The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXI

Is Sentimental, but Short

Without wishing to disparage the youth of other nations, I think a well-bred English lad has this advantage over them, that his bearing is commonly more modest than theirs. He does not assume the tail-coat and the manners of manhood too early: he holds his tongue, and listens to his elders: his mind blushes as well as his cheeks: he does not know how to make bows and pay compliments like the young Frenchman: nor to contradict his seniors as I am informed American striplings do. Boys, who learn nothing else at our public schools, learn at least good manners, or what we consider to be such; and with regard to the person at present under consideration, it is certain that all his acquaintances, excepting perhaps his dear cousin Barnes Newcome, agreed in considering him as a very frank, manly, modest, and agreeable young fellow. — My friend Warrington found a grim pleasure in his company; and his bright face, droll humour, and kindly laughter were always welcome in our chambers. Honest Fred Bayham was charmed to be in his society; and used pathetically to aver that he himself might have been such a youth, had he been blest with a kind father to watch, and good friends to guide, his early career. In fact, Fred was by far the most didactic of Clive’s bachelor acquaintances, pursued the young man with endless advice and sermons, and held himself up as a warning to Clive, and a touching example of the evil consequences of early idleness and dissipation. Gentlemen of much higher rank in the world took a fancy to the lad. Captain Jack Belsize introduced him to his own mess, as also to the Guard dinner at St. James’s; and my Lord Kew invited him to Kewbury, his lordship’s house in Oxfordshire, where Clive enjoyed hunting, shooting, and plenty of good company. Mrs. Newcome groaned in spirit when she heard of these proceedings; and feared, feared very much that that unfortunate young man was going to ruin; and Barnes Newcome amiably disseminated reports amongst his family that the lad was plunged in all sorts of debaucheries: that he was tipsy every night: that he was engaged, in his sober moments, with dice, the turf, or worse amusements: and that his head was so turned by living with Kew and Belsize, that the little rascal’s pride and arrogance were perfectly insufferable. Ethel would indignantly deny these charges; then perhaps credit a few of them; and she looked at Clive with melancholy eyes when he came to visit his aunt; and I hope prayed that Heaven might mend his wicked ways. The truth is, the young fellow enjoyed life, as one of his age and spirit might be expected to do; but he did very little harm, and meant less; and was quite unconscious of the reputation which his kind friends were making for him.

There had been a long-standing promise that Clive and his father were to go to Newcome at Christmas: and I dare say Ethel proposed to reform the young prodigal, if prodigal he was, for she busied herself delightedly in preparing the apartments which they were to inhabit during their stay — speculated upon it in a hundred pleasant ways, putting off her visit to this pleasant neighbour, or that pretty scene in the vicinage, until her uncle should come and they should be enabled to enjoy the excursion together. And before the arrival of her relatives, Ethel, with one of her young brothers, went to see Mrs. Mason; and introduced herself as Colonel Newcome’s niece; and came back charmed with the old lady, and eager once more in defence of Clive (when that young gentleman’s character happened to be called in question by her brother Barnes), for had she not seen the kindest letter, which Clive had written to old Mrs. Mason, and the beautiful drawing of his father on horseback and in regimentals, waving his sword in front of the gallant the Bengal Cavalry, which the lad had sent down to the good old woman? He could not be very bad, Ethel thought, who was so kind and thoughtful for the poor. His father’s son could not be altogether a reprobate. When Mrs. Mason, seeing how good and beautiful Ethel was, and thinking in her heart nothing could be too good or beautiful for Clive, nodded her kind old head at Miss Ethel, and said she should like to find a husband for her, Miss Ethel blushed, and looked handsomer than ever; and at home, when she was describing the interview, never mentioned this part of her talk with Mrs. Mason.

But the enfant terrible, young Alfred, did: announcing to all the company at dessert, that Ethel was in love with Clive — that Clive was coming to marry her — that Mrs. Mason, the old woman at Newcome, had told him so.

“I dare say she has told the tale all over Newcome!” shrieked out Mr. Barnes. “I dare say it will be in the Independent next week. By Jove, it’s a pretty connexion — and nice acquaintances this uncle of ours brings us!” A fine battle ensued upon the receipt and discussion of this intelligence: Barnes was more than usually bitter and sarcastic: Ethel haughtily recriminated, losing her temper, and then her firmness, until, fairly bursting into tears, she taxed Barnes with meanness and malignity in for ever uttering stories to his cousin’s disadvantage, and pursuing with constant slander and cruelty one of the very best of men. She rose and left the table in great tribulation — she went to her room and wrote a letter to her uncle, blistered with tears, in which she besought him not to come to Newcome. — Perhaps she went and looked at the apartments which she had adorned and prepared for his reception. It was for him and for his company that she was eager. She had met no one so generous and gentle, so honest and unselfish, until she had seen him.

Lady Anne knew the ways of women very well; and when Ethel that night, still in great indignation and scorn against Barnes, announced that she had written a letter to her uncle, begging the Colonel not to come at Christmas, Ethel’s mother soothed the wounded girl, and treated her with peculiar gentleness and affection; and she wisely gave Mr. Barnes to understand, that if he wished to bring about that very attachment, the idea of which made him so angry, he could use no better means than those which he chose to employ at present, of constantly abusing and insulting poor Clive, and awakening Ethel’s sympathies by mere opposition. And Ethel’s sad little letter was extracted from the post-bag: and her mother brought it to her, sealed, in her own room, where the young lady burned it: being easily brought by Lady Anne’s quiet remonstrances to perceive that it was best no allusion should take place to the silly dispute which had occurred that evening; and that Clive and his father should come for the Christmas holidays, if they were so minded. But when they came, there was no Ethel at Newcome. She was gone on a visit to her sick aunt, Lady Julia. Colonel Newcome passed the holidays sadly without his young favourite, and Clive consoled himself by knocking down pheasants with Sir Brian’s keepers: and increased his cousin’s attachment for him by breaking the knees of Barnes’s favourite mare out hunting. It was a dreary entertainment; father and son were glad enough to get away from it, and to return to their own humbler quarters in London.

Thomas Newcome had now been for three years in the possession of that felicity which his soul longed after; and had any friend of his asked him if he was happy, he would have answered in the affirmative no doubt, and protested that he was in the enjoyment of everything a reasonable man could desire. And yet, in spite of his happiness, his honest face grew more melancholy: his loose clothes hung only the looser on his lean limbs: he ate his meals without appetite: his nights were restless: and he would sit for hours silent in the midst of his family, so that Mr. Binnie first began jocularly to surmise that Tom was crossed in love; then seriously to think that his health was suffering and that a doctor should be called to see him; and at last to agree that idleness was not good for the Colonel, and that he missed the military occupation to which he had been for so many years accustomed.

The Colonel insisted that he was perfectly happy and contented. What could he want more than he had — the society of his son, for the present; and a prospect of quiet for his declining days? Binnie vowed that his friend’s days had no business to decline as yet; that a sober man of fifty ought to be at his best; and that Newcome had grown older in three years in Europe, than in a quarter of a century in the East — all which statements were true, though the Colonel persisted in denying them.

He was very restless. He was always finding business in distant quarters of England. He must go visit Tom Barker who was settled in Devonshire, or Harry Johnson who had retired and was living in Wales. He surprised Mrs. Honeyman by the frequency of his visits to Brighton, and always came away much improved in health by the sea air, and by constant riding with the harriers there. He appeared at Bath and at Cheltenham, where, as we know, there are many old Indians. Mr. Binnie was not indisposed to accompany him on some of these jaunts —“provided,” the civilian said, “you don’t take young Hopeful, who is much better without us; and let us two old fogies enjoy ourselves together.”

Clive was not sorry to be left alone. The father knew that only too well. The young man had occupations, ideas, associates, in whom the elder could take no interest. Sitting below in his blank, cheerless bedroom, Newcome could hear the lad and his friends talking, singing, and making merry overhead. Something would be said in Clive’s well-known tones, and a roar of laughter would proceed from the youthful company. They had all sorts of tricks, bywords, waggeries, of which the father could not understand the jest nor the secret. He longed to share in it, but the party would be hushed if he went in to join it — and he would come away sad at heart, to think that his presence should be a signal for silence among them; and that his son could not be merry in his company.

We must not quarrel with Clive and Clive’s friends, because they could not joke and be free in the presence of the worthy gentleman. If they hushed when he came in, Thomas Newcome’s sad face would seem to look round — appealing to one after another of them, and asking, “Why don’t you go on laughing?” A company of old comrades shall be merry and laughing together, and the entrance of a single youngster will stop the conversation — and if men of middle age feel this restraint with our juniors, the young ones surely have a right to be silent before their elders. The boys are always mum under the eyes of the usher. There is scarce any parent, however friendly or tender with his children, but must feel sometimes that they have thoughts which are not his or hers; and wishes and secrets quite beyond the parental control: and, as people are vain, long after they are fathers, ay; or grandfathers, and not seldom fancy that mere personal desire of domination is overweening anxiety and love for their family, no doubt that common outcry against thankless children might often be shown to prove, not that the son is disobedient, but the father too exacting. When a mother (as fond mothers often will) vows that she knows every thought in her daughter’s heart, I think she pretends to know a great deal too much; nor can there be a wholesomer task for the elders, as our young subjects grow up, naturally demanding liberty and citizen’s rights, than for us gracefully to abdicate our sovereign pretensions and claims of absolute control. There’s many a family chief who governs wisely and gently, who is loth to give the power up when he should. Ah, be sure, it is not youth alone that has need to learn humility! By their very virtues, and the purity of their lives, many good parents create flatterers for themselves, and so live in the midst of a filial court of parasites — and seldom without a pang of unwillingness, and often not at all, will they consent to forgo their autocracy, and exchange the tribute they have been wont to exact of love and obedience for the willing offering of love and freedom.

Our good Colonel was not of the tyrannous, but of the loving order of fathers: and having fixed his whole heart upon this darling youth, his son, was punished, as I suppose such worldly and selfish love ought to be punished (so Mr. Honeyman says, at least, in his pulpit), by a hundred little mortifications, disappointments, and secret wounds, which stung not the less severely though never mentioned by their victim.

Sometimes he would have a company of such gentlemen as Messrs. Warrington, Honeyman, and Pendennis, when haply a literary conversation would ensue after dinner; and the merits of our present poets and writers would be discussed with the claret. Honeyman was well enough read in profane literature, especially of the lighter sort; and, I dare say, could have passed a satisfactory examination in Balzac, Dumas, and Paul de Kock himself, of all whose works our good host was entirely ignorant, — as indeed he was of graver books, and of earlier books, and of books in general — except those few which we have said formed his travelling library. He heard opinions that amazed and bewildered him. He heard that Byron was no great poet, though a very clever man. He heard that there had been a wicked persecution against Mr. Pope’s memory and fame, and that it was time to reinstate him that his favourite, Dr. Johnson, talked admirably, but did not write English: that young Keats was a genius to be estimated in future days with young Raphael: and that a young gentleman of Cambridge who had lately published two volumes of verses, might take rank with the greatest poets of all. Doctor Johnson not write English! Lord Byron not one of the greatest poets of the world! Sir Walter a poet of the second order! Mr. Pope attacked for inferiority and want of imagination; Mr. Keats and this young Mr. Tennyson of Cambridge, the chief of modern poetic literature! What were these new dicta, which Mr. Warrington delivered with a puff of tobacco-smoke: to which Mr. Honeyman blandly assented and Clive listened with pleasure? Such opinions were not of the Colonel’s time. He tried in vain to construe Oenone, and to make sense of Lamia. Ulysses he could understand; but what were these prodigious laudations bestowed on it? And that reverence for Mr. Wordsworth, what did it mean? Had he not written Peter Bell, and been turned into deserved ridicule by all the reviews? Was that dreary Excursion to be compared to Goldsmith’s Traveller, or Doctor Johnson’s Imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal? If the young men told the truth, where had been the truth in his own young days, and in what ignorance had our forefathers been brought up? — Mr. Addison was only an elegant essayist, and shallow trifler! All these opinions were openly uttered over the Colonel’s claret, as he and Mr. Binnie sate wondering at the speakers, who were knocking the gods of their youth about their ears. To Binnie the shock was not so great; the hard-headed Scotchman had read Hume in his college days, and sneered at some of the gods even at that early time. But with Newcome the admiration for the literature of the last century was an article of belief: and the incredulity of the young men seemed rank blasphemy. “You will be sneering at Shakspeare next,” he said: and was silenced, though not better pleased, when his youthful guests told him, that Doctor Goldsmith sneered at him too; that Dr. Johnson did not understand him, and that Congreve, in his own day and afterwards, was considered to be, in some points, Shakspeare’s superior. “What do you think a man’s criticism is worth, sir,” cries Mr. Warrington, “who says those lines of Mr. Congreve, about a church —

‘How reverend is the face of yon tall pile,
Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads,
To bear aloft its vast and ponderous roof,
By its own weight made steadfast and immovable;
Looking tranquillity. It strikes an awe
And terror on my aching sight’— et caetera

what do you think of a critic who says those lines are finer than anything Shakspeare ever wrote?” A dim consciousness of danger for Clive, a terror that his son had got into the society of heretics and unbelievers, came over the Colonel — and then presently, as was the wont with his modest soul, a gentle sense of humility. He was in the wrong, perhaps, and these younger men were right. Who was he, to set up his judgment against men of letters, educated at college? It was better that Clive should follow them than him, who had had but a brief schooling, and that neglected, and who had not the original genius of his son’s brilliant companions. We particularise these talks, and the little incidental mortifications which one of the best of men endured, not because the conversations are worth the remembering or recording, but because they presently very materially influenced his own and his son’s future history.

In the midst of the artists and their talk the poor Colonel was equally in the dark. They assaulted this Academician and that; laughed at Mr. Haydon, or sneered at Mr. Eastlake, or the contrary; deified Mr. Turner on one side of the table, and on the other scorned him as a madman — nor could Newcome comprehend a word of their jargon. Some sense there must be in their conversation: Clive joined eagerly in it and took one side or another. But what was all this rapture about a snuffy brown picture called Titian, this delight in three flabby nymphs by Rubens, and so forth? As for the vaunted Antique, and the Elgin Marbles — it might be that that battered torso was a miracle, and that broken-nosed bust a perfect beauty. He tried and tried to see that they were. He went away privily and worked at the National Gallery with a catalogue: and passed hours in the Museum before the ancient statues, desperately praying to comprehend them, and puzzled before them as he remembered he was puzzled before the Greek rudiments as a child when he cried over o kai hae alaethaes kai to alaethaes. Whereas when Clive came to look at these same things his eyes would lighten up with pleasure, and his cheeks flush with enthusiasm. He seemed to drink in colour as he would a feast of wine. Before the statues he would wave his finger, following the line of grace, and burst into ejaculations of delight and admiration. “Why can’t I love the things which he loves?” thought Newcome; “why am I blind to the beauties which he admires so much — and am I unable to comprehend what he evidently understands at his young age?”

So, as he thought what vain egotistical hopes he used to form about the boy when he was away in India — how in his plans for the happy future, Clive was to be always at his side; how they were to read, work, play, think, be merry together — a sickening and humiliating sense of the reality came over him: and he sadly contrasted it with the former fond anticipations. Together they were, yet he was alone still. His thoughts were not the boy’s: and his affections rewarded but with a part of the young man’s heart. Very likely other lovers have suffered equally. Many a man and woman has been incensed and worshipped, and has shown no more feeling than is to be expected from idols. There is yonder statue in St. Peter’s, of which the toe is worn away with kisses, and which sits, and will sit eternally, prim and cold. As the young man grew, it seemed to the father as if each day separated them more and more. He himself became more melancholy and silent. His friend the civilian marked the ennui, and commented on it in his laughing way. Sometimes he announced to the club that Tom Newcome was in love: then he thought it was not Tom’s heart but his liver that was affected, and recommended blue pill. O thou fond fool! who art thou, to know any man’s heart save thine alone? Wherefore were wings made, and do feathers grow, but that birds should fly? The instinct that bids you love your nest, leads the young ones to seek a tree and a mate of their own. As if Thomas Newcome by poring over poems or pictures ever so much could read them with Clive’s eyes! — as if by sitting mum over his wine, but watching till the lad came home with his latchkey (when the Colonel crept back to his own room in his stockings), by prodigal bounties, by stealthy affection, by any schemes or prayers, he could hope to remain first in his son’s heart!

One day going into Clive’s study, where the lad was so deeply engaged that he did not hear the father’s steps advancing, Thomas Newcome found his son, pencil in hand, poring over a paper, which, blushing, he thrust hastily into his breast-pocket, as soon as he saw his visitor. The father was deeply smitten and mortified. “I— I am sorry you have any secrets from me, Clive,” he gasped out at length.

The boy’s face lighted up with humour. “Here it is, father, if you would like to see:"— and he pulled out a paper which contained neither more nor less than a copy of very flowery verses, about a certain young lady, who had succeeded (after I know not how many predecessors) to the place of prima-donna assoluta in Clive’s heart. And be pleased, madam, not to be too eager with your censure, and fancy that Mr. Clive or his chronicler would insinuate anything wrong. I dare say you felt a flame or two before you were married yourself: and that the Captain or the Curate, and the interesting young foreigner with whom you danced, caused your heart to beat, before you bestowed that treasure on Mr. Candour. Clive was doing no more than your own son will do when he is eighteen or nineteen years old himself — if he is a lad of any spirit and a worthy son of so charming a lady as yourself.

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