The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER I

Shows how First Love may interrupt Breakfast

One fine morning in the full London season, Major Arthur Pendennis came over from his lodgings, according to his custom, to breakfast at a certain Club in Pall Mall, of which he was a chief ornament. As he was one of the finest judges of wine in England, and a man of active, dominating, and inquiring spirit, he had been very properly chosen to be a member of the Committee of this Club, and indeed was almost the manager of the institution; and the stewards and waiters bowed before him as reverentially as to a Duke or a Field-Marshal.

At a quarter past ten the Major invariably made his appearance in the best blacked boots in all London, with a checked morning cravat that never was rumpled until dinner time, a buff waistcoat which bore the crown of his sovereign on the buttons, and linen so spotless that Mr. Brummel himself asked the name of his laundress, and would probably have employed her had not misfortunes compelled that great man to fly the country. Pendennis’s coat, his white gloves, his whiskers, his very cane, were perfect of their kind as specimens of the costume of a military man en retraite. At a distance, or seeing his back merely, you would have taken him to be not more than thirty years old: it was only by a nearer inspection that you saw the factitious nature of his rich brown hair, and that there were a few crow’s-feet round about the somewhat faded eyes of his handsome mottled face. His nose was of the Wellington pattern. His hands and wristbands were beautifully long and white. On the latter he wore handsome gold buttons given to him by his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and on the others more than one elegant ring, the chief and largest of them being emblazoned with the famous arms of Pendennis.

He always took possession of the same table in the same corner of the room, from which nobody ever now thought of ousting him. One or two mad wags and wild fellows had in former days, and in freak or bravado, endeavoured twice or thrice to deprive him of this place; but there was a quiet dignity in the Major’s manner as he took his seat at the next table, and surveyed the interlopers, which rendered it impossible for any man to sit and breakfast under his eye; and that table — by the fire, and yet near the window — became his own. His letters were laid out there in expectation of his arrival, and many was the young fellow about town who looked with wonder at the number of those notes, and at the seals and franks which they bore. If there was any question about etiquette, society, who was married to whom, of what age such and such a duke was, Pendennis was the man to whom every one appealed. Marchionesses used to drive up to the Club, and leave notes for him, or fetch him out. He was perfectly affable. The young men liked to walk with him in the Park or down Pall Mall; for he touched his hat to everybody, and every other man he met was a lord.

The Major sate down at his accustomed table then, and while the waiters went to bring him his toast and his hot newspaper, he surveyed his letters through his gold double eye-glass. He carried it so gaily, you would hardly have known it was spectacles in disguise, and examined one pretty note after another, and laid them by in order. There were large solemn dinner cards, suggestive of three courses and heavy conversation; there were neat little confidential notes, conveying female entreaties; there was a note on thick official paper from the Marquis of Steyne, telling him to come to Richmond to a little party at the Star and Garter, and speak French, which language the Major possessed very perfectly; and another from the Bishop of Ealing and Mrs. Trail, requesting the honour of Major Pendennis’s company at Ealing House, all of which letters Pendennis read gracefully, and with the more satisfaction, because Glowry, the Scotch surgeon, breakfasting opposite to him, was looking on, and hating him for having so many invitations, which nobody ever sent to Glowry.

These perused, the Major took out his pocket-book to see on what days he was disengaged, and which of these many hospitable calls he could afford to accept or decline.

He threw over Cutler, the East India Director, in Baker Street, in order to dine with Lord Steyne and the little French party at the Star and Garter — the Bishop he accepted, because, though the dinner was slow, he liked to dine with bishops — and so went through his list and disposed of them according to his fancy or interest. Then he took his breakfast and looked over the paper, the gazette, the births and deaths, and the fashionable intelligence, to see that his name was down among the guests at my Lord So-and-so’s fete, and in the intervals of these occupations carried on cheerful conversation with his acquaintances about the room.

Among the letters which formed Major Pendennis’s budget for that morning there was only one unread, and which lay solitary and apart from all the fashionable London letters, with a country postmark and a homely seal. The superscription was in a pretty delicate female hand, and though marked ‘Immediate’ by the fair writer, with a strong dash of anxiety under the word, yet the Major had, for reasons of his own, neglected up to the present moment his humble rural petitioner, who to be sure could hardly hope to get a hearing among so many grand folks who attended his levee. The fact was, this was a letter from a female relative of Pendennis, and while the grandees of her brother’s acquaintance were received and got their interview, and drove off, as it were, the patient country letter remained for a long time waiting for an audience in the ante-chamber under the slop-bason.

At last it came to be this letter’s turn, and the Major broke a seal with ‘Fairoaks’ engraved upon it, and ‘Clavering St. Mary’s’ for a postmark. It was a double letter, and the Major commenced perusing the envelope before he attacked the inner epistle.

“Is it a letter from another Jook,” growled Mr. Glowry, inwardly, “Pendennis would not be leaving that to the last, I’m thinking.”

“My dear Major Pendennis,” the letter ran, “I beg and implore you to come to me immediately “— very likely, thought Pendennis, and Steyne’s dinner today —“I am in the very greatest grief and perplexity. My dearest boy, who has been hitherto everything the fondest mother could wish, is grieving me dreadfully. He has formed — I can hardly write it — a passion, an infatuation,”— the Major grinned —“for an actress who has been performing here. She is at least twelve years older than Arthur — who will not be eighteen till next February — and the wretched boy insists upon marrying her.”

“Hay! What’s making Pendennis swear now?”— Mr. Glowry asked of himself, for rage and wonder were concentrated in the Major’s open mouth, as he read this astounding announcement.

“Do, my dear friend,” the grief-stricken lady went on, “come to me instantly on the receipt of this; and, as Arthur’s guardian, entreat, command, the wretched child to give up this most deplorable resolution.” And, after more entreaties to the above effect, the writer concluded by signing herself the Major’s ‘unhappy affectionate sister, Helen Pendennis.’

“Fairoaks, Tuesday”— the Major concluded, reading the last words of the letter —“A d —— d pretty business at Fairoaks, Tuesday; now let us see what the boy has to say;” and he took the other letter, which was written in a great floundering boy’s hand, and sealed with the large signet of the Pendennises, even larger than the Major’s own, and with supplementary wax sputtered all round the seal, in token of the writer’s tremulousness and agitation.

The epistle ran thus:

“Fairoaks, Monday, Midnight.

“My Dear Uncle — In informing you of my engagement with Miss Costigan, daughter of J. Chesterfield Costigan, Esq., of Costiganstown, but, perhaps, better known to you under her professional name of Miss Fotheringay, of the Theatres Royal Drury Lane and Crow Street, and of the Norwich and Welsh Circuit, I am aware that I make an announcement which cannot, according to the present prejudices of society at least, be welcome to my family. My dearest mother, on whom, God knows, I would wish to inflict no needless pain, is deeply moved and grieved, I am sorry to say, by the intelligence which I have this night conveyed to her. I beseech you, my dear Sir, to come down and reason with her and console her. Although obliged by poverty to earn an honourable maintenance by the exercise of her splendid talents, Miss Costigan’s family is as ancient and noble as our own. When our ancestor, Ralph Pendennis, landed with Richard II. in Ireland, my Emily’s forefathers were kings of that country. I have the information from Mr. Costigan, who, like yourself, is a military man.

“It is in vain I have attempted to argue with my dear mother, and prove to her that a young lady of irreproachable character and lineage, endowed with the most splendid gifts of beauty and genius, who devotes herself to the exercise of one of the noblest professions, for the sacred purpose of maintaining her family, is a being whom we should all love and reverence, rather than avoid; — my poor mother has prejudices which it is impossible for my logic to overcome, and refuses to welcome to her arms one who is disposed to be her most affectionate daughter through life.

“Although Miss Costigan is some years older than myself, that circumstance does not operate as a barrier to my affection, and I am sure will not influence its duration. A love like mine, Sir, I feel, is contracted once and for ever. As I never had dreamed of love until I saw her — I feel now that I shall die without ever knowing another passion. It is the fate of my life. It was Miss C.‘s own delicacy which suggested that the difference of age, which I never felt, might operate as a bar to our union. But having loved once, I should despise myself, and be unworthy of my name as a gentleman, if I hesitated to abide by my passion: if I did not give all where I felt all, and endow the woman who loves me fondly with my whole heart and my whole fortune.

“I press for a speedy marriage with my Emily — for why, in truth, should it be delayed? A delay implies a doubt, which I cast from me as unworthy. It is impossible that my sentiments can change towards Emily — that at any age she can be anything but the sole object of my love. Why, then, wait? I entreat you, my dear Uncle, to come down and reconcile my dear mother to our union, and I address you as a man of the world, qui mores hominum multorum vidit et urbes, who will not feel any of the weak scruples and fears which agitate a lady who has scarcely ever left her village.

“Pray, come down to us immediately. I am quite confident that — apart from considerations of fortune — you will admire and approve of my Emily. — Your affectionate Nephew, Arthur Pendennis, Jr.”

When the Major had concluded the perusal of this letter, his countenance assumed an expression of such rage and horror that Glowry, the surgeon-official, felt in his pocket for his lancet, which he always carried in his card-case, and thought his respected friend was going into a fit. The intelligence was indeed sufficient to agitate Pendennis. The head of the Pendennises going to marry an actress ten years his senior — a headstrong boy going to plunge into matrimony. “The mother has spoiled the young rascal,” groaned the Major inwardly, “with her cursed sentimentality and romantic rubbish. My nephew marry a tragedy queen! Gracious mercy, people will laugh at me so that I shall not dare show my head!” And he thought with an inexpressible pang that he must give up Lord Steyne’s dinner at Richmond, and must lose his rest and pass the night in an abominable tight mail-coach, instead of taking pleasure, as he had promised himself, in some of the most agreeable and select society in England.

And he must not only give up this but all other engagements for some time to come. Who knows how long the business might detain him. He quitted his breakfast table for the adjoining writing-room, and there ruefully wrote off refusals to the Marquis, the Earl, the Bishop, and all his entertainers; and he ordered his servant to take places in the mail-coach for that evening, of course charging the sum which he disbursed for the seats to the account of the widow and the young scapegrace of whom he was guardian.

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