The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XIII

A Crisis

Meanwhile they were wondering at Fairoaks that the Major had not returned. Dr. Portman and his lady, on their way home to Clavering, stopped at Helen’s lodge-gate, with a brief note for her from Major Pendennis, in which he said he should remain at Chatteris another day, being anxious to have some talk with Messrs. Tatham, the lawyers, whom he would meet that afternoon; but no mention was made of the transaction in which the writer had been engaged during the morning. Indeed the note was written at the pause after the first part of the engagement, and when the Major had decidedly had the worst of the battle.

Pen did not care somehow to go into the town whilst his uncle was there. He did not like to have to fancy that his guardian might be spying at him from that abominable Dean’s grass-plat, whilst he was making love in Miss Costigan’s drawing-room; and the pleasures of a walk (a delight which he was very rarely permitted to enjoy) would have been spoiled if he had met the man of the polished boots on that occasion. His modest love could not show in public by any outward signs, except the eyes (with which the poor fellow ogled and gazed violently to be sure), but it was dumb in the presence of third parties; and so much the better, for of all the talk which takes place in this world, that of love-makers is surely, to the uninitiated, the most silly. It is the vocabulary without the key; it is the lamp without the flame. Let the respected reader look or think over some old love-letters that he (or she) has had and forgotten, and try them over again. How blank and meaningless they seem! What glamour of infatuation was it which made that nonsense beautiful? One wonders that such puling and trash could ever have made one happy. And yet there were dates when you kissed those silly letters with rapture — lived upon six absurd lines for a week, and until the reactionary period came, when you were restless and miserable until you got a fresh supply of folly.

That is why we decline to publish any of the letters and verses which Mr. Pen wrote at this period of his life, out of mere regard for the young fellow’s character. They are too spooney and wild. Young ladies ought not to be called upon to read them in cold blood. Bide your time, young women; perhaps you will get and write them on your own account soon. Meanwhile we will respect Mr. Pen’s first outpourings, and keep them tied up in the newspapers with Miss Fotheringay’s string, and sealed with Captain Costigan’s great silver seal.

The Major came away from his interview with Captain Costigan in a state of such concentrated fury as rendered him terrible to approach! “The impudent bog-trotting scamp,” he thought, “dare to threaten me! Dare to talk of permitting his damned Costigans to marry with the Pendennises! Send me a challenge! If the fellow can get anything in the shape of a gentleman to carry it, I have the greatest mind in life not to baulk him. — Psha! what would people say if I were to go out with a tipsy mountebank, about a row with an actress in a barn!” So when the Major saw Dr. Portman, who asked anxiously regarding the issue of his battle with the dragon, Mr. Pendennis did not care to inform the divine of the General’s insolent behaviour, but stated that the affair was a very ugly and disagreeable one, and that it was by no means over yet.

He enjoined Doctor and Mrs. Portman to say nothing about the business at Fairoaks; whither he contented himself with despatching the note we have before mentioned. And then he returned to his hotel, where he vented his wrath upon Mr. Morgan his valet, “dammin and cussin upstairs and downstairs,” as that gentleman observed to Mr. Foker’s man, in whose company he partook of dinner in the servants’ room of the George.

The servant carried the news to his master; and Mr. Foker having finished his breakfast about this time, it being two o’clock in the afternoon, remembered that he was anxious to know the result of the interview between his two friends, and having inquired the number of the Major’s sitting-room, went over in his brocade dressing-gown, and knocked for admission.

Major Pendennis had some business, as he had stated, respecting a lease of the widow’s, about which he was desirous of consulting old Mr. Tatham, the lawyer, who had been his brother’s man of business, and who had a branch-office at Clavering, where he and his son attended market and other days three or four in the week. This gentleman and his client were now in consultation when Mr. Foker showed his grand dressing-gown and embroidered skull-cap at Major Pendennis’s door.

Seeing the Major engaged with papers and red-tape, and an old man with a white head, the modest youth was for drawing back — and said, “O, you’re busy — call again another time.” But Mr. Pendennis wanted to see him, and begged him, with a smile, to enter: whereupon Mr. Foker took off the embroidered tarboosh or fez (it had been worked by the fondest of mothers) and advanced, bowing to the gentlemen and smiling on them graciously. Mr. Tatham had never seen so splendid an apparition before as this brocaded youth, who seated himself in an arm-chair, spreading out his crimson skirts, and looking with exceeding kindness and frankness on the other two tenants of the room. “You seem to like my dressing-gown, sir,” he said to Mr. Tatham. “A pretty thing, isn’t it? Neat, but not in the least gaudy. And how do you do, Major Pendennis, sir, and how does the world treat you?”

There was that in Foker’s manner and appearance which would have put an Inquisitor into good humour, and it smoothed the wrinkles under Pendennis’s head of hair.

“I have had an interview with that Irishman (you may speak before my friend, Mr. Tatham here, who knows all the affairs of the family), and it has not, I own, been very satisfactory. He won’t believe that my nephew is poor: he says we are both liars: he did me the honour to hint that I was a coward, as I took leave. And I thought when you knocked at the door, that you might be the gentleman whom I expect with a challenge from Mr. Costigan — that is how the world treats me, Mr. Foker.”

“You don’t mean that Irishman, the actress’s father?” cried Mr. Tatham, who was a dissenter himself, and did not patronise the drama.

“That Irishman, the actress’s father — the very man. Have not you heard what a fool my nephew has made of himself about the girl?”— Mr. Tatham, who never entered the walls of a theatre, had heard nothing: and Major Pendennis had to recount the story of his nephew’s loves to the lawyer, Mr. Foker coming in with appropriate comments in his usual familiar language.

Tatham was lost in wonder at the narrative. Why had not Mrs. Pendennis married a serious man, he thought — Mr. Tatham was a widower — and kept this unfortunate boy from perdition? As for Mr. Costigan’s daughter, he would say nothing: her profession was sufficient to characterise her. Mr. Foker here interposed to say he had known some uncommon good people in the booths, as he called the Temple of the Muses. Well, it might be so, Mr. Tatham hoped so — but the father, Tatham knew personally — a man of the worst character, a wine-bibber and an idler in taverns and billiard-rooms, and a notorious insolvent. “I can understand the reason, Major,” he said, “why the fellow would not come to my office to ascertain the truth of the statements which you made him. — We have a writ out against him and another disreputable fellow, one of the play-actors, for a bill given to Mr. Skinner of this city, a most respectable Grocer and Wine and Spirit Merchant, and a Member of the Society of Friends. This Costigan came crying to Mr. Skinner — crying in the shop, sir — and we have not proceeded against him or the other, as neither were worth powder and shot.”

It was whilst Mr. Tatham was engaged in telling this story that a third knock came to the door, and there entered an athletic gentleman in a shabby braided frock, bearing in his hand a letter with a large blotched red seal.

“Can I have the honour of speaking with Major Pendennis in private?” he began —“I have a few words for your ear, sir. I am the bearer of a mission from my friend Captain Costigan,”— but here the man with the bass voice paused, faltered, and turned pale — he caught sight of the red and well-remembered face of Mr. Tatham.

“Hullo, Garbetts, speak up!” cried Mr. Foker, delighted.

“Why, bless my soul, it is the other party to the bill!” said Mr. Tatham. “I say, sir; stop I say.” But Garbetts, with a face as blank as Macbeth’s when Banquo’s ghost appears upon him, gasped some inarticulate words, and fled out of the room.

The Major’s gravity was also entirely upset, and he burst out laughing. So did Mr. Foker, who said, “By Jove, it was a good ’un.” So did the attorney, although by profession a serious man.

“I don’t think there’ll be any fight, Major,” young Foker said; and began mimicking the tragedian. “If there is, the old gentleman — your name Tatham? — very happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Tatham — may send the bailiffs to separate the men;” and Mr. Tatham promised to do so. The Major was by no means sorry at the ludicrous issue of the quarrel. “It seems to me, sir,” he said to Mr. Foker, “that you always arrive to put me into good-humour.”

Nor was this the only occasion on which Mr. Foker this day was destined to be of service to the Pendennis family. We have said that he had the entree of Captain Costigan’s lodgings, and in the course of the afternoon he thought he would pay the General a visit, and hear from his own lips what had occurred in the conversation, in the morning, with Mr. Pendennis. Captain Costigan was not at home. He had received permission, nay, encouragement from his daughter, to go to the convivial club at the Magpie Hotel, where no doubt he was bragging at that moment of his desire to murder a certain ruffian; for he was not only brave, but he knew it too, and liked to take out his courage, and, as it were, give it an airing in company.

Costigan then was absent, but Miss Fotheringay was at home washing the tea-cups whilst Mr. Bows sate opposite to her.

“Just done breakfast I see — how do?” said Mr. Foker, popping in his little funny head.

“Get out, you funny little man,” cried Miss Fotheringay.

“You mean come in, answered the other. — Here we are!” and entering the room he folded his arms and began twirling his head round and round with immense rapidity, like Harlequin in the Pantomime when he first issues from his cocoon or envelope. Miss Fotheringay laughed with all her heart: a wink of Foker’s would set her off laughing, when the bitterest joke Bows ever made could not get a smile from her, or the finest of poor Pen’s speeches would only puzzle her. At the end of the harlequinade he sank down on one knee and kissed her hand. “You’re the drollest little man,” she said, and gave him a great good-humoured slap. Pen used to tremble as he kissed her hand. Pen would have died of a slap.

These preliminaries over, the three began to talk; Mr. Foker amused his companions by recounting to them the scene which he had just witnessed of the discomfiture of Mr. Garbetts, by which they learned, for the first time, how far the General had carried his wrath against Major Pendennis. Foker spoke strongly in favour of the Major’s character for veracity and honour, and described him as a tip-top swell, moving in the upper-circle of society, who would never submit to any deceit — much more to deceive such a charming young woman as Miss Foth.

He touched delicately upon the delicate marriage question, though he couldn’t help showing that he held Pen rather cheap. In fact, he had a perhaps just contempt for Mr. Pen’s high-flown sentimentality; his own weakness, as he thought, not lying that way. “I knew it wouldn’t do, Miss Foth,” said he, nodding his little head. “Couldn’t do. Didn’t like to put my hand into the bag, but knew it couldn’t do. He’s too young for you: too green: a deal too green: and he turns out to be poor as Job. Can’t have him at no price, can she, Mr. Bo?”

“Indeed he’s a nice poor boy,” said the Fotheringay rather sadly.

“Poor little beggar,” said Bows, with his hands in his pockets, and stealing up a queer look at Miss Fotheringay. Perhaps he thought and wondered at the way in which women play with men, and coax them and win them and drop them.

But Mr. Bows had not the least objection to acknowledge that he thought Miss Fotheringay was perfectly right in giving up Mr. Arthur Pendennis, and that in his idea the match was always an absurd one: and Miss Costigan owned that she thought so herself, only she couldn’t send away two thousand a year. “It all comes of believing Papa’s silly stories,” she said; “faith I’ll choose for meself another time”— and very likely the large image of Lieutenant Sir Derby Oaks entered into her mind at that instant.

After praising Major Pendennis, whom Miss Costigan declared to be a proper gentleman entirely, smelling of lavender, and as neat as a pin — and who was pronounced by Mr. Bows to be the right sort of fellow, though rather too much of an old buck, Mr. Foker suddenly bethought him to ask the pair to come and meet the Major that very evening at dinner at his apartment at the George. “He agreed to dine with me, and I think after the — after the little shindy this morning, in which I must say the General was wrong, it would look kind, you know. — I know the Major fell in love with you, Miss Foth: he said so.”

“So she may be Mrs. Pendennis still,” Bows said with a sneer —“No, thank you, Mr. F. — I’ve dined.”

“Sure, that was at three o’clock,” said Miss Costigan, who had an honest appetite, “and I can’t go without you.”

“We’ll have lobster-salad and champagne,” said the little monster, who could not construe a line of Latin, or do a sum beyond the Rule of Three. Now, for lobster-salad and champagne in an honourable manner, Miss Costigan would have gone anywhere — and Major Pendennis actually found himself at seven o’clock seated at a dinner-table in company with Mr. Bows, a professional fiddler, and Miss Costigan, whose father had wanted to blow his brains out a few hours before.

To make the happy meeting complete, Mr. Foker, who knew Costigan’s haunts, despatched Stoopid to the club at the Magpie, where the General was in the act of singing a pathetic song, and brought him off to supper. To find his daughter and Bows seated at the board was a surprise indeed — Major Pendennis laughed, and cordially held out his hand, which the General Officer grasped avec effusion as the French say. In fact he was considerably inebriated, and had already been crying over his own song before he joined the little party at the George. He burst into tears more than once, during the entertainment, and called the Major his dearest friend. Stoopid and Mr. Foker walked home with him: the Major gallantly giving his arm to Miss Costigan. He was received with great friendliness when he called the next day, when many civilities passed between the gentlemen. On taking leave he expressed his anxious desire to serve Miss Costigan on any occasion in which he could be useful to her, and he shook hands with Mr. Foker most cordially and gratefully, and said that gentleman had done him the very greatest service.

“All right,” said Mr. Foker: and they parted with mutual esteem.

On his return to Fairoaks the next day, Major Pendennis did not say what had happened to him on the previous night, or allude to the company in which he had passed it. But he engaged Mr. Smirke to stop to dinner; and any person accustomed to watch his manner might have remarked that there was something constrained in his hilarity and talkativeness, and that he was unusually gracious and watchful in his communications with his nephew. He gave Pen an emphatic God-bless-you when the lad went to bed; and as they were about to part for the night, he seemed as if he was going to say something to Mrs. Pendennis, but he bethought him that if he spoke he might spoil her night’s rest, and allowed her to sleep in peace.

The next morning he was down in the breakfast-room earlier than was his custom, and saluted everybody there with great cordiality. The post used to arrive commonly about the end of this meal. When John, the old servant, entered, and discharged the bag of its letters and papers, the Major looked hard at Pen as the lad got his — Arthur blushed, and put his letter down. He knew the hand, it was that of old Costigan, and he did not care to read it in public. Major Pendennis knew the letter, too. He had put it into the post himself in Chatteris the day before.

He told little Laura to go away, which the child did, having a thorough dislike to him; and as the door closed on her, he took Mrs. Pendennis’s hand, and giving her a look full of meaning, pointed to the letter under the newspaper which Pen was pretending to read. “Will you come into the drawing-room?” he said. “I want to speak to you.” And she followed him, wondering, into the hall.

“What is it?” she said nervously.

“The affair is at an end,” Major Pendennis said. “He has a letter there giving him his dismissal. I dictated it myself yesterday. There are a few lines from the lady, too, bidding him farewell. It is all over.”

Helen ran back to the dining-room, her brother following. Pen had jumped at his letter the instant they were gone. He was reading it with a stupefied face. It stated what the Major had said, that Mr. Costigan was most gratified for the kindness with which Arthur had treated his daughter, but that he was only now made aware of Mr. Pendennis’s peecupiary circumstances. They were such that marriage was at present out of the question, and considering the great disparity in the age of the two, a future union was impossible. Under these circumstances, and with the deepest regret and esteem for him, Mr. Costigan bade Arthur farewell, and suggested that he should cease visiting, for some time at least, at his house.

A few lines from Miss Costigan were enclosed. She acquiesced in the decision of her Papa. She pointed out that she was many years older than Arthur, and that an engagement was not to be thought of. She would always be grateful for his kindness to her, and hoped to keep his friendship. But at present, and until the pain of the separation should be over, she entreated they should not meet.

Pen read Costigan’s letter and its enclosure mechanically, hardly knowing what was before his eyes. He looked up wildly, and saw his mother and uncle regarding him with sad faces. Helen’s, indeed, was full of tender maternal anxiety.

“What — what is this?” Pen said. “It’s some joke. This is not her writing. This is some servant’s writing. Who’s playing these tricks upon me?”

“It comes under her father’s envelope,” the Major said. “Those letters you had before were not in her hand: that is hers.”

“How do you know?” said Pen very fiercely.

“I saw her write it,” the uncle answered, as the boy started up; and his mother, coming forward, took his hand. He put her away.

“How came you to see her? How came you between me and her? What have I ever done to you that you should — Oh, it’s not true! it’s not true!”— Pen broke out with a wild execration. “She can’t have done it of her own accord. She can’t mean it. She’s pledged to me. Who has told her lies to break her from me?”

“Lies are not told in the family, Arthur,” Major Pendennis replied. “I told her the truth, which was, that you had no money to maintain her, for her foolish father had represented you to be rich. And when she knew how poor you were, she withdrew at once, and without any persuasion of mine. She was quite right. She is ten years older than you are. She is perfectly unfitted to be your wife, and knows it. Look at that handwriting, and ask yourself, is such a woman fitted to be the companion of your mother?”

“I will know from herself if it is true,” Arthur said, crumpling up the paper.

“Won’t you take my word of honour? Her letters were written by a confidant of hers, who writes better than she can — look here. Here’s one from the lady to your friend, Mr. Foker. You have seen her with Miss Costigan, as whose amanuensis she acted”— the Major said, with ever so little of a sneer, and laid down a certain billet which Mr. Foker had given to him.

“It’s not that,” said Pen, burning with shame and rage. “I suppose what you say is true, sir, but I’ll hear it from herself.”

“Arthur!” appealed his mother.

“I will see her,” said Arthur. “I’ll ask her to marry me, once more. I will. No one shall prevent me.”

“What, a woman who spells affection with one f? Nonsense, sir. Be a man, and remember that your mother is a lady. She was never made to associate with that tipsy old swindler or his daughter. Be a man and forget her, as she does you.”

“Be a man and comfort your mother, my Arthur,” Helen said, going and embracing him: and seeing that the pair were greatly moved, Major Pendennis went out of the room and shut the door upon them, wisely judging that they were best alone.

He had won a complete victory. He actually had brought away Pen’s letters in his portmanteau from Chatteris: having complimented Mr. Costigan, when he returned them, by giving him the little promissory note which had disquieted himself and Mr. Garbetts; and for which the Major settled with Mr. Tatham.

Pen rushed wildly off to Chatteris that day, but in vain attempted to see Miss Fotheringay, for whom he left a letter, enclosed to her father. The enclosure was returned by Mr. Costigan, who begged that all correspondence might end; and after one or two further attempts of the lad’s, the indignant General desired that their acquaintance might cease. He cut Pen in the street. As Arthur and Foker were pacing the Castle walk, one day, they came upon Emily on her father’s arm. She passed without any nod of recognition. Foker felt poor Pen trembling on his arm.

His uncle wanted him to travel, to quit the country for a while, and his mother urged him too: for he was growing very ill, and suffered severely. But he refused, and said point-blank he would not go. He would not obey in this instance: and his mother was too fond, and his uncle too wise to force him. Whenever Miss Fotheringay acted, he rode over to the Chatteris Theatre and saw her. One night there were so few people in the house that the Manager returned the money. Pen came home and went to bed at eight o’clock, and had a fever. If this continues, his mother will be going over and fetching the girl, the Major thought, in despair. As for Pen, he thought he should die. We are not going to describe his feelings, or give a dreary journal of his despair and passion. Have not other gentlemen been baulked in love besides Mr. Pen? Yes, indeed: but few die of the malady.

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