William Makepeace Thackeray - The Newcomes (1855)
Lovers of Thackeray's works are wont to remark—with what justice each reader will opine for himself—that the character of Colonel Newcome is the most perfect gentleman depicted in fiction. A single word in this story, when it was first published, produced a curious misunderstanding in the minds of many American readers. Thackeray had written an ironical passage containing these words: "When pigtails grew on the backs of the British gentry, and their wives wore cushions on their heads, over which they tied their own hair; when ministers went in their stars and orders to the House of Commons, and the orators attacked nightly the noble lord in the blue riband; when Mr. Washington was heading the American rebels with a courage, it must be confessed, worthy of a better cause, there came to London," etc. It was the "Mr." that gave offense to readers and critics who did not know that, during the War of Independence, English snobbery refused Washington the title of General, and in this passage Thackeray was merely mocking the spirit and customs of that day. In an explanatory letter, published November 22, 1855, he wrote: "As irony is dangerous, and has hurt the feelings of kind friends whom I would not wish to offend, let me say, in perfect faith and gravity, that I think the cause for which Washington fought entirely just and right, and the champion the very noblest, purest, bravest, best of God's men."
HEN Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Newcome, C.B., of the Bengal Cavalry, returned home to England on his first furlough after thirty-four years of continuous service, he came back as simple and naive as he had been when he quitted his country as a lad. Years had served only to emphasize and sweeten that noble nature, to make that tender, brave heart still more tender, and to transmute the generosity of youth into a beautiful, unconscious unselfishness.
The simple gentleman was filled with delighted astonishment at the prodigious cleverness and learning of the friends of Clive, his son, whom he had sent to England on the death of his mother. He hunted out everyone that ever had done his boy a kindness. He hunted out the child of every friend in India. He traveled many miles to visit his old nurse, who had filled the dual place of servant and relative in his father's household—a connection not at all pleasing to Colonel Newcome's two stepbrothers—Hobson Newcome and Sir Brian Newcome—whose families had long since discovered that their ancestor was a Newcome who had been barber-surgeon to King Edward the Confessor and who was killed at the battle of Hastings; which noble pedigree made them rather anxious to forget that their father had been a poor ignorant weaver and, as rumor had it, a foundling besides.
Colonel Newcome's own mother had died while he was a child. His stepmother, with whom he did not succeed in finding favor, and whose sternness had driven him from home, had died during his long absence. In her will she had left him nothing; but she had spoken kindly of him, and she had been most kind to Clive when he reached England—and that, be sure, touched Colonel Newcome more than if she had left him all the Newcome banking business and all the money in it.
Wonderful were the plans that the proud Colonel laid before Clive for his future. The old warrior had dreamed and thought of nothing but Clive from the day he was taken away to be carried to England. He had studied books of travel and pored over maps of Europe to prepare for the tour on which he in tended to take his boy. He had brushed up his Greek and Latin. He saved that he might lay up a little fortune for him —not that he saved at others' expense; for Colonel Newcome's house and hand always were open to all, from a comrade in distress to the furthest removed relative of a comrade; and he was of such a nature that he spent five rupees where another would save them and make a fine show besides. Plat it is not a man's gifts or hospitalities that usually injure his fortune. It is on themselves that prodigals spend most. Newcome had po personal desires. He lived as frugally as a Hindu. He wore his old clothes and uniforms until they were the laughter-loving laughter—of his regiment.
The Colonel regaled all the ladies of the regiment with Clive's wonderful letters and Clive's wonderful drawings, the young rascal having developed a most astounding facility in making ludicrous pictures of everyone and everything. Some of the irreverent young officers used to bet on the number of times the Colonel would mention Clive's name in the course of a dinner. But those who laughed at the Colonel laughed very kindly, for everybody who knew him loved him; everybody, that is, who loved modesty and generosity and honor.
At last the day came when the Colonel touched English soil again and trod once more the muddy pavement of Smithfield on his way to Greyfriars, where his son was : a way that he had trodden many times in his own youth. "Looks like a fine, manly fellow,'; the cock of the school, gigantic Smith, was good enough to say as he looked majestically down on the tall figure' in the loose clothes. "He looks very odd, but very kind, and like a gentleman every inch of him," thought Clive, glancing sidewise at the Colonel's yellow face and long 'mustachios.
"Isn't he a fine fellow, James?" said the Colonel that night, his face illuminated with joy, when he sat down to smoke a last cigar with his old Indian friend, James Binnie, who had returned home with him to rest after twenty years of service in the legal administration of the Indian empire.
"Have ye been breathing a prayer over your rosy infant's slumbers, Tom?" asked Mr. Binnie.
"And if I have, James Binnie," the Colonel said gravely, "if I have, I hope I've done no harm. The last time I saw him asleep was nine years ago, a sickly little pale-faced boy in his cot, and pow, sir, that I see him again, strong and handsome and all that a fond father can wish to see a boy, I should be an ungrateful villain, James, if I didn't—if I didn't do what you said just now, and thank God for restoring him to me,"
Binnie did not laugh any more. "By George ! Tom Newcome," said he, "if all men were like you thpre'd be an end of both our trades—there would be no fighting and no soldiering, no rogues and no magistrates to catch them."
Clive Newcome had indeed turned out all that a fond father could wish to see a boy—instinct with health, strength, activity, and good humor, his head crowned with waving light hair, a laughing mouth, and blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence and frankness. He had grown up clean without becoming a ninny, and scrupulously honorable without becoming that sad and depressing creature, a "model boy"
A saving grace—perhaps his inheritance of a good part of his father's simple, downright nature—saved him from being spoiled, which was something that all his friends tried to do.
Even in the homes of his two uncles, whose families were not given to' unprofitable friendships, Clive was more than welcome. But about the time Colonel Newcome returned, the family of Sir Brian discovered that he was a lad no more; and there came trepidation in that prudent household.
The object of that trepidation was a young lady who had been most correctly bred from early youth in the contemplation of the blessed mission of young ladies to marry well and in a manner becoming noble pedigrees. By dint of constant iteration the Newcomes not only had made their friends believe, but believed themselves, the Newcome pedigree led back to that most useful barber-surgeon of the field of Hastings; while on her mother's side, Lady Ann, Ethel could boast most undoubted blue blood through her grandmother, Lady Kew.
That domineering old campaigner had determined long ago to marry Ethel to her grandson, Lord Kew. The family agreed docilely; her daughter, Lady Ann, because she was abjectly afraid of the fierce old woman, and Sir Brian and his son for the dual reason that they wanted a lord in the family, and be-cause Lady Kew would not leave her great fortune to Ethel under any other condition. The Newcomes adored rank and worshiped money. Clive Newcome represented neither.
Into this life of mixed shoddy aristocracy and genuine, Colonel Newcome came like a breeze—a breeze that ruffled the elder Newcomes sadly and came to the haughty Miss Ethel like an awakening. Thomas Newcome and his niece fell in love with each other instantaneously.
He took a little, slim white hand and laid it down on his brown palm, where it looked all the whiter; he cleared the grizzled moustachio from his mouth, and, stooping down, he kissed the little white hand with grace and dignity. There was no point of resemblance, and yet a something in the girl's look, voice, and motion caused his heart to thrill and an image out of the past to rise up and salute him. The eyes which had brightened his youth (and which he saw in his dreams and thoughts for faithful years afterward, as if they looked at him out of heaven) seemed to shine upon him after five-and-thirty years.
"What a frank, generous, bright young creature!" he thought. "What a fine match might be made between her and Clive,"
That night the Colonel said to his servant: "I say, Kean, is that blue coat of mine very old?"
"Uncommon white about the seams, Colonel."
"Is it older than other men's coats?"
Kean confessed gravely that it was very queer.
" Get me another coat, then, and see that I don't do any-thing or wear anything unusual."
But, even had honest Tom Newcome's innocent plans ever had the slightest chance of success, that chance would have been ruined absolutely by an act of Clive that struck the Newcome family as a scandal. He determined to be an artist!
If the Colonel was at all disappointed by Clive's choice, his loyal love never permitted the feeling to take form even within his secret thoughts. He placed his son with a famous master and paid lavishly for fitting up a studio in the house that he and Binnie engaged.
Thus Clive Newcome entered life. Before long his fellow-students agreed that he could do great things whenever he should get down to real work, and his society friends agreed that his odd fad was most entertaining and made him immensely interesting. He rode fine horses and disported himself with Lon-don's finest dandies in the park. He partook with equal zest of the remarkable feasts of polonies and beer with his fellow-artists in their bare rooms.
The Colonel was now in possession of that felicity for which his soul had longed; and yet, as the months went on, his face grew unconsciously melancholy, his loose clothes hung still looser on his long limbs, and he began to sit in long silences.
Perhaps this hastened his determination to return to India when his furlough ended. He had found that he could not live in England on his income and give Clive what he desired, so he decided to return and get his promotion, which would insure him a sufficient pension. Not that he was poor. He calculated that he could give Clive ten thousand pounds when he married and five hundred pounds a year out of his own allowance. So he settled a hundred pounds a year on his boy and arranged in addition for a most handsome annual sum to be paid while he was away; and then he went bravely back to India.
Clive immediately plunged with all the ardor of his nature into the practise of his profession, determined on living by it. He carried four sketches to a print-seller and obtained a sovereign and a half, which happy hews he despatched to India at once, explaining that he could do six such sketches easily in a morning, which would mean at the lowest calculation five hundred pounds a year, so that he would not need to touch his allowance at all. Then he gave a grand feast to all his friends in honor of the thirty shillings and departed for a sketching tour in Europe, for which purpose he bought a snug little traveling-carriage.
At Baden he fell in with his aunt, Lady Ann, the little Newcomes and Ethel, all traveling very grandly with couriers and retinue. Lady Kew was not there. Good-natured Lady Ann, freed from the domination Of het àutocratic mother, was too lazy of too indulgent to interpose any difficulties between her handsome nephew and her beautiful daughter.
Clive and Ethel "realized that their childish affection had changed—who knows how long ago, or when?-to love. Ethel faced the knowledge with rebellion; directed blindly against het-self, against fate and against her love. Clive forgot all other considerations for a time and gave himself utterly to the passion; theft he awoke to the sad dawn of real life and knew that his holiday of youth was over; and that before him lay but one course—an honorable retreat.
He took with him the victim of another misplaced affection --the Honorable Charles Belsize, a handsome, disorderly, bankrupt, dissolute younger son, long since disowned by Lord Highgate; his father; and by his elder brother. Poor Charles was fraritically in love with Lady Clara Pulleyn, whose parents were as desperately poor as the Honorable Charles himself; and there-fore hated him with a noble hatred.
Belsize had discovered that Lady Clara had arrived in Baden for the purpose of becoming engaged to young Barnes New. At this he set to drinking and weeping, with the logical result that lib detetmined td kill Barnes.
There was a most scandalous scene in the street; and then Lord Kew and Clive, who admired each other very cordially despite their rivalry for Ethel; locked the poor sinner up until Clive could spirit him away.
Finally Clive went to Rome, and there after many months began to think that he had resigned himself to his fate—when he heard a piece of news that sent him in mad flight to London. The engagement between Ethel Newcome and Lord Kew had been broken!
There was little art for Clive Newcome now. He spent his days scheming for invitations to the great houses where he might meet her, and his nights in the whirl of society, content if he could snatch a few moments with his cousin.
Lady Kew regarded him malignantly and defended her niece with immense cleverness. The world was full of new gossip about her. It was that she was to marry into a station far greater than that of even Lord Kew. The prize selected by old Lady Kew, now that her first plan had gone astray when Lord Kew discovered that Ethel did not love him, was no less than my Lord Farintosh, immensely wealthy, immensely proud, immensely good looking, and immensely stupid.
At this juncture Colonel Newcome returned home. He went at once to Sir Barnes Newcome (who was now head of the family, his father having died) and ingenuously laid before him his private affairs; how he had invested his money most fortunately in the great Bundlecund Banking Company, with the result that he was now very rich and fast growing richer, being worth at the least sixty thousand pounds.
"I have a pension, besides," said the honest soldier, "of a thousand pounds a year. And two hundred a year is all that I want for myself. I will give Clive every shilling of the rest to-morrow if he marries as I wish him to. My boy will thus have an income of three or four thousand pounds a year. Barnes," cried the Colonel, with his face shining, "I want your sister—I want my dear Ethel for him!"
Barnes listened with inward scorn and outward respect. His small mind required only a moment for the easy computation that four thousand a year was nothing compared to Lord Farintosh's fifteen thousand; not to mention the noble alliance.
But the Bundlecund Banking Company was, indeed, a great affair, so great that even the great banking house of Newcome could not afford to incur its enmity. Therefore Sir Barnes saw his profit, as usual, in playing double.
Playing double is something that polite society recognizes as almost vital at times to preserve its sacred institutions. Unfortunately Colonel Newcome did not belong to polite society. Therefore, when he discovered presently that Lady Kew had whisked Ethel away to Scotland, whence her engagement to Lord Farintosh was announced soon afterward, he lost no time in striding into the Newcome Bank and there, in the presence of trembling clerks, called Sir Barnes liar, traitor, and knave.
All London heard of it in a day. Poor Barnes, in a weak attempt to retrieve his reputation, announced his regret that he couldn't challenge a man who was his uncle. Thereupon Clive wrote to him, repeating the charges and offering to meet him; and delighted club acquaintances assured Sir Barnes that the code permitted a meeting between cousins. General Sir George Tufto wickedly congratulated Barnes on his opportunity, leaving the unhappy gentleman no recourse but to show the white feather, which he did.
To console his boy the Colonel now decided on a long tour of the Continent, and Clive assented eagerly. They traveled Rhineland and Switzerland, they crossed into Italy, they went over the Styrian Alps to Vienna, they beheld the Danube.
At last toward autumn they found themselves in Brussels, and settled down to spend the winter with old James Binnie, who was living on the Continent with his widowed sister, Mrs. Mackenzie, and her lovely young daughter.
And about this time a good and true friend of Colonel New-come wrote a letter to him, which followed him unavailingly through Europe and never found him until long afterward. Had it reached him in time, it might have prevented much that was to happen.
During their wanderings the Colonel and his son had heard about the latest scandal in the family of their kinsman, Sir Barnes—how he had ill-treated his wife, Lady Clara, till he had been knocked down for it by Lord Highgate, who was no other than poor Charles Belsize, come most unexpectedly into the family fortune and estate through the death of both his father and elder brother; and how in the end Highgate had fled with Lady Clara.
Following this came the announcement that the engagement between Ethel and the noble Marquis of Farintosh had, of course, been broken off by the Farintoshes as a result of the scandal.
That letter which never reached him would have told him something different. It would have told him that Lord Farintosh had implored Ethel humbly to marry him, and that she had refused, not because of the scandal, but because her soul had become filled with loathing of the fortune-hunting and title-seeking life in which she was enveloped. And if the writer of the letter added that Lady Kew had died in the midst of all this trouble before she could change her will, which left Ethel all her great fortune, who will say that the true friend added this with any idea that it could affect Clive or the Colonel? No, indeed. Great fortunes are not so plentiful that even the best of us can afford to ignore them. But as for anything more, the writer of that letter knew full well that Colonel Newcome would care for nothing so much as the knowledge that his darling Ethel was not the mercenary wretch that he had been forced to think her. But the letter never reached its destination.
A few months afterward the Colonel returned to London with Mr. and Mrs. Clive Newcome. Clive had married Miss Rose Mackenzie.
Colonel Newcome, who would dine on a crust and wear a coat for ten years, opened a magnificent house for his children. He commanded the eager services of upholsterers, painters, and carriage-makers in his splendid Indian way. He presented Rosey with wonderful jewels and was made happy by the sight of the blooming young creature decked in these magnificences.
The Bundlecund Banking Company was in a highly flourishing condition. Its directors told the Colonel that it was his duty, as their leading director, to live in splendor. The wealthiest people of London sought his board and naturally expected entertainment on a scale proportionate to the great affairs of the great institution.
All the world began to pay great attention to Colonel New-come now. Everybody knew confidently exactly how many millions of rupees he was worth. He began to feel quite convinced that he was a wonderful man of business, and put all his friends and acquaintances and dependents into the company, whose enormous profits from indigo and Cotton and opium and copper and a score of Oilier commodities Were growing more enormous daily.
Yet in all this glow and glory of achievement and honor the furrows deepened around the Colonel's old eyes whehever he looked at Clive. He could see that his boy was hot happy: 1e appeared dutifully At the board meetings And other business conclaves that produced the Newcome wealth; but he yawned and went away and galloped His horse alone; or returned to his painting-room and worked away in his old velvet jacket. Ile spent little time with his Wife, and that little Was too Clearly comfortable for both of them. Foot- Clive tossed unhappily on his bed of down, and Cate rode behind him on his horses.
So the Colonel was not happy either; hot happy iii the society of his fie* friends; not happy even when he won his election to Parliament as the member for Newcome against his hated nephew Sir Barnes himself. The brave old soldier Was never to take that seat.
One day news came td London that the great Indian merchant who was at the head of the Bundlecund Banking Compan¬y had died suddenly froth cholera in his palace iii Calcutta. The next day the whole world knew that the Bundlecund Company had been a vast, Complicated, enormous swindle, And Colonel Newcome after threescore and ten honorable years, was ruined.
The bills Were put up it the splendid house. Colonel Newcome gave up even his pension and allowed the brokers to take everything, down to his two swords that Were the only ornamentsts of the plain little room With the iron bedstead where he had lived in that splendid house. Then he and his, quite penniless went to poor quarters, where Clive tried to support them with his art.
The poor old man gave tip evén his Cigar; the friend and comforter of forty years. Mrs. Mackenzie, who had lost het money like the test in the smash; came out in het true colors and lashed him daily With bitter taunts and jibes that stung him like strokes from a *hip. Ile ate his scanty crust and bowed his noble old head in silence under that cowardly persecution:
One day he went away quietly, telling Clive that he Was going on a short visit to friends. A few days afterward came the annual solemn ceremony in memory of Founder's Day in the old Greyfriars School; and those who went there saw among the poor pensioners, in the black gown, with his order of the Bath on his breast, his dear old head bent down over his prayer-book, Thomas Newcome.
The steps of this good old man had been ordered hither by Heaven's decree: to this almshouse. Here it was ordained that a life all love and kindness and honor should end.
His time on earth was to be but short; yet ere his thread was cut, fate stepped toward one young and blooming and cut off poor, helpless, pretty little Rosey. From her deathbed Clive was summoned to that of his father.
He lay in his little room, a stricken old man, with a beard white as snow covering the noble, careworn face. Ethel arose and gave her hand to Clive—that dear little hand that the Colonel had loved so well, and that was one day to lie in Clive's for life, after all. But that day was still in the future, and the one whose heart it would have filled to overflowing to behold it would not be on earth to see.
By the Colonel's side sat a woman, distinguished, with the air of a grande dame, and beautiful even in age. The Colonel's hand reached for hers. He pressed it and said with a heart-rending voice: "Leonore! LeonoreI" Thus did he find his romance again—in the person of the great Countess de Florac, who had been taken away from him in youth as Ethel had been snatched from his son.
At the usual evening hour the chapel bell began to toll, and Thomas Newcome's hands outside the bed feebly beat time. And just as the last bell struck a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted his head a little and quickly said, "Adsum ! " and fell back.
It was the word the boys used at the school when their names were called; and lo! he, whose heart was as that of a little child, had answered to his name and stood in the presence of The Master.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
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