The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER X

Ethel and her Relations

For four-and-twenty successive hours Lady Anne Newcome was perfectly in raptures with her new lodgings, and every person and thing which they contained. The drawing-rooms were fitted with the greatest taste; the dinner was exquisite. Were there ever such delicious veal-cutlets, such verdant French beans? “Why do we have those odious French cooks, my dear, with their shocking principles — the principles of all Frenchmen are shocking — and the dreadful bills they bring us in; and their consequential airs and graces? I am determined to part with Brignol. I have written to your father this evening to give Brignol warning. When did he ever give us veal-cutlets? What can be nicer?”

“Indeed they were very good,” said Miss Ethel, who had mutton five times a week at one o’clock. “I am so glad you like the house, and Clive, and Mrs. Honeyman.”

“Like her! the dear little old woman. I feel as if she had been my friend all my life! I feel quite drawn towards her. What a wonderful coincidence that Dr. Goodenough should direct us to this very house! I have written to your father about it. And to think that I should have written to Clive at this very house, and quite forgotten Mrs. Honeyman’s name — and such an odd name too. I forget everything, everything! You know I forgot your Aunt Louisa’s husband’s name; and when I was godmother to her baby, and the clergyman said, ‘What is the infant’s name?’ I said, ‘Really I forget.’ And so I did. He was a London clergyman, but I forget at what church. Suppose it should be this very Mr. Honeyman! It may have been, you know, and then the coincidence would be still more droll. That tall, old, nice-looking, respectable person, with a mark on her nose, the housekeeper — what is her name? — seems a most invaluable person. I think I shall ask her to come to us. I am sure she would save me I don’t know how much money every week; and I am certain Mrs. Trotter is making a fortune by us. I shall write to your papa, and ask him permission to ask this person.” Ethel’s mother was constantly falling in love with her new acquaintances; their man-servants and their maid-servants, their horses and ponies, and the visitor within their gates. She would ask strangers to Newcome, hug and embrace them on Sunday; not speak to them on Monday; and on Tuesday behave so rudely to them, that they were gone before Wednesday. Her daughter had had so many governesses — all darlings during the first week, and monsters afterwards — that the poor child possessed none of the accomplishments of her age. She could not play on the piano; she could not speak French well; she could not tell you when gunpowder was invented: she had not the faintest idea of the date of the Norman Conquest, or whether the earth went round the sun, or vice versa. She did not know the number of counties in England, Scotland, and Wales, let alone Ireland; she did not know the difference between latitude and longitude. She had had so many governesses: their accounts differed: poor Ethel was bewildered by a multiplicity of teachers, and thought herself a monster of ignorance. They gave her a book at a Sunday School, and little girls of eight years old answered questions of which she knew nothing. The place swam before her. She could not see the sun shining on their fair flaxen heads and pretty faces. The rosy little children holding up their eager hands, and crying the answer to this question and that, seemed mocking her. She seemed to read in the book, “O Ethel, you dunce, dunce, dunce!” She went home silent in the carriage, and burst into bitter tears on her bed. Naturally a haughty girl of the highest spirit, resolute and imperious, this little visit to the parish school taught Ethel lessons more valuable than ever so much arithmetic and geography. Clive has told me a story of her in her youth, which, perhaps, may apply to some others of the youthful female aristocracy. She used to walk, with other select young ladies and gentlemen, their nurses and governesses, in a certain reserved plot of ground railed off from Hyde Park, whereof some of the lucky dwellers in the neighbourhood of Apsley House have a key. In this garden, at the age of nine or thereabout, she had contracted an intimate friendship with the Lord Hercules O’Ryan. — as every one of my gentle readers knows, one of the sons of the Marquis of Ballyshannon. The Lord Hercules was a year younger than Miss Ethel Newcome, which may account for the passion which grew up between these young persons; it being a provision in nature that a boy always falls in love with a girl older than himself, or rather, perhaps, that a girl bestows her affections on a little boy, who submits to receive them.

One day Sir Brian Newcome announced his intention to go to Newcome that very morning, taking his family, and of course Ethel, with him. She was inconsolable. “What will Lord Hercules do when he finds I am gone?” she asked of her nurse.

The nurse endeavouring to soothe her, said, “Perhaps his lordship would know nothing about the circumstance.” “He will,” said Miss Ethel —“he’ll read it in the newspaper.” My Lord Hercules, it is to be hoped, strangled this infant passion in the cradle; having long since married Isabella, only daughter of ——— Grains, Esq., of Drayton Windsor, a partner in the great brewery of Foker and Co.

When Ethel was thirteen years old, she had grown to be such a tall girl, that she overtopped her companions by a head or more, and morally perhaps, also, felt herself too tall for their society. “Fancy myself,” she thought, “dressing a doll like Lily Putland or wearing a pinafore like Lucy Tucker!” She did not care for their sports. She could not walk with them: it seemed as if every one stared; nor dance with them at the academy, nor attend the Cours de Litterature Universelle et de Science Comprehensive of the professor then the mode — the smallest girls took her up in the class. She was bewildered by the multitude of things they bade her learn. At the youthful little assemblies of her sex, when, under the guide of their respected governesses, the girls came to tea at six o’clock, dancing, charades, and so forth, Ethel herded not with the children of her own age, nor yet with the teachers who sit apart at these assemblies, imparting to each other their little wrongs; but Ethel romped with the little children — the rosy little trots — and took them on her knees, and told them a thousand stories. By these she was adored, and loved like a mother almost, for as such the hearty kindly girl showed herself to them; but at home she was alone, farouche and intractable, and did battle with the governesses, and overcame them one after another. I break the promise of a former page, and am obliged to describe the youthful days of more than one person who is to take a share in this story. Not always doth the writer know whither the divine Muse leadeth him. But of this be sure — she is as inexorable as Truth. We must tell our tale as she imparts it to us, and go on or turn aside at her bidding.

Here she ordains that we should speak of other members of the family, whose history we chronicle, and it behoves us to say a word regarding the Earl of Kew, the head of the noble house into which Sir Brian Newcome had married.

When we read in the fairy stories that the King and Queen, who lived once upon a time, build a castle of steel, defended by moats and sentinels innumerable, in which they place their darling only child, the Prince or Princess, whose birth has blessed them after so many years of marriage, and whose christening feast has been interrupted by the cantankerous humour of that notorious old fairy who always persists in coming, although she has not received any invitation to the baptismal ceremony: when Prince Prettyman is locked up in the steel tower, provided only with the most wholesome food, the most edifying educational works, and the most venerable old tutor to instruct and to bore him, we know, as a matter of course, that the steel bolts and brazen bars one day will be of no avail, the old tutor will go off in a doze, and the moats and drawbridges will either be passed by His Royal Highness’s implacable enemies, or crossed by the young scapegrace himself, who is determined to outwit his guardians, and see the wicked world. The old King and Queen always come in and find the chambers empty, the saucy heir-apparent flown, the porter and sentinels drunk, the ancient tutor asleep; they tear their venerable wigs in anguish, they kick the major-domo downstairs, they turn the duenna out of doors — the toothless old dragon! There is no resisting fate. The Princess will slip out of window by the rope-ladder; the Prince will be off to pursue his pleasures, and sow his wild oats at the appointed season. How many of our English princes have been coddled at home by their fond papas and mammas, walled up in inaccessible castles, with a tutor and a library, guarded by cordons of sentinels, sermoners, old aunts, old women from the world without, and have nevertheless escaped from all these guardians, and astonished the world by their extravagance and their frolics? What a wild rogue was that Prince Harry, son of the austere sovereign who robbed Richard the Second of his crown — the youth who took purses on Gadshill, frequented Eastcheap taverns with Colonel Falstaff and worse company, and boxed Chief Justice Gascoigne’s ears! What must have been the venerable Queen Charlotte’s state of mind when she heard of the courses of her beautiful young Prince; of his punting at gambling-tables; of his dealings with horse-jockeys; of his awful doings with Perdita? Besides instances taken from our Royal Family, could we not draw examples from our respected nobility? There was that young Lord Warwick, Mr. Addison’s stepson. We know that his mother was severe, and his stepfather a most eloquent moralist, yet the young gentleman’s career was shocking, positively shocking. He boxed the watch; he fuddled himself at taverns; he was no better than a Mohock. The chronicles of that day contain accounts of many a mad prank which he played, as we have legends of a still earlier date of the lawless freaks of the wild Prince and Poins. Our people has never looked very unkindly on these frolics. A young nobleman, full of life and spirits, generous of his money, jovial in his humour, ready with his sword, frank, handsome, prodigal, courageous, always finds favour. Young Scapegrace rides a steeplechase or beats a bargeman, and the crowd applauds him. Sages and seniors shake their heads, and look at him not unkindly; even stern old female moralists are disarmed at the sight of youth and gallantry, and beauty. I know very well that Charles Surface is a sad dog, and Tom Jones no better than he should be; but, in spite of such critics as Dr. Johnson and Colonel Newcome, most of us have a sneaking regard for honest Tom, and hope Sophia will be happy, and Tom will end well at last.

Five-and-twenty years ago the young Earl of Kew came upon the town, which speedily rang with the feats of his lordship. He began life time enough to enjoy certain pleasures from which our young aristocracy of the present day seem, alas! to be cut off. So much more peaceable and polished do we grow, so much does the spirit of the age appear to equalise all ranks; so strongly has the good sense of society, to which in the end gentlemen of the very highest fashion must bow, put its veto upon practices and amusements with which our fathers were familiar. At that time the Sunday newspapers contained many and many exciting reports of boxing-matches. Bruising was considered a fine manly old English custom. Boys at public schools fondly perused histories of the noble science, from the redoubtable days of Broughton and Slack, to the heroic times of Dutch Sam and the Game Chicken. Young gentlemen went eagerly to Moulsey to see the Slasher punch the Pet’s head, or the Negro beat the Jew’s nose to a jelly. The island rang as yet with the tooting horns and rattling teams of mail-coaches; a gay sight was the road in merry England in those days, before steam-engines arose and flung its hostelry and chivalry over. To travel in coaches, to drive coaches, to know coachmen and guards, to be familiar with inns along the road, to laugh with the jolly hostess in the bar, to chuck the pretty chambermaid under the chin, were the delight of men who were young not very long ago. Who ever thought of writing to the Times then? “Biffin,” I warrant, did not grudge his money, and “A Thirsty Soul” paid cheerfully for his drink. The road was an institution, the ring was an institution. Men rallied round them; and, not without a kind conservatism, expatiated upon the benefits with which they endowed the country, and the evils which would occur when they should be no more:— decay of English spirit, decay of manly pluck, ruin of the breed of horses, and so forth, and so forth. To give and take a black eye was not unusual nor derogatory in a gentleman; to drive a stage-coach the enjoyment, the emulation of generous youth. Is there any young fellow of the present time who aspires to take the place of a stoker? You see occasionally in Hyde Park one dismal old drag with a lonely driver. Where are you, charioteers? Where are you, O rattling Quicksilver, O swift Defiance? You are passed by racers stronger and swifter than you. Your lamps are out, and the music of your horns has died away.

Just at the ending of that old time, Lord Kew’s life began. That kindly middle-aged gentleman whom his county knows that good landlord, and friend of all his tenantry round about; that builder of churches, and indefatigable visitor of schools; that writer of letters to the farmers of his shire, so full of sense and benevolence; who wins prizes at agricultural shows, and even lectures at county town institutes in his modest, pleasant way, was the wild young Lord Kew of a quarter of a century back; who kept racehorses, patronised boxers, fought a duel, thrashed a Life Guardsman, gambled furiously at Crockford’s, and did who knows what besides?

His mother, a devout lady, nursed her son and his property carefully during the young gentleman’s minority: keeping him and his younger brother away from all mischief, under the eyes of the most careful pastors and masters. She learnt Latin with the boys, she taught them to play on the piano: she enraged old Lady Kew, the children’s grandmother, who prophesied that her daughter-inlaw would make milksops of her sons, to whom the old lady was never reconciled until after my lord’s entry at Christchurch, where he began to distinguish himself very soon after his first term. He drove tandems, kept hunters, gave dinners, scandalised the Dean, screwed up the tutor’s door, and agonised his mother at home by his lawless proceedings. He quitted the University after a very brief sojourn at that seat of learning. It may be the Oxford authorities requested his lordship to retire; let bygones be bygones. His youthful son, the present Lord Walham, is now at Christchurch, reading with the greatest assiduity. Let us not be too particular in narrating his father’s unedifying frolics of a quarter of a century ago.

Old Lady Kew, who, in conjunction with Mrs. Newcome, had made the marriage between Mr. Brian Newcome and her daughter, always despised her son-inlaw; and being a frank, open person, uttering her mind always, took little pains to conceal her opinion regarding him or any other individual. “Sir Brian Newcome,” she would say, “is one of the most stupid and respectable of men; Anne is clever, but has not a grain of common sense. They make a very well assorted couple. Her flightiness would have driven any man crazy who had an opinion of his own. She would have ruined any poor man of her own rank; as it is, I have given her a husband exactly suited for her. He pays the bills, does not see how absurd she is, keeps order in the establishment, and checks her follies. She wanted to marry her cousin, Tom Poyntz, when they were both very young, and proposed to die of a broken heart when I arranged her match with Mr. Newcome. A broken fiddlestick! she would have ruined Tom Poyntz in a year; and has no more idea of the cost of a leg of mutton, than I have of algebra.”

The Countess of Kew loved Brighton, and preferred living there even at the season when Londoners find such especial charms in their own city. “London after Easter,” the old lady said, “was intolerable. Pleasure becomes a business, then so oppressive, that all good company is destroyed by it. Half the men are sick with the feasts which they eat day after day. The women are thinking of the half-dozen parties they have to go to in the course of the night. The young girls are thinking of their partners and their toilettes. Intimacy becomes impossible, and quiet enjoyment of life. On the other hand, the crowd of bourgeois has not invaded Brighton. The drive is not blocked up by flys full of stockbrokers’ wives and children; and you can take the air in your chair upon the chain-pier, without being stifled by the cigars of the odious shop-boys from London.” So Lady Kew’s name was usually amongst the earliest which the Brighton newspapers recorded amongst the arrivals.

Her only unmarried daughter, Lady Julia, lived with her ladyship. Poor Lady Julia had suffered early from a spine disease, which had kept her for many years to her couch. Being always at home, and under her mother’s eyes, she was the old lady’s victim, her pincushion, into which Lady Kew plunged a hundred little points of sarcasm daily. As children are sometimes brought before magistrates, and their poor little backs and shoulders laid bare, covered with bruises and lashes which brutal parents have inflicted, so, I dare say, if there had been any tribunal or judge, before whom this poor patient lady’s heart could have been exposed, it would have been found scarred all over with numberless ancient wounds, and bleeding from yesterday’s castigation. Old Lady Kew’s tongue was a dreadful thong which made numbers of people wince. She was not altogether cruel, but she knew the dexterity with which she wielded her lash, and liked to exercise it. Poor Lady Julia was always at hand, when her mother was minded to try her powers.

Lady Kew had just made herself comfortable at Brighton, when her little grandson’s illness brought Lady Anne Newcome and her family down to the sea. Lady Kew was almost scared back to London again, or blown over the water to Dieppe. She had never had the measles. “Why did not Anne carry the child to some other place? Julia, you will on no account go and see that little pestiferous swarm of Newcomes, unless you want to send me out of the world — which I dare say you do, for I am a dreadful plague to you, I know, and my death would be a release to you.”

“You see Doctor H., who visits the child every day,” cries poor Pincushion; “you are not afraid when he comes.”

“Doctor H.? Doctor H. comes to cure me, or to tell me the news, or to flatter me, or to feel my pulse and to pretend to prescribe, or to take his guinea; of course Dr. H. must go to see all sorts of people in all sorts of diseases. You would not have me be such a brute as to order him not to attend my own grandson? I forbid you to go to Anne’s house. You will send one of the men every day to inquire. Let the groom go — yes, Charles — he will not go into the house. He will ring the bell and wait outside. He had better ring the bell at the area — I suppose there is an area — and speak to the servants through the bars, and bring us word how Alfred is.” Poor Pincushion felt fresh compunctions; she had met the children, and kissed the baby, and held kind Ethel’s hand in hers, that day, as she was out in her chair. There was no use, however, to make this confession. Is she the only good woman or man of whom domestic tyranny has made a hypocrite?

Charles, the groom, brings back perfectly favourable reports of Master Alfred’s health that day, which Doctor H., in the course of his visit, confirms. The child is getting well rapidly; eating like a little ogre. His cousin Lord Kew has been to see him. He is the kindest of men, Lord Kew; he brought the little man Tom and Jerry with the pictures. The boy is delighted with the pictures.

“Why has not Kew come to see me? When did he come? Write him a note, and send for him instantly, Julia. Did you know he was here?”

Julia says, that she had but that moment read in the Brighton papers the arrival of the Earl of Kew and the Honourable J. Belsize at the Albion.

“I am sure they are here for some mischief,” cries the old lady, delighted. “Whenever George and John Belsize are together, I know there is some wickedness planning. What do you know, Doctor? I see by your face you know something. Do tell it me, that I may write it to his odious psalm-singing mother.”

Doctor H.‘s face does indeed wear a knowing look. He simpers and says, “I did see Lord Kew driving this morning, first with the Honourable Mr. Belsize, and afterwards”— here he glances towards Lady Julia, as if to say, “Before an unmarried lady, I do not like to tell your ladyship with whom I saw Lord Kew driving, after he had left the Honourable Mr. Belsize, who went to play a match with Captain Huxtable at tennis.”

“Are you afraid to speak before Julia?” cries the elder lady. “Why, bless my soul, she is forty years old, and has heard everything that can be heard. Tell me about Kew this instant, Doctor H.”

The Doctor blandly acknowledges that Lord Kew had been driving Madame Pozzoprofondo, the famous contralto of the Italian Opera, in his phaeton, for two hours, in the face of all Brighton.

“Yes, Doctor,” interposes Lady Julia, blushing; “but Signor Pozzoprofondo was in the carriage too — a-a-sitting behind with the groom. He was indeed, mamma.”

“Julia, vous n’etes qu’une panache,” says Lady Kew, shrugging her shoulders, and looking at her daughter from under her bushy black eyebrows. Her ladyship, a sister of the late lamented Marquis of Steyne, possessed no small share of the wit and intelligence, and a considerable resemblance to the features, of that distinguished nobleman.

Lady Kew bids her daughter take a pen and write:—“Monsieur le Mauvais Sujet — Gentlemen who wish to take the sea air in private, or to avoid their relations, had best go to other places than Brighton, where their names are printed in the newspapers. If you are not drowned in a pozzo —”

“Mamma!” interposes the secretary.

“— in a pozzo-profondo, you will please come to dine with two old women, at half-past seven. You may bring Mr. Belsize, and must tell us a hundred stories. — Yours, etc., L. Kew.”

Julia wrote all the letter as her mother dictated it, save only one sentence, and the note was sealed and despatched to my Lord Kew, who came to dinner with Jack Belsize. Jack Belsize liked to dine with Lady Kew. He said, “she was an old dear, and the wickedest old woman in all England;” and he liked to dine with Lady Julia, who was “a poor suffering dear, and the best woman in all England.” Jack Belsize liked every one, and every one liked him.

Two evenings afterwards the young men repeated their visit to Lady Kew, and this time Lord Kew was loud in praises of his cousins of the house of Newcome.

“Not of the eldest, Barnes, surely, my dear?” cries Lady Kew.

“No, confound him! not Barnes.”

“No, d —— it, not Barnes. I beg your pardon, Lady Julia,” broke in Jack Belsize. “I can get on with most men; but that little Barney is too odious a little snob.”

“A little what — Mr. Belsize?”

“A little snob, ma’am. I have no other word, though he is your grandson. I never heard him say a good word of any mortal soul, or do a kind action.”

“Thank you, Mr. Belsize,” says the lady.

“But the others are capital. There is that little chap who has just had the measles — he’s a clear little brick. And as for Miss Ethel ——”

“Ethel is a trump, ma’am,” says Lord Kew, slapping his hand on his knee.

“Ethel is a brick, and Alfred is a trump, I think you say,” remarks Lady Kew, nodding approval; “and Barnes is a snob. This is very satisfactory to know.”

“We met the children out today,” cries the enthusiastic Kew, “as I was driving Jack in the drag, and I got out and talked to ’em.”

“Governess an uncommonly nice woman — oldish, but — I beg your pardon, Lady Julia,” cries the inopportune Jack Belsize —“I’m always putting my foot in it.”

“Putting your foot into what? Go on, Kew.”

“Well, we met the whole posse of children; and the little fellow wanted a drive, and I said I would drive him and Ethel too, if she would come. Upon my word she is as pretty a girl as you can see on a summer’s day. And the governess said ‘No,’ of course. Governesses always do. But I said I was her uncle, and Jack paid her such a fine compliment, that the young woman was mollified, and the children took their seats beside me, and Jack went behind.”

“Where Monsieur Pozzoprofondo sits, bon.”

“We drove on to the Downs, and we were nearly coming to grief. My horses are young, and when they get on the grass they are as if they were mad. It was very wrong; I know it was.”

“D——d rash,” interposes Jack. “He had nearly broken all our necks.”

“And my brother Frank would have been Lord Kew,” continued the young Earl, with a quiet smile. “What an escape for him! The horses ran away — ever so far — and I thought the carriage must upset. The poor little boy, who has lost his pluck in the fever, began to cry; but that young girl, though she was as white as a sheet, never gave up for a moment, and sate in her place like a man. We met nothing, luckily; and I pulled the horses in after a mile or two, and I drove ’em into Brighton as quiet as if I had been driving a hearse. And that little trump of an Ethel, what do you think she said? She said, ‘I was not frightened, but you must not tell mamma.’ My aunt, it appears, was in a dreadful commotion — I ought to have thought of that.”

“Lady Anne is a ridiculous old dear. I beg your pardon, Lady Kew,” here breaks in Jack the apologiser.

“There is a brother of Sir Brian Newcome’s staying with them,” Lord Kew proceeds; “an East India Colonel — a very fine-looking old boy.”

“Smokes awfully, row about it in the hotel. Go on, Kew; beg your ——”

“This gentleman was on the look-out for us, it appears, for when we came in sight he despatched a boy who was with him, running like a lamplighter back to my aunt, to say all was well. And he took little Alfred out of the carriage, and then helped out Ethel, and said, ‘My dear, you are too pretty to scold; but you have given us all a belle peur.’ And then he made me and Jack a low bow, and stalked into the lodgings.”

“I think you do deserve to be whipped, both of you,” cries Lady Kew.

“We went up and made our peace with my aunt, and were presented in form to the Colonel and his youthful cub.”

“As fine a fellow as ever I saw: and as fine a boy as ever I saw,” cries Jack Belsize. “The young chap is a great hand at drawing — upon my life the best drawings I ever saw. And he was making a picture for little What-d’you-call-’em. And Miss Newcome was looking over them. And Lady Anne pointed out the group to me, and said how pretty it was. She is uncommonly sentimental, you know, Lady Anne.”

“My daughter Anne is the greatest fool in the three kingdoms,” cried Lady Kew, looking fiercely over her spectacles. And Julia was instructed to write that night to her sister, and desire that Ethel should be sent to see her grandmother:— Ethel, who rebelled against her grandmother, and always fought on her Aunt Julia’s side, when the weaker was oppressed by the older and stronger lady.

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