The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XVIII

Alma Mater

Every man, however brief or inglorious may have been his academical career, must remember with kindness and tenderness the old university comrades and days. The young man’s life is just beginning: the boy’s leading-strings are cut, and he has all the novel delights and dignities of freedom. He has no idea of cares yet, or of bad health, or of roguery, or poverty, or tomorrow’s disappointment. The play has not been acted so often as to make him tired. Though the after drink, as we mechanically go on repeating it, is stale and bitter, how pure and brilliant was that first sparkling draught of pleasure! — How the boy rushes at the cup, and with what a wild eagerness he drains it! But old epicures who are cut off from the delights of the table, and are restricted to a poached egg and a glass of water, like to see people with good appetites; and, as the next best thing to being amused at a pantomime one’s-self is to see one’s children enjoy it, I hope there may be no degree of age or experience to which mortal may attain, when he shall become such a glum philosopher as not to be pleased by the sight of happy youth. Coming back a few weeks since from a brief visit to the old University of Oxbridge, where my friend Mr. Arthur Pendennis passed some period of his life, I made the journey in the railroad by the side of a young fellow at present a student of Saint Boniface. He had got an exeat somehow, and was bent on a day’s lark in London: he never stopped rattling and talking from the commencement of the journey until its close (which was a great deal too soon for me, for I never was tired of listening to the honest young fellow’s jokes and cheery laughter); and when we arrived at the terminus nothing would satisfy him but a hansom cab, so that he might get into town the quicker, and plunge into the pleasures awaiting him there. Away the young lad went whirling, with joy lighting up his honest face; and as for the reader’s humble servant, having but a small carpet-bag, I got up on the outside of the omnibus, and sate there very contentedly between a Jew-pedlar smoking bad cigars, and a gentleman’s servant taking care of a poodle-dog, until we got our fated complement of passengers and boxes, when the coachman drove leisurely away. We weren’t in a hurry to get to town. Neither one of us was particularly eager about rushing into that near smoking Babylon, or thought of dining at the Club that night, or dancing at the Casino. Yet a few years more, and my young friend of the railroad will be not a whit more eager.

There were no railroads made when Arthur Pendennis went to the famous University of Oxbridge; but he drove thither in a well-appointed coach, filled inside and out with dons, gownsmen, young freshmen about to enter, and their guardians, who were conducting them to the university. A fat old gentleman, in grey stockings, from the City, who sate by Major Pendennis inside the coach, having his pale-faced son opposite, was frightened beyond measure when he heard that the coach had been driven for a couple of stages by young Mr. Foker, of Saint Boniface College, who was the friend of all men, including coachmen, and could drive as well as Tom Hicks himself. Pen sate on the roof, examining coach, passengers, and country with great delight and curiosity. His heart jumped with pleasure as the famous university came in view, and the magnificent prospect of venerable towers and pinnacles, tall elms and shining river, spread before him.

Pen had passed a few days with his uncle at the Major’s lodgings, in Bury Street, before they set out for Oxbridge. Major Pendennis thought that the lad’s wardrobe wanted renewal; and Arthur was by no means averse to any plan which was to bring him new coats and waistcoats. There was no end to the sacrifices which the self-denying uncle made in the youth’s behalf. London was awfully lonely. The Pall Mall pavement was deserted; the very red jackets had gone out of town. There was scarce a face to be seen in the bow-windows of the clubs. The Major conducted his nephew into one or two of those desert mansions, and wrote down the lad’s name on the candidate-list of one of them; and Arthur’s pleasure at this compliment on his guardian’s part was excessive. He read in the parchment volume his name and titles, as ‘Arthur Pendennis, Esquire, of Fairoaks Lodge, —— shire and Saint Boniface College, Oxbridge; proposed by Major Pendennis, and seconded by Viscount Colchicum,’ with a thrill of intense gratification. “You will come in for ballot in about three years, by which time you will have taken your degree,” the guardian said. Pen longed for the three years to be over, and surveyed the stucco-halls, and vast libraries, and drawing-rooms as already his own property. The Major laughed slyly to see the pompous airs of the simple young fellow as he strutted out of the building. He and Foker drove down in the latter’s cab one day to the Grey Friars, and renewed acquaintance with some of their old comrades there. The boys came crowding up to the cab as it stood by the Grey Friars gates, where they were entering, and admired the chestnut horse, and the tights and livery and gravity of Stoopid, the tiger. The bell for afternoon-school rang as they were swaggering about the play-ground talking to their old cronies. The awful Doctor passed into school with his grammar in his hand. Foker slunk away uneasily at his presence, but Pen went up blushing, and shook the dignitary by the hand. He laughed as he thought that well-remembered Latin Grammar had boxed his ears many a time. He was generous, good-natured, and, in a word, perfectly conceited and satisfied with himself.

Then they drove to the parental brew-house. Foker’s Entire is composed in an enormous pile of buildings, not far from the Grey Friars, and the name of that well-known firm is gilded upon innumerable public-house signs, tenanted by its vassals in the neighbourhood; and the venerable junior partner and manager did honour to the young lord of the vats and his friend, and served them with silver flagons of brown-stout, so strong, that you would have thought, not only the young men, but the very horse Mr. Harry Foker drove, was affected by the potency of the drink, for he rushed home to the west-end of the town at a rapid pace, which endangered the pie-stalls and the women on the crossings, and brought the cab-steps into collision with the posts at the street corners, and caused Stoopid to swing fearfully on his board behind.

The Major was quite pleased when Pen was with his young acquaintance; listened to Mr. Foker’s artless stories with the greatest interest; gave the two boys a fine dinner at a Covent Garden Coffee-house, whence they proceeded to the play; but was above all happy when Mr. and Lady Agnes Foker, who happened to be in London, requested the pleasure of Major Pendennis and Mr. Arthur Pendennis’s company at dinner in Grosvenor Street. “Having obtained the entree into Lady Agnes Foker’s house,” he said to Pen with an affectionate solemnity which befitted the importance of the occasion, “it behoves you, my dear boy, to keep it. You must mind and never neglect to call in Grosvenor Street when you come to London. I recommend you to read up carefully, in Debrett, the alliances and genealogy of the Earls of Rosherville, and if you can, to make some trifling allusions to the family, something historical, neat, and complimentary, and that sort of thing, which you, who have a poetic fancy, can do pretty well. Mr. Foker himself is a worthy man, though not of high extraction or indeed much education. He always makes a point of having some of the family porter served round after dinner, which you will on no account refuse, and which I shall drink myself, though all beer disagrees with me confoundedly.” And the heroic martyr did actually sacrifice himself, as he said he would, on the day when the dinner took place, and old Mr. Foker, at the head of his table, made his usual joke about Foker’s Entire. We should all of us, I am sure, have liked to see the Major’s grin, when the worthy old gentleman made his time-honoured joke.

Lady Agnes, who, wrapped up in Harry, was the fondest of mothers, and one of the most good-natured though not the wisest of women, received her son’s friend with great cordiality: and astonished Pen by accounts of the severe course of studies which her darling boy was pursuing, and which she feared might injure his dear health. Foker the elder burst into a horse-laugh at some of these speeches, and the heir of the house winked his eye very knowingly at his friend. And Lady Agnes then going through her son’s history from the earliest time, and recounting his miraculous sufferings in the measles and hooping-cough, his escape from drowning, the shocking tyrannies practised upon him at that horrid school, whither Mr. Foker would send him because he had been brought up there himself, and she never would forgive that disagreeable Doctor, no never — Lady Agnes, we say, having prattled away for an hour incessantly about her son, voted the two Messieurs Pendennis most agreeable men; and when pheasants came with the second course, which the Major praised as the very finest birds he ever saw, her ladyship said they came from Logwood (as the Major knew perfectly well), and hoped that they would both pay her a visit there — at Christmas, or when dear Harry was at home for the vacations.

“God bless you, my dear boy,” Pendennis said to Arthur, as they were lighting their candles in Bury Street afterwards to go to bed. “You made that little allusion to Agincourt, where one of the Roshervilles distinguished himself, very neatly and well, although Lady Agnes did not quite understand it: but it was exceedingly well for a beginner — though you oughtn’t to blush so, by the way — and I beseech you, my dear Arthur, to remember through life, that with an entree — with a good entree, mind — it is just as easy for you to have good society as bad, and that it costs a man, when properly introduced, no more trouble or soins to keep a good footing in the best houses in London than to dine with a lawyer in Bedford Square. Mind this when you are at Oxbridge pursuing your studies, and for Heaven’s sake be very particular in the acquaintances which you make. The premier pas in life is the most important of all — did you write to your mother today? — No? — well, do, before you go, and call and ask Mr. Foker for a frank — They like it — Good night. God bless you.”

Pen wrote a droll account of his doings in London, and the play, and the visit to the old Friars, and the brewery, and the party at Mr. Foker’s, to his dearest mother, who was saying her prayers at home in the lonely house at Fairoaks, her heart full of love and tenderness unutterable for the boy: and she and Laura read that letter and those which followed, many, many times, and brooded over them as women do. It was the first step in life that Pen was making — Ah! what a dangerous journey it is, and how the bravest may stumble and the strongest fail. Brother wayfarer! may you have a kind arm to support yours on the path, and a friendly hand to succour those who fall beside you. May truth guide, mercy forgive at the end, and love accompany always. Without that lamp how blind the traveller would be, and how black and cheerless the journey!

So the coach drove up to that ancient and comfortable inn the Trencher, which stands in Main Street, Oxbridge, and Pen with delight and eagerness remarked, for the first time, gownsmen going about, chapel bells clinking (bells in Oxbridge are ringing from morning-tide till even-song)— towers and pinnacles rising calm and stately over the gables and antique house-roofs of the homely busy city. Previous communications had taken place between Dr. Portman on Pen’s part, and Mr. Buck, Tutor of Boniface, on whose side Pen was entered; and as soon as Major Pendennis had arranged his personal appearance, so that it should make a satisfactory impression upon Pen’s tutor, the pair walked down Main Street, and passed the great gate and belfry-tower of Saint George’s College, and so came, as they were directed, to Saint Boniface: where again Pen’s heart began to beat as they entered at the wicket of the venerable ivy-mantled gate of the College. It is surmounted with an ancient dome almost covered with creepers, and adorned with the effigy of the Saint from whom the House takes its name, and many coats-of-arms of its royal and noble benefactors.

The porter pointed out a queer old tower at the corner of the quadrangle, by which Mr. Buck’s rooms were approached, and the two gentlemen walked acrosse the square, the main features of which were at once and for ever stamped in Pen’s mind — the pretty fountain playing in the centre of the fair grass plats; the tall chapel windows and buttresses rising to the right; the hall with its tapering lantern and oriel window; the lodge, from the doors of which the Master issued with rustling silks; the lines of the surrounding rooms pleasantly broken by carved chimneys, grey turrets, and quaint gables — all these Mr. Pen’s eyes drank in with an eagerness which belongs to first impressions; and Major Pendennis surveyed with that calmness which belongs to a gentleman who does not care for the picturesque, and whose eyes have been somewhat dimmed by the constant glare of the pavement of Pall Mall.

Saint George’s is the great College of the University of Oxbridge, with its four vast quadrangles, and its beautiful hall and gardens, and the Georgians, as the men are called wear gowns of a peculiar cut, and give themselves no small airs of superiority over all other young men. Little Saint Boniface is but a petty hermitage in comparison of the huge consecrated pile alongside of which it lies. But considering its size it has always kept an excellent name in the university. Its ton is very good: the best families of certain counties have time out of mind sent up their young men to Saint Boniface: the college livings are remarkably good: the fellowships easy; the Boniface men had had more than their fair share of university honours; their boat was third upon the river; their chapel-choir is not inferior to Saint George’s itself; and the Boniface ale the best in Oxbridge. In the comfortable old wainscoted College-Hall, and round about Roubilliac’s statue of Saint Boniface (who stands in an attitude of seraphic benediction over the uncommonly good cheer of the fellows’ table) there are portraits of many most eminent Bonifacians. There is the learned Doctor Griddle, who suffered in Henry VIII.‘s time, and Archbishop Bush who roasted him — there is Lord Chief Justice Hicks — the Duke of St. David’s, K.G., Chancellor of the University and Member of this College — Sprott the Poet, of whose fame the college is justly proud — Doctor Blogg, the late master, and friend of Doctor Johnson, who visited him at Saint Boniface — and other lawyers, scholars, and divines, whose portraitures look from the walls, or whose coats-of-arms shine in emerald and ruby, gold and azure, in the tall windows of the refectory. The venerable cook of the college is one of the best artists in Oxbridge (his son took the highest honours in the other University of Camford), and the wine in the fellows’ room has long been famed for its excellence and abundance.

Into this certainly not the least snugly sheltered arbour amongst the groves of Academe, Pen now found his way, leaning on his uncle’s arm, and they speedily reached Mr. Buck’s rooms, and were conducted into the apartment of that courteous gentleman.

He had received previous information from Dr. Portman regarding Pen, with respect to whose family, fortune, and personal merits the honest Doctor had spoken with no small enthusiasm. Indeed Portman had described Arthur to the tutor as “a young gentleman of some fortune and landed estate, of one of the most ancient families in the kingdom, and possessing such a character and genius as were sure, under the proper guidance, to make him a credit to the college and the university.” Under such recommendations the tutor was, of course, most cordial to the young freshman and his guardian, invited the latter to dine in hall, where he would have the satisfaction of seeing his nephew wear his gown and eat his dinner for the first time, and requested the pair to take wine at his rooms after hall, and in consequence of the highly favourable report he had received of Mr. Arthur Pendennis, said, he should be happy to give him the best set of rooms to be had in college — a gentleman-pensioner’s set, indeed, which were just luckily vacant. So they parted until dinner-time, which was very near at hand, and Major Pendennis pronounced Mr. Buck to be uncommonly civil indeed. Indeed when a College Magnate takes the trouble to be polite, there is no man more splendidly courteous. Immersed in their books and excluded from the world by the gravity of their occupations, these reverend men assume a solemn magnificence of compliment in which they rustle and swell as in their grand robes of state. Those silks and brocades are not put on for all comers or every day.

When the two gentlemen had taken leave of the tutor in his study, and had returned to Mr. Buck’s ante-room, or lecture-room, a very handsome apartment, turkey-carpeted, and hung with excellent prints and richly framed pictures, they found the tutor’s servant already in waiting there, accompanied by a man with a bag full of caps and a number of gowns, from which Pen might select a cap and gown for himself, and the servant, no doubt, would get a commission proportionable to the service done by him. Mr. Pen was all in a tremor of pleasure as the bustling tailor tried on a gown and pronounced that it was an excellent fit; and then he put the pretty college cap on, in rather a dandified manner and somewhat on one side, as he had seen Fiddicombe, the youngest master at Grey Friars, wear it. And he inspected the entire costume with a great deal of satisfaction in one of the great gilt mirrors which ornamented Mr. Buck’s lecture-room: for some of these college divines are no more above looking — glasses than a lady is, and look to the set of their gowns and caps quite as anxiously as folks do of the lovelier sex. The Major smiled as he saw the boy dandifying himself in the glass: the old gentleman was not displeased with the appearance of the comely lad.

Then Davis, the skip or attendant, led the way, keys in hand, across the quadrangle, the Major and Pen following him, the latter blushing, and pleased with his new academical habiliments, across the quadrangle to the rooms which were destined for the freshman; and which were vacated by the retreat of the gentleman-pensioner, Mr. Spicer. The rooms were very comfortable, with large cross beams, high wainscots, and small windows in deep embrasures. Mr. Spicer’s furniture was there, and to be sold at a valuation, and Major Pendennis agreed on his nephew’s behalf to take the available part of it, laughingly however declining (as, indeed, Pen did for his own part) six sporting prints, and four groups of opera-dancers with gauze draperies, which formed the late occupant’s pictorial collection.

Then they went to hall, where Pen sate down and ate his commons with his brother freshmen, and the Major took his place at the high-table along with the college dignitaries and other fathers or guardians of youth, who had come up with their sons to Oxbridge; and after hall they went to Mr. Buck’s to take wine; and after wine to chapel, where the Major sate with great gravity in the upper place, having a fine view of the Master in his carved throne or stall under the organ-loft, where that gentleman, the learned Doctor Donne, sate magnificent, with his great prayer-book before him, an image of statuesque piety and rigid devotion. All the young freshmen behaved with gravity and decorum, but Pen was shocked to see that atrocious little Foker, who came in very late, and half a dozen of his comrades in the gentlemen-pensioners’ seats, giggling and talking as if they had been in so many stalls at the Opera. But these circumstances, it must be remembered, took place some years back, when William the Fourth was king. Young men are much better behaved now, and besides, Saint Boniface was rather a fast college.

Pen could hardly sleep at night in his bedroom at the Trencher: so anxious was he to begin his college life, and to get into his own apartments. What did he think about, as he lay tossing and awake? Was it about his mother at home; the pious soul whose life was bound up in his? Yes, let us hope he thought of her a little. Was it about Miss Fotheringay, and his eternal passion, which had kept him awake so many nights, and created such wretchedness and such longing? He had a trick of blushing, and if you had been in the room, and the candle had not been out, you might have seen the youth’s countenance redden more than once, as be broke out into passionate incoherent exclamations regarding that luckless event of his life. His uncle’s lessons had not been thrown away upon him; the mist of passion had passed from his eyes now, and he saw her as she was. To think that he, Pendennis, had been enslaved by such a woman, and then jilted by her! that he should have stooped so low, to be trampled on the mire! that there was a time in his life, and that but a few months back, when he was willing to take Costigan for his father-inlaw!

“Poor old Smirke!” Pen presently laughed out —“well, I’ll write and try and console the poor old boy. He won’t die of his passion, ha, ha!” The Major, had he been awake, might have heard a score of such ejaculations uttered by Pen as he lay awake and restless through the first night of his residence at Oxbridge.

It would, perhaps, have been better for a youth, the battle of whose life was going to begin on the morrow, to have passed the eve in a fferent sort of vigil: but the world had got hold of Pen in the shape of his selfish old Mentor: and those who have any interest in his character must have perceived ere now, that this lad was very weak as well as very impetuous, very vain as well as very frank, and if of a generous disposition, not a little selfish in the midst of his profuseness, and also rather fickle, as all eager pursuers of self-gratification are.

The six months’ passion had aged him very considerably. There was an immense gulf between Pen the victim of love, and Pen the innocent boy of eighteen, sighing after it: and so Arthur Pendennis had all the experience and superiority, besides that command which afterwards conceit and imperiousness of disposition gave him over the young men with whom he now began to live.

He and his uncle passed the morning with great satisfaction in making purchases for the better comfort of the apartments which the lad was about to occupy. Mr. Spicer’s china and glass was in a dreadfully dismantled condition, his lamps smashed, and his bookcases by no means so spacious as those shelves which would be requisite to receive the contents of the boxes which were lying in the hall at Fairoaks, and which were addressed to Arthur in the hand of poor Helen.

The boxes arrived in a few days, that his mother had packed with so much care. Pen was touched as he read the superscriptions in the dear well-known hand, and he arranged in their proper places all the books, his old friends, and all the linen and table-cloths which Helen had selected from the family stock, and all the jam-pots which little Laura had bound in straw, and the hundred simple gifts of home. Pen had another Alma Mater now. But it is not all children who take to her kindly.

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