William Makepeace Thackeray - Lovel The Widower (1860)
Thackeray was the first editor of The Cornhill Magazine, the first number of which, January, 1860, contained the first instalment of his last novel, Lovel the Widower. It ran through six numbers. Thackeray embellished this novel with humorous vignettes drawn by himself, as he had done for some of his more important stories.
I AM not the hero of this tale, but only the Chorus of the play, and you are likely to consider the principal personage no better than a muff. My friend Lovel was a harmless and quiet fellow when I first knew him, and when he married was notoriously henpecked. His wife gave me the cold shoulder, but she was daughter of Lady Baker, and who ever had a good word for that notorious old woman? She shall be shown up in this novel, the old catamaran! Neither Lovel nor his new wife will recognize him as he is here. She may, but Lovel, who is a neat wit, will say: "That is D-- to a T, my dear."
When I was a young man I lodged with Mrs. Prior, in Beak Street, Regent Street (I didn't, but I choose to say so!). Her husband was in better days a ne'er-do-well captain in the militia. His daughter Elizabeth at that time was a thin, freckled, red-haired girl of fifteen, who used to dance at the theater under the name of Miss Bellenden, though they pretended that she attended an "academy," and that her salary was a reward for her regularity in attendance and her model behavior. She was a good girl, and very helpful at home. There were foreign lodgers at the Priors', and Bessie picked up French and Italian. Mrs. Prior was outwardly respectable then, but my brandy-bottle leaked terribly and my provisions used to disappear whenever I chanced to leave them exposed. Elizabeth herself once implored me to get a "patting-lock" for the brandy. She made odd slips in English sometimes.
Sargent of Boniface got me to go to Mrs. Prior, who was his sister. The children amused my lonely hours, for I am a confirmed old bachelor now, and I shall call myself Mr. Bachelor in this story. One who is now in the West Indies—her husband is a judge there—knows the reason why I never will take another title. Glorvina, thou knowest why I never can forget!
Fred Lovel was a wealthy gentleman-pensioner at St. Boni-face when we were at the University, and we became friends, though I have only a modest competence. I always had literary tastes, and when I came to London I bought a neat little literary paper, The Museum, and became its editor. Little Dick Bed-ford, a small boy of fifteen with a man's spirit, used to bring me my proofs. He liked to attend the theater where Elizabeth Prior danced as "Miss Bellenden," so that Sargent, her uncle, should not know that his niece was employed as a ballet-girl!
Lovel's mother, Emma, widow of Adolphus Loeffel, a wealthy sugar-baker, married the Rev. Samuel Bonnington, which so displeased Frederick that he wore black and mourned ostentatiously until Louisa, widow of Sir Popham Baker, an Irish baronet, inveigled him into marrying her daughter, Cecilia. You will not see her alive in this history, for I did not like the lady, who gave me the cold shoulder, a joint on which I do not enjoy feeding. Her portrait shows her fingering "Tara's Halls" upon her harp, which she was perpetually twanging. Lady Baker found Shrublands far too hot for her, thanks to Cecilia's superior commandership, and fled to Putney, beaten—much to Lovel's delight.
Eight years passed, and I read that scarlet fever had put an end to Cecilia, in Naples. Some months later Fred asked me to Shrublands to console his loneliness. I went, and found Lady Baker sitting under the portrait of Cecilia at the harp. Lovel was in sables and deep gloom, with his children, Popham and Cecilia, about him. The defunct lady's harp stood in a corner muffled in leather.
"You are surprised to see me here, Mr. Bachelor," said Lady Baker, with her wonted good breeding. If she accepted bene-fits she took care to insult those from whom she received them. "It is not my wish, but a feeling of duty toward that departed angel!" pointing to the portrait.
"When mamma was here you and she were always quarreling," said little Popham, scowling at his grandmother.
"Silence, Pop!" said his papa, "or you must go up to Miss Prior. You must not be a rude boy."
" Isn't Pop a rude boy ? " echoed Cissy.
In the old, now vanished, Beak Street days, Elizabeth had heard of my sad affair with her who is now wedded to a recorder in Tobago, and I had learned that her young heart too had been torn. The handsome Captain on the floor below had sailed to India, and the little maid mourned her military William with a grief kindred to mine. Mrs. Prior called Captain Walking-ham a villain, but I knew her eagerness to become a mother-in-law. I secured for Elizabeth a situation with Sargent as governess, and three years in that household had greatly improved her. She received more education than salary, I know!
And, now, behold Elizabeth, once "Miss Bellenden," now "Miss Prior," a meek young lady in mourning, and governess to my friend Lovel's two children. She dropped me a demure curtsey, and constantly appealed to Lady Baker for her approval. Where was my daring girl of Beak Street? She was taller and stouter, and certainly her figure was fine. And there was Bedford the butler—my old Dick Bedford of Beak Street!—who was geniality itself to me and to Lovel. Elizabeth wore a pair of blue spectacles. Later, when we were alone except for the children, I exclaimed, "My dear Bessie!" and stretched forth a most friendly hand. But she said, hastily, in excellent French, dropping a prim little curtsey: "Ne m'appelez que de mon nom paternel devant tout ce monde, s'il vous plait, man cher ami, mon bon protecteur."
And then who should come in but sly old Mrs. Prior, peering at me from under an old bonnet! But she was diverted by Mrs. Bonnington's arrival with portly Mr. Bonnington, and proceeded to toady to her, just as later she toadied to Lady Baker and to Lovel.
I was assigned to what I always considered one of the pleasantest rooms at Shrublands. It has French windows, opening on the lawn, and such a cool, comfortable bed ! The two grandmammas skirmished and fired shots at each other over poor Lovel and his worthy stepfather, and pursued their insidious attentions to the smug little Cissy and the rude, boisterous Popham. They combined only in a defensive and offensive alliance against any unmarried woman who was at all attractive. If such appeared at Shrublands Lovel's two mothers sallied forth and crunched her hapless bones. The result was that the poor widower had to abandon ever going out to dine!
Although nothing of a busybody, I soon learned that Pinhorn the maid was in love with Bedford the butler, who detested Bulkeley, the huge man-servant Lady Baker carries around with her; that good Mrs. Prior was pursuing a course of pilfering of domestic supplies, much to Bedford's annoyance, Poor Love], that willing horse, had a crowd of relatives and luggage to carry. If Mrs. Prior wheedled everybody alike, her serene daughter Elizabeth had to employ consummate skill to keep her place with two such lionesses ready to rend her to pieces. It was not her fault that her young charges were so utterly odious! Bed-ford, the butler, was small, but energetic and plucky, and I thought he was not insensible to Elizabeth's charms. Finally he admitted as much to me, Ile regarded as a rival the village apothecary, to whom he calmly alluded as "a grinning jackass," and envied him.
I was rather disgusted with the important apothecary when he called. I had gathered that Elizabeth regarded him blandly, so I endeavored to be as brilliant and fashionable as possible while he was at the house, I was surprised that Lady Baker did not seem to take up my familiar allusions to the grande monde as avidly as usual. But I soon learned that her son, Captain Clarence Baker, a terrible blackguard and cad, was expected shortly, and that he was wont to occupy the room I had. I openly declined to give it up when she began hinting at this. Bedford was nice enough one morning when I was out to lock my room door so that the Baker could not steal a march on me and install her terrible cub there during my absence, My friend, Captain Fitzboodle, who is a great clubman, once told me that Clarence Baker was as black a little sheep as trotted the London pavé, and had two or three times supplied a beautiful object-lesson in delirium tremens! When the Captain came I had no difficulty in believing anything about him He was a weakly, little, pallid man, with pretty hands and feet, a. smell of tobacco, and a loud and dismal cough. He endeared himself to me at once by mistaking me for the footman and demanding a glass of sherry ! I could have said something neat and cutting, but as often happens with my best witticisms I did not think of it until two or three hours later.
When Miss Prior came in I thought she paused and turned pale as she discovered Captain Baker. She seated herself at the tea-table so as not to face him. Lovel could hardly brook his brother-in-law's presence. Certainly, the Captain's remarks about everybody in the house showed at least that hypocrisy was not his greatest fault. He abused Level to me as "a half-bred, tradesman fellow, whom my sister would marry, because he had lots o' money."
Lady Baker explained Miss Prior's non-appearance at breakfast and at the children's dinner by saying she was a little unwell, and adding, with a nod and a roguish wink in my direction, that she dared say Dr. Drencher would know how to pre-scribe for her when he came.
I treated Elizabeth sorrowfully when I saw her again, and both Bedford and I followed the apothecary, as he went up-stairs, with rather unfriendly eyes. Later Captain Baker re-turned from an excursion to the town in a maudlin state, which led to recriminations between Lovel and, Lady Baker. Bessie went out with the children for a walk. I accompanied her, and under sudden stress of emotion I offered her my name and hand. She deferred her response until after luncheon, as the children came toward us. When we returned I lingered on the lawn.
When she came into the morning-room later she laid her spectacles on the mantelpiece and stood with her slim white hand thrust in the masses of her auburn hair. " Elizabeth, I come!" I murmured. Then I saw a little grinning, debauched face rise behind a chair. Captain Blacksheep looked at us attentively, then with a diabolical laugh he cried out: "Bessie Bellenden, by Jove!"
"Oh, not that name! Please! My name is Prior," cried Bessie, her white hands imploringly raised.
"Poch! Don't gammon me!" cried the rickety Captain, seizing them in his.
I was about to dash in to her rescue when I heard a good whack! and the Captain spun back, toppled over a chair, and then began to scream and curse volubly. Next I saw Bedford spring upon him and attack his eyes and nose, stopping the bad language by sending his fist against the rascal's mouth.
"Oh, thank you, Bedford! Don't hurt him any more," cried the coy maiden, laughing—laughing, upon my word!
"Look here, Miss Prior—Elizabeth—I love you with all my heart and soul and strength—I do!" Bedford panted.
I stole from behind the lilac-bush and entered the house by another way, affecting to break with calm, courageous indignation upon the scene. "I hope no one has offered you any rudeness, Miss Prior," I exclaimed hypocritically, glaring from one man to the other. Her scornful eyes told me she had seen me, an observer of the scene from the beginning. She thanked me and retired with great dignity.
The next day Bedford surprised me. He spoke disparagingly of Bessie, declaring that she was fooling both himself and me. In proof he gave me part of a letter which Dr. Drencher had dropped when leaving that morning. Reader, I see your contempt when I admit that I read that letter! I have done wrong, but I am candid. Consider the temptation, after what Bedford had said to me. This is the part of the letter:
"--dear hair in the locket which I shall ever wear for the sake of him who gave it, because I think he is a little fond of his poor Lizzie! Ah, Edward, how could you go on so the last time about poor Mr. B—! Can you imagine that I can ever have more than a filial regard for the kind old gentleman? (I was `the kind old gentleman'!) Can you fancy that such an old creature (an old muff, as you call him, you wicked, satirical man!) could ever make an impression on my heart? If you looked angrily at him, he would fly back to London. To-day when I sent your patient spinning, poor Mr. Batch. was too frightened to come in until the servants arrived! I saw him peeping behind a statue on the lawn. Poor man! We cannot all of us have courage like a certain Edward, who is as bold as a lion. Don't bother about that odious little Captain. I knew the odious thing at once. Years ago I met him and he was equally rude and tips—"
This woman, to whom I had offered my hand, preferred a village apothecary! May ten thousand pestles smash his brains! I passed a terrible night. In the morning I was able to disguise my hideous pains. I was alone, alone, the Unloved One!
I was a "muff." I went to town, but the next day I returned.
Why, bless my soul ! After all, she was an ordinary woman, certainly—freckled, dull; and without humor! I met them all gaily and unconcernedly. I saw Miss Prior's lip quiver. She knew all was over. She winced. When Drencher departed Miss Prior actually followed him to the lawn on the pretense that Cissy had gone out without her bonnet on! The two mothers had some remarks about "others," and finally Lady Baker said:
"Why, Mr. Bachelor, Mrs. Bonnington actually thought that our son, my 'Cecilia's husband, was smitten by the governess!" Her eyes flashed a glance at Cecilia and her harp on the wall. "The idea that any woman could succeed that angel !"
Mrs. Bonnington retorted in eulogy of Level's patient en-durance of his late wife's temper, and reminded Lady Baker that he was only thirty-seven, and very young for his age.
Clarence had come in from an excursion to the village and was hilariously calling for the sherry. "Bear no malish, old boy, 'bout row yesterday. Here's your health," he said.
Having honored me, he set down his glass and asked : "Where's the governess? Where's Bessie Bellenden?"
"Where is who?" said his mother, stiffening.
"Bessie Bellenden—the governess. That's her real name. Used to dansh at Prinsh's Theater. Doosid pretty girl, in the corps de ballet. Ushed to go behind the shenes. Hullo!" he cried as Miss Prior demurely entered. "Come here and sit by me, Bessie Bellenden, I say!"
Poor Miss Prior became white as marble. The dowagers rose with horror in their faces. "A ballet-dancer!" said Mrs. Bonnington. "A ballet-dancer!" echoed Lady Baker.
"Yes," Dick Bedford burst in with a sob. "And she is as honest as any woman here."
"You knew this woman was on the stage and you introduced her into my son's family?" gasped Mrs. Bonnington. "Don't speak to me, Miss! Oh, Mr. Bachelor!"
"You brought this woman to the children of my adored Cecilia?" cried the other dowager. "Serpent, leave the room! Pack your trunk, viper, and quit the house this instant!"
"'She sha`n't go," roared Popham. "'She was good to us when I was ill. You sha'n't go, dear, pretty Miss Prior," and the child held her around the neck with tears and kisses.
"Oh, Popham, if Miss Prior has been naughty Miss Prior must go," said Cissy, tossing up her head.
"Spoken like my daughter's child!" cried Lady Baker. Bessie stooped down and kissed Popham. "Yes. I must go, dear," she said softly.
"Don't touch him! Come away from her, sir!" cried the mothers.
"I nursed him through scarlet fever when his mother would not come near him," said Elizabeth gently.
At this juncture Dr. Drencher arrived with the appropriate tidings that nothing was the matter with Barnet's child---only teething. "Why, what has happened? My dear Lizzie, what's the matter?"
"Nothing," said Lady Baker venomously, "except that we have just learned that Miss Prior danced upon the stage before becoming a governess! If you think such a person a fit companion for your mother and sisters, who attend a place of Christian worship, I wish you joy."
"Is this—is this—true?" he asked, bewildered.
"Yes. It is true," sighed Miss Prior.
"And you never told me, Elizabeth! It wasn't fair," gasped the doctor. He gave her a ghastly parting look and turned his back. "My family are Dissenters and very strict. They would never —I could not ask them—I wish you good morning," and he hurried out.
"And now, get your things ready and go," said Lady Baker. "Certainly, certainly! She must go!" said Mrs. Bonnington. "Câptain Clarence, you have made a pretty-morning's work,"
"What the dooce's all the sherry—all the shinty about?" he asked thickly, playing with the empty decanter. " Gal's a good gal. Why the dooce shouldn't she dansh to shport her family?"
"That is what I advise her to do," said Lady Baker, tossing her head. "Will you kindly leave the room?"
Poor Elizabeth obeyed. She did not once look at me, but that afternoon I received a note saying she had heard all from Bedford, and that she could only say that she would always be grateful to me for my kindness to her and to her family.
The two dowagers, a little alarmed at their victory, departed; for once, in the same barouche. But they returned to meet Lovel when he came from the city. He demanded to know the reason why Miss Prior had been sent away. The Captain was summoned and told the fact that he had seen Elizabeth in blue satin and spangles in a ballet at the Prince's Theater.
"There, Frederick!" from the matrons in chorus.
"Well, what then? Suppose I knew this all along"—he blushed a little. "I knew that she had danced and supported her family. And she watched with my children through scarlet fever. Is she to be turned out of doors for that? No, by Heaven! No! Elizabeth!"
The governess, arrayed for departure, had just appeared in the corridor, and approached him with a deadly pallor. He took her hand, still excited, and said: " Dear Miss Prior--clear Elizabeth, you have been the best friend to me and my children. You have been a good sister, a dutiful daughter in your own family. And for this, my mother and my mother-in-law would drive you out of doors. It shall not be. By Heaven, it shall not be! "
"You are kind and generous, sir," said Elizabeth, her handkerchief at her eyes, "but without the confidence of these ladies I cannot remain."
Lovel looked fiercely round at the two women. Then, grasping her hand, he exclaimed: "If you love the children, stay with them. Stay here with a title all must respect. If you love me, be my wife, and my children shall not be motherless."
"We are their mothers, Frederick," cried the dowagers, falling on their knees. "Oh, Mr. Bachelor, speak for us to him!" cried Mrs. Bonnington. " Stay him, or I, the mother of that murdered angel, Cecilia, I shall go mad!" cried Lady Baker.
"Angel? Allons !" I said. "You never have given him any peace since he was a widower. You quarrel with him; bully the servants; spoil his children, and possess his house! That is what you have done, Lady Baker."
"Sir!" she cried. "You are a low, vulgar, presuming man! Clarence, beat this rude man!"
"No. We will have no more quarreling," I continued calmly. "Miss Prior, I am glad my friend has a woman of your good conduct, good sense, and good temper, to help him. I congratulate you both."
I might have shot shafts that would have made both writhe, but why growl in my manger? Besides, what fun to see Mrs. Prior come in and oust Lady Baker! And at this juncture she actually loomed in the doorway with her brood, to cajole and to be benefited. She soon learned that her Elizabeth was to reign at Shrublands. Not one minute was needed for her to grasp the situation and adapt herself to it. She hardly waited to hurl herself on Lovel, saying, "My son! My son!" (which the poor man took heroically) before she began to patronize the dowagers and to call Popham to order.
"O Cecilia!" apostrophized Lady Baker, turning to the portrait, "don't you shudder in your grave?"
The others are my witnesses that a string of Cecilia's old leather-covered harp took this occasion to snap with a sharp bang! which struck terror into all.
Bessie whipped her mother and the children off with her just as that lady was allotting the chambers to herself and her off-spring. I stayed to dine alone with Lovel. It was the dreariest dinner of my life, and at last I broke away.
"I was a little soft on her myself, Lovel," I said. "Here's her health and happiness to you both, with all my heart."
We drained a great bumper apiece and were well content to part. We may hear of Lovel Married some day, but here ends Lovel the Widower. A month later he was married to the triumphant Miss Prior at St. George's, Hanover Square, the bride's uncle, the Reverend the Master of St. Boniface College,. Ox-bridge, officiating.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
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