The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER I

The Overture — After which the Curtain rises upon a Drinking Chorus

A crow, who had flown away with a cheese from a dairy-window, sate perched on a tree looking down at a great big frog in a pool underneath him. The frog’s hideous large eyes were goggling out of his head in a manner which appeared quite ridiculous to the old blackamoor, who watched the splay-footed slimy wretch with that peculiar grim humour belonging to crows. Not far from the frog a fat ox was browsing; whilst a few lambs frisked about the meadow, or nibbled the grass and buttercups there.

Who should come in to the farther end of the field but a wolf? He was so cunningly dressed up in sheep’s clothing, that the very lambs did not know Master Wolf; nay, one of them, whose dam the wolf had just eaten, after which he had thrown her skin over his shoulders, ran up innocently towards the devouring monster, mistaking him for her mamma.

“He, he!” says a fox, sneaking round the hedge-paling, over which the tree grew, whereupon the crow was perched looking down on the frog, who was staring with his goggle eyes fit to burst with envy, and croaking abuse at the ox. “How absurd those lambs are! Yonder silly little knock-kneed baah-ling does not know the old wolf dressed in the sheep’s fleece. He is the same old rogue who gobbled up little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother for lunch, and swallowed little Red Riding Hood for supper. Tirez la bobinette et la chevillette cherra. He, he!”

An owl that was hidden in the hollow of the tree woke up. “Oho, Master Fox,” says she, “I cannot see you, but I smell you! If some folks like lambs, other folks like geese,” says the owl.

“And your ladyship is fond of mice,” says the fox.

“The Chinese eat them,” says the owl, “and I have read that they are very fond of dogs,” continued the old lady.

“I wish they would exterminate every cur of them off the face of the earth,” said the fox.

“And I have also read, in works of travel, that the French eat frogs,” continued the owl. “Aha, my friend Crapaud! are you there? That was a very pretty concert we sang together last night!”

“If the French devour my brethren, the English eat beef,” croaked out the frog — “great, big, brutal, bellowing oxen.”

“Ho, whoo!” says the owl, “I have heard that the English are toad-eaters too!”

“But who ever heard of them eating an owl or a fox, madam?” says Reynard, “or their sitting down and taking a crow to pick?” adds the polite rogue, with a bow to the old crow who was perched above them with the cheese in his mouth. “We are privileged animals, all of us; at least, we never furnish dishes for the odious orgies of man.”

“I am the bird of wisdom,” says the owl; “I was the companion of Pallas Minerva: I am frequently represented in the Egyptian monuments.”

“I have seen you over the British barn-doors,” said the fox, with a grin. “You have a deal of scholarship, Mrs. Owl. I know a thing or two myself; but am, I confess it, no scholar — a mere man of the world — a fellow that lives by his wits — a mere country gentleman.”

“You sneer at scholarship,” continues the owl, with a sneer on her venerable face. “I read a good deal of a night.”

“When I am engaged deciphering the cocks and hens at roost,” says the fox.

“It’s a pity for all that you can’t read; that board nailed over my head would give you some information.”

“What does it say?” says the fox.

“I can’t spell in the daylight,” answered the owl; and, giving a yawn, went back to sleep till evening in the hollow of her tree.

“A fig for her hieroglyphics!” said the fox, looking up at the crow in the tree. “What airs our slow neighbour gives herself! She pretends to all the wisdom; whereas, your reverences, the crows, are endowed with gifts far superior to these benighted old big-wigs of owls, who blink in the darkness, and call their hooting singing. How noble it is to hear a chorus of crows! There are twenty-four brethren of the Order of St. Corvinus, who have builded themselves a convent near a wood which I frequent; what a droning and a chanting they keep up! I protest their reverences’ singing is nothing to yours! You sing so deliciously in parts, do for the love of harmony favour me with a solo!”

While this conversation was going on, the ox was thumping the grass; the frog was eyeing him in such a rage at his superior proportions, that he would have spurted venom at him if he could, and that he would have burst, only that is impossible, from sheer envy; the little lambkin was lying unsuspiciously at the side of the wolf in fleecy hosiery, who did not as yet molest her, being replenished with the mutton her mamma. But now the wolf’s eyes began to glare, and his sharp white teeth to show, and he rose up with a growl, and began to think he should like lamb for supper.

“What large eyes you have got!” bleated out the lamb, with rather a timid look.

“The better to see you with, my dear.”

“What large teeth you have got!”

“The better to ——”

At this moment such a terrific yell filled the field, that all its inhabitants started with terror. It was from a donkey, who had somehow got a lion’s skin, and now came in at the hedge, pursued by some men and boys with sticks and guns.

When the wolf in sheep’s clothing heard the bellow of the ass in the lion’s skin, fancying that the monarch of the forest was near, he ran away as fast as his disguise would let him. When the ox heard the noise he dashed round the meadow-ditch, and with one trample of his hoof squashed the frog who had been abusing him. When the crow saw the people with guns coming, he instantly dropped the cheese out of his mouth, and took to wing. When the fox saw the cheese drop, he immediately made a jump at it (for he knew the donkey’s voice, and that his asinine bray was not a bit like his royal master’s roar), and making for the cheese, fell into a steel trap, which snapped off his tail; without which he was obliged to go into the world, pretending, forsooth, that it was the fashion not to wear tails any more; and that the fox-party were better without ’em.

Meanwhile, a boy with a stick came up, and belaboured Master Donkey until he roared louder than ever. The wolf, with the sheep’s clothing draggling about his legs, could not run fast, and was detected and shot by one of the men. The blind old owl, whirring out of the hollow tree, quite amazed at the disturbance, flounced into the face of a ploughboy, who knocked her down with a pitchfork. The butcher came and quietly led off the ox and the lamb; and the farmer, finding the fox’s brush in the trap, hung it up over his mantelpiece, and always bragged that he had been in at his death.

“What a farrago of old fables is this! What a dressing up in old clothes!” says the critic. (I think I see such a one — a Solomon that sits in judgment over us authors and chops up our children.) “As sure as I am just and wise, modest, learned, and religious, so surely I have read something very like this stuff and nonsense about jackasses and foxes before. That wolf in sheep’s clothing? — do I not know him? That fox discoursing with the crow? — have I not previously heard of him? Yes, in Lafontaine’s fables: let us get the Dictionary and the Fable and the Biographie Universelle, article Lafontaine, and confound the impostor.”

“Then in what a contemptuous way,” may Solomon go on to remark, “does this author speak of human nature! There is scarce one of these characters he represents but is a villain. The fox is a flatterer; the frog is an emblem of impotence and envy; the wolf in sheep’s clothing a bloodthirsty hypocrite, wearing the garb of innocence; the ass in the lion’s skin a quack trying to terrify, by assuming the appearance of a forest monarch (does the writer, writhing under merited castigation, mean to sneer at critics in this character? We laugh at the impertinent comparison); the ox, a stupid commonplace; the only innocent being in the writer’s (stolen) apologue is a fool — the idiotic lamb, who does not know his own mother!” And then the critic, if in a virtuous mood, may indulge in some fine writing regarding the holy beauteousness of maternal affection.

Why not? If authors sneer, it is the critic’s business to sneer at them for sneering. He must pretend to be their superior, or who would care about his opinion? And his livelihood is to find fault. Besides, he is right sometimes; and the stories he reads, and the characters drawn in them, are old, sure enough. What stories are new? All types of all characters march through all fables: tremblers and boasters; victims and bullies; dupes and knaves; long-eared Neddies, giving themselves leonine airs; Tartuffes wearing virtuous clothing; lovers and their trials, their blindness, their folly and constancy. With the very first page of the human story do not love and lies too begin? So the tales were told ages before Aesop; and asses under lions’ manes roared in Hebrew; and sly foxes flattered in Etruscan; and wolves in sheep’s clothing gnashed their teeth in Sanskrit, no doubt. The sun shines today as he did when he first began shining; and the birds in the tree overhead, while I am writing, sing very much the same note they have sung ever since there were finches. Nay, since last he besought good-natured friends to listen once a month to his talking, a friend of the writer has seen the New World, and found the (featherless) birds there exceedingly like their brethren of Europe. There may be nothing new under and including the sun; but it looks fresh every morning, and we rise with it to toil, hope, scheme, laugh, struggle, love, suffer, until the night comes and quiet. And then will wake Morrow and the eyes that look on it; and so da capo.

This, then, is to be a story, may it please you, in which jackdaws will wear peacocks’ feathers, and awaken the just ridicule of the peacocks; in which, while every justice is done to the peacocks themselves, the splendour of their plumage, the gorgeousness of their dazzling necks, and the magnificence of their tails, exception will yet be taken to the absurdity of their rickety strut, and the foolish discord of their pert squeaking; in which lions in love will have their claws pared by sly virgins; in which rogues will sometimes triumph, and honest folks, let us hope, come by their own; in which there will be black crape and white favours; in which there will be tears under orange-flower wreaths, and jokes in mourning-coaches; in which there will be dinners of herbs with contentment and without, and banquets of stalled oxen where there is care and hatred — ay, and kindness and friendship too, along with the feast. It does not follow that all men are honest because they are poor; and I have known some who were friendly and generous, although they had plenty of money. There are some great landlords who do not grind down their tenants; there are actually bishops who are not hypocrites; there are liberal men even among the Whigs, and the Radicals themselves are not all aristocrats at heart. But who ever heard of giving the Moral before the Fable? Children are only led to accept the one after their delectation over the other: let us take care lest our readers skip both; and so let us bring them on quickly — our wolves and lambs, our foxes and lions, our roaring donkeys, our billing ringdoves, our motherly partlets, and crowing chanticleers.

There was once a time when the sun used to shine brighter than it appears to do in this latter half of the nineteenth century; when the zest of life was certainly keener; when tavern wines seemed to be delicious, and tavern dinners the perfection of cookery; when the perusal of novels was productive of immense delight, and the monthly advent of magazine-day was hailed as an exciting holiday; when to know Thompson, who had written a magazine-article, was an honour and a privilege; and to see Brown, the author of the last romance, in the flesh, and actually walking in the Park with his umbrella and Mrs. Brown, was an event remarkable, and to the end of life to be perfectly well remembered; when the women of this world were a thousand times more beautiful than those of the present time; and the houris of the theatres especially so ravishing and angelic, that to see them was to set the heart in motion, and to see them again was to struggle for half an hour previously at the door of the pit; when tailors called at a man’s lodgings to dazzle him with cards of fancy waistcoats; when it seemed necessary to purchase a grand silver dressing-case, so as to be ready for the beard which was not yet born (as yearling brides provide lace caps, and work rich clothes, for the expected darling); when to ride in the Park on a ten-shilling hack seemed to be the height of fashionable enjoyment, and to splash your college tutor as you were driving down Regent Street in a hired cab the triumph of satire; when the acme of pleasure seemed to be to meet Jones of Trinity at the Bedford, and to make an arrangement with him, and with King of Corpus (who was staying at the Colonnade), and Martin of Trinity Hall (who was with his family in Bloomsbury Square), to dine at the Piazza, go to the play and see Braham in Fra Diavolo, and end the frolic evening by partaking of supper and a song at the “Cave of Harmony.”— It was in the days of my own youth, then, that I met one or two of the characters who are to figure in this history, and whom I must ask leave to accompany for a short while, and until, familiarised with the public, they can make their own way. As I recall them the roses bloom again, and the nightingales sing by the calm Bendemeer.

Going to the play, then, and to the pit, as was the fashion in those honest days, with some young fellows of my own age, having listened delighted to the most cheerful and brilliant of operas, and laughed enthusiastically at the farce, we became naturally hungry at twelve o’clock at night, and a desire for welsh-rabbits and good old glee-singing led us to the “Cave of Harmony,” then kept by the celebrated Hoskins, among whose friends we were proud to count.

We enjoyed such intimacy with Mr. Hoskins that he never failed to greet us with a kind nod; and John the waiter made room for us near the President of the convivial meeting. We knew the three admirable glee-singers, and many a time they partook of brandy-and-water at our expense. One of us gave his call dinner at Hoskins’s, and a merry time we had of it. Where are you, O Hoskins, bird of the night? Do you warble your songs by Acheron, or troll your choruses by the banks of black Avernus?

The goes of stout, the “Chough and Crow,” the welsh-rabbit, the “Red-Cross Knight,” the hot brandy-and-water (the brown, the strong!), the “Bloom is on the Rye” (the bloom isn’t on the rye any more!)— the song and the cup, in a word, passed round merrily; and, I daresay, the songs and bumpers were encored. It happened that there was a very small attendance at the “Cave” that night, and we were all more sociable and friendly because the company was select. The songs were chiefly of the sentimental class; such ditties were much in vogue at the time of which I speak.

There came into the “Cave” a gentleman with a lean brown face and long black mustachios, dressed in very loose clothes, and evidently a stranger to the place. At least he had not visited it for a long time. He was pointing out changes to a lad who was in his company; and, calling for sherry-and-water, he listened to the music, and twirled his mustachios with great enthusiasm.

At the very first glimpse of me the boy jumped up from the table, bounded across the room, ran to me with his hands out, and, blushing, said, “Don’t you know me?”

It was little Newcome, my school-fellow, whom I had not seen for six years, grown a fine tall young stripling now, with the same bright blue eyes which I remembered when he was quite a little boy.

“What the deuce brings you here?” said I.

He laughed and looked roguish. “My father — that’s my father — would come. He’s just come back from India. He says all the wits used to come here — Mr. Sheridan, Captain Morris, Colonel Hanger, Professor Porson. I told him your name, and that you used to be very kind to me when I first went to Smithfield. I’ve left now; I’m to have a private tutor. I say, I’ve got such a jolly pony. It’s better fun than old Smile.”

Here the whiskered gentleman, Newcome’s father, pointing to a waiter to follow him with his glass of sherry-and-water, strode across the room twirling his mustachios, and came up to the table where we sate, making a salutation with his hat in a very stately and polite manner, so that Hoskins himself was, as it were, obliged to bow; the glee-singers murmured among themselves (their eyes rolling over their glasses towards one another as they sucked brandy-and water), and that mischievous little wag, little Nadab the Improvisatore (who had just come in), began to mimic him, feeling his imaginary whiskers, after the manner of the stranger, and flapping about his pocket-handkerchief in the most ludicrous manner. Hoskins checked this ribaldry by sternly looking towards Nadab, and at the same time called upon the gents to give their orders, the waiter being in the room, and Mr. Bellew about to sing a song.

Newcome’s father came up and held out his hand to me. I dare say I blushed, for I had been comparing him to the admirable Harley in the Critic, and had christened him Don Ferolo Whiskerandos.

He spoke in a voice exceedingly soft and pleasant, and with a cordiality so simple and sincere, that my laughter shrank away ashamed, and gave place to a feeling much more respectful and friendly. In youth, you see, one is touched by kindness. A man of the world may, of course, be grateful or not as he chooses.

“I have heard of your kindness, sir,” says he, “to my boy. And whoever is kind to him is kind to me. Will you allow me to sit down by you? and may I beg you to try my cheroots?” We were friends in a minute — young Newcome snuggling by my side, his father opposite, to whom, after a minute or two of conversation, I presented my three college friends.

“You have come here, gentlemen, to see the wits,” says the Colonel. “Are there any celebrated persons in the room? I have been five-and-thirty years from home, and want to see all that is to be seen.”

King of Corpus (who was an incorrigible wag) was on the point of pulling some dreadful long-bow, and pointing out a halfdozen of people in the room, as R. and H. and L., etc., the most celebrated wits of that day; but I cut King’s shins under the table, and got the fellow to hold his tongue.

“Maxima debetur pueris,” says Jones (a fellow of very kind feeling, who has gone into the Church since), and, writing on his card to Hoskins, hinted to him that a boy was in the room, and a gentleman, who was quite a greenhorn: hence that the songs had better be carefully selected.

And so they were. A ladies’ school might have come in, and, but for the smell of the cigars and brandy-and-water, have taken no harm by what happened. Why should it not always be so? If there are any “Caves of Harmony” now, I warrant Messieurs the landlords, their interests would be better consulted by keeping their singers within bounds. The very greatest scamps like pretty songs, and are melted by them; so are honest people. It was worth a guinea to see the simple Colonel, and his delight at the music. He forgot all about the distinguished wits whom he had expected to see in his ravishment over the glees.

“I say, Clive, this is delightful. This is better than your aunt’s concert with all the Squallinis, hey? I shall come here often. Landlord, may I venture to ask those gentlemen if they will take any refreshment? What are their names?” (to one of his neighbours). “I was scarcely allowed to hear any singing before I went out, except an oratorio, where I fell asleep; but this, by George, is as fine as Incledon!” He became quite excited over his sherry-and-water-(“I’m sorry to see you, gentlemen, drinking brandy-pawnee,” says he; “it plays the deuce with our young men in India.”) He joined in all the choruses with an exceedingly sweet voice. He laughed at “The Derby Ram” so that it did you good to hear him; and when Hoskins sang (as he did admirably) “The Old English Gentleman,” and described, in measured cadence, the death of that venerable aristocrat, tears trickled down the honest warrior’s cheek, while he held out his hand to Hoskins and said, “Thank you, sir, for that song; it is an honour to human nature.” On which Hoskins began to cry too.

And now young Nadab, having been cautioned, commenced one of those surprising feats of improvisation with which he used to charm audiences. He took us all off, and had rhymes pat about all the principal persons in the room: King’s pins (which he wore very splendid), Martin’s red waistcoat, etc. The Colonel was charmed with each feat, and joined delighted with the chorus —“Ritolderol ritolderol ritolderolderay” (bis). And when, coming to the Colonel himself, he burst out —

“A military gent I see — And while his face I scan,
I think you’ll all agree with me — He came from Hindostan.
And by his side sits laughing free — A youth with curly head,
I think you’ll all agree with me — That he was best in bed.
Ritolderol,” etc.

— the Colonel laughed immensely at this sally, and clapped his son, young Clive, on the shoulder. “Hear what he says of you, sir? Clive, best be off to bed, my boy — ho, ho! No, no. We know a trick worth two of that. ‘We won’t go home till morning, till daylight does appear.’ Why should we? Why shouldn’t my boy have innocent pleasure? I was allowed none when I was a young chap, and the severity was nearly the ruin of me. I must go and speak with that young man — the most astonishing thing I ever heard in my life. What’s his name? Mr. Nadab? Mr. Nadab, sir, you have delighted me. May I make so free as to ask you to come and dine with me tomorrow at six? Colonel Newcome, if you please, Nerot’s Hotel, Clifford Street. I am always proud to make the acquaintance of men of genius, and you are one, or my name is not Newcome!”

“Sir, you do me hhonour,” says Mr. Nadab, pulling up his shirt-collar, “and perhaps the day will come when the world will do me justice — may I put down your hhonoured name for my book of poems?”

“Of course, my dear sir,” says the enthusiastic Colonel; “I’ll send them all over India. Put me down for six copies, and do me the favour to bring them tomorrow when you come to dinner.”

And now Mr. Hoskins asking if any gentleman would volunteer a song, what was our amazement when the simple Colonel offered to sing himself, at which the room applauded vociferously; whilst methought poor Clive Newcome hung down his head, and blushed as red as a peony. I felt for the young lad, and thought what my own sensations would have been if, in that place, my own uncle, Major Pendennis, had suddenly proposed to exert his lyrical powers.

The Colonel selected the ditty of “Wapping Old Stairs” (a ballad so sweet and touching that surely any English poet might be proud to be the father of it), and he sang this quaint and charming old song in an exceedingly pleasant voice, with flourishes and roulades in the old Incledon manner, which has pretty nearly passed away. The singer gave his heart and soul to the simple ballad, and delivered Molly’s gentle appeal so pathetically that even the professional gentlemen hummed and buzzed — a sincere applause; and some wags who were inclined to jeer at the beginning of the performance, clinked their glasses and rapped their sticks with quite a respectful enthusiasm. When the song was over, Clive held up his head too; after the shock of the first verse, looked round with surprise and pleasure in his eyes; and we, I need not say, backed our friend, delighted to see him come out of his queer scrape so triumphantly. The Colonel bowed and smiled with very pleasant good-nature at our plaudits. It was like Dr. Primrose preaching his sermon in the prison. There was something touching in the naivete and kindness of the placid and simple gentleman.

Great Hoskins, placed on high, amidst the tuneful choir, was pleased to signify his approbation, and gave his guest’s health in his usual dignified manner. “I am much obliged to you, sir,” says Mr. Hoskins; “the room ought to be much obliged to you: I drink your ‘ealth and song, sir;” and he bowed to the Colonel politely over his glass of brandy-and-water, of which he absorbed a little in his customer’s honour. “I have not heard that song,” he was kind enough to say, “better performed since Mr. Incledon sung it. He was a great singer, sir, and I may say, in the words of our immortal Shakspeare, that, take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.”

The Colonel blushed in his turn, and turning round to his boy with an arch smile, said, “I learnt it from Incledon. I used to slip out from Grey Friars to hear him, Heaven bless me, forty years ago; and I used to be flogged afterwards, and serve me right too. Lord! Lord! how the time passes!” He drank off his sherry-and-water, and fell back in his chair; we could see he was thinking about his youth — the golden time — the happy, the bright, the unforgotten. I was myself nearly two-and-twenty years of age at that period, and felt as old as, ay, older than the Colonel.

Whilst he was singing his ballad, there had walked, or rather reeled, into the room, a gentleman in a military frock-coat and duck trousers of dubious hue, with whose name and person some of my readers are perhaps already acquainted. In fact it was my friend Captain Costigan, in his usual condition at this hour of the night.

Holding on by various tables, the Captain had sidled up, without accident to himself or any of the jugs and glasses round about him, to the table where we sat, and had taken his place near the writer, his old acquaintance. He warbled the refrain of the Colonel’s song, not inharmoniously; and saluted its pathetic conclusion with a subdued hiccup and a plentiful effusion of tears. “Bedad, it is a beautiful song,” says he, “and many a time I heard poor Harry Incledon sing it.”

“He’s a great character,” whispered that unlucky King of Corpus to his neighbour the Colonel; “was a Captain in the army. We call him the General. Captain Costigan, will you take something to drink?”

“Bedad, I will,” says the Captain, “and I’ll sing ye a song tu.”

And, having procured a glass of whisky-and-water from the passing waiter, the poor old man, settling his face into a horrid grin, and leering, as he was wont when he gave what he called one of his prime songs, began his music.

The unlucky wretch, who scarcely knew what he was doing or saying, selected one of the most outrageous performances of his repertoire, fired off a tipsy howl by way of overture, and away he went. At the end of the second verse the Colonel started up, clapping on his hat, seizing his stick, and looking as ferocious as though he had been going to do battle with a Pindaree.

“Silence!” he roared out.

“Hear, hear!” cried certain wags at a farther table. “Go on, Costigan!” said others.

“Go on!” cries the Colonel, in his high voice trembling with anger. “Does any gentleman say ‘Go On?’ Does any man who has a wife and sisters, or children at home, say ‘Go on’ to such disgusting ribaldry as this? Do you dare, sir, to call yourself a gentleman, and to say that you hold the King’s commission, and to sit down amongst Christians and men of honour, and defile the ears of young boys with this wicked balderdash?”

“Why do you bring young boys here, old boy?” cries a voice of the malcontents.

“Why? Because I thought I was coming to a society of gentlemen,” cried out the indignant Colonel. “Because I never could have believed that Englishmen could meet together and allow a man, and an old man, so to disgrace himself. For shame, you old wretch! Go home to your bed, you hoary old sinner! And for my part, I’m not sorry that my son should see, for once in his life, to what shame and degradation and dishonour, drunkenness and whisky may bring a man. Never mind the change, sir! — Curse the change!” says the Colonel, facing the amazed waiter. “Keep it till you see me in this place again; which will be never — by George, never!” And shouldering his stick, and scowling round at the company of scared bacchanalians, the indignant gentleman stalked away, his boy after him.

Clive seemed rather shamefaced; but I fear the rest of the company looked still more foolish.

“Aussi que diable venait — il faire dans cette galere?” says King of Corpus to Jones of Trinity; and Jones gave a shrug of his shoulders, which were smarting, perhaps; for that uplifted cane of the Colonel’s had somehow fallen on the back of every man in the room.

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