The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LVIII

“Fairoaks to let”

Our poor widow (with the assistance of her faithful Martha of Fairoaks, who laughed and wondered at the German ways, and superintend the affairs of the simple household) had made a little feast in honour of Major Pendennis’s arrival, of which, however, only the Major and his two younger friends partook, for Helen sent to say that she was too unwell to dine at their table, and Laura bore her company. The Major talked for the party, and did not perceive, or choose to perceive, what a gloom and silence pervaded the other two sharers of the modest dinner. It was evening before Helen and Laura came into the sitting-room to join the company there. She came in leaning on Laura, with her back to the waning light, so that Arthur could not see how pallid and woe-stricken her face was, and as she went up to Pen, whom she had not seen during the day, and placed her fond arms on his shoulders and kissed him tenderly, Laura left her, and moved away to another part of the room. Pen remarked that his mother’s voice and her whole frame trembled, her hand was clammy cold as she put it up to his forehead, piteously embracing him. The spectacle of her misery only added, somehow, to the wrath and testiness of the young man. He scarcely returned the kiss which the suffering lady gave him: and the countenance with which he met the appeal of her look was hard and cruel. “She persecutes me,” he thought within himself, “and she comes to me with the air of a martyr!” “You look very ill, my child,” she said. “I don’t like to see you look in that way.” And she tottered to a sofa, still holding one of his passive hands in her thin cold clinging fingers.

“I have had much to annoy me, mother,” Pen said, with a throbbing breast: and as he spoke Helen’s heart began to beat so, that she sate almost dead and speechless with terror.

Warrington, Laura, and Major Pendennis, all remained breathless, aware that the storm was about to break.

“I have had letters from London,” Arthur continued, “and one that has given me more pain than I ever had in my life. It tells me that former letters of mine have been intercepted and purloined away from me; — that — that a young creature who has shown the greatest love and care for me, has been most cruelly used by — by you, mother.”

“For God’s sake stop,” cried out Warrington. “She’s ill — don’t you see she is ill?”

“Let him go on,” said the widow, faintly.

“Let him go on and kill her,” said Laura, rushing up to her mother’s side. “Speak on, sir, and see her die.”

“It is you who are cruel,” cried Pen, more exasperated and more savage, because his own heart, naturally soft and weak, revolted indignantly at the injustice of the very suffering which was laid at his door. “It is you that are cruel, who attribute all this pain to me: it is you who are cruel with your wicked reproaches, your wicked doubts of me, your wicked persecutions of those who love me — yes, those who love me, and who brave everything for me, and whom you despise and trample upon because they are of lower degree than you. Shall I tell you what I will do — what I am resolved to do, now that I know what your conduct has been? — I will go back to this poor girl whom you turned out of my doors, and ask her to come back and share my home with me. I’ll defy the pride which persecutes her, and the pitiless suspicion which insults her and me.”

“Do you mean, Pen, that you ——” here the widow, with eager eyes and outstretched hands, was breaking out, but Laura stopped her: “Silence, hush, dear mother,” she cried, and the widow hushed. Savagely as Pen spoke, she was only too eager to hear what more he had to say. “Go on, Arthur, go on, Arthur,” was all she said, almost swooning away as she spoke.

“By Gad, I say he shan’t go on, or I won’t hear him, by Gad,” the Major said, trembling too in his wrath. “If you choose, sir, after all we’ve done for you, after all I’ve done for you myself, to insult your mother and disgrace your name, by allying yourself with a low-born kitchen-girl, go and do it, by Gad — but let us, ma’am, have no more to do with him. I wash my hands of you, sir — I wash my hands of you. I’m an old fellow — I ain’t long for this world. I come of as ancient and honourable a family as any in England, by Gad, and I did hope, before I went off the hooks, by Gad, that the fellow that I’d liked, and brought up, and nursed through life, by Jove, would do something to show me that our name — yes, the name of Pendennis, by Gad, was left undishonoured behind us, but if he won’t, dammy, I say, amen. By G — both my father and my brother Jack were the proudest men in England, and I never would have thought that there would come this disgrace to my name — never — and — and I’m ashamed that it’s Arthur Pendennis.” The old fellow’s voice here broke off into a sob: it was the second time that Arthur had brought tears from those wrinkled lids.

The sound of his breaking voice stayed Pen’s anger instantly, and he stopped pacing the room, as he had been doing until that moment. Laura was by Helen’s sofa; and Warrington had remained hitherto an almost silent, but not uninterested spectator of the family storm. As the parties were talking, it had grown almost dark; and after the lull which succeeded the passionate outbreak of the Major, George’s deep voice, as it here broke trembling into the twilight room, was heard with no small emotion by all.

“Will you let me tell you something about myself, my kind friends?” he said — “you have been so good to me, ma’am, you have been so kind to me, Laura — I hope I may call you so sometimes — my dear Pen and I have been such friends that I have long wanted to tell you my story such as it is, and would have told it to you earlier but that it is a sad one and contains another’s secret. However, it may do good for Arthur to know it — it is that every one here should. It will divert you from thinking about a subject, which, out of a fatal misconception, has caused a great deal of pain to all of you. May I please tell you, Mrs. Pendennis?”

“Pray speak,” was all Helen said; and indeed she was not much heeding; her mind was full of another idea with which Pen’s words had supplied her, and she was in a terror of hope that what he had hinted might be as she wished.

George filled himself a bumper of wine and emptied it, and began to speak. “You all of you know how you see me,” he said, “a man without a desire to make an advance in the world: careless about reputation; and living in a garret and from hand to mouth, though I have friends and a name, and I daresay capabilities of my own, that would serve me if I had a mind. But mind I have none. I shall die in that garret most likely, and alone. I nailed myself to that doom in early life. Shall I tell you what it was that interested me about Arthur years ago, and made me inclined towards him when first I saw him? The men from our college at Oxbridge brought up accounts of that early affair with the Chatteris actress, about whom Pen has talked to me since; and who, but for the Major’s generalship, might have been your daughter-inlaw, ma’am. I can’t see Pen in the dark, but he blushes, I’m sure; and I dare say Miss Bell does; and my friend Major Pendennis, I dare say, laughs as he ought to do — for he won. What would have been Arthur’s lot now had he been tied at nineteen to an illiterate woman older than himself, with no qualities in common between them to make one a companion for the other, no equality, no confidence, and no love speedily? What could he have been but most miserable? And when he spoke just now and threatened a similar union, be sure it was but a threat occasioned by anger, which you must give me leave to say, ma’am, was very natural on his part, for after a generous and manly conduct — let me say who know the circumstances well — most generous and manly and self-denying (which is rare with him) — he has met from some friends of his with a most unkind suspicion, and has had to complain of the unfair treatment of another innocent person, towards whom he and you all are under much obligation.”

The widow was going to get up here, and Warrington, seeing her attempt to rise, said, “Do I tire you, ma’am?”

“Oh no — go on — go on,” said Helen, delighted, and he continued.

“I liked him, you see, because of that early history of his, which had come to my ears in college gossip, and because I like a man, if you will pardon me for saying so, Miss Laura, who shows that he can have a great unreasonable attachment for a woman. That was why we became friends — and are all friends here — for always, aren’t we?” he added, in a lower voice, leaning over to her, “and Pen has been a great comfort and companion to a lonely and unfortunate man.

“I am not complaining of my lot, you see; for no man’s is what he would have it; and up in my garret, where you left the flowers, and with my old books and my pipe for a wife, I am pretty contented, and only occasionally envy other men, whose careers in life are more brilliant, or who can solace their ill fortune by what Fate and my own fault has deprived me of — the affection of a woman or a child.” Here there came a sigh from somewhere near Warrington in the dark, and a hand was held out in his direction, which, however, was instantly, withdrawn, for the prudery of our females is such, that before all expression of feeling, or natural kindness and regard, a woman is ‘taught to think of herself and the proprieties, and to be ready to blush at the very slightest notice;’ and checking, as, of course, it ought, this spontaneous motion, modesty drew up again, kindly friendship shrank back ashamed of itself, and Warrington resumed his history. “My fate is such as I made it, and not lucky for me or for others involved in it.

“I, too, had an adventure before I went to college; and there was no one to save me as Major Pendennis saved Pen. Pardon me, Miss Laura, if I tell this story before you. It is as well that you all of you should hear my confession. Before I went to college, as a boy of eighteen, I was at a private tutor’s, and there, like Arthur, I became attached, or fancied I was attached, to a woman of a much lower degree and a greater age than my own. You shrink from me ——”

“No, I don’t,” Laura said, and here the hand went out resolutely, and laid itself in Warrington’s. She had divined his story from some previous hints let fall by him, and his first words at its commencement.

“She was a yeoman’s daughter in the neighbourhood,” Warrington said, with rather a faltering voice, “and I fancied — what all young men fancy. Her parents knew who my father was, and encouraged me, with all sorts of coarse artifices and scoundrel flatteries, which I see now, about their house. To do her justice, I own she never cared for me, but was forced into what happened by the threats and compulsion of her family. Would to God that I had not been deceived: but in these matters we are deceived because we wish to be so, and I thought I loved that poor woman.

“What could come of such a marriage? I found, before long, that I was married to a boor. She could not comprehend one subject that interested me. Her dulness palled upon me till I grew to loathe it. And after some time of a wretched, furtive union — I must tell you all — I found letters somewhere (and such letters they were!) which showed me that her heart, such as it was, had never been mine, but had always belonged to a person of her own degree.

“At my father’s death, I paid what debts I had contracted at college, and settled every shilling which remained to me in an annuity upon — upon those who bore my name, on condition that they should hide themselves away, and not assume it. They have kept that condition, as they would break it, for more money. If I had earned fame or reputation, that woman would have come to claim it: if I had made a name for myself those who no right to it would have borne it; and I entered life at twenty, God help me — hopeless and ruined beyond remission. I was the boyish victim of vulgar cheats, and, perhaps, it is only of late I have found out how hard — ah, how hard — it is to forgive them. I told you the moral before, Pen; and now I have told you the fable. Beware how you marry out of your degree. I was made for a better lot than this, I think: but God has awarded me this one — and so, you see, it is for me to look on, and see others successful and others happy, with a heart that shall be as little bitter as possible.”

“By Gad, sir,” cried the Major, in high good-humour, “I intended you to marry Miss Laura here.”

“And, by Gad, Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound,” Warrington said.

“How d’ye mean a thousand? it was only a pony, sir,” replied the Major simply, at which the other laughed.

As for Helen, she was so delighted, that she started up, and said, “God bless you — God for ever bless you, Mr. Warrington;” and kissed both his hands, and ran up to Pen, and fell into his arms.

“Yes, dearest mother,” he said as he held her to him, and with a noble tenderness and emotion, embraced and forgave her. “I am innocent, and my dear, dear mother has done me a wrong.”

“Oh yes, my child, I have wronged you, thank God, I have wronged you!” Helen whispered. “Come away, Arthur — not here — I want to ask my child to forgive me — and — and my God, to forgive me; and to bless you, and love you, my son.”

He led her, tottering, into her room, and closed the door, as the three touched spectators of the reconciliation looked on in pleased silence. Ever after, ever after, the tender accents of that voice faltering sweetly at his ear — the look of the sacred eyes beaming with an affection unutterable — the quiver of the fond lips smiling mournfully — were remembered by the young man. And at his best moments, and at his hours of trial and grief, and at his times of success or well-doing, the mother’s face looked down upon him, and blessed him with its gaze of pity and purity, as he saw it in that night when she yet lingered with him; and when she seemed, ere she quite left him, an angel, transfigured and glorified with love — for which love, as for the greatest of the bounties and wonders of God’s provision for us, let us kneel and thank Our Father.

The moon had risen by this time; Arthur recollected well afterwards how it lighted up his mother’s sweet pale face. Their talk, or his rather, for she scarcely could speak, was more tender and confidential than it had been for years before. He was the frank and generous boy of her early days and love. He told her the story, the mistake regarding which had caused her so much pain — his struggles to fly from temptation, and his thankfulness that he had been able to overcome it. He never would do the girl wrong, never; or wound his own honour or his mother’s pure heart. The threat that he would return was uttered in a moment of exasperation, of which he repented. He never would see her again. But his mother said yes he should; and it was she who had been proud and culpable — and she would like to give Fanny Bolton something — and she begged her dear boy’s pardon for opening the letter — and she would write to the young girl, if — if she had time. Poor thing! was it not natural that she should love her Arthur? And again she kissed him, and she blessed him.

As they were talking the clock struck nine, and Helen reminded him how, when he was a little boy, she used to go up to his bedroom at that hour, and hear him say Our Father. And once more, oh, once more, the young man fell down at his mother’s sacred knees, and sobbed out the prayer which the Divine Tenderness uttered for us, and which has been echoed by twenty ages since by millions of sinful and humbled men. And as he spoke the last words of the supplication, the mother’s head fell down on her boy’s, and her arms closed round him, and together they repeated the words “for ever and ever” and “Amen.”

A little time after, it might have been a quarter of an hour, Laura heard Arthur’s voice call from within, “Laura! Laura!” She rushed into the room instantly and found the young man still on his knees, and holding his mother’s hand. Helen’s head had sunk back and was quite pale in the room. Pen looked round, scared with a ghastly terror. “Help, Laura, help!” he said, “she’s fainted — she’s ——”

Laura screamed, and fell by the side of Helen. The shriek brought Warrington and Major Pendennis and the servants to the room. The sainted woman was dead. The last emotion of her soul here was joy to be henceforth unchequered and eternal. The tender heart beat no more; it was to have no more pangs, no more doubts, no more griefs and trials. Its last throb was love; and Helen’s last breath was a benediction.

The melancholy party bent their way speedily homewards, and Helen was laid by her husband’s side at Clavering, in the old church where she had prayed so often. For a while Laura went to stay with Dr. Portman, who read the service over his dear departed sister, amidst his own sobs and those of the little congregation which assembled round Helen’s tomb. There were not many who cared for her, or who spoke of her when gone. Scarcely more than of a nun in a cloister did people know of that pious and gentle lady. A few words among the cottagers whom her bounty was accustomed to relieve, a little talk from house to house at Clavering, where this lady told how their neighbour died of a complaint in the heart; whilst that speculated upon the amount of a property which the widow had left; and a third wondered whether Arthur would let Fairoaks or live in it, and expected that he would not be long getting through his property — this was all, and except with one or two who cherished her, the kind soul was forgotten by the next market-day. Would you desire that grief for you should last for a few more weeks? and does after-life seem less solitary, provided that our names, when we “go down into silence,” are echoing on this side of the grave yet for a little while, and human voices are still talking about us? She was gone, the pure soul, whom only two or three loved and knew. The great blank she left was in Laura’s heart, to whom her love had been everything, and who had now but to worship her memory. “I am glad that she gave me her blessing before she went away,” Warrington said to Pen; and as for Arthur, with a humble acknowledgment and wonder at so much affection, he hardly dared to ask of Heaven to make him worthy of it, though he felt that a saint there was interceding for him.

All the lady’s affairs were found in perfect order, and her little property ready for transmission to her son, in trust for whom she held it. Papers in her desk showed that she had long been aware of the complaint, one of the heart, under which she laboured, and knew that it would suddenly remove her: and a prayer was found in her handwriting, asking that her end might be, as it was, in the arms of her son.

Laura and Arthur talked over her sayings, all of which the former most fondly remembered, to the young man’s shame somewhat, who thought how much greater her love had been for Helen than his own. He referred himself entirely to Laura to know what Helen would have wished should be done; what poor persons she would have liked to relieve; what legacies or remembrances she would have wished to transmit. They packed up the vase which Helen in her gratitude had destined to Dr. Goodenough, and duly sent it to the kind Doctor; a silver coffee-pot, which she used, was sent off to Portman: a diamond ring, with her hair, was given with affectionate greeting to Warrington.

It must have been a hard day for poor Laura when she went over to Fairoaks first and to the little room which she had occupied, and which was hers no more, and to the widow’s own blank chamber in which those two had passed so many beloved hours. There, of course, were the clothes in the wardrobe, the cushion on which she prayed, the chair at the toilette: the glass that was no more to reflect her dear sad face. After she had been here a while Pen knocked and led her downstairs to the parlour again, and made her drink a little wine, and said, “God bless you,” as she touched the glass. “Nothing shall ever be changed in your room,” he said —“it is always your room — it is always my sister’s room. Shall it not be so, Laura?” and Laura said, “Yes!”

Among the widow’s papers was found a packet, marked by the widow, “Letters from Laura’s father,” and which Arthur gave to her. They were the letters which had passed between the cousins in the early days before the marriage of either of them. The ink was faded in which they were written: the tears dried out that both perhaps had shed over them: the grief healed now whose bitterness they chronicled: the friends doubtless united whose parting on earth had caused to both pangs so cruel. And Laura learned fully now for the first time what the tie was which had bound her so tenderly to Helen: how faithfully her more than mother had cherished her father’s memory, how truly she had loved him, how meekly resigned him.

One legacy of his mother’s Pen remembered, of which Laura could have no cognisance. It was that wish of Helen’s to make some present to Fanny Bolton; and Pen wrote to her, putting his letter under an envelope to Mr. Bows, and requesting that gentleman to read it before he delivered it to Fanny. “Dear Fanny,” Pen said, “I have to acknowledge two letters from you, one of which was delayed in my illness” (Pen found the first letter in his mother’s desk after her decease and the reading it gave him a strange pang), “and to thank you, my kind nurse and friend, who watched me so tenderly during my fever. And I have to tell you that the last words of my dear mother who is no more, were words of goodwill and gratitude to you for nursing me: and she said she would have written to you, had she had time — that she would like to ask your pardon if she had harshly treated you — and that she would beg you to show your forgiveness by accepting some token of friendship and regard from her.” Pen concluded by saying that his friend, George Warrington, Esq., of Lamb Court, Temple, was trustee of a little sum of money, of which the interest would be paid to her until she became of age, or changed her name, which would always be affectionately remembered by her grateful friend, A. Pendennis. The sum was in truth but small, although enough to make a little heiress of Fanny Bolton, whose parents were appeased, and whose father said Mr. P. had acted quite as the gentleman — though Bows growled out that that to plaster a wounded heart with a banknote was an easy kind of sympathy; and poor Fanny felt only too clearly that Pen’s letter was one of farewell.

“Sending hundred-pound notes to porters’ daughters is all dev’lish well,” old Major Pendennis said to his nephew (whom, as thee proprietor of Fairoaks and the head of the family, he now treated with marked deference and civility), “and as there was a little ready money at the bank, and your poor mother wished it, there’s perhaps no harm done. But, my good lad, I’d have you to remember that you’ve not above five hundred a year, though, thanks to me the world gives you credit for being a doosid deal better off; and, on my knees, I beg you, my boy, don’t break into your capital: Stick to it, sir; don’t speculate with it, sir; keep your land, and don’t borrow on it. Tatham tells me that the Chatteris branch of the railway may — will almost certainly pass through Chatteris, and of it can be brought on this side of the Brawl, sir, and through your fields, they’ll be worth a dev’lish deal of money, and your five hundred a year will jump up to eight or nine. Whatever it is, keep it, I implore you keep it. And I say, Pen, I think you should give up living in those dirty chambers in the Temple and let a decent lodging. And I should have a man, sir, to wait upon me; and a horse or two in town in the season. All this will pretty well swallow up your income, and I know you must live close. But remember you have a certain place in society, and you can’t afford to cut a poor figure in the world. What are you going to do in the winter? You don’t intend to stay down here, or, I suppose, to go on writing for that — what-d’ye-call-’em — that newspaper?”

“Warrington and I are going abroad again, sir, for a little, and then we shall see what is to be done,” Arthur replied.

“And you’ll let Fairoaks, of course? Good school in the neighbourhood; cheap country: dev’lish nice place for East India Colonels, or families wanting to retire. I’ll speak about it at the club; there are lots of fellows at the club want a place of that sort.”

“I hope Laura will live in it for the winter, at least, and will make it her home,” Arthur replied: at which the Major pish’d and psha’d, and said that there ought to be convents, begad, for English ladies, and wished that Miss Bell had not been there to interfere with the arrangements of the family, and that she would mope herself to death alone in that place.

Indeed, it would have been a very dismal abode for poor Laura, who was not too happy either in Dr. Portman’s household, and in the town where too many things reminded her of the dear parent whom she had lost. But old Lady Rockminster, who adored her young friend Laura, as soon as she read in the paper of her loss, and of her presence in the country, rushed over from Baymouth, where the old lady was staying, and insisted that Laura should remain six months, twelve months, all her life with her; and to her ladyship’s house, Martha from Fairoaks, as femme de chambre, accompanied her young mistress.

Pen and Warrington saw her depart. It was difficult to say which of the young men seemed to regard her the most tenderly. “Your cousin is pert and rather vulgar, my dear, but he seems to have a good heart,” little Lady Rockminster said, who said her say about everybody —“but I like Bluebeard best. Tell me, is he touche au coeur?”

“Mr. Warrington has been long — engaged,” Laura said, dropping her eyes.

“Nonsense, child! And good heavens, my dear! that’s a pretty diamond cross. What do you mean by wearing it in the morning?”

“Arthur — my brother, gave it me just now. It was — it was ——”

She could not finish the sentence. The carriage passed over the bridge, and by the dear, dear gate of Fairoaks — home no more.

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