The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LII

Which had very nearly been the last of the Story

Doctor Portman’s letter was sent off to its destination in London, and the worthy clergyman endeavoured to soothe down Mrs. Pendennis into some state of composure until an answer should arrive, which the Doctor tried to think, or at any rate persisted in saying, would be satisfactory as regarded the morality of Mr. Pen. At least Helen’s wisdom of moving upon London and appearing in person to warn her son of his wickedness, was impracticable for a day or two. The apothecary forbade her moving even so far as Fairoaks for the first day, and it was not until the subsequent morning that she found herself again back on her sofa at home, with the faithful, though silent, Laura nursing at her side.

Unluckily for himself and all parties, Pen never read that homily which Doctor Portman addressed to him, until many weeks after the epistle had been composed; and day after day the widow waited for her son’s reply to the charges against him; her own illness increasing with every day’s delay. It was a hard task for Laura to bear the anxiety; to witness her dearest friend’s suffering; worst of all, to support Helen’s estrangement, and the pain caused to her by that averted affection. But it was the custom of this young lady to the utmost of her power, and by means of that gracious assistance which Heaven awarded to her pure and constant prayers, to do her duty. And; as that duty was performed quite noiselessly — while the supplications, which endowed her with the requisite strength for fulfilling it, also took place in her own chamber, away from all mortal sight — we, too, must be perforce silent about these virtues of hers, which no more bear public talking about, than a flower will bear to bloom in a ballroom. This only we will say — that a good woman is the loveliest flower that blooms under heaven; and that we look with love and wonder upon its silent grace, its pure fragrance, its delicate bloom of beauty. Sweet and beautiful! — the fairest and the most spotless! — is it not pity to see them bowed down or devoured by Grief or Death inexorable — wasting in disease — pining with long pain — or cut off by sudden fate in their prime? We may deserve grief — but why should these be unhappy? — except that we know that Heaven chastens those whom it loves best; being pleased, by repeated trials, to make these pure spirits more pure.

So Pen never got the letter, although it was duly posted and faithfully discharged by the postman into his letter-box in Lamb Court, and thence carried by the laundress to his writing-table with the rest of his lordship’s correspondence; into which room, have we not seen a picture of him, entering from his little bedroom adjoining, as Mrs. Flanagan, his laundress, was in the act of drinking his gin?

Those kind readers who have watched Mr. Arthur’s career hitherto, and have made, as they naturally would do, observations upon the moral character and peculiarities of their acquaintance, have probably discovered by this time what was the prevailing fault in Mr. Pen’s disposition, and who was that greatest enemy, artfully indicated in the title-page, with whom he had to contend. Not a few of us, my beloved public, have the very same rascal to contend with: a scoundrel who takes every opportunity of bringing us into mischief, of plunging us into quarrels, of leading us into idleness and unprofitable company, and what not. In a word, Pen’s greatest enemy was himself: and as he had been pampering, and coaxing, and indulging that individual all his life, the rogue grew insolent, as all spoiled servants will be; and at the slightest attempt to coerce him, or make him do that which was unpleasant to him, became frantically rude and unruly. A person who is used to making sacrifices — Laura, for instance, who had got such a habit of giving up her own pleasure for others — can do the business quite easily; but Pen, unaccustomed as he was to any sort of self-denial, suffered woundily when called on to pay his share, and savagely grumbled at being obliged to forgo anything he liked.

He had resolved in his mighty mind then that he would not see Fanny; and he wouldn’t. He tried to drive the thoughts of that fascinating little person out of his head, by constant occupation, by exercise, by dissipation and society. He worked then too much; he walked and rode too much; he ate, drank, and smoked too much: nor could all the cigars and the punch of which he partook drive little Fanny’s image out of his inflamed brain, and at the end of a week of this discipline and self-denial our young gentleman was in bed with a fever. Let the reader who has never had a fever in chambers pity the wretch who is bound to undergo that calamity.

A committee of marriageable ladies, or of any Christian persons interested in the propagation of the domestic virtues, should employ a Cruikshank or a Leech, or some other kindly expositor of the follies of the day, to make a series of designs representing the horrors of a bachelor’s life in chambers, and leading the beholder to think of better things, and a more wholesome condition. What can be more uncomfortable than the bachelor’s lonely breakfast? — with the black kettle in the dreary fire in midsummer; or, worse still, with the fire gone out at Christmas, half an hour after the laundress has quitted the sitting-room? Into this solitude the owner enters shivering, and has to commence his day by hunting for coals and wood; and before he begins the work of a student, has to discharge the duties of a housemaid, vice Mrs. Flanagan, who is absent without leave. Or, again, what can form a finer subject for the classical designer than the bachelor’s shirt — that garment which he wants to assume just at dinner-time, and which he finds without any buttons to fasten it? Then there is the bachelor’s return to chambers, after a merry Christmas holiday, spent in a cosy country-house, full of pretty faces, and kind welcomes and regrets. He leaves his portmanteau at the barber’s in the Court: he lights his dismal old candle at the sputtering little lamp on the stair: he enters the blank familiar room, where the only tokens to greet him, that show any interest in his personal welfare, are the Christmas bills, which are lying in wait for him, amiably spread out on his reading-table. Add to these scenes an appalling picture of bachelor’s illness, and the rents in the Temple will begin to fall from the day of the publication of the dismal diorama. To be well in chambers is melancholy, and lonely and selfish enough; but to be ill in chambers — to pass long nights of pain and watchfulness — to long for the morning and the laundress — to serve yourself your own medicine by your own watch — to have no other companion for long hours but your own sickening fancies and fevered thoughts: no kind hand to give you drink if you are thirsty, or to smooth the hot pillow that crumples under you — this, indeed, is a fate so dismal and tragic, that we shall not enlarge upon its horrors, and shall only heartily pity those bachelors in the Temple, who brave it every day.

This lot befell Arthur Pendennis after the various excesses which we have mentioned, and to which he had subjected his unfortunate brains. One night he went to bed ill, and the next day awoke worse. His only visitor that day, besides the laundress, was the Printer’s Devil, from the Pall Mall Gazette office, whom the writer endeavoured, as best he could, to satisfy. His exertions to complete his work rendered his fever the greater: he could only furnish a part of the quantity of “copy” usually supplied by him; and Shandon being absent, and Warrington not in London to give a help, the political and editorial columns of the Gazette looked very blank indeed; nor did the sub-editor know how to fill them.

Mr. Finucane rushed up to Pen’s chambers, and found that gentleman so exceedingly unwell, that the good-natured Irishman set to work to supply his place, if possible, and produced a series of political and critical compositions, such as no doubt greatly edified the readers of the periodical in which he and Pen were concerned. Allusions to the greatness of Ireland, and the genius and virtue of the inhabitants of that injured country, flowed magnificently from Finucane’s pen; and Shandon, the Chief of the paper, who was enjoying himself placidly at Boulogne-sur-Mer, looking over the columns of the journal, which was forwarded to him, instantly recognised the hand of the great Sub-editor, and said, laughing, as he flung over the paper to his wife, “Look here, Mary, my dear, here is Jack at work again.” Indeed, Jack was a warm friend, and a gallant partisan, and when he had the pen in hand, seldom let slip an opportunity of letting the world know that Rafferty was the greatest painter in Europe, and wondering at the petty jealousy of the Academy, which refused to make him an R.A.: of stating that it was generally reported at the West End, that Mr. Rooney, M.P., was appointed Governor of Barataria; or of introducing into the subject in hand, whatever it might be, a compliment to the Round Towers, or the Giant’s Causeway. And besides doing Pen’s work for him, to the best of his ability, his kind-hearted comrade offered to forgo his Saturday’s and Sunday’s holiday, and pass those days of holiday and rest as nurse-tender to Arthur, who, however, insisted, that the other should not forgo his pleasure, and thankfully assured him that he could bear best his malady alone.

Taking his supper at the Back Kitchen on the Friday night, after having achieved the work of the paper, Finucane informed Captain Costigan of the illness of their young friend in the Temple; and remembering the fact two days afterwards, the Captain went to Lamb Court and paid a visit to the invalid on Sunday afternoon.

He found Mrs. Flanagan, the laundress, in tears in the sitting-room, and got a bad report of the poor dear young gentleman within. Pen’s condition had so much alarmed her, that she was obliged to have recourse to the stimulus of brandy to enable her to support the grief which his illness occasioned. As she hung about his bed, and endeavoured to minister to him, her attentions became intolerable to the invalid, and he begged her peevishly not to come near him. Hence the laundress’s tears and redoubled grief, and renewed application to the bottle, which she was accustomed to use as an anodyne. The Captain rated the woman soundly for her intemperance, and pointed out to her the fatal consequences which must ensue if she persisted in her imprudent courses.

Pen, who was by this time in a very fevered state, yet was greatly pleased to receive Costigan’s visit. He heard the ell-known voice in his sitting-room, as he lay in the bedroom within, and called the Captain eagerly to him, and thanked him for coming, and begged him to take a chair and talk to him. The Captain felt the young man’s pulse with great gravity —(his own tremulous and clammy hand growing steady for the instant while his finger pressed Arthur’s throbbing vein)— the pulse was beating very fiercely — Pen’s face was haggard and hot — his eyes were bloodshot and gloomy; his “bird,” as the Captain pronounced the word, afterwards giving a description of his condition, had not been shaved for nearly a week. Pen made his visitor sit down, and, tossing and turning in his comfortless bed, began to try and talk to the Captain in a lively manner, about the Back Kitchen, about Vauxhall and when they should go again, and about Fanny — how was little Fanny?

Indeed how was she? We know how she went home very sadly on the previous Sunday evening, after she had seen Arthur light his lamp in his chambers, whilst he was having his interview with Bows. Bows came back to his own rooms presently, passing by the lodge door, and looking into Mrs. Bolton’s, according to his wont, as he passed, but with a very melancholy face. She had another weary night that night. Her restlessness wakened her little bedfellows more than once. She daren’t read more of ‘Walter Lorraine:’ Father was at home, and would suffer no light. She kept the book under her pillow, and felt for it in the night. She had only just got to sleep, when the children began to stir with the morning, almost as early as the birds. Though she was very angry with Bows, she went to his room at her accustomed hour in the day, and there the good-hearted musician began to talk to her.

“I saw Mr. Pendennis last night, Fanny,” he said.

“Did you? I thought you did,” Fanny answered, looking fiercely at the melancholy old gentleman.

“I’ve been fond of you ever since we came to live in this place,” he continued. “You were a child when I came; and you used to like me, Fanny, until three or four days ago: until you saw this gentleman.”

“And now, I suppose, you are going to say ill of him,” said Fanny. “Do, Mr. Bows — that will make me like you better.”

“Indeed I shall do no such thing,” Bows answered; “I think he is a very good and honest young man.”

“Indeed! you know that if you said a word against him, I would never speak a word to you again — never!” cried Miss Fanny; and clenched her little hand, and paced up and down the room. Bows noted, watched, and followed the ardent little creature with admiration and gloomy sympathy. Her cheeks flushed, her frame trembled; her eyes beamed love, anger, defiance. “You would like to speak ill of him,” she said; “but you daren’t — you know you daren’t!”

“I knew him many years since,” Bows continued, “when he was almost as young as you are, and he had a romantic attachment for our friend the Captain’s daughter — Lady Mirabel that is now.”

Fanny laughed. “I suppose there was other people, too, that had romantic attachments for Miss Costigan,” she said: “I don’t want to hear about ’em.”

“He wanted to marry her; but their ages were quite disproportionate: and their rank in life. She would not have him because he had no money. She acted very wisely in refusing him; for the two would have been very unhappy, and she wasn’t a fit person to go and live with his family, or to make his home comfortable. Mr. Pendennis has his way to make in the world, and must marry a lady of his own rank. A woman who loves a man will not ruin his prospects, cause him to quarrel with his family, and lead him into poverty and misery for her gratification. An honest girl won’t do that, for her own sake, or for the man’s.”

Fanny’s emotion, which but now had been that of defiance and anger, here turned to dismay and supplication. “What do I know about marrying, Bows?” she said. “When was there any talk of it? What has there been between this young gentleman and me that’s to make people speak so cruel? It was not my doing; nor Arthur’s — Mr. Pendennis’s — that I met him at Vauxhall. It was the Captain took me and Ma there. We never thought of nothing wrong, I’m sure. He came and rescued us, and he was so very kind. Then he came to call and ask after us: and very, very good it was of a such grand gentleman to be so polite to humble folks like us! And yesterday Ma and me just went to walk in the Temple Gardens, and — and”— here she broke out with that usual, unanswerable female argument of tears — and cried, “Oh! I wish I was dead! I wish I was laid in my grave; and had never, never seen him!”

“He said as much himself, Fanny,” Bows said; and Fanny asked through her sobs, Why, why should he wish he had never seen her? Had she ever done him any harm? Oh, she would perish rather than do him any harm. Whereupon the musician informed her of the conversation of the day previous, showed her that Pen could not and must not think of her as a wife fitting for him, and that she, as she valued her honest reputation, must strive too to forget him. And Fanny, leaving the musician, convinced, but still of the same mind, and promising that she would avoid the danger which menaced her, went back to the porter’s lodge, and told her mother all. She talked of her love for Arthur, and bewailed, in her artless manner, the inequality of their condition, that set barriers between them. “There’s the ‘Lady of Lyons,’” Fanny said; “Oh, Ma! how I did love Mr. Macready when I saw him do it; and Pauline, for being faithful to poor Claude, and always thinking of him; and he coming back to her, an officer, through all his dangers! And if everybody admires Pauline — and I’m sure everybody does, for being so true to a poor man — why should a gentleman be ashamed of loving a poor girl? Not that Mr. Arthur loves me — Oh no, no! I ain’t worthy of him; only a princess is worthy of such a gentleman as him. Such a poet! — writing so beautifully, and looking so grand! I am sure he’s a nobleman, and of ancient family, and kep’ out of his estate. Perhaps his uncle has it. Ah, if I might, oh, how I’d serve him, and work for him, and slave for him, that I would. I wouldn’t ask for more than that, Ma, just to be allowed to see him of a morning; and sometimes he’d say ‘How d’you, Fanny?’ or ‘God bless you, Fanny!’ as he said on Sunday. And I’d work, and work; and I’d sit up all night, and read, and learn, and make myself worthy of him. The Captain says his mother lives in the country, and is a grand lady there. Oh, how I wish I might go and be her servant, Ma! I can do plenty of things, and work very neat; and — and sometimes he’d come home, and I should see him!”

The girl’s head fell on her mother’s shoulder, as she spoke, and she gave way to a plentiful outpouring of girlish tears, to which the matron, of course, joined her own. “You mustn’t think no more of him, Fanny,” she said. “If he don’t come to you, he’s a horrid, wicked man.”

“Don’t call him so, Mother,” Fanny replied. “He’s the best of men, the best and the kindest. Bows says he thinks he is unhappy at leaving poor little Fanny. It wasn’t his fault, was it, that we met? — and it ain’t his that I mustn’t see him again. He says I mustn’t — and I mustn’t, Mother. He’ll forget me, but I shall never forget him. No! I’ll pray for him, and love him always — until I die — and I shall die, I know I shall — and then my spirit will always go and be with him.”

“You forget your poor mother, Fanny, and you’ll break my heart by goin on so,” Mrs. Bolton said. “Perhaps you will see him. I’m sure you’ll see him. I’m sure he’ll come today. If ever I saw a man in love, that man is him. When Emily Budd’s young man first came about her, he was sent away by old Budd, a most respectable man, and violoncello in the orchestra at the Wells; and his own family wouldn’t hear of it neither. But he came back. We all knew he would. Emily always said so; and he married her; and this one will come back too; and you mark a mother’s words, and see if he don’t, dear.”

At this point of the conversation Mr. Bolton entered the lodge for his evening meal. At the father’s appearance, the talk between mother and daughter ceased instantly. Mrs. Bolton caressed and cajoled the surly undertaker’s aide-de-camp, and said, “Lor, Mr. B. who’d have thought to see you away from the Club of a Saturday night. Fanny, dear, get your pa some supper. What will you have, B.? The poor gurl’s got a gathering in her eye, or somethink in it — I was lookin at it just now as you came in.” And she squeezed her daughter’s hand as a signal of prudence and secrecy; and Fanny’s tears were dried up likewise; and by that wondrous hypocrisy and power of disguise which women practise, and with which weapons of defence nature endows them, the traces of her emotion disappeared; and she went and took her work, and sate in the corner so demure and quiet, that the careless male parent never suspected that anything ailed her.

Thus, as if fate seemed determined to inflame and increase the poor child’s malady and passion, all circumstances and all parties round about her urged it on. Her mother encouraged and applauded it; and the very words which Bows used in endeavouring to repress her flame only augmented this unlucky fever. Pen was not wicked and a seducer: Pen was high-minded in wishing to avoid her. Pen loved her: the good and the great, the magnificent youth, with the chains of gold and the scented auburn hair! And so he did: or so he would have loved her five years back perhaps, before the world had hardened the ardent and reckless boy — before he was ashamed of a foolish and imprudent passion, and strangled it as poor women do their illicit children, not on account of the crime, but of the shame, and from dread that the finger of the world should point to them.

What respectable person in the world will not say he was quite right to avoid a marriage with an ill-educated person of low degree, whose relations a gentleman could not well acknowledge, and whose manners would not become her new station? — and what philosopher would not tell him that the best thing to do with these little passions if they spring up, is to get rid of them, and let them pass over and cure them: that no man dies about a woman or vice versa: and that one or the other having found the impossibility of gratifying his or her desire in the particular instance, must make the best of matters, forget each other, look out elsewhere, and choose again? And yet, perhaps, there may be something said on the other side. Perhaps Bows was right in admiring that passion of Pen’s, blind and unreasoning as it was, that made him ready to stake his all for his love; perhaps if self-sacrifice is a laudable virtue, mere worldly self-sacrifice is not very much to be praised; — in fine, let this be a reserved point to be settled by the individual moralist who chooses to debate it.

So much is certain, that with the experience of the world which Mr. Pen now had, he would have laughed at and scouted the idea of marrying a penniless girl out of a kitchen. And this point being fixed in his mind, he was but doing his duty as an honest man, in crushing any unlucky fondness which he might feel towards poor little Fanny.

So she waited and waited in hopes that Arthur would come. She waited for a whole week, and it was at the end of that time that the poor little creature heard from Costigan of the illness under which Arthur was suffering.

It chanced on that very evening after Costigan had visited Pen, that Arthur’s uncle the excellent Major arrived in town from Buxton, where his health had been mended, and sent his valet Morgan to make inquiries for Arthur, and to request that gentleman to breakfast with the Major the next morning. The Major was merely passing through London on his way to the Marquis of Steyne’s house of Stillbrook, where he was engaged to shoot partridges.

Morgan came back to his master with a very long face. He had seen Mr. Arthur; Mr. Arthur was very bad indeed; Mr. Arthur was in bed with a fever. A doctor ought to be sent to him; and Morgan thought his case most alarming.

Gracious goodness! this was sad news indeed. He had hoped that Arthur could come down to Stillbrook: he had arranged that he should go, and procured an invitation for his nephew from Lord Steyne. He must go himself; he couldn’t throw Lord Steyne over: the fever might be catching: it might be measles: he had never himself had the measles; they were dangerous when contracted at his age. Was anybody with Mr. Arthur?

Morgan said there was somebody a-nussing of Mr. Arthur.

The Major then asked, had his nephew taken any advice? Morgan said he had asked that question, and had been told that Mr. Pendennis had had no doctor.

Morgan’s master was sincerely vexed at hearing of Arthur’s calamity. He would have gone to him, but what good could it do Arthur that he, the Major, should catch a fever? His own ailments rendered it absolutely impossible that he should attend to anybody but himself. But the young man must have advice — the best advice; and Morgan was straightway despatched with a note from Major Pendennis to his friend Doctor Goodenough, who by good luck happened to be in London and at home, and who quitted his dinner instantly, and whose carriage was in half an hour in Upper Temple Lane, near Pen’s chambers.

The Major had asked the kind-hearted physician to bring him news of his nephew at the Club where he himself was dining, and in the course of the night the Doctor made his appearance. The affair was very serious: the patient was in a high fever: he had had Pen bled instantly: and would see him the first thing in the morning. The Major went disconsolate to bed with this unfortunate news. When Goodenough came to see him according to his promise the next day, the Doctor had to listen for a quarter of an hour to an account of the Major’s own maladies, before the latter had leisure to hear about Arthur.

He had had a very bad night — his — his nurse said: at one hour he had been delirious. It might end badly: his mother had better be sent for immediately. The Major wrote the letter to Mrs. Pendennis with the greatest alacrity, and at the same time with the most polite precautions. As for going himself to the lad, in his state it was impossible. “Could I be of any use to him, my dear Doctor?” he asked.

The Doctor, with a peculiar laugh, said, No: he didn’t think the Major could be of any use: that his own precious health required the most delicate treatment, and that he had best go into the country and stay: that he himself would take care to see the patient twice a day, and do all in his power for him.

The Major declared upon his honour, that if he could be of any use he would rush to Pen’s chambers. As it was, Morgan should go and see that everything was right. The Doctor must write to him by every post to Stillbrook: it was but forty miles distant from London, and if anything happened he would come up at any sacrifice.

Major Pendennis transacted his benevolence by deputy and by post. “What else could he do,” as he said? “Gad, you know, in these cases, it’s best not disturbing a fellow. If a poor fellow goes to the bad, why, Gad, you know he’s disposed of. But in order to get well (and in this, my dear Doctor, I’m sure that you will agree with me), the best way is to keep him quiet — perfectly quiet.”

Thus it was the old gentleman tried to satisfy his conscience and he went his way that day to Stillbrook by railway (for railways have sprung up in the course of this narrative, though they have not quite penetrated into Pen’s country yet), and made his appearance in his usual trim order and curly wig, at the dinner-table of the Marquis of Steyne. But we must do the Major the justice to say, that he was very unhappy and gloomy in demeanour. Wagg and Wenham rallied him about his low spirits; asked whether he was crossed in love? and otherwise diverted themselves at his expense. He lost his money at whist after dinner, and actually trumped his partner’s highest spade. And the thoughts of the suffering boy, of whom he was proud, and whom he loved after his manner, kept the old fellow awake half through the night, and made him feverish and uneasy.

On the morrow he received a note in a handwriting which he did not know: it was that of Mr. Bows, indeed, saying that Mr. Arthur Pendennis had had a tolerable night; and that as Dr. Goodenough had stated that the Major desired to be informed of his nephew’s health, he, R. B., had sent him the news per rail.

The next day he was going out shooting, about noon, with some of the gentlemen staying at Lord Steyne’s house; and the company, waiting for the carriages, were assembled on the terrace in front of the house, when a fly drove up from the neighbouring station, and a grey-headed, rather shabby old gentleman jumped out, and asked for Major Pendennis. It was Mr. Bows. He took the Major aside and spoke to him; most of the gentlemen round about saw that something serious had happened, from the alarmed look of the Major’s face.

Wagg said, “It’s a bailiff come down to nab the Major,” but nobody laughed at the pleasantry.

“Hullo! What’s the matter, Pendennis?” cried Lord Steyne, with his strident voice; —“anything wrong?”

“It’s — it’s — my boy that’s dead,” said the Major, and burst into a sob — the old man was quite overcome.

“Not dead, my Lord; but very ill when I left London,” Mr. Bows said, in a low voice.

A britzka came up at this moment as the three men were speaking. The Peer looked at his watch. “You’ve twenty minutes to catch the mail-train. Jump in, Pendennis; and drive like h — — sir, do you hear?”

The carriage drove off swiftly with Pendennis and his companions, and let us trust that the oath will be pardoned to the Marquis of Steyne.

The Major drove rapidly from the station to the Temple, and found a travelling carriage already before him, and blocking up the narrow Temple Lane. Two ladies got out of it, and were asking their way of the porters; the Major looked by chance at the panel of the carriage, and saw the worn-out crest of the Eagle looking at the Sun, and the motto, “Nec tenui penna,” painted beneath. It was his brother’s old carriage, built many, many years ago. It was Helen and Laura that were asking their way to Pen’s room.

He ran up to them; hastily clasped his sister’s arm and kissed her hand; and the three entered into Lamb Court, and mounted the long gloomy stair.

They knocked very gently at the door, on which Arthur’s name was written, and it was opened by Fanny Bolton.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/pendennis/chapter52.html

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