The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XIV

In which Miss Fotheringay makes a new Engagement

Within a short period of the events above narrated, Mr. Manager Bingley was performing his famous character of ‘Rolla,’ in ‘Pizarro,’ to a house so exceedingly thin, that it would appear as if the part of Rolla was by no means such a favourite with the people of Chatteris as it was with the accomplished actor himself. Scarce anybody was in the theatre. Poor Pen had the boxes almost all to himself, and sate there lonely, with bloodshot eyes, leaning over the ledge, and gazing haggardly towards the scene, when Cora came in. When she was not on the stage he saw nothing. Spaniards and Peruvians, processions and battles, priests and virgins of the sun, went in and out, and had their talk, but Arthur took no note of any of them; and only saw Cora whom his soul longed after. He said afterwards that he wondered he had not taken a pistol to shoot her, so mad was he with love, and rage, and despair; and had it not been for his mother at home, to whom he did not speak about his luckless condition, but whose silent sympathy and watchfulness greatly comforted the simple half heart-broken fellow, who knows but he might have done something desperate, and have ended his days prematurely in front of Chatteris gaol? There he sate then, miserable, and gazing at her. And she took no more notice of him than he did of the rest of the house.

The Fotheringay was uncommonly handsome, in a white raiment and leopard skin, with a sun upon her breast, and fine tawdry bracelets on her beautiful glancing arms. She spouted to admiration the few words of her part, and looked it still better. The eyes, which had overthrown Pen’s soul, rolled and gleamed as lustrous as ever; but it was not to him that they were directed that night. He did not know to whom, or remark a couple of gentlemen, in the box next to him, upon whom Miss Fotheringay’s glances were perpetually shining.

Nor had Pen noticed the extraordinary change which had taken place on the stage a short time after the entry of these two gentlemen into the theatre. There were so few people in the house, that the first act of the play languished entirely, and there had been some question of returning the money, as upon that other unfortunate night when poor Pen had been driven away. The actors were perfectly careless about their parts, and yawned through the dialogue, and talked loud to each other in the intervals. Even Bingley was listless, and Mrs. B. in Elvira spoke under her breath.

How came it that all of a sudden Mrs. Bingley began to raise her voice and bellow like a bull of Bashan? Whence was it that Bingley, flinging off his apathy, darted about the stage and yelled like Dean? Why did Garbetts and Rowkins and Miss Rouncy try, each of them, the force of their charms or graces, and act and swagger and scowl and spout their very loudest at the two gentlemen in box No. 3?

One was a quiet little man in black, with a grey head and a jolly shrewd face — the other was in all respects a splendid and remarkable individual. He was a tall and portly gentleman with a hooked nose and a profusion of curling brown hair and whiskers; his coat was covered with the richest frogs-braiding and velvet. He had under-waistcoats, many splendid rings, jewelled pins and neck-chains. When he took out his yellow pocket-handkerchief with his hand that was cased in white kids, a delightful odour of musk and bergamot was shaken through the house. He was evidently a personage of rank, and it was at him that the little Chatteris company was acting.

He was, in a word, no other than Mr. Dolphin, the great manager from London, accompanied by his faithful friend and secretary Mr. William Minns: without whom he never travelled. He had not been ten minutes in the theatre before his august presence there was perceived by Bingley and the rest: and they all began to act their best and try to engage his attention. Even Miss Fotheringay’s dull heart, which was disturbed at nothing, felt perhaps a flutter, when she came in presence of the famous London Impresario. She had not much to do in her part, but to look handsome, and stand in picturesque attitudes encircling her child and she did this work to admiration. In vain the various actors tried to win the favour of the great stage Sultan. Pizarro never got a hand from him. Bingley yelled, and Mrs. Bingley bellowed, and the Manager only took snuff out of his great gold box. It was only in the last scene, when Rolla comes in staggering with the infant (Bingley is not so strong as he was and his fourth son Master Talma Bingley is a monstrous large child for his age)— when Rolla comes staggering with the child to Cora, who rushes forward with a shriek, and says —“O God, there’s blood upon him!” — that the London manager clapped his hands, and broke out with an enthusiastic bravo.

Then having concluded his applause, Mr. Dolphin gave his secretary a slap on the shoulder, and said, “By Jove, Billy, she’ll do!”

“Who taught her that dodge?” said old Billy, who was a sardonic old gentleman. “I remember her at the Olympic, and hang me if she could say Bo to a goose.”

It was little Mr. Bows in the orchestra who had taught her the ‘dodge’ in question. All the company heard the applause, and, as the curtain went down, came round her and congratulated and hated Miss Fotheringay.

Now Mr. Dolphin’s appearance in the remote little Chatteris theatre may be accounted for in this manner. In spite of all his exertions, and the perpetual blazes of triumph, coruscations of talent, victories of good old English comedy, which his play-bills advertised, his theatre (which, if you please, and to injure no present susceptibilities and vested interests, we shall call the Museum Theatre) by no means prospered, and the famous Impresario found himself on the verge of ruin. The great Hubbard had acted legitimate drama for twenty nights, and failed to remunerate anybody but himself: the celebrated Mr. and Mrs. Cawdor had come out in Mr. Rawhead’s tragedy, and in their favourite round of pieces, and had not attracted the public. Herr Garbage’s lions and tigers had drawn for a little time, until one of the animals had bitten a piece out of the Herr’s shoulder; when the Lord Chamberlain interfered, and put a stop to this species of performance: and the grand Lyrical Drama, though brought out with unexampled splendour and success, with Monsieur Poumons as first tenor, and an enormous orchestra, had almost crushed poor Dolphin in its triumphant progress: so that great as his genius and resources were, they seemed to be at an end. He was dragging on his season wretchedly with half salaries, small operas, feeble old comedies, and his ballet company; and everybody was looking out for the day when he should appear in the Gazette.

One of the illustrious patrons of the Museum Theatre, and occupant of the great proscenium-box, was a gentleman whose name has been mentioned in a previous history; that refined patron of the arts, and enlightened lover of music and the drama, the Most Noble the Marquis of Steyne. His lordship’s avocations as a statesman prevented him from attending the playhouse very often, or coming very early. But he occasionally appeared at the theatre in time for the ballet, and was always received with the greatest respect by the Manager, from whom he sometimes condescended to receive a visit in his box. It communicated with the stage, and when anything occurred there which particularly pleased him, when a new face made its appearance among the coryphees, or a fair dancer executed a pas with especial grace or agility, Mr. Wenham, Mr. Wagg, or some other aide-de-camp of the noble Marquis, would be commissioned to go behind the scenes, and express the great man’s approbation, or make the inquiries which were prompted by his lordship’s curiosity, or his interest in the dramatic art. He could not be seen by the audience, for Lord Steyne sate modestly behind a curtain, and looked only towards the stage — but you could know he was in the house, by the glances which all the corps-de-ballet, and all the principal dancers, cast towards his box. I have seen many scores of pairs of eyes (as in the Palm Dance in the ballet of Cook at Otaheite, where no less than a hundred-and-twenty lovely female savages in palm leaves and feather aprons, were made to dance round Floridor as Captain Cook) ogling that box as they performed before it, and have often wondered to remark the presence of mind of Mademoiselle Sauterelle, or Mademoiselle de Bondi (known as la petite Caoutchoue), who, when actually up in the air quivering like so many shuttlecocks, always kept their lovely eyes winking at that box in which the great Steyne sate. Now and then you would hear a harsh voice from behind the curtain cry, “Brava, Brava,” or a pair of white gloves wave from it, and begin to applaud. Bondi, or Sauterelle, when they came down to earth, curtsied and smiled, especially to those hands, before they walked up the stage again, panting and happy.

One night this great Prince surrounded by a few choice friends was in his box at the Museum, and they were making such a noise and laughter that the pit was scandalised, and many indignant voices were bawling out silence so loudly, that Wagg wondered the police did not interfere to take the rascals out. Wenham was amusing the party in the box with extracts from a private letter which he had received from Major Pendennis, whose absence in the country at the full London season had been remarked, and of course deplored by his friends.

“The secret is out,” said Mr. Wenham, “there’s a woman in the case.”

“Why, d —— it, Wenham, he’s your age,” said the gentleman behind the curtain.

“Pour les ames bien nees, l’amour ne compte pas le nombre des annees,” said Mr. Wenham, with a gallant air. “For my part, I hope to be a victim till I die, and to break my heart every year of my life.” The meaning of which sentence was, “My lord, you need not talk; I’m three years younger than you, and twice as well conserve.”

“Wenham, you affect me,” said the great man, with one of his usual oaths. “By —— you do. I like to see a fellow preserving all the illusions of youth up to our time of life — and keeping his heart warm as yours is. Hang it, sir, it’s a comfort to meet with such a generous, candid creature. — Who’s that gal in the second row, with blue ribbons, third from the stage — fine gal. Yes, you and I are sentimentalists. Wagg I don’t think so much cares — it’s the stomach rather more than the heart with you, eh, Wagg, my boy?”

“I like everything that’s good,” said Mr. Wagg, generously. “Beauty and Burgundy, Venus and Venison. I don’t say that Venus’s turtles are to be despised, because they don’t cook them at the London Tavern: but — but tell us about old Pendennis, Mr. Wenham,” he abruptly concluded — for his joke flagged just then, as he saw that his patron was not listening. In fact, Steyne’s glasses were up, and he was examining some object on the stage.

“Yes, I’ve heard that joke about Venus’s turtle and the London Tavern before — you begin to fail, my poor Wagg. If you don’t mind I shall be obliged to have a new Jester,” Lord Steyne said, laying down his glass. “Go on, Wenham, about old Pendennis.”

“Dear Wenham,”— he begins, Mr. Wenham read — “as you have had my character in your hands for the last three weeks, and no doubt have torn me to shreds, according to your custom, I think you can afford to be good-humoured by way of variety, and to do me a service. It is a delicate matter, entre nous, une affaire de coeur. There is a young friend of mine who is gone wild about a certain Miss Fotheringay, an actress at the theatre here, and I must own to you, as handsome a woman, and, as it appears to me, as good an actress as ever put on rouge. She does Ophelia, Lady Teazle, Mrs. Haller — that sort of thing. Upon my word, she is as splendid as Georges in her best days, and as far as I know, utterly superior to anything we have on our scene. I want a London engagement for her. Can’t you get your friend Dolphin to come and see her — to engage her — to take her out of this place? A word from a noble friend of ours (you understand) would be invaluable, and if you could get the Gaunt House interest for me — I will promise anything I can in return for your service — which I shall consider one of the greatest that can be done to me. Do, do this now as a good fellow, which I always said you were: and in return, command yours truly, A. Pendennis.”

“It’s a clear case,” said Mr. Wenham, having read this letter; “old Pendennis is in love.”

“And wants to get the woman up to London — evidently,” continued Mr. Wagg.

“I should like to see Pendennis on his knees, with the rheumatism,” said Mr. Wenham.

“Or accommodating the beloved object with a lock of his hair,” said Wagg.

“Stuff.” said the great man. “He has relations in the country, hasn’t he? He said something about a nephew, whose interest could return a member. It is the nephew’s affair, depend on it. The young one is in a scrape. I was myself — when I was in the fifth form at Eton — a market-gardener’s daughter — and swore I’d marry her. I was mad about her — poor Polly!”— here he made a pause, and perhaps the past rose up to Lord Steyne, and George Gaunt was a boy again not altogether lost. —“But I say, she must be a fine woman from Pendennis’s account. Have in Dolphin, and let us hear if he knows anything of her.”

At this Wenham sprang out of the box, passed the servitor who waited at the door communicating with the stage, and who saluted Mr. Wenham with profound respect; and the latter emissary, pushing on and familiar with the place, had no difficulty in finding out the manager, who was employed, as he not unfrequently was, in swearing and cursing the ladies of the corps-de-ballet for not doing their duty.

The oaths died away on Mr. Dolphin’s lips, as soon as he saw Mr. Wenham; and he drew off the hand which was clenched in the face of one of the offending coryphees, to grasp that of the new-comer. “How do, Mr. Wenham? How’s his lordship to-night? Looks uncommonly well,” said the manager smiling, as if he had never been out of temper in his life; and he was only too delighted to follow Lord Steyne’s ambassador, and pay his personal respects to that great man.

The visit to Chatteris was the result of their conversation: and Mr. Dolphin wrote to his lordship from that place, and did himself the honour to inform the Marquess of Steyne, that he had seen the lady about whom his lordship had spoken, that he was as much struck by her talents as he was by her personal appearance, and that he had made an engagement with Miss Fotheringay, who would soon have the honour of appearing before a London audience, and his noble and enlightened patron the Marquess of Steyne.

Pen read the announcement of Miss Fotheringay’s engagement in the Chatteris paper, where he had so often praised her charms. The Editor made very handsome mention of her talent and beauty, and prophesied her success in the metropolis. Bingley, the manager, began to advertise “The last night of Miss Fotheringay’s engagement.” Poor Pen and Sir Derby Oaks were very constant at the play: Sir Derby in the stage-box, throwing bouquets and getting glances. — Pen in the almost deserted boxes, haggard, wretched and lonely. Nobody cared whether Miss Fotheringay was going or staying except those two — and perhaps one more, which was Mr. Bows of the orchestra.

He came out of his place one night, and went into the house to the box where Pen was; and he held out his hand to him, and asked him to come and walk. They walked down the street together; and went and sate upon Chatteris bridge in the moonlight, and talked about Her. “We may sit on the same bridge,” said he; “we have been in the same boat for a long time. You are not the only man who has made a fool of himself about that woman. And I have less excuse than you, because I am older and know her better. She has no more heart than the stone you are leaning on; and it or you or I might fall into the water, and never come up again, and she wouldn’t care. Yes — she would care for me, because she wants me to teach her: and she won’t be able to get on without me, and will be forced to send for me from London. But she wouldn’t if she didn’t want me. She has no heart and no head, and no sense, and no feelings, and no griefs or cares, whatever. I was going to say no pleasures — but the fact is, she does like her dinner, and she is pleased when people admire her.”

“And you do?” said Pen, interested out of himself, and wondering at the crabbed homely little old man.

“It’s a habit, like taking snuff, or drinking drams,” said the other. “I’ve been taking her these five years, and can’t do without her. It was I made her. If she doesn’t send for me, I shall follow her: but I know she’ll send for me. She wants me. Some day she’ll marry, and fling me over, as I do the end of this cigar.”

The little flaming spark dropped into the water below, and disappeared; and Pen, as he rode home that night, actually thought about somebody but himself.

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