The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXI

Flight after Defeat

Everybody who has the least knowledge of Heraldry and the Peerage must be aware that the noble family of which, as we know, Helen Pendennis was a member, bears for a crest, a nest full of little pelicans pecking at the ensanguined bosom of a big maternal bird, which plentifully supplies the little wretches with the nutriment on which, according to the heraldic legend, they are supposed to be brought up. Very likely female pelicans like so to bleed under the selfish little beaks of their young ones: it is certain that women do. There must be some sort of pleasure, which we men don’t understand, which accompanies the pain of being scarified, and indeed I believe some women would rather actually so suffer than not. They like sacrificing themselves in behalf of the object which their instinct teaches them to love. Be it for a reckless husband, a dissipated son, a darling scapegrace of a brother, how ready their hearts are to pour out their best treasures for the benefit of the cherished person; and what a deal of this sort of enjoyment are we, on one side, ready to give the soft creatures! There is scarce a man that reads this, but has administered pleasure in this fashion to his womankind, and has treated them to the luxury of forgiving him. They don’t mind how they live themselves; but when the prodigal comes home they make a rejoicing, and kill the fatted calf for him: and at the very first hint that the sinner is returning, the kind angels prepare their festival, and Mercy and Forgiveness go smiling out to welcome him. I hope it may be so always for all: if we have only Justice to look to, Heaven help us!

During the latter part of Pen’s residence at the University of Oxbridge, his uncle’s partiality had greatly increased for the lad. The Major was proud of Arthur, who had high spirits, frank manners, a good person, and high gentleman-like bearing. It pleased the old London bachelor to see Pen walking with the young patricians of his university, and he (who was never known to entertain his friends, and whose stinginess had passed into a sort of byword among some wags at the Club, who envied his many engagements, and did not choose to consider his poverty) was charmed to give his nephew and the young lords snug little dinners at his lodgings, and to regale them with good claret, and his very best bons mots and stories: some of which would be injured by the repetition, for the Major’s manner of telling them was incomparably neat and careful; and others, whereof the repetition would do good to nobody. He paid his court to their parents through the young men, and to himself as it were by their company. He made more than one visit to Oxbridge, where the young fellows were amused by entertaining the old gentleman, and gave parties and breakfasts and fetes, partly to joke him and partly to do him honour. He plied them with his stories. He made himself juvenile and hilarious in the company of the young lords. He went to hear Pen at a grand debate at the Union, crowed and cheered, and rapped his stick in chorus with the cheers of the men, and was astounded at the boy’s eloquence and fire. He thought he had got a young Pitt for a nephew. He had an almost paternal fondness for Pen. He wrote to the lad letters with playful advice and the news of the town. He bragged about Arthur at his Clubs, and introduced him with pleasure into his conversation; saying, that, Egad, the young fellows were putting the old ones to the wall; that the lads who were coming up, young Lord Plinlimmon, a friend of my boy, young Lord Magnus Charters, a chum of my scapegrace, etc., would make a greater figure in the world than even their fathers had done before them. He asked permission to bring Arthur to a grand fete at Gaunt House; saw him with ineffable satisfaction dancing with the sisters of the young noblemen before mentioned; and gave himself as much trouble to procure cards of invitation for the lad to some good houses, as if he had been a mamma with a daughter to marry, and not an old half-pay officer in a wig. And he boasted everywhere of the boy’s great talents, and remarkable oratorical powers; and of the brilliant degree he was going to take. Lord Runnymede would take him on his embassy, or the Duke would bring him in for one of his boroughs, he wrote over and over again to Helen; who, for her part, was too ready to believe anything that anybody chose to say in favour of her son.

And all this pride and affection of uncle and mother had been trampled down by Pen’s wicked extravagance and idleness! I don’t envy Pen’s feelings (as the phrase is), as he thought of what he had done. He had slept, and the tortoise had won the race. He had marred at its outset what might have been a brilliant career. He had dipped ungenerously into a generous mother’s purse; basely and recklessly spilt her little cruse. O! it was a coward hand that could strike and rob a creature so tender. And if Pen felt the wrong which he had done to others, are we to suppose that a young gentleman of his vanity did not feel still more keenly the shame he had brought upon himself? Let us be assured that there is no more cruel remorse than that; and no groans more piteous than those of wounded self-love. Like Joel Miller’s friend, the Senior Wrangler, who bowed to the audience from his box at the play, because he and the king happened to enter the theatre at the same time, only with a fatuity by no means so agreeable to himself, poor Arthur Pendennis felt perfectly convinced that all England would remark the absence of his name from the examination-lists, and talk about his misfortune. His wounded tutor, his many duns, the skip and bed-maker who waited upon him, the undergraduates of his own time and the years below him, whom he had patronised or scorned — how could he bear to look any of them in the face now? He rushed to his rooms, into which he shut himself, and there he penned a letter to his tutor, full of thanks, regards, remorse, and despair, requesting that his name might be taken off the college books, and intimating a wish and expectation that death would speedily end the woes of the disgraced Arthur Pendennis.

Then he slunk out, scarcely knowing whither he went, but mechanically taking the unfrequented little lanes by the backs of the colleges, until he cleared the university precincts, and got down to the banks of the Camisis river, now deserted, but so often alive with the boat-races, and the crowds of cheering gownsmen, he wandered on and on, until he found himself at some miles’ distance from Oxbridge, or rather was found by some acquaintances leaving that city.

As Pen went up a hill, a drizzling January rain beating in his face, and his ragged gown flying behind him — for he had not divested himself of his academical garments since the morning — a postchaise came rattling up the road, on the box of which a servant was seated, whilst within, or rather half out of the carriage window, sate a young gentleman smoking a cigar, and loudly encouraging the postboy. It was our young acquaintance of Baymouth Mr. Spavin, who had got his degree, and was driving homewards in triumph in his yellow postchaise. He caught a sight of the figure, madly gesticulating as he worked up the hill, and of poor Pen’s pale and ghastly face as the chaise whirled by him.

“Wo!” roared Mr. Spavin to the postboy, and the horses stopped in their mad career, and the carriage pulled up some fifty yards before Pen. He presently heard his own name shouted, and beheld the upper half of the body of Mr. Spavin thrust out of the side-window of the vehicle, and beckoning Pen vehemently towards it.

Pen stopped, hesitated — nodded his head fiercely, and pointed onwards, as if desirous that the postillion should proceed. He did not speak: but his countenance must have looked very desperate, for young Spavin, having stared at him with an expression of blank alarm, jumped out of the carriage presently, ran towards Pen holding out his hand, and grasping Pen’s, said, “I say — hullo, old boy, where are you going, and what’s the row now?”

“I’m going where I deserve to go,” said Pen, with an imprecation.

“This ain’t the way,” said Mr. Spavin, smiling. “This is the Fenbury road. I say, Pen, don’t take on because you are plucked. It’s nothing when you are used to it. I’ve been plucked three times, old boy — and after the first time I didn’t care. Glad it’s over, though. You’ll have better luck next time.”

Pen looked at his early acquaintance — who had been plucked, who had been rusticated, who had only, after repeated failures, learned to read and write correctly, and who, in spite of all these drawbacks, had attained the honour of a degree. “This man has passed,” he thought, “and I have failed!” It was almost too much for him to bear.

“Good-bye, Spavin,” said he; “I’m very glad you are through. Don’t let me keep you; I’m in a hurry — I’m going to town to-night.”

“Gammon,” said Mr. Spavin. “This ain’t the way to town; this is the Fenbury road, I tell you.”

“I was just going to turn back,” Pen said.

“All the coaches are full with the men going down,” Spavin said. Pen winced. “You’d not get a place for a ten-pound note. Get into my yellow; I’ll drop you at Mudford, where you have a chance of the Fenbury mail. I’ll lend you a hat and a coat; I’ve got lots. Come along; jump in, old boy — go it, leathers!”— and in this way Pen found himself in Mr. Spavin’s postchaise, and rode with that gentleman as far as the Ram Inn at Mudford, fifteen miles from Oxbridge; where the Fenbury mail changed horses, and where Pen got a place on to London.

The next day there was an immense excitement in Boniface College, Oxbridge, where, for some time, a rumour prevailed, to the terror of Pen’s tutor and tradesmen, that Pendennis, maddened at losing his degree, had made away with himself — a battered cap, in which his name was almost discernible, together with a seal bearing his crest of an eagle looking at a now extinct sun, had been found three miles on the Fenbury road, near a mill-stream, and, for four-and-twenty hours, it was supposed that poor Pen had flung himself into the stream, until letters arrived from him, bearing the London post-mark.

The mail reached London at the dreary hour of five; and he hastened to the inn at Covent Garden, at which he was accustomed to put up, where the ever-wakeful porter admitted him, and showed him to a bed. Pen looked hard at the man, and wondered whether Boots knew he was plucked? When in bed be could not sleep there. He tossed about until the appearance of the dismal London daylight, when he sprang up desperately, and walked off to his uncle’s lodgings in Bury Street; where the maid, who was scouring the steps, looked up suspiciously at him, as he came with an unshaven face, and yesterday’s linen. He thought she knew of his mishap, too.

“Good evens! Mr. Harthur, what as appened, sir?” Mr. Morgan, the valet, asked, who had just arranged the well-brushed clothes and shiny boots at the door of his master’s bedroom, and was carrying in his wig to the Major.

“I want to see my uncle,” he cried, in a ghastly voice, and flung himself down on a chair.

Morgan backed before the pale and desperate-looking young man, with terrified and wondering glances, and disappeared in his master’s apartment.

The Major put his head out of the bedroom door, as soon as he had his wig on.

“What? examination over? Senior Wrangler, double First Class, hay? said the old gentleman — I’ll come directly;” and the head disappeared.

“They don’t know what has happened,” groaned Pen; “what will they say when they know all?”

Pen had been standing with his back to the window, and to such a dubious light as Bury Street enjoys of a foggy January morning, so that his uncle could not see the expression of the young man’s countenance, or the looks of gloom and despair which even Mr. Morgan had remarked.

But when the Major came out of his dressing-room neat and radiant, and preceded by faint odours from Delcroix’s shop, from which emporium Major Pendennis’s wig and his pocket-handkerchief got their perfume, he held out one of his hands to Pen, and was about addressing him in his cheery high-toned voice, when he caught sight of the boy’s face at length, and dropping his hand, said, “Good God! Pen, what’s the matter?”

“You’ll see it in the papers at breakfast, sir,” Pen said.

“See what?”

“My name isn’t there, sir.”

“Hang it, why should it be?” asked the Major, more perplexed.

“I have lost everything, sir,” Pen groaned out; “my honour’s gone; I’m ruined irretrievably; I can’t go back to Oxbridge.”

“Lost your honour?” screamed out the Major. “Heaven alive! you don’t mean to say you have shown the white feather?”

Pen laughed bitterly at the word feather, and repeated it. “No, it isn’t that, sir. I’m not afraid of being shot; I wish to God anybody would. I have not got my degree. I— I’m plucked, sir.”

The Major had heard of plucking, but in a very vague and cursory way, and concluded that it was some ceremony performed corporally upon rebellious university youth. “I wonder you can look me in the face after such a disgrace, sir,” he said; “I wonder you submitted to it as a gentleman.”

“I couldn’t help it, sir. I did my classical papers well enough it was those infernal mathematics, which I have always neglected.”

“Was it — was it done in public, sir?” the Major said.

“What?”

“The — the plucking?” asked the guardian, looking Pen anxiously in the face.

Pen perceived the error under which his guardian was labouring, and in the midst of his misery the blunder caused the poor wretch a faint smile, and served to bring down the conversation from the tragedy-key, in which Pen had been disposed to carry it on. He explained to his uncle that he had gone in to pass his examination, and failed. On which the Major said, that though he had expected far better things of his nephew, there was no great misfortune in this, and no dishonour as far as he saw, and that Pen must try again.

“Me again at Oxbridge,” Pen thought, “after such a humiliation as that!” He felt that, except he went down to burn the place, he could not enter it.

But it was when he came to tell his uncle of his debts that the other felt surprise and anger most keenly, and broke out in speeches most severe upon Pen, which the lad bore, as best might, without flinching. He had determined to make a clean breast, and had formed a full, true, and complete list of all his bills and liabilities at the university, and in London. They consisted of various items, such as:

London Tailor. Oxbridge do.
Oxbridge do. Bill for horses.
Haberdasher, for shirts and gloves. Printseller.
Jeweller. Books.
College Cook. Binding.
Grump, for desserts. Hairdresser and Perfumery.
Bootmaker. Hotel bill in London.
Wine Merchant in London. Sundries.

All which items the reader may fill in at his pleasure — such accounts have been inspected by the parents of many university youth — and it appeared that Mr. Pen’s bills in all amounted to about seven hundred pounds; and, furthermore, it was calculated that he had had more than twice that sum of ready money during his stay at Oxbridge. This sum he had spent, and for it had to show — what?

“You need not press a man who is down, sir,” Pen said to his uncle, gloomily. “I know very well, sir, how wicked and idle I have been. My mother won’t like to see me dishonoured, sir,” he continued, with his voice failing; “and I know she will pay these accounts. But I shall ask her for no more money.”

“As you like, sir,” the Major said. “You are of age, and my hands are washed of your affairs. But you can’t live without money, and have no means of making it that I see, though you have a fine talent in spending it, and it is my belief that you will proceed as you have begun, and ruin your mother before you are five years older. — Good morning; it is time for me to go to breakfast. My engagements won’t permit me to see you much during the time that you stay in London. I presume that you will acquaint your mother with the news which you have just conveyed to me.”

And pulling on his hat, and trembling in his limbs somewhat, Major Pendennis walked out of his lodgings before his nephew, and went ruefully off to take his accustomed corner at the Club. He saw the Oxbridge examination-lists in the morning papers, and read over the names, not understanding the business, with mournful accuracy. He consulted various old fogies of his acquaintance, in the course of the day, at his Clubs; Wenham, a Dean, various Civilians; and, as it is called, “took their opinion,” showing to some of them the amount of his nephew’s debts, which he had dotted down on the back of a card, and asking what was to be done, and whether such debts were not monstrous, preposterous? What was to be done? — There was nothing for it but to pay. Wenham and the others told the Major of young men who owed twice as much — five times as much — as Arthur, and with no means at all to pay. The consultations, and calculations, and opinions, comforted the Major somewhat. After all, he was not to pay.

But he thought bitterly of the many plans he had formed to make a man of his nephew, of the sacrifices which he had made, and of the manner in which he was disappointed. And he wrote off a letter to Doctor Portman, informing him of the direful events which had taken place, and begging the Doctor to break them to Helen. For the orthodox old gentleman preserved the regular routine in all things, and was of opinion that it was more correct to “break” a piece of bad news to a person by means of a (possibly maladroit and unfeeling) messenger, than to convey it simply to its destination by a note. So the Major wrote to Doctor Portman, and then went out to dinner, one of the saddest men in any London dining-room that day.

Pen, too, wrote his letter, and skulked about London streets for the rest of the day, fancying that everybody was looking at him and whispering to his neighbour, “That is Pendennis of Boniface, who was plucked yesterday.” His letter to his mother was full of tenderness and remorse: he wept the bitterest tears over it — and the repentance and passion soothed him to some degree.

He saw a party of roaring young blades from Oxbridge in the coffee-room of his hotel, and slunk away from them, and paced the streets. He remembers, he says, the prints which he saw hanging up at Ackermann’s window in the rain, and a book which he read at a stall near the Temple: at night he went to the pit of the play, and saw Miss Fotheringay, but he doesn’t in the least recollect in what piece.

On the second day there came a kind letter from his tutor, containing many grave and appropriate remarks upon the event which had befallen him, but strongly urging Pen not to take his name off the university books, and to retrieve a disaster which, everybody knew, was owing to his own carelessness alone, and which he might repair by a month’s application. He said he had ordered Pen’s skip to pack up some trunks of the young gentleman’s wardrobe, which duly arrived with fresh copies of all Pen’s bills laid on the top.

On the third day there arrived a letter from home; which Pen read in his bedroom, and the result of which was that he fell down on his knees with his head in the bedclothes, and then prayed out his heart and humbled himself; and having gone downstairs and eaten an immense breakfast he sallied forth and took his place at the Bull and Mouth, Piccadilly, by the Chatteris coach for that evening.

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