The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LV

Fanny’s Occupation’s gone

Good Helen, ever since her son’s illness, had taken, as we have seen, entire possession of the young man, of his drawers and closets and all which they contained: whether shirts that wanted buttons, or stockings that required mending, or, must it be owned? letters that lay amongst those articles of raiment, and which of course it was necessary that somebody should answer during Arthur’s weakened and incapable condition. Perhaps Mrs. Pendennis was laudably desirous to have some explanations about the dreadful Fanny Bolton mystery, regarding which she had never breathed a word to her son, though it was present in her mind always, and occasioned her inexpressible anxiety and disquiet. She had caused the brass knocker to be screwed off the inner door of the chambers, where upon the postman’s startling double rap would, as she justly argued, disturb the rest of her patient, and she did not allow him to see any letter which arrived, whether from bootmakers who importuned him, or hatters who had a heavy account to make up against next Saturday, and would be very much obliged if Mr. Arthur Pendennis would have the kindness to settle, etc. Of these documents, Pen, who was always freehanded and careless, of course had his share, and though no great one, one quite enough to alarm his scrupulous and conscientious mother. She had some savings; Pen’s magnificent self-denial, and her own economy, amounting from her great simplicity and avoidance of show to parsimony almost, had enabled her to put by a little sum of money, a part of which she delightedly consecrated to the paying off the young gentleman’s obligations. At this price, many a worthy youth and respected reader would hand over his correspondence to his parents; and perhaps there is no greater test of a man’s regularity and easiness of conscience, than his readiness to face the postman. Blessed is he who is made happy by the sound of the rat-tat! The good are eager for it: but the naughty tremble at the sound thereof. So it was very kind of Mrs. Pendennis doubly to spare Pen the trouble of hearing or answering letters during his illness.

There could have been nothing in the young man’s chest of drawers and wardrobes which could be considered as inculpating him in any way, nor any satisfactory documents regarding the Fanny Bolton affair found there, for the widow had to ask her brother-inlaw if he knew anything about the odious transaction, and the dreadful intrigue about which her son was engaged. When they were at Richmond one day, and Pen with Warrington had taken a seat on a bench on the terrace, the widow kept Major Pendennis in consultation, and laid her terrors and perplexities before him, such of them at least (for as is the wont of men and women, she did not make quite a clean confession, and I suppose no spendthrift asked for a schedule of his debts, no lady of fashion asked by her husband for her dressmaker’s bills, ever sent in the whole of them yet)— such, we say, of her perplexities, at least, as she chose to confide to her Director for the time being.

When, then, she asked the Major what course she ought to pursue, about this dreadful — this horrid affair, and whether he knew anything regarding it? the old gentleman puckered up his face, so that you could not tell whether he was smiling or not; gave the widow one queer look with his little eyes; cast them down to the carpet again, and said, “My dear, good creature, I don’t know anything about it; and I don’t wish to know anything about it; and, as you ask me my opinion, I think you had best know nothing about it too. Young men will be young men; begad, and, my good ma’am, if you think our boy is a Jo ——”

“Pray, spare me this,” Helen broke in, looking very stately.

“My dear creature, I did not commence the conversation, permit me to say,” the Major said, bowing very blandly.

“I can’t bear to hear such a sin — such a dreadful sin — spoken of in such a way,” the widow said, with tears of annoyance starting from her eyes. “I can’t bear to think that my boy should commit such a crime. I wish he had died, almost, before he had done it. I don’t know how I survive it myself; for it is breaking my heart, Major Pendennis, to think that his father’s son — my child — whom I remember so good — oh, so good, and full of honour! — should be fallen so dreadfully low, as to — as to ——”

“As to flirt with a little grisette, my dear creature?” said the Major. “Egad, if all the mothers in England were to break their hearts because — Nay, nay; upon my word and honour, now, don’t agitate yourself — don’t cry. I can’t bear to see a woman’s tears — I never could — never. But how do we know that anything serious has happened? Has Arthur said anything?”

“His silence confirms it,” sobbed Mrs. Pendennis, behind her pocket-handkerchief.

“Not at all. There are subjects, my dear, about which a young fellow cannot surely talk to his mamma,” insinuated the brother-inlaw.

“She has written to him,” cried the lady, behind the cambric.

“What, before he was ill? Nothing more likely.”

“No, since,” the mourner with the batiste mask gasped out; not before; that is, I don’t think so — that is, I——”

“Only since; and you have — yes, I understand. I suppose when he was too ill to read his own correspondence, you took charge of it, did you?”

“I am the most unhappy mother in the world,” cried out the unfortunate Helen.

“The most unhappy mother in the world, because your son is a man and not a hermit! Have a care, my dear sister. If you have suppressed any letters to him, you may have done yourself a great injury; and, if I know anything of Arthur’s spirit, may cause a difference between him and you, which you’ll rue all your life — a difference that’s a dev’lish deal more important, my good madam, than the little — little — trumpery cause which originated it.”

“There was only one letter,” broke out Helen — “only a very little one — only a few words. Here it is — Oh — how can you, how can you speak so?”

When the good soul said “only a very little one,” the Major could not speak at all, so inclined was he to laugh, in spite of the agonies of the poor soul before him, and for whom he had a hearty pity and liking too. But each was looking at the matter with his or her peculiar eyes and views of morals, and the Major’s morals, as the reader knows, were not those of an ascetic.

“I recommend you,” he gravely continued, “if you can, to seal it up — those letters ain’t unfrequently sealed with wafers — and to put it amongst Pen’s other letters, and let him have them when he calls for them Or if we’ll can’t seal it, we mistook it for a bill.”

“I can’t tell my son a lie,” said the widow. It had been put silently into the letter-box two days previous to their departure from the Temple, and had been brought to Mrs. Pendennis by Martha. She had never seen Fanny’s handwriting, of course; but when the letter was put into her hands she knew the author at once. She had been on the watch for that letter every day since Pen had been ill. She had opened some of his other letters because she wanted to get at that one. She had the horrid paper poisoning her bag at that moment. She took it out and offered it to her brother-inlaw.

“Arther Pendennis, Esq.,” he read in a timid little sprawling handwriting, and with a sneer on his face. “No, my dear, I won’t read any more. But you who have read it may tell me what the letter contains — only prayers for his health in bad spelling, you say — and a desire to see him? Well — there’s no harm in that. And as you ask me —” Here the Major began to look a little queer for his own part, and put on his demure look —“as you ask me, my dear, for information, why, I don’t mind telling you that — ah — that — Morgan, my man, has made some inquiries regarding this affair, and that — my friend Doctor Goodenough also looked into it — and it appears that this person was greatly smitten with Arthur; that he paid for her and took her to Vauxhall Gardens, as Morgan heard from an old acquaintance of Pen’s and ours, an Irish gentleman, who was very nearly once having the honour of being the — from an Irishman, in fact; — that the girl’s father, a violent man of intoxicated habits, has beaten her mother, who persists in declaring her daughter’s entire innocence to her husband on the one hand, while on the other she told Goodenough, that Arthur has acted like a brute to her child. And so you see the story remains in a mystery. Will you have it cleared up? I have but to ask Pen, and he will tell me at once — he is as honourable a man as ever lived.”

“Honourable!” said the widow with bitter scorn. “Oh, brother, what is this you call honour? If my boy has been guilty, he must marry her. I would go down on my knees and pray him to do so.”

“Good God! are you mad?” screamed out the Major; and remembering former passages in Arthur’s history and Helen’s, the truth came across his mind that, were Helen to make this prayer to her son, he would marry the girl: he was wild enough and obstinate enough to commit any folly when a woman he loved was in the case. “My dear sister, have you lost your senses?” he continued (after an agitated pause, during which the above dreary reflection crossed him); and in a softened tone, “What right have we to suppose that anything has passed between this girl and him? Let’s see the letter. Her heart is breaking; pray, pray, write to me — home unhappy — unkind father — your nurse — poor little Fanny — spelt, as you say, in a manner to outrage all sense of decorum. But, good heavens! my dear, what is there in this? only that the little devil is making love to him still. Why, she didn’t come into his chambers until he was so delirious that he didn’t know her. What-d’you-call-’em, Flanagan, the laundress, told Morgan, my man, so. She came in company of an old fellow, an old Mr. Bows, who came most kindly down to Stillbrook and brought me away — by the way, I left him in the cab, and never paid the fare; and dev’lish kind it was of him. No, there’s nothing in the story.”

“Do you think so? Thank Heaven — thank God!” Helen cried. “I’ll take the letter to Arthur and ask him now. Look at him there. He’s on the terrace with Mr. Warrington. They are talking to some children. My boy was always fond of children. He’s innocent, thank God — thank God! Let me go to him.”

Old Pendennis had his own opinion. When he briskly took the not guilty side of the case, but a moment before, very likely the old gentleman had a different view from that which he chose to advocate, and judged of Arthur by what he himself would have done. If she goes to Arthur, and he speaks the truth, as the rascal will, it spoils all, he thought. And he tried one more effort.

“My dear, good soul,” he said, taking Helen’s hand and kissing it, “as your son has not acquainted you with this affair, think if you have any right to examine it. As you believe him to be a man of honour, what right have you to doubt his honour in this instance? Who is his accuser? An anonymous scoundrel who has brought no specific charge against him. If there were any such, wouldn’t the girl’s parents have come forward? He is not called upon to rebut, nor you to entertain an anonymous accusation; and as for believing him guilty because a girl of that rank happened to be in his rooms acting as nurse to him, begad you might as well insist upon his marrying that dem’d old Irish gin-drinking laundress, Mrs. Flanagan.”

The widow burst out laughing through her tears — the victory was gained by the old general.

“Marry Mrs. Flanagan, by Ged,” he continued, tapping her slender hand. “No. The boy has told you nothing about it, and you know nothing about it. The boy is innocent — of course. And what, my good soul, is the course for us to pursue? Suppose he is attached to this girl — don’t look sad again, it’s merely a supposition — and begad a young fellow may have an attachment, mayn’t he? — Directly he gets well he will be at her again.”

“He must come home! We must go off directly to Fairoaks,” the widow cried out.

“My good creature, he’ll bore himself to death at Fairoaks. He’ll have nothing to do but to think about his passion there. There’s no place in the world for making a little passion into a big one, and where a fellow feeds on his own thoughts, like a dem’d lonely country-house where there’s nothing to do. We must occupy him: amuse him: we must take him abroad: he’s never been abroad except to Paris for a lark. We must travel a little. He must have a nurse with him, to take great care of him, for Goodenough says he had a dev’lish narrow squeak of it (don’t look frightened), and so you must come and watch: and I suppose you’ll take Miss Bell, and I should like to ask Warrington to come. Arthur’s dev’lish fond of Warrington. He can’t do without Warrington. Warrington’s family is one of the oldest in England, and he is one of the best young fellows I ever met in my life. I like him exceedingly.”

“Does Mr. Warrington know anything about this — this affair?” asked Helen. “He had been away, I know, for two months before it happened; Pen wrote me so.”

“Not a word — I— I’ve asked him about it. I’ve pumped him. He never heard of the transaction, never; I pledge you my word,” cried out the Major, in some alarm. “And, my dear, I think you had much best not talk to him about it — much best not — of course not: the subject is most delicate and painful.”

The simple widow took her brother’s hand and pressed it. “Thank you, brother,” she said. “You have been very, very kind to me. You have given me a great deal of comfort. I’ll go to my room, and think of what you have said. This illness and these — these emotions — have agitated me a great deal; and I’m not very strong, you know. But I’ll go and thank God that my boy is innocent. He is innocent. Isn’t he, sir?”

“Yes, my dearest creature, yes,” said the old fellow, kissing her affectionately, and quite overcome by her tenderness. He looked after her as she retreated, with a fondness which was rendered more piquant, as it were, by the mixture of a certain scorn which accompanied it. “Innocent!” he said; “I’d swear, till I was black in the face, he was innocent, rather than give that good soul pain.”

Having achieved this victory, the fatigued and happy warrior laid himself down on the sofa, and put his yellow silk pocket-handkerchief over his face, and indulged in a snug little nap, of which the dreams, no doubt, were very pleasant, as he snored with refreshing regularity. The young men sate, meanwhile, dawdling away the sunshiny hours on the terrace, very happy, and Pen, at least, very talkative. He was narrating to Warrington a plan for a new novel, and a new tragedy. Warrington laughed at the idea of his writing a tragedy? By Jove, he would show that he could; and he began to spout some of the lines of his play.

The little solo on the wind instrument which the Major was performing was interrupted by the entrance of Miss Bell. She had been on a visit to her old friend, Lady Rockminster, who had taken a summer villa in the neighbourhood; and who, hearing of Arthur’s illness, and his mother’s arrival at Richmond, had visited the latter; and, for the benefit of the former, whom she didn’t like, had been prodigal of grapes, partridges, and other attentions. For Laura the old lady had a great fondness, and longed that she should come and stay with her; but Laura could not leave her mother at this juncture. Worn out by constant watching over Arthur’s health, Helen’s own had suffered very considerably; and Doctor Goodenough had had reason to prescribe for her as well as for his younger patient.

Old Pendennis started up on the entrance of the young lady. His slumbers were easily broken. He made her a gallant speech — he had been full of gallantry towards her of late. Where had she been gathering those roses which she wore on her cheeks? How happy he was to be disturbed out of his dreams by such a charming reality! Laura had plenty of humour and honesty; and these two caused her to have on her side something very like a contempt for the old gentleman. It delighted her to draw out his worldlinesses, and to make the old habitue of clubs and drawing-rooms tell his twaddling tales about great folks, and expound his views of morals.

Not in this instance, however, was she disposed to be satirical. She had been to drive with Lady Rockminster in the Park, she said; and she had brought home game for Pen, and flowers for mamma. She looked very grave about mamma. She had just been with Mrs. Pendennis. Helen was very much worn, and she feared she was very, very ill. Her large eyes filled with tender marks of the sympathy which she felt in her beloved friend’s condition. She was alarmed about her. Could not that good — that dear Dr. Goodenough cure her?

“Arthur’s illness, and other mental anxiety,” the Major slowly said, “had, no doubt, shaken Helen.” A burning blush upon the girl’s face showed that she understood the old man’s allusion. But she looked him full in the face and made no reply. “He might have spared me that,” she thought. “What is he aiming at in recalling that shame to me?”

That he had an aim in view is very possible. The old diplomatist seldom spoke without some such end. Doctor Goodenough had talked to him, he said, about their dear friend’s health, and she wanted rest and change of scene — yes, change of scene. Painful circumstances which had occurred must be forgotten and never alluded to; he begged pardon for even hinting at them to Miss Bell — he never should do so again — nor, he was sure, would she. Everything must be done to soothe and comfort their friend, and his proposal was that they should go abroad for the autumn to a watering-place in the Rhine neighbourhood, where Helen might rally her exhausted spirits, and Arthur try and become a new man. Of course, Laura would not forsake her mother?

Of course not. It was about Helen, and Helen only — that is, about Arthur too for her sake, that Laura was anxious. She would go abroad or anywhere with Helen.

And Helen having thought the matter over for an hour in her room, had by that time grown to be as anxious for the tour as any schoolboy, who has been reading a book of voyages, is eager to go to sea. Whither should they go? the farther the better — to some place so remote that even recollection could not follow them thither: so delightful that Pen should never want to leave it — anywhere so that he could be happy. She opened her desk with trembling fingers and took out her banker’s book, and counted up her little savings. If more was wanted, she had the diamond cross. She would borrow from Laura again. “Let us go — let us go,” she thought; “directly he can bear the journey let us go away. Come, kind Doctor Goodenough — come quick, and give us leave to quit England.”

The good Doctor drove over to dine with them that very day. “If you agitate yourself so,” he said to her, “and if your heart beats so, and if you persist in being so anxious about a young gentleman who is getting well as fast as he can, we shall have you laid up, and Miss Laura to watch you; and then it will be her turn to be ill, and I should like to know how the deuce a doctor is to live who is obliged to come and attend you all for nothing? Mrs. Goodenough is already jealous of you, and says, with perfect justice, that I fall in love with my patients. And you must please to get out of the country as soon as ever you can, that I may have a little peace in my family.”

When the plan of going abroad was proposed, it was received by that gentleman with the greatest alacrity and enthusiasm. He longed to be off at once. He let his mustachios grow from that very moment, in order, I suppose, that he might get his mouth into training for a perfect French and German pronunciation; and he was seriously disquieted in his mind because the mustachios, when they came, were of a decidedly red colour. He had looked forward to an autumn at Fairoaks; and perhaps the idea of passing two or three months there did not amuse the young man. “There is not a soul to speak to in the place,” he said to Warrington. “I can’t stand old Portman’s sermons, and pompous after-dinner conversation. I know all old Glanders’s stories about the Peninsular war. The Claverings are the only Christian people in the neighbourhood, and they are not to be at home before Christmas, my uncle says: besides, Warrington, I want to get out of the country. Whilst you were away, confound it, I had a temptation, from which I am very thankful to have escaped, and which I count that even my illness came very luckily to put an end to.” And here he narrated to his friend the circumstances of the Vauxhall affair, with which the reader is already acquainted.

Warrington looked very grave when he heard this story. Putting the moral delinquency out of the question, he was extremely glad for Arthur’s sake that the latter had escaped from a danger which might have made his whole life wretched; “which certainly,” said Warrington, “would have occasioned the wretchedness and ruin of the other party. And your mother and — and your friends — what a pain it would have been to them!” urged Pen’s companion, little knowing what grief and annoyance these good people had already suffered.

“Not a word to my mother!” Pen cried out, in a state of great alarm. “She would never get over it. An esclandre of that sort would kill her, I do believe. And,” he added, with a knowing air, and as if, like a young rascal of a Lovelace, he had been engaged in what are called affaires de coeur, all his life; “the best way, when a danger of that sort menaces, is not to face it, but to turn one’s back on it and run.”

“And were you very much smitten?” Warrington asked.

“Hm!” said Lovelace. “She dropped her h’s, but she was a dear little girl.”

O Clarissas of this life, O you poor little ignorant vain foolish maidens! if you did but know the way in which the Lovelaces speak of you: if you could but hear Jack talking to Tom across the coffee-room of a Club; or see Ned taking your poor little letters out of his cigar-case, and handing them over to Charley, and Billy, and Harry across the messroom table, you would not be so eager to write, or so ready to listen! There’s a sort of crime which is not complete unless the lucky rogue boasts of it afterwards; and the man who betrays your honour in the first place, is pretty sure, remember that, to betray your secret too.

“It’s hard to fight, and it’s easy to fall,” said Warring gloomily. “And as you say, Pendennis, when a danger like this is imminent, the best way is to turn your back on it and run.”

After this little discourse upon a subject about which Pen would have talked a great deal more eloquently a month back, the conversation reverted to the plans for going abroad, and Arthur eagerly pressed his friend to be of the party. Warrington was a part of the family — a part of the cure. Arthur said he should not have half the pleasure without Warrington.

But George said no, he couldn’t go. He must stop at home and take Pen’s place. The other remarked that that was needless, for Shandon was now come back to London, and Arthur was entitled to a holiday.

“Don’t press me,” Warrington said, “I can’t go. I’ve particular engagements. I’m best at home. I’ve not got the money to travel, that’s the long and short of it — for travelling costs money, you know.”

This little obstacle seemed fatal to Pen. He mentioned it to his mother: Mrs. Pendennis was very sorry; Mr. Warrington had been exceedingly kind; but she supposed he knew best about his affairs. And then, no doubt, she reproached herself, for selfishness in wishing to carry the boy off and have him to herself altogether.

“What is this I hear from Pen, my dear Mr. Warrington?” the Major asked one day, when the pair were alone and after Warrington’s objection had been stated to him. “Not go with us? We can’t hear of such a thing — Pen won’t get well without you. I promise you, I’m not going to be his nurse. He must have somebody with him that’s stronger and gayer and better able to amuse him than a rheumatic old fogy like me. I shall go to Carlsbad very likely, when I’ve seen you people settle down. Travelling costs nothing nowadays — or so little! And — and, pray, Warrington, remember that I was your father’s very old friend, and if you and your brother are not on such terms as to — to enable you to — to anticipate your younger brother’s allowance, I beg you to make me your banker, for hasn’t Pen been getting into your debt these three weeks past, during which you have been doing what he informs me is his work, with such exemplary talent and genius, begad?”

Still, in spite of this kind offer and unheard-of generosity on the part of the Major, George Warrington refused, and said he would stay at home. But it was with a faltering voice and an irresolute accent which showed how much he would like to go, though his tongue persisted in saying nay.

But the Major’s persevering benevolence was not to be baulked in this way. At the tea-table that evening, Helen happening to be absent from the room for the moment, looking for Pen who had gone to roost, old Pendennis returned to the charge and rated Warrington for refusing to join in their excursion. “Isn’t it ungallant, Miss Bell?” he said, turning to that young lady. “Isn’t it unfriendly? Here we have been the happiest party in the world, and this odious selfish creature breaks it up!”

Miss Bell’s long eyelashes looked down towards her teacup: and Warrington blushed hugely but did not speak. Neither did Miss Bell speak: but when he blushed she blushed too.

“You ask him to come, my dear,” said the benevolent old gentleman, “and then perhaps he will listen to you ——”

“Why should Mr. Warrington listen to me?” asked the young lady, putting the query to her teaspoon seemingly and not to the Major.

“Ask him; you have not asked him,” said Pen’s artless uncle.

“I should be very glad, indeed, if Mr. Warrington would come,” remarked Laura to the teaspoon.

“Would you?” said George.

She looked up and said, “Yes.” Their eyes met. “I will go anywhere you ask me, or do anything,” said George, lowly, and forcing out the words as if they gave him pain.

Old Pendennis was delighted; the affectionate old creature clapped his hands and cried “Bravo! bravo! It’s a bargain — a bargain, begad! Shake hands on it, young people!” And Laura, with a look full of tender brightness, put out her hand to Warrington. He took hers; his face indicated a strange agitation. He seemed to be about to speak, when from Pen’s neighbouring room Helen entered, looking at them as the candle which she held lighted her pale frightened face.

Laura blushed more red than ever and withdrew her hand.

“What is it?” Helen asked.

“It’s a bargain we have been making, my dear creature,” said the Major in his most caressing voice. “We have just bound over Mr. Warrington in a promise to come abroad with us.”

“Indeed!” Helen said.

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