The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXVIII

A Letter and a Reconciliation

Miss Ethel Newcome to Mrs. Pendennis:

“Dearest Laura — I have not written to you for many weeks past. There have been some things too trivial, and some too sad, to write about; some things I know I shall write of if I begin, and yet that I know I had best leave; for of what good is looking to the past now? Why vex you or myself by reverting to it? Does not every day bring its own duty and task, and are these not enough to occupy one? What a fright you must have had with my little goddaughter! Thank heaven she is well now, and restored to you. You and your husband I know do not think it essential, but I do, most essential, and am very grateful that she was taken to church before her illness.

“Is Mr. Pendennis proceeding with his canvass? I try and avoid a certain subject, but it will come. You know who is canvassing against us here. My poor uncle has met with very considerable success amongst the lower classes. He makes them rambling speeches at which my brother and his friends laugh, but which the people applaud. I saw him only yesterday, on the balcony of the King’s Arms, speaking to a great mob, who were cheering vociferously below. I had met him before. He would not even stop and give his Ethel of old days his hand. I would have given him I don’t know what, for one kiss, for one kind word; but he passed on and would not answer me. He thinks me — what the world thinks me, worldly and heartless; what I was. But at least, dear Laura, you know that I always truly loved him, and do now, although he is our enemy, though he believes and utters the most cruel things against Barnes, though he says that Barnes Newcome, my father’s son, my brother, Laura, is not an honest man. Hard, selfish, worldly, I own my poor brother to be, and pray Heaven to amend him; but dishonest! and to be so maligned by the person one loves best in the world! This is a hard trial. I pray a proud heart may be bettered by it.

“And I have seen my cousin; once at a lecture which poor Barnes gave, and who seemed very much disturbed on perceiving Clive; once afterwards at good old Mrs. Mason’s, whom I have always continued to visit for uncle’s sake. The poor old woman, whose wits are very nearly gone, held both our hands, and asked when we were going to be married? and laughed, poor old thing! I cried out to her that Mr. Clive had a wife at home, a young dear wife, I said. He gave a dreadful sort of laugh, and turned away into the window. He looks terribly ill, pale, and oldened.

“I asked him a great deal about his wife, whom I remember a very pretty, sweet-looking girl indeed, at my Aunt Hobson’s, but with a not agreeable mother as I thought then. He answered me by monosyllables, appeared as though he would speak, and then became silent. I am pained, and yet glad that I saw him, I said, not very distinctly, I dare say, that I hoped the difference between Barnes and uncle would not extinguish his regard for mamma and me, who have always loved him; when I said loved him, he give one of his bitter laughs again; and so he did when I said I hoped his wife was well. You never would tell me much about Mrs. Newcome; and I fear she does not make my cousin happy. And yet this marriage was of my uncle’s making: another of the unfortunate marriages in our family. I am glad that I paused in time, before the commission of that sin; I strive my best, and to amend my temper, my inexperience, my shortcomings, and try to be the mother of my poor brother’s children. But Barnes has never forgiven me my refusal of Lord Farintosh. He is of the world still, Laura. Nor must we deal too harshly with people of his nature, who cannot perhaps comprehend a world beyond. I remember in old days, when we were travelling on the Rhine, in the happiest days of my whole life, I used to hear Clive and his friend Mr. Ridley, talk of art and of nature in a way that I could not understand at first, but came to comprehend better as my cousin taught me; and since then, I see pictures, landscapes, and flowers, with quite different eyes, and beautiful secrets as it were, of which I had no idea before. The secret of all secrets, the secret of the other life, and the better world beyond ours, may not this be unrevealed to some? I pray for them all, dearest Laura, for those nearest and dearest to me, that the truth may lighten their darkness, and Heaven’s great mercy defend them in the perils and dangers of their night.

“My boy at Sandhurst has done very well indeed; and Egbert, I am happy to say, thinks of taking orders; he has been very moderate at College. Not so Alfred; but the Guards are a sadly dangerous school for a young man; I have promised to pay his debts, and he is to exchange into the line. Mamma is coming to us at Christmas with Alice; my sister is very pretty indeed, I think, and I am rejoiced she is to marry young Mr. Mumford, who has a tolerable living, and who has been attached to her ever since he was a boy at Rugby School.

“Little Barnes comes on bravely with his Latin; and Mr. Whitestock, a most excellent and valuable person in this place, where there is so much Romanism and Dissent, speaks highly of him. Little Clara is so like her unhappy mother in a thousand ways and actions, that I am shocked often; and see my brother starting back and turning his head away, as if suddenly wounded. I have heard the most deplorable accounts of Lord and Lady Highgate. Oh, dearest friend and sister!-save you, I think I scarce know any one that is happy in the world: I trust you may continue so-you who impart your goodness and kindness to all who come near you-you in whose sweet serene happiness I am thankful to be allowed to repose sometimes. You are the island in the desert, Laura! and the birds sing there, and the fountain flows; and we come and repose by you for a little while, and tomorrow the march begins again, and the toil, and the struggle, and the desert. Good-bye, fountain! Whisper kisses to my dearest little ones from their affectionate Aunt Ethel.

“A friend of his, a Mr. Warrington, has spoken against us several times with extraordinary ability, as Barnes owns. Do you know Mr. W.? He wrote a dreadful article in the Independent, about the last poor lecture, which was indeed sad, sentimental, commonplace: and the critique is terribly comical. I could not help laughing, remembering some passages in it, when Barnes mentioned it: and my brother became so angry! They have put up a dreadful caricature of B. in Newcome: and my brother says he did it, but I hope not. It is very droll, though: he used to make them very funnily. I am glad he has spirits for it. Good-bye again. — E. N.”

“He says he did it!” cries Mr. Pendennis, laying the letter down. “Barnes Newcome would scarcely caricature himself, my dear?”

“‘He’ often means — means Clive — I think,” says Mrs. Pendennis, in an offhand manner.

“Oh! he means Clive, does he, Laura?”

“Yes — and you mean goose, Mr. Pendennis!” that saucy lady replies.

It must have been about the very time when this letter was written, that a critical conversation occurred between Clive and his father, of which the lad did not inform me until much later days; as was the case — the reader has been more than once begged to believe — with many other portions of this biography.

One night the Colonel, having come home from a round of electioneering visits, not half satisfied with himself; exceedingly annoyed (much more than he cared to own) with the impudence of some rude fellows at the public-houses, who had interrupted his fine speeches with odious hiccups and familiar jeers, was seated brooding over his cheroot by the chimney-fire; friend F. B. (of whose companionship his patron was occasionally tired) finding much better amusement with the Jolly Britons in the Boscawen Room below. The Colonel, as an electioneering business, had made his appearance in the club. But that ancient Roman warrior had frightened those simple Britons. His manners were too awful for them: so were Clive’s, who visited them also under Mr. Pott’s introduction; but the two gentlemen, each being full of care and personal annoyance at the time, acted like wet blankets upon the Britons — whereas F. B. warmed them and cheered them, affably partook of their meals with them, and graciously shared their cups. So the Colonel was alone, listening to the far-off roar of the Britons’ choruses by an expiring fire, as he sate by a glass of cold negus and the ashes of his cigar.

I dare say he may have been thinking that his fire was well-nigh out — his cup of the dregs, his pipe little more now than dust and ashes — when Clive, candle in hand, came into their sitting-room.

As each saw the other’s face, it was so very sad and worn and pale, that the young man started back; and the elder, with quite the tenderness of old days, cried, “God bless me, my boy, how ill you look! Come and warm yourself — look, the fire’s out. Have something, Clivy!”

For months past they had not had a really kind word. The tender old voice smote upon Clive, and he burst into sudden tears. They rained upon his father’s trembling old brown hand, and stooped down and kissed it.

“You look very ill too, father,” says Clive.

“Ill? not I!” cries the father, still keeping the boy’s hand under both his own on the mantelpiece. “Such a battered old fellow as I am has a right to look the worse for wear; but you, boy; why do you look so pale?”

“I have seen a ghost, father,” Clive answered. Thomas, however, looked alarmed and inquisitive as though the boy was wandering in his mind.

“The ghost of my youth, father, the ghost of my happiness, and the best days of my life,” groaned out the young man. “I saw Ethel today. I went to see Sarah Mason, and she was there.”

“I had seen her, but I did not speak of her,” said the father. I thought it was best not to mention her to you, my poor boy. And are — are you fond of her still, Clive?”

“Still! once means always in these things, father, doesn’t it? Once means today, and yesterday, and forever and ever.”

“Nay, my boy, you mustn’t talk to me so, or even to yourself so. You have the dearest little wife at home, a dear little wife and child.”

“You had a son, and have been kind enough to him, God knows. You had a wife: but that doesn’t prevent other — other thoughts. Do you know you never spoke twice in your life about my mother? You didn’t care for her.”

“I— I did my duty by her; I denied her nothing. I scarcely ever had a word with her, and I did my best to make her happy,” interposed the Colonel.

“I know, but your heart was with the other. So is mine. It’s fatal; it runs in the family, father.”

The boy looked so ineffably wretched that the father’s heart melted still more. “I did my best, Clive,” the Colonel gasped out. “I went to that villain Barnes and offered him to settle every shilling I was worth on you — I did — you didn’t know that — I’d kill myself for your sake, Clivy. What’s an old fellow worth living for? I can live upon a crust and a cigar. I don’t care about a carriage, and only go in it to please Rosey. I wanted to give up all for you, but he played me false, that scoundrel cheated us both; he did, and so did Ethel.”

“No, sir; I may have thought so in my rage once, but I know better now. She was the victim and not the agent. Did Madame de Florac play you false when she married her husband? It was her fate, and she underwent it. We all bow to it, we are in the track and the car passes over us. You know it does, father.” The Colonel was a fatalist: he had often advanced this Oriental creed in his simple discourses with his son and Clive’s friends.

“Besides,” Clive went on, “Ethel does not care for me. She received me today quite coldly, and held her hand out as if we had only parted last year. I suppose she likes that marquis who jilted her — God bless her! How shall we know what wins the hearts of women? She has mine. There was my Fate. Praise be to Allah! It is over.”

“But there’s that villain who injured you. His isn’t over yet,” cried the Colonel, clenching his trembling hand.

“Ah, father! Let us leave him to Allah too! Suppose Madame de Florac had a brother who insulted you. You know you wouldn’t have revenged yourself. You would have wounded her in striking him.”

“You called out Barnes yourself, boy,” cried the father.

“That was for another cause, and not for my quarrel. And how do you know I intended to fire? By Jove, I was so miserable then that an ounce of lead would have done me little harm!”

The father saw the son’s mind more clearly than he had ever done hitherto. They had scarcely ever talked upon that subject which the Colonel found was so deeply fixed in Clive’s heart. He thought of his own early days, and how he had suffered, and beheld his son before him racked with the same cruel pangs of enduring grief. And he began to own that he had pressed him too hastily in his marriage; and to make an allowance for an unhappiness of which he had in part been the cause.

“Mashallah! Clive, my boy,” said the old man, “what is done is done.”

“Let us break up our camp before this place, and not go to war with Barnes, father,” said Clive. “Let us have peace — and forgive him if we can.”

“And retreat before this scoundrel, Clive?”

“What is a victory over such a fellow? One gives a chimney-sweep the wall, father.”

“I say again — What is done is done. I have promised to meet him at the hustings, and I will. I think it is best: and you are right: and you act like a high-minded gentleman — and my dear old boy — not to meddle in the quarrel — though I didn’t think so — and the difference gave me a great deal of pain — and so did what Pendennis said — and I’m wrong — and thank God I am wrong — and God bless you, my own boy!” the Colonel cried out in a burst of emotion; and the two went to their bedrooms together, and were happier as they shook hands at the doors of their adjoining chambers than they had been for many a long day and year.

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