The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LI

The happy Village again

Early in this history, we have had occasion to speak of the little town of Clavering, near which Pen’s paternal home of Fairoaks stood, and of some of the people who inhabite the place; and as the society there was by no means amusing or pleasant, our reports concerning it were not carried to any very great length. Mr. Samuel Huxter, the gentleman whose acquaintance we lately made at Vauxhall, was one of the choice spirits of the little town, when he visited it during his vacation, and enlivened the tables of his friends there, by the wit of Bartholomew’s and the gossip of the fashionable London circles which he frequented.

Mr. Hobnell, the young gentleman whom Pen had thrashed in consequence of the quarrel in the Fotheringay affair, was, whilst a pupil at the Grammar School at Clavering, made very welcome at the tea-table of Mrs. Huxter, Samuel’s mother, and was free of the surgery, where he knew the way to the tamarind-pots, and could scent his pocket-handkerchief with rose-water. And it was at this period of his life that he formed an attachment for Miss Sophy Huxter, whom, on his father’s demise, he married, and took home to his house of the Warren, at a few miles from Clavering.

The family had possessed and cultivated an estate there for many years, as yeomen and farmers. Mr. Hobnell’s father pulled down the old farmhouse; built a flaring new whitewashed mansion, with capacious stables; and a piano in the drawing-room; kept a pack of harriers; and assumed the title of Squire Hobnell. When he died, and his son reigned in his stead, the family might be fairly considered to be established as county gentry. And Sam Huxter, at London, did no great wrong in boasting about his brother-inlaw’s place, his hounds, horses, and hospitality, to his admiring comrades at Bartholomew’s. Every year, at a time commonly when Mrs. Hobnell could not leave the increasing duties of her nursery, Hobnell came up to London for a lark, had rooms at the Tavistock, and he and Sam indulged in the pleasures of the town together. Ascot, the theatres, Vauxhall, and the convivial taverns in the joyous neighbourhood of Covent Garden, were visited by the vivacious squire, in company with his learned brother. When he was in London, as he said, he liked to do as London does, and to “go it a bit,” and when he returned to the west, he took a new bonnet and shawl to Mrs. Hobnell, and relinquished, for country sports and occupations during the next eleven months, the elegant amusements of London life.

Sam Huxter kept up a correspondence with his relative, and supplied him with choice news of the metropolis, in return for the baskets of hares, partridges, and clouted cream which the squire and his good-natured wife forwarded to Sam. A youth more brilliant and distinguished they did not know. He was the life and soul of their house, when he made his appearance in his native place. His songs, jokes, and fun kept the Warren in a roar. He had saved their eldest darling’s life, by taking a fish-bone out of her throat: in fine, he was the delight of their circle.

As ill-luck would have it, Pen again fell in with Mr. Huxter, only three days after the rencontre at Vauxhall. Faithful to his vow, he had not been to see little Fanny. He was trying to drive her from his mind by occupation, or other mental excitement. He laboured, though not to much profit, incessantly in his rooms; and, in his capacity of critic for the Pall Mall Gazette, made woful and savage onslaught on a poem and a romance which came before him for judgment. These authors slain, he went to dine alone at the lonely club of the Polyanthus, where the vast solitudes frightened him, and made him only the more moody. He had been to more theatres for relaxation. The whole house was roaring with laughter and applause, and he saw only an ignoble farce that made him sad. It would have damped the spirits of the buffoon on the stage to have seen Pen’s dismal face. He hardly knew what was happening; the scene and the drama passed before him like a dream or a fever. Then he thought he would go to the Back Kitchen, his old haunt with Warrington — he was not a bit sleepy yet. The day before he had walked twenty miles in search after rest, over Hampstead Common and Hendon lanes, and had got no sleep at night. He would go to the Back Kitchen. It was a sort of comfort to him to think he should see Bows. Bows was there, very calm, presiding at the old piano. Some tremendous comic songs were sung, which made the room crack with laughter. How strange they seemed to Pen! He could only see Bows. In an extinct volcano, such as he boasted that his breast was, it was wonderful how he should feel such a flame! Two days’ indulgence had kindled it; two days’ abstinence had set it burning in fury. So, musing upon this, and drinking down one glass after another, as ill luck would have it, Arthur’s eyes lighted upon Mr. Huxter, who had been to the theatre, like himself, and, with two or three comrades, now entered the room. Huxter whispered to his companions, greatly to Pen’s annoyance. Arthur felt that the other was talking about him. Huxter then worked through the room, followed by his friends, and came and took a place opposite Pen, nodding familiarly to him, and holding him out a dirty hand to shake.

Pen shook hands with his fellow-townsman. He thought he had been needlessly savage to him on the last night when they had met. As for Huxter, perfectly at good-humour with himself, and the world, it never entered his mind that he could be disagreeable to anybody; and the little dispute, or “chaff,” as he styled it, of Vauxhall, was a trifle which he did not in the least regard.

The disciple of Galen having called for “four stouts,” with which he and his party refreshed themselves, began to think what would be the most amusing topic of conversation with Pen, and hit upon that precise one which was most painful to our young gentleman.

“Jolly night at Vauxhall — wasn’t it?” he said, and winked in a very knowing way.

“I’m glad you liked it,” poor Pen said, groaning in spirit.

“I was dev’lish cut — uncommon — been dining with some chaps at Greenwich. That was a pretty bit of muslin hanging on your arm — who was she?” asked the fascinating student.

The question was too much for Arthur. “Have I asked you any questions about yourself, Mr. Huxter?” he said.

“I didn’t mean any offence — beg pardon — hang it, you cut up quite savage,” said Pen’s astonished interlocutor.

“Do you remember what took place between us the other night?” Pen asked, with gathering wrath. “You forget? Very probably. You were tipsy, as you observed just now, and very rude.”

“Hang it, sir, I asked your pardon,” Huxter said, looking red.

“You did certainly, and it was granted with all my heart. I am sure. But if you recollect, I begged that you would have the goodness to omit me from the list of your acquaintance for the future; and when we met in public, that you would not take the trouble to recognise me. Will you please to remember this, hereafter? and as the song is beginning, permit me to leave you to the unrestrained enjoyment of the music.”

He took his hat, and making a bow to the amazed Mr. Huxter left the table, as Huxter’s comrades, after a pause of wonder, set up such a roar of laughter at Huxter, as called for the intervention of the president of the room; who bawled out, “Silence, gentlemen; do have silence for the Body Snatcher!” which popular song began as Pen left the Back Kitchen. He flattered himself that he had commanded his temper perfectly. He rather wished that Huxter had been pugnacious. He would have liked to fight him or somebody. He went home. The day’s work, the dinner, the play, the whisky-and-water, the quarrel — nothing soothed him. He slept no better than on the previous night.

A few days afterwards, Mr. Sam Huxter wrote home a letter to Mr. Hobnell in the country, of which Mr. Arthur Pendennis formed the principal subject. Sam described Arthur’s pursuits in London, and his confounded insolence of behaviour to his old friends from home. He said he was an abandoned criminal, a regular Don Juan, a fellow who, when he did come into the country, ought to be kept out of honest people’s houses. He had seen him at Vauxhall, dancing with an innocent girl in the lower ranks of life, of whom he was making a victim. He had found out from an Irish gentleman (formerly in the army), who frequented a club of which he, Huxter, was member, who the girl was, on whom this conceited humbug was practising his infernal arts; and he thought he should warn her father, etc. etc. — the letter then touched on general news, conveyed the writer’s thanks for the last parcel and the rabbits, and hinted his extreme readiness for further favours.

About once a year, as we have stated, there was occasion for a christening at the Warren, and it happened that this ceremony took place a day after Hobnell had received the letter of his brother-inlaw in town. The infant (a darling little girl) was christened Myra Lucretia, after its two godmothers, Miss Portman and Mrs. Pybus of Clavering, and as of course Hobnell had communicated Sam’s letter to his wife, Mrs. Hobnell imparted its horrid contents to her two gossips. A pretty story it was, and prettily it was told throughout Clavering in the course of that day.

Myra did not — she was too much shocked to do so — speak on the matter to her mamma, but Mrs. Pybus had no such feelings of reserve. She talked over the matter not only with Mrs. Portman, but with Mr. and the Honourable Mrs. Simcoe, with Mrs. Glanders, her daughters being to that end ordered out of the room, with Madame Fribsby, and, in a word, with the whole of the Clavering society. Madame Fribsby looking furtively up at her picture of the dragoon, and inwards into her own wounded memory, said that men would be men, and as long as they were men would be deceivers; and she pensively quoted some lines from Marmion, requesting to know where deceiving lovers should rest? Mrs. Pybus had no words of hatred, horror, contempt, strong enough for a villain who could be capable of conduct so base. This was what came of early indulgence, and insolence, and extravagance, and aristocratic airs (it is certain that Pen had refused to drink tea with Mrs. Pybus), and attending the corrupt and horrid parties in the dreadful modern Babylon! Mrs. Portman was afraid that she must acknowledge that the mother’s fatal partiality had spoiled this boy, that his literary successes had turned his head, and his horrid passions had made him forget the principles which Doctor Portman had instilled into him in early life. Glanders, the atrocious Captain of Dragoons, when informed of the occurrence by Mrs. Glanders, whistled and made jocular allusions to it at dinner-time; on which Mrs. Glanders called him a brute, and ordered the girls again out of the room, as the horrid Captain burst out laughing. Mr. Simcoe was calm under the intelligence; but rather pleased than otherwise; it only served to confirm the opinion which he had always had of that wretched young man: not that he knew anything about him — not that he had read one line of his dangerous and poisonous works; Heaven forbid that he should: but what could be expected from such a youth, and such frightful, such lamentable, such deplorable want of seriousness? Pen formed the subject for a second sermon at the Clavering chapel-of-ease: where the dangers of London, and the crime of reading or writing novels, were pointed out on a Sunday evening to a large and warm congregation. They did not wait to hear whether he was guilty or not. They took his wickedness for granted: and with these admirable moralists, it was who should fling the stone at poor Pen.

The next day Mrs. Pendennis, alone and almost fainting with emotion and fatigue, walked or rather ran to Dr. Portman’s house to consult the good Doctor. She had had an anonymous letter; — some Christian had thought it his or her duty to stab the good soul who had never done mortal a wrong — an anonymous letter with references to Scripture, pointing out the doom of such sinners and a detailed account of Pen’s crime. She was in a state of terror and excitement pitiable to witness. Two or three hours of this pain had aged her already. In her first moment of agitation she had dropped the letter, and Laura had read it. Laura blushed when she read it; her whole frame trembled, but it was with anger. “The cowards,” she said. — It isn’t true. — No, mother, it isn’t true.”

“It is true, and you’ve done it, Laura,” cried out Helen fiercely. “Why did you refuse him when he asked you? Why did you break my heart and refuse him? It is you who led him into crime. It is you who flung him into the arms of this — this woman. — Don’t speak to me. — Don’t answer me. I will never forgive you, never. Martha, bring me my bonnet and shawl. I’ll go out. I won’t have you come with me. Go away. Leave me, cruel girl; why have you brought this shame on me?” And bidding her daughter and her servants keep away from her, she ran down the road to Clavering.

Doctor Portman, glancing over the letter, thought he knew the handwriting, and, of course, was already acquainted with the charge made against poor Pen. Against his own conscience, perhaps (for the worthy Doctor, like most of us, had a considerable natural aptitude for receiving any report unfavourable to his neighbours), he strove to console Helen; he pointed out that the slander came from an anonymous quarter, and therefore must be the work of a rascal; that the charge might not be true — was not true, most likely — at least, that Pen must be heard before he was condemned; that the son of such a mother was not likely to commit such a crime, etc. etc.

Helen at once saw through his feint of objection and denial. “You think he has done it,” she said — “you know you think he has done it. Oh, why did I ever leave him, Doctor Portman, or suffer him away from me? But he can’t be dishonest — pray God, not dishonest — you don’t think that, do you? Remember his conduct about that other — person — how madly he was attached to her. He was an honest boy then — he is now. And I thank God — yes, I fall down on my knees and thank God he paid Laura. You said he was good — you did yourself. And now — if this woman loves him — and you know they must — if he has taken her from her home, or she tempted him, which is most likely — why still, she must be his wife and my daughter. And he must leave the dreadful world and come back to me — to his mother, Doctor Portman. Let us go away and bring him back — yes — bring him back — and there shall be joy for the — the sinner that repenteth. Let us go now, directly, dear friend — this very ——”

Helen could say no more. She fell back and fainted. She was carried to a bed in the house of the pitying Doctor, and the surgeon was called to attend her. She lay all night in an alarming state. Laura came to her, or to the rectory rather; for she would not see Laura. And Doctor Portman, still beseeching her to be tranquil, and growing bolder and more confident of Arthur’s innocence as he witnessed the terrible grief of the poor mother, wrote a letter to Pen warning him of the rumours that were against him and earnestly praying that he would break off and repent of a connexion so fatal to his best interests and his soul’s welfare.

And Laura? — was her heart not wrung by the thought of Arthur’s crime and Helen’s estrangement? Was it not a bitter blow for the innocent girl to think that at one stroke she should lose all the love which she cared for in the world?

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