The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXI

Fiat Justitia

The dinner was served when Arthur returned, and Lady Rockminster began to scold him for arriving late. But Laura, looking at her cousin, saw that his face was so pale and scared, that she interrupted her imperious patroness; and asked, with tender alarm, what had happened? Was Arthur ill?

Arthur drank a large bumper of sherry. “I have heard the most extraordinary news; I will tell you afterwards,” he said, looking at the servants. He was very nervous and agitated during the dinner. “Don’t tramp and beat so with your feet under the table,” Lady Rockminster said. “You have trodden on Fido, and upset his saucer. You see Mr. Warrington keeps his boots quiet.”

At the dessert — it seemed as if the unlucky dinner would never be over — Lady Rockminster said, “This dinner has been exceedingly stupid. I suppose something has happened, and that you want to speak to Laura. I will go and have my nap. I am not sure that I shall have any tea — no. Good night, Mr. Warrington. You must come again, and when there is no business to talk about.” And the old lady, tossing up her head, walked away from the room with great dignity.

George and the others had risen with her, and Warrington was about to go away, and was saying “Good night” to Laura, who, of course, was looking much alarmed about her cousin, when Arthur said, “Pray, stay, George. You should hear my news too, and give me your counsel in this case. I hardly know how to act in it.”

“It’s something about Blanche, Arthur,” said Laura, her heart beating, and her cheek blushing as she thought it had never blushed in her life.

“Yes — and the most extraordinary story,” said Pen. “When I left you to go to my uncle’s lodgings, I found his servant, Morgan, who has been with him so long, at the door, and he said that he and his master had parted that morning; that my uncle had quitted the house, and had gone to an hotel — this hotel. I asked for him when I came in; but he was gone out to dinner. Morgan then said that he had something of a most important nature to communicate to me, and begged me to step into the house; his house it is now. It appears the scoundrel has saved a great deal of money whilst in my uncle’s service, and is now a capitalist and a millionaire, for what I know. Well, I went into the house, and what do you think he told me? This must be a secret between us all — at least if we can keep it, now that it is in possession of that villain. Blanche’s father is not dead. He has come to life again. The marriage between Clavering and the Begum is no marriage.”

“And Blanche, I suppose, is her grandfather’s heir,” said Warrington.

“Perhaps: but the child of what a father! Amory is an escaped convict — Clavering knows it; my uncle knows it — and it was with this piece of information held over Clavering in terrorem that the wretched old man got him to give up his borough to me.”

“Blanche doesn’t know it,” said Laura, “nor poor Lady Clavering?”

“No,” said Pen; “Blanche does not even know the history of her father. She knew that he and her mother had separated, and had heard as a child, from Bonner, her nurse, that Mr. Amory was drowned in New South Wales. He was there as a convict, not as a ship’s-captain, as the poor girl thought. Lady Clavering has told me that they were not happy, and that her husband was a bad character. She would tell me all, she said, some day: and I remember her saying to me, with tears in her eyes, that it was hard for a woman to be forced to own that she was glad to hear her husband was dead: and that twice in her life she should have chosen so badly. What is to be done now? The man can’t show and claim his wife: death is probably over him if he discovers himself: return to transportation certainly. But the rascal has held the threat of discovery over Clavering for some time past, and has extorted money from him time after time.”

“It is our friend Colonel Altamont, of course,” said Warrington “I see all now.”

“If the rascal comes back,” continued Arthur, “Morgan, who knows his secret, will use it over him — and having it in his possession, proposes to extort money from us all. The d —— d rascal supposed I was cognisant of it,” said Pen, white with anger; “asked me if I would give him an annuity to keep it quiet; threatened me, me, as if I was trafficking with this wretched old Begum’s misfortune, and would extort a seat in Parliament out of that miserable Clavering. Good heavens! was my uncle mad, to tamper in such a conspiracy? Fancy our mother’s son, Laura, trading on such a treason!”

“I can’t fancy it, dear Arthur,” said Laura, seizing Arthur’s hand, and kissing it.

“No!” broke out Warrington’s deep voice, with a tremor; he surveyed the two generous and loving young people with a pang of indescribable love and pain. “No. Our boy can’t meddle with such a wretched intrigue as that. Arthur Pendennis can’t marry a convict’s daughter; and sit in Parliament as member for the hulks. You must wash your hands of the whole affair, Pen. You must break off. You must give no explanations of why and wherefore, but state that family reasons render a match impossible. It is better that those poor women should fancy you false to your word than that they should know the truth. Besides, you can get from that dog Clavering — I can fetch that for you easily enough an acknowledgment that the reasons which you have given to him as the head of the family are amply sufficient for breaking off the union. Don’t you think with me, Laura?” He scarcely dared to look her in the face as he spoke. Any lingering hope that he might have — any feeble hold that he might feel upon the last spar of his wrecked fortune, he knew he was casting away; and he let the wave of his calamity close over him. Pen had started up whilst he was speaking, looking eagerly at him. He turned his head away. He saw Laura rise up also and go to Pen, and once more take his hand and kiss it. “She thinks so too — God bless her!” said George.

“Her father’s shame is not Blanche’s fault, dear Arthur, is it?” Laura said, very pale, and speaking very quickly. “Suppose you had been married, would you desert her because she had done no wrong? Are you not pledged to her? Would you leave her because she is in misfortune? And if she is unhappy, wouldn’t you console her? Our mother would, had she been here.” And, as she spoke, the kind girl folded her arms round him, and buried her face upon his heart.

“Our mother is an angel with God,” Pen sobbed out. “And you are the dearest and best of women — the dearest, the dearest and the best. Teach me my duty. Pray for me that I may do it — pure heart. God bless you — God bless you, my sister!”

“Amen,” groaned out Warrington, with his head in his hands. “She is right,” he murmured to himself. “She can’t do any wrong, I think — that girl.” Indeed, she looked and smiled like an angel. Many a day after he saw that smile — saw her radiant face as she looked up at Pen — saw her putting back her curls, blushing and smiling, and still looking fondly towards him.

She leaned for a moment her little fair hand on the table, playing on it. “And now, and now,” she said, looking at the two gentlemen —

“And what now?” asked George.

“And now we will have some tea,” said Miss Laura, with her smile.

But before this unromantic conclusion to a rather sentimental scene could be suffered to take place, a servant brought word that Major Pendennis had returned to the hotel, and was waiting to see his nephew. Upon this announcement, Laura, not without some alarm, and an appealing look to Pen, which said, “Behave yourself well — hold to the right, and do your duty — be gentle, but firm with your uncle”— Laura, we say, with these warnings written in her face, took leave of the two gentlemen, and retreated to her dormitory. Warrington, who was not generally fond of tea, yet grudged that expected cup very much. Why could not old Pendennis have come in an hour later? Well, an hour sooner or later, what matter? The hour strikes at last. The inevitable moment comes to say Farewell, The hand is shaken, the door closed, and the friend gone; and, the brief joy over, you are alone. “In which of those many windows of the hotel does her light beam?” perhaps he asks himself as he passes down the street. He strides away to the smoking-room of a neighbouring Club, and, there applies himself to his usual solace of a cigar. Men are brawling and talking loud about politics, opera-girls, horse-racing, the atrocious tyranny of the committee:— bearing this sacred secret about him, he enters into this brawl. Talk away, each louder than the other. Rattle and crack jokes. Laugh and tell your wild stories. It is strange to take one’s place and part in the midst of the smoke and din, and think every man here has his secret ego most likely, which is sitting lonely and apart, away in the private chamber, from the loud game in which the rest of us is joining!

Arthur, as he traversed the passages of the hotel, felt his anger rousing up within him. He was indignant to think that yonder old gentleman whom he was about to meet, should have made him such a tool and puppet, and so compromised his honour and good name. The old fellow’s hand was very cold and shaky when Arthur took it. He was coughing; he was grumbling over the fire; Frosch could not bring his dressing-gown or arrange his papers as that d —— d confounded impudent scoundrel of a Morgan. The old gentleman bemoaned himself, and cursed Morgan’s ingratitude with peevish pathos.

“The confounded impudent scoundrel! He was drunk last night, and challenged me to fight him, Pen; and, begad, at one time I was so excited that I thought I should have driven a knife into him; and the infernal rascal has made ten thousand pound, I believe — and deserves to be hanged, and will be; but, curse him, I wish he could have lasted out my time. He knew all my ways, and, dammy, when I rang the bell, the confounded thief brought the thing I wanted — not like that stupid German lout. And what sort of time have you had in the country? Been a good deal with Lady Rockminster? You can’t do better. She is one of the old school — vieille ecole, bonne ecole, hey? Dammy, they don’t make gentlemen and ladies now; and in fifty years you’ll hardly know one man from another. But they’ll last my time. I ain’t long for this business: I am getting very old, Pen, my boy; and, gad, I was thinking today, as I was packing up my little library, there’s a bible amongst the books that belonged to my poor mother; I would like you to keep that, Pen. I was thinking, sir, that you would most likely open the box when it was your property, and the old fellow was laid under the sod, sir,” and the Major coughed and wagged his old head over the fire.

His age — his kindness, disarmed Pen’s anger somewhat, and made Arthur feel no little compunction for the deed which he was about to do. He knew that the announcement which he was about to make would destroy the darling hope of the old gentleman’s life, and create in his breast a woful anger and commotion.

“Hey — hey — I’m off, sir,” nodded the Elder; “but I’d like to read a speech of yours in the Times before I go —‘Mr. Pendennis said, Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking’— hey, sir? hey, Arthur? Begad, you look dev’lish well and healthy, sir. I always said my brother Jack would bring the family right. You must go down into the west, and buy the old estate, sir. Nec tenui penna, hey? We’ll rise again, sir — rise again on the wing — and, begad, I shouldn’t be surprised that you will be a Baronet before you die.”

His words smote Pen. “And it is I,” he thought, “that am going to fling down the poor old fellow’s air-castle. Well, it must be. Here goes. — I— I went into your lodgings at Bury Street, though I did not find you,” Pen slowly began —“and I talked with Morgan, uncle.”

“Indeed!” The old gentleman’s cheek began to flush involuntarily, and he muttered, “The cat’s out of the bag now, begad!”

“He told me a story, sir, which gave me the deepest surprise and pain,” said Pen.

The Major tried to look unconcerned. “What — that story about — about — What-d’-you-call-’em, hey?”

“About Miss Amory’s father — about Lady Clavering’s first husband, and who he is, and what.”

“Hem — a dev’lish awkward affair!” said the old man, rubbing his nose. “I— I’ve been aware of that — eh — confounded circumstance for some time.”

“I wish I had known it sooner, or not at all,” said Arthur, gloomily.

“He is all safe,” thought the Senior, greatly relieved. “Gad! I should have liked to keep it from you altogether — and from those two poor women, who are as innocent as unborn babes in the transaction.”

“You are right. There is no reason why the two women should hear it; and I shall never tell them — though that villain, Morgan, perhaps may,” Arthur said, gloomily. “He seems disposed to trade upon his secret, and has already proposed terms of ransom to me. I wish I had known of the matter earlier, sir. It is not a very pleasant thought to me that I am engaged to a convict’s daughter.”

“The very reason why I kept it from you — my dear boy. But Miss Amory is not a convict’s daughter, don’t you see? Miss Amory is the daughter of Lady Clavering, with fifty or sixty thousand pounds for a fortune; and her father-inlaw, a Baronet and country gentleman, of high reputation, approves of the match, and gives up his seat in Parliament to his son-inlaw. What can be more simple?”

“Is it true, sir?”

“Begad, yes, it is true, of course it’s true. Amory’s dead. I tell you he is dead. The first sign of life he shows, he is dead. He can’t appear. We have him at a deadlock, like the fellow in the play — the ‘Critic,’ hey? — dev’lish amusing play, that ‘Critic.’ Monstrous witty man, Sheridan; and so was his son. By Gad, sir, when I was at the Cape, I remember ——”

The old gentleman’s garrulity, and wish to conduct Arthur to the Cape, perhaps arose from a desire to avoid the subject which was nearest his nephew’s heart; but Arthur broke out, interrupting him —“If you had told me this tale sooner, I believe you would have spared me and yourself a great deal of pain and disappointment; and I should not have found myself tied to an engagement from which I can’t, in honour, recede.”

“No, begad, we’ve fixed you — and a man who’s fixed to a seat in Parliament, and a pretty girl, with a couple of thousand a year, is fixed to no bad thing, let me tell you,” said the old man.

“Great Heavens, sir!” said Arthur, “are you blind? Can’t you see?”

“See what, young gentleman?” asked the other.

“See, that rather than trade upon this secret of Amory’s,” Arthur cried out, “I would go and join my father-inlaw at the hulks! See, that rather than take a seat in Parliament as a bribe from Clavering for silence, I would take the spoons off the table! See, that you have given me a felon’s daughter for a wife; doomed me to poverty and shame; cursed my career when it might have been — when it might have been so different but for you! Don’t you see that we have been playing a guilty game, and have been overreached; — that in offering to marry this poor girl, for the sake of her money, and the advancement she would bring, I was degrading myself, and prostituting my honour?”

“What in Heaven’s name do you mean, sir?” cried the old man.

“I mean to say that there is a measure of baseness which I can’t pass,” Arthur said. “I have no other words for it, and am sorry if they hurt you. I have felt, for months past, that my conduct in this affair has been wicked, sordid, and worldly. I am rightly punished by the event, and having sold myself for money and a seat in Parliament, by losing both.”

“How do you mean that you lose either?” shrieked the old gentleman. “Who the devil’s to take your fortune or your seat away from you? By G — Clavering shall give ’em to you. You shall have every shilling of eighty thousand pounds.”

“I’ll keep my promise to Miss Amory, sir,” said Arthur.

“And, begad, her parents shall keep theirs to you.”

“Not so, please God,” Arthur answered. “I have sinned, but, Heaven help me, I will sin no more. I will let Clavering off from that bargain which was made without my knowledge. I will take no money with Blanche but that which was originally settled upon her; and I will try to make her happy. You have done it. You have brought this on me, sir. But you knew no better: and I forgive ——”

“Arthur — in God’s name — in your father’s, who, by Heavens, was the proudest man alive, and had the honour of the family always at heart — in mine — for the sake of a poor broken-down old fellow, who has always been dev’lish fond of you — don’t fling this chance away — I pray you, I beg you, I implore you, my dear, dear boy, don’t fling this chance away. It’s the making of you. You’re sure to get on. You’ll be a Baronet; it’s three thousand a year: dammy, on my knees, there, I beg of you, don’t do this.”

And the old man actually sank down on his knees, and, seizing one of Arthur’s hands, looked up piteously at him. It was cruel to remark the shaking hands, the wrinkled and quivering face, the old eyes weeping and winking, the broken voice. “Ah, sir,” said Arthur, with a groan, “you have brought pain enough on me, spare me this. You have wished me to marry Blanche. I marry her. For God’s sake, sir, rise! I can’t bear it.”

“You — you mean to say that you will take her as a beggar, and be one yourself?” said the old gentleman, rising up and coughing violently.

“I look at her as a person to whom a great calamity has befallen, and to whom I am promised. She cannot help the misfortune; and as she had my word when she was prosperous, I shall not withdraw it now she is poor. I will not take Clavering’s seat, unless afterwards it should be given of his free will. I will not have a shilling more than her original fortune.”

“Have the kindness to ring the bell,” said the old gentleman. “I have done my best, and said my say; and I’m a dev’lish old fellow. And — and — it don’t matter. And — and Shakspeare was right — and Cardinal Wolsey — begad —‘and had I but served my God as I’ve served you’— yes, on my knees, by Jove, to my own nephew — I mightn’t have been — Good night, sir, you needn’t trouble yourself to call again.”

Arthur took his hand, which the old man left to him; it was quite passive and clammy. He looked very much oldened; and it seemed as if the contest and defeat had quite broken him.

On the next day he kept his bed, and refused to see his nephew.

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