The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LI

An Old Friend

I might open the present chapter as a contemporary writer of Romance is occasionally in the habit of commencing his tales of Chivalry, by a description of a November afternoon falling leaves, tawny forests, gathering storms, and other autumnal phenomena; and two horsemen winding up the romantic road which leads from — from Richmond Bridge to the Star and Garter. The one rider is youthful, and has a blonde moustache. The cheek of the other has been browned by foreign suns; it is easy to see by the manner in which he bestrides his powerful charger that he has followed the profession of arms. He looks as if he had faced his country’s enemies on many a field of Eastern battle. The cavaliers alight before the gate of a cottage on Richmond Hill, where a gentleman receives them with eager welcome. Their steeds are accommodated at a neighbouring hostelry — I pause in the midst of the description, for the reader has made the acquaintance of our two horsemen long since. It is Clive returned from Malta, from Gibraltar, from Seville, from Cadiz, and with him our dear old friend the Colonel. His campaigns are over, his sword is hung up, he leaves Eastern suns and battles to warm younger blood. Welcome back to England, dear Colonel and kind friend! How quickly the years have passed since he has been gone! There is a streak or two more silver in his hair. The wrinkles about his honest eyes are somewhat deeper, but their look is as steadfast and kind as in the early, almost boyish days when first we knew them.

We talk a while about the Colonel’s voyage home, the pleasures of the Spanish journey, the handsome new quarters in which Clive has installed his father and himself, my own altered condition in life, and what not. During the conversation a little querulous voice makes itself audible above-stairs, at which noise Mr. Clive begins to laugh, and the Colonel to smile. It is for the first time in his life Mr. Clive listens to the little voice; indeed, it is only since about six weeks that that small organ has been heard in the world at all. Laura Pendennis believes its tunes to be the sweetest, the most interesting, the most mirth-inspiring, the most pitiful and pathetic, that ever baby uttered; which opinions, of course, are backed by Mrs. Hokey, the confidential nurse. Laura’s husband is not so rapturous; but, let us trust, behaves in a way becoming a man and a father. We forgo the description of his feelings as not pertaining to the history at present under consideration. A little while before the dinner is served, the lady of the cottage comes down to greet her husband’s old friends.

And here I am sorely tempted to a third description, which has nothing to do with the story, to be sure, but which, if properly his off might fill half a page very prettily. For is not a young mother one of the sweetest sights which life shows us? If she has been beautiful before, does not her present pure joy give a character of refinement and sacredness almost to her beauty, touch her sweet cheeks with fairer blushes, and impart I know not what serene brightness to her eyes? I give warning to the artist who designs the pictures for this veracious story, to make no attempt at this subject. I never would be satisfied with it were his drawing ever so good.

When Sir Charles Grandison stepped up and made his very beautifullest bow to Miss Byron, I am sure his gracious dignity never exceeded that of Colonel Newcome’s first greeting to Mrs. Pendennis. Of course from the very moment they beheld one another they became friends. Are not most of our likings thus instantaneous? Before she came down to see him, Laura had put on one of the Colonel’s shawls — the crimson one, with the red palm-leaves and the border of many colours. As for the white one, the priceless, the gossamer, the fairy web, which might pass through a ring, that, every lady must be aware, was already appropriated to cover the cradle, or what I believe is called the bassinet, of Master Pendennis.

So we all became the very best of friends; and during the winter months whilst we still resided at Richmond, the Colonel was my wife’s constant visitor. He often came without Clive. He did not care for the world which the young gentleman frequented, and was more pleased and at home by my wife’s fireside than at more noisy and splendid entertainments. And, Laura being a sentimental person interested in pathetic novels and all unhappy attachments, of course she and the Colonel talked a great deal about Mr. Clive’s little affair, over which they would have such deep confabulations that even when the master of the house appeared, Pater Familias, the man whom, in the presence of the Rev. Dr. Portman, Mrs. Laura had sworn to love and honour these two guilty ones would be silent, or change the subject of conversation, not caring to admit such an unsympathising person as myself into their conspiracy.

From many a talk which they have had together since the Colonel and his son embraced at Malta, Clive’s father had been led to see how strongly the passion which our friend had once fought and mastered, had now taken possession of the young man. The unsatisfied longing left him indifferent to all other objects of previous desire or ambition. The misfortune darkened the sunshine of his spirit, and clouded the world before his eyes. He passed hours in his painting-room, though he tore up what he did there. He forsook his usual haunts, or appeared amongst his old comrades moody and silent. From cigar-smoking, which I own to be a reprehensible practice, he plunged into still deeper and darker dissipation; for I am sorry to say, he took to pipes and the strongest tobacco, for which there is no excuse. Our young man was changed. During the last fifteen or twenty months, the malady had been increasing on him, of which we have not chosen to describe at length the stages; knowing very well that the reader (the male reader at least) does not care a fig about other people’s sentimental perplexities, and is not wrapped up heart and soul in Clive’s affairs like his father, whose rest was disturbed if the boy had a headache, or who would have stripped the coat off his back to keep his darling’s feet warm.

The object of this hopeless passion had, meantime, returned to the custody of the dark old duenna, from which she had been liberated for a while. Lady Kew had got her health again, by means of the prescriptions of some doctors, or by the efficacy of some baths; and was again on foot and in the world, tramping about in her grim pursuit of pleasure. Lady Julia, we are led to believe, had retired upon half-pay, and into an inglorious exile at Brussels, with her sister, the outlaw’s wife, by whose bankrupt fireside she was perfectly happy. Miss Newcome was now her grandmother’s companion, and they had been on a tour of visits in Scotland, and were journeying from country-house to country-house about the time when our good Colonel returned to his native shores.

The Colonel loved his nephew Barnes no better than before, perhaps, though we must say that since his return from India the young Baronet’s conduct had been particularly friendly. “No doubt marriage had improved him; Lady Clara seemed a good-natured young woman enough; besides,” says the Colonel, wagging his good old head knowingly, “Tom Newcome, of the Bundelcund Bank, is a personage to be conciliated; whereas Tom Newcome, of the Bengal Cavalry, was not worth Master Barnes’s attention. He has been very good and kind on the whole; so have his friends been uncommonly civil. There was Clive’s acquaintance, Mr. Belsize that was, Lord Highgate who is now, entertained our whole family sumptuously last week — wants us and Barnes and his wife to go to his country-house at Christmas — is as hospitable, my dear Mrs. Pendennis, as man can be. He met you at Barnes’s, and as soon as we are alone,” says the Colonel, turning round to Laura’s husband, “I will tell you in what terms Lady Clara speaks of your wife. Yes. She is a good-natured, kind little woman, that Lady Clara.” Here Laura’s face assumed that gravity and severeness, which it always wore when Lady Clara’s name was mentioned, and the conversation took another turn.

Returning home from London one afternoon, I met the Colonel, who hailed me on the omnibus, and rode on his way towards the City, I knew, of course, that he had been colloquying with my wife; and taxed that young woman with these continued flirtations. “Two or three times a week, Mrs. Laura, you dare to receive a Colonel of Dragoons. You sit for hours closeted with the young fellow of sixty; you change the conversation when your own injured husband enters the room, and pretend to talk about the weather, or the baby. You little arch hypocrite, you know you do. Don’t try to humbug me, miss; what will Richmond, what will society, what will Mrs. Grundy in general say to such atrocious behaviour?”

“Oh! Pen,” says my wife, closing my mouth in a way which I do not choose further to particularise; “that man is the best, the dearest, the kindest creature. I never knew such a good man; you ought to put him into a book. Do you know, sir, that I felt the very greatest desire to give him a kiss when he went away; and that one which you had just now, was intended for him.

“Take back thy gift, false girl!” says Mr Pendennis; and then, finally, we come to the particular circumstance which had occasioned so much enthusiasm on Mrs. Laura’s part.

Colonel Newcome had summoned heart of grace, and in Clive’s behalf had regularly proposed him to Barnes, as a suitor to Ethel, taking an artful advantage of his nephew Barnes Newcome, and inviting that Barnes to a private meeting, where they were to talk about the affairs of the Bundelcund Banking Company.

Now this Bundelcund Banking Company, in the Colonel’s eyes, was in reality his son Clive. But for Clive there might have been a hundred banking companies established, yielding a hundred per cent, in as many districts of India, and Thomas Newcome, who had plenty of money for his own wants, would never have thought of speculation. His desire was to see his boy endowed with all the possible gifts of fortune. Had he built a palace for Clive, and been informed that a roc’s egg was required to complete the decoration of the edifice, Tom Newcome would have travelled to the world’s end in search of the wanting article. To see Prince Clive ride in a gold coach with a princess beside him, was the kind old Colonel’s ambition; that done, he would be content to retire to a garret in the prince’s castle, and smoke his cheroot there in peace. So the world is made. The strong and eager covet honour and enjoyment for themselves; the gentle and disappointed (once, they may have been strong and eager, too) desire these gifts for their children. I think Clive’s father never liked or understood the lad’s choice of a profession. He acquiesced in it as he would in any of his son’s wishes. But, not being a poet himself, he could not see the nobility of that calling; and felt secretly that his son was demeaning himself by pursuing the art of painting. “Had he been a soldier, now,” thought Thomas Newcome, “(though I prevented that) had he been richer than he is, he might have married Ethel, instead of being unhappy as he now is, God help him! I remember my own time of grief well enough: and what years it took before my wound wound was scarred over.”

So with these things occupying his brain Thomas Newcome artfully invited Barnes, his nephew, to dinner under pretence of talking of the affairs of the great B. B. C. With the first glass of wine at dessert, and according to the Colonel’s good old-fashioned custom of proposing toasts, they drank the health of the B. B. C. Barnes drank the toast with all his generous heart. The B. B. C. sent to Hobson Brothers and Newcome a great deal of business, was in a most prosperous condition, kept a great balance at the bank, a balance that would not be overdrawn, as Sir Barnes Newcome very well knew. Barnes was for having more of these bills, provided there were remittances to meet the same. Barnes was ready to do any amount of business with the Indian bank, or with any bank, or with any individual, Christian or heathen, white or black, who could do good to the firm of Hobson Brothers and Newcome. He spoke upon this subject with great archness and candour: of course as a City man he would be glad to do a profitable business anywhere, and the B. B. C.‘s business was profitable. But the interested motive which he admitted frankly as a man of the world, did not prevent other sentiments more agreeable. “My dear Colonel,” says Barnes, “I am happy, most happy, to think that our house and our name should have been useful, as I know they have been, in the establishment of a concern in which one of our family is interested; one whom we all so sincerely respect and regard.” And he touched his glass with his lips and blushed a little, as he bowed towards his uncle. He found himself making a little speech, indeed; and to do so before one single person seems rather odd. Had there been a large company present Barnes would not have blushed at all, but have tossed off his glass, struck his waistcoat possibly, and looked straight in the face of his uncle as the chairman; well, he did very likely believe that he respected and regarded the Colonel.

The Colonel said —“Thank you, Barnes, with all my heart. It is always good for men to be friends, much more for blood relations, as we are.”

“A relationship which honours me, I’m sure!” says Barnes, with a tone of infinite affability. You see, he believed that Heaven had made him the Colonel’s superior.

“And I am very glad,” the elder went on, “that you and my boy are good friends.”

“Friends! of course. It would be unnatural if such near relatives were otherwise than good friends.”

“You have been hospitable to him, and Lady Clara very kind, and he wrote to me telling me of your kindness. Ahem! this is tolerable claret. I wonder where Clive gets it?”

“You were speaking about that indigo, Colonel!” here Barnes interposes. “Our house has done very little in that way, to be sure but I suppose that our credit is about as good as Battie’s and Jolly’s, and if ——” but the Colonel is in a brown study.

“Clive will have a good bit of money when I die,” resumes Clive’s father.

“Why, you are a hale man — upon my word, quite a young man, and may marry again, Colonel,” replies the nephew fascinatingly.

“I shall never do that,” replies the other. “Ere many years are gone, I shall be seventy years old, Barnes.”

“Nothing in this country, my dear sir! positively nothing. Why, there was Titus, my neighbour in the country — when will you come down to Newcome? — who married a devilish pretty girl, of very good family, too, Miss Burgeon, one of the Devonshire Burgeons. He looks, I am sure, twenty years older than you do. Why should not you do likewise?”

“Because I like to remain single, and want to leave Clive a rich man. Look here, Barnes, you know the value of our bank shares, now?”

“Indeed I do; rather speculative; but of course I know what some sold for last week,” says Barnes.

“Suppose I realise now. I think I am worth six lakhs. I had nearly two from my poor father. I saved some before and since I invested in this affair; and could sell out tomorrow with sixty thousand pounds.”

“A very pretty sum of money, Colonel,” says Barnes.

“I have a pension of a thousand a year.”

“My dear Colonel, you are a capitalist! we know it very well,” remarks Sir Barnes.

“And two hundred a year is as much as I want for myself,” continues the capitalist, looking into the fire, and jingling his money in his pockets. “A hundred a year for a horse; a hundred a year for pocket-money, for I calculate, you know, that Clive will give me a bedroom and my dinner.”

“He! he! If your son won’t, your nephew will, my dear Colonel!” says the affable Barnes, smiling sweetly.

“I can give the boy a handsome allowance, you see,” resumes Thomas Newcome.

“You can make him a handsome allowance now, and leave him a good fortune when you die!” says the nephew, in a noble and courageous manner — and as if he said Twelve times twelve are a hundred and forty-four and you have Sir Barnes Newcome’s authority — Sir Barnes Newcome’s, mind you — to say so.

“Not when I die, Barnes,” the uncle goes on. “I will give him every shilling I am worth tomorrow morning, if he marries as I wish him.”

“Tant mieux pour lui!” cries the nephew; and thought to himself, “Lady Clara must ask Clive to dinner instantly. Confound the fellow. I hate him — always have; but what luck he has!”

“A man with that property may pretend to a good wife, as the French say; hey Barnes?” asks the Colonel, rather eagerly looking up in his nephew’s face.

That countenance was lighted up with a generous enthusiasm. “To any woman, in any rank — to a nobleman’s daughter, my dear sir!” exclaims Sir Barnes.

“I want your sister; I want dear Ethel for him, Barnes,” cries Thomas Newcome, with a trembling voice, and a twinkle in his eyes. “That was the hope I always had till my talk with your poor father stopped it. Your sister was engaged to my Lord Kew then; and my wishes of course were impossible. The poor boy is very much cut up, and his whole heart is bent upon possessing her. She is not, she can’t be, indifferent to him. I am sure she would not be, if her family in the least encouraged him. Can either of these young folks have a better chance of happiness again offered to them in life? There’s youth, there’s mutual liking, there’s wealth for them almost — only saddled with the encumbrance of an old dragoon, who won’t be much in their way. Give us your good word, Barnes, and let them come together; and upon my word the rest of my days will be made happy if I can eat my meal at their table.”

Whilst the poor Colonel was making his appeal, Barnes had time to collect his answer; which, since in our character of historians we take leave to explain gentlemen’s motives as well as record their speeches and actions, we may thus interpret. “Confound the young beggar!” thinks Barnes, then. “He will have three or four thousand a year, will he? Hang him, but it’s a good sum of money. What a fool his father is to give it away! Is he joking? No, he was always half crazy — the Colonel. Highgate seemed uncommonly sweet on her, and was always hanging about our house. Farintosh has not been brought to book yet; and perhaps neither of them will propose for her. My grandmother, I should think, won’t hear of her making a low marriage, as this certainly is: but it’s a pity to throw away four thousand a year, ain’t it?” All these natural calculations passed briskly through Barnes Newcome’s mind, as his uncle, from the opposite side of the fireplace, implored him in the above little speech.

“My dear Colonel,” said Barnes, “my dear, kind Colonel! I needn’t tell you that your proposal flatters us, as much as your extraordinary generosity surprises me. I never heard anything like it — never. Could I consult my own wishes I would at once — I would, permit me to say, from sheer admiration of your noble character, say yes, with all my heart, to your proposal. But, alas, I haven’t that power.”

“Is — is she engaged?” asks the Colonel, looking as blank and sad as Clive himself when Ethel had conversed with him.

“No — I cannot say engaged — though a person of the very highest rank has paid her the most marked attention. But my sister has, in a way, gone from our family, and from my influence as the head of it — an influence which I, I am sure, had most gladly exercised in your favour. My grandmother, Lady Kew, has adopted her; purposes, I believe, to leave Ethel the greater part of her fortune, upon certain conditions; and, of course, expects the — the obedience, and so forth, which is customary in such cases. By the way, Colonel, is our young soupirant aware that papa is pleading his cause for him?”

The Colonel said no; and Barnes lauded the caution which his uncle had displayed. It was quite as well for the young man’s interests (which Sir Barnes had most tenderly at heart) that Clive Newcome should not himself move in the affair, or present himself to Lady Kew. Barnes would take the matter in hand at the proper season; the Colonel might be sure it would be most eagerly, most ardently pressed. Clive came home at this juncture, whom Barnes saluted affectionately. He and the Colonel had talked over their money business; their conversation had been most satisfactory, thank you. “Has it not, Colonel?” The three parted the very best of friends.

As Barnes Newcome professed that extreme interest for his cousin and uncle, it is odd he did not tell them that Lady Kew and Miss Ethel Newcome were at that moment within a mile of them, at her ladyship’s house in Queen Street, Mayfair. In the hearing of Clive’s servant, Barnes did not order his brougham to drive to Queen Street, but waited until he was in Bond Street before he gave the order.

And, of course, when he entered Lady Kew’s house, he straightway asked for his sister, and communicated to her the generous offer which the good Colonel had made.

You see, Lady Kew was in town, and not in town. Her ladyship was but passing through, on her way from a tour of visits in the North, to another tour of visits somewhere else. The newspapers were not even off the blinds. The proprietor of the house cowered over a bed-candle and a furtive teapot in the back drawing-room. Lady Kew’s gens were not here. The tall canary ones with white polls, only showed their plumage and sang in spring. The solitary wretch who takes charge of London houses, and the two servants specially affected to Lady Kew’s person, were the only people in attendance. In fact, her ladyship was not in town. And that is why, no doubt, Barnes Newcome said nothing about her being there.

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