The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER VIII

In which Pen is kept waiting at the Door, while the Reader is informed who little Laura was.

Once upon a time, then, there was a young gentleman of Cambridge University who came to pass the long vacation at the village where young Helen Thistlewood was living with her mother, the widow of the lieutenant slain at Copenhagen. This gentleman, whose name was the Reverend Francis Bell, was nephew to Mrs. Thistlewood, and by consequence, own cousin to Miss Helen, so that it was very right that he should take lodgings in his aunt’s house, who lived in a very small way; and there he passed the long vacation, reading with three or four pupils who accompanied him to the village. Mr. Bell was fellow of a college, and famous in the University for his learning and skill as a tutor.

His two kinswomen understood pretty early that the reverend gentleman was engaged to be married, and was only waiting for a college living to enable him to fulfil his engagement. His intended bride was the daughter of another parson, who had acted as Mr. Bell’s own private tutor in Bell’s early life, and it was whilst under Mr. Coacher’s roof, indeed, and when only a boy of seventeen or eighteen years of age, that the impetuous young Bell had flung himself at the feet of Miss Martha Coacher, whom he was helping to pick peas in the garden. On his knees, before those peas and her, he pledged himself to an endless affection.

Miss Coacher was by many years the young fellow’s senior and her own heart had been lacerated by many previous disappointments in the matrimonial line. No less than three pupils of her father had trifled with those young affections. The apothecary of the village had despicably jilted her. The dragoon officer, with whom she had danced so many many times during that happy season which she passed at Bath with her gouty grandmamma, one day gaily shook his bridle-rein and galloped away never to return. Wounded by the shafts of repeated ingratitude, can it be wondered at that the heart of Martha Coacher should pant to find rest somewhere? She listened to the proposals of the gawky gallant honest boy, with great kindness and good-humour; at the end of his speech she said, “Law, Bell, I’m sure you are too young to think of such things;” but intimated that she too would revolve them in her own virgin bosom. She could not refer Mr. Bell to her mamma, for Mr. Coacher was a widower, and being immersed in his books, was of course unable to take the direction of so frail and wondrous an article as a lady’s heart, which Miss Martha had to manage for herself.

A lock of her hair, tied up in a piece of blue ribbon, conveyed to the happy Bell the result of the Vestal’s conference with herself. Thrice before had she snipt off one of her auburn ringlets, and given them away. The possessors were faithless, but the hair had grown again: and Martha had indeed occasion to say that men were deceivers when she handed over this token of love to the simple boy.

Number 6, however, was an exception to former passions — Francis Bell was the most faithful of lovers. When his time arrived to go to college, and it became necessary to acquaint Mr. Coacher of the arrangements that had been made, the latter cried, “God bless my soul, I hadn’t the least idea what was going on;” as was indeed very likely, for he had been taken in three times before in precisely a similar manner; and Francis went to the University resolved to conquer honours, so as to be able to lay them at the feet of his beloved Martha.

This prize in view made him labour prodigiously. News came, term after term, of the honours he won. He sent the prize-books for his college essays to old Coacher, and his silver declamation cup to Miss Martha. In due season he was high among the Wranglers, and a fellow of his college; and during all the time of these transactions a constant tender correspondence was kept up with Miss Coacher, to whose influence, and perhaps with justice, he attributed the successes which he had won.

By the time, however, when the Rev. Francis Bell, M.A., and Fellow and Tutor of his College, was twenty-six years of age, it happened that Miss Coacher was thirty-four, nor had her charms, her manners, or her temper improved since that sunny day in the springtime of life when he found her picking peas in the garden. Having achieved his honours he relaxed in the ardour of his studies, and his judgment and tastes also perhaps became cooler. The sunshine of the pea-garden faded away from Miss Martha, and poor Bell found himself engaged — and his hand pledged to that bond in a thousand letters — to a coarse, ill-tempered, ill-favoured, ill-mannered, middle-aged woman.

It was in consequence of one of many altercations (in which Martha’s eloquence shone, and in which therefore she was frequently pleased to indulge) that Francis refused to take his pupils to Bearleader’s Green, where Mr. Coacher’s living was, and where Bell was in the habit of spending the summer: and he bethought him that he would pass the vacation at his aunt’s village, which he had not seen for many years — not since little Helen was a girl and used to sit on his knee. Down then he came and lived with them. Helen was grown a beautiful young woman now. The cousins were nearly four months together, from June to October. They walked in the summer evenings: they met in the early morn. They read out of the same book when the old lady dozed at night over the candles. What little Helen knew, Frank taught her. She sang to him: she gave her artless heart to him. She was aware of all his story. Had he made any secret? — had he not shown the picture of the woman to whom he was engaged, and with a blush — her letters, hard, eager, and cruel? — The days went on and on, happier and closer, with more kindness, more confidence, and more pity. At last one morning in October came, when Francis went back to college, and the poor girl felt that her tender heart was gone with him.

Frank too wakened up from the delightful midsummer dream to the horrible reality of his own pain. He gnashed and tore at the chain which bound him. He was frantic to break it and be free. Should he confess? — give his savings to the woman to whom he was bound, and beg his release? — there was time yet — he temporised. No living might fall in for years to come. The cousins went on corresponding sadly and fondly: the betrothed woman, hard, jealous, and dissatisfied, complaining bitterly, and with reason, of her Francis’s altered tone.

At last things came to a crisis, and the new attachment was discovered. Francis owned it, cared not to disguise it, rebuked Martha with her violent temper and angry imperiousness, and, worst of all, with her inferiority and her age.

Her reply was, that if he did not keep his promise she would carry his letters into every court in the kingdom — letters in which his love was pledged to her ten thousand times; and, after exposing him to the world as the perjurer and traitor he was, she would kill herself.

Frank had one more interview with Helen, whose mother was dead then, and who was living companion with old Lady Pontypool — one more interview, where it was resolved that he was to do his duty; that is, to redeem his vow; that is, to pay a debt cozened from him by a sharper; that is, to make two honest people miserable. So the two judged their duty to be, and they parted.

The living fell in only too soon; but yet Frank Bell was quite a grey and worn-out man when he was inducted into it. Helen wrote him a letter on his marriage, beginning “My dear Cousin,” and ending “always truly yours.” She sent him back the other letters, and the lock of his hair — all but a small piece. She had it in her desk when she was talking to the Major.

Bell lived for three or four years in his living, at the end of which time, the Chaplainship of Coventry Island falling vacant, Frank applied for it privately, and having procured it, announced the appointment to his wife. She objected, as she did to everything. He told her bitterly that he did not want her to come: so she went. Bell went out in Governor Crawley’s time, and was very intimate with that gentleman in his later years. And it was in Coventry Island, years after his own marriage, and five years after he had heard of the birth of Helen’s boy, that his own daughter was born.

She was not the daughter of the first Mrs. Bell, who died of island fever very soon after Helen Pendennis and her husband, to whom Helen had told everything, wrote to inform Bell of the birth of their child. “I was old, was I?” said Mrs. Bell the first; “I was old, and her inferior, was I? but I married you, Mr. Bell, and kept you from marrying her?” and hereupon she died. Bell married a colonial lady, whom be loved fondly. But he was not doomed to prosper in love; and, this lady dying in childbirth, Bell gave up too: sending his little girl home to Helen Pendennis and her husband, with a parting prayer that they would befriend her.

The little thing came to Fairoaks from Bristol, which is not very far off, dressed in black, and in company of a soldier’s wife, her nurse, at parting from whom she wept bitterly. But she soon dried up her grief under Helen’s motherly care.

Round her neck she had a locket with hair, which Helen had given, ah how many years ago! to poor Francis, dead and buried. This child was all that was left of him, and she cherished, as so tender a creature would, the legacy which he had bequeathed to her. The girl’s name, as his dying letter stated, was Helen Laura. But John Pendennis, though he accepted the trust, was always rather jealous of the orphan; and gloomily ordered that she should be called by her own mother’s name; and not by that first one which her father had given her. She was afraid of Mr. Pendennis, to the last moment of his life. And it was only when her husband was gone that Helen dared openly to indulge in the tenderness which she felt for the little girl.

Thus it was that Laura Bell became Mrs. Pendennis’s daughter. Neither her husband nor that gentleman’s brother, the Major, viewed her with very favourable eyes. She reminded the first of circumstances in his wife’s life which he was forced to accept, but would have forgotten much more willingly and as for the second, how could he regard her? She was neither related to his own family of Pendennis, nor to any nobleman in this empire, and she had but a couple of thousand pounds for her fortune.

And now let Mr. Pen come in, who has been waiting all this while.

Having strung up his nerves, and prepared himself, without at the door, for the meeting, he came to it, determined to face the awful uncle. He had settled in his mind that the encounter was to be a fierce one, and was resolved on bearing it through with all the courage and dignity of the famous family which he represented. And he flung open the door and entered with the most severe and warlike expression, armed cap-a-pie as it were, with lance couched and plumes displayed, and glancing at his adversary, as if to say, “Come on, I’m ready.”

The old man of the world, as he surveyed the boy’s demeanour, could hardly help a grin at his admirable pompous simplicity. Major Pendennis too had examined his ground; and finding that the widow was already half won over to the enemy, and having a shrewd notion that threats and tragic exhortations would have no effect upon the boy, who was inclined to be perfectly stubborn and awfully serious, the Major laid aside the authoritative manner at once, and with the most good-humoured natural smile in the world, held out his hands to Pen, shook the lad’s passive fingers gaily, and said, “Well, Pen, my boy, tell us all about it.”

Helen was delighted with the generosity of the Major’s good-humour. On the contrary, it quite took aback and disappointed poor Pen, whose nerves were strung up for a tragedy, and who felt that his grand entree was altogether baulked and ludicrous. He blushed and winced with mortified vanity and bewilderment. He felt immensely inclined to begin to cry —“I— I— I didn’t know that you were come till just now,” he said: “is — is — town very full, I suppose?”

If Pen could hardly gulp his tears down, it was all the Major could do to keep from laughter. He turned round and shot a comical glance at Mrs. Pendennis, who too felt that the scene was at once ridiculous and sentimental. And so, having nothing to say, she went up and kissed Mr. Pen: as he thought of her tenderness and soft obedience to his wishes, it is very possible too the boy was melted.

“What a couple of fools they are,” thought the old guardian. “If I hadn’t come down, she would have driven over in state to pay a visit and give her blessing to the young lady’s family.”

“Come, come,” said he, still grinning at the couple, “let us have as little sentiment as possible, and, Pen, my good fellow, tell us the whole story.”

Pen got back at once to his tragic and heroical air. “The story is, sir,” said he, “as I have written it to you before. I have made the acquaintance of a most beautiful and most virtuous lady; of a high family, although in reduced circumstances: I have found the woman in whom I know that the happiness of my life is centred; I feel that I never, never can think about any woman but her. I am aware of the difference of our ages and other difficulties in my way. But my affection was so great that I felt I could surmount all these; that we both could: and she has consented to unite her lot with mine, and to accept my heart and my fortune.”

“How much is that, my boy?” said the Major. “Has anybody left you some money? I don’t know that you are worth a shilling in the world.”

“You know what I have is his,” cried out Mrs. Pendennis.

“Good heavens, madam, hold your tongue!” was what the guardian was disposed to say; but he kept his temper, not without a struggle. “No doubt, no doubt,” he said. “You would sacrifice anything for him. Everybody knows that. But it is, after all then, your fortune which Pen is offering to the young lady; and of which he wishes to take possession at eighteen.”

“I know my mother will give me anything,” Pen said, looking rather disturbed.

“Yes, my good fellow, but there is reason in all things. If your mother keeps the house, it is but fair that she should select her company. When you give her house over her head, and transfer her banker’s account to yourself for the benefit of Miss What-d’-you-call-’em — Miss Costigan — don’t you think you should at least have consulted my sister as one of the principal parties in the transaction? I am speaking to you, you see, without the least anger or assumption of authority, such as the law and your father’s will give me over you for three years to come — but as one man of the world to another — and I ask you, if you think that, because you can do what you like with your mother, therefore you have a right to do so? As you are her dependent, would it not have been more generous to wait before you took this step, and at least to have paid her the courtesy to ask her leave?”

Pen held down his head, and began dimly to perceive that the action on which he had prided himself as a most romantic, generous instance of disinterested affection, was perhaps a very selfish and headstrong piece of folly.

“I did it in a moment of passion,” said Pen, floundering; “I was not aware what I was going to say or to do” (and in this he spoke with perfect sincerity) “But now it is said, and I stand to it. No; I neither can nor will recall it. I’ll die rather than do so. And I— I don’t want to burthen my mother,” he continued. “I’ll work for myself. I’ll go on the stage, and act with her. She — she says I should do well there.”

“But will she take you on those terms?” the Major interposed. “Mind, I do not say that Miss Costigan is not the most disinterested of women: but, don’t you suppose now, fairly, that your position as a young gentleman of ancient birth and decent expectations forms a part of the cause why she finds your addresses welcome?”

“I’ll die, I say, rather than forfeit my pledge to her,” said Pen, doubling his fists and turning red.

“Who asks you, my dear friend?” answered the imperturbable guardian. “No gentleman breaks his word, of course, when it has been given freely. But after all, you can wait. You owe something to your mother, something to your family — something to me as your father’s representative.”

“Oh, of course,” Pen said, feeling rather relieved.

“Well, as you have pledged your word to her, give us another, will you Arthur?”

“What is it?” Arthur asked.

“That you will make no private marriage — that you won’t be taking a trip to Scotland, you understand.”

“That would be a falsehood. Pen never told his mother a falsehood,” Helen said.

Pen hung down his head again, and his eyes filled with tears of shame. Had not this whole intrigue been a falsehood to that tender and confiding creature who was ready to give up all for his sake? He gave his uncle his hand.

“No, sir — on my word of honour, as a gentleman,” he said, “I will never marry without my mother’s consent!” and giving Helen a bright parting look of confidence and affection unchangeable, the boy went out of the drawing-room into his own study.

“He’s an angel — he’s an angel,” the mother cried out in one of her usual raptures.

“He comes of a good stock, ma’am,” said her brother-inlaw —“of a good stock on both sides.” The Major was greatly pleased with the result of his diplomacy — so much so, that he once more saluted the tips of Mrs. Pendennis’s glove, and dropping the curt, manly, and straightforward tone in which he had conducted the conversation with the lad, assumed a certain drawl which he always adopted when he was most conceited and fine.

“My dear creature,” said he, in that his politest tone, “I think it certainly as well that I came down, and I flatter myself that last botte was a successful one. I tell you how I came to think of it. Three years ago my kind friend Lady Ferrybridge sent for me in the greatest state of alarm about her son Gretna, whose affair you remember, and implored me to use my influence with the young gentleman, who was engaged in an affaire de coeur with a Scotch clergyman’s daughter, Miss MacToddy. I implored, I entreated gentle measures. But Lord Ferrybridge was furious, and tried the high hand. Gretna was sulky and silent, and his parents thought they had conquered. But what was the fact, my dear creature? The young people had been married for three months before Lord Ferrybridge knew anything about it. And that was why I extracted the promise from Master Pen.”

“Arthur would never have done so,” Mrs. Pendennis said.

“He hasn’t — that is one comfort,” answered the brother-inlaw.

Like a wary and patient man of the world, Major Pendennis did not press poor Pen any farther for the moment, but hoped the best from time, and that the young fellow’s eyes would be opened before long to see the absurdity of which he was guilty. And having found out how keen the boy’s point of honour was, he worked kindly upon that kindly feeling with great skill, discoursing him over their wine after dinner, and pointing out to Pen the necessity of a perfect uprightness and openness in all his dealings, and entreating that his communications with his interesting young friend (as the Major politely called Miss Fotheringay) should be carried on with the knowledge, if not approbation, of Mrs. Pendennis. “After all, Pen,” the Major said, with a convenient frankness that did not displease the boy, whilst it advanced the interests of the negotiator, “you must bear in mind that you are throwing yourself away. Your mother may submit to your marriage as she would to anything else you desired, if you did but cry long enough for it: but be sure of this, that it can never please her. You take a young woman off the boards of a country theatre and prefer her, for such is the case, to one of the finest ladies in England. And your mother will submit to your choice, but you can’t suppose that she will be happy under it. I have often fancied, entre nous, that my sister had it in her eye to make a marriage between you and that little ward of hers — Flora, Laura — what’s her name? And I always determined to do my small endeavour to prevent any such match. The child has but two thousand pounds, I am given to understand. It is only with the utmost economy and care that my sister can provide for the decent maintenance of her house, and for your appearance and education as a gentleman; and I don’t care to own to you that I had other and much higher views for you. With your name and birth, sir — with your talents, which I suppose are respectable, with the friends whom I have the honour to possess, I could have placed you in an excellent position — a remarkable position for a young man of such exceeding small means, and had hoped to see you, at least, try to restore the honours of our name. Your mother’s softness stopped one prospect, or you might have been a general, like our gallant ancestor who fought at Ramillies and Malplaquet. I had another plan in view: my excellent and kind friend, Lord Bagwig, who is very well disposed towards me, would, I have little doubt, have attached you to his mission at Pumpernickel, and you might have advanced in the diplomatic service. But, pardon me for recurring to the subject; how is a man to serve a young gentleman of eighteen, who proposes to marry a lady of thirty, whom he has selected from a booth in a fair? — well, not a fair — a barn. That profession at once is closed to you. The public service is closed to you. Society is closed to you. You see, my good friend, to what you bring yourself. You may get on at the bar to be sure, where I am given to understand that gentlemen of merit occasionally marry out of their kitchens; but in no other profession. Or you may come and live down here — down here, mon Dieu! for ever” (said the Major, with a dreary shrug, as he thought with inexpressible fondness of Pall Mall), “where your mother will receive the Mrs. Arthur that is to be, with perfect kindness; where the good people of the county won’t visit you; and where, by Gad, sir, I shall be shy of visiting you myself, for I’m a plain-spoken man, and I own to you that I like to live with gentlemen for my companions; where you will have to live, with rum-and-water — drinking gentlemen — farmers, and drag through your life the young husband of an old woman, who, if she doesn’t quarrel with your mother, will at least cost that lady her position in society, and drag her down into that dubious caste into which you must inevitably fall. It is no affair of mine, my good sir. I am not angry. Your downfall will not hurt me farther than that it will extinguish the hopes I had of seeing my family once more taking its place in the world. It is only your mother and yourself that will be ruined. And I pity you both from my soul. Pass the claret: it is some I sent to your poor father; I remember I bought it at poor Lord Levant’s sale. But of course,” added the Major, smacking the wine, “having engaged yourself, you will do what becomes you as a man of honour, however fatal your promise may be. However, promise us on our side, my boy, what I set out by entreating you to grant — that there shall be nothing clandestine, that you will pursue your studies, that you will only visit your interesting friend at proper intervals. Do you write to her much?”

Pen blushed and said, “Why, yes, he had written.”

“I suppose verses, eh! as well as prose? I was a dab at verses myself. I recollect when I first joined, I used to write verses for the fellows in the regiment; and did some pretty things in that way. I was talking to my old friend General Hobbler about some lines I dashed off for him in the year 1806, when we were at the Cape, and, Gad, he remembered every line of them still; for he’d used ’em so often, the old rogue, and had actually tried ’em on Mrs. Hobbler, sir — who brought him sixty thousand pounds. I suppose you’ve tried verses, eh, Pen?”

Pen blushed again, and said, “Why, yes, he had written verses.”

“And does the fair one respond in poetry or prose?” asked the Major, eyeing his nephew with the queerest expression, as much as to say, “O Moses and Green Spectacles! what a fool the boy is.”

Pen blushed again. She had written, but not in verse, the young lover owned, and he gave his breast-pocket the benefit of a squeeze with his left arm, which the Major remarked, according to his wont.

“You have got the letters there, I see,” said the old campaigner, nodding at Pen and pointing to his own chest (which was manfully wadded with cotton by Mr. Stultz). “You know you have. I would give twopence to see ’em.”

“Why,” said Pen, twiddling the stalks of the strawberries, “I— I,” but this sentence never finished; for Pen’s face was so comical and embarrassed, as the Major watched it, that the elder could contain his gravity no longer, and burst into a fit of laughter, in which chorus Pen himself was obliged to join after a minute: when he broke out fairly into a guffaw.

It sent them with great good-humour into Mrs. Pendennis’s drawing-room. She was pleased to hear them laughing in the hall as they crossed it.

“You sly rascal!” said the Major, putting his arm gaily on Pen’s shoulder, and giving a playful push at the boy’s breast-pocket. He felt the papers crackling there sure enough. The young fellow was delighted — conceited — triumphant — and in one word, a spoony.

The pair came to the tea-table in the highest spirits. The Major’s politeness was beyond expression. He had never tasted such good tea, and such bread was only to be had in the country. He asked Mrs. Pendennis for one of her charming songs. He then made Pen sing, and was delighted and astonished at the beauty of the boy’s voice: he made his nephew fetch his maps and drawings, and praised them as really remarkable works of talent in a young fellow: he complimented him on his French pronunciation: he flattered the simple boy as adroitly as ever lover flattered a mistress: and when bedtime came, mother and son went to their several rooms perfectly enchanted with the kind Major.

When they had reached those apartments, I suppose Helen took to her knees as usual: and Pen read over his letters before going to bed: just as if he didn’t know every word of them by heart already. In truth there were but three of those documents and to learn their contents required no great effort of memory.

In No. 1, Miss Fotheringay presents grateful compliments to Mr. Pendennis, and in her papa’s name and her own begs to thank him for his most beautiful presents. They will always be kept carefully; and Miss F. and Captain C. will never forget the delightful evening which they passed on Tuesday last.

No. 2 said — Dear Sir, we shall have a small quiet party of social friends at our humble board, next Tuesday evening, at an early tea, when I shall wear the beautiful scarf which, with its accompanying delightful verses, I shall ever, ever cherish: and papa bids me say how happy he will be if you will join ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul’ in our festive little party, as I am sure will be your truly grateful Emily Fotheringay.

No. 3 was somewhat more confidential, and showed that matters had proceeded rather far. You were odious yesterday night, the letter said. Why did you not come to the stage-door? Papa could not escort me on account of his eye; he had an accident, and fell down over a loose carpet on the stair on Sunday night. I saw you looking at Miss Diggle all night; and you were so enchanted with Lydia Languish you scarcely once looked at Julia. I could have crushed Bingley, I was so angry. I play Ella Rosenberg on Friday: will you come then? Miss Diggle performs — ever your E. F.

These three letters Mr. Pen used to read at intervals, during the day and night, and embrace with that delight and fervour which such beautiful compositions surely warranted. A thousand times at least he had kissed fondly the musky satin paper, made sacred to him by the hand of Emily Fotheringay. This was all he had in return for his passion and flames, his vows and protests, his rhymes and similes, his wakeful nights and endless thoughts, his fondness, fears and folly. The young wiseacre had pledged away his all for this: signed his name to endless promissory notes, conferring his heart upon the bearer: bound himself for life, and got back twopence as an equivalent. For Miss Costigan was a young lady of such perfect good-conduct and self-command, that she never would have thought of giving more, and reserved the treasures of her affection until she could transfer them lawfully at church.

Howbeit, Mr. Pen was content with what tokens of regard he had got, and mumbled over his three letters in a rapture of high spirits, and went to sleep delighted with his kind old uncle from London, who must evidently yield to his wishes in time; and, in a word, in a preposterous state of contentment with himself and all the world.

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