The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXIV

A Little Innocent

Every house has its skeleton in it somewhere, and it may be a comfort to some unhappy folks to think that the luckier and most wealthy of their neighbours have their miseries and causes of disquiet. Our little innocent Muse of Blanche, who sang so nicely and talked so sweetly, you would have thought she must have made sunshine where ever she went, was the skeleton, or the misery, or the bore, or the Nemesis of Clavering House, and of most of the inhabitants thereof. As one little stone in your own shoe or your horse’s, suffices to put either to torture and to make your journey miserable, so in life a little obstacle is sufficient to obstruct your entire progress, and subject you to endless annoyance and disquiet. Who would have guessed that such a smiling little fairy as Blanche Amory could be the cause of discord in any family?

“I say, Strong,” one day the Baronet said, as the pair were conversing after dinner over the billiard-table, and that great unbosomer of secrets, a cigar; “I say, Strong, I wish to the doose your wife was dead.”

“So do I. That’s a cannon, by Jove. But she won’t; she’ll live for ever — you see if she don’t. Why do you wish her off the hooks, Frank, my boy?” asked Captain Strong.

“Because then you might marry Missy. She ain’t bad-looking. She’ll have ten thousand, and that’s a good bit of money for such a poor old devil as you,” drawled out the other gentleman.

“And gad, Strong, I hate her worse and worse every day. I can’t stand her, Strong, by gad, I can’t.”

“I wouldn’t take her at twice the figure,” Captain Strong said, laughing. “I never saw such a little devil in my life.”

“I should like to poison her,” said the sententious Baronet; “by Jove I should,”

“Why, what has she been at now?” asked his friend.

“Nothing particular,” answered Sir Francis; “only her old tricks. That girl has such a knack of making everybody miserable that, hang me, it’s quite surprising. Last night she sent the governess crying away from the dinner-table. Afterwards, as I was passing Frank’s room, I heard the poor little beggar howling in the dark, and found his sister had been frightening his soul out of his body, by telling him stories about the ghost that’s in the house. At lunch she gave my lady a turn; and though my wife’s a fool, she’s a good soul — I’m hanged if she ain’t.”

“What did Missy do to her?” Strong asked.

“Why, hang me, if she didn’t begin talking about the late Amory, my predecessor,” the Baronet said, with a grin. “She got some picture out of the Keepsake, and said she was sure it was like her dear father, She wanted to know where her father’s grave was. Hang her father! Whenever Miss Amory talks about him, Lady Clavering always bursts out crying: and the little devil will talk about him in order to spite her mother. Today when she began, I got in a confounded rage; said I was her father; and — and that sort of thing, and then, sir, she took a shy at me.”

“And what did she say about you, Frank?” Mr. Strong, still laughing, inquired of his friend and patron.

“Gad, she said I wasn’t her father; that I wasn’t fit to comprehend her; that her father must have been a man of genius, and fine feelings, and that sort of thing: whereas I had married her mother for money.”

“Well, didn’t you?” asked Strong.

“It don’t make it any the pleasanter to hear because it’s true, don’t you know,” Sir Francis Clavering answered. “I ain’t a literary man and that; but I ain’t such a fool as she makes me out. I don’t know how it is, but she always manages to put me in the hole, don’t you understand. She turns all the house round her in her quiet way, and with her confounded sentimental airs. I wish she was dead, Ned.”

“It was my wife whom you wanted dead just now,” Strong said, always in perfect good-humour; upon which the Baron with his accustomed candour, said, “Well; when people bore my life out, I do wish they were dead, and I wish Missy were down a well, with all my heart.”

Thus it will be seen from the above report of this candid conversation that our accomplished little friend had some peculiarities or defects of character which rendered her not very popular. She was a young lady of some genius, exquisite sympathies and considerable literary attainments, living, like many another genius, with relatives who could not comprehend her. Neither her mother nor her stepfather were persons of a literary turn. Bell’s Life and the Racing Calendar were the extent of the Baronet’s reading, and Lady Clavering still wrote like a schoolgirl of thirteen, and with an extraordinary disregard to grammar and spelling. And as Miss Amory felt very keenly that she was not appreciated, and that she lived with persons who were not her equals in intellect or conversational power, she lost no opportunity to acquaint her family circle with their inferiority to herself, and not only was a martyr, but took care to let everybody know that she was so. If she suffered, as she said and thought she did, severely, are we to wonder that a young creature of such delicate sensibilities should shriek and cry out a good deal? Without sympathy life is nothing; and would it not have been a want of candour on her part to affect a cheerfulness which she did not feel, or pretend a respect for those towards whom it was quite impossible she should entertain any reverence? If a poetess may not bemoan her lot, of what earthly use is her lyre? Blanche struck hers only to the saddest of tunes; and sang elegies over her dead hopes, dirges over her early frost-nipt buds of affection, as became such a melancholy fate and Muse.

Her actual distresses, as we have said, had not been up to the present time very considerable: but her griefs lay; like those of most of us, in her own soul — that being sad and habitually dissatisfied, what wonder that she should weep? So Mes Larmes dribbled out of her eyes any day at command: she could furnish an unlimited supply of tears, and her faculty of shedding them increased by practice. For sentiment is like another complaint mentioned by Horace, as increasing by self-indulgence (I am sorry to say, ladies, that the complaint in question is called the dropsy), and the more you cry, the more you will be able and desirous to do so.

Missy had begun to gush at a very early age. Lamartine was her favourite bard from the period when she first could feel: and she had subsequently improved her mind by a sedulous study of novels of the great modern authors of the French language. There was not a romance of Balzac and George Sand which the indefatigable little creature had not devoured — by the time she was sixteen: and, however little she sympathised with her relatives at home, she had friends, as she said, in the spirit-world, meaning the tender Indiana, the passionate and poetic Lelia, the amiable Trenmor, that high-souled convict, that angel of the galleys — the fiery Stenio — and the other numberless heroes of the French romances. She had been in love with Prince Rodolph and Prince Djalma while she was yet at school, and had settled the divorce question, and the rights of woman, with Indiana, before she had left off pinafores. The impetuous little lady played at love with these imaginary worthies as a little while before she had played at maternity with her doll. Pretty little poetical spirits! It is curious to watch them with those playthings. To-day the blue-eyed one is the favourite, and the black-eyed one is pushed behind the drawers. To-morrow blue-eyes may take its turn of neglect and it may be an odious little wretch with a burnt nose, or torn bead of hair, and no eyes at all, that takes the first place in Miss’s affection, and is dandled and caressed in her arms.

As novelists are supposed to know everything, even the secrets of female hearts, which the owners themselves do not perhaps know, we may state that at eleven years of age Mademoiselle Betsi, as Miss Amory was then called, had felt tender emotions towards a young Savoyard organ-grinder at Paris, whom she Persisted in believing to be a prince carried off from his parents; that at twelve an old and hideous drawing-master (but, ah, what age or personal defects are proof against woman’s love?) had agitated her young heart; and that, at thirteen, being at Madame de Caramel’s boarding-school, in the Champs Elysees, which, as everybody knows, is next door to Monsieur Rogron’s (Chevalier of the Legion of Honour) pension for young gentlemen, a correspondence by letter took place between the seduisante Miss Betsi and two young gentlemen of the College of Charlemagne, who were pensioners of the Chevalier Rogron.

In the above paragraph our young friend has been called by a Christian name different to that under which we were lately presented to her. The fact is, that Miss Amory, called Missy at home, had really at the first been christened Betsy — but assumed the name of Blanche of her own will and fantasy, and crowned herself with it; and the weapon which the Baronet, her stepfather, held in terror over her, was the threat to call her publicly by her name of Betsy, by which menace he sometimes managed to keep the young rebel in order.

We have spoken just now of children’s dolls, and of the manner in which those little people take up and neglect their darling toys, and very likely this history will show that Miss Blanche assumed and put away her live dolls with a similar girlish inconstancy. She had had hosts of dear, dear, darling, friends ere now, and had quite a little museum of locks of hair in her treasure-chest, which she had gathered in the course of her sentimental progress. Some dear friends had married: some had gone to other schools: one beloved sister she had lost from the pension, and found again, O, horror! her darling, her Leocadie keeping the books in her father’s shop, a grocer in the Rue du Bac: in fact, she had met with a number of disappointments, estrangements, disillusionments, as she called them in her pretty French jargon, and had seen and suffered a great deal for so young a woman. But it is the lot of sensibility to suffer, and of confiding tenderness to be deceived, and she felt that she was only undergoing the penalties of genius in these pangs and disappointments of her young career.

Meanwhile, she managed to make the honest lady, her mother, as uncomfortable as circumstances would permit; and caused her worthy stepfather to wish she was dead. With the exception of Captain Strong, whose invincible good-humour was proof against her sarcasms, the little lady ruled the whole house with he tongue. If Lady Clavering talked about Sparrowgrass instead of Asparagus, or called an object a hobject, as this unfortunate lady would sometimes do, Missy calmly corrected her, and frightened the good soul, her mother, into errors only the more frequent as she grew more nervous under her daughter’s eye.

It is not to be supposed, considering the vast interest which the arrival of the family at Clavering Park inspired in the inhabitants of the little town, that Madame Fribsby alone, of all the folks in Clavering, should have remained unmoved and incurious. At the first appearance of the Park family in church, Madame noted every article of toilette which the ladies wore, from their bonnets to their brodequins, and took a survey of the attire of the ladies’ maids in the pew allotted to them. We fear that Doctor Portman’s sermon, though it was one of his oldest and most valued compositions, had little effect upon Madame Fribsby on that day.

In a very few days afterwards, she had managed for herself an interview with Lady Clavering’s confidential attendant in the housekeeper’s room at the Park; and her cards in French and English, stating that she received the newest fashions from Paris from her correspondent Madame Victorine, and that she was in the custom of making court and ball dresses for the nobility and gentry of the shire, were in the possession of Lady Clavering and Miss Amory, and favourably received, as she was happy to hear, by those ladies.

Mrs. Bonner, Lady Clavering’s lady, became soon a great frequenter of Madame Fribsby’s drawing-room, and partook of many entertainments at the milliner’s expense. A meal of green tea, scandal, hot Sally-Lunn cakes, and a little novel reading, were always at the service of Mrs. Bonner, whenever she was free to pass an evening in the town. And she found much more time for these pleasures than her junior officer, Miss Amory’s maid, who seldom could be spared for a holiday, and was worked as hard as any factory-girl by that inexorable little Muse, her mistress.

The Muse loved to be dressed becomingly, and, having a lively fancy and a poetic desire for change, was for altering her attire every day. Her maid having a taste in dressmaking — to which art she had been an apprentice at Paris, before she entered into Miss Blanche’s service there — was kept from morning till night altering and remodelling Miss Amory’s habiliments; and rose very early and went to bed very late, in obedience to the untiring caprices of her little taskmistress. The girl was of respectable English parents. There are many of our people, colonists of Paris, who have seen better days, who are not quite ruined, who do not quite live upon charity, and yet cannot get on without it; and as her father was a cripple incapable of work, and her return home would only increase the burthen and add to the misery of the family, poor Pincott was fain to stay where she could maintain herself, and spare a little relief to her parents.

Our Muse, with the candour which distinguished her, never failed to remind her attendant of the real state of matters. “I should send you away, Pincott, for you are a great deal too weak, and your eyes are failing you, and you are always crying and snivelling and wanting the doctor; but I wish that your parents at home should be supported, and I go on enduring you for their sake, mind,” the dear Blanche would say to her timid little attendant. Or, “Pincott, your wretched appearance and slavish manner, and red eyes, positively give me the migraine; and I think I shall make you wear rouge, so that you may look a little cheerful;” or, “Pincott, I can’t bear, even for the sake of your starving parents, that you should tear my hair out of my head in that manner; and I will thank you to write to them and say that I dispense with your services.” After which sort of speeches, and after keeping her for an hour trembling over her hair, which the young lady loved to have combed, as she perused one of her favourite French novels, she would go to bed at one o’clock, and say, “Pincott, you may kiss me. Good night. I should like you to have the pink dress ready for the morning.” And so with blessing upon her attendant, she would turn round and go to sleep.

The Muse might lie in bed as long as she chose of a morning, and availed herself of that privilege; but Pincott had to rise very early indeed to get her mistress’s task done; and had to appear next day with the same red eyes and the same wan face, which displeased Miss Amory by their want of gaiety, and caused the mistress to be so angry, because the servant persisted in being and looking unwell and unhappy. Not that Blanche ever thought she was a hard mistress. Indeed, she made quite a friend of Pincott, at times, and wrote some very pretty verses about the lonely little tiring-maid, whose heart was far away. Our beloved Blanche was a superior being, and expected to be waited upon as such. And I do not know whether there are any other ladies in this world who treat their servants or dependants so, but it may be that there are such, and that the tyranny which they exercise over their subordinates, and the pangs which they can manage to inflict with a soft voice, and a well-bred simper, are as cruel as those which a slave-driver administers with an oath and a whip.

But Blanche was a Muse — a delicate little creature, quite tremulous with excitability, whose eyes filled with tears at the smallest emotion; and who knows, but that it was the very fineness of her feelings which caused them to be froissed so easily? You crush a butterfly by merely touching it. Vulgar people have no idea of the sensibility of a Muse.

So little Pincott being occupied all day and night in stitching, hemming, ripping, combing, ironing, crimping, for her mistress; reading to her when in bed — for the girl was mistress of the two languages, and had a sweet voice and manner — could take no share in Madame Fribsby’s soirees, nor indeed was she much missed, or considered of sufficient consequence to appear at their entertainments.

But there was another person connected with the Clavering establishment, who became a constant guest of our friend, the milliner. This was the chief of the kitchen, Monsieur Mirobolant, with whom Madame Fribsby soon formed an intimacy.

Not having been accustomed to the appearance or society of persons of the French nation, the rustic inhabitants of Clavering were not so favourably impressed by Monsieur Alcide’s manners and appearance, as that gentleman might have desired that they should be. He walked among them quite unsuspiciously upon the afternoon of a summer day, when his services were not required at the House, in his usual favourite costume, namely, his light green frock or paletot, his crimson velvet waistcoat, with blue glass buttons, his pantalon Ecossais, of a very large and decided check pattern, his orange satin neckcloth, and his jean-boots, with tips of shiny leather — these, with a gold-embroidered cap, and a richly gilt cane, or other varieties of ornament of a similar tendency, formed his usual holiday costume, in which he flattered himself there was nothing remarkable (unless, indeed, the beauty of his person should attract observation), and in which he considered that he exhibited the appearance of a gentleman of good Parisian ton.

He walked then down the street, grinning and ogling every woman he met with glances, which he meant should kill them outright, and peered over the railings, and in at the windows, where females were, in the tranquil summer evening. But Betsy, Mrs. Pybus’s maid, shrank back with a Lor bless us, as Alcide ogled her over the laurel-bush; the Miss Bakers, and their mamma, stared with wonder; and presently a crowd began to follow the interesting foreigner, of ragged urchins and children, who left their dirt-pies in the street to pursue him.

For some time he thought that admiration was the cause which led these persons in his wake, and walked on, pleased himself that he could so easily confer on others so much harmless pleasure. But the little children and dirt-pie manufacturers were presently succeeded by followers of a larger growth, and a number of lads and girls from the factory being let loose at this hour, joined the mob, and began laughing, jeering, hooting, and calling opprobrious names at the Frenchman. Some cried out “Frenchy! Frenchy!” some exclaimed “Frogs!” one asked for a lock of his hair, which was long and in richly-flowing ringlets; and at length the poor artist began to perceive that he was an object of derision rather than of respect to the rude grinning mob.

It was at this juncture that Madame Fribsby spied the unlucky gentleman with the train at his heels, and heard the scornful shouts with which they assailed him. She ran out of her room, and across the street to the persecuted foreigner; she held out her hand, and, addressing him in his own language, invited him into her abode; and when she had housed him fairly within her door, she stood bravely at the threshold before the gibing factory girls and boys, and said they were a pack of cowards to insult a poor man who could not speak their language, and was alone and without protection. The little crowd, with some ironical cheers and hootings, nevertheless felt the force of Madame Fribsby’s vigorous allocution, and retreated before her; for the old lady was rather respected in the place, and her oddity and her kindness had made her many friends there.

Poor Mirobolant was grateful indeed to hear the language of his country ever so ill spoken. Frenchmen pardon our faults in their language much more readily than we excuse their bad English; and will face our blunders throughout a long conversation, without the least propensity to grin. The rescued artist vowed that Madame Fribsby was his guardian angel, and that he had not as yet met with such suavity and politeness among les Anglaises. He was as courteous and complimentary to her as if it was the fairest and noblest of ladies whom he was addressing for Alcide Mirobolant paid homage after his fashion to all womankind, and never dreamed of a distinction of ranks in the realms of beauty, as his phrase was.

A cream, flavoured with pineapple — a mayonnaise of lobster, which he flattered himself was not unworthy of his hand, or of her to whom he had the honour to offer it as an homage, and a box of preserved fruits of Provence, were brought by one of the chef’s aides-de-camp, in a basket, the next day to the milliner’s, and were accompanied with a gallant note to the amiable Madame Fribsbi. “Her kindness,” Alcide said, “had made a green place in the desert of his existence — her suavity would ever contrast in memory with the grossierete of the rustic population, who were not worthy to possess such a jewel.” An intimacy of the most confidential nature thus sprang up between the milliner and the chief of the kitchen; but I do not know whether it was with pleasure or mortification that Madame received the declarations of friendship which the young Alcides proffered to her, for he persisted in calling her “La respectable Fribsbi,” “La vertueuse Fribsbi,”— and in stating that he should consider her as his mother, while he hoped she would regard him as her son. Ah! it was not very long ago, Fribsby thought, that words had been addressed to her in that dear French language, indicating a different sort of attachment. And she sighed as she looked up at the picture of her Carabineer. For it is surprising how young some people’s hearts remain when their heads have need of a front or a little hair-dye — and, at this moment, Madame Fribsby, as she told young Alcide, felt as romantic as a girl of eighteen.

When the conversation took this turn — and at their first intimacy Madame Fribsby was rather inclined so to lead it — Alcide always politely diverged to another subject: it was as his mother that he persisted in considering the good milliner. He would recognise her in no other capacity, and with that relationship the gentle lady was forced to content herself, when she found how deeply the artist’s heart was engaged elsewhere.

He was not long before he described to her the subject and origin of his passion.

“I declared myself to her,” said Alcide, laying his hand on his heart, “in a manner which was as novel as I am charmed to think it was agreeable. Where cannot Love penetrate, respectable Madame Fribsbi? Cupid is the father of invention! — I inquired of the domestics what were the plats of which Mademoiselle partook with most pleasure; and built up my little battery accordingly. On a day when her parents had gone to dine in the world (and I am grieved to say that a grossier dinner at a restaurateur, in the Boulevard, or in the Palais Royal seemed to form the delights of these unrefined persons), the charming Miss entertained some comrades of the pension; and I advised myself to send up a little repast suitable to so delicate young palates. Her lovely name is Blanche. The name of the maiden is white; the wreath of roses which she wears is white. I determined that my dinner should be as spotless as the snow. At her accustomed hour, and instead of the rude gigot a l’eau, which was ordinarily served at her too simple table, I sent her up a little potage a la Reine — a la Reine Blanche I called it — as white as her own tint — and confectioned with the most fragrant cream and almonds. I then offered up at her shrine a filet de merlan a l’gnes, and a delicate plat which I designated as Eperlan a la Sainte-Therese, and of which my charming Miss partook with pleasure. I followed this by two little entrees of sweetbread and chicken; and the only brown thing which I permitted myself in the entertainment was a little roast of lamb, which I lay in a meadow of spinaches, surrounded with croustillons, representing sheep, and ornamented with daisies and other savage flowers. After this came my second service: a pudding a la Reine Elizabeth (who, Madame Fribsbi knows, was a maiden princess); a dish of opal-coloured plover’s eggs which I called Nid de tourtereaux a la Roucoule; placing in the midst of them two of those tender volatiles, billing each other, and confectioned with butter; a basket containing little gateaux of apricots, which, I know, all young ladies adore; and a jelly of marasquin, bland insinuating, intoxicating as the glance of beauty. This I designated Ambroisie de Calypso a la Souveraine de mon Coeur. And when the ice was brought in-an ice of plombiere and cherries — how do you think I had shaped them, Madame Fribsbi? In the form of two hearts united with an arrow, on which I had laid, before it entered, a bridal veil in cut-paper, surmounted by a wreath of virginal orange-flowers. I stood at the door to watch the effect of this entry. It was but one cry of admiration. The three young ladies filled their glasses with the sparkling Ay, and carried me in a toast. I heard it — I heard Miss speak of me — I heard her say, ‘Tell Monsieur Mirobolant that we thank him — we admire him — we love him!’ My feet almost failed me as she spoke.

“Since that, can I have any reason to doubt that the young artist has made some progress in the heart of the English Miss? I am modest, but my glass informs me that I am not ill-looking. Other victories have convinced me of the fact.”

“Dangerous man!” cried the milliner.

“The blond misses of Albion see nothing in the dull inhabitants of their brumous isle, which can compare with the ardour and vivacity of the children of the South. We bring our sunshine with us; we are Frenchmen, and accustomed to conquer. Were it not for this affair of the heart, and my determination to marry an Anglaise, do you think I would stop in this island (which is not altogether ungrateful, since I have found here a tender mother in the respectable Madame Fribsbi), in this island, in this family? My genius would use itself in the company of these rustics — the poesy of my art cannot be understood by these carnivorous insularies. No — the men are odious, but the women — the women! I own, dear Fribsbi, are seducing! I have vowed to marry one; and as I cannot go into your markets and purchase, according to the custom of the country, I am resolved to adopt another custom, and fly with one to Gretna Grin. The blonde Miss will go. She is fascinated. Her eyes have told me so. The white dove wants but the signal to fly.”

“Have you any correspondence with her?” asked Fribsby, in amazement, and not knowing whether the young lady or the lover might be labouring under a romantic delusion.

“I correspond with her by means of my art. She partakes of dishes which I make expressly for her. I insinuate to her thus a thousand hints which as she is perfectly spiritual, she receives. But I want other intelligences near her.”

“There is Pincott, her maid,” said Madame Fribsby, who, by aptitude or education, seemed to have some knowledge of affairs of the heart, but the great artist’s brow darkened at this suggestion.

“Madame,” he said, “there are points upon which a gallant man ought to silence himself; though, if he break the secret, he may do so with the least impropriety to his best friend — his adopted mother. Know then, that there is a cause why Miss Pincott should be hostile to me — a cause not uncommon with your sex — jealousy.”

“Perfidious monster!” said the confidante.

“Ah, no,” said the artist, with a deep bass voice, and a tragic accent worthy of the Port St Martin and his favourite melodrames, “not perfidious, but fatal. Yes, I am a fatal man, Madame Fribsbi. To inspire hopeless passion is my destiny. I cannot help it that women love me. Is it my fault that that young woman deperishes and languishes to the view of the eye, consumed by a flame which I cannot return? Listen! There are others in this family who are similarly unhappy. The governess of the young Milor has encountered me in my walks, and looked at me in a way which can bear but one interpretation. And Milady herself, who is of mature age, but who has oriental blood, has once or twice addressed compliments to the lonely artist which can admit of no mistake. I avoid the household, I seek solitude, I undergo my destiny. I can marry but one, and am resolved it shall be to a lady of your nation. And, if her fortune is sufficient I think Miss would be the person who would be most suitable. I wish to ascertain what her means are before I lead her to Gretna Grin.”

Whether Alcides was as irresistible a conqueror as his namesake, or whether he was simply crazy, is a point which must be left to the reader’s judgment. But the latter if he had had the benefit of much French acquaintance, has perhaps met with men amongst them who fancied themselves almost as invincible; and who, if you credit them, have made equal havoc in the hearts of les Anglaises.

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