The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LIII

A critical Chapter

As Fanny saw the two ladies and the anxious countenance of the eider, who regarded her with a look of inscrutable alarm and terror, the poor girl at once knew that Pen’s mother was before her; there was a resemblance between the widow’s haggard eyes and Arthur’s as he tossed in his bed in fever. Fanny looked wistfully at Mrs. Pendennis and at Laura afterwards; there was no more expression in the latter’s face than if it had been a mass of stone. Hard-heartedness and gloom dwelt on the figures of both the new-comers; neither showed any the faintest gleam of mercy or sympathy for Fanny. She looked desperately from them to the Major behind them. Old Pendennis dropped his eyelids, looking up ever so stealthily from under them at Arthur’s poor little nurse.

“I— I wrote to you yesterday, if you please, ma’am,” Fanny said, trembling in every limb as she spoke; and as pale as Laura, whose sad menacing face looked over Mrs. Pendennis’s shoulder.

“Did you, madam?” Mrs. Pendennis said. “I suppose I may now relieve you from nursing my son. I am his mother, you understand.”

“Yes, ma’am. I— this is the way to his — Oh, wait a minute,” cried out Fanny. “I must prepare you for his ——”

The widow, whose face had been hopelessly cruel and ruthless, here started back with a gasp and a little cry, which she speedily stifled.

“He’s been so since yesterday,” Fanny said, trembling very much, and with chattering teeth.

A horrid shriek of laughter came out of Pen’s room, whereof the door was open; and, after several shouts, the poor wretch began to sing a college drinking-song, and then to hurray and to shout as if he was in the midst of a wine-party, and to thump with his fist against the wainscot. He was quite delirious.

“He does not know me, ma’am,” Fanny said.

“Indeed. Perhaps he will know his mother; let me pass, if you please, and go in to him.” And the widow hastily pushed by little Fanny, and through the dark passage which led into Pen’s sitting-room. Laura sailed by Fanny, too, without a word; and Major Pendennis followed them. Fanny sat down on a bench in the passage, and cried, and prayed as well as she could. She would have died for him; and they hated her. They had not a word of thanks or kindness for her, the fine ladies. She sate there in the passage, she did not know how long. They never came out to speak to her. She sate there until Doctor Goodenough came to pay his second visit that day; he found the poor little thing at the door.

“What, nurse? How’s your patient?” asked the good-natured Doctor. “Has he had any rest?”

“Go and ask them. They’re inside,” Fanny answered.

“Who? his mother?”

Fanny nodded her head and didn’t speak.

“You must go to bed yourself, my poor little maid,” said the Doctor. “You will be ill, too, if you don’t.”

“Oh, mayn’t I come and see him: mayn’t I come and see him! I— I— love him so,” the little girl said; and as she spoke she fell down on her knees and clasped hold of the Doctor’s hand in such an agony that to see her melted the kind physician’s heart, and caused a mist to come over his spectacles.

“Pooh, pooh! Nonsense! Nurse, has he taken his draught? Has he had any rest? Of course you must come and see him. So must I.”

“They’ll let me sit here, won’t they, sir? I’ll never make no noise. I only ask to stop here,” Fanny said. On which the Doctor called her a stupid little thing; put her down upon the bench where Pen’s printer’s devil used to sit so many hours; tapped her pale cheek with his finger, and bustled into the farther room.

Mrs. Pendennis was ensconced pale and solemn in a great chair by Pen’s bedside. Her watch was on the bed-table by Pen’s medicines. Her bonnet and cloaks were laid in the window. She had her Bible in her lap, without which she never travelled. Her first movement, after seeing her son, had been to take Fanny’s shawl and bonnet which were on his drawers, and bring them out and drop them down upon his study-table. She had closed the door upon Major Pendennis, and Laura too; and taken possession of her son.

She had had a great doubt and terror lest Arthur should not know her; but that pang was spared to her in part at least. Pen knew his mother quite well, and familiarly smiled and nodded at her. When she came in, he instantly fancied that they were at home at Fairoaks; and began to talk and chatter and laugh in a rambling wild way. Laura could hear him outside. His laughter shot shafts of poison into her heart. It was true, then. He had been guilty — and with that creature! — an intrigue with a servant-maid, and she had loved him — and he was dying most likely raving and unrepentant. The Major now and then hummed out a word of remark or consolation, which Laura scarce heard.

A dismal sitting it was for all parties; and when Goodenough appeared, he came like an angel into the room.

It is not only for the sick man, it is for the sick man’s friends that the Doctor comes. His presence is often as good for them as for the patient, and they long for him yet more eagerly. How we have all watched after him! what an emotion the thrill of his carriage-wheels in the street, and at length at the door, has made us feel! how we hang upon his words, and what a comfort we get from a smile or two, if he can vouchsafe that sunshine to lighten our darkness! Who hasn’t seen the mother prying into his face, to know if there is hope for the sick infant that cannot speak, and that lies yonder, its little frame battling with fever? Ah how she looks into his eyes! What thanks if there is light there; what grief and pain if he casts them down, and dares not say “hope!” Or it is the house-father who is stricken. The terrified wife looks on, while the Physician feels his patient’s wrist, smothering her agonies, as the children have been called upon to stay their plays and their talk. Over the patient in the fever, the wife expectant, the children unconscious, the Doctor stands as if he were Fate, the dispenser of life and death: he must let the patient off this time: the woman prays so for his respite! One can fancy how awful the responsibility must be to a conscientious man: how cruel the feeling that he has given the wrong remedy, or that it might have been possible to do better: how harassing the sympathy with survivors, if the case is unfortunate — how immense the delight of victory!

Having passed through a hasty ceremony of introduction to the new-comers, of whose arrival he had been made aware by the heartbroken little nurse in waiting without, the Doctor proceeded to examine the patient, about whose condition of high fever there could be no mistake, and on whom he thought it necessary to exercise the strongest antiphlogistic remedies in his power. He consoled the unfortunate mother as best he might; and giving her the most comfortable assurances on which he could venture, that there was no reason to despair yet, that everything might still be hoped from his youth, the strength of his constitution, and so forth; and having done his utmost to allay the horrors of the alarmed matron, he took the elder Pendennis aside into the vacant room (Warrington’s bedroom), for the purpose of holding a little consultation.

The case was very critical. The fever, if not stopped, might and would carry off the young fellow: he must be bled forthwith: the mother must be informed of this necessity. Why was that other young lady brought with her? She was out of place in a sick-room.

“And there was another woman still, be hanged to it!” the Major said, “the — the little person who opened the door.” His sister-inlaw had brought the poor little devil’s bonnet and shawl out, flung them upon the study-table. Did Goodenough know anything about the — the little person? “I just caught a glimpse of her as we passed in,” the Major said, “and begad she was uncommonly nice-looking.” The Doctor looked queer: the Doctor smiled — in the very gravest moments, with life and death pending, such strange contrasts and occasions of humour will arise, and such smiles will pass, to satirise the gloom, as it were, and to make it more gloomy!

“I have it,” at last he said, re-entering the study; and he wrote a couple of notes hastily at the table there, and sealed one of them. Then, taking up poor Fanny’s shawl and bonnet, and the notes, he went out in the passage to that poor little messenger, and said, “Quick, nurse; you must carry this to the surgeon, and bid him come instantly; and then go to my house, and ask for my servant Harbottle, and tell him to get this prescription prepared, and wait until I— until it is ready. It may take a little in preparation.”

So poor Fanny trudged away with her two notes, and found the apothecary, who lived in the Strand hard by, and who came straightway, his lancet in his pocket, to operate on his patient; and then Fanny made for the Doctor’s house, in Hanover Square.

The Doctor was at home again before the prescription was made up, which took Harbottle, his servant, such a long time in compounding; and, during the remainder of Arthur’s illness, poor Fanny never made her appearance in the quality of nurse at his chambers any more. But for that day and the next, a little figure might be seen lurking about Pen’s staircase — a sad, sad little face looked at and interrogated the apothecary, and the apothecary’s boy, and the laundress, and the kind physician himself, as they passed out of the chambers of the sick man. And on the third day, the kind Doctor’s chariot stopped at Shepherd’s Inn, and the good, and honest, and benevolent man went into the porter’s lodge, and tended a little patient whom he had there, for the best remedy he found was on the day when he was enabled to tell Fanny Bolton that the crisis was over, and that there was at length every hope for Arthur Pendennis.

J. Costigan, Esquire, late of Her Majesty’s service, saw the Doctor’s carriage, and criticised its horses and appointments. “Green liveries, bedad!” the General said, “and as foin a pair of high-stepping bee horses as ever a gentleman need sit behoind, let alone a docthor. There’s no ind to the proide and ar’gance of them docthors, nowadays — not but that is a good one, and a scoientific cyarkter, and a roight good fellow, bedad; and he’s brought the poor little girl well troo her faver, Bows, me boy;” and so pleased was Mr. Costigan with the Doctor’s behaviour and skill, that, whenever he met Dr. Goodenough’s carriage in future, he made a point of saluting it and the physician inside, in as courteous and magnificent a manner, as if Dr. Goodenough had been the Lord Liftenant himself, and Captain Costigan had been in his glory in Phaynix Park.

The widow’s gratitude to the physician knew no bounds — or scarcely any bounds, at least. The kind gentleman laughed at the idea of taking a fee from a literary man, or the widow of a brother practitioner; and she determined when she got to Fairoaks that she would send Goodenough the silver-gilt vase, the jewel of the house, and the glory of the late John Pendennis, preserved in green baize, and presented to him at Bath, by the Lady Elizabeth Firebrace, on the recovery of her son, the late Sir Anthony Firebrace, from the scarlet fever. Hippocrates, Hygeia, King Bladud, and a wreath of serpents surmount the cup to this day; which was executed in their finest manner by Messrs. Abednego, of Milsom Street; and the inscription was by Mr. Birch, tutor to the young baronet.

This priceless gem of art the widow determined to devote to Goodenough, the preserver of her son; and there was scarcely any other favour which her gratitude would not have conferred upon him, except one, which he desired most, and which was that she should think a little charitably and kindly of poor Fanny, of whose artless, sad story he had got something during his interviews with her, and of whom he was induced to think very kindly — not being disposed, indeed, to give much credit to Pen for his conduct in the affair, or not knowing what that conduct had been. He knew enough, however, to be aware that the poor infatuated little girl was without stain as yet; that while she had been in Pen’s room it was to see the last of him, as she thought, and that Arthur was scarcely aware of her presence; and that she suffered under the deepest and most pitiful grief, at the idea of losing him, dead or living.

But on the one or two occasions when Goodenough alluded to Fanny, the widow’s countenance, always soft and gentle, assumed an expression so cruel and inexorable, that the Doctor saw it was in vain to ask her for justice or pity, and he broke off all entreaties, and ceased making any further allusions regarding his little client. There is a complaint which neither poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the East could allay, in the men in his time, as we are informed by a popular poet of the days of Elizabeth; and which, when exhibited in women, no medical discoveries or practice subsequent — neither homoeopathy, nor hydropathy, nor mesmerism, nor Dr. Simpson, nor Dr. Locock can cure, and that is — we won’t call it jealousy, but rather gently denominate rivalry and emulation in ladies.

Some of those mischievous and prosaic people who carp and calculate at every detail of the romancer, and want to know, for instance, how, when the characters in the ‘Critic’ are at a dead lock with their daggers at each other’s throats, they are to be got out of that murderous complication of circumstances, may be induced to ask how it was possible in a set of chambers in the Temple, consisting of three rooms, two cupboards, a passage, and a coal-box, Arthur a sick gentleman, Helen his mother, Laura her adopted daughter, Martha their country attendant, Mrs. Wheezer a nurse from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Mrs. Flanagan an Irish laundress, Major Pendennis a retired military officer, Morgan his valet, Pidgeon Mr. Arthur Pendennis’s boy, and others could be accommodated — the answer is given at once, that almost everybody in the Temple was out of town, and that there was scarcely a single occupant of Pen’s house in Lamb Court except those who were occupied round the sick-bed of the sick gentleman, about whose fever we have not given a lengthy account, neither enlarge we very much upon the more cheerful theme of his recovery.

Everybody we have said was out of town, and of course such a fashionable man as young Mr. Sibwright, who occupied chambers on the second floor in Pen’s staircase, could not be supposed to remain in London. Mrs. Flanagan, Mr. Pendennis’s laundress was acquainted with Mrs. Rouncy who did for Mr. Sibwright; and that gentleman’s bedroom was got ready for Miss Bell, or Mrs. Pendennis, when the latter should be inclined to leave her son’s sick-room, to try and seek for a little rest for herself.

If that young buck and flower of Baker Street, Percy Sibwright, could have known who was the occupant of his bedroom, how proud he would have been of that apartment:— what poems he would have written about Laura! (several of his things have appeared in the annuals, and in manuscript in the nobility’s albums)— he was a Camford man and very nearly got the English Prize Poem, it was said — Sibwright, however, was absent and his bed given up to Miss Bell. It was the prettiest little brass bed in the world, with chintz curtains lined with pink — he had a mignonette-box in his bedroom window, and the mere sight of his little exhibition of shiny boots, arranged in trim rows over his wardrobe, was a gratification to the beholder. He had a museum of scent, pomatum, and bear’s-grease pots, quite curious to examine, too; and a choice selection of portraits of females, almost always in sadness and generally in disguise or deshabille, glittered round the neat walls of his elegant little bower of repose. Medora with dishevelled hair was consoling herself over her banjo for the absence of her Conrad — the Princesse Fleur de Marie (of Rudolstein and the Mysteres de Paris) was sadly ogling out of the bars of her convent cage, in which, poor prisoned bird, she was moulting away — Dorothea of Don Quixote was washing her eternal feet:— in fine, it was such an elegant gallery as became a gallant lover of the sex. And in Sibwright’s sitting-room, while there was quite an infantine law library clad in skins of fresh new-born calf, there was a tolerably large collection of classical books which he could not read, and of English and French works of poetry and fiction which he read a great deal too much. His invitation cards of the past season still decorated his looking-glass: and scarce anything told of the lawyer but the wig-box beside the Venus upon the middle shelf of the bookcase, on which the name of P. Sibwright, Esquire, was gilded.

With Sibwright in chambers was Mr. Bangham. Mr. Bangham was a sporting man married to a rich widow. Mr. Bangham had no practice — did not come to chambers thrice in a term: went a circuit for those mysterious reasons which make men go circuit — and his room served as a great convenience to Sibwright when that young gentleman gave his little dinners. It must be confessed that these two gentlemen have nothing to do with our history, will never appear in it again probably, but we cannot help glancing through their doors as they happen to be open to us, and as we pass to Pen’s rooms; as in the pursuit of our own business in life through the Strand, at the Club, nay at church itself, we cannot help peeping at the shops on the way, or at our neighbour’s dinner, or at the faces under the bonnets in the next pew.

Very many years after the circumstances about which we are at present occupied, Laura, with a blush and a laugh showing much humour, owned to having read a French novel once much in vogue, and when her husband asked her, wondering where on earth she could have got such a volume, she owned that it was in the Temple, when she lived in Mr. Percy Sibwright’s chambers.

“And, also, I never confessed,” she said, “on that same occasion, what I must now own to: that I opened the japanned box, and took out that strange-looking wig inside it, and put it on and looked at myself in the glass in it.”

Suppose Percy Sibwright had come in at such a moment as that? What would he have said — the enraptured rogue? What would have been all the pictures of disguised beauties in his room compared to that living one? Ah, we are speaking of old times, when Sibwright was a bachelor and before he got a county court — when people were young — when most people were young. Other people are young now; but we no more.

When Miss Laura played this prank with the wig, you can’t suppose that Pen could have been very ill upstairs; otherwise, though she had grown to care for him ever so little, common sense of feeling and decorum would have prevented her from performing any tricks or trying any disguises.

But all sorts of events had occurred in the course of the last few days which had contributed to increase or account for her gaiety, and a little colony of the reader’s old friends and acquaintances was by this time established in Lamb Court, Temple, and round Pen’s sick-bed there. First, Martha, Mrs. Pendennis’s servant, had arrived from Fairoaks, being summoned thence by the Major who justly thought her presence would be comfortable and useful to her mistress and her young master, for neither of whom the constant neighbourhood of Mrs. Flanagan (who during Pen’s illness required more spirituous consolation than ever to support her) could be pleasant. Martha then made her appearance in due season to wait upon Mr. Pendennis, nor did that lady go once to bed until the faithful servant had reached her, when, with a heart full of maternal thankfulness she went and lay down upon Warrington’s straw mattress, and among his mathematical books as has been already described.

It is true that ere that day a great and delightful alteration in Pen’s condition had taken place. The fever, subjugated by Dr. Goodenough’s blisters, potions, and lancet, had left the young man, or only returned at intervals of feeble intermittence; his wandering senses had settled in his weakened brain: he had had time to kiss and bless his mother for coming to him, and calling for Laura and his uncle (who were both affected according to their different natures by his wan appearance, his lean shrunken hands, his hollow eyes and voice, his thin bearded face) to press their hands and thank them affectionately; and after this greeting, and after they had been turned out of the room by his affectionate nurse, he had sunk into a fine sleep which had lasted for about sixteen hours, at the end of which period he awoke calling out that he was very hungry. If it is hard to be ill and to loathe food, oh, how pleasant to be getting well and to be feeling hungry — how hungry! Alas, the joys of convalescence become feebler with increasing years, as other joys do — and then — and then comes that illness when one does not convalesce at all.

On the day of this happy event, too, came another arrival in Lamb Court. This was introduced into the Pen-Warring sitting-room by large puffs of tobacco smoke — the puffs of were followed by an individual with a cigar in his mouth, and a carpet-bag under his arm — this was Warrington who had run back from Norfolk, when Mr. Bows thoughtfully wrote to inform him of his friend’s calamity. But he had been from home when Bows’s letter had reached his brother’s house — the Eastern Counties did not then boast of a railway (for we beg the reader to understand that we only commit anachronisms when we choose and when by a daring violation of those natural laws some great ethical truth is to be advanced)— in fine, Warrington only appeared with the rest of the good luck upon the lucky day after Pen’s convalescence may have been said to have begun.

His surprise was, after all, not very great when he found the chambers of his sick friend occupied, and his old acquaintance the Major seated demurely in an easy-chair (Warrington had let himself into the rooms with his own passkey), listening, or pretending to listen, to a young lady who was reading to him a play of Shakspeare in a low sweet voice. The lady stopped and started, and laid down her book, at the apparition of the tall traveller with the cigar and the carpet-bag. He blushed, he flung the cigar into the passage: he took off his hat, and dropped that too, and going up to the Major, seized that old gentleman’s hand, and asked questions about Arthur.

The Major answered in a tremulous, though cheery voice — it was curious how emotion seemed to olden him — and returning Warrington’s pressure with a shaking hand, told him the news of Arthur’s happy crisis, of his mother’s arrival — with her young charge — with Miss ——”

“You need not tell me her name,” Mr. Warrington said with great animation, for he was affected and elated with the thought of his friend’s recovery —“you need not tell me your name. I knew at once it was Laura.” And he held out his hand and took hers. Immense kindness and tenderness gleamed from under his rough eyebrows, and shook his voice as he gazed at her and spoke to her. “And this is Laura!” his looks seemed to say. “And this is Warrington!” the generous girl’s heart beat back. “Arthur’s hero — the brave and the kind — he has come hundreds of miles to succour him, when he heard of his friend’s misfortune!”

“Thank you, Mr. Warrington,” was all that Laura said, however; and as she returned the pressure of his kind hand, she blushed so, that she was glad the lamp was behind her to conceal her flushing face.

As these two were standing in this attitude, the door of Pen’s bedchamber was opened stealthily as his mother was wont to open it, and Warrington saw another lady, who first looked at him, and then turning round towards the bed, said, “Hsh!” and put up her hand.

It was to Pen Helen was turning, and giving caution. He called out with a feeble, tremulous, but cheery voice, “Come in, Stunner — come in, Warrington. I knew it was you — by the — by the smoke, old boy,” he said, as holding his worn hand out, and with tears at once of weakness and pleasure in his eyes, he greeted his friend.

“I— I beg pardon, ma’am, for smoking,” Warrington said, who now almost for the first time blushed for his wicked propensity.

Helen only said, “God bless you, Mr. Warrington.” She was so happy, she would have liked to kiss George. Then, and after the friends had had a brief, very brief interview, the delighted and inexorable mother, giving her hand to Warrington, sent him out of the room, too, back to Laura and the Major, who had not resumed their play of Cymbeline where they had left it off at the arrival of the rightful owner of Pen’s chambers.

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