The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXVII

Return to Lord Kew

We do not propose to describe at length or with precision the circumstances of the duel which ended so unfortunately for young Lord Kew. The meeting was inevitable: after the public acts and insult of the morning, the maddened Frenchman went to it convinced that his antagonist had wilfully outraged him, eager to show his bravery upon the body of an Englishman, and as proud as if he had been going into actual war. That commandment, the sixth in our decalogue, which forbids the doing of murder, and the injunction which directly follows on the same table, have been repealed by a very great number of Frenchmen for many years past; and to take the neighbour’s wife, and his life subsequently, has not been an uncommon practice with the politest people in the world. Castillonnes had no idea but that he was going to the field of honour; stood with an undaunted scowl before his enemy’s pistol; and discharged his own and brought down his opponent with a grim satisfaction, and a comfortable conviction afterwards that he had acted en galant homme. “It was well for this milor that he fell at the first shot, my dear,” the exemplary young Frenchman remarked; “a second might have been yet more fatal to him; ordinarily I am sure of my coup, and you conceive that in an affair so grave it was absolutely necessary that one or other should remain on the ground.” Nay, should M. de Kew recover from his wound, it was M. de Castillonnes’ intention to propose a second encounter between himself and that nobleman. It had been Lord Kew’s determination never to fire upon his opponent, a confession which he made not to his second, poor scared Lord Rooster, who bore the young Earl to Kehl, but to some of his nearest relatives, who happened fortunately to be not far from him when he received his wound, and who came with all the eagerness of love to watch by his bedside.

We have said that Lord Kew’s mother, Lady Walham, and her second son were staying at Hombourg, when the Earl’s disaster occurred. They had proposed to come to Baden to see Kew’s new bride, and to welcome her; but the presence of her mother-inlaw deterred Lady Walham, who gave up her heart’s wish in bitterness of spirit, knowing very well that a meeting between the old Countess and herself could only produce the wrath, pain, and humiliation which their coming together always occasioned. It was Lord Kew who bade Rooster send for his mother, and not for Lady Kew; and as soon as she received those sad tidings, you may be sure the poor lady hastened to the bed where her wounded boy lay.

The fever had declared itself, and the young man had been delirious more than once. His wan face lighted up with joy when he saw his mother; he put his little feverish hand out of the bed to her —“I knew you would come, dear,” he said, “and you know I never would have fired upon the poor Frenchman.” The fond mother allowed no sign of terror or grief to appear upon her face, so as to disturb her first-born and darling; but no doubt she prayed by his side as such loving hearts know how to pray, for the forgiveness of his trespass, who had forgiven those who sinned against him. “I knew I should be hit, George,” said Kew to his brother when they were alone; “I always expected some such end as this. My life has been very wild and reckless; and you, George, have always been faithful to our mother. You will make a better Lord Kew than I have been, George. God bless you.” George flung himself down with sobs by his brother’s bedside, and swore Frank had always been the best fellow, the best brother, the kindest heart, the warmest friend in the world. Love — prayer — repentance, thus met over the young man’s bed. Anxious and humble hearts, his own the least anxious and the most humble, awaited the dread award of life or death; and the world, and its ambition and vanities, were shut out from the darkened chamber where the awful issue was being tried.

Our history has had little to do with characters resembling this lady. It is of the world, and things pertaining to it. Things beyond it, as the writer imagines, scarcely belong to the novelist’s province. Who is he, that he should assume the divine’s office; or turn his desk into a preacher’s pulpit? In that career of pleasure, of idleness, of crime we might call it (but that the chronicler of worldly matters had best be chary of applying hard names to acts which young men are doing in the world every day), the gentle widowed lady, mother of Lord Kew, could but keep aloof, deploring the course upon which her dear young prodigal had entered; and praying with that saintly love, those pure supplications, with which good mothers follow their children, for her boy’s repentance and return. Very likely her mind was narrow; very likely the precautions which she had used in the lad’s early days, the tutors and directors she had set about him, the religious studies and practices to which she would have subjected him, had served only to vex and weary the young pupil, and to drive his high spirit into revolt. It is hard to convince a woman perfectly pure in her life and intentions, ready to die if need were for her own faith, having absolute confidence in the instruction of her teachers, that she and they (with all their sermons) may be doing harm. When the young catechist yawns over his reverence’s discourse, who knows but it is the doctor’s vanity which is enraged, and not Heaven which is offended? It may have been, in the differences which took place between her son and her, the good Lady Walham never could comprehend the lad’s side of the argument; or how his Protestantism against her doctrines should exhibit itself on the turf, the gaming-table, or the stage of the opera-house; and thus but for the misfortune under which poor Kew now lay bleeding, these two loving hearts might have remained through life asunder. But by the boy’s bedside; in the paroxysms of his fever; in the wild talk of his delirium; in the sweet patience and kindness with which he received his dear nurse’s attentions; the gratefulness with which he thanked the servants who waited on him; the fortitude with which he suffered the surgeon’s dealings with his wounds; — the widowed woman had an opportunity to admire with an exquisite thankfulness the generous goodness of her son; and in those hours, those sacred hours passed in her own chamber, of prayers, fears, hopes, recollections, and passionate maternal love, wrestling with fate for her darling’s life; — no doubt the humbled creature came to acknowledge that her own course regarding him had been wrong; and, even more for herself than for him, implored forgiveness.

For some time George Barnes had to send but doubtful and melancholy bulletins to Lady Kew and the Newcome family at Baden, who were all greatly moved and affected by the accident which had befallen poor Kew. Lady Kew broke out in wrath, and indignation. We may be sure the Duchesse d’Ivry offered to condole with her upon Kew’s mishap the day after the news arrived at Baden; and, indeed, came to visit her. The old lady had just received other disquieting intelligence. She was just going out, but she bade her servant to inform the Duchess that she was never more at home to the Duchesse d’Ivry. The message was not delivered properly, or the person for whom it was intended did not choose to understand it, for presently, as the Countess was hobbling across the walk on her way to her daughter’s residence, she met the Duchesse d’Ivry, who saluted her with a demure curtsey and a commonplace expression of condolence. The Queen of Scots was surrounded by the chief part of her court, saving of course MM. Castillonnes and Punter absent on service. “We were speaking of this deplorable affair,” said Madame d’Ivry (which indeed was the truth, although she said it). “How we pity you, madame!” Blackball and Loder, Cruchecassee and Schlangenbad, assumed sympathetic countenances.

Trembling on her cane, the old Countess glared out upon Madame d’Ivry. “I pray you, madame,” she said in French, “never again to address me the word. If I had, like you, assassins in my pay, I would have you killed; do you hear me?” and she hobbled on her way. The household to which she went was in terrible agitation; the kind Lady Anne frightened beyond measure, poor Ethel full of dread, and feeling guilty almost as if she had been the cause, as indeed she was the occasion, of Kew’s misfortune. And the family had further cause of alarm from the shock which the news had given to Sir Brian. It has been said that he had had illnesses of late which caused his friends much anxiety. He had passed two months at Aix-la-Chapelle, his physicians dreading a paralytic attack; and Madame d’Ivry’s party still sauntering on the walk, the men smoking their cigars, the women breathing their scandal, now beheld Dr. Finck issuing from Lady Anne’s apartments, and wearing such a face of anxiety, that the Duchesse asked with some emotion, “Had there been a fresh bulletin from Kehl?”

“No, there had been no fresh bulletin from Kehl; but two hours since Sir Brian Newcome had had a paralytic seizure.”

“Is he very bad?”

“No,” says Dr. Finck, “he is not very bad.”

“How inconsolable M. Barnes will be!” said the Duchesse, shrugging her haggard shoulders. Whereas the fact was that Mr. Barnes retained perfect presence of mind under both of the misfortunes which had befallen his family. Two days afterwards the Duchesse’s husband arrived himself, when we may presume that exemplary woman was too much engaged with her own affairs to be able to be interested about the doings of other people. With the Duke’s arrival the court of Mary Queen of Scots was broken up. Her Majesty was conducted to Lochleven, where her tyrant soon dismissed her very last lady-inwaiting, the confidential Irish secretary, whose performance had produced such a fine effect amongst the Newcomes.

Had poor Sir Brian Newcome’s seizure occurred at an earlier period of the autumn, his illness no doubt would have kept him for some months confined at Baden; but as he was pretty nearly the last of Dr. Von Finck’s bath patients, and that eminent physician longed to be off to the Residenz, he was pronounced in a fit condition for easy travelling in rather a brief period after his attack, and it was determined to transport him to Mannheim, and thence by water to London and Newcome.

During all this period of their father’s misfortune no sister of charity could have been more tender, active, cheerful, and watchful than Miss Ethel. She had to wear a kind face, and exhibit no anxiety when occasionally the feeble invalid made inquiries regarding poor Kew at Baden; to catch the phrases as they came from him; to acquiesce, or not to deny, when Sir Brian talked of the marriages — both marriages — taking place at Christmas. Sir Brian was especially eager for his daughter’s, and repeatedly, with his broken words, and smiles, and caresses, which were now quite senile, declared that his Ethel would make the prettiest countess in England. There came a letter or two from Clive, no doubt, to the young nurse in her sick-room. Manly and generous, full of tenderness and affection, as those letters surely were, they could give but little pleasure to the young lady — indeed, only add to her doubts and pain.

She had told none of her friends as yet of those last words of Kew’s, which she interpreted as a farewell on the young nobleman’s part. Had she told them they were likely would not have understood Kew’s meaning as she did, and persisted in thinking that the two were reconciled. At any rate, whilst he and her father were still lying stricken by the blows which had prostrated them both, all questions of love and marriage had been put aside. Did she love him? She felt such a kind pity for his misfortune, such an admiration for his generous gallantry, such a remorse for her own wayward conduct and cruel behaviour towards this most honest, and kindly, and affectionate gentleman, that the sum of regard which she could bestow upon him might surely be said to amount to love. For such a union as that contemplated between them, perhaps for any marriage, no greater degree of attachment was necessary as the common cement. Warm friendship and thorough esteem and confidence (I do not say that our young lady calculated in this matter-of-fact way) are safe properties invested in the prudent marriage stock, multiplying and bearing an increasing value with every year. Many a young couple of spendthrifts get through their capital of passion in the first twelve months, and have no love left for the daily demands of after life. O me! for the day when the bank account is closed, and the cupboard is empty, and the firm of Damon and Phyllis insolvent!

Miss Newcome, we say, without doubt, did not make her calculations in this debtor and creditor fashion; it was only the gentlemen of that family who went to Lombard Street. But suppose she thought that regard, and esteem, and, affection being sufficient, she could joyfully, and with almost all her heart bring such a portion to Lord Kew; that her harshness towards him as contrasted with his own generosity, and above all with his present pain, infinitely touched her; and suppose she fancied that there was another person in the world to whom, did fates permit, she could offer not esteem, affection, pity only, but something ten thousand times more precious? We are not in the young lady’s secrets, but if she has some as she sits by her father’s chair and bed, who day or night will have no other attendant; and, as she busies herself to interpret his wants, silently moves on his errands, administers his potions, and watches his sleep, thinks of Clive absent and unhappy, of Kew wounded and in danger, she must have subject enough of thought and pain. Little wonder that her cheeks are pale and her eyes look red; she has her cares to endure now in the world, and her burden to bear in it, and somehow she feels she is alone, since that day when poor Clive’s carriage drove away.

In a mood of more than ordinary depression and weakness Lady Kew must have found her granddaughter, upon one of the few occasions after the double mishap when Ethel and her elder were together. Sir Brian’s illness, as it may be imagined, affected a lady very slightly, who was of an age when these calamities occasion but small disquiet, and who, having survived her own father, her husband, her son, and witnessed their lordships’ respective demises with perfect composure, could not reasonably be called upon to feel any particular dismay at the probable departure from this life of a Lombard Street banker, who happened to be her daughter’s husband. In fact, not Barnes Newcome himself could await that event more philosophically. So, finding Ethel in this melancholy mood, Lady Kew thought a drive in the fresh air would be of service to her, and Sir Brian happening to be asleep, carried the young girl away in her barouche.

They talked about Lord Kew, of whom the accounts were encouraging, and who is mending in spite of his silly mother and her medicines, “and as soon as he is able to move we must go and fetch him, my dear,” Lady Kew graciously said, “before that foolish woman has made a methodist of him. He is always led by the woman who is nearest him, and I know one who will make of him just the best little husband in England.” Before they had come to this delicate point the lady and her grandchild had talked Kew’s character over, the girl, you may be sure, having spoken feelingly and eloquently about his kindness and courage, and many admirable qualities. She kindled when she heard the report of his behaviour at the commencement of the fracas with M. de Castillonnes, his great forbearance and good-nature, and his resolution and magnanimity when the moment of collision came.

But when Lady Kew arrived at that period of her discourse in which she stated that Kew would make the best little husband in England, poor Ethel’s eyes filled with tears; we must remember that her high spirit was worn down by watching and much varied anxiety, and then she confessed that there had been no reconciliation, as all the family fancied, between Frank and herself — on the contrary, a parting, which she understood to be final; and she owned that her conduct towards her cousin had been most captious and cruel, and that she could not expect they should ever again come together. Lady Kew, who hated sick-beds and surgeons except for herself, who hated her daughter-inlaw above all, was greatly annoyed at the news which Ethel gave her; made light of if, however, and was quite confident that a very few words from her would place matters on their old footing, and determined on forthwith setting out for Kehl. She would have carried Ethel with her, but that the poor Baronet with cries and moans insisted on retaining his nurse, and Ethel’s grandmother was left to undertake this mission by herself, the girl remaining behind acquiescent, not unwilling, owning openly a great regard and esteem for Kew, and the wrong which she had done him, feeling secretly a sentiment which she had best smother. She had received a letter from that other person, and answered it with her mother’s cognisance, but about this little affair neither Lady Anne nor her daughter happened to say a word to the manager of the whole family.

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