

The Count and his offspring meanwhile conversed with some cordiality. The former informed the latter of all the diseases to which he was subject, his manner of curing them, his great consideration as chamberlain to the Duke of Bavaria; how he wore his Court suits, and of a particular powder which he had invented for the hair; how, when he was seventeen, he had run away with a canoness, egad! who was afterwards locked up in a convent, and grew to be sixteen stone in weight; how he remembered the time when ladies did not wear patches; and how the Duchess of Marlborough boxed his ears when he was so high, because he wanted to kiss her.

All these important anecdotes took some time in the telling, and were accompanied by many profound moral remarks; such as, “I can’t abide garlic, nor white-wine, stap me! nor Sauerkraut, though his Highness eats half a bushel per day. I ate it the first time at Court; but when they brought it me a second time, I refused — refused, split me and grill me if I didn’t! Everybody stared; his Highness looked as fierce as a Turk; and that infernal Krahwinkel (my dear, I did for him afterwards)— that cursed Krahwinkel, I say, looked as pleased as possible, and whispered to Countess Fritsch, ‘Blitzchen, Frau Grafinn,’ says he, ‘it’s all over with Galgenstein.’ What did I do? I had the entree, and demanded it. ‘Altesse,’ says I, falling on one knee, ‘I ate no kraut at dinner today. You remarked it: I saw your Highness remark it.’

“‘I did, M. le Comte,’ said his Highness, gravely.

“I had almost tears in my eyes; but it was necessary to come to a resolution, you know. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘I speak with deep grief to your Highness, who are my benefactor, my friend, my father; but of this I am resolved, I WILL NEVER EAT SAUERKRAUT MORE: it don’t agree with me. After being laid up for four weeks by the last dish of Sauerkraut of which I partook, I may say with confidence — IT DON’T agree with me. By impairing my health, it impairs my intellect, and weakens my strength; and both I would keep for your Highness’s service.’

“‘Tut, tut!’ said his Highness. ‘Tut, tut, tut!’ Those were his very words.

“‘Give me my sword or my pen,’ said I. ‘Give me my sword or my pen, and with these Maximilian de Galgenstein is ready to serve you; but sure — sure, a great prince will pity the weak health of a faithful subject, who does not know how to eat Sauerkraut?’ His Highness was walking about the room: I was still on my knees, and stretched forward my hand to seize his coat.

“‘GEHT ZUM TEUFEL, Sir!’ said he, in a loud voice (it means ‘Go to the deuce,’ my dear) — ‘Geht zum Teufel, and eat what you like!’ With this he went out of the room abruptly; leaving in my hand one of his buttons, which I keep to this day. As soon as I was alone, amazed by his great goodness and bounty, I sobbed aloud — cried like a child” (the Count’s eyes filled and winked at the very recollection), “and when I went back into the card-room, stepping up to Krahwinkel, ‘Count,’ says I, ‘who looks foolish now?’— Hey there, La Rose, give me the diamond — Yes, that was the very pun I made, and very good it was thought. ‘Krahwinkel,’ says I, ‘WHO LOOKS FOOLISH NOW?’ and from that day to this I was never at a Court-day asked to eat Sauerkraut — NEVER!”

“Hey there, La Rose! Bring me that diamond snuff-box in the drawer of my secretaire;” and the snuff-box was brought. “Look at it, my dear,” said the Count, “for I saw you seemed to doubt. There is the button — the very one that came off his Grace’s coat.”

Mr. Billings received it, and twisted it about with a stupid air. The story had quite mystified him; for he did not dare yet to think his father was a fool — his respect for the aristocracy prevented him.

When the Count’s communications had ceased, which they did as soon as the story of the Sauerkraut was finished, a silence of some minutes ensued. Mr. Billings was trying to comprehend the circumstances above narrated; his Lordship was exhausted; the chaplain had quitted the room directly the word Sauerkraut was mentioned — he knew what was coming. His Lordship looked for some time at his son; who returned the gaze with his mouth wide open. “Well,” said the Count —“well, sir? What are you sitting there for? If you have nothing to say, sir, you had better go. I had you here to amuse me — split me — and not to sit there staring!”

Mr. Billings rose in a fury.

“Hark ye, my lad,” said the Count, “tell La Rose to give thee five guineas, and, ah — come again some morning. A nice well-grown young lad,” mused the Count, as Master Tommy walked wondering out of the apartment; “a pretty fellow enough, and intelligent too.”

“Well, he IS an odd fellow, my father,” thought Mr. Billings, as he walked out, having received the sum offered to him. And he immediately went to call upon his friend Polly Briggs, from whom he had separated in the morning.

What was the result of their interview is not at all necessary to the progress of this history. Having made her, however, acquainted with the particulars of his visit to his father, he went to his mother’s, and related to her all that had occurred.

Poor thing, she was very differently interested in the issue of it!

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