The Adventures of Philip on his way through the World, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 9

Contains One Riddle which is Solved, and Perhaps Some More.

Mine is a modest muse, and as the period of the story arrives when a description of love-making is justly due, my Mnemosyne turns from the young couple, drops a little curtain over the embrasure where they are whispering, heaves a sigh from her elderly bosom, and lays a finger on her lip. Ah, Mnemosyne dear! we will not be spies on the young people. We will not scold them. We won’t talk about their doings much. When we were young, we too, perhaps, were taken in under Love’s tent; we have eaten of his salt, and partaken of his bitter, his delicious bread. Now we are padding the hoof lonely in the wilderness, we will not abuse our host, will we? We will couch under the stars, and think fondly of old times, and to-morrow resume the staff and the journey.

And yet, if a novelist may chronicle any passion, its flames, its raptures, its whispers, its assignations, its sonnets, its quarrels, sulks, reconciliations, and so on, the history of such a love as this first of Phil’s may be excusable in print, because I don’t believe it was a real love at all, only a little brief delusion of the senses, from which I give you warning that our hero will recover before many chapters are over. What! my brave boy, shall we give your heart away for good and all, for better or for worse, till death do you part? What! my Corydon and sighing swain, shall we irrevocably bestow you upon Phyllis, who, all the time you are piping and paying court to her, has Meliboeus in the cupboard, and ready to be produced should he prove to be a more eligible shepherd than t’other? I am not such a savage towards my readers or hero, as to make them undergo the misery of such a marriage.

Philip was very little of a club or society man. He seldom or ever entered the Megatherium, or when there stared and scowled round him savagely, and laughed strangely at the ways of the inhabitants. He made but a clumsy figure in the world, though, in person, handsome, active, and proper enough; but he would for ever put his great foot through the World’s flounced skirts, and she would stare, and cry out, and hate him. He was the last man who was aware of the Woolcomb flirtation, when hundreds of people, I dare say, were simpering over it.

“Who is that little man who comes to your house, and whom I sometimes see in the park, aunt — that little man with the very white gloves and the very tawny complexion?” asks Philip.

“That is Mr. Woolcomb, of the Life Guards Green,” aunt remembers.

“An officer, is he?” says Philip, turning round to the girls. “I should have thought he would have done better for the turban and cymbals.” And he laughs, and thinks he has said a very clever thing. Oh, those good things about people and against people! Never, my dear young friend, say them to anybody — not to a stranger, for he will go away and tell; not to the mistress of your affections, for you may quarrel with her, and then she will tell; not to your son, for the artless child will return to his schoolfellows and say: “Papa says Mr. Blenkinsop is a muff.” My child, or what not, praise everybody: smile on everybody: and everybody will smile on you in return, a sham smile, and hold you out a sham hand; and, in a word, esteem you as you deserve. No. I think you and I will take the ups and the downs, the roughs and the smooths of this daily existence and conversation. We will praise those whom we like, though nobody repeat our kind sayings; and say our say about those whom we dislike, though we are pretty sure our words will be carried by tale-bearers, and increased, and multiplied, and remembered long after we have forgotten them. We drop a little stone — a little stone that is swallowed up, and disappears, but the whole pond is set in commotion, and ripples in continually-widening circles long after the original little stone has popped down and is out of sight. Don’t your speeches of ten years ago — maimed, distorted, bloated, it may be out of all recognition — come strangely back to their author?

Phil, five minutes after he had made the joke, so entirely forgot his saying about the Black Prince and the cymbals, that, when Captain Woolcomb scowled at him with his fiercest eyes, young Firmin thought that this was the natural expression of the captain’s swarthy countenance, and gave himself no further trouble regarding it. “By George! sir,” said Phil afterwards, speaking of this officer, “I remarked that he grinned, and chattered, and showed his teeth; and remembering it was the nature of such baboons to chatter and grin, had no idea that this chimpanzee was more angry with me than with any other gentleman. You see, Pen, I am a white-skinned man, I am pronounced even red-whiskered by the ill-natured. It is not the prettiest colour. But I had no idea that I was to have a Mulatto for a rival. I am not so rich, certainly, but I have enough. I can read and spell correctly, and write with tolerable fluency. I could not, you know, could I, reasonably suppose that I need fear competition, and that the black horse would beat the bay one? Shall I tell you what she used to say to me? There is no kissing and telling, mind you. No, by George. Virtue and prudence were for ever on her lips! She warbled little sermons to me; hinted gently that I should see to safe investments of my property, and that no man, not even a father, should be the sole and uncontrolled guardian of it. She asked me, sir, scores and scores of little sweet, timid, innocent questions about the doctor’s property, and how much did I think it was, and how had he laid it out? What virtuous parents that angel had! How they brought her up, and educated her dear blue eyes to the main chance! She knows the price of housekeeping, and the value of railway shares; she invests capital for herself in this world and the next. She mayn’t do right always, but wrong? O fie, never! I say, Pen, an undeveloped angel with wings folded under her dress, not perhaps your mighty, snow-white, flashing pinions that spread out and soar up to the highest stars, but a pair of good, serviceable, drab, dove-coloured wings, that will support her gently and equably just over our heads, and help to drop her softly when she condescends upon us. When I think, sir, that I might have been married to a genteel angel, and am single still, — oh! it’s despair, it’s despair!”

But Philip’s little story of disappointed hopes and bootless passion must be told in terms less acrimonious and unfair than the gentleman would use, naturally of a sanguine swaggering talk, prone to exaggerate his own disappointments, and call out, roar — I daresay swear — if his own corn was trodden upon, as loudly as some men who may have a leg taken off.

This I can vouch for Miss Twysden, Mrs. Twysden, and all the rest of the family:— that if they, what you call, jilted Philip, they did so without the slightest hesitation or notion that they were doing a dirty action. Their actions never were dirty or mean: they were necessary, I tell you, and calmly proper. They ate cheese-parings with graceful silence: they cribbed from board-wages; they turned hungry servants out of doors; they remitted no chance in their own favour; they slept gracefully under scanty coverlids; they lighted niggard fires; they locked the caddy with the closest lock, and served the teapot with the smallest and least frequent spoon. But you don’t suppose they thought they were mean, or that they did wrong? Ah! it is admirable to think of many, many, ever so many respectable families of your acquaintance and mine, my dear friend, and how they meet together and humbug each other! “My dear, I have cribbed half an inch of plush out of James’s small-clothes.” “My love, I have saved a half-penny out of Mary’s beer. Isn’t it time to dress for the duchess’s; and don’t you think John might wear that livery of Thomas’s who only had it a year, and died of the small-pox? It’s a little tight for him, to be sure, but,” What is this? I profess to be an impartial chronicler of poor Phil’s fortunes, misfortunes, friendships, and what-nots, and am getting almost as angry with these Twysdens as Philip ever was himself.

Well, I am not mortally angry with poor Traviata tramping the pavement, with the gas-lamp flaring on her poor painted smile, else my indignant virtue and squeamish modesty would never walk Piccadilly, or get the air. But Lais, quite moral, and very neatly, primly, and straitly laced; — Phryne, not the least dishevelled, but with a fixature for her hair, and the best stays, fastened by mamma; — your High Church or Evangelical Aspasia, the model of all proprieties, and owner of all virgin purity blooms, ready to sell her cheek to the oldest old fogey who has money and a title; — these are the Unfortunates, my dear brother and sister sinners, whom I should like to see repentant and specially trounced first. Why, some of these are put into reformatories in Grosvenor Square. They wear a prison dress of diamonds and Chantilly lace. Their parents cry, and thank heaven as they sell them; and all sorts of revered bishops, clergy, relations, dowagers, sign the book, and ratify the ceremony. Come! let us call a midnight meeting of those who have been sold in marriage, I say; and what a respectable, what a genteel, what a fashionable, what a brilliant, what an imposing, what a multitudinous assembly we will have; and where’s the room in all Babylon big enough to hold them?

Look into that grave, solemn, dingy, somewhat naked but elegant drawing-room, in Beaunash Street, and with a little fanciful opera-glass you may see a pretty little group or two engaged at different periods of the day. It is after lunch, and before Rotten Row ride time (this story, you know, relates to a period ever so remote, and long before folks thought of riding in the park in the forenoon). After lunch, and before Rotten Row time, saunters into the drawing-room a fair-haired young fellow with large feet and chest, careless of gloves, with auburn whiskers blowing over a loose collar, and — must I confess it? — a most undeniable odour of cigars about his person. He breaks out regarding the debate of the previous night, or the pamphlet of yesterday, or the poem of the day previous, or the scandal of the week before, or upon the street-sweeper at the corner, or the Italian and monkey before the door — upon whatever, in a word, moves his mind for the moment. If Philip has had a bad dinner yesterday (and happens to remember it), he growls, grumbles, nay, I daresay, uses the most blasphemous language against the cook, against the waiters, against the steward, against the committee, against the whole society of the club where he has been dining. If Philip has met an organ girl with pretty eyes and a monkey in the street, he has grinned and wondered over the monkey; he has wagged his head, and sung all the organ’s tunes; he has discovered that the little girl is the most ravishing beauty eyes ever looked on, and that her scoundrelly Savoyard father is most likely an Alpine miscreant who has bartered away his child to a pedlar of the beggarly cheesy valleys, who has sold her to a friend qui fait la traite des hurdigurdies, and has disposed of her in England. If he has to discourse on the poem, pamphlet, magazine article — it is written by the greatest genius, or the greatest numskull that the world now exhibits. He write! A man who makes fire rhyme with Marire! This vale of tears and world which we inhabit does not contain such an idiot. Or have you seen Dobbins’s poem? Agnes, mark my words for it, there is a genius in Dobbins which some day will show what I have always surmised, what I have always imagined possible, what I have always felt to be more than probable, what, by George, I feel to be perfectly certain, and any man is a humbug who contradicts it, and a malignant miscreant, and the world is full of fellows who will never give another man credit, and I swear that to recognize and feel merit in poetry, painting, music, rope-dancing, anything, is the greatest delight and joy of my existence. I say — what was I saying?

“You were saying, Philip, that you love to recognize the merits of all men whom you see,” says gentle Agnes, “and I believe you do.”

“Yes!” cries Phil, tossing about the fair locks. “I think I do. Thank heaven, I do. I know fellows who can do many things better than I do — everything better than I do.”

“Oh, Philip!” sighs the lady.

“But I don’t hate ’em for it.”

“You never hated any one, sir. You are too brave! Can you fancy Philip hating any one, mamma?”

Mamma is writing, “Mr. and Mrs. Talbot Twysden request the honour of Admiral and Mrs. Davis Locker’s company at dinner on Thursday the so-and-so.” “Philip what?” says mamma, looking up from her card. “Philip hating any one! Philip eating any one! Philip! we have a little dinner on the 24th. We shall ask your father to dine. We must not have too many of the family. Come in afterwards, please.”

“Yes, aunt,” says downright Phil, “I’ll come, if you and the girls wish. You know tea is not my line; and I don’t care about dinners, except in my own way, and with — ”

“And with your own horrid set, sir!”

“Well,” says Sultan Philip, flinging himself out on the sofa, and lording on the ottoman, “I like mine ease and mine inn.”

“Ah, Philip! you grow more selfish every day. I mean men do,” sighed Agnes.

You will suppose mamma leaves the room at this juncture. She has that confidence in dear Philip and the dear girls, that she sometimes does leave the room when Agnes and Phil are together. She will leave Reuben, the eldest born, with her daughters: but my poor dear little younger son of a Joseph, if you suppose she will leave the room and you alone in it — O my dear Joseph, you may just jump down the well at once! Mamma, I say, has left the room at last, bowing with a perfect sweetness and calm grace and gravity; and she has slipped down the stairs, scarce more noisy than the shadow that slants over the faded carpet — (oh! the faded shadow, the faded sunshine!) — mamma is gone, I say, to the lower regions, and with perfect good breeding is torturing the butler on his bottle-rack — is squeezing the housekeeper in her jam-closet — is watching the three cold cutlets, shuddering in the larder behind the wires — is blandly glancing at the kitchen-maid until the poor wench fancies the piece of bacon is discovered which she gave to the crossing-sweeper — and calmly penetrating John until he feels sure his inmost heart is revealed to her, as it throbs within his worsted-laced waistcoat, and she knows about that pawning of master’s old boots (beastly old highlows!), and — and, in fact, all the most intimate circumstances of his existence. A wretched maid, who has been ironing collars, or what not, gives her mistress a shuddering curtsey, and slinks away with her laces; and meanwhile our girl and boy are prattling in the drawing-room.

About what? About everything on which Philip chooses to talk. There is nobody to contradict him but himself, and then his pretty hearer vows and declares he has not been so very contradictory. He spouts his favourite poems. “Delightful! Do, Philip, read us some Walter Scott! He is, as you say, the most fresh, the most manly, the most kindly of poetic writers — not of the first class, certainly; in fact, he has written most dreadful bosh, as you call it so drolly; and so has Wordsworth, though he is one of the greatest of men, and has reached sometimes to the very greatest height and sublimity of poetry; but now you put it, I must confess he is often an old bore, and I certainly should have gone to sleep during the Excursion, only you read it so nicely. You don’t think the new composers as good as the old ones, and love mamma’s old-fashioned playing? Well, Philip, it is delightful, so ladylike, so feminine!” Or, perhaps, Philip has just come from Hyde Park, and says, “As I passed by Apsley House, I saw the Duke come out, with his old blue frock and white trousers and clear face. I have seen a picture of him in an old European Magazine, which I think I like better than all — gives me the idea of one of the brightest men in the world. The brave eyes gleam at you out of the picture; and there’s a smile on the resolute lips, which seems to ensure triumph. Agnes, Assaye must have been glorious!”

“Glorious, Philip!” says Agnes, who had never heard of Assaye before in her life. “Arbela, perhaps; Salamis, Marathon, Agincourt, Blenheim, Busaco — where dear grandpapa was killed — Waterloo, Armageddon; but Assaye? What on earth is Assaye?”

“Think of that ordinarily prudent man, and how greatly he knew how to dare when occasion came! I should like to have died after winning such a game. He has never done anything so exciting since.”

“A game? I thought it was a battle just now,” murmurs Agnes in her mind; but there may be some misunderstanding. “Ah, Philip,” she says, “I fear excitement is too much the life of all young men now. When will you be quiet and steady, sir?”

“And go to an office every day, like my uncle and cousin; and read the newspaper for three hours, and trot back and see you.”

“Well, sir! that ought not to be such very bad amusement,” says one of the ladies.

“What a clumsy wretch I am! My foot is always trampling on something or somebody!” groans Phil.

“You must come to us, and we will teach you to dance, Bruin!” says gentle Agnes, smiling on him. I think, when very much agitated, her pulse must have gone up to forty. Her blood must have been a light pink. The heart that beat under that pretty white chest, which she exposed so liberally, may have throbbed pretty quickly once or twice with waltzing, but otherwise never rose or fell beyond its natural gentle undulation. It may have had throbs of grief at a disappointment occasioned by the milliner not bringing a dress home; or have felt some little fluttering impulse of youthful passion when it was in short frock, and Master Grimsby at the dancing-school showed some preference for another young pupil out of the nursery. But feelings, and hopes, and blushes, and passions, now? Psha! They pass away like nursery dreams. Now there are only proprieties. What is love, young heart? It is two thousand a year, at the very lowest computation; and with the present rise in wages and house-rent, that calculation can’t last very long. Love? Attachment? Look at Frank Maythorn, with his vernal blushes, his leafy whiskers, his sunshiny, laughing face, and all the birds of spring carolling in his jolly voice; and old General Pinwood hobbling in on his cork leg, with his stars and orders, and leering round the room from under his painted eyebrows. Will my modest nymph go to Maythorn, or to yonder leering Satyr, who totters towards her in his white and rouge? Nonsense. She gives her garland to the old man, to be sure. He is ten times as rich as the young one. And so they went on in Arcadia itself, really. Not in that namby-pamby ballet and idyll world, where they tripped up to each other in rhythm, and talked hexameters; but in the real, downright no-mistake country — Arcadia — where Tityrus, fluting to Amaryllis in the shade, had his pipe very soon put out when Meliboeus (the great grazier) performed on his melodious, exquisite, irresistible cow-horn; and where Daphne’s mother dressed her up with ribbons and drove her to market, and sold her, and swapped her, and bartered her like any other lamb in the fair. This one has been trotted to the market so long now that she knows the way herself. Her baa has been heard for — do not let us count how many seasons. She has nibbled out of countless hands; frisked in many thousand dances; come quite harmless away from goodness knows how many wolves. Ah! ye lambs and raddled innocents of our Arcadia! Ah, old Ewe! Is it of your ladyship this fable is narrated? I say it is as old as Cadmus, and man-and muttonkind.

So, when Philip comes to Beaunash Street, Agnes listens to him most kindly, sweetly, gently, and affectionately. Her pulse goes up very nearly half a beat when the echo of his horse’s heels is heard in the quiet street. It undergoes a corresponding depression when the daily grief of parting is encountered and overcome. Blanche and Agnes don’t love each other very passionately. If I may say as much regarding those two lambkins, they butt at each other — they quarrel with each other — but they have secret understandings. During Phil’s visits the girls remain together, you understand, or mamma is with the young people. Female friends may come in to call on Mrs. Twysden, and the matrons whisper together, and glance at the cousins, and look knowing. “Poor orphan boy!” mamma says to a sister matron. “I am like a mother to him since my dear sister died. His own home is so blank, and ours so merry, so affectionate! There may be intimacy, tender regard, the utmost confidence between cousins — there may be future and even closer ties between them — but you understand, dear Mrs. Matcham, no engagement between them. He is eager, hot-headed, impetuous, and imprudent, as we all know. She has not seen the world enough — is not sure of herself, poor dear child. Therefore, every circumspection, every caution, is necessary. There must be no engagement — no letters between them. My darling Agnes does not write to ask him to dinner without showing the note to me or her father. My dearest girls respect themselves.”

“Of course, my dear Mrs. Twysden, they are admirable, both of them. Bless you, darlings! Agnes, you look radiant! Ah, Rosa, my child, I wish you had dear Blanche’s complexion!”

“And isn’t it monstrous keeping that poor boy hanging on until Mr. Woolcomb has made up his mind about coming forward?” says dear Mrs. Matcham to her own daughter, as her brougham-door closes on the pair. Here he comes! Here is his cab. Maria Twysden is one of the smartest women in England — that she is.”

“How odd it is, mamma, that the beau cousin and Captain Woolcomb are always calling, and never call together!” remarks the ingénue.

“They might quarrel if they met. They say young Mr. Firmin is very quarrelsome and impetuous!” says mamma.

“But how are they kept apart?”

“Chance, my dear! mere chance!” says mamma. And they agree to say it is chance — and they agree to pretend to believe one another. And the girl and the mother know everything about Woolcomb’s property, everything about Philip’s property and expectations, everything about all the young men in London, and those coming on. And Mrs. Matcham’s girl fished for Captain Woolcomb last year in Scotland, at Lochhookey; and stalked him to Paris; and they went down on their knees to Lady Banbury when they heard of the theatricals at the Cross; and pursued that man about until he is forced to say, “Confound me! hang me! it’s too bad of that woman and her daughter, it is now, I give you my honour it is! And all the fellows chaff me! And she took a house in Regent’s Park, opposite our barracks, and asked for her daughter to learn to ride in our school — I’m blest if she didn’t, Mrs. Twysden! and I thought my black mare would have kicked her off one day — I mean the daughter — but she stuck on like grim death; and the fellows call them Mrs. Grim Death and her daughter. Our surgeon called them so, and a doocid rum fellow — and they chaff me about it, you know — ever so many of the fellows do — and I’m not going to be had in that way by Mrs. Grim Death and her daughter! No, not as I knows, if you please!”

“You are a dreadful man, and you gave her a dreadful name, Captain Woolcomb!” says mamma.

“It wasn’t me. It was the surgeon, you know, Miss Agnes: a doocid funny and witty fellow, Nixon is — and sent a thing once to Punch, Nixon did. I heard him make the riddle in Albany Barracks, and it riled Foker so! You’ve no idea how it riled Foker, for he’s in it!”

“In it?” asks Agnes, with the gentle smile, the candid blue eyes — the same eyes, expression, lips, that smile and sparkle at Philip.

“Here it is! Captain! Took it down. Wrote it into my pocket-book at once as Nixon made it. ‘All doctors like my first, that’s clear!’ Doctor Firmin does that. Old Parr Street party! Don’t you see, Miss Agnes? Fee! Don’t you see?”

“Fee! Oh, you droll thing!” cries Agnes, smiling, radiant, very much puzzled.

“‘My second,’” goes on the young officer — "‘My second gives us Foker’s beer!’”

“‘My whole’s the shortest month in all the year!’ Don’t you see, Mrs. Twysden? Fee-Brewery, don’t you see? February! A doocid good one, isn’t it now? and I wonder Punch never put it in. And upon my word, I used to spell it Febuary before, I did; and I daresay ever so many fellows do still. And I know the right way now, and all from that riddle which Nixon made.”

The ladies declare he is a droll man, and full of fun. He rattles on, artlessly telling his little stories of sport, drink, adventure, in which the dusky little man himself is a prominent figure. Not honey-mouthed Plato would be listened to more kindly by those three ladies. A bland, frank smile shines over Talbot Twysden’s noble face, as he comes in from his office, and finds the creole prattling. “What! you here, Woolcomb? Hey! Glad to see you!” And the gallant hand goes out and meets and grasps Woolcomb’s tiny kid glove.

“He has been so amusing, papa! He has been making us die with laughing! Tell papa that riddle you made, Captain Woolcomb?”

“That riddle I made? That riddle Nixon, our surgeon, made. ‘All doctors like my first, that’s clear,’”

And da capo. And the family, as he expounds this admirable rebus, gather round the young officer in a group, and the curtain drops.

As in a theatre booth at a fair there are two or three performances in a day, so in Beaunash Street a little genteel comedy is played twice:— at four o’clock with Mr. Firmin, at five o’clock with Mr. Woolcomb; and for both young gentlemen same smiles, same eyes, same voice, same welcome. Ah, bravo! ah, encore!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00