The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXVI

Christmas at Rosebury

We have known our friend Florac under two aristocratic names, and might now salute him by a third, to which he was entitled, although neither he nor his wife ever chose to assume it. His father was lately dead, and M. Paul de Florac might sign himself Duc d’Ivry if he chose, but he was indifferent as to the matter, and his wife’s friends indignant at the idea that their kinswoman, after having been a Princess, should descend to the rank of a mere Duchess. So Prince and Princess these good folks remained, being exceptions to that order, inasmuch as their friends could certainly put their trust in them.

On his father’s death Florac went to Paris, to settle the affairs of the paternal succession; and, having been for some time absent in his native country, returned to Rosebury for the winter, to resume that sport of which he was a distinguished amateur. He hunted in black during the ensuing season; and, indeed, henceforth laid aside his splendid attire and his allurements as a young man. His waist expanded, or was no longer confined by the cestus which had given it a shape. When he laid aside his black, his whiskers, too, went into a sort of half-mourning, and appeared in grey. “I make myself old, my friend,” he said, pathetically; “I have no more neither twenty years nor forty.” He went to Rosebury Church no more; but, with great order and sobriety, drove every Sunday to the neighbouring Catholic chapel at C—— Castle. We had an ecclesiastic or two to dine with us at Rosebury, one of whom I inclined to think was Florac’s director.

A reason, perhaps, for Paul’s altered demeanour, was the presence of his mother at Rosebury. No politeness or respect could be greater than Paul’s towards the Countess. Had she been a sovereign princess, Madame de Florac could not have been treated with more profound courtesy than she now received from her son. I think the humble-minded lady could have dispensed with some of his attentions; but Paul was a personage who demonstrated all his sentiments, and performed his various parts in life with the greatest vigour. As a man of pleasure, for instance, what more active roue than he? As a jeune homme, who could be younger, and for a longer time? As a country gentleman, or an l’homme d’affaires, he insisted upon dressing each character with the most rigid accuracy, and an exactitude that reminded one somewhat of Bouffe, or Ferville, at the play. I wonder whether, when is he quite old, he will think proper to wear a pigtail, like his old father? At any rate, that was a good part which the kind fellow was now acting, of reverence towards his widowed mother, and affectionate respect for her declining days. He not only felt these amiable sentiments, but he imparted them to his friends most freely, as his wont was. He used to weep freely — quite unrestrained by the presence of the domestics, as English sentiment would be:— and when Madame de Florac quitted the room after dinner, would squeeze my hand and tell me with streaming eyes, that his mother was an angel. “Her life has been but a long trial, my friend,” he would say. “Shall not I, who have caused her to shed so many tears, endeavour to dry some?” Of course the friends who liked him best encouraged him in an intention so pious.

The reader has already been made acquainted with this lady by the letters of hers, which came into my possession some time after the events which I am at present narrating: my wife, through our kind friend, Colonel Newcome, had also had the honour of an introduction to Madame de Florac at Paris; and, on coming to Rosebury for the Christmas holidays, I found Laura and the children greatly in favour with the good Countess. She treated her son’s wife with a perfect though distant courtesy. She was thankful to Madame de Moncontour for the latter’s great goodness to her son. Familiar with but very few persons, she could scarcely be intimate with her homely daughter-inlaw. Madame de Moncontour stood in the greatest awe of her; and, to do that good lady justice, admired and reverenced Paul’s mother with all her simple heart. In truth, I think almost every one had a certain awe of Madame de Florac, except children, who came to her trustingly, and, as it were, by instinct. The habitual melancholy of her eyes vanished as they lighted upon young faces and infantile smiles. A sweet love beamed out of her countenance: an angelic smile shone over her face, as she bent towards them and caressed them. Her demeanour then, nay, her looks and ways at other times; — a certain gracious sadness, a sympathy with all grief, and pity for all pain; a gentle heart, yearning towards all children; and, for her own especially, feeling a love that was almost an anguish: in the affairs of the common world only a dignified acquiescence, as if her place was not in it, and her thoughts were in her Home elsewhere; — these qualities, which we had seen exemplified in another life, Laura and her husband watched in Madame de Florac, and we loved her because she was like our mother. I see in such women, the good and pure, the patient and faithful, the tried and meek, the followers of Him whose earthly life was divinely sad and tender.

But, good as she was to us and to all, Ethel Newcome was the French lady’s greatest favourite. A bond of extreme tenderness and affection united these two. The elder friend made constant visits to the younger at Newcome; and when Miss Newcome, as she frequently did, came to Rosebury, we used to see that they preferred to be alone; divining and respecting the sympathy which brought those two faithful hearts together. I can imagine now the two tall forms slowly pacing the garden walks, or turning, as they lighted on the young ones in their play. What was their talk! I never asked it. Perhaps Ethel never said what was in her heart, though, be sure, the other knew it. Though the grief of those they love is untold, women hear it; as they soothe it with unspoken consolations. To see the elder lady embrace her friend as they parted was something holy — a sort of saintlike salutation.

Consulting the person from whom I had no secrets, we had thought best at first not to mention to our friends the place and position in which we had found our dear Colonel; at least to wait for a fitting opportunity on which we might break the news to those who held him in such affection. I told how Clive was hard at work, and hoped the best for him. Good-natured Madame de Moncontour was easily satisfied with my replies to her questions concerning our friend. Ethel only asked if he and her uncle were well, and once or twice made inquiries respecting Rosa and her child. And now it was that my wife told me, what I need no longer keep secret, of Ethel’s extreme anxiety to serve her distressed relatives, and how she, Laura, had already acted as Miss Newcome’s almoner in furnishing and hiring those apartments, which Ethel believed were occupied by Clive and his father, and wife and child. And my wife further informed me with what deep grief Ethel had heard of her uncle’s misfortune, and how, but that she feared to offend his pride, she longed to give him assistance. She had even ventured to offer to send him pecuniary help; but the Colonel (who never mentioned the circumstance to me any other of his friends), in a kind but very cold letter, had declined to be beholden to his niece for help.

So I may have remained some days at Rosebury, and the real position of the two Newcomes was unknown to our friends there. Christmas Eve was come, and, according to a long-standing promise, Ethel Newcome and her two children had arrived from the Park, which dreary mansion, since his double defeat, Sir Barnes scarcely ever visited. Christmas was come, and Rosebury hall was decorated with holly. Florac did his best to welcome his friends, and strove to make the meeting gay, though in truth it was rather melancholy. The children, however, were happy: and they had pleasure enough, in the school festival, in the distribution of cloaks and blankets to the poor, and in Madame de Moncontour’s gardens, delightful and beautiful though the winter was there.

It was only a family meeting, Madame de Florac’s widowhood not permitting her presence in large companies. Paul sate at his table between his mother and Mrs. Pendennis; Mr. Pendennis opposite to him, with Ethel and Madame de Moncontour on each side. The four children were placed between these personages, on whom Madame de Florac looked with her tender glances, and to whose little wants the kindest of hosts ministered with uncommon good-nature and affection. He was very soft-hearted about children. “Pourquoi n’en avons-nous pas, Jeanne? He! quoi n’en avons-nous pas?” he said, addressing his wife by her Christian name. The poor little lady looked kindly at her husband, and then gave a sigh, and turned and heaped cake upon the plate of the child next to her. No mamma or Aunt Ethel could interpose. It was a very light wholesome cake. Brown made it on purpose for the children, “the little darlings!” cries the Princess.

The children were very happy at being allowed to sit up so late to dinner, at all the kindly amusements of the day, at the holly and mistletoe clustering round the lamps — the mistletoe, under which the gallant Florac, skilled in all British usages, vowed he would have his privilege. But the mistletoe was clustered round the lamp, the lamp was over the centre of the great round table — the innocent gratification which he proposed to himself was denied to M. Paul.

In the greatest excitement and good-humour, our host at the dessert made us des speech. He carried a toast to the charming Ethel, another to the charming Mistriss Laura, another to his good fren’, his brave frren’, his ‘appy fren’, Pendennis —‘appy as possessor of such a wife, ‘appy as writer of works destined to the immortality, etc. etc. The little children round about clapped their happy little hands, and laughed and crowed in chorus. And now the nursery and its guardians were about to retreat, when Florac said he had yet a speech, yet a toast — and he bade the butler pour wine into every one’s glass — yet a toast — and he carried it to the health of our dear friends, of Clive and his father — the good, the brave Colonel! “We who are happy,” says he, “shall we not think of those who are good? We who love each other, shall we not remember those whom we all love?” He spoke with very great tenderness and feeling. “Ma bonne mere, thou too shalt drink this toast!” he said, taking his mother’s hand, and kissing it. She returned his caress gently, and tasted the wine with her pale lips. Ethel’s head bent in silence over her glass; and, as for Laura, need I say what happened to her! When the ladies went away my heart was opened to my friend Florac, and I told him where and how I had left my dear Clive’s father.

The Frenchman’s emotion on hearing this tale was such that I have loved him ever since. Clive in want! Why had he not sent to his friend? Grands Dieux! Clive who had helped him in his greatest distress! Clive’s father, ce preux chevalier, ce parfait gentilhomme! In a hundred rapid exclamations Florac exhibited his sympathy, asking of Fate, why such men as he and I were sitting surrounded by splendours — before golden vases crowned with flowers — with valets to kiss our feet —(those were merely figures of speech in which Paul expressed his prosperity)— whilst our friend the Colonel, so much better than we, spent his last days in poverty, and alone.

I liked Florac none the less, I own, because that one of the conditions of the Colonel’s present life, which appeared the hardest to most people, affected Florac but little. To be a Pensioner of an Ancient Institution? Why not? Might not a man retire without shame to the Invalides at the close of his campaigns, and, had not Fortune conquered our old friend, and age and disaster overcome him? It never once entered Thomas Newcome’s head; nor Clive’s, nor Florac’s, nor his mother’s, that the Colonel demeaned himself at all by accepting that bounty; and I recollect Warrington sharing our sentiment and trowling out those noble lines of the old poet:—

“His golden locks time hath to silver turned;
O time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurned,
But spurned in vain; youth waneth by encreasing.
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen.
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees,
And lovers’ songs be turned to holy psalms;
A man at arms must now serve on his knees,
And feed on prayers, which are old age’s alms.”

These, I say, respected our friend, whatever was the coat he wore; whereas, among the Colonel’s own kinsfolk, dire was the dismay, and indignation even, which they expressed when they came to hear of this, what they were pleased to call degradation to their family. Clive’s dear mother-inlaw made outcries over the good old man as over a pauper, and inquired of Heaven, what she had done that her blessed child should have a mendicant for a father? And Mrs. Hobson, in subsequent confidential communication with the writer of these memoirs, improved the occasion religiously as her wont was; referred the matter to Heaven too, and thought fit to assume that the celestial powers had decreed this humiliation, this dreadful trial for the Newcome family, as a warning to them all that they should not be too much puffed up with prosperity, nor set their affections too much upon things of this earth. Had they not already received one chastisement in Barnes’s punishment, and Lady Clara’s awful falling away? They had taught her a lesson, which the Colonel’s lamentable errors had confirmed — the vanity of trusting in all earthly grandeurs! Thus it was this worthy woman plumed herself, as it were, on her relative’s misfortunes; and was pleased to think the latter were designed for the special warning and advantage of her private family. But Mrs. Hobson’s philosophy is only mentioned by the way. Our story, which is drawing to its close, has to busy itself with other members of the house of The Newcomes.

My talk with Florac lasted for some time: at its close, when we went to join the ladies in the drawing-room, we found Ethel cloaked and shawled, and prepared for her departure with her young ones, who were already asleep. The little festival was over, and had ended in melancholy — even in weeping. Our hostess sate in her accustomed seat by her lamp and her worktable; but, neglecting her needle, she was having perpetual recourse to her pocket-handkerchief, and uttering ejaculations of pity between the intervals of her gushes of tears. Madame de Florac was in her usual place, her head cast downwards, and her hands folded. My wife was at her side, a grave commiseration showing itself in Laura’s countenance, whilst I read a yet deeper sadness in Ethel’s pale face. Miss Newcome’s carriage had been announced; the attendants had already carried the young ones asleep to the vehicle; and she was in the act of taking leave. We looked round at this disturbed party, guessing very likely what the subject of their talk had been, to which, however, Miss Ethel did not allude: but, announcing that she had intended to depart without disturbing the two gentlemen, she bade us farewell and good night. “I wish I could say a merry Christmas,” she added gravely, “but none of us, I fear, can hope for that.” It was evident that Laura had told the last chapter of the Colonel’s story.

Madame de Floras rose up and embraced Miss Newcome, and, that farewell over, she sank back on the sofa exhausted, and with such an expression of affliction in her countenance, that my wife ran eagerly towards her. “It is nothing, my dear,” she said, giving a cold hand to the younger lady, and sate silent for a few moments, during which we heard Florac’s voice without crying Adieu! and the wheels of Miss Newcome’s carriage when it drove away.

Our host entered a moment afterwards; and remarking, as Laura had done, his mother’s pallor and look of anguish, went up and spoke to her with the utmost tenderness and anxiety.

She gave her hand to her son, and a faint blush rose up out of the past as it were, and trembled upon her wan cheek. “He was the first friend I ever had in the world, Paul,” she said “the first and the best. He shall not want, shall he, my son?”

No signs of that emotion in which her daughter-inlaw had been indulging were as yet visible in Madame de Florac’s eyes, but, as she spoke, holding her son’s hand in hers, the tears at length overflowed, and with a sob, her head fell forwards. The impetuous Frenchman flung himself on his knees before his mother, uttered a hundred words of love and respect for her, and with tears and sobs of his own called God to witness that their friend should never want. And so this mother and son embraced each other, and clung together in a sacred union of love, before which we who had been admitted as spectators of that scene, stood hushed and respectful.

That night Laura told me, how, when the ladies left us, the talk had been entirely about the Colonel and Clive. Madame de Florac had spoken especially, and much more freely than was her wont. She had told many reminiscences of Thomas Newcome, and his early days; how her father taught him mathematics when they were quite poor, and living in their dear little cottage at Blackheath; how handsome he was then, with bright eyes, and long black hair flowing over his shoulders; how military glory was his boyish passion, and he was for ever talking of India, and the famous deeds of Clive and Lawrence. His favourite book was a history of India — the history of Orme. “He read it, and I read it also, my daughter,” the French lady said, turning to Ethel; “ah! I may say so after so many years.”

Ethel remembered the book as belonging to her grandmother, and now in the library at Newcome. Doubtless the same sympathy which caused me to speak about Thomas Newcome that evening, impelled my wife likewise. She told her friends, as I had told Florac, all the Colonel’s story; and it was while these good women were under the impression of the melancholy history, that Florac and his guest found them.

Retired to our rooms, Laura and I talked on the same subject until the clock tolled Christmas, and the neighbouring church bells rang out a jubilation. And, looking out into the quiet night, where the stars were keenly shining, we committed ourselves to rest with humbled hearts; praying, for all those we loved, a blessing of peace and goodwill.

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