The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray


The Hotel de Florac

Since the death of the Duc d’Ivry, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, the Comte de Florac, who is now the legitimate owner of the ducal title, does not choose to bear it, but continues to be known in the world by his old name. The old Count’s world is very small. His doctor, and his director, who comes daily to play his game of piquet; his daughter’s children, who amuse him by their laughter, and play round his chair in the garden of his hotel; his faithful wife, and one or two friends as old as himself, form his society. His son the Abbe is with them but seldom. The austerity of his manners frightens his old father, who can little comprehend the religionism of the new school. After going to hear his son preach through Lent at Notre-Dame, where the Abbe de Florac gathered a great congregation, the old Count came away quite puzzled at his son’s declamations. “I do not understand your new priests,” he says; “I knew my son had become a Cordelier; I went to hear him, and found he was a Jacobin. Let me make my salut in quiet, my good Leonore. My director answers for me, and plays a game at trictrac into the bargain with me.” Our history has but little to do with this venerable nobleman. He has his chamber looking out into the garden of his hotel; his faithful old domestic to wait upon him; his House of Peers to attend when he is well enough, his few acquaintances to help him to pass the evening. The rest of the hotel he gives up to his son, the Vicomte de Florac, and Madame la Princesse de Moncontour, his daughter-inlaw.

When Florac has told his friends of the Club why it is he has assumed a new title — as a means of reconciliation (a reconciliation all philosophical, my friends) with his wife nee Higg of Manchester, who adores titles like all Anglaises, and has recently made a great succession, everybody allows that the measure was dictated by prudence, and there is no more laughter at his change of name. The Princess takes the first floor of the hotel at the price paid for it by the American General, who has returned to his original pigs at Cincinnati. Had not Cincinnatus himself pigs on his farm, and was he not a general and member of Congress too? The honest Princess has a bedchamber, which, to her terror, she is obliged to open of reception-evenings, when gentlemen and ladies play cards there. It is fitted up in the style of Louis XVI. In her bed is an immense looking-glass, surmounted by stucco cupids: it is an alcove which some powdered Venus, before the Revolution, might have reposed in. Opposite that looking-glass, between the tall windows, at some forty feet distance, is another huge mirror, so that when the poor Princess is in bed, in her prim old curl-papers, she sees a vista of elderly princesses twinkling away into the dark perspective; and is so frightened that she and Betsy, her Lancashire maid, pin up the jonquil silk curtains over the bed-mirror after the first night; though the Princess never can get it out of her head that her image is still there, behind the jonquil hangings, turning as she turns, waking as she wakes, etc. The chamber is so vast and lonely that she has a bed made for Betsy in the room. It is, of course, whisked away into a closet on reception-evenings. A boudoir, rose-tendre, with more cupids and nymphs by Boucher, sporting over door-panels — nymphs who may well shock old Betsy and her old mistress — is the Pricess’s morning-room. “Ah, mum, what would Mr. Humper at Manchester, Mr. Jowls of Newcome” (the minister whom, in early days, Miss Higg used to sit under) “say if they was browt into this room?” But there is no question of Jowls and Mr. Humper, excellent dissenting divines, who preached to Miss Higg, being brought into the Princesse de Moncontour’s boudoir.

That paragraph, respecting a conversion in high life, which F. B. in his enthusiasm inserted in the Pall Mall Gazette, caused no small excitement in the Florac family. The Florac family read the Pall Mall Gazette, knowing that Clive’s friends were engaged in that periodical. When Madame de Florac, who did not often read newspapers, happened to cast her eye upon that poetic paragraph of F. B.‘s, you may fancy, with what a panic it filled the good and pious lady. Her son become a Protestant! After all the grief and trouble his wildness had occasioned to her, Paul forsake his religion! But that her husband was so ill and aged as not to be able to bear her absence, she would have hastened to London to rescue her son out of that perdition. She sent for her younger son, who undertook the embassy; and the Prince and Princesse de Moncontour, in their hotel at London, were one day surprised by the visit of the Abbe de Florac.

As Paul was quite innocent of any intention of abandoning his religion, the mother’s kind heart was very speedily set at rest by her envoy. Far from Paul’s conversion to Protestantism, the Abbe wrote home the most encouraging accounts of his sister-inlaw’s precious dispositions. He had communications with Madame de Moncontour’s Anglican director, a man of not powerful mind, wrote M. l’Abbe, though of considerable repute for eloquence in his Sect. The good dispositions of his sister-inlaw were improved by the French clergyman, who could be most captivating and agreeable when a work of conversion was in hand. The visit reconciled the family to their English relative, in whom good-nature and many other good qualities were to be seen now that there were hopes of reclaiming her. It was agreed that Madame de Moncontour should come and inhabit the Hotel de Florac at Paris: perhaps the Abbe tempted the worthy lady by pictures of the many pleasures and advantages she would enjoy in that capital. She was presented at her own court by the French ambassadress of that day: and was received at the Tuileries with a cordiality which flattered and pleased her.

Having been presented herself, Madame la Princesse in turn presented to her august sovereign Mrs. T. Higg and Miss Higg, of Manchester, Mrs. Samuel Higg, of Newcome; the husbands of those ladies (the Princess’s brothers) also sporting a court-dress for the first time. Sam Higg’s neighbour, the member for Newcome; Sir Brian Newcome, Bart., was too ill to act as Higg’s sponsor before majesty; but Barnes Newcome was uncommonly civil to the two Lancashire gentlemen; though their politics were different to his, and Sam had voted against Sir Brian at his last election. Barnes took them to dine at a club — recommended his tailor — and sent Lady Clara Pulleyn to call on Mrs. Higg — who pronounced her to be a pretty young woman and most haffable. The Countess of Dorking would have been delighted to present these ladies had the Princess not luckily been in London to do that office. The Hobson Newcomes were very civil to the Lancashire party, and entertained them splendidly at dinner. I believe Mrs. and Mr. Hobson themselves went to court this year, the latter in a deputy-lieutenant’s uniform.

If Barnes Newcome was so very civil to the Higg family we may suppose he had good reason. The Higgs were very strong in Newcome, and it was advisable to conciliate them. They were very rich, and their account would not be disagreeable at the bank. Madame de Moncontour’s — a large easy private account — would be more pleasant still. And, Hobson Brothers having entered largely into the Anglo-Continental Railway, whereof mention has been made, it was a bright thought of Barnes to place the Prince of Moncontour, etc. etc., on the French Direction of the Railway; and to take the princely prodigal down to Newcome with his new title, and reconcile him to his wife and the Higg family. Barnes we may say invented the principality: rescued the Vicomte de Florac out of his dirty lodgings in Leicester Square, and sent the Prince of Moncontour back to his worthy middle-aged wife again. The disagreeable dissenting days were over. A brilliant young curate of Doctor Bulders, who also wore long hair, straight waistcoats, and no shirt-collars, had already reconciled the Vicomtesse de Florac to the persuasion, whereof the ministers are clad in that queer uniform. The landlord of their hotel at St. James’s got his wine from Sherrick, and sent his families to Lady Whittlesea’s Chapel. The Rev. Charles Honeyman’s eloquence and amiability were appreciated by his new disciple — thus the historian has traced here step by step how all these people became acquainted.

Sam Higg, whose name was very good on ‘Change in Manchester and London, joined the direction of the Anglo-Continental. A brother had died lately, leaving his money amongst them, and his wealth had added considerably to Madame de Florac’s means; his sister invested a portion of her capital in the railway in her husband’s name. The shares were at a premium, and gave a good dividend. The Prince de Moncontour took his place with great gravity at the Paris board, whither Barnes made frequent flying visits. The sense of capitalism sobered and dignified Paul de Florac: at the age of five-and-forty he was actually giving up being a young man, and was not ill pleased at having to enlarge his waistcoats, and to show a little grey in his moustache. His errors were forgotten: he was bien vu by the Government. He might have had the Embassy Extraordinary to Queen Pomare; but the health of Madame la Princesse was delicate. He paid his wife visits every morning: appeared at her parties and her opera box, and was seen constantly with her in public. He gave quiet little dinners still, at which Clive was present sometimes: and had a private door and key to his apartments, which were separated by all the dreary length of the reception-rooms from the mirrored chamber and jonquil couch where the Princess and Betsy reposed. When some of his London friends visited Paris he showed us these rooms and introduced us duly to Madame la Princesse. He was as simple and as much at home in the midst of these splendours, as in the dirty little lodgings in Leicester Square, where he painted his own boots, and cooked his herring over the tongs. As for Clive, he was the infant of the house: Madame la Princesse could not resist his kind face; and Paul was as fond of him in his way as Paul’s mother in hers. Would he live at the Hotel de Florac? There was an excellent atelier in the pavilion, with a chamber for his servant. “No! you will be most at ease in apartments of your own. You will have here but the society of women. I do not rise till late: and my affairs, my board, call me away for the greater part of the day. Thou wilt but be ennuyd to play trictrac with my old father. My mother waits on him. My sister au second is given up entirely to her children, who always have the pituite. Madame la Princesse is not amusing for a young man. Come and go when thou wilt, Clive, my garcon, my son: thy cover is laid. Wilt thou take the portraits of all the family? Hast thou want of money? I had at thy age and almost ever since, mon ami: but now we swim in gold, and when there is a louis in my purse, there are ten francs for thee.” To show his mother that he did not think of the Reformed Religion, Paul did not miss going to mass with her on Sunday. Sometimes Madame Paul went too, between whom and her mother-inlaw there could not be any liking, but there was now great civility. They saw each other once a day: Madame Paul always paid her visit to the Comte de Florac: and Betsy, her maid, made the old gentleman laugh by her briskness and talk. She brought back to her mistress the most wonderful stories which the old man told her about his doings during the emigration — before he married Madame la Comtesse — when he gave lessons in dancing, parbleu! There was his fiddle still, a trophy of those old times. He chirped, and coughed, and sang, in his cracked old voice, as he talked about them. “Lor! bless you, mum,” says Betsy, “he must have been a terrible old man!” He remembered the times well enough, but the stories he sometimes told over twice or thrice in an hour. I am afraid he had not repented sufficiently of those wicked old times: else why did he laugh and giggle so when he recalled them? He would laugh and giggle till he was choked with his old cough: and old S. Jean, his man, came and beat M. le Comte on the back, and made M. le Comte take a spoonful of his syrup.

Between two such women as Madame de Florac and Lady Kew, of course there could be little liking or sympathy. Religion, love, duty, the family, were the French lady’s constant occupation — duty and the family, perhaps, Lady Kew’s aim too — only the notions of duty were different in either person. Lady Kew’s idea of duty to her relatives being to push them on in the world: Madame de Florac’s to soothe, to pray, to attend them with constant watchfulness, to strive to mend them with pious counsel. I don’t know that one lady was happier than the other. Madame de Florac’s eldest son was a kindly prodigal: her second had given his whole heart to the Church: her daughter had centred hers on her own children, and was jealous if their grandmother laid a finger on them. So Leonore de Florac was quite alone. It seemed as if Heaven had turned away all her children’s hearts from her. Her daily business in life was to nurse a selfish old man, into whose service she had been forced in early youth, by a paternal decree which she never questioned; giving him obedience, striving to give him respect — everything but her heart, which had gone out of her keeping. Many a good woman’s life is no more cheerful; a spring of beauty, a little warmth and sunshine of love, a bitter disappointment, followed by pangs and frantic tears, then a long monotonous story of submission. “Not here, my daughter, is to be your happiness,” says the priest; “whom Heaven loves it afflicts.” And he points out to her the agonies of suffering saints of her sex; assures her of their present beatitudes and glories; exhorts her to bear her pains with a faith like theirs; and is empowered to promise her a like reward.

The other matron is not less alone. Her husband and son are dead, without a tear for either — to weep was not in Lady Kew’s nature. Her grandson, whom she had loved perhaps more than any human being, is rebellious and estranged from her; her children, separated from her, save one whose sickness and bodily infirmity the mother resents as disgraces to herself. Her darling schemes fail somehow. She moves from town to town, and ball to ball, and hall to castle, for ever uneasy and always alone. She sees people scared at her coming; is received by sufferance and fear rather than by welcome; likes perhaps the terror which she inspires, and to enter over the breach rather than through the hospitable gate. She will try and command wherever she goes; and trample over dependants and society, with a grim consciousness that it dislikes her, a rage at its cowardice, and an unbending will to domineer. To be old, proud, lonely, and not have a friend in the world — that is her lot in it. As the French lady may be said to resemble the bird which the fables say feeds her young with her blood; this one, if she has a little natural liking for her brood, goes hunting hither and thither and robs meat for them; And so, I suppose, to make the simile good, we must compare the Marquis of Farintosh to a lamb for the nonce, and Miss Ethel Newcome to a young eaglet. Is it not a rare provision of nature (or fiction of poets, who have their own natural history) that the strong-winged bird can soar to the sun and gaze at it, and then come down from heaven and pounce on a piece of carrion?

After she became acquainted with certain circumstances, Madame de Florac was very interested about Ethel Newcome, and strove in her modest way to become intimate with her. Miss Newcome and Lady Kew attended Madame de Moncontour’s Wednesday evenings. “It is as well, my dear, for the interests of the family that we should be particularly civil to these people,” Lady Kew said; and accordingly she came to the Hotel de Florac, and was perfectly insolent to Madame la Princesse every Thursday evening. Towards Madame de Florac, even Lady Kew could not be rude. She was so gentle as to give no excuse for assault: Lady Kew vouchsafed you to pronounce that Madame de Florac was “tres grande dame;"—“of the sort which is almost impossible to find nowadays,” Lady Kew said, who thought she possessed this dignity in her own person. When Madame de Florac, blushing, asked Ethel to come and see her, Ethel’s grandmother consented with the utmost willingness. “She is very devote, I have heard, and will try and convert you. Of course you will hold your own about that sort of thing; and have the good sense to keep off theology. There is no Roman Catholic parti in England or Scotland that is to be thought for a moment. You will see they will marry young Lord Derwenwater to an Italian princess; but he is only seventeen, and his directors never lose sight of him. Sir Bartholomew Bawkes will have a fine property when Lord Campion dies, unless Lord Campion leaves the money to the convent where his daughter is — and, of the other families, who is there? I made every inquiry purposely — that is, of course, one is anxious to know about the Catholics as about one’s own people: and little Mr. Rood, who was one of my poor brother Steyne’s lawyers, told me there is not one young man of that party at this moment who can be called a desirable person. Be very civil to Madame de Florac; she sees some of the old legitimists, and you know I am brouillee with that party of late years.”

“There is the Marquis de Montluc, who has a large fortune for France,” said Ethel, gravely; “he has a humpback, but he is very spiritual. Monsieur de Cadillan paid me some compliments the other night, and even asked George Barnes what my dot was, He is a widower, and has a wig and two daughters. Which do you think would be the greatest encumbrance, grandmamma — a humpback, or a wig and two daughters? I like Madame de Florac; for the sake of the borough, I must try and like poor Madame de Moncontour, and I will go and see them whenever you please.”

So Ethel went to see Madame de Florac. She was very kind to Madame de Preville’s children, Madame de Florac’s grandchildren; she was gay and gracious with Madame de Moncontour. She went again and again to the Hotel de Florac, not caring for Lady Kew’s own circle of statesmen and diplomatists, Russian, and Spanish, and French, whose talk about the courts of Europe — who was in favour at St. Petersburg, and who was in disgrace at Schoenbrunn — naturally did not amuse the lively young person. The goodness of Madame de Florac’s life, the tranquil grace and melancholy kindness with which the French lady received her, soothed and pleased Miss Ethel. She came and reposed in Madame de Florac’s quiet chamber, or sate in the shade in the sober old garden of her hotel; away from all the trouble and chatter of the salons, the gossip of the embassies, the fluttering ceremonial of the Parisian ladies’ visits in their fine toilettes, the fadaises of the dancing dandies, and the pompous mysteries of the old statesmen who frequented her grandmother’s apartment. The world began for her at night; when she went in the train of the old Countess from hotel to hotel, and danced waltz after waltz with Prussian and Neapolitan secretaries, with princes’ officers of ordonnance — with personages even more lofty very likely — for the court of the Citizen King was then in its splendour; and there must surely have been a number of nimble young royal highnesses who would like to dance with such a beauty as Miss Newcome. The Marquis of Farintosh had a share in these polite amusements. His English conversation was not brilliant as yet, although his French was eccentric; but at the court balls, whether he appeared in his uniform of the Scotch Archers, or in his native Glenlivat tartar there certainly was not in his own or the public estimation a handsomer young nobleman in Paris that season. It has been said that he was greatly improved in dancing; and, for a young man of his age, his whiskers were really extraordinarily large and curly.

Miss Newcome, out of consideration for her grandmother’s strange antipathy to him, did not inform Lady Kew that a young gentleman by the name of Clive occasionally came to visit the Hotel de Florac. At first, with her French education, Madame de Florac never would have thought of allowing the cousins to meet in her house; but with the English it was different. Paul assured her that in the English chateaux, les meess walked for entire hours with the young men, made parties of the fish, mounted to horse with them, the whole with the permission of the mothers. “When I was at Newcome, Miss Ethel rode with me several times,” Paul said; “a preuve that we went to visit an old relation of the family, who adores Clive and his father.” When Madame de Florac questioned her son about the young Marquis to whom it was said Ethel was engaged, Florac flouted the idea. “Engaged! This young Marquis is engaged to the Theatre des Varietes, my mother. He laughs at the notion of an engagement.” When one charged him with it of late at the club; and asked how Mademoiselle Louqsor — she is so tall, that they call her the Louqsor — she is an Odalisque Obelisque, ma mere; when one asked how the Louqsor would pardon his pursuit of Miss Newcome, my Ecossois permitted himself to say in full club, that it was Miss Newcome pursued him — that nymph, that Diane, that charming and peerless young creature! On which, as the others laughed, and his friend Monsieur Walleye applauded, I dared to say in my turn, “Monsieur le Marquis, as a young man, not familiar with our language, you have said what is not true, milor, and therefore luckily not mischievous. I have the honour to count of my friends the parents of the young lady of whom you have spoken. You never could have intended to say that a young miss who lives under the guardianship of her parents, and is obedient to them, whom you meet in society all the nights, and at whose door your carriage is to be seen every day, is capable of that with which you charge her so gaily. These things say themselves, monsieur, in the coulisses of the theatre, of women from whom you learn our language; not of young persons pure and chaste, Monsieur de Farintosh! Learn to respect your compatriots; to honour youth and innocence everywhere, monsieur! and when you forget yourself, permit one who might be your father to point where you are wrong.”

“And what did he answer?” asked the Countess.

“I attended myself to a soufflet,” replied Florac; “but his reply was much more agreeable. The young insulary, with many blushes and a gros juron, as his polite way is, said he had not wished to say a word against that person. ‘Of whom the name,’ cried I, ‘ought never to be spoken in these places.’ Herewith our little dispute ended.”

So, occasionally, Mr. Clive had the good luck to meet with his cousin at the Hotel de Florac, where, I dare say, all the inhabitants wished he should have his desire regarding this young lady. The Colonel had talked early to Madame de Florac about this wish of his life, impossible then to gratify, because Ethel was engaged to Lord Kew. Clive, in the fulness of his heart, imparted his passion to Florac, and in answer to Paul’s offer to himself, had shown the Frenchman that kind letter in which his father bade him carry aid to “Leonore de Florac’s son,” in case he should need it. The case was all clear to the lively Paul. “Between my mother and your good Colonel there must have been an affair of the heart in the early days during the emigration.” Clive owned his father had told him as much, at least that he himself had been attached to Mademoiselle de Blois. “It is for that that her heart yearns towards thee, that I have felt myself entrained toward thee since I saw thee”— Clive momentarily expected to be kissed again. “Tell thy father that I feel — am touched by his goodness with an eternal gratitude, and love every one that loves my mother.” As far as wishes went, these two were eager promoters of Clive’s little love-affair; and Madame la Princesse became equally not less willing. Clive’s good looks and good-nature had had their effects upon that good-natured woman, and he was as great a favourite with her as with her husband. And thus it happened that when Miss Ethel came to pay her visit, and sate with Madame de Florac and her grandchildren in the garden, Mr. Newcome would sometimes walk up the avenue there, and salute the ladies.

If Ethel had not wanted to see him, would she have come? Yes; she used to say she was going to Madame de Preville’s, not Madame de Florac’s, and would insist, I have no doubt, that it was Madame de Preville whom she went to see (whose husband was a member of the Chamber of Deputies, a Conseiller d’etat; or other French bigwig), and that she had no idea of going to meet Clive, or that he was more than a casual acquaintance at the Hotel de Florac. There was no part of her conduct in all her life, which this lady, when it was impugned, would defend more strongly than this intimacy at the Hotel de Florac. It is not with this I quarrel especially. My fair young readers, who have seen a half-dozen of seasons, can you call to mind the time when you had such a friendship for Emma Tomkins, that you were always at the Tomkins’s, and notes were constantly passing between your house and hers? When her brother, Paget Tomkins, returned to India, did not your intimacy with Emma fall off? If your younger sister is not in the room, I know you will own as much to me. I think you are always deceiving yourselves and other people. I think the motive you put forward is very often not the real one; though you will confess, neither to yourself, nor to any human being, what the real motive is. I think that what you desire you pursue, and are as selfish in your way as your bearded fellow-creatures are. And as for the truth being in you, of all the women in a great acquaintance, I protest there are but — never mind. A perfectly honest woman, a woman who never flatters, who never manages, who never cajoles, who never conceals, who never uses her eyes, who never speculates on the effect which she produces, who never is conscious of unspoken admiration, what a monster, I say, would such a female be! Miss Hopkins, you have been a coquette since you were a year old; you worked on your papa’s friends in the nurse’s arms by the fascination of your lace frock and pretty new sash and shoes; when you could just toddle, you practised your arts upon other children in the square, poor little lambkins sporting among the daisies; and nunc in ovilia, mox in reluctantes dracones, proceeding from the lambs to reluctant dragoons, you tried your arts upon Captain Paget Tomkins, who behaved so ill, and went to India without — without making those proposals which of course you never expected. Your intimacy was with Emma. It has cooled. Your sets are different. The Tomkins’s are not quite etc. etc. You believe Captain Tomkins married a Miss O’Grady, etc. etc. Ah, my pretty, my sprightly Miss Hopkins, be gentle in your judgment of your neighbours!

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