William Makepeace Thackeray. (18111863). Vanity Fair.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
XV. In Which Rebeccas Husband Appears for a Short Time
EVERY reader of a sentimental turn (and we desire no other) must have been pleased with the tableau with which the last act of our little drama concluded; for what can be prettier than an image of Love on his knees before Beauty?
But when Love heard that awful confession from Beauty that she was married already, he bounced up from his attitude of humility on the carpet, uttering exclamations which caused poor little Beauty to be more frightened than she was when she made her avowal. Married; youre joking the Baronet cried, after the first explosion of rage and wonder. Youre making vun of me, Becky. Whod ever go to marry you without a shilling to your vortune?
Married! married! Rebecca said, in an agony of tearsher voice choking with emotion, her handkerchief up to her ready eyes, fainting against the mantel-piecea figure of woe fit to melt the most obdurate heart. O Sir Pitt, dear Sir Pitt, do not think me ungrateful for all your goodness to me. It is only your generosity that has extorted my secret.
The feller has left you, has he? the Baronet said, beginning, as he fancied, to comprehend. Well, Beckycome back if you like. You cant eat your cake and have it. Any ways I made you a vair offer. Coom back as governessyou shall have it all your own way. She held out one hand. She cried fit to break her heart; her ringlets fell over her face, and over the marble mantel-piece where she laid it.
O sir! it would be the pride of my life to go back to Queens Crawley and take care of the children, and of you as formerly, when you said you were pleased with the services of your little Rebecca. When I think of what you have just offered me, my heart fills with gratitudeindeed it does. I cant be your wife, sir; let melet me be your daughter!
Saying which, Rebecca went down on her knees in a most tragical way, and, taking Sir Pitts horny black hand between her own two (which were very pretty and white, and as soft as satin), looked up in his face with an expression of exquisite pathos and confidence, whenwhen the door opened, and Miss Crawley sailed in.
Mrs. Firkin and Miss Briggs, who happened by chance to be at the parlour door soon after the Baronet and Rebecca entered the apartment, had also seen accidentally, through the key-hole, the old gentleman prostrate before the governess, and had heard the generous proposal which he made her. It was scarcely out of his mouth when Mrs. Firkin and Miss Briggs had streamed up the stairs, had rushed into the drawing-room where Miss Crawley was reading the French novel, and had given that old lady the astounding intelligence that Sir Pitt was on his knees, proposing to Miss Sharp. And if you calculate the time for the above dialogue to take placethe time for Briggs and Firkin to fly to the drawing-roomthe time for Miss Crawley to be astonished, and to drop her volume of Pigault le Brunand the time for her to come downstairsyou will see how exactly accurate this history is, and how Miss Crawley must have appeared at the very instant when Rebecca had assumed the attitude of humility.
It is the lady on the ground, and not the gentleman, Miss Crawley said, with a look and voice of great scorn. They told me that you were on your knees, Sir Pitt: do kneel once more, and let me see this pretty couple!
Nawt a bit, answered Sir Pitt, with a coolness and good-humour which set Miss Crawley almost mad with bewilderment. That an old gentleman of station should fall on his knees to a penniless governess, and burst out laughing because should refuse a Baronet with four thousand a year,these were mysteries which Miss Crawley could never comprehend. It surpassed any complications of intrigue in her favourite Pigault le Brun.
My attitude, Rebecca said, when you came in Maam, did not look as if I despised such an honour as this goodthis noble man has deigned to offer me. Do you think I have no heart? Have you all loved me, and been so kind to the poor orphandesertedgirl, and am I to feel nothing? O my friends! O my benefactors may not love, my life my duty, try to repay the confidence you have shown me? Do you grudge me even gratitude, Miss Crawley? It is too muchmy heart is too full; and she sank down in a chair so pathetically, that most of the audience present were perfectly melted with her sadness.
Whether you marry me or not, youre a good little girl, Becky, and Im your vriend, mind, said Sir Pitt, and putting on his crape-bound hat, he walked awaygreatly to Rebeccas relief; for it was evident that her secret was unrevealed to Miss Crawley, and she had the advantage of a brief reprieve.
Putting her handkerchief to her eyes, and nodding away honest Briggs, who would have followed her upstairs, she went up to her apartment; while Briggs and Miss Crawley, in a high state of excitement, remained to discuss the strange event, and Firkin, no less moved, dived down into the kitchen regions, and talked of it with all the male and female company there. And so impressed was Mrs. Firkin with the news, that she thought proper to write off by that very nights post, with her humble duty to Mrs. Bute Crawley and the family at the Rectory, and Sir Pitt has been and proposed for to marry Miss Sharp, wherein she has refused him, to the wonder of all.
The two ladies in the dining-room (where worthy Miss Briggs was delighted to be admitted once more to a confidential conversation with her patroness) wondered to their hearts content at Sir Pitts offer, and Rebeccas refusal; Briggs very acutely suggesting that there must have been some obstacle in the shape of a previous attachment, otherwise no young woman in her senses would ever have refused so advantageous a proposal.
Well, Becky would have made a good Lady Crawley, after all, Miss Crawley remarked (who was mollified by the girls refusal, and very liberal and generous now there was no call for her sacrifices). She has brains in plenty (much more wit in her little finger than you have, my poor dear Briggs, in all your head). Her manners are excellent, now I have formed her. She is a Montmorency, Briggs, and blood is something, though I despise it for my part; and she would have held her own amongst those pompous stupid Hampshire people much better than that unfortunate ironmongers daughter.
Briggs coincided as usual, and the previous attachment was then discussed in conjectures. You poor friendless creatures are always having some foolish tendre, Miss Crawley said. You yourself, you know, were in love with a writing-master (dont cry, Briggsyoure always crying, and it wont bring him to life again), and I suppose this unfortunate Becky has been silly and sentimental toosome apothecary, or house-steward, or painter, or young curate, or something of that sort.
Poor thing, poor thing! says Briggs (who was thinking of twenty-four years back, and that hectic young writing-master whose lock of yellow hair, and whose letters, beautiful in their illegibility, she cherished in her old desk upstairs). Poor thing, poor thing! says Briggs. Once more she was a fresh-cheeked lass of eighteen; she was at evening church, and the hectic writing-master and she were quavering out of the same psalm-book.
After such conduct on Rebeccas part, Miss Crawley said enthusiastically, our family should do something. Find out who is the objet, Briggs. Ill set him up in a shop; or order my portrait of him, you know; or speak to my cousin, the Bishopand Ill doter Becky, and well have a wedding, Briggs, and you shall make the breakfast, and be a bridesmaid.
Briggs declared that it would be delightful, and vowed that her dear Miss Crawley was always kind and generous, and went up to Rebeccas bed-room to console her and prattle about the offer, and the refusal, and the cause thereof; and to hint at the generous intentions of Miss Crawley, and to find out who was the gentleman that had the mastery of Miss Sharps heart.
Rebecca was very kind, very affectionate and affectedresponded to Briggs offer of tenderness with grateful fervourowned there was a secret attachmenta delicious mysterywhat a pity Miss Briggs had not remained half a minute longer at the key-hole! Rebecca might, perhaps, have told more: but five minutes after Miss Briggss arrival in Rebeccas apartment, Miss Crawley actually made her appearance therean unheard-of honour;her impatience had overcome her; she could not wait for the tardy operations of her ambassadress: so she came in person, and ordered Briggs out of the room. And expressing her approval of Rebeccas conduct, she asked particulars of the interview, and the previous transactions which had brought about the astonishing offer of Sir Pitt.
Rebecca said she had long had some notion of the partiality with which Sir Pitt honoured her, (for he was in the habit of making his feelings known in a very frank and unreserved manner,) but, not to mention private reasons with which she would not for the present trouble Miss Crawley, Sir Pitts age, station, and habits were such as to render a marriage quite impossible; and could a woman with any feeling of self-respect and any decency listen to proposals at such a moment, when the funeral of the lovers deceased wife had not actually taken place?
Nonsense, my dear, you would never have refused him had there not been some one else in the case, Miss Crawley said, coming to her point at once. Tell me the private reasons; what are the private reasons? There is some one; who is it that has touched your heart?
Rebecca cast down her eyes, and owned there was. You have guessed right, dear lady, she said, with a sweet simple faltering voice. You wonder at one so poor and friendless having an attachment, dont you? I have never heard that poverty was any safeguard against it. I wish it were.
I wish you could, dear Madam, Rebecca said in the same tearful tone. Indeed, indeed, I need it. And she laid her head upon Miss Crawleys shoulder and wept there so naturally that the old lady, surprised into sympathy, embraced her with an almost maternal kindness, uttered many soothing protests of regard and affection for her, vowed that she loved her as a daughter, and would do everything in her power to serve her. And now, who is it, my dear? Is it that pretty Miss Sedleys brother? You said something about an affair with him. Ill ask him here, my dear. And you shall have him: indeed you shall.
I cant tell you now, sobbed out Rebecca, I am very miserable. But O! love me alwayspromise you will love me always. And in the midst of mutual tearsfor the emotions of the younger woman had awakened the sympathies of the elderthis promise was solemnly given by Miss Crawley, who left her little protégée, blessing and admiring her as a dear, artless, tender-hearted, affectionate, incomprehensible creature.
And now she was left alone to think over the sudden and wonderful events of the day, and of what had been and what might have been. What think you were the private feelings of Miss, no (begging her pardon) of Mrs. Rebecca? If, a few pages back, the present writer claimed the privilege of peeping into Miss Amelia Sedleys bedroom, and understanding with the omniscience of the novelist all the gentle pains and passions which were tossing upon that innocent pillow, why should he not declare himself to be Rebeccas confidante too, master of her secrets, and seal-keeper of that young womans conscience?
Well, then, in the first place, Rebecca gave way to some very sincere and touching regrets that a piece of marvellous good fortune should have been so near her, and she actually obliged to decline it. In this natural emotion every properly regulated mind will certainly share. What good mother is there that would not commiserate a penniless spinster, who might have been my lady, and have shared four thousand a year? What well-bred young person is there in all Vanity Fair, who will not feel for a hard working, ingenious, meritorious girl, who gets such an honourable, advantageous, provoking offer, just at the very moment when it is out of her power to accept it? I am sure our friend Beckys disappointment deserves and will command every sympathy.
I remember one night being in the Fair myself, at an evening party. I observed old Miss Today there also present, single out for her special attentions and flattery little Mrs. Briefless, the barristers wife, who is of a good family certainly, but, as we all know, is as poor as poor can be.
What, I asked in my own mind, can cause this obsequiousness on the part of Miss Toady; has Briefless got a county court, or his wife had a fortune left her? Miss Toady explained presently, with that simplicity which distinguishes all her conduct. You know, she said, Mrs. Briefless is granddaughter of Sir John Redhand, who is so ill at Cheltenham that he cant last six months. Mrs. Brieflesss papa succeeds; so you see she will be a baronets daughter, And Toady asked Briefless and his wife to dinner the very next week.
If the mere chance of becoming a baronets daughter can procure a lady such homage in the world, surely, surely we may respect the agonies of a young woman who has lost the opportunity of becoming a baronets wife. Who would have dreamed of Lady Crawley dying so soon? She was one of those sickly women that might have lasted these ten yearsRebecca thought to herself, in all the woes of repentanceand I might have been my lady! I might have led that old man whither I would. I might have thanked Mrs. Bute for her patronage, and Mr. Pitt for his insufferable condescension. I would have had the town-house newly furnished and decorated. I would have had the handsomest carriage in London, and a box at the opera; and I would have been presented next season. All this might have been, and nownow all was doubt and mystery.
But Rebecca was a young lady of too much resolution and energy of character to permit herself much useless and unseemly sorrow for the irrevocable past; so, having devoted only the proper portion of regret to it, she wisely turned her whole attention towards the future, which was now vastly more important to her. And she surveyed her position, and its hopes, doubts, and chances.
In the first place, she was married;that was a great fact. Sir Pitt knew it. She was not so much surprised into the avowal, as induced to make it by a sudden calculation. It must have come some day: and why not now as at a later period? He who would have married her himself must at least be silent with regard to her marriage. How Miss Crawley would bear the newswas the great question. Misgivings Rebecca had; but she remembered all Miss Crawley had said; the old ladys avowed contempt for birth; her daring liberal opinions; her general romantic propensities; her almost doting attachment to her nephew, and her repeatedly-expressed fondness for Rebecca herself. She is so fond of him, Rebecca thought, that she will forgive him anything: she is so used to me that I dont think she could be comfortable without me: when the éclaircissement comes there will be a scene, and hysterics, and a great quarrel, and then a great reconciliation. At all events, what use was there in delaying? the die was thrown, and now or to-morrow the issue must be the same. And so, resolved that Miss Crawley should have the news, the young person debated in her mind as to the best means of conveying it to her; and whether she should face the storm that must come, or fly and avoid it until its first fury was blown over. In this state of meditation she wrote the following letter:
Dearest Friend,The great crisis which we have debated about so often is come. Half of my secret is known, and I have thought and thought, until I am quite sure that now is the time to reveal the whole of the mystery. Sir Pitt came to me this morning, and madewhat do you think?a declaration in form. Think of that! Poor little me. I might have been Lady Crawley. How pleased Mrs. Bute would have been and ma tante if I had taken precedence of her. I might have been somebodys mamma, instead ofO, I tremble, I tremble, when I think how soon we must tell all!
Sir Pitt knows I am married, and not knowing to whom, is not very much displeased as yet. Ma tante is actually angry that I should have refused him. But she is all kindness and graciousness. She condescends to say I would have made him a good wife; and vows that she will be a mother to your little Rebecca. She will be shaken when she first hears the news. But need we fear anything beyond a momentary anger? I think not: I am sure not. She dotes upon you so (you naughty, good-for-nothing man), that she would pardon you anything: and, indeed, I believe, the next place in her heart is mine: and that she would be miserable without me. Dearest! something tells me we shall conquer. You shall leave that odious regiment: quit gaming, racing, and be a good boy; and we shall all live in Park Lane, and ma tante shall leave us all her money.
I shall try and walk to-morrow at 3 in the usual place. If Miss B. accompanies me, you must come to dinner, and bring an answer, and put it in the third volume of Porteuss Sermons. But, at all events, come to your own
And I trust there is no reader of this little story who has not discernment enough to perceive that the Miss Eliza Styles (an old schoolfellow, Rebecca said, with whom she had resumed an active correspondence of late, and who used to fetch these letters from the saddlers), wore brass spurs, and large curling mustachios, and was indeed no other than Captain Rawdon Crawley.