The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXV

Founder’s Day at the Grey Friars

Rosey came, bringing discord and wretchedness with her to her husband, and the sentence of death or exile to his dear old father, all of which we foresaw — all of which Clive’s friends would have longed to prevent — all of which were inevitable under the circumstances. Clive’s domestic affairs were often talked over by our little set. Warrington and F. B. knew of his unhappiness. We three had strongly opined that the women being together at Boulogne, should stay there and live there, Clive sending them over pecuniary aid as his means permitted. “They must hate each other pretty well by this time,” growls George Warrington. “Why on earth should they not part?” “What a woman that Mrs. Mackenzie is!” cries F. B. “What an infernal tartar and catamaran! She who was so uncommonly smiling and soft-spoken, and such a fine woman, by jingo! What puzzles all women are!” F. B. sighed, and drowned further reflection in beer.

On the other side, and most strongly advocating Rosey’s return to Clive, was Mrs. Laura Pendennis; with certain arguments for which she had chapter and verse, and against which we of the separatist party had no appeal. “Did he marry her only for the days of her prosperity?” asked Laura. “Is it right, is it manly, that he should leave her now she is unhappy — poor little creature — no woman had ever more need of protection; and who should be her natural guardian save her husband? Surely, Arthur, you forget — have you forgotten them yourself, sir? — the solemn vows which Clive made at the altar. Is he not bound to his wife to keep only unto her so long as they both shall live, to love and comfort her, honour her, and keep her in sickness and health?”

“To keep her, yes — but not to keep the Campaigner,” cries Mr. Pendennis. “It is a moral bigamy, Laura, which you advocate, you wicked, immoral young woman!”

But Laura, though she smiled at this notion, would not be put off from her first proposition. Turning to Clive, who was with us, talking over his doleful family circumstances, she took his hand, and pleaded the cause of right and religion with sweet artless fervour. She agreed with us that it was a hard lot for Clive to bear. So much the nobler the task, and the fulfilment of duty in enduring it. A few months too would put an end to his trials. When his child was born Mrs. Mackenzie would take her departure. It would even be Clive’s duty to separate from her then, as it now was to humour his wife in her delicate condition, and to soothe the poor soul who had had a great deal of ill-health, of misfortune, of domestic calamity to wear and shatter her. Clive acquiesced with a groan, but — with a touching and generous resignation as we both thought. “She is right, Pen,” he said, “I think your wife is always right. I will try, Laura, and bear my part, God help me! I will do my duty and strive my best to soothe and gratify my poor dear little woman. They will be making caps and things, and will not interrupt me in my studio. Of nights I can go to Clipstone Street and work at the Life. There’s nothing like the Life, Pen. So you see I shan’t be much at home except at meal-times, when by nature I shall have my mouth full, and no opportunity of quarrelling with poor Mrs. Mac.” So he went home, followed and cheered by the love and pity of my dear wife, and determined stoutly to bear this heavy yoke which fate had put on him.

To do Mrs. Mackenzie justice, that lady backed up with all her might the statement which my wife had put forward, with a view of soothing poor Clive, viz., that the residence of his mother-inlaw in his house was only to be temporary. “Temporary!” cries Mrs. Mac (who was kind enough to make a call on Mrs. Pendennis, and treat that lady to a piece of her mind). “Do you suppose, madam, that it could be otherwise? Do you suppose that worlds would induce me to stay in a house where I have received such treatment; where, after I and my daughter had been robbed of every shilling of our fortune, where we are daily insulted by Colonel Newcome and his son? Do you suppose, ma’am, that I do not know that Clive’s friends hate me, and give themselves airs and look down upon my darling child, and try and make differences between my sweet Rosa and me — Rosa who might have been dead, or might have been starving, but that her dear mother came to her rescue? No, I would never stay. I loathe every day that I remain in the house — I would rather beg my bread — I would rather sweep the streets and starve — though, thank God, I have my pension as the widow of an officer in Her Majesty’s Service, and I can live upon that — and of that Colonel Newcome cannot rob me; and when my darling love needs a mother’s care no longer, I will leave her. I will shake the dust off my feet and leave that house. I will — And Mr. Newcome’s friends may then sneer at me and abuse me, and blacken my darling child’s heart towards me if they choose. And I thank you, Mrs. Pendennis, for all your kindness towards my daughter’s family, and for the furniture which you have sent into the house, and for the trouble you have taken about our family arrangements. It was for this I took the liberty of calling upon you, and I wish you a very good morning.” So speaking, the Campaigner left my wife; and Mrs. Pendennis enacted the pleasing scene with great spirit to her husband afterwards, concluding the whole with a splendid curtsey and toss of the head, such as Mrs. Mackenzie performed as her parting salute.

Our dear Colonel had fled before. He had acquiesced humbly with the decree of fate; and, lonely, old and beaten, marched honestly on the path of duty. It was a great blessing, he wrote to us, to him to think that in happier days and during many years he had been enabled to benefit his kind and excellent relative, Miss Honeyman. He could thankfully receive her hospitality now, and claim the kindness and shelter which this old friend gave him. No one could be more anxious to make him comfortable. The air of Brighton did him the greatest good; he had found some old friends, some old Bengalees there, with whom he enjoyed himself greatly, etc. How much did we, who knew his noble spirit, believe of this story? To us Heaven had awarded health, happiness, competence, loving children, united hearts, and modest prosperity. To yonder good man, whose long life shone with benefactions, and whose career was but kindness and honour, fate decreed poverty, disappointment, separation, a lonely old age. We bowed our heads, humiliated at the contrast of his lot and ours; and prayed Heaven to enable us to bear our present good fortune meekly, and our evil days, if they should come, with such a resignation as this good Christian showed.

I forgot to say that our attempts to better Thomas Newcome’s money affairs were quite in vain, the Colonel insisting upon paying over every shilling of his military allowances and retiring pension to the parties from whom he had borrowed money previous to his bankruptcy. “Ah! what a good man that is,” says Mr. Sherrick with tears in his eyes, “what a noble fellow, sir! He would die rather than not pay every farthing over. He’d starve, sir, that he would. The money ain’t mine, sir, or if it was do you think I’d take it from the poor old boy? No, sir; by Jove! I honour and reverence him more now he ain’t got a shilling in his pocket, than ever I did when we thought he was a-rolling in money.”

My wife made one or two efforts at Samaritan visits in Howland Street, but was received by Mrs. Clive with such a faint welcome, and by the Campaigner with so grim a countenance, so many sneers, innuendoes, insults almost, that Laura’s charity was beaten back, and she ceased to press good offices thus thanklessly received. If Clive came to visit us, as he very rarely did, after an official question or two regarding the health of his wife and child, no further mention was made of his family affairs. His painting, he said, was getting on tolerably well; he had work, scantily paid it is true, but work sufficient. He was reserved, uncommunicative, unlike the frank Clive of former times, and oppressed by his circumstances, as it was easy to see. I did not press the confidence which he was unwilling to offer, and thought best to respect his silence. I had a thousand affairs of my own; who has not in London? If you die tomorrow, your dearest friend will feel for you a hearty pang of sorrow, and go to his business as usual. I could divine, but would not care to describe, the life which my poor Clive was now leading; the vulgar misery, the sordid home, the cheerless toil, and lack of friendly companionship which darkened his kind soul. I was glad Clive’s father was away. The Colonel wrote to us twice or thrice; could it be three months ago? — bless me, how time flies! He was happy, he wrote, with Miss Honeyman, who took the best care of him.

Mention has been made once or twice in the course of this history of the Grey Friars school — where the Colonel and Clive and I had been brought up — an ancient foundation of the time of James I., still subsisting in the heart of London city. The death-day of the founder of the place is still kept solemnly by Cistercians. In their chapel, where assemble the boys of the school, and the fourscore old men of the Hospital, the founder’s tomb stands, a huge edifice: emblazoned with heraldic decorations and clumsy carved allegories. There is an old Hall, a beautiful specimen of the architecture of James’s time; an old Hall? many old halls; old staircases, passages, old chambers decorated with old portraits, walking in the midst of which we walk as it were in the early seventeenth century. To others than Cistercians, Grey Friars is a dreary place possibly. Nevertheless, the pupils educated there love to revisit it; and the oldest of us grow young again for an hour or two as we come back into those scenes of childhood.

The custom of the school is, that on the 12th of December, the Founder’s Day, the head gown-boy shall recite a Latin oration, in praise of Fundatoris Nostri, and upon other subjects; and a goodly company of old Cistercians is generally brought together to attend this oration: after which we go to chapel and hear a sermon; after which we adjourn to a great dinner, where old condisciples meet, old toasts are given, and speeches are made. Before marching from the oration-hall to chapel, the stewards of the day’s dinner, according to old-fashioned rite, have wands put into their hands, walk to church at the head of the procession, and sit there in places of honour. The boys are already in their seats, with smug fresh faces, and shining white collars; the old black-gowned pensioners are on their benches; the chapel is lighted, and Founder’s Tomb, with its grotesque carvings, monsters, heraldries, darkles and shines with the most wonderful shadows and lights. There he lies, Fundator Noster, in his ruff and gown, awaiting the great Examination Day. We oldsters, be we ever so old, become boys again as we look at that familiar old tomb, and think how the seats are altered since we were here, and how the doctor — not the present doctor, the doctor of our time — used to sit yonder, and his awful eye used to frighten us shuddering boys, on whom it lighted; and how the boy next us would kick our shins during service time, and how the monitor would cane us afterwards because our shins were kicked. Yonder sit forty cherry-cheeked boys, thinking about home and holidays tomorrow. Yonder sit some threescore old gentlemen pensioners of the hospital, listening to the prayers and the psalms. You hear them coughing feebly in the twilight — the old reverend blackgowns. Is Codd Ajax alive, you wonder? — the Cistercian lads called these old gentlemen Codds, I know not wherefore — I know not wherefore — but is old Codd Ajax alive, I wonder? or Codd Soldier? or kind old Codd Gentleman, or has the grave closed over them? A plenty of candles lights up this chapel, and this scene of age and youth, and early memories, and pompous death. How solemn the well-remembered prayers are, here uttered again in the place wherein childhood we used to hear them! How beautiful and decorous the rite; how noble the ancient words of the supplications which the priest utters, and to which generations of fresh children and troops of bygone seniors have cried Amen! under those arches! The service for Founder’s Day is a special one; one of the psalms selected being the thirty-seventh, and we hear —

23. The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way.

24. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand.

25. I have been young, and now am old: yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread.

As we came to this verse, I chanced to look up from my book towards the swarm of black-coated pensioners: and amongst them — amongst them — sate Thomas Newcome.

His dear old head was bent down over his prayer-book — there was no mistaking him. He wore the black gown of the pensioners of the Hospital of Grey Friars. His order of the Bath was on his breast. He stood there amongst the poor brethren, uttering the responses to the psalm. The steps of this good man had been ordered him hither by Heaven’s decree: to this almshouse! Here it was ordained that a life all love, and kindness, and honour, should end! I heard no more of prayers, and psalms, and sermon, after that. How dared I to be in a place of mark, and he, he yonder among the poor? Oh, pardon, you noble soul! I ask forgiveness of you for being of a world that has so treated you — you my better, you the honest, and gentle, and good! I thought the service would never end, or the organist’s voluntaries, or the preacher’s homily.

The organ played us out of chapel at length, and I waited in the ante-chapel until the pensioners took their turn to quit it. My dear, dear old friend! I ran to him with a warmth and eagerness of recognition which no doubt showed themselves in my face and accents, as my heart was moved at the sight of him. His own face flushed up when he saw me, and his hand shook in mine. “I have found a home, Arthur,” said he. “Don’t you remember before I went to India, when we came to see the old Grey Friars, and visited Captain Scarsdale in his room? — a poor brother like me — an old Peninsular man. Scarsdale is gone now, sir, and is where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest; and I thought then, when we saw him — here would be a place for an old fellow when his career was over, to hang his sword up; to humble his soul, and to wait thankfully for the end. Arthur. My good friend, Lord H., who is a Cistercian like ourselves, and has just been appointed a governor, gave me his first nomination. Don’t be agitated, Arthur my boy, I am very happy. I have good quarters, good food, good light and fire, and good friends; blessed be God! my dear kind young friend — my boy’s friend; you have always been so, sir; and I take it uncommonly kind of you, and I thank God for you, sir. Why, sir, I am as happy as the day is long.” He uttered words to this effect as he walked through the courts of the building towards his room, which in truth I found neat and comfortable, with a brisk fire crackling on the hearth; a little tea-table laid out, a Bible and spectacles by the side of it, and over the mantelpiece a drawing of his grandson by Clive.

“You may come and see me here, sir, whenever you like, and so may your dear wife and little ones, tell Laura, with my love; — but you must not stay now. You must go back to your dinner.” In vain I pleaded that I had no stomach for it. He gave me a look, which seemed to say he desired to be alone, and I had to respect that order and leave him.

Of course I came to him on the very next day; though not with my wife and children, who were in truth absent in the country at Rosebury, where they were to pass the Christmas holidays; and where, this school-dinner over, I was to join them. On my second visit to Grey Friars my good friend entered more at length into the reasons why he had assumed the Poor Brother’s gown; and I cannot say but that I acquiesced in his reasons, and admired that noble humility and contentedness of which he gave me an example.

“That which had caused him most grief and pain,” he said, “in the issue of that unfortunate bank, was the thought that poor friends of his had been induced by his representations to invest their little capital in that speculation. Good Miss Honeyman, for instance, meaning no harm, and in all respects a most honest and kindly-disposed old lady, had nevertheless alluded more than once to the fact that her money had been thrown away; and these allusions, sir, made her hospitality somewhat hard to bear,” said the Colonel. “At home — at poor Clivey’s, I mean — it was even worse,” he continued; “Mrs. Mackenzie for months past, by her complaints, and — and her conduct, has made my son and me so miserable — that flight before her, and into any refuge, was the best course. She too does not mean ill, Pen. Do not waste any of your oaths upon that poor woman,” he added, holding up his finger, and smiling sadly. “She thinks I deceived her, though Heaven knows it was myself I deceived. She has great influence over Rosa. Very few persons can resist that violent and headstrong woman, sir. I could not bear her reproaches, or my poor sick daughter, whom her mother leads almost entirely now, and it was with all this grief on my mind, that, as I was walking one day upon Brighton cliff, I met my schoolfellow, my Lord H— — who has ever been a good friend of mine — and who told me how he had just been appointed a governor of Grey Friars. He asked me to dine with him on the next day, and would take no refusal. He knew of my pecuniary misfortunes, of course — and showed himself most noble and liberal in his offers of help. I was very much touched by his goodness, Pen — and made a clean breast of it to his lordship; who at first would not hear of my coming to this place — and offered me out of the purse of an old brother-schoolfellow and an old brother soldier as much — as much as should last me my time. Wasn’t it noble of him, Arthur? God bless him! There are good men in the world, sir, there are true friends, as I have found in these later days. Do you know, sir”— here the old man’s eyes twinkled — “that Fred Bayham fixed up that bookcase yonder — and brought me my little boy’s picture to hang up? Boy and Clive will come and see me soon.”

“Do you mean they do not come?” I cried.

“They don’t know I am here, sir,” said the Colonel, with a sweet, kind smile. “They think I am visiting his lordship in Scotland. Ah! they are good people! When we had had a talk downstairs over our bottle of claret — where my old commander-inchief would not hear of my plan — we went upstairs to her ladyship, who saw that her husband was disturbed, and asked the reason. I dare say it was the good claret that made me speak, sir; for I told her that I and her husband had had a dispute and that I would take her ladyship for umpire. And then I told her the story over, that I had paid away every rupee to the creditors, and mortgaged my pensions and retiring allowances for the same end, that I was a burden upon Clivey, who had enough, poor boy, to keep his own family, and his wife’s mother, whom my imprudence had impoverished — that here was an honourable asylum which my friend could procure for me, and was not that better than to drain his purse? She was very much moved, sir — she is a very kind lady, though she passed for being very proud and haughty in India — so wrongly are people judged. And Lord H. said, in his rough way, ‘that, by Jove, if Tom Newcome took a thing into his obstinate old head no one could drive it out.’ And so,” said the Colonel, with his sad smile, “I had my own way. Lady H. was good enough to come and see me the very next day — and do you know, Pen, she invited me to go and live with them for the rest of my life — made me the most generous, the most delicate offers. But I knew I was right, and held my own. I am too old to work, Arthur: and better here whilst I am to stay, than elsewhere. Look! all this furniture came from H. House — and that wardrobe is full of linen, which she sent me. She has been twice to see me, and every officer in this hospital is as courteous to me as if I had my fine house.”

I thought of the psalm we had heard on the previous evening, and turned to it in the opened Bible, and pointed to the verse, “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him.” Thomas Newcome seeing my occupation, laid a kind, trembling hand on my shoulder; and then, putting on his glasses, with a smile bent over the volume. And who that saw him then, and knew him and loved him as I did — who would not have humbled his own heart, and breathed his inward prayer, confessing and adoring the Divine Will, which ordains these trials, these triumphs, these humiliations, these blest griefs, this crowning Love?

I had the happiness of bringing Clive and his little boy to Thomas Newcome that evening; and heard the child’s cry of recognition and surprise, and the old man calling the boy’s name, as I closed the door upon that meeting; and by the night’s mail I went down to Newcome, to the friends with whom my own family was already staying.

Of course, my conscience-keeper at Rosebury was anxious to know about the school-dinner, and all the speeches made, and the guests assembled there; but she soot ceased to inquire about these when I came to give her the news of the discovery of our dear old friend in the habit of a Poor Brother of Grey Friars. She was very glad to hear that Clive and his little son had been reunited to the Colonel; and appeared to imagine at first, that there was some wonderful merit upon my part in bringing the three together.

“Well — no great merit, Pen, as you will put it,” says the Confessor; “but it was kindly thought, sir — and I like my husband when he is kind best; and don’t wonder at your having made a stupid speech at the dinner, as you say you did, when you had this other subject to think of. That is a beautiful psalm, Pen, and those verses which you were reading when you saw him, especially beautiful.”

“But in the presence of eighty old gentlemen, who have all come to decay, and have all had to beg their bread in a manner, don’t you think the clergyman might choose some other psalm?” asks Mr. Pendennis.

“They were not forsaken utterly, Arthur,” says Mrs. Laura, gravely: but rather declines to argue the point raised by me; namely, that the selection of that especial thirty-seventh psalm was not complimentary to those decayed old gentlemen.

“All the psalms are good, sir,” she says, “and this one, of course, is included,” and thus the discussion closed.

I then fell to a description of Howland Street, and poor Clive, whom I had found there over his work. A dubious maid scanned my appearance rather eagerly when I asked to see him. I found a picture-dealer chaffering with him over a bundle of sketches, and his little boy, already pencil in hand, lying in one corner of the room, the sun playing about his yellow hair. The child looked languid and pale, the father worn and ill. When the dealer at length took his bargains away, I gradually broke my errand to Clive, and told him from whence I had just come.

He had thought his father in Scotland with Lord H.: and was immensely moved with the news which I brought.

“I haven’t written to him for a month. It’s not pleasant the letters I have to write, Pen, and I can’t make them pleasant. Up, Tommykin, and put on your cap.” Tommykin jumps up. “Put on your cap, and tell them to take off your pinafore, tell grandmamma ——”

At that name Tommykin begins to cry.

“Look at that!” says Clive, commencing to speak in the French language, which the child interrupts by calling out in that tongue. “I speak also French, papa.”

“Well, my child! You will like to come out with papa, and Betsy can dress you.” He flings off his own paint-stained shooting-jacket as he talks, takes a frock-coat out of a carved wardrobe, and a hat from a helmet on the shelf. He is no longer the handsome splendid boy of old times. Can that be Clive, with that haggard face and slouched handkerchief? “I am not the dandy I was, Pen,” he says bitterly.

A little voice is heard crying overhead — and giving a kind of gasp the wretched father stops in some indifferent speech he was trying to make. “I can’t help myself,” he groans out; “my wife is so ill, she can’t attend to the child. Mrs. Mackenzie manages the house for me — and — here! Tommy, Tommy! papa is coming!” Tommy has been crying again; and flinging open the studio door, Clive calls out, and dashes upstairs.

I hear scuffling, stamping, loud voices, poor Tommy’s scared little pipe — Clive’s fierce objurgations, and the Campaigner’s voice barking out — “Do, sir, do! with my child suffering in the next room. Behave like a brute to me, do. He shall not go! He shall not have the hat”—“He shall” —“Ah — ah!” A scream is heard. It is Clive tearing a child’s hat out of the Campaigner’s hands, with which, and a flushed face, he presently rushes downstairs, bearing little Tommy on his shoulder.

“You see what I am come to, Pen,” he says with a heartbroken voice, trying, with hands all of a tremble, to tie the hat on the boy’s head. He laughs bitterly at the ill success of his endeavours. “Oh, you silly papa!” laughs Tommy, too.

The door is flung open, and the red-faced Campaigner appears. Her face is mottled with wrath, her bandeaux of hair are disarranged upon her forehead, the ornaments of her cap, cheap, and dirty, and numerous, only give her a wilder appearance. She is in a large and dingy wrapper, very different from the lady who had presented herself a few months back to my wife — how different from the smiling Mrs. Mackenzie of old days!

“He shall not go out of a winter day, sir,” she breaks out. “I have his mother’s orders, whom you are killing. Mr. Pendennis!” She starts, perceiving me for the first time, and her breast heaves, and she prepares for combat, and looks at me over her shoulder.

“You and his father are the best judges upon this point, ma’am,” said Mr. Pendennis, with a bow.

“The child is delicate, sir,” cries Mrs. Mackenzie; “and this winter ——”

“Enough of this,” says Clive with a stamp, and passes through her guard with Tommy, and we descend the stairs, and at length are in the free street. Was it not best not to describe at full length this portion of poor Clive’s history?

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