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William Makepeace Thackeray - A Shabby–genteel Story (1857)

This story was the forerunner of The Adventures of Philip, which in turn was followed by The Virginians, and in all three novels many of the same characters appear.

AMONG the English who, possessed of leisure and means, rushed over to the Continent after the second restoration of Louis XVIII was a young widow named Mrs. Wellesley Macarty, who occupied rooms in a genteel boarding-house at Brussels. With the widow lived her mamma, Mrs. Crabb. Their conversation led one to infer that they came of fashionable lineage—having more of that than of shillings to maintain their high descent from both their English and Irish stock, beyond the deceased Macarty's allowance as an ensign. After being married six months he was carried off suddenly on June 18, 1815, by a malady that was very prevalent about that time near Brussels—the fatal cannon-shot morbus. A few months later his widow brought into the world two healthy girls.

Mrs. Wellesley Macarty, having nothing to rely on in these circumstances except Providence, found it convenient to be-come reconciled to her mother—there having been an estrangement between Mrs. Crabb and her only child Juliana—and thus they shared between them the former's modest income of one hundred and twenty pounds a year, equal, perhaps, to two or three times that amount now. The facts were that no other course was possible, for their high, aristocratic connections would give no assistance, because Mr. Crabb had been butler to a lord and his lady a lady's maid. He had climbed the ladder of prosperity and became owner of the Ram hotel and posting-house, which after his death was sold by his relict for three thousand pounds. With the well-known tact of their sex, mother, daughter, and granddaughters managed to live quite smartly, the twins having been put out to nurse at a neighboring village. It may be mentioned aside that Mrs. Crabb came with time to a full appreciation of her daughter's social rank as the widow of an ensign.

About this time a young Englishman named James Gann, Esquire, of the great oil house of Gann, Blubbery and Gann, in pursuit of the French language came to lodge at the house where Mrs. Crabb and her daughter were living. Gann was young, weak, inflammable, not an uncommon union of qualities. He saw and adored Mrs. Wellesley Macarty. She was almost engaged to Dr. M'Lint, a wooden-legged regimental surgeon, but threw him over for Gann, who had a somewhat strenuous life of it from the outset. On the day of the wedding, but after the blessing had settled it irrevocably, the bride presented her twin daughters to her husband. He was somewhat staggered, as this was his first intimation of the existence of these estimable little girls. Being naturally good-natured, he accepted the situation like a hero. But when he got over this Gann had to fight a duel with M'Lint, the surgeon, and having passed this ordeal safely he then had to break the news of these events to his father, who, being the entire source of income to Gann, made it very unpleasant for him until a reconciliation enabled the young husband to gird himself anew for the struggles and calls on his good nature that destiny had in store for him.

Matters went on fairly well until Gann senior died, and soon afterward the introduction of illuminating gas for lighting streets ruined the business of Gann and Company, who had prospered by a contract with London City. When all accounts were settled Gann found himself like a plucked hen, minus everything. In the mean time Mother Crabb departed this life, leaving her three thousand pounds equally divided between her two granddaughters, bearing interest of one hundred and twenty pounds. The youngest daughter, Caroline, had nothing. So long as Gann was well off with a good business, the grand-mother purposed to leave all her money to sweet Caroline, on the principle that to him that hath shall be given. But when the father lost his all Mrs. Crabb left her all to the twins, and Caroline became the laughing-stock and the drudge of the rest of the family excepting her father, who had some good traits and took the side of his own child whenever and however he was able to maintain the fight against his showy, coarse, and heartless wife and twin daughters.

Matters being thus, and Mrs. Juliana Gann unwilling to listen to his taking a respectable place as clerk, as beneath the position of such genteel people, this vulgar woman moved with all her family to a house in a certain back street, where he put out a brass sign in the window, assuming to be agent for a ginger-beer company and food for nursing-babies—a mere show to save appearances; while Mrs. Gann, on the strength of a glimpse of the sea from the roof, gave out that she took two lodgers in aristocratic quarters, and passed much time in boasting of her high-born connections. The service consisted of Becky the cook and Caroline, the only one of the family that maintained her loveliness of character and. delicate beauty, although treated as what she actually was, the maid of all work.

After the usual time of waiting for good fortune to perch on the roof of this family of unmitigated snobs, a lodger and boarder came to them. He was handsome, educated, and possessed of a certain gentility of manner that comes to some men from their origin and environment, even when they are lacking in moral sense; a method of carrying one's self that is born in a man and cannot be acquired. Those who have it not cannot acquire it, but they recognize it when seen, and hence much of the jealousy that exists among classes. The assumed name under which this young man preferred to be known at this period of his unprofitable life was George Brandon. He had studied at Oxford, his father being a colonel on retired pay, and had made some precious acquaintances, who could teach him nothing except how to spend money and how to borrow without repaying. Lord Viscount Cinqbars, a puny scion of an old family, one of these valuable social assets of George Brandon, found him very amusing, as indeed he could be when he chose. As Cinqbars loaned money to Brandon whenever Papa Cinqbars paid his son his monthly allowance, George Brandon, a man of far greater natural ability, was willing to be his entertainer and jester, as it were. At this period of the story Brandon was seeking a place of concealment for reasons best known to himself. He did not even divulge his secret to Cinqbars. As it was not the fashionable season, his expenses were so moderate that he had no immediate need to call on his friend and banker. Experience had taught him how to get the most palatable food for the least money, lodging included, at that time of the year. There was no variety in articles or quality. Itemized, the weekly bill was--lodging, one pound; breakfast, cream, eggs, nine shillings; dinner, fourteen mutton chops, ten shillings sixpence; fire, boot-cleaning, etc., three shillings sixpence—total, two pounds three shillings.

During this time, and for how long before this is of slight consequence, James Gann had the steady habit of resorting to the alehouse called the Bag of Nails. There he foregathered with congenial souls, imbibed gin and water, and smoked his pipe. Nothing was the matter with James Gann, except that he was a negative rather than a positive character. So long as work came to him he was willing, nay, anxious to be occupied. But he lacked the force to find work, resist his family, and protect Caroline, the only one of the family that needed love and protection, and to whom he longed to extend them; and thus he went down the hill, a wasted life. His good traits brought him friends of a certain kind for a time. One of these was a big, burly, unrefined, heavy drinker and smoker, but honest and generous far more than some who are apparently of a more refined type. He had a clear five hundred a year; and was rated in his own circle a shrewd and thoroughly well-found man, whom few young women in that circle would think of declining. He kept his own gig and pony, a great aid to success in the art of courtship; he was about forty, and his name was Swigsby.

Now Swigsby passed much of his valuable time at the Bag of Nails, as also was the habit of James Gann. The former in his coarse but good-natured way took a liking to his older companion. He saw that there was nothing low or mean in him, but rather that he was in a false position, and had everything against him; while Gann not only saw in Swigsby a sort of free-handed generosity, a readiness to knock a man down by a frank, square blow in front, but resorting to no mean attack from be-hind, which commanded his respect. Gann also saw a possible son-in-law in this bluff son of John Bull. The two formed a tacit friendly alliance over their cups, and Gann introduced Swigsby and his smart yellow gig to the sanctity of his scheming, low-bred family.

While these plots and counterplots were occurring in the Gann household and the Bag of Nails, another of the dramatis person appeared on the scene to complicate the drama.

This gentleman was Andrew Fitch, Esquire, the first name Italianized by him to Andrea, out of his great regard for all things Italian, a little affectation that did no more harm than to show a small weakness in the upper story of an otherwise estimable if not heavily timbered young man, with artistic aspirations and a large capacity for sentiment. Fitch wore an ample Spanish cloak, a heavy black beard, and a slouch hat. The general effect would have been interesting and was indeed romantic until he opened his mouth. Then he dropped or added his h's in a manner so unmistakably that of an out-and-out cockney as to take the dignity out of his art aspirations. This, however, was no obstacle to his obtaining the undying love of a noble widow, the lady Marianne Caroline Matilda, relict of the late Antony Carrickfergus, Esquire, of Lombard Street and Gloucester Place. The said sentimental but very wealthy relict affected the French language in preference to her own Anglo-Irish speech, and, although ten or fifteen years older than the aforesaid Andrea Fitch, Esquire, "hartist," fell desperately in love with him, caring neither for this disparity in years nor for his chronic poverty.

Strange to say, Andrea felt no response in his bosom and avoided la belle Carrickfergus with a coolness that must have been very aggravating as well as mortifying to that tender heart. Fitch had been sent down to Margate by his old aunt, the wife of a prosperous sausage-maker, who paid his expenses, in order that he might spend less money there than at London. But he was apparently so obtuse to his own best interests as to consider it a compensation for his seaside banishment that the Widow Carrickfergus probably did not know where to find him.

Such was the position of affairs at the Gann seaside lodging-house at Margate when the clash of arms, we mean Cupid's arms, began to be serious, and the crisis drew rapidly to a focus. Mrs. Gann's bold and gaudy twins were competing for the atten tions of the languid but distinguished George Brandon, who had won great importance by cleverly asking a member of the family —Caroline, if we rightly remember—to drop a letter in the box for him, which was addressed to the Lord Viscount Cinqbars. That a lodger in that dwelling should be on such terms with a viscount produced a prodigious flutter.

At this juncture Gann thought it expedient to invite to his festive domestic board the three gentlemen described above. How far he was shrewd enough to foresee the possibilities involved in such a genteel entertainment is beyond our scope; but anyone of average perception can see for himself how dangerous such a collection of inflammable materials might prove to be. The sumptuous menu set before the guests consisted of a roast leg of pork, boiled haddock, cabbage, potatoes, and a few shreds of celery. There was also porter and ale, and a bottle of golden sherry given direct to the host from his own wine-merchant, as he alleged, but most likely from the tap of the Bag of Nails. Brandon, with unmitigated audacity, said:

"It is, I really think, the finest wine I ever tasted in my life—at a commoner's table, that is."

"Oh, in course, a commoner's table ! We have no titles, sir," Mrs. Gann replied quick and sharp as lightning. "Mr. Gann, I will trouble you for more of that crackling. My poor dear girls are related, by their blessed father's side, to some of the first nobility in the land, I assure you."

Mr. Gann spoke up thereat : "Gammon, Jooly, my dear. Them Irish nobility, you know, what are they? And besides, it's my belief that the gals are no more related to them than I am."

"Mr. Brandon never has been accustomed to such language, I am sure, and I entreat you will excuse Mr. Gann's rudeness, sir," said Mrs. Gann.

"Indeed, I assure you, Mr. Brandon," interposed the fair Linda, "that we've high connections as well as low; as high as some people's connections, per'aps, though we are not always talking of the nobility." This was a double shot; the first barrel hit her stepfather, the second barrel was leveled directly at Mr. Brandon. "Don't you think I'm right, Mr. Fitch?"

The artist looked up absent-mindedly, as if desirous of attracting attention to the design he was drawing on the table-cloth, showing his devotion to his "hart."

The twins, aided by their mother, turned to scolding sweet Caroline, the butt of the family when diversion was required from a turn in the conversation. This was the critical moment of the dinner. Swigsby admirably took in what was said by the ladies about rank, swore that blood will tell, and vowed to him-self that one of those slap-up gals—which one he had not yet decided—must be the partner of his joys and sorrows.

Brandon, toady as he was, still was a grade higher than Mrs. Gann. and her bouncing twins, and with pity akin to love observed with indignation their coarse "roughing" of their sweet, refined, self-sacrificing daughter and sister Caroline, If there had been any wavering in the growth of this sentiment in the bosom of this prince of self-seekers, it was settled for good and all when, to his amusmenet and amazement, he discerned unmistakable evidences of a similar sentiment moving the bushy beard and dark eyes of Mr. Fitch, the "hartist".

Mr. Brandon was astounded. What, shall this upstart cockney, who murders his h's so atrociously, dream of aspiring to the 'and and 'eart of the gentle Caroline and cutting out the said Brandon, Esquire, now for the first time touched in a tender part? Never!

The next act in the drama represents closing scenes in this affecting tale. Swigsby, being a man of leisure, could arrange his movements when and where he pleased. In a very few days, therefore, he sent Mrs. Gann some gin and a turkey, which naturally implied that he should be invited to partake of them at the Gann table. As one thing leads to another, Swigsby invited the entire Gann family to share with him a ride in a coach and four, all accepting except Caroline, the idea of whose company all agreed was preposterous. Fitch was invited and accepted, as he supposed Caroline was going, For this reason one seat was vacant by the side of Swigsby, who drove, Like Fitch, Bella had not foreseen all these circumstances, and had taken a comfortable seat in the coach. But Linda, more sharp, secured the place by the side of Swigsby, the result being that she, and not Bella, was the one that accepted Swigsby's proposal. When they reached home Bella descended from the coach sullen and glum, while Linda stepped forward with an air of success that could not be mistaken.

Mistake number two on this day of sunshine and rain was that Fitch allowed such a rival to remain behind and monopolize Caroline—excepting that she prudently invited Becky, the cook, to act as duenna. There is no doubt that Brandon loved Caroline as much as one of his type was capable of loving; but then he had not a particle of principle, and the poor girl had a protective instinct that such was the fact. Having the entire day to enjoy the society of Caroline, Brandon made great progress, while Andrea Fitch had his love-affair all to himself and soon found that he was hopelessly beaten.

In the mean time Swigsby and Linda lost no time in being married, and began swimmingly by a quarrel on the third day of the honeymoon, all about Swigsby's low, vulgar, filthy habits of smoking and tippling, as if she had not thought of that before marriage. Soon afterward Mamma and Papa Gann came down to see them at his house, where the presence of another mother-in-law, to wit Swigsby's mother, added to the sweet pleasantness of the new bride and groom, especially of the latter; and there we leave them.

In the mean time, also, Madam Carrickfergus had learned the hiding-place of Andrea Fitch, and had come to Margate with all her trunks, bundles, coach, courier, private maid, pug puppy, and the like. At nightfall she might be seen with her French maid wandering under the window of Andrea's lodging and clasping her hands as he appeared mouthing heroics to the stars and the windswept clouds, and he knew it not.

In the mean time, again, the Lord Viscount Cinqbars and his close friend and toad-eater, Tom Tufthunt, who was studying for orders, being fitted for nothing else apparently, arrived most unexpectedly at Margate and lost no time in notifying Brandon of the fact. It was a great relief to see Cinqbars, for Brandon needed money, and advice also in the predicament thrust on him by Andrea Fitch, who had challenged him for the morrow to fight a deadly duel merely because he, Brandon, had stolen a; poem composed by Fitch and intended for Caroline and had forestalled him by sending her the verses as if from her beloved George, and declined now to apologize. It was too absurd altogether, but Fitch was evidently in earnest, and it would not do to show the white feather even to such a droll devotee of Cupid and "hart." But Brandon did not relish the possibility of being shot for such a trifle.

Cinqbars gallantly came to the rescue. He would manage the whole business. As the challenged party, Brandon could select pistols. Cinqbars had a brace on hand. The weapons should be loaded with balls made of blackened dough—nothing easier. Everything should be on the desperate order except the balls. Early in the morning, after a cup of hot coffee and a wee nippy, George was on the field with Cinqbars and Tufthunt. The "hartist" was waiting for them there, stern and unflinching. The principals were to step forward and fire at any distance within twenty-four paces, the offense being very aggravated. Fitch fired at six paces and missed; while Brandon, in the act of firing, was hit on the "funny-bone" by a club, and the shot was diverted upward. Said stick was thrown by the lusty German courier of the fat and fair Carrickfergus, who at the last moment heard about the pending encounter and rushed, frenzied with agony, to the rescue of her beloved Andrea Fitch, and clasped her arms about him. At the same thrilling instant Caroline, who had learned from Becky what was going on, arrived on the scene in time to fall fainting on the bosom of her beloved George Brandon.

The imbroglio ended by a wedding at the British Embassy in Paris, where Mrs. Carrickfergus and her Andrea were married in the presence of a brilliant display of Anglican nobility.

Really attached to Caroline, and knowing she would not have him without a marriage ceremony, Brandon got Tufthunt to marry them. This performance was irregular, we regret to say. Cinqbars loaned George fifty pounds to carry him through his "honeymoon"; and thus was a tender, trustful heart betrayed through its own affection.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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