The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXV

Temptation

Easy and frank-spoken as Pendennis commonly was with Warrington, how came it that Arthur did not inform the friend and depository of all his secrets, of the little circumstances which had taken place at the villa near Tunbridge Wells? He talked about the discovery of his old tutor Smirke, freely enough, and of his wife, and of his Anglo-Norman church, and of his departure from Clapha to Rome; but, when asked about Blanche, his answers were evasive or general: he said she was a good-natured clever little thing, that rightly guided she make no such bad wife after all, but that he had for the moment no intention of marriage, that his days of romance were over, that he was contented with his present lot, and so forth.

In the meantime there came occasionally to Lamb Court, Temple, pretty little satin envelopes, superscribed in the neatest handwriting, and sealed with one of those admirable ciphers, which, if Warrington had been curious enough to watch his friend’s letters, or indeed if the cipher had been decipherable, would have shown George that Mr. Arthur was in correspondence with a young lady whose initials were B. A. To these pretty little compositions Mr. Pen replied in his best and gallantest manner; with jokes, with news of the town, with points of wit, nay, with pretty little verses very likely, in reply to the versicles of the Muse of ‘Mes Larmes.’ Blanche we know rhymes with “branch,” and “stanch,” and “launch,” and no doubt a gentleman of Pen’s ingenuity would not forgo these advantages of position, and would ring the pretty little changes upon these pleasing notes. Indeed we believe that those love-verses of Mr. Pen’s, which had such a pleasing success in the ‘Roseleaves,’ that charming Annual edited by Lady Violet Lebas, and illustrated by portraits of the female nobility by the famous artist Pinkney, were composed at this period of our hero’s life; and were first addressed to Blanche per post, before they figured in print, cornets as it were to Pinkney’s pictorial garland.

“Verses are all very well,” the elder Pendennis said, who found Pen scratching down one of these artless effusions at the Club as he was waiting for his dinner; “and letter-writing if mamma allows it, and between such old country friends of course there may be a correspondence, and that sort of thing — but mind, Pen, and don’t commit yourself, my boy. For who knows what the doose may happen? The best way is to make your letters safe. I never wrote a letter in all my life that would commit me, and demmy, sir, I have had some experience of women.” And the worthy gentleman, growing more garrulous and confidential with his nephew as he grew older, told many affecting instances of the evil results consequent upon this want of caution to many persons in “Society;"— how from using too ardent expressions in some poetical notes to the widow Naylor, young Spoony had subjected himself to a visit of remonstrance from the widow’s brother, Colonel Flint; and thus had been forced into a marriage with a woman old enough to be his mother: how when Louisa Salter had at length succeeded in securing young Sir John Bird, Hopwood, of the Blues, produced some letters which Miss S. had written to him, and caused a withdrawal on Bird’s part, who afterwards was united to Miss Stickney, of Lyme Regis, etc. The Major, if he had not reading, had plenty of observation, and could back his wise saws with a multitude of modern instances, which he had acquired in a long and careful perusal of the great book of the world.

Pen laughed at the examples, and blushing a little at his uncle’s remonstrances, said that he would bear them in mind and be cautious. He blushed, perhaps, because he had borne them in mind; because he was cautious: because in his letters to Miss Blanche he had from instinct, or honesty perhaps, refrained from any avowals which might compromise him. “Don’t you remember the lesson I had, sir, in Lady Mirabel’s — Miss Fotheringay’s affair? I am not to be caught again, uncle,” Arthur said with mock frankness and humility. Old Pendennis congratulated himself and his nephew heartily on the latter’s prudence and progress, and was pleased at the position which Arthur was taking as a man of the world.

No doubt, if Warrington had been consulted, his opinion would have been different: and he would have told Pen that the boy’s foolish letters were better than the man’s adroit compliments and slippery gallantries; that to win the woman he loves, only a knave or a coward advances under cover, with subterfuges, and a retreat secured behind him: but Pen spoke not on this matter to Mr. Warrington, knowing pretty well that he was guilty, and what his friend’s verdict would be.

Colonel Altamont had not been for many weeks absent on his foreign tour, Sir Francis Clavering having retired meanwhile into the country pursuant to his agreement with Major Pendennis, when the ills of fate began to fall rather suddenly and heavily upon the sole remaining partner of the little firm of Shepherd’s Inn. When Strong, at parting with Altamont, refused the loan proffered by the latter in the fulness of his purse and the generosity of his heart, he made such a sacrifice to conscience and delicacy as caused him many an after twinge and pang; he and felt — it was not very many hours in his life he had experienced the feeling — that in this juncture of his affairs he had been too delicate and too scrupulous. Why should a fellow in want refuse a kind offer kindly made? Why should a thirsty man decline a pitcher of water from a friendly hand, because it was a little soiled? Strong’s conscience smote him for refusing what the other had fairly come by, and generously proffered: and he thought ruefully, now it was too late, that Altamont’s cash would have been as well in his pocket as in that of the gambling — house proprietor at Baden or Ems, with whom his Excellency would infallibly leave his Derby winnings. It was whispered among the tradesmen, bill-discounters, and others who had commercial dealings with Captain Strong, that he and the Baronet had parted company, and that the Captain’s “paper” was henceforth of no value. The tradesmen, who had put a wonderful confidence in him hitherto — for who could resist Strong’s jolly face and frank and honest demeanour? — now began to pour in their bills with a cowardly mistrust and unanimity. The knocks at the Shepherd’s Inn chambers door were constant, and tailors, bootmakers, pastrycooks who had furnished dinners, in their own persons, or by the boys their representatives, held levees on Strong’s stairs. To these were added one or two persons of a less clamorous but far more sly and dangerous sort — the young clerks of lawyers, namely, who lurked about the Inn, or concerted with Mr. Campion’s young man in the chambers hard by, having in their dismal pocketbooks copies of writs to be served on Edward Strong, requiring him to appear on an early day next term before our Sovereign Lady the Queen, and answer to, etc. etc.

From this invasion of creditors, poor Strong, who had not a guinea in his pocket, had, of course, no refuge but that of the Englishman’s castle, into which he retired, shutting the outer and inner door upon the enemy, and not quitting his stronghold until after nightfall. Against this outer barrier the foe used to come and knock and curse in vain, whilst the Chevalier peeped at them from behind the little curtain which he had put over the orifice of his letter-box; and had the dismal satisfaction of seeing the faces of furious clerk and fiery dun, as they dashed up against the door and retreated from it. But as they could not be always at his gate, or sleep on his staircase, the enemies of the Chevalier sometimes left him free.

Strong, when so pressed by his commercial antagonists, was not quite alone in his defence against them, but had secured for himself an ally or two. His friends were instructed to communicate with him by a system of private signals: and they thus kept the garrison from starving by bringing in necessary supplies, and kept up Strong’s heart and prevented him from surrendering by visiting him and cheering him in his retreat. Two of Ned’s most faithful allies were Huxter and Miss Fanny Bolton: when hostile visitors were prowling about the Inn, Fanny’s little sisters were taught a particular cry or jodel, which they innocently whooped in the court: when Fanny and Huxter came up to visit Strong, they archly sang this same note at his door; when that barrier was straightway opened, the honest garrison came out smiling, the provisions and the pot of porter were brought in, and in the society of his faithful friends the beleaguered one passed a comfortable night. There are some men who could not live under this excitement, but Strong was a brave man, as we have said, who had seen service and never lost heart in peril.

But besides allies, our general had secured for himself, under difficulties, that still more necessary aid, a retreat. It has been mentioned in a former part of this history, how Messrs. Costigan and Bows lived in the house next door to Captain Strong, and that the window of one of their rooms was not very far off the kitchen-window which was situated in the upper story of Strong’s chambers. A leaden water-pipe and gutter served for the two; and Strong, looking out from his kitchen one day, saw that he could spring with great ease up to the sill of his neighbour’s window, and clamber up the pipe which communicated from one to the other. He had laughingly shown this refuge to his chum, Altamont; and they had agreed that it would be as well not to mention the circumstance to Captain Costigan, whose duns were numerous, and who would be constantly flying down the pipe into their apartments if this way of escape were shown to him.

But now that the evil days were come, Strong made use of the passage, and one afternoon burst in upon Bows and Costigan with his jolly face, and explained that the enemy was in waiting on his staircase, and that he had taken this means of giving them the slip. So while Mr. Marks’s aides-de-camp were in waiting in the passage of No. 3, Strong walked down the steps of No. 4, dined at the Albion, went to the play, and returned home at midnight, to the astonishment of Mrs. Bolton and Fanny, who had not seen him quit his chambers and could not conceive how he could have passed the line of sentries.

Strong bore this siege for some weeks with admirable spirit and resolution, and as only such an old and brave soldier would, for the pains and privations which he had to endure were enough to depress any man of ordinary courage; and what vexed and riled him (to use his own expression) was the infernal indifference and cowardly ingratitude of Clavering, to whom he wrote letter after letter, which the Baronet never acknowledged by a single word, or by the smallest remittance, though a five-pound note, as Strong said, at that time would have been a fortune to him.

But better days were in store for the Chevalier, and in the midst of his despondency and perplexities there came to him a most welcome aid. “Yes, if it hadn’t been for this good fellow here,” said Strong — “for a good fellow you are, Altamont, my boy, and hang me if I don’t stand by you as long as I live — I think, Pendennis, it would have been all up with Ned Strong. I was the fifth week of my being kept a prisoner, for I couldn’t be always risking my neck across that water-pipe, and taking my walks abroad through poor old Cos’s window, and my spirit was quite broken, sir — dammy, quite beat, and I was thinking of putting an end to myself, and should have done it in another week, when who should drop down from heaven but Altamont!”

“Heaven ain’t exactly the place, Ned,” said Altamont. “I came from Baden-Baden,” said he, “and I’d had a deuced lucky month there, that’s all.”

“Well, sir, he took up Marks’s bill, and he paid the other fellows that were upon me, like a man, sir, that he did,” said Strong, enthusiastically.

“And I shall be very happy to stand a bottle of claret for this company, and as many more as the company chooses,” said Mr. Altamont, with a blush. “Hallo! waiter, bring us a magnum of the right sort, do you hear? And we’ll drink our healths all round, sir — and may every good fellow like Strong find another good fellow to stand by him at a pinch. That’s my sentiment, Mr. Pendennis, though I don’t like your name.”

“No! And why?” asked Arthur.

Strong pressed the Colonel’s foot under the table here; and Altamont, rather excited, filled up another bumper, nodded to Pen, drank off his wine, and said, “He was a gentleman, and that was sufficient, and they were all gentlemen.”

The meeting between these “all gentlemen” took place at Richmond, whither Pendennis had gone to dinner, and where he found the Chevalier and his friend at table in the coffee-room. Both of the latter were exceedingly hilarious, talkative, and excited by wine; and Strong, who was an admirable story-teller, told the story of his own siege, and adventures, and escapes with great liveliness and humour, and described the talk of the sheriff’s officers at his door, the pretty little signals of Fanny, the grotesque exclamations of Costigan when the Chevalier burst in at his window, and his final rescue by Altamont, in a most graphic manner, and so as greatly to interest his hearers.

“As for me, it’s nothing,” Altamont said. “When a ship’s paid off, a chap spends his money, you know. And it’s the fellers at the black and red at Baden-Baden that did it. I won a good bit of money there, and intend to win a good bit more, don’t I, Strong? I’m going to take him with me. I’ve got a system. I’ll make his fortune, I tell you. I’ll make your fortune, if you like — dammy, everybody’s fortune. But what I’ll do, and no mistake, boys, I promise you. I’ll put in for that little Fanny. Dammy, sir, what do you think she did? She had two pound, and I’m blest if she didn’t go and lend it to Ned Strong! Didn’t she, Ned? Let’s drink her health.”

“With all my heart,” said Arthur, and pledged this toast with the greatest cordiality.

Mr. Altamont then began, with the greatest volubility, at great length, to describe his system. He said that it was infallible, if played with coolness; that he had it from a chap at Baden, who had lost by it, it was true, but because he had not enough capital; if he could have stood one more turn of the wheel, he would have had all his money back; that he and several more chaps were going to make a bank, and try it; and that he would put every shilling he was worth into it, and had come back to the country for the express purpose of fetching away his money, and Captain Strong; that Strong should play for him; that he could trust Strong and his temper much better than he could his own; and much better than Bloundell-Bloundell or the Italian that “stood in.” As he emptied his bottle, the Colonel described at full length all his plans and prospects to Pen, who was interested in listening to his story, and the confessions of his daring and lawless good-humour.

“I met that queer fellow Altamont the other day,” Pen said to his uncle, a day or two afterwards.

“Altamont? What Altamont? There’s Lord Westport’s son,” said the Major.

“No, no; the fellow who came tipsy into Clavering’s dining-room one day when we were there,” said the nephew, laughing, “he said he did not like the name of Pendennis, though he did me the honour to think that I was a good fellow.”

“I don’t know any man of the name of Altamont, I give you my honour,” said the impenetrable Major; “and as for your acquaintance, I think the less you have to do with him the better, Arthur.”

Arthur laughed again. “He is going to quit the country, and make his fortune by a gambling system. He and my amiable college acquaintance, Bloundell, are partners, and the Colonel takes out Strong with him as aide-de-camp. What is it that binds the Chevalier and Clavering, I wonder?”

“I should think, mind you, Pen, I should think, but of course I have only the idea, that there has been something in Clavering’s previous life which gives these fellows and some others a certain power over him; and if there should be no such a secret, which affair of ours, my boy, dammy, I say, it ought to be a lesson to a man to keep himself straight in life, and not to give any man a chance over him.”

“Why, I think you have some means of persuasion over Clavering, uncle, or why should he give me that seat in Parlament?”

“Clavering thinks he ain’t fit for Parliament,” the Major answered. “No more he is. What’s to prevent him from putting you or anybody else into his place if he likes? Do you think that vernment or the Opposition would make any bones about accepting the seat if he offered it to them! Why should you be more squeamish than the first men, and the most honourable men, and men of the highest birth and position in the country, begad?” The Major had an answer of this kind to most of Pen’s objections, and Pen accepted his uncle’s replies, not so much because he believed them, but because he wished to believe them. We do a thing — which of us has not? — not because “everybody does it,” but because we like it; and our acquiescence, alas! proves not that everybody is right, but that we and the rest of the world are poor creatures alike.

At his next visit to Tunbridge, Mr. Pen did not forget to amuse Miss Blanche with the history which he had learned at Richmond of the Chevalier’s imprisonment, and of Altamont’s gallant rescue. And after he had told his tale in his usual satirical way, he mentioned with praise and emotion little Fanny’s generous behaviour to the Chevalier, and Altamont’s enthusiasm in her behalf.

Miss Blanche was somewhat jealous, and a good deal piqued and curious about Fanny. Among the many confidential little communications which Arthur made to Miss Amory in the course of their delightful rural drives and their sweet evening walks, it may be supposed that our hero would not forget a story so interesting to himself and so likely to be interesting to her, as that of the passion and cure of the poor little Ariadne of Shepherd’s Inn. His own part in that drama he described, to do him justice, with becoming modesty; the moral which he wished to draw from the tale being one in accordance with his usual satirical mood, viz., that women get over their first loves quite as easily as men do (for the fair Blanche, in their intimes conversations, did not cease to twit Mr. Pen about his notorious failure in his own virgin attachment to the Fotheringay), and, number one being withdrawn, transfer themselves to number two without much difficulty. And poor little Fanny was offered up in sacrifice as an instance to prove this theory. What griefs she had endured and surmounted, what bitter pangs of hopeless attachment she had gone through, what time it had taken to heal those wounds of the tender little bleeding heart, Mr. Pen did not know, or perhaps did not choose to know; for he was at once modest and doubtful about his capabilities as a conqueror of hearts, and averse to believe that he had executed any dangerous ravages on that particular one, though his own instance and argument told against himself in this case; for if, as he said, Miss Fanny was by this time in love with her surgical adorer, who had neither good looks, nor good manners, nor wit, nor anything but ardour and fidelity to recommend him, must she not in her first sickness of the love-complaint have had a serious attack, and suffered keenly for a man who had certainly a number of the showy qualities which Mr. Huxter wanted?

“You wicked odious creature,” Miss Blanche said, “I believe that you are enraged with Fanny for being so impudent as to forget you, and that you are actually jealous of Mr. Huxter.” Perhaps Miss Amory was right, as the blush which came in spite of himself and tingled upon Pendennis’s cheek (one of those blows with which a man’s vanity is constantly slapping his face) proved to Pen that he was angry to think he had been superseded by such a rival. By such a fellow as that! without any conceivable good quality! O Mr. Pendennis! (although this remark does not apply to such a smart fellow as you) if Nature had not made that provision for each sex in the credulity of the other, which sees good qualities where none exist, good looks in donkeys’ ears, wit in their numskulls, and music in their bray, there would not have been near so much marrying and giving in marriage as now obtains, and as is necessary for the due propagation and continuance of the noble race to which we belong.

“Jealous or not,” Pen said, “and, Blanche, I don’t say no, I should have liked Fanny to have come to a better end than that. I don’t like histories that end in that cynical way; and when we arrive at the conclusion of the story of a pretty girl’s passion, to find such a figure as Huxter’s at the last page of the tale. Is a life a compromise, my lady fair, and the end of the battle of love an ignoble surrender? Is the search for the Cupid which my poor little Psyche pursued in the darkness — the god of her soul’s longing — the god of the blooming cheek and rainbow pinions — to result in Huxter smelling of tobacco and gallypots? I wish, though I don’t see it in life, that people could be like Jenny and Jessamy, or my Lord and Lady Clementina in the story-books and fashionable novels, and at once under the ceremony, and, as it were, at the parson’s benediction, become perfectly handsome and good and happy ever after.”

“And don’t you intend to be good and happy, pray, Monsieur le Misanthrope — and are you very discontented with your lot — and will your marriage be a compromise”—(asked the author of ‘Mes Larmes,’ with a charming moue)—“and is your Psyche an odious vulgar wretch? You wicked satirical creature, I can’t abide you! You take the hearts of young things, play with them, and fling them away with scorn. You ask for love and trample on it. You — you make me cry, that you do, Arthur, and — and don’t — and I won’t be consoled in that way — and I think Fanny was quite right in leaving such a heartless creature.”

“Again, I don’t say no,” said Pen, looking very gloomily at Blanche, and not offering by any means to repeat the attempt at consolation, which had elicited that sweet monosyllable “don’t” from the young lady. “I don’t think I have much of what people call heart; but I don’t profess it. I made my venture when I was eighteen, and lighted my lamp and went in search of Cupid. And what was my discovery of love? — a vulgar dancing-woman! I failed, as everybody does, almost everybody; only it is luckier to fail before marriage than after.”

“Merci du choix, Monsieur,” said the Sylphide, making a curtsey.

“Look, my little Blanche,” said Pen, taking her hand, and with his voice of sad good-humour; “at least I stoop to no flatteries.”

“Quite the contrary,” said Miss Blanche.

And tell you no foolish lies, as vulgar men do. Why should you and I, with our experience, ape romance and dissemble passion? I do not believe Miss Blanche Amory to be peerless among the beautiful, nor the greatest poetess, nor the most surpassing musician, any more than I believe you to be the tallest woman in the whole world — like the giantess whose picture we saw as we rode through the fair yesterday. But if I don’t set you up as a heroine, neither do I offer you your very humble servant as a hero. But I think you are — well, there, I think you are very sufficiently good-looking.”

“Merci,” Miss Blanche said, with another curtsey.

“I think you sing charmingly. I’m sure you’re clever. I hope and believe that you are good-natured, and that you will be companionable.”

“And so, provided I bring you a certain sum of money and a seat in Parliament, you condescend to fling to me your royal pocket-handkerchief,” said Blanche. “Que d’honneur! We used to call your Highness the Prince of Fairoaks. What an honour to think that I am to be elevated to the throne, and to bring the seat in Parliament as backsheesh to the sultan! I am glad I am clever, and that I can play and sing to your liking; my songs will amuse my lord’s leisure.”

“And if thieves are about the house,” said Pen, grimly pursuing the simile, “forty besetting thieves in the shape of lurking cares and enemies in ambush and passions in arms, my Morgiana will dance round me with a tambourine, and kill all my rogues and thieves with a smile. Won’t she?” But Pen looked as if he did not believe that she would. “Ah, Blanche,” he continued after a pause, “don’t be angry; don’t be hurt at my truth-telling. — Don’t you see that I always take you at your word? You say you will be a slave and dance — I say, dance. You say, ‘I take you with what you bring:’ I say, ‘I take you with what you bring.’ To the necessary deceits and hypocrisies of our life, why add any that are useless and unnecessary? If I offer myself to you because I think we have a fair chance of being happy together, and because by your help I may get for both of us a good place and a not undistinguished name, why ask me to feign raptures and counterfeit romance, in which neither of us believe? Do you want me to come wooing in a Prince Prettyman’s dress from the masquerade warehouse, and to pay you compliments like Sir Charles Grandison? Do you want me to make you verses as in the days when we were — when we were children? I will if you like, and sell them to Bacon and Bungay afterwards. Shall I feed my pretty princess with bonbons?”

“Mais j’adore les bonbons, moi,” said the little Sylphide, with a queer piteous look.

“I can buy a hatful at Fortnum and Mason’s for a guinea. And it shall have its bonbons, its pooty little sugar-plums, that it shall,” Pen said with a bitter smile. “Nay, my dear, nay, my dearest little Blanche, don’t cry. Dry the pretty eyes, I can’t bear that;” and he proceeded to offer that consolation which the circumstance required, and which the tears, the genuine tears of vexation, which now sprang from the angry eyes of the author of ‘Mes Larmes’ demanded.

The scornful and sarcastic tone of Pendennis quite frightened and overcame the girl. “I— I don’t want your consolation. I— I never was — so — spoken to before — by any of my — my — by anybody”— she sobbed out, with much simplicity.

“Anybody!” shouted out Pen, with a savage burst of laughter, and Blanche blushed one of the most genuine blushes which her cheek had ever exhibited, and she cried out, “O Arthur, vous etes un homme terrible!” She felt bewildered, frightened, oppressed, the worldly little flirt who had been playing at love for the last dozen years of her life, and yet not displeased at meeting a master.

“Tell me, Arthur,” she said, after a pause in this strange love-making. “Why does Sir Francis Clavering give up his seat in Parliament?”

“Au fait, why does he give it to me?” asked Arthur, now blushing in his turn.

“You always mock me, sir,” she said. “If it is good to be in Parliament, why does Sir Francis go out?”

“My uncle has talked him over. He always said that you were not sufficiently provided for. In the — the family disputes, when your mamma paid his debts so liberally, it was stipulated, I suppose, that you — that is, that I— that is, upon my word, I don’t know why he goes out of Parliament,” Pen said, with rather a forced laugh. “You see, Blanche, that you and I are two good little children, and that this marriage has been arranged for us by our mammas and uncles, and that we must be obedient, like a good little boy and girl.”

So, when Pen went to London, he sent Blanche a box of bonbons, each sugar-plum of which was wrapped up in ready-made French verses, of the most tender kind; and, besides, despatched to her some poems of his own manufacture, quite as artless and authentic; and it was no wonder that he did not tell Warrington what his conversations with Miss Amory had been, of so delicate a sentiment were they, and of a nature so necessarily private.

And if, like many a worse and better man, Arthur Pendennis, the widow’s son, was meditating an apostasy, and going to sell himself to — we all know whom — at least the renegade did not pretend to be a believer in the creed to which he was ready to swear. And if every woman and man in this kingdom, who has sold her or himself for money or position, as Mr. Pendennis was about to do, would but purchase a copy of his memoirs, what tons of volumes Messrs. Bradbury and Evans would sell!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/pendennis/chapter65.html

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