The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXII

Prodigal’s Return

Such a letter as the Major wrote of course, sent Doctor Portman to Fairoaks, and he went off with that alacrity which a good man shows when he has disagreeable news to commit. He wishes the deed were done, and done quickly. He is sorry, but que voulez-vous? the tooth must be taken out, and he has you in the chair, and it is surprising with what courage and vigour of wrist he applies the forceps. Perhaps he would not be quite so active or eager if it were his tooth; but, in fine, it is your duty to have it out. So the doctor, having read the epistle out to Myra and Mrs. Portman, with many damnatory comments upon the young scapegrace who was goin deeper and deeper into perdition, left those ladies to spread the news through the Clavering society, which they did with their accustomed accuracy and despatch, and strode over to Fairoaks to break the intelligence to the widow.

She had the news already. She had read Pen’s letter, and it had relieved her somehow. A gloomy presentiment of evil had been hanging over her for many, many months past. She knew the worst now, and her darling boy was come back to her repentant and tender-hearted. Did she want more? All that the Rector could say (and his remarks were both dictated by common-sense, and made respectable by antiquity) could not bring Helen to feel any indignation or particular unhappiness, except that the boy should be unhappy. What was this degree that they made such an outcry about, and what good would it do Pen? Why did Doctor Portman and his uncle insist upon sending the boy to a place where there was so much temptation to be risked, and so little good to be won? Why didn’t they leave him at home with his mother? As for his debts, of course they must be paid; — his debts! — wasn’t his father’s money all his, and hadn’t he a right to spend it? In this way the widow met the virtuous Doctor, and all the arrows of his indignation somehow took no effect upon her gentle bosom.

For some time past, an agreeable practice, known since times ever so ancient, by which brothers and sisters are wont to exhibit their affection towards one another, and in which Pen and his little sister Laura had been accustomed to indulge pretty frequently in their childish days, had been given up by the mutual consent of those two individuals. Coming back from college after an absence from home of some months, in place of the simple girl whom he had left behind him, Mr. Arthur found a tall, slim, handsome young lady, to whom he could not somehow proffer the kiss which he had been in the habit of administering previously, and who received him with a gracious curtsey and a proffered hand, and with a great blush which rose up to the cheek, just upon the very spot which young Pen had been used to salute.

I am not good at descriptions of female beauty; and, indeed, do not care for it in the least (thinking that goodness and virtue are, of course, far more advantageous to a young lady than any mere fleeting charms of person and face), and so shall not attempt any particular delineation of Miss Laura Bell at the age of sixteen years. At that age she had attained her present altitude of five feet four inches, so that she was called tall and gawky by some, and a Maypole by others, of her own sex, who prefer littler women. But if she was a Maypole, she had beautiful roses about her head, and it is a fact that many swains were disposed to dance round her. She was ordinarily pale, with a faint rose tinge in her cheeks; but they flushed up in a minute when occasion called, and continued so blushing ever so long, the roses remaining after the emotion had passed away which had summoned those pretty flowers into existence. Her eyes have been described as very large from her earliest childhood, and retained that characteristic in later life. Good-natured critics (always females) said that she was in the habit of making play with those eyes, and ogling the gentlemen and ladies in her company; but the fact is, that Nature had made them so to shine and to look, and they could no more help so looking and shining than one star can help being brighter than another. It was doubtless to mitigate their brightness that Miss Laura’s eyes were provided with two pairs of veils in the shape of the longest and finest black eyelashes, so that, when she closed her eyes, the same people who found fault with those orbs, said that she wanted to show her eyelashes off; and, indeed, I daresay that to see her asleep would have been a pretty sight.

As for her complexion, that was nearly as brilliant as Lady Mantrap’s, and without the powder which her ladyship uses. Her nose must be left to the reader’s imaginaton: if her mouth was rather large (as Miss Piminy avers, who, but for her known appetite, one would think could not swallow anything larger than a button) everybody allowed that her smile was charming, and showed off a set of pearly teeth, whilst her voice was so low and sweet, that to hear it was like listening to sweet music. Because she is in the habit of wearing very long dresses, people of course say that her feet are not small: but it may be that they are of the size becoming her figure, and it does not follow, because Mrs. Pincher is always putting her foot out, that all other ladies should be perpetually bringing theirs on the tapis. In fine, Miss Laura Bell at the age of sixteen, was a sweet young lady. Many thousands of such are to be found, let us hope, in this country where there is no lack of goodness, and modesty, and purity, and beauty.

Now Miss Laura, since she had learned to think for herself (and in the past two years her mind and her person had both developed themselves considerably) had only been half pleased with Pen’s general conduct and bearing. His letters to his mother at home had become of late very rare and short. It was in vain that the fond widow urged how constant Arthur’s occupations and studies were and how many his engagements. “It is better that he should lose a prize” Laura said “than forget his mother; and indeed, mamma, I don’t see that he gets many prizes. Why doesn’t he come home and stay with you, instead of passing his vacations at his great friends’ fine houses? There is nobody there will love him half so much as — as you do.” “As I do only, Laura?” sighed out Mrs. Pendennis. Laura declared stoutly that she did not love Pen a bit, when he did not do his duty to his mother nor would she be convinced by any of Helen’s fond arguments, that the boy must make his way in the world; that his uncle was most desirous that Pen should cultivate the acquaintance of persons who were likely to befriend him in life; that men had a thousand ties and calls which women could not understand, and so forth. Perhaps Helen no more believed in these excuses than her adopted daughter did; but she tried to believe that she believed them, and comforted herself with the maternal infatuation. And that is a point whereon I suppose many a gentleman has reflected, that, do what we will, we are pretty sure of the woman’s love that once has been ours; and that that untiring tenderness and forgiveness never fail us.

Also, there had been that freedom, not to say audacity, in Arthur’s latter talk and ways, which had shocked and displeased Laura. Not that he ever offended her by rudeness, or addressed to her a word which she ought not to hear, for Mr. Pen was a gentleman, and by nature and education polite to every woman high and low; but he spoke lightly and laxly of women in general; was less courteous in his actions than in his words — neglectful in sundry ways, and in many of the little offices of life. It offended Miss Laura that he should smoke his horrid pipes in the house; that he should refuse to go to church with his mother, or on walks or visits with her, and be found yawning over his novel in his dressing-gown, when the gentle widow returned from those duties. The hero of Laura’s early infancy, about whom she had passed so many, many nights talking with Helen (who recited endless stories of the boy’s virtues, and love, and bravery, when he was away at school), was a very different person from the young man whom now she knew; bold and brilliant, sarcastic and defiant, seeming to scorn the simple occupations or pleasures, or even devotions, of the women with whom he lived, and whom he quitted on such light pretexts.

The Fotheringay affair, too, when Laura came to hear of it (which she did first by some sarcastic allusions of Major Pendennis, when on a visit to Fairoaks, and then from their neighbours at Clavering, who had plenty of information to give her on this head), vastly shocked and outraged Miss Laura. A Pendennis fling himself away on such a woman as that! Helen’s boy galloping away from home, day after day, to fall on his knees to an actress, and drink with her horrid father! A good son want to bring such a man and such a woman into his house, and set her over his mother! “I would have run away, mamma; I would, if I had had to walk barefoot through the snow,” Laura said.

“And you would have left me too, then?” Helen answered; on which, of course, Laura withdrew her previous observation, and the two women rushed into each other’s embraces with that warmth which belonged to both their natures, and which characterises not a few of their sex. Whence came all Whence came all the indignation of Miss Laura about Arthur’s passion? Perhaps she did not know, that, if men throw themselves away upon women, women throw themselves away upon men, too; and that there is no more accounting for love, than for any other physical liking or antipathy: perhaps she had been misinformed by the Clavering people and old Mrs. Portman, who was vastly bitter against Pen, especially since his impertinent behaviour to the Doctor and since the wretch had smoked cigars in church-time: perhaps, finally, she was jealous; but this is a vice in which it is said the ladies very seldom indulge.

Albeit she was angry with Pen, against his mother she had no such feeling; but devoted herself to Helen with the utmost force of her girlish affection — such affection as women, whose hearts are disengaged, are apt to bestow upon the near female friend. It was devotion — it was passion — it was all sorts of fondness and folly; it was a profusion of caresses, tender epithets and endearments, such as it does not become sober historians with beards to narrate. Do not let us men despise these instincts because we cannot feel them. These women were made for our comfort and delectation, gentlemen — with all the rest of the minor animals.

But as soon as Miss Laura heard that Pen was unfortunate and unhappy, all her wrath against him straightway vanished, and gave place to the most tender and unreasonable compassion. He was the Pen of old days once more restored to her, the frank and affectionate, the generous and tender-hearted. She at once took side with Helen against Doctor Portman, when he outcried at the enormity of Pen’s transgressions. Debts? what were his debts? they were a trifle; he had been thrown into expensive society by his uncle’s order, and of course was obliged to live in the same manner as the young gentlemen whose company he frequented. Disgraced by not getting his degree? the poor boy was ill when he went in for the examinations: he couldn’t think of his mathematics and stuff on account of those very debts which oppressed him; very likely some of the odious tutors and masters were jealous of him, and had favourites of their own whom they wanted to put over his head. Other people disliked him, and were cruel to him, and were unfair to him, she was very sure. And so, with flushing cheeks and eyes bright with anger, this young creature reasoned; and she went up and seized Helen’s hand, and kissed her in the Doctor’s presence, and her looks braved the Doctor, and seemed to ask how he dared to say a word against her darling mother’s Pen?

When that divine took his leave, not a little discomfited and amazed at the pertinacious obstinacy of the women, Laura repeated her embraces and arguments with tenfold fervour to Helen, who felt that there was a great deal of cogency in most of the latter. There must be some jealousy against Pen. She felt quite sure that he had offended some of the examiners, who had taken a mean revenge of him — nothing more likely. Altogether, the announcement of the misfortune vexed these two ladies very little indeed. Pen, who was plunged in his shame and grief in London, and torn with great remorse for thinking of his mother’s sorrow, would have wondered, had he seen how easily she bore the calamity. Indeed, calamity is welcome to women if they think it will bring truant affection home again: and if you have reduced your mistress to a crust, depend upon it that she won’t repine, and only take a very little bit of it for herself, provided you will eat the remainder in her company.

And directly the Doctor was gone, Laura ordered fires to be lighted in Mr. Arthur’s rooms, and his bedding to be aired; and had these preparations completed by the time Helen had finished a most tender and affectionate letter to Pen: when the girl, smiling fondly, took her mamma by the hand, and led her into those apartments where the fires were blazing so cheerfully, and there the two kind creatures sate down on the bed, and talked about Pen ever so long. Laura added a postscript to Helen’s letter, in which she called him her dearest Pen, and bade him come home instantly, with two of the handsomest dashes under the word, and be happy with his mother and his affectionate sister Laura.

In the middle of the night — as these two ladies, after reading their bibles a great deal during the evening, and after taking just a look into Pen’s room as they passed to their own — in the middle of the night, I say, Laura, whose head not unfrequently chose to occupy that pillow which the nightcap of the late Pendennis had been accustomed to press, cried out suddenly, “Mamma, are you awake?”

Helen stirred and said, “Yes, I’m awake.” The truth is, though she had been lying quite still and silent, she had not been asleep one instant, but had been looking at the night-lamp in the chimney, and had been thinking of Pen for hours and hours.

Then Miss Laura (who had been acting with similar hypocrisy, and lying, occupied with her own thoughts, as motionless as Helen’s brooch, with Pen’s and Laura’s hair in it, on the frilled white pincushion on the dressing-table) began to tell Mrs. Pendennis of a notable plan which she had been forming in her busy little brains; and by which all Pen’s embarrassments would be made to vanish in a moment, and without the least trouble to anybody.

“You know, mamma,” this young lady said, “that I have been living with you for ten years, during which time you have never taken any of my money, and have been treating me just as if I was a charity girl. Now, this obligation has offended me very much, because I am proud and do not like to be beholden to people. And as, if I had gone to school — only I wouldn’t — it must have cost me at least fifty pounds a year, it is clear that I owe you fifty times ten pounds, which I know you have put in the bank at Chatteris for me, and which doesn’t belong to me a bit. Now, tomorrow we will go to Chatteris, and see that nice old Mr. Rowdy, with the bald head, and ask him for it — not for his head, but for the five hundred pounds: and I dare say he will send you two more, which we will save and pay back; and we will send the money to Pen, who can pay all his debts without hurting anybody and then we will live happy ever after.”

What Helen replied to this speech need not be repeated, as the widow’s answer was made up of a great number of incoherent ejaculations, embraces, and other irrelative matter. But the two women slept well after that talk; and when the night-lamp went out with a splutter, and the sun rose gloriously over the purple hills, and the birds began to sing and pipe cheerfully amidst the leafless trees and glistening evergreens on Fairoaks lawn, Helen woke too, and as she looked at the sweet face of the girl sleeping beside her, her lips parted with a smile, blushes on her cheeks, her spotless bosom heaving and falling with gentle undulations, as if happy dreams were sweeping over it — Pen’s mother felt happy and grateful beyond all power of words, save such as pious women offer up to the Beneficent Dispenser of love and mercy — in Whose honour a chorus of such praises is constantly rising up all round the world.

Although it was January and rather cold weather, so sincere was Mr. Pen’s remorse, and so determined his plans of economy, that he would not take an inside place in the coach, but sate up behind with his friend the Guard, who remembered his former liberality, and lent him plenty of great-coats. Perhaps it was the cold that made his knees tremble as he got down at the lodge-gate, or it may be that he was agitated at the notion of seeing the kind creature for whose love he had made so selfish a return. Old John was in waiting to receive his master’s baggage, but he appeared in a fustian jacket, and no longer wore his livery of drab and blue. “I’se garner and stable man, and lives in the ladge now,” this worthy man remarked, with a grin of welcome to Pen, and something of a blush; but instantly as Pen turned the corner of the shrubbery and was out of eye-shot of the coach, Helen made her appearance, her face beaming with love and forgiveness — for forgiving is what some women love best of all.

We may be sure that the widow, having a certain other object in view, had lost no time in writing off to Pen an account of the noble, the magnanimous, the magnificent offer of Laura, filling up her letter with a profusion of benedictions upon both her children. It was probably the knowledge of this money-obligation which caused Pen to blush very much when he saw Laura, who was in waiting in the hall, and who this time, and for this time only, broke through the little arrangement of which we have spoken, as having subsisted between her and Arthur for the last few years; but the truth is, there has been a great deal too much said about kissing in the present chapter.

So the Prodigal came home, and the fatted calf was killed for him, and he was made as happy as two simple women could make him. No allusions were made to the Oxbridge mishap, or questions asked as to his farther proceedings, for some time. But Pen debated these anxiously in his own mind, and up in his own room, where he passed much time in cogitation.

A few days after he came home, he rode to Chatteris on his horse, and came back on the top of the coach. He then informed his mother that he had left the horse to be sold; and when that operation was effected, he handed her over the cheque, which she, and possibly Pen himself, thought was an act of uncommon virtue and self-denial, but which Laura pronounced to be only strict justice.

He rarely mentioned the loan which she had made, and which, indeed, had been accepted by the widow with certain modifications; but once or twice, and with great hesitation and stammering, he alluded to it, and thanked her; but it evidently pained his vanity to be beholden to the orphan for succour. He was wild to find some means of repaying her.

He left off drinking wine, and betook himself, but with great moderation, to the refreshment of whisky-and-water. He gave up cigar-smoking; but it must be confessed that of late years he had liked pipes and tobacco as well or even better, so that this sacrifice was not a very severe one.

He fell asleep a great deal after dinner when he joined the ladies in the drawing-room, and was certainly very moody and melancholy. He watched the coaches with great interest, walked in to read the papers at Clavering assiduously, dined with anybody who would ask him (and the widow was glad that he should have any entertainment in their solitary place), and played a good deal at cribbage with Captain Glanders.

He avoided Dr. Portman, who, in his turn, whenever Pen passed, gave him very severe looks from under his shovel-hat. He went to church with his mother, however, very regularly, and read prayers for her at home to the little household. Always humble, it was greatly diminished now: a couple of maids did the work of the house of Fairoaks: the silver dish-covers never saw the light at all.

John put on his livery to go to church, and assert his dignity on Sundays, but it was only for form’s sake. He was gardener and out-door man, vice Upton, resigned. There was but little fire in Fairoaks kitchen, and John and the maids drank their evening beer there by the light, of a single candle. All this was Mr. Pen’s doing, and the state of things did not increas his cheerfulness.

For some time Pen said no power on earth could induce him to go back to Oxbridge again, after his failure there; but one day Laura said to him, with many blushes, that she thought, as some sort of reparation, of punishment on himself for his — for his idleness, he ought to go back and get his degree, if he could fetch it by doing so; and so back Mr. Pen went.

A plucked man is a dismal being in a university; belonging to no set of men there, and owned by no one. Pen felt himself plucked indeed of all the fine feathers which he had won during his brilliant years, and rarely appeared out of his college; regularly going to morning chapel, and shutting himself up in his rooms of nights, away from the noise and suppers of the undergraduates. There were no duns about his door, they were all paid — scarcely any cards were left there. The men of his year had taken their degrees, and were gone. He went into a second examination, and passed with perfect ease. He was somewhat more easy in his mind when he appeared in his bachelor’s gown.

On his way back from Oxbridge he paid a visit to his uncle in London; but the old gentleman received him with very cold looks, and would scarcely give him his forefinger to shake. He called a second time, but Morgan, the valet, said his master was from home.

Pen came back to Fairoaks, and to his books and to his idleness, and loneliness and despair. He commenced several tragedies, and wrote many copies of verses of a gloomy cast. He formed plans of reading and broke them. He thought about enlisting — about the Spanish legion — about a profession. He chafed against his captivity, and cursed the idleness which had caused it. Helen said he was breaking his heart, and was sad to see his prostration. As soon as they could afford it, he should go abroad — he should go to London — he should be freed from the dull society of two poor women. It was dull — very, certainly. The tender widow’s habitual melancholy seemed to deepen into a sadder gloom; and Laura saw with alarm that the dear friend became every year more languid and weary, and that her pale cheek grew more wan.

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