The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XVI

More Storms in the Puddle

Pen’s conduct in this business of course was soon made public, and angered his friend Doctor Portman not a little: while it only amused Major Pendennis. As for the good Mrs. Pendennis, she was almost distracted when she heard of the squabble, and of Pen’s unchristian behaviour. All sorts of wretchedness, discomfort, crime, annoyance, seemed to come out of this transaction in which the luckless boy had engaged; and she longed more than ever to see him out of Chatteris for a while — anywhere removed from the woman who had brought him into so much trouble.

Pen when remonstrated with by this fond parent, and angrily rebuked by the Doctor for his violence and ferocious intentions, took the matter au grand serieux, with the happy conceit and gravity of youth: said that he himself was very sorry for the affair, that the insult had come upon him without the slightest provocation on his part; that he would permit no man to insult him upon this head without vindicating his own honour, and appealing with great dignity to his uncle, asked whether he could have acted otherwise as a gentleman, than as he did in resenting the outrage offered to him, and in offering satisfaction to the person chastised?

“Vous allez trop vite, my good sir,” said the uncle, rather puzzled, for he had been indoctrinating his nephew with some of his own notions upon the point of honour — old-world notions savouring of the camp and pistol a great deal more than our soberer opinions of the present day —“between men of the world I don’t say; but between two schoolboys, this sort of thing is ridiculous, my dear boy — perfectly ridiculous.”

“It is extremely wicked, and unlike my son,” said Mrs. Pendennis, with tears in her eyes, and bewildered with the obstinacy of the boy.

Pen kissed her, and said with great pomposity, “Women, dear mother, don’t understand these matters — I put myself into Foker’s hands — I had no other course to pursue.”

Major Pendennis grinned and shrugged his shoulders. The young ones were certainly making great progress, he thought. Mrs. Pendennis declared that that Foker was a wicked horrid little wretch, and was sure that he would lead her dear boy into mischief, if Pen went to the same College with him. “I have a great mind not to let him go at all,” she said: and only that she remembered that the lad’s father had always destined him for the College in which he had had his own brief education, very likely the fond mother would have put a veto upon his going to the University.

That he was to go, and at the next October term, had been arranged between all the authorities who presided over the lad’s welfare. Foker had promised to introduce him to the right set; and Major Pendennis laid great store upon Pen’s introduction into College life and society by this admirable young gentleman. “Mr. Foker knows the very best young men now at the University,” the Major said, “and Pen will form acquaintances there who will be of the greatest advantage through life to him. The young Marquis of Plinlimmon is there, eldest son of the Duke of Saint David’s — Lord Magnus Charters is there, Lord Runnymede’s son, and a first cousin of Mr. Foker (Lady Runnymede, my dear, was Lady Agatha Milton, you of course remember); Lady Agnes will certainly invite him to Logwood; and far from being alarmed at his intimacy with her son, who is a singular and humorous, but most prudent and amiable young man, to whom, I am sure, we are under every obligation for his admirable conduct in the affair of the Fotheringay marriage, I look upon it as one of the very luckiest things which could have happened to Pen, that he should have formed an intimacy with this most amusing young gentleman.”

Helen sighed, she supposed the Major knew best. Mr. Foker had been very kind in the wretched business with Miss Costigan, certainly, and she was grateful to him. But she could not feel otherwise than a dim presentiment of evil; and all these quarrels, and riots, and worldliness, scared her about the fate of her boy.

Doctor Portman was decidedly of opinion that Pen should go to College. He hoped the lad would read, and have a moderate indulgence of the best society too. He was of opinion that Pen would distinguish himself: Smirke spoke very highly of his proficiency: the Doctor himself had heard him construe, and thought he acquitted himself remarkably well. That he should go out of Chatteris was a great point at any rate; and Pen, who was distracted from his private grief by the various rows and troubles which had risen round about him, gloomily said he would obey.

There were assizes, races, and the entertainments and the flux of company consequent upon them, at Chatteris, during a part of the months of August and September, and Miss Fotheringay still continued to act, and take farewell of the audiences at the Chatteris Theatre during that time. Nobody seemed to be particularly affected by her presence, or her announced departure, except those persons whom we have named; nor could the polite county folks, who had houses in London, and very likely admired the Fotheringay prodigiously in the capital, when they had been taught to do so by the Fashion which set in in her favour, find anything remarkable in the actress performing on the little Chatteris boards. Many genius and many a quack, for that matter, has met with a similar fate before and since Miss Costigan’s time. This honest woman meanwhile bore up against the public neglect, and any other crosses or vexations which she might have in life, with her usual equanimity; and ate, drank, acted, slept, with that regularity and comfort which belongs to people of her temperament. What a deal of grief, care, and other harmful excitement does a healthy dulness and cheerful insensibility avoid! Nor do I mean to say that Virtue is not Virtue because it is never tempted to go astray; only that dulness is a much finer gift than we give it credit for being; and that some people are very lucky whom Nature has endowed with a good store of that great anodyne.

Pen used to go drearily in and out from the play at Chatteris during this season, and pretty much according to his fancy. His proceedings tortured his mother not a little, and her anxiety would have led her often to interfere, had not the Major constantly checked, and at the same time encouraged her; for the wily man of the world fancied he saw that a favourable turn had occurred in Pen’s malady. It was the violent efflux of versification, among other symptoms, which gave Pen’s guardian and physician satisfaction. He might be heard spouting verses in the shrubbery walks, or muttering them between his teeth as he sat with the home party of evenings. One day prowling about the house in Pen’s absence, the Major found a great book full of verses in the lad’s study. They were in English, and in Latin; quotations from the classic authors were given in the scholastic manner in the foot-notes. He can’t be very bad, wisely thought the Pall-Mall Philosopher: and he made Pen’s mother remark (not, perhaps, without a secret feeling of disappointment, for she loved romance like other soft women), that the young gentleman during the last fortnight came home quite hungry to dinner at night, and also showed a very decent appetite at the breakfast-table in the morning. “Gad, I wish I could,” said the Major, thinking ruefully of his dinner pills. “The boy begins to sleep well, depend upon that.” It was cruel, but it was true.

Having no other soul to confide in-for he could not speak to his mother of his loves and disappointments — his uncle treated them in a scornful and worldly tone, which, though carefully guarded and polite, yet jarred greatly on the feelings of Mr. Pen — and Foker was much too coarse to appreciate those refined sentimental secrets — the lad’s friendship for the Curate redoubled, or rather, he was never tired of having Smirke for a listener on that one subject. What is a lovee without a confidant? Pen employed Mr. Smirke, as Corydon does the elm-tree, to cut out his mistress’s name upon. He made him echo with the name of the beautiful Amaryllis. When men have left off playing the tune, they do not care much for the pipe: but Pen thought he had a great friendship for Smirke, because he could sigh out his loves and griefs into his tutor’s ears; and Smirke had his own reasons for always being ready at the lad’s call.

Pen’s affection gushed out in a multitude of sonnets to the friend of his heart, as he styled the Curate, which the other received with great sympathy. He plied Smirke with Latin Sapphics and Alcaics. The love-songs multiplied under his fluent pen; and Smirke declared and believed that they were beautiful. On the other hand, Pen expressed a boundless gratitude to think that Heaven should have sent him such a friend at such a moment. He presented his tutor with his best-bound books, and his gold guard-chain, and wanted him to take his double-barrelled gun. He went into Chatteris and got a gold pencil-case on credit (for he had no money, and indeed was still in debt to Smirke for some of the Fotheringay presents), which he presented to Smirke, with an inscription indicative of his unalterable and eternal regard for the Curate; who of course was pleased with every mark of the boy’s attachment.

The poor Curate was naturally very much dismayed at the contemplated departure of his pupil. When Arthur should go, Smirke’s occupation and delight would go too. What pretext could he find for a daily visit to Fairoaks and that kind word or glance from the lady there, which was as necessary to the Curate as the frugal dinner which Madame Fribsby served him? Arthur gone, he would only be allowed to make visits like any other acquaintance: little Laura could not accommodate him by learning the Catechism more than once a week: he had curled himself like ivy round Fairoaks: he pined at the thought that he must lose his hold of the place. Should he speak his mind and go down on his knees to the widow? He thought over any indications in her behaviour which flattered his hopes. She had praised his sermons three weeks before: she had thanked him exceedingly for his present of a melon, for a small dinner-party which Mrs. Pendennis gave: she said she should always be grateful to him for his kindness to Arthur, and when he declared that there were no bounds to his love and affection for that dear boy, she had certainly replied in a romantic manner, indicating her own strong gratitude and regard to all her son’s friends. Should he speak out? — or should he delay? If be spoke and she refused him, it was awful to think that the gate of Fairoaks might be shut upon him for ever — and within that door lay all the world for Mr. Smirke.

Thus, oh friendly readers, we see how every man in the world has his own private griefs and business, by which he is more cast down or occupied than by the affairs or sorrows of any other person. While Mrs. Pendennis is disquieting herself about losing her son, and that anxious hold she has had of him, as long as he has remained in the mother’s nest, whence he is about to take flight into the great world beyond — while the Major’s great soul chafes and frets, inwardly vexed as he thinks what great parties are going on in London, and that he might be sunning himself in the glances of Dukes and Duchesses, but for those cursed affairs which keep him in a wretched little country hole — while Pen is tossing between his passion and a more agreeable sensation, unacknowledged yet, but swaying him considerably, namely, his longing to see the world — Mr. Smirke has a private care watching at his bedside, and sitting behind him on his pony; and is no more satisfied than the rest of us. How lonely we are in the world; how selfish and secret, everybody! You and your wife have pressed the same pillow for forty years and fancy yourselves united. Psha, does she cry out when you have the gout, or do you lie awake when she has the toothache? Your artless daughter, seemingly all innocence and devoted to her mamma and her piano-lesson, is thinking of neither, but of the young Lieutenant with whom she danced at the last ball — the honest frank boy just returned from school is secretly speculating upon the money you will give him, and the debts he owes the tart-man. The old grandmother crooning in the corner and bound to another world within a few months, has some business or cares which are quite private and her own — very likely she is thinking of fifty years back, and that night when she made such an impression, and danced a cotillon with the Captain before your father proposed for her: or, what a silly little overrated creature your wife is, and how absurdly you are infatuated about her — and, as for your wife — O philosophic reader, answer and say — Do you tell her all? Ah, sir — a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine — all things in nature are different to each — the woman we look at has not the same features, the dish we eat from has not the same taste to the one and the other — you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow-islands a little more or less near to us. Let us return, however, to the solitary Smirke.

Smirke had one confidante for his passion — that most injudicious woman, Madame Fribsby. How she became Madame Fribsby, nobody knows: she had left Clavering to go to a milliner’s in London as Miss Fribsby — she pretended that she had got the rank in Paris during her residence in that city. But how could the French king, were he ever so much disposed, give her any such title? We shall not inquire into this mystery, however. Suffice to say, she went away from home a bouncing young lass; she returned a rather elderly character, with a Madonna front and a melancholy countenance — bought the late Mrs. Harbottle’s business for a song — took her elderly mother to live with her; was very good to the poor, was constant at church, and had the best of characters. But there was no one in all Clavering, not Mrs. Portman herself, who read so many novels as Madame Fribsby. She had plenty of time for this amusement, for, in truth, very few people besides the folks at the Rectory and Fairoaks employed her; and by a perpetual perusal of such works (which were by no means so moral or edifying in the days of which we write, as they are at present) she had got to be so absurdly sentimental, that in her eyes life was nothing but an immense love-match; and she never could see two people together, but she fancied they were dying for one another.

On the day after Mrs. Pendennis’s visit to the Curate, which we have recorded many pages back, Madame Fribsby settled in her mind that Mr. Smirke must be in love with the widow, and did everything in her power to encourage this passion on both sides. Mrs. Pendennis she very seldom saw, indeed, except in public, and in her pew at church. That lady had very little need of millinery, or made most of her own dresses and caps; but on the rare occasions when Madame Fribsby received visits from Mrs. Pendennis or paid her respects at Fairoaks, she never failed to entertain the widow with praises of the Curate, pointing out what an angelical man he was, how gentle, how studious, how lonely; and she would wonder that no lady would take pity upon him.

Helen laughed at these sentimental remarks, and wondered that Madame herself did not compassionate her lodger, and console him. Madame Fribsby shook her Madonna front, “Mong cure a boco souffare,” she said, laying her hand on the part she designated as her cure. “It est more en Espang, Madame,” she said with a sigh. She was proud of her intimacy with the French language, and spoke it with more volubility than correctness. Mrs. Pendennis did not care to penetrate the secrets of this wounded heart: except to her few intimates she was a reserved and it may be a very proud woman; she looked upon her son’s tutor merely as an attendant on that young Prince, to be treated with respect as a clergyman certainly, but with proper dignity as a dependant on the house of Pendennis. Nor were Madame’s constant allusions to the Curate particularly agreeable to her. It required a very ingenious sentimental turn indeed to find out that the widow had a secret regard for Mr. Smirke, to which pernicious error however Madame Fribsby persisted in holding.

Her lodger was very much more willing to talk on this subject with his soft-hearted landlady. Every time after that she praised the Curate to Mrs. Pendennis, she came away from the latter with the notion that the widow herself had been praising him. “Etre soul au monde est bien ouneeyoung,” she would say, glancing up at a print of a French carbineer in a green coat and brass cuirass which decorated her apartment —“Depend upon it when Master Pendennis goes to College, his Ma will find herself very lonely. She is quite young yet. — You wouldn’t suppose her to be five-and-twenty. Monsieur le Cury, song cure est touchy — j’ang suis sure — Je conny cela biang — Ally Monsieur Smirke.”

He softly blushed; he sighed; he hoped; he feared; he doubted; he sometimes yielded to the delightful idea — his pleasure was to sit in Madame Fribsby’s apartment, and talk upon the subject, where, as the greater part of the conversation was carried on in French by the Milliner, and her old mother was deaf, that retired old individual (who had once been a housekeeper, wife and widow of a butler in the Clavering family) could understand scarce one syllable of their talk.

Thus it was, that when Major Pendennis announced to his nephew’s tutor that the young fellow would go to College in October, and that Mr. Smirke’s valuable services would no longer be needful to his pupil, for which services the Major, who spoke as grandly as a lord, professed himself exceedingly grateful, and besought Mr. Smirke to command his interests in any way — thus it was, that the Curate felt that the critical moment was come for him, and was racked and tortured by those severe pangs which the occasion warranted.

Madame Fribsby had, of course, taken the strongest interest in the progress of Mr. Pen’s love affair with Miss Fotheringay. She had been over to Chatteris, and having seen that actress perform, had pronounced that she was old and overrated: and had talked over Master Pen’s passion in her shop many and many a time to the half-dozen old maids, and old women in male clothes, who are to be found in little country towns, and who formed the genteel population of Clavering. Captain Glanders, H.P., had pronounced that Pen was going to be a devil of a fellow, and had begun early: Mrs. Glanders had told him to check his horrid observations, and to respect his own wife, if he pleased. She said it would be a lesson to Helen for her pride and absurd infatuation about that boy. Mrs. Pybus said many people were proud of very small things, and for her part, she didn’t know why an apothecary’s wife should give herself such airs. Mrs. Wapshot called her daughters away from that side of the street, one day when Pen, on Rebecca, was stopping at the saddler’s, to get a new lash to his whip — one and all of these people had made visits of curiosity to Fairoaks, and had tried to condole with the widow, or bring the subject of the Fotheringay affair on the tapis, and had been severally checked by the haughty reserve of Mrs. Pendennis, supported by the frigid politeness of the Major her brother.

These rebuffs, however, did not put an end to the gossip, and slander went on increasing about the unlucky Fairoaks’ family. Glanders (H.P.), a retired cavalry officer, whose half-pay and large family compelled him to fuddle himself with brandy-and-water instead of claret after he quitted the Dragoons, had the occasional entree at Fairoaks, and kept his friend the Major there informed of all the stories which were current at Clavering. Mrs. Pybus had taken an inside place by the coach to Chatteris, and gone to the George on purpose to get the particulars. Mrs. Speers’s man, had treated Mr. Foker’s servant to drink at Baymouth for a similar purpose. It was said that Pen had hanged himself for despair in the orchard, and that his uncle had cut him down; that, on the contrary, it was Miss Costigan who was jilted, and not young Arthur; and that the affair had only been hushed up by the payment of a large sum of money, the exact amount of which there were several people in Clavering could testify — the sum of course varying according to the calculation of the individual narrator of the story.

Pen shook his mane and raged like a furious lion when these scandals, affecting Miss Costigan’s honour and his own, came to his ears. Why was not Pybus a man (she had whiskers enough), that he might call her out and shoot her? Seeing Simcoe pass by, Pen glared at him so from his saddle on Rebecca, and clutched his whip in a manner so menacing, that that clergyman went home and wrote a sermon, or thought over a sermon (for he delivered oral testimony at great length), in which he spoke of Jezebel, theatrical entertainments (a double cut this — for Doctor Portman, the Rector of the old church, was known to frequent such), and of youth going to perdition, in a manner which made it clear to every capacity that Pen was the individual meant, and on the road alluded to. What stories more were there not against young Pendennis, whilst he sate sulking, Achilles-like in his tent, for the loss of his ravished Briseis?

After the affair with Hobnell, Pen was pronounced to be a murderer as well as a profligate, and his name became a name of terror and a byword in Clavering. But this was not all; he was not the only one of the family about whom the village began to chatter, and his unlucky mother was the next to become a victim to their gossip.

“It is all settled,” said Mrs. Pybus to Mrs. Speers, “the boy is to go to College, and then the widow is to console herself.”

“He’s been there every day, in the most open manner, my dear,” continued Mrs. Speers.

“Enough to make poor Mr. Pendennis turn in his grave,” said Mrs. Wapshot.

“She never liked him, that we know,” says No. 1.

“Married him for his money. Everybody knows that: was a penniless hanger-on of Lady Pontypool’s,” says No. 2.

“It’s rather too open, though, to encourage a lover under pretence of having a tutor for your son,” cried No. 3.

“Hush! here comes Mrs. Portman,” some one said, as the good Rector’s wife entered Madame Fribsby’s shop, to inspect her monthly book of fashions just arrived from London. And the fact is that Madame Fribsby had been able to hold out no longer; and one day, after she and her lodger had been talking of Pen’s approaching departure, and the Curate had gone off to give one of his last lessons to that gentleman, Madame Fribsby had communicated to Mrs. Pybus, who happened to step in with Mrs. Speers, her strong suspicion, her certainty almost, that there was an attachment between a certain clerical gentleman and a certain lady, whose naughty son was growing quite unmanageable, and that a certain marriage would take place pretty soon.

Mrs. Portman saw it all, of course, when the matter was mentioned. What a sly fox that Curate was! He was low-church, and she never liked him. And to think of Mrs. Pendennis taking a fancy to him after she had been married to such a man as Mr. Pendennis! She could hardly stay five minutes at Madame Fribsby’s, so eager was she to run to the Rectory and give Doctor Portman the news.

When Doctor Portman heard this piece of intelligence, he was in such a rage with his curate, that his first movement was to break with Mr. Smirke, and to beg him to transfer his services to some other parish. “That milksop of a creature pretend to be worthy of such a woman as Mrs. Pendennis,” broke out the Doctor: “where will impudence stop next!”

“She is much too old for Mr. Smirke,” Mrs. Portman remarked: “why, poor dear Mrs. Pendennis might be his mother almost.”

“You always choose the most charitable reason, Betsy,” cried the Rector. “A matron with a son grown up — she would never think of marrying again.”

“You only think men should marry again, Doctor Portman, answered his lady, bridling up.

“You stupid old woman,” said the Doctor, “when I am gone, you shall marry whomsoever you like. I will leave orders in my will, my dear, to that effect: and I’ll bequeath a ring to my successor, and my Ghost shall come and dance at your wedding.”

“It is cruel for a clergyman to talk so,” the lady answered, with a ready whimper: but these little breezes used to pass very rapidly over the surface of the Doctor’s domestic bliss; and were followed by a great calm and sunshine. The Doctor adopted a plan for soothing Mrs. Portman’s ruffled countenance, which has a great effect when it is tried between a worthy couple who are sincerely fond of one another; and which, I think, becomes ‘John Anderson’ at three-score, just as much as it used to do when he was a black-haired young Jo of five-and-twenty.

“Hadn’t you better speak to Mr. Smirke, John?” Mrs Portman asked.

“When Pen goes to College, cadit quaestio,” replied the Rector, “Smirke’s visits at Fairoaks will cease of themselves, and there will be no need to bother the widow. She has trouble enough on her hands, with the affairs of that silly young scapegrace, without being pestered by the tittle-tattle of this place. It is all an invention of that fool, Fribsby.”

“Against whom I always warned you — you know I did, my dear John,” interposed Mrs. Portman.

“That you did; you very often do, my love,” the Doctor answered with a laugh. “It is not for want of warning on your part, I am sure, that I have formed my opinion of most women with whom we are acquainted. Madame Fribsby is a fool, and fond of gossip, and so are some other folks. But she is good to the poor: she takes care of her mother, and she comes to church twice every Sunday. And as for Smirke, my dear ——” here the Doctor’s face assumed for one moment a comical expression, which Mrs. Portman did not perceive (for she was looking out of the drawing-room window, and wondering what Mrs. Pybus could want cheapening fowls again in the market, when she had bad poultry from Livermore’s two days before)—“and as for Mr. Smirke, my dear Betsy, will you promise me that you will never breathe to any mortal what I am going to tell you as a profound secret?”

“What is it, my dear John! — of course I won’t,” answered the Rector’s lady.

“Well, then — I cannot say it is a fact, mind — but if you find that Smirke is at this moment — ay, and has been for years — engaged to a young lady, a Miss — a Miss Thompson, if you will have the name, who lives on Clapham Common — yes, on Clapham Common, not far from Mrs. Smirke’s house, what becomes of your story then about Smirke and Mrs. Pendennis?”

“Why did you not tell me this before?” asked the Doctor’s wife. —“How long have you known it? — How we all of us have been deceived in that man!”

“Why should I meddle in other folks’ business, my dear?” the Doctor answered. “I know how to keep a secret — and perhaps this is only an invention like that other absurd story; at least, Madame Portman, I should never have told you this but for the other, which I beg you to contradict whenever you hear it.” And so saying the Doctor went away to his study, and Mrs. Portman seeing that the day was a remarkably fine one, thought she would take advantage of the weather and pay a few visits.

The Doctor looking out of his study window saw the wife of his bosom presently issue forth, attired in her best. She crossed the Market-place, saluting the market-women right and left, and giving a glance at the grocery and general emporium at the corner: then entering London Street (formerly Hog Lane), she stopped for a minute at Madame Fribsby’s window, and looking at the fashions which hung up there — seemed hesitating whether she should enter; but she passed on and never stopped again until she came to Mrs. Pybus’s little green gate and garden, through which she went to that lady’s cottage.

There, of course, her husband lost sight of Mrs. Portman. “Oh, what a long bow I have pulled,” he said inwardly —“Goodness forgive me! and shot my own flesh and blood. There must be no more tattling and scandal about that house. I must stop it, and speak to Smirke. I’ll ask him to dinner this very day.”

Having a sermon to compose, the Doctor sat down to that work, and was so engaged in the composition, that he had not concluded it until near five o’clock in the afternoon: when he stepped over to Mr. Smirke’s lodgings, to put his hospitable intentions, regarding that gentleman, into effect. He reached Madame Fribsby’s door, just as the Curate issued from it.

Mr. Smirke was magnificently dressed, and as he turned out his toes, he showed a pair of elegant open-worked silk stockings and glossy pumps. His white cravat was arranged in a splendid stiff tie, and his gold shirt studs shone on his spotless linen. His hair was curled round his fair temples. Had he borrowed Madame Fribsby’s irons to give that curly grace? His white cambric pocket-handkerchief was scented with the most delicious eau-de-Cologne.

“O gracilis puer,”— cried the Doctor. —“Whither are you bound? I wanted you to come home to dinner.”

“I am engaged to dine at — at Fairoaks,” said Mr. Smirke, blushing faintly and whisking the scented pocket-handkerchief, and his pony being in waiting, he mounted and rode away simpering down the street. No accident befell him that day, and he arrived with his tie in the very best order at Mrs. Pendennis’s house.

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