The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXIX

Colonel Altamont appears and disappears

On the day appointed, Major Pendennis, who had formed no better engagement, and Arthur who desired none, arrived together to dine with Sir Francis Clavering. The only tenants of the drawing-room when Pen and his uncle reached it, were Sir Francis and his wife, and our friend Captain Strong, whom Arthur was very glad to see, though the Major looked very sulkily at Strong, being by no means well pleased to sit down to dinner with Clavering’s d ——— house-steward, as he irreverently called Strong. But Mr. Welbore Welbore, Clavering’s country neighbour and brother member of Parliament, speedily arriving, Pendennis the elder was somewhat appeased, for Welbore, though perfectly dull, and taking no more part in the conversation at dinner than the footman behind his chair, was a respectable country gentleman of ancient family and seven thousand a year: and the Major felt always at ease in such society. To these were added other persons of note: the Dowager Lady Rockminster, who had her reasons for being well with the Clavering family, and the Lady Agnes Foker, with her son Mr. Harry, our old acquaintance. Mr. Pynsent could not come, his parliamentary duties keeping him at the House, duties which sate upon the two other senators very lightly. Miss Blanche Amory was the last of the company who made her appearance. She was dressed in a killing white silk dress which displayed her pearly shoulders to the utmost advantage. Foker whisped to Pen, who regarded her with eyes of evident admiration, that he considered her “a stunner.” She chose to be very gracious to Arthur upon this day, and held out her hand most cordially, and talked about dear Fairoaks, and asked for dear Laura and his mother, and said she was longing to go back to the country, and in fact was entirely simple, affectionate, and artless.

Harry Foker thought he had never seen anybody so amiable and delightful Not accustomed much to the society of ladies, and ordinarily being dumb to their presence, he found that he could speak before Miss Amory, and became uncommonly lively and talkative, even before the dinner was announced and the party descended to the lower rooms. He would have longed to give his arm to the fair Blanche, and conduct her down the broad carpeted stair; but she fell to the lot of Pen upon this occasion, Mr. Foker being appointed to escort Mrs. Welbore Welbore, in consequence of his superior rank as an earl’s grandson.

But though he was separated from the object of his desire during the passage downstairs, the delighted Foker found himself by Miss Amory’s side at the dinner-table, and flattered himself that he had manoeuvred very well in securing that happy place. It may be that the move was not his, but that it was made by another person. Blanche had thus the two young men, one on each side of her, and each tried to render himself gallant and agreeable.

Foker’s mamma, from her place, surveying her darling boy, was surprised at his vivacity. Harry talked constantly to his fair neighbour about the topics of the day.

“Seen Taglioni in the Sylphide, Miss Amory? Bring me that souprame of Volile again if you please (this was addressed to the attendant near him), very good: can’t think where the souprames come from; what becomes of the legs of the fowls, I wonder? She’s clipping in the Sylphide, ain’t she?” and he began very kindly to hum the pretty air which pervades that prettiest of all ballets, now faded into the past with that most beautiful and gracious of all dancers. Will the young folks ever see anything so charming, anything so classic, anything like Taglioni?

“Miss Amory is a sylph herself,” said Mr. Pen.

“What a delightful tenor voice you have, Mr. Foker,” said the young lady. “I am sure you have been well taught. I sing a little myself. I should like to sing with you.”

Pen remembered that words very similar had been addressed to himself by the young lady, and that she had liked to sing with him in former days. And sneering within himself, he wondered with how many other gentlemen she had sung duets since his time? But he did not think fit to put this awkward question aloud: and only said, with the very tenderest air which he could assume, “I should like to hear you sing again, Miss Blanche. I never heard a voice I liked so well as yours, I think.”

“I thought you liked Laura’s,” said Miss Blanche.

“Laura’s is a contralto: and that voice is very often out, you know,” Pen said, bitterly. “I have heard a great deal of music, in London,” he continued. “I’m tired of those professional people — they sing too loud — or I have grown too old or too blase. One grows old very soon, in London, Miss Amory. And like all old fellows, I only care for the songs I heard in my youth.”

“I like English music best. I don’t care for foreign songs much. Get me some saddle of mutton,” said Mr. Foker.

“I adore English ballads, of all things,” said Miss Amory.

“Sing me one of the old songs after dinner, will you?” said Pen, with an imploring voice.

“Shall I sing you an English song, after dinner?” asked the Sylphide, turning to Mr. Foker. “I will, if you will promise to come up soon:” and she gave him a perfect broadside of her eyes.

“I’ll come up after dinner, fast enough,” he said, simply. “I don’t care about much wine afterwards — I take my whack at dinner — I mean my share, you know; and when I have had as much as I want I toddle up to tea. I’m a domestic character, Miss Amory — my habits are simple — and when I’m pleased I’m generally in a good-humour, ain’t I, Pen? — that jelly, if you please — not that one, the other with the cherries inside. How the doose do they get those cherries inside the jellies?” In this way the artless youth prattled on: and Miss Amory listened to him with inexhaustible good-humour. When the ladies took their departure for the upper regions, Blanche made the two young men promise faithfully to quit the table soon, and departed with kind glances to each. She dropped her gloves on Foker’s side of the table and her handkerchief on Pen’s. Each had had some little attention paid to him: her politeness to Mr. Foker was perhaps a little more encouraging than her kindness to Arthur: but the benevolent little creature did her best to make both the gentlemen happy. Foker caught her last glance as she rushed out of the door; that bright look passed over Mr. Strong’s broad white waistcoat and shot straight at Harry Foker’s. The door closed on the charmer: he sate down with a sigh, and swallowed a bumper of claret.

As the dinner at which Pen and his uncle took their places was not one of our grand parties, it had been served at a considerably earlier hour than those ceremonial banquets of the London season, which custom has ordained shall scarcely take place before nine o’clock; and, the company being small, and Miss Blanche anxious to betake herself to her piano in the drawing-room, giving constant hints to her mother to retreat — Lady Clavering made that signal very speedily, so that it was quite daylight yet when the ladies reached the upper apartments, from the flower-embroidered balconies of which they could command a view of the two Parks, of the poor couples and children still sauntering in the one, and of the equipages of ladies and the horses of dandies passing through the arch of the other. The sun, in a word had not set behind the elms of Kensington Gardens, and was still gilding the statue erected by the ladies of England in honour of his Grace the Duke of Wellington, when Lady Clavering and her female friends left the gentlemen drinking wine.

The windows of the dining-room were opened to let in the fresh air, and afforded to the passers-by in the street a pleasant, or perhaps, tantalising view of six gentlemen in white waistcoats with a quantity of decanters and a variety of fruits before them — little boys, as they passed and jumped up at the area-railings and took a peep, said to one another, “Hi hi, Jim, shouldn’t you like to be there and have a cut of that there pineapple?”— the horses and carriages of the nobility and gentry passed by conveying them to Belgravian toilets: the policeman, with clamping feet patrolled up and down before the mansion: the shades of evening began to fall: the gasman came and lighted the lamps before Sir Francis’s door: the butler entered the dining-room, and illuminated the antique gothic chandelier over the antique carved oak dining-table: so that from outside the house you looked inwards upon a night-scene of feasting and wax-candles; and from within you beheld a vision of a calm summer evening, and the wall of Saint James’s Park, and the sky above, in which a star or two was just beginning to twinkle.

Jeames, with folded legs, leaning against the door-pillar of his master’s abode, looked forth musingly upon the latter tranquil sight: whilst a spectator clinging to the railings examined the former scene. Policeman X passing, gave his attention to neither, but fixed it upon the individual holding by the railings, and gazing into Sir Francis Clavering’s dining-room, where Strong was laughing and talking away, making the conversation for the party.

The man at the railing was very gorgeously attired with chains, jewellery, and waistcoats, which the illumination from the house lighted up to great advantage; his boots were shiny; he had brass buttons to his coat, and large white wristbands over his knuckles; and indeed looked so grand, that X imagined he beheld a member of parliament, or a person of consideration before him. Whatever his rank, however, the M.P., or person of consideration, was considerably excited by wine; for he lurched and reeled somewhat in his gait, and his hat was cocked over his wild and bloodshot eyes in a manner which no sober hat ever could assume. His copious black hair was evidently surreptitious, and his whiskers of the Tyrian purple.

As Strong’s laughter, following after one of his own gros mots, came ringing out of window, this gentleman without laughed and sniggered in the queerest way likewise, and he slapped his thigh and winked at Jeames pensive in the portico, as much as to say, “Plush, my boy, isn’t that a good story?”

Jeames’s attention had been gradually drawn from the moon in the heavens to this sublunary scene; and he was puzzled and alarmed by the appearance of the man in shiny boots. “A holtercation,” he remarked afterwards, in the servants’-hall — a “holtercation with a feller in the streets is never no good; and indeed he was not hired for any such purpose.” So, having surveyed the man for some time, who went on laughing, reeling, nodding his head with tipsy knowingness, Jeames looked out of the portico, and softly called “Pleaceman,” and beckoned to that officer.

X marched up resolute, with one Berlin glove stuck in his belt-side, and Jeames simply pointed with his index finger to the individual who was laughing against the railings. Not one single word more than “Pleaceman” did he say, but stood there in the calm summer evening, pointing calmly: a grand sight.

X advanced to the individual and said, “Now, sir, will you have the kindness to move hon?”

The individual, who was in perfect good-humour, did not appear to bear one word which Policeman X uttered, but nodded and waggled his grinning head at Strong, until his hat almost fell from his head over the area railings.

“Now, sir, move on, do you hear?” cries X, in a much more peremptory tone, and he touched the stranger gently with one of the fingers enclosed in the gauntlets of the Berlin woof.

He of the many rings instantly started, or rather staggered back, into what is called an attitude of self-defence, and in that position began the operation which is entitled ‘squaring’ at Policeman X, and showed himself brave and warlike, if unsteady. “Hullo! keep your hands off a gentleman,” he said, with an oath which need not be repeated.

“Move on out of this,” said X, “and don’t be a blocking up the pavement, staring into gentlemen’s dining-rooms.”

“Not stare — ho, ho — not stare — that is a good one,” replied the other with a satiric laugh and sneer —“Who’s to prevent me from staring, looking at my friends, if I like? not you, old highlows.”

“Friends! I dessay. Move on,” answered X.

“If you touch me, I’ll pitch into you, I will,” roared the other. “I tell you I know ’em all — That’s Sir Francis Clavering, Baronet, M.P. — I know him, and he knows me — and that’s Strong, and that’s the young chap that made the row at the ball. I say, Strong, Strong!”

“It’s that d ——— Altamont,” cried Sir Francis within, with a start and a guilty look; and Strong also, with a look of annoyance, got up from the table, and ran out to the intruder.

A gentleman in a white waistcoat, running out from a dining-room bareheaded, a policeman, and an individual decently attired, engaged in almost fisticuffs on the pavement, were enough to make a crowd, even in that quiet neighbourhood, at half-past eight o’clock in the evening, and a small mob began to assemble before Sir Francis Clavering’s door. “For God’s sake, come in,” Strong said, seizing his acquaintance’s arm. “Send for a cab, James, if you please,” he added in an under voice to that domestic; and carrying the excited gentleman out of the street, the outer door was closed upon him, and the small crowd began to move away.

Mr. Strong had intended to convey the stranger into Sir Francis’s private sitting-room, where the hats of the male guests were awaiting them, and having there soothed his friend by bland conversation, to have carried him off as soon as the cab arrived — but the new-comer was in a great state of wrath at the indignity which had been put upon him; and when Strong would have led him into the second door, said in a tipsy voice, “That ain’t the door — that’s the dining-room door — where the drink’s going on — and I’ll go and have some, by Jove; I’ll go and have some.” At this audacity the butler stood aghast in the hall, and placed himself before the door: but it opened behind him, and the master of the house made his appearance, with anxious looks.

“I will have some — by —— I will,” the intruder was roaring out, as Sir Francis came forward. “Hullo! Clavering, I say I’m come to have some wine with you; hay! old boy — hay, old corkscrew? Get us a bottle of the yellow seal, you old thief — the very best — a hundred rupees a dozen, and no mistake.”

The host reflected a moment over his company. There is only Welbore, Pendennis, and those two lads, he thought — and with a forced laugh and a piteous look, he said — “Well, Altamont, come in. I am very glad to see you, I’m sure.”

Colonel Altamont, for the intelligent reader has doubtless long ere this discovered in the stranger His Excellency the Ambassador of the Nawaub of Lucknow, reeled into the dining-room, with a triumphant look towards Jeames, the footman, which seemed to say, “There, sir, what do you think of that? Now, am I a gentleman or no?” and sank down into the first vacant chair. Sir Francis Clavering timidly stammered out the Colonel’s name to his guest Mr. Welbore Welbore, and his Excellency began drinking wine forthwith and gazing round upon the company, now with the most wonderful frowns, and anon with the blandest smiles, and hiccupped remarks encomiastic of the drink which he was imbibing.

“Very singular man. Has resided long in a native court in India,” Strong said, with great gravity, the Chevalier’s presence of mind never deserting him —“in those Indian courts they get very singular habits.”

“Very,” said Major Pendennis, drily, and wondering what in goodness’ name was the company into which he had got.

Mr. Foker was pleased with the new-comer. “It’s the man who would sing the Malay song at the Back Kitchen,” he whispered to Pen. “Try this pine, sir,” he then said to Colonel Altamont, it’s uncommonly fine.”

“Pines — I’ve seen ’em feed pigs on pines,” said the Colonel.

“All the Nawaub of Lucknow’s pigs are fed on pines,” Strong whispered to Major Pendennis.

“Oh, of course,” the Major answered. Sir Francis Clavering was, in the meanwhile, endeavouring to make an excuse to his brother-guest for the new-comer’s condition, and muttered something regarding Altamont, that he was an extraordinary character, very eccentric, very — had Indian habits — didn’t understand the rules of English society — to which old Welbore, a shrewd old gentleman, who drank his wine with great regularity, said, “that seemed pretty clear.”

Then the Colonel, seeing Pen’s honest face, regarded it for a while with as much steadiness as became his condition; and said, “I know you, too, young fellow. I remember you. Baymouth ball, by Jingo. Wanted to fight the Frenchman. I remember you;” and he laughed, and he squared with his fists, and seemed hugely amused in the drunken depths of his mind, as these recollections passed, or, rather, reeled across it.

“Mr. Pendennis, you remember Colonel Altamont, at Baymouth?” Strong said: upon which Pen, bowing rather stiffly, said, “he had the pleasure of remembering that circumstance perfectly.”

“What’s his name?” cried the Colonel. Strong named Mr. Pendennis again.

“Pendennis! — Pendennis be hanged!” Altamont roared out to the surprise of every one, and thumping with his fist on the table.

“My name is also Pendennis, sir,” said the Major, whose dignity was exceedingly mortified by the evening’s events — that he, Major Pendennis, should have been asked to such a party, and that a drunken man should have been introduced to it. “My name is Pendennis, and I will be obliged to you not to curse it too loudly.”

The tipsy man turned round to look at him, and as he looked, it appeared as if Colonel Altamont suddenly grew sober. He put his hand across his forehead, and in doing so, displaced somewhat the black wig which he wore; and his eyes stared fiercely at the Major, who, in his turn, like a resolute old warrior as he was, looked at his opponent very keenly and steadily. At the end of the mutual inspection, Altamont began to button up his brass-buttoned coat, and rising up from his chair, suddenly, and to the company’s astonishment, reeled towards the door, and issued from it, followed by Strong: all that the latter heard him utter was —“Captain Beak! Captain Beak, by jingo!”

There had not passed above a quarter of an hour from his strange appearance to his equally sudden departure. The two young men and the baronet’s other guest wondered at the scene, and could find no explanation for it. Clavering seemed exceedingly pale and agitated, and turned with looks of almost terror towards Major Pendennis. The latter had been eyeing his host keenly for a moment or two. “Do you know him?” asked Sir Francis of the Major.

“I am sure I have seen the fellow,” the Major replied, looking as if he, too, was puzzled. “Yes, I have it. He was a deserter from the Horse Artillery who got into the Nawaub’s service. I remember his face quite well.”

“Oh!” said Clavering, with a sigh which indicated immense relief of mind, and the Major looked at him with a twinkle of his sharp old eyes. The cab which Strong had desired to be called, drove away with the Chevalier and Colonel Altamont; coffee was brought to the remaining gentlemen, and they went upstairs to the ladies in the drawing-room, Foker declaring confidentially to Pen that “this was the rummest go he ever saw,” which decision Pen said, laughing, “Showed great discrimination on Mr. Foker’s part.”

Then, according to her promise, Miss Amory made music for the young men. Foker was enraptured with her performance, and kindly joined in the airs which she sang, when he happened to be acquainted with them. Pen affected to talk aside with others of the party, but Blanche brought him quickly to the piano, by singing some of his own words, those which we have given in a previous number, indeed, and which the Sylphide had herself, she said, set to music. I don’t know whether the air was hers, or how much of it was arranged for her by Signor Twankidillo, from whom she took lessons: but good or bad, original or otherwise, it delighted Mr. Pen, who remained by her side, and turned the leaves now for her most assiduously —“Gad! how I wish I could write verses like you, Pen,” Foker sighed afterwards to his companion. “If I could do ’em, wouldn’t I, that’s all? But I never was a dab at writing, you see, and I’m sorry I was so idle when I was at school.”

No mention was made before the ladies of the curious little scene which had been transacted below-stairs; although Pen was just on the point of describing it to Miss Amory, when that young lady inquired for Captain Strong, who she wished should join her in a duet. But chancing to look up towards Sir Francis Clavering, Arthur saw a peculiar expression of alarm in the baronet’s ordinarily vacuous face, and discreetly held his tongue. It was rather a dull evening. Welbore went to sleep as he always did at music and after dinner: nor did Major Pendennis entertain the ladies with copious anecdotes and endless little scandalous stories, as his wont was, but sate silent for the most part, and appeared to be listening to the music, and watching the fair young performer.

The hour of departure having arrived the Major rose, regretting that so delightful an evening should have passed away so quickly, and addressed a particularly fine compliment to Miss Amory upon her splendid talents as a singer. “Your daughter, Lady Clavering,” he said to that lady, “is a perfect nightingale — a perfect nightingale, begad! I have scarcely ever heard anything equal to her, and her pronunciation of every language — begad, of every language — seems to me to be perfect; and the best houses in London must open before a young lady who has such talents, and, allow an old fellow to say, Miss Amory, such a face.”

Blanche was as much astonished by these compliments as Pen was, to whom his uncle, a little time since, had been speaking in very disparaging terms of the Sylph. The Major and the two young men walked home together, after Mr. Foker had placed his mother in her carriage, and procured a light for an enormous cigar.

The young gentleman’s company or his tobacco did not appear to be agreeable to Major Pendennis, who eyed him askance several times, and with a look which plainly indicated that he wished Mr. Foker would take his leave; but Foker hung on resolutely to the uncle and nephew, even until they came to the former’s door in Bury Street, where the Major wished the lads good night.

“And I say, Pen,” he said in a confidential whisper, calling his nephew back, “mind you make a point of calling in Grosvenor Place tomorrow. They’ve been uncommonly civil; mons’ously civil and kind.”

Pen promised and wondered, and the Major’s door having been closed upon him by Morgan, Foker took Pen’s arm, and walked with him for some time silently puffing his cigar. At last, when they had reached Charing Cross on Arthur’s way home to the Temple, Harry Foker relieved himself, and broke out with that eulogium upon poetry, and those regrets regarding a misspent youth which have just been mentioned. And all the way along the Strand, and up to the door of Pen’s very staircase, in Lamb Court, Temple, young Harry Foker did not cease to speak about singing and Blanche Amory.

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