The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER IX

In which the Major opens the Campaign

Let those who have a real and heartfelt relish for London society and the privilege of an entree into its most select circles, admit that Major Pendennis was a man of no ordinary generosity and affection, in the sacrifice which he now made. He gave up London in May — his newspapers and his mornings — his afternoons from club to club, his little confidential visits to my Ladies, his rides in Rotten Row, his dinners, and his stall at the Opera, his rapid escapades to Fulham or Richmond on Saturdays and Sundays, his bow from my Lord Duke or my Lord Marquis at the great London entertainments, and his name in the Morning Post of the succeeding day — his quieter little festivals, more select, secret, and delightful — all these he resigned to lock himself into a lone little country house, with a simple widow and a greenhorn of a son, a mawkish curate, and a little girl of ten years of age.

He made the sacrifice, and it was the greater that few knew the extent of it. His letters came down franked from town, and he showed the invitations to Helen with a sigh. It was beautiful and tragical to see him refuse one party after another — at least to those who could understand, as Helen didn’t, the melancholy grandeur of his self-denial. Helen did not, or only smiled at the awful pathos with which the Major spoke of the Court Guide in general: but young Pen looked with great respect at the great names upon the superscriptions of his uncle’s letters, and listened to the Major’s stories about the fashionable world with constant interest and sympathy.

The elder Pendennis’s rich memory was stored with thousands of these delightful tales, and he poured them into Pen’s willing ear with unfailing eloquence. He knew the name and pedigree of everybody in the Peerage, and everybody’s relations. “My dear boy,” he would say, with a mournful earnestness and veracity, “you cannot begin your genealogical studies too early; I wish to Heavens you would read in Debrett every day. Not so much the historical part (for the pedigrees, between ourselves, are many of them very fabulous, and there are few families that can show such a clear descent as our own) as the account of family alliances, and who is related to whom. I have known a man’s career in life blasted by ignorance on this important, this all-important subject. Why, only last month, at dinner at my Lord Hobanob’s, a young man, who has lately been received among us, young Mr. Suckling (author of a work, I believe), began to speak lightly of Admiral Bowser’s conduct for ratting to Ministers, in what I must own is the most audacious manner. But who do you think sate next and opposite to this Mr. Suckling? Why — why, next to him was Lady Grampound Bowser’s daughter, and opposite to him was Lord Grampound Bowser’s son-inlaw. The infatuated young man went on cutting his jokes at the Admiral’s expense, fancying that all the world was laughing with him, and I leave you to imagine Lady Hobanob’s feelings — Hobanob’s! — those of every well-bred man, as the wretched intru was so exposing himself. He will never dine again in South Street. I promise you that.”

With such discourses the Major entertained his nephew, as he paced the terrace in front of the house for his two hours’ constitutional walk, or as they sate together after dinner over their wine. He grieved that Sir Francis Clavering had not come down to the park, to live in it since his marriage, and to make a society for the neighbourhood. He mourned that Lord Eyrie was not in the country, that he might take Pen and present him to his lordship. “He has daughters,” the Major said. “Who knows? you might have married Lady Emily or Lady Barbara Trehawk; but all those dreams are over; my poor fellow, you must lie on the bed which you have made for yourself.”

These things to hear did young Pendennis seriously incline. They are not so interesting in print as when delivered orally; but the Major’s anecdotes of the great George, of the Royal Dukes, of the statesmen, beauties, and fashionable ladies of the day, filled young Pen’s soul with longing and wonder; and he found the conversations with his guardian, which sadly bored and perplexed poor Mrs. Pendennis, for his own part never tedious.

It can’t be said that Mr. Pen’s new guide, philosopher, and friend discoursed him on the most elevated subjects, or treated the subjects which he chose in the most elevated manner. But his morality, such as it was, was consistent. It might not, perhaps, tend to a man’s progress in another world, but it was pretty well calculated to advance his interests in this; and then it must be remembered that the Major never for one instant doubted that his views were the only views practicable, and that his conduct was perfectly virtuous and respectable. He was a man of honour, in a word: and had his eyes, what he called, open. He took pity on this young greenhorn of a nephew, and wanted to open his eyes too.

No man, for instance, went more regularly to church when in the country than the old bachelor. “It don’t matter so much in town, Pen,” he said, “for there the women go and the men are not missed. But when a gentleman is sur ses terres, he must give an example to the country people: and if I could turn a tune, I even think I should sing. The Duke of Saint David’s, whom I have the honour of knowing, always sings in the country, and let me tell you, it has a doosed fine effect from the family pew. And you are somebody down here. As long as the Claverings are away you are the first man in the parish: and as good as any. You might represent the town if you played your cards well. Your poor dear father would have done so had he lived; so might you. — Not if you marry a lady, however amiable, whom the country people won’t meet. — Well, well: it’s a painful subject. Let us change it, my boy.” But if Major Pendennis changed the subject once he recurred to it a score of times in the day: and the moral of his discourse always was, that Pen was throwing himself away. Now it does not require much coaxing or wheedling to make a simple boy believe that he is a very fine fellow.

Pen took his uncle’s counsels to heart. He was glad enough, we have said, to listen to his elder’s talk. The conversation of Captain Costigan became by no means pleasant to him, and the idea of that tipsy old father-inlaw haunted him with terror. He couldn’t bring that man, unshaven and reeking of punch, to associate with his mother. Even about Emily — he faltered when the pitiless guardian began to question him. “Was she accomplished?” He was obliged to own, no. “Was she clever?” Well, she had a very good average intellect: but he could not absolutely say she was clever. “Come, let us see some of her letters.” So Pen confessed that he had but those three of which we have made mention — and that they were but trivial invitations or answers.

“She is cautious enough,” the Major said, drily. “She is older than you, my poor boy;” and then he apologised with the utmost frankness and humility, and flung himself upon Pen’s good feelings, begging the lad to excuse a fond old uncle, who had only his family’s honour in view — for Arthur was ready to flame up in indignation whenever Miss Costigan’s honesty was doubted, and swore that he would never have her name mentioned lightly, and never, never would part from her.

He repeated this to his uncle and his friends at home, and also, it must be confessed, to Miss Fotheringay and the amiable family, at Chatteris, with whom he still continued to spend some portion of his time. Miss Emily was alarmed when she heard of the arrival of Pen’s guardian, and rightly conceived that the Major came down with hostile intentions to herself. “I suppose ye intend to leave me, now your grand relation has come down from town. He’ll carry ye off, and you’ll forget your poor Emily, Mr. Arthur!”

Forget her! In her presence, in that of Miss Rouncy, the Columbine and Milly’s confidential friend of the Company, in the presence of the Captain himself, Pen swore he never could think of any other woman but his beloved Miss Fotheringay; and the Captain, looking up at his foils which were hung as a trophy on the wall of the room where Pen and he used to fence, grimly said, he would not advoise any man to meddle rashly with the affections of his darling child; and would never believe his gallant young Arthur, whom he treated as his son, whom he called his son, would ever be guilty of conduct so revolting to every idaya of honour and humanity.

He went up and embraced Pen after speaking. He cried, and wiped his eye with one large dirty hand as he clasped Pen with the other. Arthur shuddered in that grasp, and thought of his uncle at home. His father-inlaw looked unusually dirty and shabby; the odour of whisky-and-water was even more decided than in common. How was he to bring that man and his mother together? He trembled when he thought that he had absolutely written to Costigan (enclosing to him a sovereign, the loan of which the worthy gentleman had need), and saying that one day he hoped to sign himself his affectionate son, Arthur Pendennis. He was glad to get away from Chatteris that day; from Miss Rouncy the confidante; from the old toping father-inlaw; from the divine Emily herself. “O, Emily, Emily,” he cried inwardly, as he rattled homewards on Rebecca, “you little know what sacrifices I am making for you! — for you who are always so cold, so cautious, so mistrustful;” and he thought of a character in Pope to whom he had often involuntarily compared her.

Pen never rode over to Chatteris upon a certain errand, but the Major found out on what errand the boy had been. Faithful to his plan, Major Pendennis gave his nephew no let or hindrance; but somehow the constant feeling that the senior’s eye was upon him, an uneasy shame attendant upon that inevitable confession which the evening’s conversation would be sure to elicit in the most natural simple manner, made Pen go less frequently to sigh away his soul at the feet of his charmer than he had been wont to do previous to his uncle’s arrival. There was no use trying to deceive him; there was no pretext of dining with Smirke, or reading Greek plays with Foker; Pen felt, when he returned from one of his flying visits, that everybody knew whence he came, and appeared quite guilty before his mother and guardian, over their books or their game at picquet.

Once having walked out half a mile, to the Fairoaks Inn, beyond the Lodge gates, to be in readiness for the Competitor coach, which changed horses there, to take a run for Chatteris, a man on the roof touched his hat to the young gentleman: it was his uncle’s man, Mr. Morgan, who was going on a message for his master, and had been took up at the Lodge, as he said. And Mr. Morgan came back by the Rival, too; so that Pen had the pleasure of that domestic’s company both ways. Nothing was said at home. The lad seemed to have every decent liberty; and yet he felt himself dimly watched and guarded, and that there were eyes upon him even in the presence of his Dulcinea.

In fact, Pen’s suspicions were not unfounded, and his guardian had sent forth to gather all possible information regarding the lad and his interesting young friend. The discreet and ingenious Mr. Morgan, a London confidential valet, whose fidelity could be trusted, had been to Chatteris more than once, and made every inquiry regarding the past history and present habits of the Captain and his daughter. He delicately cross-examined the waiters, the ostlers, and all the inmates of the bar at the George, and got from them what little they knew respecting the worthy Captain. He was not held in very great regard there, as it appeared. The waiters never saw the colour of his money, and were warned not to furnish the poor gentleman with any liquor for which some other party was not responsible. He swaggered sadly about the coffee-room there, consumed a toothpick, and looked over the paper, and if any friend asked him to dinner he stayed. Morgan heard at the George of Pen’s acquaintance with Mr. Foker, and he went over to Baymouth to enter into relations with that gentleman’s man; but the young student was gone to a Coast Regatta, and his servant, of course, travelled in charge of the dressing-case.

From the servants of the officers at the barracks Mr. Morgan found that the Captain had so frequently and outrageously inebriated himself there, that Colonel Swallowtail had forbidden him the messroom. The indefatigable Morgan then put himself in communication with some of the inferior actors at the theatre, and pumped them over their cigars and punch, and all agreed that Costigan was poor, shabby, and given to debt and to drink. But there was not a breath upon the reputation of Miss Fotheringay: her father’s courage was reported to have displayed itself on more than one occasion towards persons disposed to treat his daughter with freedom. She never came to the theatre but with her father: in his most inebriated moments, that gentleman kept a watch over her; finally Mr. Morgan, from his own experience added that he had been to see her act, and was uncommon delighted with the performance, besides thinking her a most splendid woman.

Mrs. Creed, the pew-opener, confirmed these statements to Doctor Portman, who examined her personally, and threatened her with the terrors of the Church one day after afternoon service. Mrs. Creed had nothing unfavourable to her lodger to divulge. She saw nobody; only one or two ladies of the theatre. The Captain did intoxicate himself sometimes, and did not always pay his rent regularly, but he did when he had money, or rather Miss Fotheringay did. Since the young gentleman from Clavering had been and took lessons in fencing, one or two more had come from the barracks; Sir Derby Oaks, and his young friend, Mr. Foker, which was often together; and which was always driving over from Baymouth in the tandem. But on the occasions of the lessons, Miss F. was very seldom present, and generally came downstairs to Mrs. Creed’s own room.

The Doctor and the Major consulting together as they often did, groaned in spirit over that information. Major Pendennis openly expressed his disappointment; and, I believe, the Divine himself was ill pleased at not being able to jack a hole in poor Miss Fotheringay’s reputation.

Even about Pen himself, Mrs. Creed’s reports were desperately favourable. “Whenever he come,” Mrs. Creed said, “She always have me or one of the children with her. And Mrs. Creed, marm, says she, if you please, marm, you’ll on no account leave the room when that young gentleman’s here. And many’s the time I’ve seen him a lookin’ as if he wished I was away, poor young man: and he took to coming in service-time, when I wasn’t at home, of course: but she always had one of the boys up if her Pa wasn’t at home, or old Mr. Bowser with her a teaching of her her lesson, or one of the young ladies of the theayter.”

It was all true: whatever encouragements might have been given him before he avowed his passion, the prudence of Miss Emily was prodigious after Pen had declared himself: and the poor fellow chafed against her hopeless reserve, which maintained his ardour as it excited his anger.

The Major surveyed the state of things with a sigh. “If it were but a temporary liaison,” the excellent man said, “one could bear it. A young fellow must sow his wild oats, and that sort of thing. But a virtuous attachment is the deuce. It comes of the d —— d romantic notions boys get from being brought up by women.”

“Allow me to say, Major, that you speak a little too like a man of the world,” replied the Doctor. “Nothing can be more desirable for Pen than a virtuous attachment for a young lady of his own rank and with a corresponding fortune — this present infatuation, of course, I must deplore as sincerely as you do. If I were his guardian I should command him to give it up.”

“The very means, I tell you, to make him marry tomorrow. We have got time from him, that is all, and we must do our best with that.

“I say, Major,” said the Doctor, at the end of the conversation in which the above subject was discussed —“I am not, of course, a play-going man — but suppose, I say, we go and see her.”

The Major laughed — he had been a fortnight at Fairoaks, and strange to say, had not thought of that. “Well,” he said, “why not? After all, it is not my niece, but Miss Fotheringay the actress, and we have as good a right as any other of the public to see her if we pay our money.” So upon a day when it was arranged that Pen was to dine at home, and pass the evening with his mother, the two elderly gentlemen drove over to Chatteris in the Doctor’s chaise, and there, like a couple of jolly bachelors, dined at the George Inn, before proceeding to the play.

Only two other guests were in the room — an officer of the regiment quartered at Chatteris, and a young gentleman whom the Doctor thought he had somewhere seen. They left them at their meal, however, and hastened to the theatre. It was Hamlet over again. Shakspeare was Article XL. of stout old Doctor Portman’s creed, to which he always made a point of testifying publicly at least once in a year.

We have described the play before, and how those who saw Miss Fotheringay perform in Ophelia saw precisely the same thing on one night as on another. Both the elderly gentlemen looked at her with extraordinary interest, thinking how very much young Pen was charmed with her.

“Gad,” said the Major, between his teeth, as he surveyed her when she was called forward as usual, and swept her curtsies to the scanty audience, “the young rascal has not made a bad choice.”

The Doctor applauded her loudly and loyally. “Upon my word,” said he, “She is a very clever actress; and I must say, Major, she is endowed with very considerable personal attractions.”

“So that young officer thinks in the stage-box,” Major Pendennis answered, and he pointed out to Doctor Portman’s attention the young dragoon of the George Coffee-room, who sate in the box in question, and applauded with immense enthusiasm. She looked extremely sweet upon him too, thought the Major: but that’s their way — and he shut up his natty opera-glass and pocketed it, as if he wished to see no more that night. Nor did the Doctor, of course, propose to stay for the after-piece, so they rose and left the theatre; the Doctor returning to Mrs. Portman, who was on a visit at the Deanery, and the Major walking home full of thought towards the George, where he had bespoken a bed.

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