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William Makepeace Thackeray - Catherine: A Story (1840)

(England, 1811–1863)

This unvarnished tale of scoundrelism appeared first as a serial in Fraser's Magazine, in 1839-1840. It was written by Thackeray under the pseudonym of Ikey Solomons, Jun., although most of his productions bore the name of Michael Angelo Titmarsh until he issued Vanity Fair in 1847 under his own name. The object of Catherine was to counteract the injurious influence of some popular fictions of that day, which made heroes of highwaymen, thieves, and their class, creating a false sympathy for the vicious and criminal. While lamenting his lack of genius "to tread in the footsteps of the immortal Fagin, the deathless Dick Turpin, and the renowned Jack Sheppard," the author took as his heroine a woman who in 1726 was burned at Tyburn for the revolting murder of her husband, and endeavored to tell the story of her career and that of her associates so as to show the folly of investing such characters with romantic interest.

ABOUT the year 1705, in the glorious reign of Queen Anne, there were certain agreeably low, delightfully disgusting characters, so in harmony with the popular taste of present-day (1840) readers who find tales of criminals pleasing, pathetic, and heroic, that their doings may properly be set down here for edification.

In that year, then, after the Spanish war, the Dutch war, and the threats of Louis Quatorze, there was much recruiting for the army all over England, and in Warwickshire a recruiting-party were seeking heroes for Cutts's dragoon regiment. The Captain was a slim young gentleman of twenty-six, a Bavarian Count, from a German regiment that came over to the English after Blenheim. His mother was English; his name, Gustavus Adolphus Maximilian von Galgenstein. His corporal and friend was Mr. Peter Brock, a stout soldier of fifty-seven; when pleased, simply coarse and jovial; when angered, a perfect demon for bullying and fighting.

These two gentlemen sat in the kitchen of the "Bugle Inn," drinking mountain-wine, while their ponderous Flemish horses were being walked up and down before the tavern, surrounded by an admiring crowd. The drinkers were served by a smart, handsome, giggling maid of sixteen, named Catherine Hall—familiarly called Cat. Although a slattern and a minx, this girl, educated in the poorhouse, was by her beauty an attraction at the inn, and many a pot of ale or liquor was sold by her en-gaging impudence. The Captain was impressionable, and not only swallowed much poor liquor but was smitten with Mrs. Cat's beauty and made love to her, while Corporal Brock laughed.

However, Brock soon went out and delighted the villagers by letting the small boys ride on his horse and then inviting the crowd to drink. Five of them entered, and of those, three surrendered to his diplomacy and enlisted. One of the others was John Hayes, a mean-spirited little carpenter, desperately in love with the penniless Catherine, who, though she would not agree to marry, did not say no, so that he remained her slave.

The Captain's attentions to Cat becoming noticeable, Mrs. Score began serving him herself—to the benefit of his temperance in drink; showed him to his bed, and in the morning sent the girl off to get a chicken for his breakfast, when in fact he was about leaving. Off rode the disgruntled Captain and his corporal, with the three recruits afoot, when, not far ahead, the gallant Captain espied his missing lady and easily persuaded her to mount behind him. That was the end of her inn-service; for when next she appeared she was the Captain's lady, with a blue feather and a red riding-coat trimmed with silver lace.

They lived together for a while in Birmingham and in bliss. In a week he became indifferent; in a month, weary; in two months, angry; and in three got to blows and curses. The lady was his equal at the latter, while once, when he flung his ale in her face because it was too flat for a gentleman to drink, she clutched a knife and threatened him. However, as the Captain confided to Brock, she loved him madly.

"Women, look you," said he, "are like dogs; they like to be ill treated. I never had anything to do with a woman but I ill-treated her, and she loved me the better for it." And Brock agreed that a woman was like a beefsteak, more tender as she was thumped the more.

The Count had been liberal to Catherine in clothes, and a horse, and flattering attentions, but when he had ill luck at play, or had to pay bills, he practised economy, and Catherine was his housekeeper and maidservant at home, his festive mistress abroad. He often hinted to her to go, while not quite equal to kicking her out; but she, both from love and despair of any other course, held on.

When a child was expected the Count tried to marry Cat off to Brock, with a dower of twenty guineas. The corporal was willing, but Mrs. Cat with flashing eyes went to the nearest justice of the peace and swore to the paternity of the coming baby. The Count was rather amused than angered at this.

During Catherine's illness he kept away and amassed by gambling nearly a thousand pounds, which he hid in a chest, screwed down under his bed; and about two months after the birth he put the child out to nurse and dismissed the attendant. It was a boy, who might hereafter assume the Galgenstein arms —with a bar sinister.

The corporal, however, during the Captain's absences be-came the confidant of Catherine, who told him of the treasure-chest and much of the Count's life and habits, which later be-came useful to the honest corporal.

About this time the Count saw a pudgy maiden from London, with twenty thousand pounds, and determined to marry her. But Brock heard him arranging to turn over Mrs. Cat to a friend of his named Trippett and vowing to have the rascally corporal drummed out of the Cutts regiment. He laid this before Catherine, who received it with ominous calmness. She got from each of several apothecaries a small portion of laudanum for a toothache. Then, one evening, when the Count had some gentlemen guests at cards, she brewed their punch. All drank freely, and all became merry — except the Count, who lost heavily, and Mr. Trippett, who tried to make love to Cat. But when the latter gentleman would kiss her she rolled him off the sofa to the floor, where he contentedly went to sleep, while the other guests departed. The half-drunk Captain demanded more punch and got it, with a goodly infusion of the toothache drops. When he demanded still more, Catherine was frightened and confessed to the poison. He howled with fright, kicked Trippett awake and sent him for a doctor, and then at the sideboard compounded an effective emetic of mustard, oil and salt, which left him weak enough to go to bed and curse the doctor.

Catherine escaped by the window. Brock put the drowsy Count to bed, bound and gagged him, unscrewed the little treasure-chest and went to the Count's stable, told how his officer's mistress had poisoned him and run off with a thousand pounds, and, to pursue the wretch, rode off the Count's favorite horse.

Catherine escaped, but with dismal prospects; she had only a few shillings and nowhere to go. About an hour after the London coach left Birmingham it overtook our heroine, weeping, on a hillside. The driver and some of the passengers were walking up the hill, and Jehu asked the damsel if she would ride. She would, and promptly invented a story to match her circumstances. Being a pretty woman she was politely at-tended by all, and especially by one young man, who, when they descended for dinner at an inn, offered her his arm. She was astonished to find herself in the Bugle Inn of her youth; but her fine clothes and the good looks of her young escort, whom worthy Mrs. Score mistook for the Count, assured her a welcome from the dame; who put the dear Countess to bed and served her affectionately.

When the coach departed, and "his lordship" told Mrs. Score that he was a London tailor, never saw Catherine before, and naturally declined to pay her bill, the landlady forced Cat out of bed and into her clothes, and with furious abuse thrust her from the house. The wretched, burning, shivering Catherine, with a piteous sob, staggered out to the road. Dr. Dobbs, the parson, who had sternly reprobated Catherine in her ill-gained prosperity, recognized her and took her to his home, where she lay sick for weeks. Amiable when not crossed, and facile of temperament, Catherine stayed with the parson and his kind wife for some time. I shall not dwell upon this uninteresting passage of Christian charity, since the reader will care naught for such milk-and-water doings, but hasten to more entertaining matter, only mentioning that the parson told John Hayes of Catherine's presence, that that weak-minded, stingy-souled, but faithful lover sought her once more, and that one day he and Catherine went to Worcester and were married.

In April, 1706, an Act of Parliament, for increasing the efficiency of her Majesty's fleet, authorized recruiting officers, local constables and tithing-men to seek recruits, and also to en-ter rooms and houses where deserting seamen might be. This created an army of informers and bullies, who extorted money from innocent men. Into a party of such rascals entered Mr. and Mrs. John Hayes, seeking refreshment in a public house. And hardly had they retired to their apartment before the crowd burst upon them—Mr. Peter Brock at the head—and arrested John Hayes as a deserter from her Majesty's navy. Of course Mrs. Cat and Brock recognized each other; but that made no difference. Mr. Hayes had to write to his father for twenty guineas ransom, the letter being sent by Captain Macshane, an Irish gentleman of army experience and many shady adventures.

Mr. Brock was now "Captain Wood"; and as he spent the wedding-night with the new couple, on guard, and as John Hayes, overcome with drink and dread, fell sound asleep across the bed, Mrs. Cat and her old acquaintance sat up and ex-changed confidences. In the morning Captain Macshane re-turned, in company with Mother Hayes and the twenty guineas; and she, her son and daughter-in-law were permitted to depart. The Count, Captain Wood told Catherine, had gone to Flanders with his regiment, after regaining a portion of his money from Brock, who had spent so lavishly as to result in his recognition and flight from his fine lodgings.

The child whom Catherine and the Count had left with a Mrs. Billings bad been forgotten by them both, and was adopted by the family, where he became the pest of the house and the neighborhood. He fought, he lied, he stole, he cursed, and at the mature age of six was undergoing a thrashing at the hands of Blacksmith Billings, when Captains Wood and Macshane happened along. Those two worthies had spent the past six years in the Virginia plantations, having been transported for stealing. They were now back, and learning enough of little Tom's story to guess the rest, and scenting profit, they offered to take him. The Billings family were glad to get rid of him, and he was glad to go.

When Captain Wood approached Mrs. Hayes on the subject she was heartily glad. The Captain and she concocted a letter from her dear brother in France, who had died, confiding her boy to this brother officer to be taken to his only sorrowing relative. John Hayes was not glad, but acceded to the new suggestion, and Captain Wood departed. Just after this John Hayes sent a young apprentice to jail for stealing forty guineas, kept in a cupboard which was known only to himself and his wife.

As we jumped seven years for Messrs. Brock (now Wood) and Macshane's American tour, we now pass ten for the education of Master Thomas Billings. Under the care of his mother he naturally increased his early accomplishments. He had a word and a blow for truculent ushers and big boys, and a kick for the small ones, but scorned the useless art of reading and all its kind.

Mr. John Hayes, moved by the eager spirit of Mrs. Catherine, left carpentering and lived for years in divers quarters of London—as greengrocer, as carpenter, undertaker, and lender of money to the poor, and finally as lodging-house keeper—but always as a close-squeezing pawnbroker, not inquiring too closely into the pedigree of the valuables bought as pledges, but making a snug profit in the sale of them unredeemed, as most of them were.

One morning in 1725, Mrs. Hayes, now a well-dressed, hand-some, plump woman of thirty-four, her husband, and Mrs. Springatt, a lodger with them, returned from a pleasant excursion to Tyburn, where they had witnessed a hanging. In the back parlor, at the white-covered breakfast-table sat an elderly gentleman, reading. He was about seventy years old, of sober but cheerful aspect, quietly dressed in a black cassock. He had boarded with them for several years. It was the Rev. Dr. Wood—anciently, Corporal Peter Brock. They merrily commented on the gallant bearing of their Captain Macshane, the hero of the morning spectacle, and the doctor sighed as he told how he had warned Macshane against drink and bad company. Then they all turned to, at breakfast.

Master Tom was now sixteen years old, handsome, sallow, black-haired and black-eyed, and had been apprenticed to a German tailor named Beinkleider. Between Hayes and the boy existed an armed truce of hatred. Tom received plenty of spending money from his mother—who, indeed, was the money-getter as Hayes was the saver, and who kept the books and ruled everything. She despised Hayes, who feared and fawned upon her. Thus she had her way with the young bully, her son, and between the three of them the family tempests were frequent and savage enough to rejoice the heart of the amiable Dr.Wood. He always quietly fomented the disagreements of the principals, and would laugh to tears at Tom's tales of his riotous adventures with watchmen, at taverns, and the like.

Before breakfast was over in came Master Tom. Dr. Wood was reading aloud the life and confession of Captain Macshane, closing with an account of those who had visited him in his cell, including Father O'Flaherty, whom he had robbed, and the priest's patron, the Bavarian Ambassador, his Excellency Count Maximilian de Galgenstein.

"What! Max?" screamed Mrs. Hayes.

"Why, be hanged if it ben't my father!" said Mr. Billings.

Then arose discussion of how Tom might be presented to his affectionate father, who of course would "make a gentleman" of him.

As Beinkleider was making a pair of breeches for the Bavarian Ambassador, Tom was arrayed in style and sent to deliver the same.

"And, Tommy, if his lordship should ask after your mother," said that lady, "you needn't say anything about Mr. Hayes, only that I am quite well."

Galgenstein had led a gay life, so that now, at about forty-five or six, he had lost all capacity for enjoyment. Neither eating, riding, nor dancing, neither wine, woman, nor song could now arouse more than a brief galvanic interest. Even gaming—with winning or losing—hardly kept him awake. Master Billings found him in bed, Chaplain O'Flaherty in attendance with business papers.

The priest had seen Tom at the hanging, and asked if it was in the way of business or if some of his relatives were on the scaffold. To which Tom, no whit abashed, replied that his relations were not for such operations, his father being a gentleman.

The dreary Count began to be amused, and questioned him; at last he was flatly told that he himself was the young man's father—and chapter and verse were given, of Warwickshire, Catherine Hall, and all the rest. Tom here advanced, expecting to be embraced, but the Count complained of his smelling of gin and water, and, begging him to stand farther off, said:

"What! Are you little Cat's son? By heavens, Monsieur Abbé, a charming creature, but a tigress. Well, well, I think it very likely," and he rehearsed the story, and then told Tom of many of his later adventures. At last he bade his valet give the lad five guineas, and said he would like to see him again.

During the next month Tom several times saw the Count, who made no reference to the boy's mother. At a grand public entertainment in Marylebone Gardens, however, the Count was attracted to a graceful woman in a mask who seemed struck with his beauty; recognizing Tom in fine apparel with her, he greeted the boy cordially and then transferred his attention to the lady. At his invitation they repaired to an arbor for refreshment, and were highly entertained, until Tom saw his own sweetheart with another man and, rushing after them, left the Count and the lady together. Of course, the mask was soon withdrawn, and the Count enraptured by Catherine's sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks. But, as they were starting for the Hayes mansion in the Count's coach, Tom rejoined them and jumped in, to the Count's disgust.

Mr. Hayes was not only drunk when they arrived, but also disorderly when he saw the coach drive off. So they quarreled; while Dr. Wood stood by and laughed. At last Hayes insulted Cat so directly that she threatened to "do for him." The pot-valiant Hayes flourished a stick and said worse things, when with a scream she seized a knife and ran at him. But he knocked her down with the stick, and when she recovered they all went to bed—he to snore, and she to toss in sleepless anger and growing hate, to think herself bound to such a thing for life, when if she were free she might be a countess—for had not the bewitched Count said as much? In the morning, as she glanced intently at Hayes, he uneasily moved, awoke, saw her murderous look, and fell into an icy terror. They had often quarreled, and he had struck her before—why should she hold malice now? And he tried to make friends, proposing to close up business, buy a farm in Warwickshire, and "live genteel." She scorned him.

Old Wood read her intuitively, and said, "In faith, a count and a chariot-and-six is better than an old skinflint with a cudgel," asked after her sore head, and generally deepened her wretchedness. He also excited Tom with an account of the beating, so that poor Hayes lived now in dread of his life; while, his wife having dropped all interest in the business, he began gathering in his loans and hoarding his guineas for Catherine no longer occupied the room with him. As his hoard grew he determined to flee with it and get away to safety.

Wood watched this, too, understood the wretched man's in-tent, and of course told Catherine. Meantime she saw the Count often, received money and dresses from him, but held him at chaste distance (largely by Wood's advice), while he grew more and more enamored, and even wrote her (by Father O'Flaherty) "were that bond of ill-omened Hymen cut in twain witch binds you, I swear, Madame, that my happiness woulde be to offer you this hande, as I have my harte long agoe." This rejoiced the unhappy-happy Catherine, as already a patent of nobility for herself and Tom—who had also become a welcome visitor to the Count, and was well supplied with money.

Poor Hayes, whose wife was handsomely dressed and in funds, although never now asking him for a penny, knew well of the Count's affair with her, but was only the more determined to escape. He wore his money in a belt and bought pistols.

One of the Count's gifts had been some choice mountain-wine, of which Hayes was inordinately fond, but of which he was never invited to partake. On March 1, 1726, Mr. Hayes had completed the sum with which he meant to decamp, and, as he entered the house about dusk, Mrs. Hayes and her son being out, Dr. Wood was smoking in the little back parlor. The old gentleman addressed Hayes genially, and invited him to drink, which pleased him much. Thus, when Tom and Mrs. Hayes entered, Hayes made no objection to the young fellow's joining them; and when the mountain-wine was brought out Hayes, already well heated with what he had drunk, bragged that he could manage eight bottles, They laughingly challenged him, exchanging significant looks. After the third bottle Mrs. Cat, who sat pale and silent, grew uneasy, as she had an appointment to meet the Count the next evening, for the first time alone. She whispered to Wood:

"No, no! for God's sake, not tonight!"

"She means we are to have no more liquor," said Wood to Hayes, who heard the sentence and seemed alarmed.

"That's it—no more liquor," said Catherine eagerly. "You have had enough to-night. Go to bed, and lock your door, and sleep, Mr. Hayes."

But he screamed that he was good for five bottles more, and would have them. Well, the bottles were brought and drunk by Hayes, who was led up-stairsby Tom and Wood, being unable to go alone.

Mrs. Springatt, the lodger, came down to ask what the noise was, and was told that Tom was making merry with some friends. She retired, and the house was quiet.

Some scuffling and stamping was heard about eleven o'clock.

Somewhat later Tom Billings remembered that he had a parcel to carry to someone in the neighborhood of the Strand, and Dr. Wood walked out with him.

Mr. Hayes did not join the family next day, and they re-ported that he had gone away, without saying whither, or when he would be back. That evening Billings went out again toward Marylebone Fields, and, as before, Wood good naturedly went with him.

Mrs. Catherine also went at nine o'clock to meet the Count, in a place convenient to the Count's lodgings in St. Margaret's Churchyard, near Westminster Abbey. He appeared with a torch-bearer, whom he dismissed, and the couple entered the little cemetery and sat on one of the tombs, under a tree, as it seemed to be. He clasped the trembling woman and assured her that the moment she was free she should be Countess of Galgenstein.

" Max," she exclaimed, " I am free."

"What, is he dead?"

" No, but he never was my husband."

Then the Count let go her hand and said that a carpenter's mistress might be content with the protection of a Count, without marriage. But she explained that Hayes had already a wife when he married her and offered him a letter from Hayes, de-daring that he had left her forever, to return to his own wife.

The moon here broke through the clouds, and the Count, who had backed away, stood still and stared upward, his eyes bulging with terror. At last he raised his finger slowly and said:

"Look, Cat the head—the head!" Then uttering a horrible laugh, he fell groveling on the ground in a fit.

Catherine started and looked up. She had been under a post, not a tree; the moon was shining full upon it; and on the top, strangely distinct, was a livid human head—the head of John Hayes. She fled; and when the Count's servant sought him he was sitting on the flags, laughing and talking to the head, a hopeless idiot. He so lived for years and years, clanking the chain and moaning under the lash in his solitary cell.

The newspapers of March 3,,1726, related that a man's head, freshly cut off, had been found by the river's side near Westminster, and was exposed to public view in St. Margaret's Churchyard for identification. And that interesting historical work, the Newgate Calendar, will supply to such of my readers as have appetite for the further adventures of the Rev. Dr. Wood, Mr. Thomas Billings, and Mrs. Catherine Hayes, all the pleas-ant details of the murder and the subsequent executions, duly set down for their pleasure.

The author has tried to exclude from this tale (except in two insignificant instances) any characters but scoundrels of high degree, and really hopes that his readers may be as thoroughly disgusted with them and their careers as he is, and not be led to expend a halfpenny worth of sympathy on any of them.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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