Vanity Fair By William Makepeace Thackeray Chapters 36-38

CHAPTER 38

A Family in a Very Small Way

We must suppose little George Osborne has ridden from Knightsbridge towards Fulham, and will stop and make inquiries at that village regarding some friends whom we have left there. How is Mrs. Amelia after the storm of Waterloo? Is she living and thriving? What has come of Major Dobbin, whose cab was always hankering about her premises? And is there any news of the Collector of Boggley Wollah? The facts concerning the latter are briefly these:

Our worthy fat friend Joseph Sedley returned to India not long after his escape from Brussels. Either his furlough was up, or he dreaded to meet any witnesses of his Waterloo flight. However it might be, he went back to his duties in Bengal very soon after Napoleon had taken up his residence at St. Helena, where Jos saw the ex-Emperor. To hear Mr. Sedley talk on board ship you would have supposed that it was not the first time he and the Corsican had met, and that the civilian had bearded the French General at Mount St. John. He had a thousand anecdotes about the famous battles; he knew the position of every regiment and the loss which each had incurred. He did not deny that he had been concerned in those victories — that he had been with the army and carried despatches for the Duke of Wellington. And he described what the Duke did and said on every conceivable moment of the day of Waterloo, with such an accurate knowledge of his Grace's sentiments and proceedings that it was clear he must have been by the conqueror's side throughout the day; though, as a non- combatant, his name was not mentioned in the public documents relative to the battle. Perhaps he actually worked himself up to believe that he had been engaged with the army; certain it is that he made a prodigious sensation for some time at Calcutta, and was called Waterloo Sedley during the whole of his subsequent stay in Bengal.

The bills which Jos had given for the purchase of those unlucky horses were paid without question by him and his agents. He never was heard to allude to the bargain, and nobody knows for a certainty what became of the horses, or how he got rid of them, or of Isidor, his Belgian servant, who sold a grey horse, very like the one which Jos rode, at Valenciennes sometime during the autumn of 1815.

Jos's London agents had orders to pay one hundred and twenty pounds yearly to his parents at Fulham. It was the chief support of the old couple; for Mr. Sedley's speculations in life subsequent to his bankruptcy did not by any means retrieve the broken old gentleman's fortune. He tried to be a wine-merchant, a coal-merchant, a commission lottery agent, &c., &c. He sent round prospectuses to his friends whenever he took a new trade, and ordered a new brass plate for the door, and talked pompously about making his fortune still. But Fortune never came back to the feeble and stricken old man. One by one his friends dropped off, and were weary of buying dear coals and bad wine from him; and there was only his wife in all the world who fancied, when he tottered off to the City of a morning, that he was still doing any business there. At evening he crawled slowly back; and he used to go of nights to a little club at a tavern, where he disposed of the finances of the nation. It was wonderful to hear him talk about millions, and agios, and discounts, and what Rothschild was doing, and Baring Brothers. He talked of such vast sums that the gentlemen of the club (the apothecary, the undertaker, the great carpenter and builder, the parish clerk, who was allowed to come stealthily, and Mr. Clapp, our old acquaintance,) respected the old gentleman. "I was better off once, sir," he did not fail to tell everybody who "used the room." "My son, sir, is at this minute chief magistrate of Ramgunge in the Presidency of Bengal, and touching his four thousand rupees per mensem. My daughter might be a Colonel's lady if she liked. I might draw upon my son, the first magistrate, sir, for two thousand pounds to-morrow, and Alexander would cash my bill, down sir, down on the counter, sir. But the Sedleys were always a proud family." You and I, my dear reader, may drop into this condition one day: for have not many of our friends attained it? Our luck may fail: our powers forsake us: our place on the boards be taken by better and younger mimes — the chance of life roll away and leave us shattered and stranded. Then men will walk across the road when they meet you — or, worse still, hold you out a couple of fingers and patronize you in a pitying way — then you will know, as soon as your back is turned, that your friend begins with a "Poor devil, what imprudences he has committed, what chances that chap has thrown away!" Well, well — a carriage and three thousand a year is not the summit of the reward nor the end of God's judgment of men. If quacks prosper as often as they go to the wall — if zanies succeed and knaves arrive at fortune, and, vice versa, sharing ill luck and prosperity for all the world like the ablest and most honest amongst us — I say, brother, the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account, and that it is probable . . . but we are wandering out of the domain of the story.

Had Mrs. Sedley been a woman of energy, she would have exerted it after her husband's ruin and, occupying a large house, would have taken in boarders. The broken Sedley would have acted well as the boarding-house landlady's husband; the Munoz of private life; the titular lord and master: the carver, house-steward, and humble husband of the occupier of the dingy throne. I have seen men of good brains and breeding, and of good hopes and vigour once, who feasted squires and kept hunters in their youth, meekly cutting up legs of mutton for rancorous old harridans and pretending to preside over their dreary tables — but Mrs. Sedley, we say, had not spirit enough to bustle about for "a few select inmates to join a cheerful musical family," such as one reads of in the Times. She was content to lie on the shore where fortune had stranded her — and you could see that the career of this old couple was over.

I don't think they were unhappy. Perhaps they were a little prouder in their downfall than in their prosperity. Mrs. Sedley was always a great person for her landlady, Mrs. Clapp, when she descended and passed many hours with her in the basement or ornamented kitchen. The Irish maid Betty Flanagan's bonnets and ribbons, her sauciness, her idleness, her reckless prodigality of kitchen candles, her consumption of tea and sugar, and so forth occupied and amused the old lady almost as much as the doings of her former household, when she had Sambo and the coachman, and a groom, and a footboy, and a housekeeper with a regiment of female domestics — her former household, about which the good lady talked a hundred times a day. And besides Betty Flanagan, Mrs. Sedley had all the maids-of-all- work in the street to superintend. She knew how each tenant of the cottages paid or owed his little rent. She stepped aside when Mrs. Rougemont the actress passed with her dubious family. She flung up her head when Mrs. Pestler, the apothecary's lady, drove by in her husband's professional one-horse chaise. She had colloquies with the greengrocer about the pennorth of turnips which Mr. Sedley loved; she kept an eye upon the milkman and the baker's boy; and made visitations to the butcher, who sold hundreds of oxen very likely with less ado than was made about Mrs. Sedley's loin of mutton: and she counted the potatoes under the joint on Sundays, on which days, dressed in her best, she went to church twice and read Blair's Sermons in the evening.

On that day, for "business" prevented him on weekdays from taking such a pleasure, it was old Sedley's delight to take out his little grandson Georgy to the neighbouring parks or Kensington Gardens, to see the soldiers or to feed the ducks. Georgy loved the redcoats, and his grandpapa told him how his father had been a famous soldier, and introduced him to many sergeants and others with Waterloo medals on their breasts, to whom the old grandfather pompously presented the child as the son of Captain Osborne of the — th, who died gloriously on the glorious eighteenth. He has been known to treat some of these non-commissioned gentlemen to a glass of porter, and, indeed, in their first Sunday walks was disposed to spoil little Georgy, sadly gorging the boy with apples and parliament, to the detriment of his health — until Amelia declared that George should never go out with his grandpapa unless the latter promised solemnly, and on his honour, not to give the child any cakes, lollipops, or stall produce whatever.

Between Mrs. Sedley and her daughter there was a sort of coolness about this boy, and a secret jealousy — for one evening in George's very early days, Amelia, who had been seated at work in their little parlour scarcely remarking that the old lady had quitted the room, ran upstairs instinctively to the nursery at the cries of the child, who had been asleep until that moment — and there found Mrs. Sedley in the act of surreptitiously administering Daffy's Elixir to the infant. Amelia, the gentlest and sweetest of everyday mortals, when she found this meddling with her maternal authority, thrilled and trembled all over with anger. Her cheeks, ordinarily pale, now flushed up, until they were as red as they used to be when she was a child of twelve years old. She seized the baby out of her mother's arms and then grasped at the bottle, leaving the old lady gaping at her, furious, and holding the guilty tea-spoon.

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