The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XVII

Which concludes the first Part of this History

The Curate had gone on his daily errand to Fairoaks, and was upstairs in Pens study pretending to read with his pupil, in the early part of that very afternoon when Mrs. Portman, after transacting business with Mrs. Pybus, had found the weather so exceedingly fine that she pursued her walk as far as Fairoaks, in order to pay a visit to her dear friend there. In the course of their conversation, the Rector’s lady told Mrs. Pendennis and the Major a very great secret about the Curate, Mr. Smirke, which was no less than that he had an attachment, a very old attachment, which he had long kept quite private.

“And on whom is it that Mr. Smirke has bestowed his heart?” asked Mrs. Pendennis, with a superb air but rather an inward alarm.

“Why, my dear,” the other lady answered, “when he first came and used to dine at the Rectory, people said we wanted him for Myra, and we were forced to give up asking him. Then they used to say he was smitten in another quarter; but I always contradicted it for my part, and said that you ——”

“That I,” cried Mrs. Pendennis; “people are very impertinent, I am sure. Mr. Smirke came here as Arthur’s tutor, and I am surprised that anybody should dare to speak so ——”

“‘Pon my soul, it is a little too much,” the Major said, laying down the newspaper and the double eye-glass.

“I’ve no patience with that Mrs. Pybus,” Helen continued indignantly.

“I told her there was no truth in it,” Mrs. Portman said. “I always said so, my dear: and now it comes out that my demure gentleman has been engaged to a young lady — Miss Thompson, of Clapham Common, ever so long: and I am delighted for my part, and on Myra’s account, too, for an unmarried curate is always objectionable about one’s house: and of course it is strictly private, but I thought I would tell you, as it might remove unpleasantnesses. But mind: not one word, if you please, about the story.”

Mrs. Pendennis said, with perfect sincerity, that she was exceedingly glad to hear the news: and hoped Mr. Smirke, who was a very kind and amiable man, would have a deserving wife: and when her visitor went away, Helen and her brother talked of the matter with great satisfaction, the kind lady rebuking herself for her haughty behaviour to Mr. Smirke, whom she had avoided of late, instead of being grateful to him for his constant attention to Arthur.

“Gratitude to this kind of people,” the Major said, “is very well; but familiarity is out of the question. This gentleman gives his lessons and receives his money like any other master. You are too humble, my good soul. There must be distinctions in ranks, and that sort of thing. I told you before, you were too kind to Mr. Smirke.”

But Helen did not think so: and now that Arthur was going away, and she bethought her how very polite Mr. Smirke had been; how he had gone on messages for her; how he had brought books and copied music; how he had taught Laura so many things, and given her so many kind presents, her heart smote her on account of her ingratitude towards the Curate; — so much so, that when he came down from study with Pen, and was hankering about the hall previous to his departure, she went out and shook hands with him with rather a blushing face, and begged him to come into her drawing-room, where she said they now never saw him. And as there was to be rather a good dinner that day, she invited Mr. Smirke to partake of it; and we may be sure that he was too happy to accept such a delightful summons.

Eased, by the above report, of all her former doubts and misgivings regarding the Curate, Helen was exceedingly kind and gracious to Mr. Smirke during dinner, redoubling her attentions, perhaps, because Major Pendennis was very high and reserved with his nephew’s tutor. When Pendennis asked Smirke to drink wine, he addressed him as if he was a Sovereign speaking to a petty retainer, in a manner so condescending, that even Pen laughed at it, although quite ready, for his part, to be as conceited as most young men are.

But Smirke did not care for the impertinences of the Major so long as he had his hostess’s kind behaviour; and he passed a delightful time by her side at table, exerting all his powers of conversation to please her, talking in a manner both clerical and worldly, about the Fancy Bazaar, and the Great Missionary Meeting, about the last new novel, and the Bishop’s excellent sermon about the fashionable parties in London, an account of which he read in the newspapers — in fine, he neglected no art, by which a College divine who has both sprightly and serious talents, a taste for the genteel, an irreproachable conduct, and a susceptible heart, will try and make himself agreeable to the person on whom he has fixed his affections.

Major Pendennis came yawning out of the dining-room very soon after his sister and little Laura had left the apartment. “What an unsufferable bore that man is, and how he did talk!” the Major said.

“He has been very good to Arthur, who is very fond of him,” Mrs. Pendennis said — “I wonder who the Miss Thompson is whom he is going to marry?”

“I always thought the fellow was looking in another direction,” said the Major.

“And in what?” asked Mrs. Pendennis quite innocently — “towards Myra Portman?”

“Towards Helen Pendennis, if you must know,” answered her brother-inlaw.

“Towards me! impossible!” Helen said, who knew perfectly well that such had been the case. “His marriage will be a very happy thing. I hope Arthur will not take too much wine.”

Now Arthur, flushed with a good deal of pride at the privilege of having the keys of the cellar, and remembering that a very few more dinners would probably take place which he and his dear friend Smirke could share, had brought up a liberal supply of claret for the company’s drinking, and when the elders with little Laura left him, he and the Curate began to pass the wine very freely.

One bottle speedily yielded up the ghost, another shed more than half its blood, before the two topers had been much more than half an hour together — Pen, with a hollow laugh and voice, had drunk off one bumper to the falsehood of women, and had said sardonically, that wine at any rate was a mistress who never deceived, and was sure to give a man a welcome.

Smirke gently said that he knew for his part some women who were all truth and tenderness; and casting up his eyes towards the ceiling, and heaving a sigh as if evoking some being dear and unmentionable, he took up his glass and drained it, and the rosy liquor began to suffuse his face.

Pen trolled over some verses he had been making that morning, in which he informed himself that the woman who had slighted his passion could not be worthy to win it: that he was awaking from love’s mad fever, and, of course, under these circumstances, proceeded to leave her, and to quit a heartless deceiver: that a name which had one day been famous in the land, might again be heard in it: and, that though he never should be the happy and careless boy he was but a few months since, or his heart be what it had been ere passion had filled it and grief had well-nigh killed it; that though to him personally death was as welcome as life, and that he would not hesitate to part with the latter, but for the love of one kind being whose happiness depended on his own — yet he hoped to show he was a man worthy of his race, and that one day the false one should be brought to know how great was the treasure and noble the heart which she had flung away.

Pen, we say, who was a very excitable person, rolled out these verses in his rich sweet voice, which trembled with emotion whilst our young poet spoke. He had a trick of blushing when in this excited state, and his large and honest grey eyes also exhibited proofs of a sensibility so genuine, hearty, and manly, that Miss Costigan, if she had a heart, must needs have softened towards him; and very likely she was, as he said, altogether unworthy of the affection which he lavished upon her.

The sentimental Smirke was caught by the emotion which agitated his young friend. He grasped Pen’s hand over the dessert dishes and wine-glasses. He said the verses were beautiful: that Pen was a poet, a great poet, and likely by Heaven’s permission to run a great career in the world. “Go on and prosper, dear Arthur,” he cried; “the wounds under which at present you suffer are only temporary, and the very grief you endure will cleanse and strengthen your heart. I have always prophesied the greatest and brightest things of you, as soon as you have corrected some failings and weaknesses of character, which at present belong to you. But you will get over these, my boy; you will get over these; and when you are famous and celebrated, as I know you will be, will you remember your old tutor and the happy early days of your youth?”

Pen swore he would: with another shake of the hand across the glasses and apricots. “I shall never forget how kind you have been to me, Smirke,” he said. “I don’t know what I should have done without you. You are my best friend.”

“Am I, really, Arthur?” said Smirke, looking through his spectacles; and his heart began to beat so that he thought Pen must almost hear it throbbing.

“My best friend, my friend for ever,” Pen said. “God bless you, old boy,” and he drank up the last glass of the second bottle of the famous wine which his father had laid in, which his uncle had bought, which Lord Levant had imported, and which now, like a slave indifferent, was ministering pleasure to its present owner, and giving its young master delectation.

“We’ll have another bottle, old boy,” Pen said, “by Jove we will. Hurray! — claret goes for nothing. My uncle was telling me that he saw Sheridan drink five bottles at Brookes’s, besides a bottle of Maraschino. This is some of the finest wine in England, he says. So it is, by Jove. There’s nothing like it. Nunc vino pellite curas — cras ingens iterabimus aeq — fill your glass, Old Smirke, a hogshead of it won’t do you any harm.” And Mr. Pen began to sing the drinking song out of Der Freischuetz. The dining-room windows were open, and his mother was softly pacing on the lawn outside, while little Laura was looking at the sunset. The sweet fresh notes of the boy’s voice came to the widow. It cheered her kind heart to hear him sing.

“You — you are taking too much wine, Arthur,” Mr. Smirke said softly —“you are exciting yourself.”

“No,” said Pen, “women give headaches, but this don’t. Fill your glass, old fellow, and let’s drink — I say, Smirke, my boy — let’s drink to her — your her, I mean, not mine, for whom I swear I’ll care no more — no, not a penny — no, not a fig — no, not a glass of wine. Tell us about the lady, Smirke; I’ve often seen you sighing about her.”

“Oh!” said Smirke — and his beautiful cambric shirt front and glistening studs heaved with the emotion which agitated his gentle and suffering bosom.

“Oh — what a sigh!” Pen cried, growing very hilarious; “fill, my boy, and drink the toast, you can’t refuse a toast, no gentleman refuses a toast. Here’s her health, and good luck to you, and may she soon be Mrs. Smirke.”

“Do you say so?” Smirke said, all of a tremble. “Do you really say so, Arthur?”

“Say so; of course, I say so. Down with it. Here’s Mrs. Smirke’s good health: Hip, hip, hurray!”

Smirke convulsively gulped down his glass of wine, and Pen waved his over his head, cheering so as to make his mother and Laura wonder on the lawn, and his uncle, who was dozing over the paper in the drawing-room, start, and say to himself, “That boy’s drinking too much.” Smirke put down the glass.

“I accept the omen,” gasped out the blushing Curate. “Oh my dear Arthur, you — you know her ——”

“What — Myra Portman? I wish you joy; she’s got a dev’lish large waist; but I wish you joy, old fellow.”

“Oh, Arthur!” groaned the Curate again, and nodded his head, speechless.

“Beg your pardon — sorry I offended you — but she has got a large waist, you know — devilish large waist,” Pen continued — the third bottle evidently beginning to act upon the young gentleman.

“It’s not Miss Portman,” the other said, in a voice of agony.

“Is it anybody at Chatteris or at Clapham? Somebody here? No — it ain’t old Pybus? it can’t be Miss Rolt at the Factory — she’s only fourteen.”

“It’s somebody rather older than I am, Pen,” the Curate cried, looking up at his friend, and then guiltily casting his eyes down into his plate.

Pen burst out laughing. “It’s Madame Fribsby; by Jove, it’s Madame Fribsby. Madame Frib. by the immortal Gods!”

The Curate could contain no more. “O Pen,” he cried, “how can you suppose that any of those — of those more than ordinary beings you have named could have an influence upon this heart, when I have been daily in the habit of contemplating perfection! I may be insane, I may be madly ambitious, I may be presumptuous — but for two years my heart has been filled by one image, and has known no other idol. Haven’t I loved you as a son, Arthur? — say, hasn’t Charles Smirke loved you as a son?”

“Yes, old boy, you’ve been very good to me,” Pen said, whose liking, however, for his tutor was not by any means of the filial kind.

“My means,” rushed on Smirke, “are at present limited, I own, and my mother is not so liberal as might be desired; but what she has will be mine at her death. Were she to hear of my marrying a lady of rank and good fortune, my mother would be liberal, I am sure she would be liberal. Whatever I have or subsequently inherit — and it’s five hundred a year at the very least — would be settled upon her and — and — and you at my death — that is”

“What the deuce do you mean? — and what have I to do with your money?” cried out Pen, in a puzzle.

“Arthur, Arthur!” exclaimed the other wildly; “you say I am your dearest friend — Let me be more. Oh, can’t you see that the angelic being I love — the purest, the best of women — is no other than your dear, dear angel of a — mother.”

“My mother!” cried out Arthur, jumping up and sober in a minute. “Pooh! damn it, Smirke, you must be mad — she’s seven or eight years older than you are.”

“Did you find that any objection?” cried Smirke piteously, and alluding, of course, to the elderly subject of Pen’s own passion.

The lad felt the hint, and blushed quite red. “The cases are not similar, Smirke,” he said, “and the allusion might have been spared. A man may forget his own rank and elevate any woman to it: but allow me to say our positions are very different.”

“How do you mean, dear Arthur?” the Curate interposed sadly, cowering as he felt that his sentence was about to be read.

“Mean?” said Arthur. “I mean what I say. My tutor, I say my tutor, has no right to ask a lady of my mother’s rank of life to marry him. It’s a breach of confidence. I say it’s a liberty you take, Smirke — it’s a liberty. Mean, indeed!”

“O Arthur!” the Curate began to cry with clasped hands, and a scared face, but Arthur gave another stamp with his foot and began to pull at the bell. “Don’t let’s have any more of this. We’ll have some coffee, if you please,” he said with a majestic air; and the old butler entering at the summons, Arthur bade him to serve that refreshment.

John said he had just carried coffee into the drawing-room, where his uncle was asking for Master Arthur, and the old man gave a glance of wonder at the three empty claret-bottles. Smirke said he thought he’d — he’d rather not go into the drawing-room, on which Arthur haughtily said, “As you please,” and called for Mr. Smirke’s horse to be brought round. The poor fellow said he knew the way to the stable and would get his pony himself, and he went into the hall and sadly put on his coat and hat.

Pen followed him out uncovered. Helen was still walking up and down the soft lawn as the sun was setting, and the Curate took off his hat and bowed by way of farewell, and passed on to the door leading to the stable court, by which the pair disappeared. Smirke knew the way to the stable, as he said, well enough. He fumbled at the girths of the saddle, which Pen fastened for him, and put on the bridle and led the pony into the yard. The boy was touched by the grief which appeared in the other’s face as he mounted. Pen held out his hand, and Smirke wrung it silently,

“I say, Smirke,” he said in an agitated voice, “forgive me if I have said anything harsh — for you have always been very, very kind to me. But it can’t be, old fellow, it can’t be. Be a man. God bless you.”

Smirke nodded his head silently, and rode out of the lodge-gate: and Pen looked after him for a couple of minutes, until he disappeared down the road, and the clatter of the pony’s hoofs died away. Helen was still lingering on the lawn waiting until the boy came back — she put his hair off his forehead and kissed it fondly. She was afraid he had been drinking too much wine. Why had Mr. Smirke gone away without any tea?

He looked at her with a kind humour beaming in his eyes “Smirke is unwell,” he said with a laugh. For a long while Hele had not seen the boy looking so cheerful. He put his arm round her waist, and walked her up and down the walk in front of the house. Laura began to drub on the drawing-room window and nod and laugh from it. “Come along, you two people,” cried on Major Pendennis, “your coffee is getting quite cold.”

When Laura was gone to bed, Pen, who was big with his secret, burst out with it, and described the dismal but ludicrous scene which had occurred. Helen heard of it with many blushes, which became her pale face very well, and a perplexity which Arthur roguishly enjoyed.

“Confound the fellow’s impudence,” Major Pendennis said as he took his candle, “where will the assurance of these people stop?” Pen and his mother had a long talk that night, full of love, confidence, and laughter, and the boy somehow slept more soundly and woke up more easily than he had done for many months before.

Before the great Mr. Dolphin quitted Chatteris, he not only made an advantageous engagement with Miss Fotheringay, but he liberally left with her a sum of money to pay off any debts which the little family might have contracted during their stay in the place, and which, mainly through the lady’s own economy and management, were not considerable. The small account with the spirit merchant, which Major Pendennis had settled, was the chief of Captain Costigan’s debts, and though the Captain at one time talked about repaying every farthing of the money, it never appears that he executed his menace, nor did the laws of honour in the least call upon him to accomplish that threat.

When Miss Costigan had seen all the outstanding bills paid to the uttermost shilling, she handed over the balance to her father, who broke out into hospitalities to all his friends, gave the little Creeds more apples and gingerbread than he had ever bestowed upon them, so that the widow Creed ever after held the memory of her lodger in veneration, and the young ones wept bitterly when he went away; and in a word managed the money so cleverly that it was entirely expended before many days, and that he was compelled to draw upon Mr. Dolphin for a sum to pay for travelling expenses when the time of their departure arrived.

There was held at an inn in that county town a weekly meeting of a festive, almost a riotous character, of a society of gentlemen who called themselves the Buccaneers. Some of the choice spirits of Chatteris belonged to this cheerful club. Graves, the apothecary (than whom a better fellow never put a pipe in his mouth and smoked it), Smart, the talented and humorous portrait-painter of High Street, Croker, an excellent auctioneer, and the uncompromising Hicks, the able Editor for twenty-three years of the County Chronicle and Chatteris Champion, were amongst the crew of the Buccaneers, whom also Bingley, the manager, liked to join of a Saturday evening, whenever he received permission from his lady.

Costigan had been also an occasional Buccaneer. But a want of punctuality of payments had of late somewhat excluded him from the Society, where he was subject to disagreeable remarks from the landlord, who said that a Buccaneer who didn’t pay his shot was utterly unworthy to be a Marine Bandit. But when it became known to the ‘Ears, as the Clubbists called themselves familiarly, that Miss Fotheringay had made a splendid engagement, a great revolution of feeling took place in the Club regarding Captain Costigan. Solly, mine host of the Grapes (and I need not say, as worthy a fellow as ever stood behind a bar), told the gents in the Buccaneers’ room one night how noble the Captain had behaved; having been round and paid off all his ticks in Chatteris, including his score of three pound fourteen here — and pronounced that Cos was a good feller, a gentleman at bottom, and he, Solly, had always said so, and finally worked upon the feelings of the Buccaneers to give the Captain a dinner.

The banquet took place on the last night of Costigan’s stay at Chatteris, and was served in Solly’s accustomed manner. As good a plain dinner of old English fare as ever smoked on a table was prepared by Mrs. Solly; and about eighteen gentlemen sate down to the festive board. Mr. Jubber (the eminent draper of High Street) was in the Chair, having the distinguished guest of the Club on his right. The able and consistent Hicks officiated as croupier on the occasion; most of the gentlemen of the Club were present, and H. Foker, Esq., and Spavin, Esq., friends of Captain Costigan, were also participators in the entertainment. The cloth having been drawn, the Chairman said, “Costigan, there is wine, if you like,” but the Captain preferring punch, that liquor was voted by acclamation: and ‘Non Nobis’ having been sung in admirable style by Messrs. Bingley, Hicks, and Bullby (of the Cathedral choir, than whom a more jovial spirit “ne’er tossed off a bumper or emptied a bowl”), the Chairman gave the health of the ‘King!’ which was drunk with the loyalty of Chatteris men, and then without further circumlocution proposed their friend ‘Captain Costigan.’

After the enthusiastic cheering which rang through old Chatteris had subsided, Captain Costigan rose in reply, and made a speech of twenty minutes, in which he was repeatedly overcome by his emotions.

The gallant Captain said he must be pardoned for incoherence, if his heart was too full to speak. He was quitting a city celebrated for its antiquitee, its hospitalitee, the beautee of its women, the manly fidelitee, generositee, and jovialitee of its men. (Cheers.) He was going from that ancient and venerable city, of which while Mimoree held her sayt, he should never think without the fondest emotion, to a methrawpolis where the talents of his daughther were about to have full play, and where he would watch over her like a guardian angel. He should never forget that it was at Chatteris she had acquired the skill which she was about to exercise in another sphere, and in her name and his own Jack Costigan thanked and blessed them. The gallant officer’s speech was received with tremendous cheers.

Mr. Hicks, Croupier, in a brilliant and energetic manner, proposed Miss Fotheringay’s health.

Captain Costigan returned thanks in a speech full of feeling and eloquence.

Mr. Jubber proposed the Drama and the Chatteris Theatre, and Mr. Bingley was about to rise but was prevented by Captain Costigan, who, as long connected with the Chatteris Theatre and on behalf of his daughter, thanked the company. He informed them that he had been in garrison, at Gibraltar, and at Malta, and had been at the taking of Flushing. The Duke of York was a patron of the Drama; he had the honour of dining with His Royal Highness and the Duke of Kent many times; and the former had justly been named the friend of the soldier. (Cheers.)

The Army was then proposed, and Captain Costigan returned thanks. In the course of the night he sang his well-known songs, ‘The Deserter,’ ‘The Shan Van Voght,’ ‘The Little Pig under the Bed,’ and ‘The Vale of Avoca.’ The evening was a great triumph for him — it ended. All triumphs and all evenings end. And the next day, Miss Costigan having taken leave of all her friends, having been reconciled to Miss Rouncy, to whom she left a necklace and a white satin gown — the next day, he and Miss Costigan had places in the Competitor coach rolling by the gates of Fairoaks Lodge — and Pendennis never saw them.

Tom Smith, the coachman, pointed out Fairoaks to Mr. Costigan, who sate on the box smelling of rum-and-water — and the Captain said it was a poor place — and added, “Ye should see Castle Costigan, County Mayo, me boy,”— which Tom said he should like very much to see.

They were gone and Pen had never seen them! He only knew of their departure by its announcement in the county paper the next day: and straight galloped over to Chatteris to hear the truth of this news. They were gone indeed. A card of ‘Lodgings to let’ was placed in the dear little familiar window. He rushed up into the room and viewed it over. He sate ever so long in the old window-seat looking into the Dean’s garden: whence he and Emily had so often looked out together. He walked, with a sort of terror, into her little empty bedroom. It was swept out and prepared for new-comers. The glass which had reflected her fair face was shining ready for her successor. The curtains lay square folded on the little bed: he flung himself down and buried his head on the vacant pillow.

Laura had netted a purse into which his mother had put some sovereigns, and Pen had found it on his dressing-table that very morning. He gave one to the little servant who had been used to wait upon the Costigans, and another to the children, because they said they were very fond of her. It was but a few months back, yet what years ago it seemed since he had first entered that room! He felt that it was all done. The very missing her at the coach had something fatal in it. Blank, weary, utterly wretched and lonely the poor lad felt.

His mother saw She was gone by his look when he came home. He was eager to fly too now, as were other folks round about Chatteris. Poor Smirke wanted to go away from the sight of the syren widow. Foker began to think he had had enough of Baymouth, and that a few supper-parties at Saint Boniface would not be unpleasant. And Major Pendennis longed to be off, and have a little pheasant-shooting at Stillbrook, and get rid of all annoyances and tracasseries of the village. The widow and Laura nervously set about the preparation for Pen’s kit, and filled trunks with his books and linen. Helen wrote cards with the name of Arthur Pendennis, Esq., which were duly nailed on the boxes; and at which both she and Laura looked with tearful wistful eyes. It was not until long, long after he was gone, that Pen remembered how constant and tender the affection of these women had been, and how selfish his own conduct was.

A night soon comes, when the mail, with echoing horn and blazing lamps, stops at the lodge-gate of Fairoaks, and Pen’s trunks and his uncle’s are placed on the roof of the carriage, into which the pair presently afterwards enter. Helen and Laura are standing by the evergreens of the shrubbery, their figures lighted up by the coach lamps; the guard cries all right: in another instant the carriage whirls onward; the lights disappear, and Helen’s heart and prayers go with them. Her sainted benedictions follow the departing boy. He has left the home-nest in which he has been chafing, and whither, after his very first flight, he returned bleeding and wounded; he is eager to go forth again, and try his restless wings.

How lonely the house looks without him! The corded trunks and book-boxes are there in his empty study. Laura asks leave to come and sleep in Helen’s room: and when she has cried herself to sleep there, the mother goes softly into Pen’s vacant chamber, and kneels down by the bed on which the moon is shining, and there prays for her boy, as mothers only know how to plead. He knows that her pure blessings are following him, as he is carried miles away.

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