The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XIII

In which Thomas Newcome sings his Last Song

The earliest comers were the first mate and the medical officer of the ship in which the two gentlemen had come to England. The mate was a Scotchman: the doctor was a Scotchman; of the gentlemen from the Oriental Club, three were Scotchmen.

The Southrons, with one exception, were the last to arrive, and for a while we stood looking out of the windows awaiting their coming. The first mate pulled out a penknife and arranged his nails. The doctor and Mr. Binnie talked of the progress of medicine. Binnie had walked the hospitals of Edinburgh before getting his civil appointment to India. The three gentlemen from Hanover Square and the Colonel had plenty to say about Tom Smith of the Cavalry, and Harry Hall of the Engineers: how Topham was going to marry poor little Bob Wallis’s widow; how many lakhs Barber had brought home, and the like. The tall grey-headed Englishman, who had been in the East too, in the King’s service, joined for a while in this conversation, but presently left it, and came and talked with Clive; “I knew your father in India,” said the gentleman to the lad; “there is not a more gallant or respected officer in that service. I have a boy too, a stepson, who has just gone into the army; he is older than you, he was born at the end of the Waterloo year, and so was a great friend of his and mine, who was at your school, Sir Rawdon Crawley.”

“He was in Gown Boys, I know,” says the boy; “succeeded his uncle Pitt, fourth Baronet. I don’t know how his mother — her who wrote the hymns, you know, and goes to Mr. Honeyman’s chapel — comes to be Rebecca, Lady Crawley. His father, Colonel Rawdon Crawley, died at Coventry Island, in August, 182-, and his uncle, Sir Pitt, not till September here. I remember, we used to talk about it at Grey Friars, when I was quite a little chap; and there were bets whether Crawley, I mean the young one, was a Baronet or not.”

“When I sailed to Rigy, Cornel,” the first mate was speaking — nor can any spelling nor combination of letters of which I am master, reproduce this gentleman’s accent when he was talking his best —“I racklackt they used always to sairve us a drem before denner. And as your frinds are kipping the denner, and as I’ve no watch to-night, I’ll jist do as we used to do at Rigy. James, my fine fellow, jist look alive and breng me a small glass of brandy, will ye? Did ye iver try a brandy cocktail, Cornel? Whin I sailed on the New York line, we used jest to make bits before denner and — thank ye, James:” and he tossed off a glass of brandy.

Here a waiter announces, in a loud voice, “Sir Thomas de Boots,” and the General enters, scowling round the room according to his fashion, very red in the face, very tight in the girth, splendidly attired with a choking white neckcloth, a voluminous waistcoat, and his orders on.

“Stars and garters, by jingo!” cries Mr. Frederick Bayham; “I say, Pendennis, have you any idea, is the Duke coming? I wouldn’t have come in these Bluchers if I had known it. Confound it, no — Hoby himself, my own bootmaker, wouldn’t have allowed poor F. B. to appear in Bluchers, if he had known that I was going to meet the Duke. My linen’s all right, anyhow;”

F. B. breathed a thankful prayer for that. Indeed, who but the very curious could tell that not F. B.‘s, but C. H.‘s — Charles Honeyman’s — was the mark upon that decorous linen?

Colonel Newcome introduced Sir Thomas to every one in the room, as he had introduced us all to each other previously, and as Sir Thomas looked at one after another, his face was kind enough to assume an expression which seemed to ask, “And who the devil are you, sir?” as clearly as though the General himself had given utterance to the words. With the gentleman in the window talking to Clive he seemed to have some acquaintance, and said not unkindly, “How d’you do, Dobbin?”

The carriage of Sir Brian Newcome now drove up, from which the Baronet descended in state, leaning upon the arm of the Apollo in plush and powder, who closed the shutters of the great coach, and mounted by the side of the coachman, laced and periwigged. The Bench of Bishops has given up its wigs; cannot the box, too, be made to resign that insane decoration? Is it necessary for our comfort, that the men who do our work in stable or household should be dressed like Merry-Andrews? Enter Sir Brian Newcome, smiling blandly: he greets his brother affectionately, Sir Thomas gaily; he nods and smiles to Clive, and graciously permits Mr. Pendennis to take hold of two fingers of his extended right hand. That gentleman is charmed, of course, with the condescension. What man could be otherwise than happy to be allowed a momentary embrace of two such precious fingers? When a gentleman so favours me, I always ask, mentally, why he has taken the trouble at all, and regret that I have not had the presence of mind to poke one finger against his two. If I were worth ten thousand a year, I cannot help inwardly reflecting, and kept a large account in Threadneedle Street, I cannot help thinking he would have favoured me with the whole palm.

The arrival of these two grandees has somehow cast a solemnity over the company. The weather is talked about: brilliant in itself, it does not occasion very brilliant remarks among Colonel Newcome’s guests. Sir Brian really thinks it must be as hot as it is in India. Sir Thomas de Boots, swelling in his white waistcoat, in the armholes of which his thumbs are engaged, smiles scornfully, and wishes Sir Brian had ever felt a good sweltering day in the hot winds in India. Sir Brian withdraws the untenable proposition that London is as hot as Calcutta. Mr. Binnie looks at his watch, and at the Colonel. “We have only your nephew, Tom, to wait for,” he says; “I think we may make so bold as to order the dinner,”— a proposal heartily seconded by Mr. Frederick Bayham.

The dinner appears steaming, borne by steaming waiters. The grandees take their places, one on each side of the Colonel. He begs Mr. Honeyman to say grace, and stands reverentially during that brief ceremony, while de Boots looks queerly at him from over his napkin. All the young men take their places at the farther end of the table, round about Mr. Binnie; and at the end of the second course Mr. Barnes Newcome makes his appearance.

Mr. Barnes does not show the slightest degree of disturbance, although he disturbs all the company. Soup and fish are brought for him, and meat, which he leisurely eats, while twelve other gentlemen are kept waiting. We mark Mr. Binnie’s twinkling eyes, as they watch the young man. “Eh,” he seems to say, “but that’s just about as free-and-easy a young chap as ever I set eyes on.” And so Mr. Barnes was a cool young chap. That dish is so good, he must really have some more. He discusses the second supply leisurely; and turning round simpering to his neighbour, says, “I really hope I’m not keeping everybody waiting.”

“Hem!” grunts the neighbour, Mr. Bayham; “it doesn’t much matter, for we had all pretty well done dinner.” Barnes takes a note of Mr. Bayham’s dress — his long frock-coat, the ribbon round his neck; and surveys him with an admirable impudence. “Who are these people,” thinks he, “my uncle has got together?” He bows graciously to the honest Colonel, who asks him to take wine. He is so insufferably affable, that every man near him would like to give him a beating.

All the time of the dinner the host was challenging everybody to drink wine, in his honest old-fashioned way, and Mr. Binnie seconding the chief entertainer. Such was the way in England and Scotland when they were young men. And when Binnie, asking Sir Brian, receives for reply from the Baronet —“Thank you, no, my dear sir. I have exceeded already, positively exceeded,” the poor discomfited gentleman hardly knows whither to apply: but, luckily, Tom Norris, the first mate, comes to his rescue, and cries out, “Mr. Binnie, I’ve not had enough, and I’ll drink a glass of anything ye like with ye.” The fact is, that Mr. Norris has had enough. He has drunk bumpers to the health of every member of the company; his glass has been filled scores of times by watchful waiters. So has Mr. Bayham absorbed great quantities of drink; but without any visible effect on that veteran toper. So has young Clive taken more than is good for him. His cheeks are flushed and burning; he is chattering and laughing loudly at his end of the table. Mr. Warrington eyes the lad with some curiosity; and then regards Mr. Barnes with a look of scorn, which does not scorch that affable young person.

I am obliged to confess that the mate of the Indiaman, at an early period of the dessert, and when nobody had asked him for any such public expression of his opinion, insisted on rising and proposing the health of Colonel Newcome, whose virtues he lauded outrageously, and whom he pronounced to be one of the best of mortal men. Sir Brian looked very much alarmed at the commencement of this speech, which the mate delivered with immense shrieks and gesticulation: but the Baronet recovered during the course of the rambling oration, and at its conclusion gracefully tapped the table with one of those patronising fingers; and lifting up a glass containing at least a thimbleful of claret, said, “My dear brother, I drink your health with all my heart, I’m su-ah.” The youthful Barnes had uttered many “Hear, hears!” during the discourse, with an irony which, with every fresh glass of wine he drank, he cared less to conceal. And though Barnes had come late he had drunk largely, making up for lost time.

Those ironical cheers, and all his cousin’s behaviour during dinner, had struck young Clive, who was growing very angry. He growled out remarks uncomplimentary to Barnes. His eyes, as he looked towards his kinsman, flashed out challenges, of which we who were watching him could see the warlike purport. Warrington looked at Bayham and Pendennis with glances of apprehension. We saw that danger was brooding, unless the one young man could be restrained from his impertinence, and the other from his wine.

Colonel Newcome said a very few words in reply to his honest friend the chief mate, and there the matter might have ended: but I am sorry to say Mr. Binnie now thought it necessary to rise and deliver himself of some remarks regarding the King’s service, coupled with the name of Major-General Sir Thomas de Boots, K.C.B., etc. — the receipt of which that gallant officer was obliged to acknowledge in a confusion amounting almost to apoplexy. The glasses went whack whack upon the hospitable board; the evening set in for public speaking. Encouraged by his last effort, Mr. Binnie now proposed Sir Brian Newcome’s health; and that Baronet rose and uttered an exceedingly lengthy speech, delivered with his wine-glass on his bosom.

Then that sad rogue Bayham must get up, and call earnestly and respectfully for silence and the chairman’s hearty sympathy, for the few observations which he had to propose. “Our armies had been drunk with proper enthusiasm — such men as he beheld around him deserved the applause of all honest hearts, and merited the cheers with which their names had been received. (‘Hear, hear!’ from Barnes Newcome sarcastically. ‘Hear, hear, HEAR!’ fiercely from Clive.) But whilst we applauded our army, should we forget a profession still more exalted? Yes, still more exalted, I say in the face of the gallant General opposite; and that profession, I need not say, is the Church. (Applause.) Gentlemen, we have among us one who, while partaking largely of the dainties on this festive board, drinking freely of the sparkling wine-cup which our gallant hospitality administers to us, sanctifies by his presence the feast of which he partakes, inaugurates with appropriate benedictions, and graces it, I may say, both before and after meat. Gentlemen, Charles Honeyman was the friend of my childhood, his father the instructor of my early days. If Frederick Bayham’s latter life has been chequered by misfortune, it may be that I have forgotten the precepts which the venerable parent of Charles Honeyman poured into an inattentive ear. He too, as a child, was not exempt from faults; as a young man, I am told, not quite free from youthful indiscretions. But in this present Anno Domini, we hail Charles Honeyman as a precept and an example, as a decus fidei and a lumen ecclesiae (as I told him in the confidence of the private circle this morning, and ere I ever thought to publish my opinion in this distinguished company). Colonel Newcome and Mr. Binnie! I drink to the health of the Reverend Charles Honeyman, A.M. May we listen to many more of his sermons, as well as to that admirable discourse with which I am sure he is about to electrify us now. May we profit by his eloquence; and cherish in our memories the truths which come mended from his tongue!” He ceased; poor Honeyman had to rise on his legs, and gasp out a few incoherent remarks in reply. Without a book before him, the Incumbent of Lady Whittlesea’s Chapel was no prophet, and the truth is he made poor work of his oration.

At the end of it, he, Sir Brian, Colonel Dobbin, and one of the Indian gentlemen quitted the room, in spite of the loud outcries of our generous host, who insisted that the party should not break up. “Close up, gentlemen,” called out honest Newcome, “we are not going to part just yet. Let me fill your glass, General. You used to have no objection to a glass of wine.” And he poured out a bumper for his friend, which the old campaigner sucked in with fitting gusto. “Who will give us a song? Binnie, give us the ‘Laird of Cockpen.’ It’s capital, my dear General. Capital,” the Colonel whispered to his neighbour.

Mr. Binnie struck up the “Laird of Cockpen,” without, I am bound to say, the least reluctance. He bobbed to one man, and he winked to another, and he tossed his glass, and gave all the points of his song in a manner which did credit to his simplicity and his humour. You haughty Southerners little know how a jolly Scotch gentleman can desipere in loco, and how he chirrups over his honest cups. I do not say whether it was with the song or with Mr. Binnie that we were most amused. It was a good commonty, as Christopher Sly says; nor were we sorry when it was done.

Him the first mate succeeded; after which came a song from the redoubted F. Bayham, which he sang with a bass voice which Lablache might envy, and of which the chorus was frantically sung by the whole company. The cry was then for the Colonel; on which Barnes Newcome, who had been drinking much, started up with something like an oath, crying, “Oh, I can’t stand this.”

“Then leave it, confound you!” said young Clive, with fury in his face. “If our company is not good for you, why do you come into it?”

“What’s that?” asks Barnes, who was evidently affected by wine. Bayham roared “Silence!” and Barnes Newcome, looking round with a tipsy toss of the head, finally sate down.

The Colonel sang, as we have said, with a very high voice, using freely the falsetto, after the manner of the tenor singers of his day. He chose one of his maritime songs, and got through the first verse very well, Barnes wagging his head at the chorus, with a “Bravo!” so offensive that Fred Bayham, his neighbour, gripped the young man’s arm, and told him to hold his confounded tongue.

The Colonel began his second verse: and here, as will often happen to amateur singers, his falsetto broke down. He was not in the least annoyed, for I saw him smile very good-naturedly; and he was going to try the verse again, when that unlucky Barnes first gave a sort of crowing imitation of the song, and then burst into a yell of laughter. Clive dashed a glass of wine in his face at the next minute, glass and all; and no one who had watched the young man’s behaviour was sorry for the insult.

I never saw a kind face express more terror than Colonel Newcome’s. He started back as if he had himself received the blow from his son. “Gracious God!” he cried out. “My boy insult a gentleman at my table!”

“I’d like to do it again,” says Clive, whose whole body was trembling with anger.

“Are you drunk, sir?” shouted his father.

“The boy served the young fellow right, sir,” growled Fred Bayham in his deepest voice. “Come along, young man. Stand up straight, and keep a civil tongue in your head next time, mind you, when you dine with gentlemen. It’s easy to see,” says Fred, looking round with a knowing air, “that this young man hasn’t got the usages of society — he’s not been accustomed to it:” and he led the dandy out.

Others had meanwhile explained the state of the case to the Colonel — including Sir Thomas de Boots, who was highly energetic and delighted with Clive’s spirit; and some were for having the song to continue; but the Colonel, puffing his cigar, said, “No. My pipe is out. I will never sing again.” So this history will record no more of Thomas Newcome’s musical performances.

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