The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXVIII

In which the Sylph reappears

Better folks than Morgan, the valet, were not so well instructed as that gentleman, regarding the amount of Lady Clavering’s riches; and the legend in London, upon her Ladyship’s arrival in the polite metropolis, was, that her fortune was enormous. Indigo factories, opium clippers, banks overflowing with rupees, diamonds and jewels of native princes, and vast sums of interest paid by them for loans contracted by themselves or their predecessors to Lady Clavering’s father, were mentioned as sources of her wealth. Her account at her London banker’s was positively known, and the sum embraced so many cyphers as to create as many O’s of admiration in the wondering hearer. It was a known fact that an envoy from an Indian Prince, a Colonel Altamont, the Nawaub of Lucknow’s prime favourite, an extraordinary man, who had, it was said, embraced Mahometanism, and undergone a thousand wild and perilous adventures was at present in this country, trying to negotiate with the Begum Clavering, the sale of the Nawaub’s celebrated nose-ring diamond, ‘the light of the Dewan.’

Under the title of the Begum, Lady Clavering’s fame began to spread in London before she herself descended upon the Capital, and as it has been the boast of Delolme, and Blackstone, and all panegyrists of the British Constitution, that we admit into our aristocracy merit of every kind, and that the lowliest-born man, if he but deserve it, may wear the robes of a peer, and sit alongside of a Cavendish or a Stanley: so it ought to be the boast of our good society, that haughty though it be, naturally jealous of its privileges, and careful who shall be admitted into its circle, yet, if an individual be but rich enough, all barriers are instantly removed, and he or she is welcomed, as from his wealth he merits to be. This fact shows our British independence and honest feeling — our higher orders are not such mere haughty aristocrats as the ignorant represent them: on the contrary, if a man have money they will hold out their hands to him, eat his dinners, dance at his balls, marry his daughters, or give their own lovely girls to his sons, as affably as your commonest roturier would do.

As he had superintended the arrangements of the country mansion, our friend, the Chevalier Strong, gave the benefit of his taste and advice to the fashionable London upholsterers, who prepared the town house for the reception of the Clavering family. In the decoration of this elegant abode, honest Strong’s soul rejoiced as much as if he had been himself its proprietor. He hung and re-hung the pictures, he studied the positions of sofas, he had interviews with wine merchants and purveyors who were to supply the new establishment; and at the same time the Baronet’s factotum and confidential friend took the opportunity of furnishing his own chambers, and stocking his snug little cellar: his friends complimented him upon the neatness of the former; and the select guests who came in to share Strong’s cutlet new found a bottle of excellent claret to accompany the meal. The Chevalier was now, as be said, “in clover:” he had a very comfortable set of rooms in Shepherd’s Inn. He was waited on by a former Spanish Legionary and comrade of his whom he had left at a breach of a Spanish fort, and found at a crossing in Tottenham-court Road, and whom he had elevated to the rank of body-servant to himself and to the chum who, at present, shared his lodgings. This was no other than the favourite of the Nawaub of Lucknow, the valiant Colonel Altamont.

No man was less curious, or at any rate, more discreet, than Ned Strong, and he did not care to inquire into the mysterious connexion which, very soon after their first meeting at Baymouth was established between Sir Francis Clavering and the envoy of the Nawaub. The latter knew some secret regarding the former, which put Clavering into his power, somehow; and Strong, who knew that his patron’s early life had been rather irregular, and that his career with his regiment in India had not been brilliant, supposed that the Colonel, who swore he knew Clavering well at Calcutta, had some hold upon Sir Francis, to which the latter was forced to yield. In truth, Strong had long understood Sir Francis Clavering’s character, as that of a man utterly weak in purpose, in principle, and intellect, a moral and physical trifler and poltroon.

With poor Clavering, his Excellency had had one or two interviews after their Baymouth meeting, the nature of which conversations the Baronet did not confide to Strong: although he sent letters to Altamont by that gentleman, who was his ambassador in all sorts of affairs. On one of these occasions the Nawaub’s envoy must have been in an exceeding ill humour; for he crushed Clavering’s letter in his hand, and said with his own particular manner and emphasis:—

“A hundred, be hanged. I’ll have no more letters nor no more shilly-shally. Tell Clavering I’ll have a thousand, or by Jove I’ll split, and burst him all to atoms. Let him give me a thousand and I’ll go abroad, and I give you my honour as a gentleman, I’ll not ask him for no more for a year. Give him that message from me, Strong, my boy; and tell him if the money ain’t here next Friday at twelve o’clock, as sure as my name’s what it is, I’ll have a paragraph in the newspaper on Saturday, and next week I’ll blow up the whole concern.”

Strong carried back these words to his principal, on whom their effect was such that actually on the day and hour appointed, the Chevalier made his appearance once more at Altamont’s hotel at Baymouth, with the sum of money required. Altamont was a gentleman, he said, and behaved as such; he paid his bill at the Inn, and the Baymouth paper announced his departure on a foreign tour. Strong saw him embark at Dover. “It must be forgery at the very least,” he thought, “that has put Clavering into this fellow’s power, and the Colonel has got the bill.”

Before the year was out, however, this happy country saw the Colonel once more upon its shores. A confounded run on the red had finished him, he said, at Baden Baden: no gentleman could stand against a colour coming up fourteen times. He had been obliged to draw upon Sir Francis Clavering for means of returning home: and Clavering, though pressed for money (for he had election expenses, had set up his establishment in the country and was engaged in furnishing his London house), yet found means to accept Colonel Altamont’s bill, though evidently very much against his will; for in Strong’s hearing, Sir Francis wished to heaven, with many curses, that the Colonel could have been locked up in a debtor’s goal in Germany for life, so that he might never be troubled again.

These sums for the Colonel Sir Francis was obliged to raise without the knowledge of his wife; for though perfectly liberal, nay, sumptuous in her expenditure, the good lady had inherited a tolerable aptitude for business along with the large fortune of her father, Snell, and gave to her husband only such a handsome allowance as she thought befitted a gentleman of his rank. Now and again she would give him a present, or pay an outstanding gambling debt; but she always exacted a pretty accurate account of the moneys so required; and respecting the subsidies to the Colonel, Clavering fairly told Strong that he couldn’t speak to his wife.

Part of Mr. Strong’s business in life was to procure this money and other sums, for his patron. And in the Chevalier’s apartments, in Shepherd’s Inn, many negotiations took place between gentlemen of the moneyed world and Sir Francis Clavering, and many valuable bank-notes and pieces of stamped paper were passed between them. When a man has been in the habit of getting in debt from his early youth, and of exchanging his promises to pay at twelve months against present sums of money, it would seem as if no piece of good fortune ever permanently benefited him: a little while after the advent of prosperity, the money-lender is pretty certain to be in the house again, and the bills with the old signature in the market. Clavering found it more convenient to see these gentry at Strong’s lodgings than at his own; and such was the Chevalier’s friendship for the Baronet that although he did not possess a shilling of his own, his name might be seen as the drawer of almost all the bills of exchange which Sir Francis Clavering accepted. Having drawn Clavering’s bills, he got them discounted “in the City.” When they became due he parleyed with the bill-holders, and gave them instalments of their debt, or got time in exchange for fresh acceptances. Regularly or irregularly, gentlemen must live somehow: and as we read how, the other day, at Comorn, the troops forming that garrison were gay and lively, acted plays, danced at balls, and consumed their rations; though menaced with an assault from the enemy without the walls, and with a gallows if the Austrians were successful — so there are hundreds of gallant spirits in this town, walking about in good spirits, dining every day in tolerable gaiety and plenty, and going to sleep comfortably; with a bailiff always more or less near, and a rope of debt round their necks — the which trifling inconveniences, Ned Strong, the old soldier, bore very easily.

But we shall have another opportunity of making acquaintance with these and some other interesting inhabitants of Shepherd’s Inn, and in the meanwhile are keeping Lady Clavering and her friends too long waiting on the door-steps of Grosvenor Place.

First they went into the gorgeous dining-room, fitted up, Lady Clavering couldn’t for goodness gracious tell why, in the middle-aged style, “unless,” said her good-natured ladyship, laughing, “because me and Clavering are middle-aged people;"— and here they were offered the copious remains of the luncheon of which Lady Clavering and Blanche had just partaken. When nobody was near, our little Sylphide, who scarcely ate at dinner more than the six grains of rice of Amina, the friend of the Ghouls in the Arabian Nights, was most active with her knife and fork, and consumed a very substantial portion of mutton cutlets: in which piece of hypocrisy it is believed she resembled other young ladies of fashion. Pen and his uncle declined the refection, but they admired the dining-room with fitting compliments, and pronounced it “very chaste,” that being the proper phrase. There were, indeed, high-backed Dutch chairs of the seventeenth century; there was a sculptured carved buffet of the sixteenth; there was a sideboard robbed out of the carved work of a church in the Low Countries, and a large brass cathedral lamp over the round oak table; there were old family portraits from Wardour Street and tapestry from France, bits of armour, double-handed swords and battle-axes made of carton-pierre, looking-glasses, statuettes of saints, and Dresden china — nothing, in a word, could be chaster. Behind the dining-room was the library, fitted with busts and books all of a size, and wonderful easy-chairs, and solemn bronzes in the severe classic style. Here it was that, guarded by double doors, Sir Francis smoked cigars, and read Bell’s Life in London, and went to sleep after dinner, when he was not smoking over the billiard-table at his clubs, or punting at the gambling-houses in Saint James’s.

But what could equal the chaste splendour of the drawing-rooms? — the carpets were so magnificently fluffy that your foot made no more noise on them than your shadow: on their white ground bloomed roses and tulips as big as warming-pans: about the room were high chairs and low chairs, bandy-legged chairs, chairs so attenuated that it was a wonder any but a sylph could sit upon them, marquetterie-tables covered with marvellous gimcracks, china ornaments of all ages and countries, bronzes, gilt daggers, Books of Beauty, yataghans, Turkish papooshes and boxes of Parisian bonbons. Wherever you sate down there were Dresden shepherds and shepherdesses convenient at your elbow; there were, moreover, light blue poodles and ducks and cocks and hens in porcelain; there were nymphs by Boucher, and shepherdesses by Greuze, very chaste indeed; there were muslin curtains and brocade curtains, gilt cages with parroquets and love-birds, two squealing cockatoos, each out-squealing and out-chattering the other; a clock singing tunes on a console-table, and another booming the hours like Great Tom, on the mantelpiece — there was, in a word, everything that comfort could desire, and the most elegant taste devise. A London drawing-room, fitted up without regard to expense, is surely one of the noblest and most curious sights of the present day. The Romans of the Lower Empire, the dear Marchionesses and Countesses of Louis XV., could scarcely have had a finer taste than our modern folks exhibit; and everybody who saw Lady Clavering’s reception rooms, was forced to confess that they were most elegant; and that the prettiest rooms in London — Lady Harley Quin’s, Lady Hanway Wardour’s, or Mrs. Hodge-Podgson’s own; the great Railroad Croesus’ wife, were not fitted up with a more consummate “chastity.”

Poor Lady Clavering, meanwhile, knew little regarding these things, and had a sad want of respect for the splendours around her. “I only know they cost a precious deal of money, Major,” she said to her guest, “and that I don’t advise you to try one of them gossamer gilt chairs: I came down on one the night we gave our second dinner-party. Why didn’t you come and see us before? We’d have asked you to it.”

“You would have liked to see Mamma break a chair, wouldn’t you, Mr. Pendennis?” dear Blanche said with a sneer. She was angry because Pen was talking and laughing with Mamma, because Mamma had made a number of blunders in describing the house — for a hundred other good reasons.

“I should like to have been by to give Lady Clavering my arm if she had need of it,” Pen answered, with a bow and a blush.

“Quel preux Chevalier!” cried the Sylphide, tossing up her little head.

“I have a fellow-feeling with those who fall, remember,” Pen said. “I suffered myself very much from doing so once.”

“And you went home to Laura to console you,” said Miss Amory. Pen winced. He did not like the remembrance of the consolation which Laura had given to him, nor was he very well pleased to find that his rebuff in that quarter was known to the world; so as he had nothing to say in reply, he began to be immensely interested in the furniture round about him, and to praise Lady Clavering’s taste with all his might.

“No, don’t praise me,” said honest Lady Clavering, “it’s all the upholsterer’s doings and Captain Strong’s, they did it all while we was at the Park — and — and — Lady Rockminster has been here and says the salongs are very well,” said Lady Clavering, with an air and tone of great deference.

“My cousin Laura has been staying with her,” Pen said.

“It’s not the dowager: it is the Lady Rockminster.”

“Indeed!” cried Major Pendennis, when he heard this great name of fashion. “If you have her ladyship’s approval, Lady Clavering, you cannot be far wrong. No, no, you cannot be far wrong. Lady Rockminster, I should say, Arthur, is the very centre of the circle of fashion and taste. The rooms are beautiful indeed!” and the Major’s voice hushed as he spoke of this great lady, and he looked round and surveyed the apartments awfully and respectfully, as if he had been at church.

“Yes, Lady Rockminster has took us up,” said Lady Clavering.

“Taken us up, Mamma,” cried Blanche, in a shrill voice.

“Well, taken us up, then,” said my lady; “it’s very kind of her, and I dare say we shall like it when we git used to it, only at first one don’t fancy being took — well, taken up, at all. She is going to give our balls for us; and wants to invite all our dinners. But I won’t stand that. I will have my old friends and I won’t let her send all the cards out, and sit mum at the head of my own table. You must come to me, Arthur and Major — come, let me see, on the 14th. — It ain’t one of our grand dinners, Blanche,” she said, looking round at her daughter, who bit her lips and frowned very savagely for a sylphide.

The Major, with a smile and a bow, said he would much rather come to a quiet meeting than to a grand dinner. He had had enough of those large entertainments, and preferred the simplicity of the home circle.

“I always think a dinner’s the best the second day,” said Lady Clavering, thinking to mend her first speech. “On the 14th we’ll be quite a snug little party;” at which second blunder, Miss Blanche clasped her hands in despair, and said “O, mamma, vous etes incorrigible.” Major Pendennis vowed that he liked snug dinners of all things in the world, and confounded her ladyship’s impudence for daring to ask such a man as him to a second day’s dinner. But he was a man of an economical turn of mind, and bethinking himself that he could throw over these people if anything better should offer, he accepted with the blandest air. As for Pen, he was not a diner-out of thirty years’ standing as yet, and the idea of a fine feast in a fine house was still perfectly welcome to him.

“What was that pretty little quarrel which engaged itself between your worship and Miss Amory?” the Major asked of Pen, as they walked away together. “I thought you used to au mieux in that quarter.”

“Used to be,” answered Pen, with a dandified air “is a vague phrase regarding a woman. Was and is are two very different terms, sir, as regards women’s hearts especially.

“Egad, they change as we do,” cried the elder. “When we took the Cape of Good Hope, I recollect there was a lady who talked poisoning herself for your humble servant; and, begad, in three months she ran away from her husband with somebody else. Don’t get yourself entangled with that Miss Amory, She is forward, affected, and under-bred; and her character is somewhat — never mind what. But don’t think of her; ten thousand pound won’t do for you. What, my good fellow, is ten thousand pound? I would scarcely pay that girl’s milliner’s bill with the interest of the money.”

“You seem to be a connoisseur in millinery, Uncle” Pen said.

“I was, sir, I was,” replied the senior; “and the old war-horse, you know, never hears the sound of a trumpet, but he begins to he, he! — you understand,”— and he gave a killing and somewhat superannuated leer and bow to a carriage that passed them and entered the Park.

“Lady Catherine Martingale’s carriage” he said “mons’ous fine girls the daughters, though, gad, I remember their mother a thousand times handsomer. No, Arthur, my dear fellow, with your person and expectations, you ought to make a good coup in marriage some day or other; and though I wouldn’t have this repeated at Fairoaks, you rogue, ha! ha! a reputation for a little wickedness, and for being an homme dangereux, don’t hurt a young fellow with the women. They like it, sir, they hate a milksop — young men must be young men, you know. But for marriage,” continued the veteran moralist, “that is a very different matter. Marry a woman with money. I’ve told you before it is as easy to get a rich wife as a poor one; and a doosed deal more comfortable to sit down to a well-cooked dinner, with your little entrees nicely served, than to have nothing but a damned cold leg of mutton between you and your wife. We shall have a good dinner on the 14th, when we dine with Sir Francis Clavering: stick to that, my boy, in your relations with the family. Cultivate ’em, but keep ’em for dining. No more of your youthful follies and nonsense about love in a cottage.”

“It must be a cottage with a double coach-house, a cottage of gentility, sir,” said Pen, quoting the hackneyed ballad of the Devil’s Walk: but his Uncle did not know that poem (though, perhaps, he might be leading Pen upon the very promenade in question), and went on with his philosophical remarks, very much pleased with the aptness of the pupil to whom he addressed them. Indeed Arthur Pendennis was a clever fellow, who took his colour very readily from his neighbour, and found the adaptation only too easy.

Warrington, the grumbler, growled out that Pen was becoming such a puppy that soon there would be no bearing him. But the truth is, the young man’s success and dashing manners pleased his elder companion. He liked to see Pen gay and spirited, and brimful of health, and life, and hope; as a man who has long since left off being amused with clown and harlequin, still gets a pleasure in watching a child at a pantomime. Mr. Pen’s former sulkiness disappeared with his better fortune: and he bloomed as the sun began to shine upon him.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/pendennis/chapter38.html

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