Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 50

Contains a Vulgar Incident

The Muse, whoever she be, who presides over this Comic History must now descend from the genteel heights in which she has been soaring and have the goodness to drop down upon the lowly roof of John Sedley at Brompton, and describe what events are taking place there. Here, too, in this humble tenement, live care, and distrust, and dismay. Mrs. Clapp in the kitchen is grumbling in secret to her husband about the rent, and urging the good fellow to rebel against his old friend and patron and his present lodger. Mrs. Sedley has ceased to visit her landlady in the lower regions now, and indeed is in a position to patronize Mrs. Clapp no longer. How can one be condescending to a lady to whom one owes a matter of forty pounds, and who is perpetually throwing out hints for the money? The Irish maidservant has not altered in the least in her kind and respectful behaviour; but Mrs. Sedley fancies that she is growing insolent and ungrateful, and, as the guilty thief who fears each bush an officer, sees threatening innuendoes and hints of capture in all the girl’s speeches and answers. Miss Clapp, grown quite a young woman now, is declared by the soured old lady to be an unbearable and impudent little minx. Why Amelia can be so fond of her, or have her in her room so much, or walk out with her so constantly, Mrs. Sedley cannot conceive. The bitterness of poverty has poisoned the life of the once cheerful and kindly woman. She is thankless for Amelia’s constant and gentle bearing towards her; carps at her for her efforts at kindness or service; rails at her for her silly pride in her child and her neglect of her parents. Georgy’s house is not a very lively one since Uncle Jos’s annuity has been withdrawn and the little family are almost upon famine diet.

Amelia thinks, and thinks, and racks her brain, to find some means of increasing the small pittance upon which the household is starving. Can she give lessons in anything? paint card-racks? do fine work? She finds that women are working hard, and better than she can, for twopence a day. She buys a couple of begilt Bristol boards at the Fancy Stationer’s and paints her very best upon them — a shepherd with a red waistcoat on one, and a pink face smiling in the midst of a pencil landscape — a shepherdess on the other, crossing a little bridge, with a little dog, nicely shaded. The man of the Fancy Repository and Brompton Emporium of Fine Arts (of whom she bought the screens, vainly hoping that he would repurchase them when ornamented by her hand) can hardly hide the sneer with which he examines these feeble works of art. He looks askance at the lady who waits in the shop, and ties up the cards again in their envelope of whitey-brown paper, and hands them to the poor widow and Miss Clapp, who had never seen such beautiful things in her life, and had been quite confident that the man must give at least two guineas for the screens. They try at other shops in the interior of London, with faint sickening hopes. “Don’t want ’em,” says one. “Be off,” says another fiercely. Three-and-sixpence has been spent in vain — the screens retire to Miss Clapp’s bedroom, who persists in thinking them lovely.

She writes out a little card in her neatest hand, and after long thought and labour of composition, in which the public is informed that “A Lady who has some time at her disposal, wishes to undertake the education of some little girls, whom she would instruct in English, in French, in Geography, in History, and in Music — address A. O., at Mr. Brown’s”; and she confides the card to the gentleman of the Fine Art Repository, who consents to allow it to lie upon the counter, where it grows dingy and fly-blown. Amelia passes the door wistfully many a time, in hopes that Mr. Brown will have some news to give her, but he never beckons her in. When she goes to make little purchases, there is no news for her. Poor simple lady, tender and weak — how are you to battle with the struggling violent world?

She grows daily more care-worn and sad, fixing upon her child alarmed eyes, whereof the little boy cannot interpret the expression. She starts up of a night and peeps into his room stealthily, to see that he is sleeping and not stolen away. She sleeps but little now. A constant thought and terror is haunting her. How she weeps and prays in the long silent nights — how she tries to hide from herself the thought which will return to her, that she ought to part with the boy, that she is the only barrier between him and prosperity. She can’t, she can’t. Not now, at least. Some other day. Oh! it is too hard to think of and to bear.

A thought comes over her which makes her blush and turn from herself — her parents might keep the annuity — the curate would marry her and give a home to her and the boy. But George’s picture and dearest memory are there to rebuke her. Shame and love say no to the sacrifice. She shrinks from it as from something unholy, and such thoughts never found a resting-place in that pure and gentle bosom.

The combat, which we describe in a sentence or two, lasted for many weeks in poor Amelia’s heart, during which she had no confidante; indeed, she could never have one, as she would not allow to herself the possibility of yielding, though she was giving way daily before the enemy with whom she had to battle. One truth after another was marshalling itself silently against her and keeping its ground. Poverty and misery for all, want and degradation for her parents, injustice to the boy — one by one the outworks of the little citadel were taken, in which the poor soul passionately guarded her only love and treasure.

At the beginning of the struggle, she had written off a letter of tender supplication to her brother at Calcutta, imploring him not to withdraw the support which he had granted to their parents and painting in terms of artless pathos their lonely and hapless condition. She did not know the truth of the matter. The payment of Jos’s annuity was still regular, but it was a money-lender in the City who was receiving it: old Sedley had sold it for a sum of money wherewith to prosecute his bootless schemes. Emmy was calculating eagerly the time that would elapse before the letter would arrive and be answered. She had written down the date in her pocket-book of the day when she dispatched it. To her son’s guardian, the good Major at Madras, she had not communicated any of her griefs and perplexities. She had not written to him since she wrote to congratulate him on his approaching marriage. She thought with sickening despondency, that that friend — the only one, the one who had felt such a regard for her — was fallen away.

One day, when things had come to a very bad pass — when the creditors were pressing, the mother in hysteric grief, the father in more than usual gloom, the inmates of the family avoiding each other, each secretly oppressed with his private unhappiness and notion of wrong — the father and daughter happened to be left alone together, and Amelia thought to comfort her father by telling him what she had done. She had written to Joseph — an answer must come in three or four months. He was always generous, though careless. He could not refuse, when he knew how straitened were the circumstances of his parents.

Then the poor old gentleman revealed the whole truth to her — that his son was still paying the annuity, which his own imprudence had flung away. He had not dared to tell it sooner. He thought Amelia’s ghastly and terrified look, when, with a trembling, miserable voice he made the confession, conveyed reproaches to him for his concealment. “Ah!” said he with quivering lips and turning away, “you despise your old father now!”

“Oh, papal it is not that,” Amelia cried out, falling on his neck and kissing him many times. “You are always good and kind. You did it for the best. It is not for the money — it is — my God! my God! have mercy upon me, and give me strength to bear this trial”; and she kissed him again wildly and went away.

Still the father did not know what that explanation meant, and the burst of anguish with which the poor girl left him. It was that she was conquered. The sentence was passed. The child must go from her — to others — to forget her. Her heart and her treasure — her joy, hope, love, worship — her God, almost! She must give him up, and then — and then she would go to George, and they would watch over the child and wait for him until he came to them in Heaven.

She put on her bonnet, scarcely knowing what she did, and went out to walk in the lanes by which George used to come back from school, and where she was in the habit of going on his return to meet the boy. It was May, a half-holiday. The leaves were all coming out, the weather was brilliant; the boy came running to her flushed with health, singing, his bundle of school-books hanging by a thong. There he was. Both her arms were round him. No, it was impossible. They could not be going to part. “What is the matter, Mother?” said he; “you look very pale.”

“Nothing, my child,” she said and stooped down and kissed him.

That night Amelia made the boy read the story of Samuel to her, and how Hannah, his mother, having weaned him, brought him to Eli the High Priest to minister before the Lord. And he read the song of gratitude which Hannah sang, and which says, who it is who maketh poor and maketh rich, and bringeth low and exalteth — how the poor shall be raised up out of the dust, and how, in his own might, no man shall be strong. Then he read how Samuel’s mother made him a little coat and brought it to him from year to year when she came up to offer the yearly sacrifice. And then, in her sweet simple way, George’s mother made commentaries to the boy upon this affecting story. How Hannah, though she loved her son so much, yet gave him up because of her vow. And how she must always have thought of him as she sat at home, far away, making the little coat; and Samuel, she was sure, never forgot his mother; and how happy she must have been as the time came (and the years pass away very quick) when she should see her boy and how good and wise he had grown. This little sermon she spoke with a gentle solemn voice, and dry eyes, until she came to the account of their meeting — then the discourse broke off suddenly, the tender heart overflowed, and taking the boy to her breast, she rocked him in her arms and wept silently over him in a sainted agony of tears.

Her mind being made up, the widow began to take such measures as seemed right to her for advancing the end which she proposed. One day, Miss Osborne, in Russell Square (Amelia had not written the name or number of the house for ten years — her youth, her early story came back to her as she wrote the superscription) one day Miss Osborne got a letter from Amelia which made her blush very much and look towards her father, sitting glooming in his place at the other end of the table.

In simple terms, Amelia told her the reasons which had induced her to change her mind respecting her boy. Her father had met with fresh misfortunes which had entirely ruined him. Her own pittance was so small that it would barely enable her to support her parents and would not suffice to give George the advantages which were his due. Great as her sufferings would be at parting with him she would, by God’s help, endure them for the boy’s sake. She knew that those to whom he was going would do all in their power to make him happy. She described his disposition, such as she fancied it — quick and impatient of control or harshness, easily to be moved by love and kindness. In a postscript, she stipulated that she should have a written agreement, that she should see the child as often as she wished — she could not part with him under any other terms.

“What? Mrs. Pride has come down, has she?” old Osborne said, when with a tremulous eager voice Miss Osborne read him the letter. “Reg’lar starved out, hey? Ha, ha! I knew she would.” He tried to keep his dignity and to read his paper as usual — but he could not follow it. He chuckled and swore to himself behind the sheet.

At last he flung it down and, scowling at his daughter, as his wont was, went out of the room into his study adjoining, from whence he presently returned with a key. He flung it to Miss Osborne.

“Get the room over mine — his room that was — ready,” he said. “Yes, sir,” his daughter replied in a tremble. It was George’s room. It had not been opened for more than ten years. Some of his clothes, papers, handkerchiefs, whips and caps, fishing-rods and sporting gear, were still there. An Army list of 1814, with his name written on the cover; a little dictionary he was wont to use in writing; and the Bible his mother had given him, were on the mantelpiece, with a pair of spurs and a dried inkstand covered with the dust of ten years. Ah! since that ink was wet, what days and people had passed away! The writing-book, still on the table, was blotted with his hand.

Miss Osborne was much affected when she first entered this room with the servants under her. She sank quite pale on the little bed. “This is blessed news, m’am — indeed, m’am,” the housekeeper said; “and the good old times is returning, m’am. The dear little feller, to be sure, m’am; how happy he will be! But some folks in May Fair, m’am, will owe him a grudge, m’am”; and she clicked back the bolt which held the window-sash and let the air into the chamber.

“You had better send that woman some money,” Mr. Osborne said, before he went out. “She shan’t want for nothing. Send her a hundred pound.”

“And I’ll go and see her to-morrow?” Miss Osborne asked.

“That’s your look out. She don’t come in here, mind. No, by —— — not for all the money in London. But she mustn’t want now. So look out, and get things right.” With which brief speeches Mr. Osborne took leave of his daughter and went on his accustomed way into the City.

“Here, Papa, is some money,” Amelia said that night, kissing the old man, her father, and putting a bill for a hundred pounds into his hands. “And — and, Mamma, don’t be harsh with Georgy. He — he is not going to stop with us long.” She could say nothing more, and walked away silently to her room. Let us close it upon her prayers and her sorrow. I think we had best speak little about so much love and grief.

Miss Osborne came the next day, according to the promise contained in her note, and saw Amelia. The meeting between them was friendly. A look and a few words from Miss Osborne showed the poor widow that, with regard to this woman at least, there need be no fear lest she should take the first place in her son’s affection. She was cold, sensible, not unkind. The mother had not been so well pleased, perhaps, had the rival been better looking, younger, more affectionate, warmer-hearted. Miss Osborne, on the other hand, thought of old times and memories and could not but be touched with the poor mother’s pitiful situation. She was conquered, and laying down her arms, as it were, she humbly submitted. That day they arranged together the preliminaries of the treaty of capitulation.

George was kept from school the next day, and saw his aunt. Amelia left them alone together and went to her room. She was trying the separation — as that poor gentle Lady Jane Grey felt the edge of the axe that was to come down and sever her slender life. Days were passed in parleys, visits, preparations. The widow broke the matter to Georgy with great caution; she looked to see him very much affected by the intelligence. He was rather elated than otherwise, and the poor woman turned sadly away. He bragged about the news that day to the boys at school; told them how he was going to live with his grandpapa his father’s father, not the one who comes here sometimes; and that he would be very rich, and have a carriage, and a pony, and go to a much finer school, and when he was rich he would buy Leader’s pencil-case and pay the tart-woman. The boy was the image of his father, as his fond mother thought.

Indeed I have no heart, on account of our dear Amelia’s sake, to go through the story of George’s last days at home.

At last the day came, the carriage drove up, the little humble packets containing tokens of love and remembrance were ready and disposed in the hall long since — George was in his new suit, for which the tailor had come previously to measure him. He had sprung up with the sun and put on the new clothes, his mother hearing him from the room close by, in which she had been lying, in speechless grief and watching. Days before she had been making preparations for the end, purchasing little stores for the boy’s use, marking his books and linen, talking with him and preparing him for the change — fondly fancying that he needed preparation.

So that he had change, what cared he? He was longing for it. By a thousand eager declarations as to what he would do, when he went to live with his grandfather, he had shown the poor widow how little the idea of parting had cast him down. “He would come and see his mamma often on the pony,” he said. “He would come and fetch her in the carriage; they would drive in the park, and she should have everything she wanted.” The poor mother was fain to content herself with these selfish demonstrations of attachment, and tried to convince herself how sincerely her son loved her. He must love her. All children were so: a little anxious for novelty, and — no, not selfish, but self-willed. Her child must have his enjoyments and ambition in the world. She herself, by her own selfishness and imprudent love for him had denied him his just rights and pleasures hitherto.

I know few things more affecting than that timorous debasement and self-humiliation of a woman. How she owns that it is she and not the man who is guilty; how she takes all the faults on her side; how she courts in a manner punishment for the wrongs which she has not committed and persists in shielding the real culprit! It is those who injure women who get the most kindness from them — they are born timid and tyrants and maltreat those who are humblest before them.

So poor Amelia had been getting ready in silent misery for her son’s departure, and had passed many and many a long solitary hour in making preparations for the end. George stood by his mother, watching her arrangements without the least concern. Tears had fallen into his boxes; passages had been scored in his favourite books; old toys, relics, treasures had been hoarded away for him, and packed with strange neatness and care — and of all these things the boy took no note. The child goes away smiling as the mother breaks her heart. By heavens it is pitiful, the bootless love of women for children in Vanity Fair.

A few days are past, and the great event of Amelia’s life is consummated. No angel has intervened. The child is sacrificed and offered up to fate, and the widow is quite alone.

The boy comes to see her often, to be sure. He rides on a pony with a coachman behind him, to the delight of his old grandfather, Sedley, who walks proudly down the lane by his side. She sees him, but he is not her boy any more. Why, he rides to see the boys at the little school, too, and to show off before them his new wealth and splendour. In two days he has adopted a slightly imperious air and patronizing manner. He was born to command, his mother thinks, as his father was before him.

It is fine weather now. Of evenings on the days when he does not come, she takes a long walk into London — yes, as far as Russell Square, and rests on the stone by the railing of the garden opposite Mr. Osborne’s house. It is so pleasant and cool. She can look up and see the drawing-room windows illuminated, and, at about nine o’clock, the chamber in the upper story where Georgy sleeps. She knows — he has told her. She prays there as the light goes out, prays with an humble heart, and walks home shrinking and silent. She is very tired when she comes home. Perhaps she will sleep the better for that long weary walk, and she may dream about Georgy.

Georgie goes to the church genteelly
Georgie goes to the church genteelly

One Sunday she happened to be walking in Russell Square, at some distance from Mr. Osborne’s house (she could see it from a distance though) when all the bells of Sabbath were ringing, and George and his aunt came out to go to church; a little sweep asked for charity, and the footman, who carried the books, tried to drive him away; but Georgy stopped and gave him money. May God’s blessing be on the boy! Emmy ran round the square and, coming up to the sweep, gave him her mite too. All the bells of Sabbath were ringing, and she followed them until she came to the Foundling Church, into which she went. There she sat in a place whence she could see the head of the boy under his father’s tombstone. Many hundred fresh children’s voices rose up there and sang hymns to the Father Beneficent, and little George’s soul thrilled with delight at the burst of glorious psalmody. His mother could not see him for awhile, through the mist that dimmed her eyes.

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