The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XV

The happy Village

Until the enemy had retired altogether from before the place, Major Pendennis was resolved to keep his garrison in Fairoaks. He did not appear to watch Pen’s behaviour or to put any restraint on his nephew’s actions, but he managed nevertheless to keep the lad constantly under his eye or those of his agents, and young Arthur’s comings and goings were quite well known to his vigilant guardian.

I suppose there is scarcely any man who reads this or any other novel but has been baulked in love some time or the other, by fate and circumstance, by falsehood of women, or his own fault. Let that worthy friend recall his own sensations under the circumstances, and apply them as illustrative of Mr. Pen’s anguish. Ah! what weary nights and sickening fevers! Ah! what mad desires dashing up against some rock of obstruction or indifference, and flung back again from the unimpressionable granite! If a list could be made this very night in London of the groans, thoughts, imprecations of tossing lovers, what a catalogue it would be! I wonder what a percentage of the male population of the metropolis will be lying awake at two or three o’clock tomorrow morning, counting the hours as they go by knelling drearily, and rolling from left to right, restless, yearning and heart-sick? What a pang it is! I never knew a man die of love certainly, but I have known a twelve-stone man go down to nine-stone five under a disappointed passion, so that pretty nearly quarter of him may be said to have perished: and that is no small portion. He has come back to his old size subsequently; perhaps is bigger than ever: very likely some new affection has closed round his heart and ribs and made them comfortable, and young Pen is a man who will console himself like the rest of us. We say this lest the ladies should be disposed to deplore him prematurely, or be seriously uneasy with regard to his complaint. His mother was, but what will not a maternal fondness fear or invent? “Depend on it, my dear creature,” Major Pendennis would say gallantly to her, “the boy will recover. As soon as we get her out of the country we will take him somewhere, and show him a little life. Meantime make yourself easy about him. Half a fellow’s pangs at losing a woman result from vanity more than affection. To be left by a woman is the deuce and all, to be sure; but look how easily we leave ’em.”

Mrs. Pendennis did not know. This sort of knowledge had by no means come within the simple lady’s scope. Indeed she did not like the subject or to talk of it: her heart had had its own little private misadventure and she had borne up against it and cured it: and perhaps she had not much patience with other folk’s passions, except, of course, Arthur’s, whose sufferings she made her own, feeling indeed very likely in many of the boy’s illnesses and pains a great deal more than Pen himself endured. And she watched him through this present grief with a jealous silent sympathy; although, as we have said, he did not talk to her of his unfortunate condition.

The Major must be allowed to have had not a little merit and forbearance, and to have exhibited a highly creditable degree of family affection. The life at Fairoaks was uncommonly dull to a man who had the entree of half the houses in London, and was in the habit of making his bow in three or four drawing-rooms of a night. A dinner with Doctor Portman or a neighbouring Squire now and then; a dreary rubber at backgammon with the widow, who did her utmost to amuse him; these were the chief of his pleasures. He used to long for the arrival of the bag with the letters, and he read every word of the evening paper. He doctored himself too, assiduously — a course of quiet living would suit him well, he thought, after the London banquets. He dressed himself laboriously every morning and afternoon: he took regular exercise up and down the terrace walk. Thus with his cane, his toilet, his medicine-chest, his backgammon-box, and his newspaper, this worthy and worldly philosopher fenced himself against ennui; and if he did not improve each shining hour, like the bees by the widow’s garden wall, Major Pendennis made one hour after another pass as he could, and rendered his captivity just tolerable. After this period it was remarked that he was fond of bringing round the conversation to the American war, the massacre of Wyoming and the brilliant actions of Saint Lucie, the fact being that he had a couple of volumes of the ‘Annual Register’ in his bedroom, which he sedulously studied. It is thus a well-regulated man will accommodate himself to circumstances, and show himself calmly superior to fortune.

Pen sometimes took the box at backgammon of a night, or would listen to his mother’s simple music of summer evenings — but he was very restless and wretched in spite of all: and has been known to be up before the early daylight even; and down at a carp-pond in Clavering Park, a dreary pool with innumerable whispering rushes and green alders, where a milkmaid drowned herself in the Baronet’s grandfather’s time, and her ghost was said to walk still. But Pen did not drown himself, as perhaps his mother fancied might be his intention. He liked to go and fish there, and think and think at leisure, as the float quivered in the little eddies of the pond, and the fish flapped about him. If he got a bite he was excited enough: and in this way occasionally brought home carps, tenches, and eels, which the Major cooked in the Continental fashion.

By this pond, and under a tree, which was his favourite resort, Pen composed a number of poems suitable to his circumstances over which verses he blushed in after days, wondering how he could ever have invented such rubbish. And as for the tree, why it is in a hollow of this very tree, where he used to put his tin-box of ground-bait, and other fishing commodities, that he afterwards — but we are advancing matters. Suffice it to say, he wrote poems and relieved himself very much. When a man’s grief or passion is at this point, it may be loud, but it is not very severe. When a gentleman is cudgelling his brain to find any rhyme for sorrow, besides borrow and tomorrow, his woes are nearer at an end than he thinks for. So were Pen’s. He had his hot and cold fits, his days of sullenness and peevishness, and of blank resignation and despondency, and occasional mad paroxysms of rage and longing, in which fits Rebecca would be saddled and galloped fiercely about the country, or into Chatteris, her rider gesticulating wildly on her back, and astonishing carters and turnpikemen as he passed, crying out the name of the false one.

Mr. Foker became a very frequent and welcome visitor at Fairoaks during this period, where his good spirits and oddities always amused the Major and Pendennis, while they astonished the widow and little Laura not a little. His tandem made a great sensation in Clavering market-place; where he upset a market stall, and cut Mrs. Pybus’s poodle over the shaven quarters, and drank a glass of raspberry bitters at the Clavering Arms. All the society in the little place heard who he was, and looked out his name in their Peerages. He was so young, and their books so old, that his name did not appear in many of their volumes; and his mamma, now quite an antiquated lady, figured amongst the progeny of the Earl of Rosherville, as Lady Agnes Milton still. But his name, wealth, and honourable lineage were speedily known about Clavering, where you may be sure that poor Pen’s little transaction with the Chatteris actress was also pretty freely discussed.

Looking at the little old town of Clavering St. Mary from the London road as it runs by the lodge at Fairoaks, and seeing the rapid and shining Brawl winding down from the town and skirting the woods of Clavering Park, and the ancient church tower and peaked roofs of the houses rising up amongst trees and old walls, behind which swells a fair background of sunshiny hills that stretch from Clavering westwards towards the sea — the place looks so cheery and comfortable that many a traveller’s heart must have yearned towards it from the coach-top, and he must have thought that it was in such a calm friendly nook he would like to shelter at the end of life’s struggle. Tom Smith, who used to drive the Alacrity coach, would often point to a tree near the river, from which a fine view of the church and town was commanded, and inform his companion on the box that “Artises come and take hoff the Church from that there tree — It was a Habby once, sir:"— and indeed a pretty view it is, which I recommend to Mr. Stanfield or Mr. Roberts, for their next tour.

Like Constantinople seen from the Bosphorus; like Mrs. Rougemont viewed in her box from the opposite side of the house; like many an object which we pursue in life, and admire before we have attained it; Clavering is rather prettier at a distance than it is on a closer acquaintance. The town so cheerful of aspect a few furlongs off, looks very blank and dreary. Except on market days there is nobody in the streets. The clack of a pair of pattens echoes through half the place, and you may hear the creaking of the rusty old ensign at the Clavering Arms, without being disturbed by any other noise. There has not been a ball in the Assembly Rooms since the Clavering volunteers gave one to their Colonel, the old Sir Francis Clavering; and the stables which once held a great part of that brilliant, but defunct regiment, are now cheerless and empty, except on Thursdays, when the farmers put up there, and their tilted carts and gigs make a feeble show of liveliness in the place, or on Petty Sessions, when the magistrates attend in what used to be the old card-room.

On the south side of the market rises up the church, with its great grey towers, of which the sun illuminates the delicate carving; deepening the shadows of the huge buttresses, and gilding the glittering windows and flaming vanes. The image of the Patroness of the Church was wrenched out of the porch centuries ago: such of the statues of saints as were within reach of stones and hammer at that period of pious demolition, are maimed and headless, and of those who were out of fire, only Doctor Portman knows the names and history, for his curate, Smirke, is not much of an antiquarian, and Mr. Simcoe (husband of the Honourable Mrs. Simcoe), incumbent and architect of the Chapel of Ease in the lower town, thinks them the abomination of desolation.

The Rectory is a stout broad-shouldered brick house, of the reign of Anne. It communicates with the church and market by different gates, and stands at the opening of Yew-tree Lane, where the Grammar School (Rev. —— Wapshot) is; Yew-tree Cottage (Miss Flather); the butchers’ slaughtering-house, an old barn or brew-house of the Abbey times, and the Misses Finucane’s establishment for young ladies. The two schools had their pews in the loft on each side of the organ, until the Abbey Church getting rather empty, through the falling-off of the congregation, who were inveigled to the Heresy-shop in the lower town, the Doctor induced the Misses Finucane to bring their pretty little flock downstairs; and the young ladies’ bonnets make a tolerable show in the rather vacant aisles. Nobody is in the great pew of the Clavering family, except the statues of defunct baronets and their ladies: there is Sir Poyntz Clavering, Knight and Baronet, kneeling in a square beard opposite his wife in a ruff: a very fat lady, the Dame Rebecca Clavering, in alto-relievo, is borne up to Heaven by two little blue-veined angels, who seem to have a severe task — and so forth. How well in after life Pen remembered those effigies, and how often in youth he scanned them as the Doctor was grumbling the sermon from the pulpit, and Smirke’s mild head and forehead curl peered over the great prayer-book in the desk!

The Fairoaks folks were constant at the old church; their servants had a pew, so had the Doctor’s, so had Wapshot’s, and those of Misses Finucane’s establishment, three maids and a very nice-looking young man in a livery. The Wapshot Family were numerous and faithful. Glanders and his children regularly came to church: so did one of the apothecaries. Mrs. Pybus went, turn and turn about, to the Low Town church, and to the Abbey: the Charity School and their families of course came; Wapshot’s boys made a good cheerful noise, scuffling with their feet as they marched into church and up the organ-loft stair, and blowing their noses a good deal during the service. To be brief, the congregation looked as decent as might be in these bad times. The Abbey Church was furnished with a magnificent screen, and many hatchments and heraldic tombstones. The Doctor spent a great part of his income in beautifying his darling place; he had endowed it with a superb painted window, bought in the Netherlands, and an organ grand enough for a cathedral.

But in spite of organ and window, in consequence of the latter very likely, which had come out of a Papistical place of worship and was blazoned all over with idolatry, Clavering New Church prospered scandalously in the teeth of Orthodoxy; and many of the Doctor’s congregation deserted to Mr. Simcoe and the honourable woman his wife. Their efforts had thinned the very Ebenezer hard by them, which building before Simcoe’s advent used to be so full, that you could see the backs of the congregation squeezing out of the arched windows thereof. Mr. Simcoe’s tracts fluttered into the doors of all the Doctor’s cottages, and were taken as greedily as honest Mrs. Portman’s soup, with the quality of which the graceless people found fault. With the folks at the Ribbon Factory situated by the weir on the Brawl side, and round which the Low Town had grown, Orthodoxy could make no way at all. Quiet Miss Myra was put out of court by impetuous Mrs. Simcoe and her female aides-de-camp. Ah, it was a hard burthen for the Doctor’s lady to bear, to behold her husband’s congregation dwindling away; to give the precedence on the few occasions when they met to a notorious low-churchman’s wife who was the daughter of an Irish Peer; to know that there was a party in Clavering, their own town of Clavering, on which her Doctor spent a great deal more than his professional income, who held him up to odium because he played a rubber at whist; and pronounced him to be a Heathen because he went to the play. In her grief she besought him to give up the play and the rubber — indeed they could scarcely get a table now, so dreadful was the outcry against the sport — but the Doctor declared that he would do what he thought right, and what the great and good George the Third did (whose Chaplain he had been): and as for giving up whist because those silly folks cried out against it, he would play dummy to the end of his days with his wife and Myra, rather than yield to their despicable persecutions.

Of the two families, owners of the Factory (which had spoiled the Brawl as a trout-stream and brought all the mischief into the town), the senior partner, Mr. Rolt, went to Ebenezer; the junior, Mr. Barker, to the New Church. In a word, people quarrelled in this little place a great deal more than neighbours do in London; and in the Book Club, which the prudent and conciliating Pendennis had set up, and which ought to have been a neutral territory, they bickered so much that nobody scarcely was ever seen in the reading-room, except Smirke, who, though he kept up a faint amity with the Simcoe faction, had still a taste for magazines and light worldly literature; and old Glanders, whose white head and grizzly moustache might be seen at the window; and of course, little Mrs. Pybus, who looked at everybody’s letters as the Post brought them (for the Clavering Reading-room, as every one knows, used to be held at Baker’s Library, London Street, formerly Hog Lane), and read every advertisement in the paper.

It may be imagined how great a sensation was created in this amiable little community when the news reached it of Mr. Pen’s love-passages at Chatteris. It was carried from house to house, and formed the subject of talk at high-church, low-church, and no-church tables; it was canvassed by the Misses Finucane and their teachers, and very likely debated by the young ladies in the dormitories for what we know; Wapshot’s big boys had their version of the story, and eyed Pen curiously as he sate in his pew at church, or raised the finger of scorn at him as he passed through Chatteris. They always hated him and called him Lord Pendennis, because he did not wear corduroys as they did, and rode a horse, and gave himself the airs of a buck.

And if the truth must be told, it was Mrs. Portman herself who was the chief narrator of the story of Pen’s loves. Whatever tales this candid woman heard, she was sure to impart them to her neighbours; and after she had been put into possession of Pen’s secret by the little scandal at Chatteris, poor Doctor Portman knew that it would next day be about the parish of which he was the Rector. And so indeed it was; the whole society there had the legend — at the news-room, at the milliner’s, at the shoe-shop, and the general warehouse at the corner of the market; at Mrs. Pybus’s, at the Glanders’s, at the Honourable Mrs. Simcoe’s soiree, at the Factory; nay, through the mill itself the tale was current in a few hours, and young Arthur Pendennis’s madness was in every mouth.

All Dr. Portman’s acquaintances barked out upon him when he walked the street the next day. The poor divine knew that his Betsy was the author of the rumour, and groaned in spirit. Well, well — it must have come in a day or two, and it was as well that the town should have the real story. What the Clavering folks thought of Mrs. Pendennis for spoiling her son, and of that precocious young rascal of an Arthur for daring to propose to a play-actress, need not be told here. If pride exists amongst any folks in our country, and assuredly we have enough of it, there is no pride more deep-seated than that of twopenny old gentlewomen in small towns. “Gracious goodness,” the cry was, “how infatuated the mother is about that pert and headstrong boy who gives himself the airs of a lord on his blood-horse, and for whom our society is not good enough, and who would marry an odious painted actress off a booth, where very likely he wants to rant himself. If dear good Mr. Pendennis had been alive this scandal would never have happened.”

No more it would, very likely, nor should we have been occupied in narrating Pen’s history. It was true that he gave himself airs to the Clavering folks. Naturally haughty and frank, their cackle and small talk and small dignities bored him, and he showed a contempt which he could not conceal. The Doctor and the Curate were the only people Pen cared for in the place — even Mrs. Portman shared in the general distrust of him, and of his mother, the widow, who kept herself aloof from the village society, and was sneered at accordingly, because she tried, forsooth, to keep her head up with the great County families. She, indeed! Mrs. Barker at the Factory has four times the butcher’s meat that goes up to Fairoaks, with all their fine airs.

Etc. etc. etc.: let the reader fill up these details according to his liking and experience of village scandal. They will suffice to show how it was that a good woman occupied solely in doing her duty to her neighbour and her children, and an honest, brave lad, impetuous, and full of good, and wishing well to every mortal alive found enemies and detractors amongst people to whom they were superior, and to whom they had never done anything like harm. The Clavering curs were yelping all round the house of Fairoaks, and delighted to pull Pen down.

Doctor Portman and Smirke were both cautious of informing the widow of the constant outbreak of calumny which was pursuing poor Pen, though Glanders, who was a friend of the house, kept him au courant. It may be imagined what his indignation was: was there any man in the village whom be could call to account? Presently some wags began to chalk up ‘Fotheringay for ever!’ and other sarcastic allusions to late transactions, at Fairoaks’ gate. Another brought a large playbill from Chatteris, and wafered it there one night. On one occasion Pen, riding through the Lower Town, fancied he heard the Factory boys jeer him; and finally going through the Doctor’s gate into the churchyard, where some of Wapshot’s boys were lounging, the biggest of them, a young gentleman about twenty years of age, son of a neighbouring small Squire, who lived in the doubtful capacity of parlour-boarder with Mr. Wapshot, flung himself into a theatrical attitude near a newly-made grave, and began repeating Hamlet’s verses over Ophelia, with a hideous leer at Pen. The young fellow was so enraged that he rushed at Hobnell Major with a shriek very much resembling an oath, cut him furiously across the face with the riding-whip which he carried, flung it away, calling upon the cowardly villain to defend himself, and in another minute knocked the bewildered young ruffian into the grave which was just waiting for a different lodger.

Then with his fists clenched, and his face quivering with passion and indignation, he roared out to Mr. Hobnell’s gaping companions, to know if any of the blackguards would come on? But they held back with a growl, and retreated as Doctor Portman came up to his wicket, and Mr. Hobnell, with his nose and lip bleeding piteously, emerged from the grave.

Pen, looking death and defiance at the lads, who retreated towards’ their side of the churchyard, walked back again through the Doctor’s wicket, and was interrogated by that gentleman. The young fellow was so agitated he could scarcely speak. His voice broke into a sob as he answered. “The —— coward insulted me, sir,” he said; and the Doctor passed over the oath, and respected the emotion of the honest suffering young heart.

Pendennis the elder, who like a real man of the world had a proper and constant dread of the opinion of his neighbour, was prodigiously annoyed by the absurd little tempest which was blowing in Chatteris, and tossing about Master Pen’s reputation. Doctor Portman and Captain Glanders had to support the charges of the whole Chatteris society against the young reprobate, who was looked upon as a monster of crime. Pen did not say anything about the churchyard scuffle at home; but went over to Baymouth, and took counsel with his friend Harry Foker, Esq., who drove over his drag presently to the Clavering Arms, whence he sent Stoopid with a note to Thomas Hobnell, Esq., at the Rev. J. Wapshot’s, and a civil message to ask when he should wait upon that gentleman.

Stoopid brought back word that the note had been opened by Mr. Hobnell, and read to half a dozen of the big boys, on whom it seemed to make a great impression; and that after consulting together, and laughing, Mr. Hobnell said he would send an answer “arter arternoon school, which the bell was a-ringing: and Mr. Wapshot he came out in his Master’s gownd.” Stoopid was learned in academical costume, having attended Mr. Foker at St. Boniface.

Mr. Foker went out to see the curiosities of Clavering meanwhile; but not having a taste for architecture, Doctor Portman’s fine church did not engage his attention much and he pronounced the tower to be as mouldy as an old Stilton cheese. He walked down the street and looked at the few shops there; he saw Captain Glanders at the window of the Reading-room, and having taken a good stare at that gentleman, he wagged his head at him in token of satisfaction; he inquired the price of meat at the butcher’s with an air of the greatest interest, and asked “when was next killing day?” he flattened his little nose against Madame Fribsby’s window to see if haply there was a pretty workwoman in her premises; but there was no face more comely than the doll’s or dummy’s wearing the French cap in the window, only that of Madame Fribsby herself, dimly visible in the parlour, reading a novel. That object was not of sufficient interest to keep Mr. Foker very long in contemplation, and so having exhausted the town and the inn stables, in which there were no cattle, save the single old pair of posters that earned a scanty livelihood by transporting the gentry round about to the county dinners, Mr. Foker was giving himself up to ennui entirely, when a messenger from Mr. Hobnell was at length announced.

It was no other than Mr. Wapshot himself, who came with an air of great indignation, and holding Pen’s missive in his hand, asked Mr. Foker “how dared he bring such an unchristian message as a challenge to a boy of his school?”

In fact Pen had written a note to his adversary of the day before, telling him that if after the chastisement which his insolence richly deserved, he felt inclined to ask the reparation which was usually given amongst gentlemen, Mr. Arthur Pendennis’s friend, Mr. Henry Foker, was empowered to make any arrangements for the satisfaction of Mr. Hobnell.

“And so he sent you with the answer — did he, sir?” Mr. Foker said, surveying the Schoolmaster in his black coat and clerical costume.

“If he had accepted this wicked challenge, I should have flogged him,” Mr. Wapshot said, and gave Mr. Foker a glance which seemed to say, “and I should like very much to flog you too.”

“Uncommon kind of you, sir, I’m sure,” said Pen’s emissary. “I told my principal that I didn’t think the other man would fight,” he continued with a great air of dignity. “He prefers being flogged to fighting, sir, I dare say. May I offer you any refreshment, Mr.? I haven’t the advantage of your name.”

“My name is Wapshot, sir, and I am Master of the Grammar School of this town, sir,” cried the other: “and I want no refreshment, sir, I thank you, and have no desire to make your acquaintance, sir.”

“I didn’t seek yours, sir, I’m sure,” replied Mr. Foker. “In affairs of this sort, you see, I think it is a pity that the clergy should be called in, but there’s no accounting for tastes, sir.”

“I think it’s a pity that boys should talk about committing murder, sir, as lightly as you do,” roared the Schoolmaster; “and if I had you in my school ——”

“I dare say you would teach me better, sir,” Mr. Foker said, with a bow. “Thank you, sir. I’ve finished my education, sir, and ain’t a-going back to school, sir — when I do, I’ll remember your kind offer, sir. John, show this gentleman downstairs — and, of course, as Mr. Hobnell likes being thrashed, we can have no objection, sir, and we shall be very happy to accommodate him, whenever he comes our way.”

And with this, the young fellow bowed the elder gentleman out of the room, and sate down and wrote a note off to Pen, in which he informed the latter that Mr. Hobnell was not disposed to fight, and proposed to put up with the caning which Pen had administered to him.

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