The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XLII

Contains a novel Incident

Some account has been given, in a former part of this story, how Mr. Pen, during his residence at home, after his defeat at Oxbridge, had occupied himself with various literary compositions, and amongst other works, had written the greater part of a novel. This book, written under the influence of his youthful embarrassments, amatory and pecuniary, was of a very fierce, gloomy, and passionate sort — the Byronic despair, the Wertherian despondency, the mocking bitterness of Mephistopheles of Faust, were all reproduced and developed in the character of the hero; for our youth had just been learning the German language, and imitated, as almost all clever lads do, his favourite poets and writers. Passages in the volumes once so loved, and now read so seldom, still bear the mark of the pencil with which he noted them in those days. Tears fell upon the leaf of the book, perhaps, or blistered the pages of his manuscript as the passionate young man dashed his thoughts down. If he took up the books afterwards he had no ability or wish to sprinkle the leaves with that early dew of former times: his pencil was no longer eager to score its marks of approval: but as he looked over the pages of his manuscript, he remembered what had been overflowing feelings which had caused him to blot it, and the pain which had inspired the line. If the secret history of books could be written, and the author’s private thoughts and meanings noted down alongside of his story, how many insipid volumes would become interesting, and dull tales excite the reader! Many a bitter smile passed over Pen’s face as he read his novel, and recalled the time and feelings which gave it birth. How pompous some of the grand passages appeared; and how weak were others in which he thought he had expressed his full heart! This page was imitated from a then favourite author, as he could now clearly see and confess, though he had believed himself to be writing originally then. As he mused over certain lines he recollected the place and hour where he wrote them: the ghost of the dead feeling came back as he mused, and he blushed to review the faint image. And what meant those blots on the page? As you come in the desert to a ground where camels’ hoofs are marked in the clay, and traces of withered herbage are yet visible, you know that water was there once; so the place in Pen’s mind was no longer green, and the fons lacrymarum was dried up.

He used this simile one morning to Warrington, as the latter sate over his pipe and book, and Pen, with much gesticulation according to his wont when excited, and with a bitter laugh, thumped his manuscript down on the table, making the tea-things rattle, and, the blue milk dance in the jug. On the previous night he had taken the manuscript out of a long-neglected chest, containing old shooting jackets, old Oxbridge scribbling-books, his old surplice, and battered cap and gown, and other memorials of youth, school, and home. He read in the volume in bed until he fell asleep, for the commencement of the tale was somewhat dull, and he had come home tired from a London evening party.

“By Jove!” said Pen, thumping down his papers, “when I think that these were written but very few years ago, I am ashamed of my memory. I wrote this when I believed myself be eternally in love with that little coquette, Miss Amory. I used to carry down verses to her, and put them into the hollow of a tree, and dedicate them ‘Amori.’”

“That was a sweet little play upon words,” Warrington remarked, with a puff “Amory — Amori. It showed proof of scholarship. Let us hear a bit of the rubbish.” And he stretched over from his easy-chair, and caught hold of Pen’s manuscript with the fire-tongs, which he was just using in order to put a coal into his pipe. Thus, in possession of the volume, he began to read out from the ‘Leaves from the Life-book of Walter Lorraine.’

“‘False as thou art beautiful! heartless as thou art fair! mockery of Passion!’ Walter cried, addressing Leonora; ‘what evil spirit hath sent thee to torture me so? O Leonora. ——’”

“Cut that part,” cried out Pen, making a dash at the book, which, however, his comrade would not release. “Well! don’t read it out at any rate. That’s about my other flame, my first — Lady Mirabel that is now. I saw her last night at Lady Whiston’s. She asked me to a party at her house, and said that, as old friends, we ought to meet oftener. She has been seeing me any time these two years in town, and never thought of inviting me before; but seeing Wenham talking to me, and Monsieur Dubois, the French literary man, who had a dozen orders on, and might have passed for a Marshal of France, she condescended to invite me. The Claverings are to be there on the same evening. Won’t it be exciting to meet one’s two flames at the same table?”

“Two flames! — two heaps of burnt-out cinders,” Warrington said. “Are both the beauties in this book?”

“Both, or something like them,” Pen said. “Leonora, who marries the Duke, is the Fotheringay. I drew the Duke from Magnus Charters, with whom I was at Oxford; it’s a little like him; and Miss Amory is Neaera. By gad, that first woman! I thought of her as I walked home from Lady Whiston’s in the moonlight; and the whole early scenes came back to me as if they had been yesterday. And when I got home, I pulled out the story which I wrote about her and the other three years ago: do you know, outrageous as it is, it has some good stuff in it, and if Bungay won’t publish it, I think Bacon will.”

“That’s the way of poets,” said Warrington. “They fall in love, jilt, or are jilted; they suffer and they cry out that they suffer more than any other mortals: and when they have experienced feelings enough they note them down in a book, and take the book to market. All poets are humbugs, all literary men are humbugs; directly a man begins to sell his feelings for money he’s a humbug. If a poet gets a pain in his side from too good a dinner, he bellows Ai Ai louder than Prometheus.”

“I suppose a poet has a greater sensibility than another man,” said Pen, with some spirit. “That is what makes him a poet. I suppose that he sees and feels more keenly: it is that which makes him speak, of what he feels and sees. You speak eagerly enough in your leading articles when you espy a false argument in an opponent, or detect a quack in the House. Paley, who does not care for anything else in the world, will talk for an hour about a question of law. Give another the privilege which you take yourself, and the free use of his faculty, and let him be what nature has made him. Why should not a man sell his sentimental thoughts as well as you your political ideas, or Paley his legal knowledge? Each alike is a matter of experience and practice. It is not money which causes you to perceive a fallacy, or Paley to argue a point; but a natural or acquired aptitude for that kind of truth: and a poet sets down his thoughts and experiences upon paper as a painter does a landscape or a face upon canvas, to the best of his ability, and according to his particular gift. If ever I think I have the stuff in me to write an epic, by Jove I will try If I only feel that I am good enough to crack a joke or tell a story, I will do that.”

“Not a bad speech, young one,” Warrington said, but that does not prevent all poets from being humbugs.”

“What — Homer, Aeschylus, Shakspeare and all?”

“Their names are not to be breathed in the same sense with you pigmies,” Mr. Warrington said: “there are men and men, sir.”

“Well, Shakspeare was a man who wrote for money, just as you and I do,” Pen answered, at which Warrington confounded his impudence, and resumed his pipe and his manuscript.

There was not the slightest doubt then that this document contained a great deal of Pen’s personal experiences, and that ‘Leaves from the Life-book of Walter Lorraine’ would never have been written but for Arthur Pendennis’s own private griefs, passions, and follies. As we have become acquainted with these in the first volume of his biography, it will not be necessary to make large extracts from the novel of ‘Walter Lorraine,’ in which the young gentleman had depicted such of them as he thought were likely to interest the reader, or were suitable for the purpose of his story.

Now, though he had kept it in his box for nearly half of the period during which, according to the Horatian maxim, a work of art ought to lie ripening (a maxim, the truth of which may, by the way, be questioned altogether), Mr. Pen had not buried his novel for this time, in order that the work might improve, but because he did not know where else to bestow it, or had no particular desire to see it. A man who thinks of putting away a composition for ten years before he shall give it to the world, or exercise his own maturer judgment upon it, had best be very sure of the original strength and durability of the work; otherwise on withdrawing it from its crypt he may find, that like small wine it has lost what flavour it once had, and is only tasteless when opened. There are works of all tastes and smacks, the small and the strong, those that improve by age, and those that won’t bear keeping at all, but are pleasant at the first draught, when they refresh and sparkle.

Now Pen had never any notion, even in the time of his youthful inexperience and fervour of imagination, that the story he was writing was a masterpiece of composition, or that he was the equal of the great authors whom he admired; and when he now reviewed his little performance, he was keenly enough alive to its faults, and pretty modest regarding its merits. It was not very good, he thought; but it was as good as most books of the kind that had the run of circulating libraries and the career of the season. He had critically examined more than one fashionable novel by the authors of the day then popular, and he thought that his intellect was as good as theirs and that he could write the English language as well as those ladies or gentlemen; and as he now ran over his early performance, he was pleased to find here and there passages exhibiting both fancy and vigour, and traits, if not of genius, of genuine passion and feeling. This, too, was Warrington’s verdict, when that severe critic, after half an hour’s perusal of the manuscript, and the consumption of a couple of pipes of tobacco, laid Pen’s book down, yawning portentously. “I can’t read any more of that balderdash now,” he said; “but it seems to me there is some good stuff in it, Pen, my boy. There’s a certain greenness and freshness in it which I like somehow. The bloom disappears off the face of poetry after you begin to shave. You can’t get up that naturalness and artless rosy tint in after days. Your cheeks are pale, and have got faded by exposure to evening parties, and you are obliged to take curling-irons, and macassar, and the deuce-knows-what to your whiskers; they curl ambrosially, and you are very grand and genteel, and so forth; but, ah! Pen, the spring-time was the best.”

“What the deuce have my whiskers to do with the subject in hand?” Pen said (who, perhaps, may have been nettled by Warrington’s allusion to those ornaments, which, to say the truth, the young man coaxed, and curled, and oiled, and perfumed, and petted, in rather an absurd manner). “Do you think we can do anything with ‘Walter Lorraine’? Shall we take him to the publishers, or make an auto-da-fe of him?”

“I don’t see what is the good of incremation,” Warrington said, “though I have a great mind to put him into the fire, to punish your atrocious humbug and hypocrisy. Shall I burn him indeed? You have much too great a value for him to hurt a hair of his head.”

“Have I? Here goes,” said Pen, and ‘Walter Lorraine’ went off the table, and was flung on to the coals. But the fire having done its duty of boiling the young man’s breakfast-kettle, had given up work for the day, and had gone out, as Pen knew very well; Warrington with a scornful mile, once more took up the manuscript with the tongs from out of the harmless cinders.

“Oh, Pen, what a humbug you are!” Warrington said; “and what is worst of all, sir, a clumsy humbug. I saw you look to see that the fire was out before you sent ‘Walter Lorraine’ behind the bars. No, we won’t burn him: we will carry him to the Egyptians, and sell him. We will exchange him away for money, yea, for silver and gold, and for beef and for liquors, and for tobacco and for raiment. This youth will fetch some price in the market; for he is a comely lad, though not over strong; but we will fatten him up and give him the bath, and curl his hair, and we will sell him for a hundred piasters to Bacon or to Bungay. The rubbish is saleable enough, sir; and my advice to you is this: the next time you go home for a holiday, take ‘Walter Lorraine’ in your carpet-bag — give him a more modern air, prune away, though sparingly, some of the green passages, and add a little comedy, and cheerfulness, and satire, and that sort of thing, and then we’ll take him to market, and sell him. The book is not a wonder of wonders, but it will do very well.”

“Do you think so, Warrington?” said Pen, delighted, for this was great praise from his cynical friend.

“You silly young fool! I think it’s uncommonly clever,” Warrington said in a kind voice. “So do you, sir.” And with the manuscript which he held in his hand he playfully struck Pen on the cheek. That part of Pen’s countenance turned as red as it had ever done in the earliest days of his blushes: he grasped the other’s hand and said, “Thank you, Warrington,” with all his might: and then he retired to his own room with his book, and passed the greater part of the day upon his bed re-reading it; and he did as Warrington had advised, and altered not a little, and added a great deal, until at length he had fashioned ‘Walter Lorraine’ pretty much into the shape in which, as the respected novel-reader knows, it subsequently appeared.

Whilst he was at work upon this performance, the good-natured Warrington artfully inspired the two gentlemen who “read” for Messrs. Bacon and Bungay with the greatest curiosity regarding ‘Walter Lorraine,’ and pointed out the peculiar merits of its distinguished author. It was at the period when the novel, called ‘The Fashionable,’ was in vogue among us; and Warrington did not fail to point out, as before, how Pen was a man of the very first fashion himself, and received at the houses of some of the greatest personages in the land. The simple and kind-hearted Percy Popjoy was brought to bear upon Mrs. Bungay, whom he informed that his friend Pendennis was occupied upon a work of the most exciting nature; a work that the whole town would run after, full of wit, genius, satire, pathos, and every conceivable good quality. We have said before, that Bungay knew no more about novels than he did about Hebrew or Algebra, and neither read nor understood any of the books which he published and paid for; but he took his opinions from his professional advisers and from Mrs. B., and, evidently with a view to a commercial transaction, asked Pendennis and Warrington to dinner again.

Bacon, when he found that Bungay was about to treat, of course, began to be anxious and curious, and desired to outbid his rival. Was anything settled between Mr. Pendennis and the odious house “over the way” about the new book? Mr. Hack, the confidential reader, was told to make inquiries, and see if any thing was to be done, and the result of the inquiries of that diplomatist was, that one morning, Bacon himself toiled up the staircase of Lamb Court and to the door on which the names of Mr. Warrington, and Mr. Pendennis, were painted.

For a gentleman of fashion as poor Pen was represented to be, it must be confessed, that the apartments he and his friend occupied were not very suitable. The ragged carpet had grown only more ragged during the two years of joint occupancy: a constant odour of tobacco perfumed the sitting-room: Bacon tumbled over the laundress’s buckets in the passage through which he had to pass; Warrington’s shooting-jacket was as tattered at the elbows as usual; and the chair which Bacon was requested to take on entering, broke down with the publisher. Warrington burst out laughing, said that Bacon had got the game chair, and bawled out to Pen to fetch a sound one from his bedroom. And seeing the publisher looking round the dingy room with an air of profound pity and wonder, asked him whether he didn’t think the apartments were elegant, and if he would like, for Mrs. Bacon’s drawing-room, any of the articles of furniture? Mr. Warrington’s character as a humourist was known to Mr. Bacon: “I never can make that chap out,” the publisher was heard to say, “or tell whether he is in earnest or only chaffing.”

It is very possible that Mr. Bacon would have set the two gentlemen down as impostors altogether, but that there chanced to be on the breakfast-table certain cards of invitation which the post of the morning had brought in for Pen, and which happened to come from some very exalted personage of the beau-monde, into which our young man had his introduction. Looking down upon these, Bacon saw that the Marchioness of Steyne would be at home to Mr. Arthur Pendennis upon a given day, and that another lady of distinction proposed to have dancing at her house upon a certain future evening. Warrington saw the admiring publisher eyeing these documents. “Ah,” said he, with an air of simplicity, “Pendennis is one of the most affable young men I ever knew, Mr. Bacon. Here is a young fellow that dines with all the men in London, and yet he’ll take his mutton-chop with you and me quite contentedly. There’s nothing like the affability of the old English gentleman.”

“Oh no, nothing,” said Mr. Bacon.

“And you wonder why he should go on living up three pair of stairs with me, don’t you now? Well, it is a queer taste. But we are fond of each other; and as I can’t afford to live in a great house, he comes and stays in these rickety old chambers with me. He’s a man that can afford to live anywhere.”

“I fancy it don’t cost him much here,” thought Mr. Bacon, and the object of these praises presently entered the room from his adjacent sleeping apartment.

Then Mr. Bacon began to speak upon the subject of his visit; said he heard that Mr. Pendennis had a manuscript novel; professed himself anxious to have a sight of that work, and had no doubt that they could come to terms respecting it. What would be his price for it? would he give Bacon the refusal of it? he would find our house a liberal house, and so forth. The delighted Pen assumed an air of indifference, and said that he was already in treaty with Bungay, and could give no definite answer. This piqued the other into such liberal, though vague offers, that Pen began to fancy Eldorado was opening to him, and that his fortune was made from that day.

I shall not mention what was the sum of money which Mr. Arthur Pendennis finally received for the first edition of his novel of ‘Walter Lorraine,’ lest other young literary aspirants should expect to be as lucky as he was, and unprofessional persons forsake their own callings, whatever they may be, for the sake of supplying the world with novels, whereof there is already a sufficiency. Let no young people be misled and rush fatally into romance-writing: for one book which succeeds let them remember the many that fail, I do not say deservedly or otherwise, and wholesomely abstain or if they venture, at least let them do so at their own peril. As for those who have already written novels, this warning is not addressed, of course, to them. Let them take their wares to market; let them apply to Bacon and Bungay, and all the publishers in the Row, or the metropolis, and may they be happy in their ventures. This world is so wide, and the tastes of mankind happily so various, that there is always a chance for every man, and he may win the prize by his genius or by his good fortune. But what is the chance of success or failure; of obtaining popularity, or of holding it when achieved? One man goes over the ice, which bears him, and a score who follow flounder in. In fine, Mr. Pendennis’s was an exceptional case, and applies to himself only and I assert solemnly, and will to the last maintain, that it is one thing to write a novel, and another to get money for it.

By merit, then, or good fortune, or the skilful playing off of Bungay against Bacon which Warrington performed (and which an amateur novelist is quite welcome to try upon any two publishers in the trade), Pen’s novel was actually sold for a certain sum of money to one of the two eminent patrons of letters whom we have introduced to our readers. The sum was so considerable that Pen thought of opening an account at a banker’s, or of keeping a cab and horse, or of descending into the first floor of Lamb Court into newly furnished apartments, or of migrating to the fashionable end of the town.

Major Pendennis advised the latter move strongly; he opened his eyes with wonder when he heard of the good luck that had befallen Pen; and which the latter, as soon as it occurred, hastened eagerly to communicate to his uncle. The Major was almost angry that Pen should have earned so much money. “Who the doose reads this kind of thing?” he thought to himself when he heard of the bargain which Pen had made. “I never read your novels and rubbish. Except Paul de Kock, who certainly makes me laugh, I don’t think I’ve looked into a book of the sort these thirty years. Gad! Pen’s a lucky fellow. I should think he might write one of these in a month now — say a month — that’s twelve in a year. Dammy, he may go on spinning this nonsense for the next four to five years, and make a fortune. In the meantime I should wish him to live properly, take respectable apartments, and keep a brougham.” And on this simple calculation it was that the Major counselled Pen.

Arthur, laughing, told Warrington what his uncle’s advice had been but he luckily had a much more reasonable counsellor than the old gentleman in the person of his friend, and in his own conscience, which said to him, “Be grateful for this piece of good fortune; don’t plunge into any extravagancies. Pay back Laura!” And he wrote a letter to her, in which he told her his thanks and his regard; and enclosed to her such an instalment of his debt as nearly wiped it off. The widow and Laura herself might well be affected by the letter. It was written with genuine tenderness and modesty; and old Dr. Portman when he read a passage in the letter, in which Pen, with an honest heart full of gratitude, humbly thanked Heaven for his present prosperity, and for sending him such dear and kind friends to support him in his ill fortune — when Doctor Portman read this portion of the letter, his voice faltered, and his eyes twinkled behind his spectacles, and when he had quite finished reading the same, and had taken his glasses off his nose, and had folded up the paper and given it back to the widow, I am constrained to say, that after holding Mrs. Pendennis’s hand for a minute, the Doctor drew that lady towards him and fairly kissed her: at which salute, of course, Helen burst out crying on the Doctor’s shoulder, for her heart was too full to give any other reply: and the Doctor blushing at great deal after his feat, led the lady, with a bow, to the sofa, on which he seated himself by her; and he mumbled out, in a low voice, some words of a Great Poet whom he loved very much, and who describes how in the days of his prosperity he had made “the widow’s heart to sing for joy.”

“The letter does the boy very great honour, very great honour, my dear,” he said, patting it as it lay on Helen’s knee —“and I think we have all reason to be thankful for it — very thankful. I need not tell you in what quarter, my dear, for you are a sainted woman: yes, Laura, my love, your mother is a sainted woman. And Mrs. Pendennis, ma’am, I shall order a copy of the book for myself, and another at the Book Club.”

We may be sure that the widow and Laura walked out to meet the mail which brought them their copy of Pen’s precious novel, as soon as that work was printed and ready for delivery to the public and that they read it to each other: and that they also read it privately and separately, for when the widow came out of her room in her dressing-gown at one o’clock in the morning with volume two, which she had finished, she found Laura devouring volume three in bed. Laura did not say much about the book, but Helen pronounced that it was a happy mixture of Shakspeare, and Byron, and Walter Scott, and was quite certain that her son was the greatest genius, as he was the best son, in the world.

Did Laura not think about the book and the author, although she said so little? At least she thought about Arthur Pendennis. Kind as his tone was, it vexed her. She did not like his eagerness to repay that money. She would rather that her brother had taken her gift as she intended it: and was pained that there should be money calculations between them. His letters from London, written with the good-natured wish to amuse his mother, were full of descriptions of the famous people and the entertainments and magnificence of the great city. Everybody was flattering him and spoiling him, she was sure. Was he not looking to some great marriage, with that cunning uncle for a Mentor (between whom and Laura there was always an antipathy), that inveterate worldling, whose whole thoughts were bent upon pleasure and rank and fortune? He never alluded to — to old times, when he spoke of her. He had forgotten them and her, perhaps had he not forgotten other things and people?

These thoughts may have passed in Miss Laura’s mind, though she did not, she could not, confide them to Helen. She had one more secret, too, from that lady, which she could not divulge, perhaps because she knew how the widow would have rejoiced to know it. This regarded an event which had occurred during that visit to Lady Rockminster, which Laura had paid in the last Christmas holidays: when Pen was at home with his mother, and when Mr. Pynsent, supposed to be so cold and so ambitious, had formally offered his hand to Miss Bell. No one except herself and her admirer knew of this proposal: or that Pynsent had been rejected by her, and probably the reasons she gave to the mortified young man himself were not those which actuated her refusal, or those which she chose to acknowledge to herself. “I never,” she told Pynsent, “can accept such an offer as that which you make me, which you own is unknown to your family as I am sure it would be unwelcome to them. The difference of rank between us is too great. You are very kind to me here — too good and kind, dear Mr. Pynsent — but I am little better than a dependant.”

“A dependant! who ever so thought of you? You are the equal of all the world,” Pynsent broke out.

“I am a dependant at home, too,” Laura said, sweetly, and indeed I would not be otherwise. Left early a poor orphan, I have found the kindest and tenderest of mothers, and I have vowed never to leave her — never. Pray do not speak of this again — here, under your relative’s roof, or elsewhere. It is impossible.”

“If Lady Rockminster asks you herself, will you listen to her?” Pynsent cried eagerly.

“No,” Laura said. “I beg you never to speak of this any more. I must go away if you do”— and with this she left him.

Pynsent never asked for Lady Rockminster’s intercession; he knew how vain it was to look for that: and he never spoke again on that subject to Laura or to any person.

When at length the famous novel appeared it not only met with applause from more impartial critics than Mrs. Pendennis, but, luckily for Pen it suited the taste of the public, and obtained a quick and considerable popularity before two months were over, Pen had the satisfaction and surprise of seeing the second edition of ‘Walter Lorraine’ advertised in the newspapers; and enjoyed the pleasure of reading and sending home the critiques of various literary journals and reviewers upon his book. Their censure did not much affect him; for the good-natured young man was disposed to accept with considerable humility the dispraises of others. Nor did their praise elate him over much; for, like most honest persons he had his own opinion about his own performance, and when a critic praised him in the wrong place he was rather hurt than pleased by the compliment. But if a review of his work was very laudatory, it was a great pleasure to him to send it home to his mother at Fairoaks, and to think of the joy which it would give there. There are some natures, and perhaps, as we have said, Pendennis’s was one, which are improved and softened by prosperity and kindness, as there are men of other dispositions, who become arrogant and graceless under good fortune. Happy he, who can endure one or the other with modesty and good-humour! Lucky he who has been educated to bear his fate, whatsoever it may be, by an early example of uprightness, and a childish training in honour!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/pendennis/chapter42.html

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