The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter XI.

I Come Home for a Holiday to Castlewood, and Find a Skeleton in the House.

At his third long vacation, Esmond came as usual to Castlewood, always feeling an eager thrill of pleasure when he found himself once more in the house where he had passed so many years, and beheld the kind familiar eyes of his mistress looking upon him. She and her children (out of whose company she scarce ever saw him) came to greet him. Miss Beatrix was grown so tall that Harry did not quite know whether he might kiss her or no; and she blushed and held back when he offered that salutation, though she took it, and even courted it, when they were alone. The young lord was shooting up to be like his gallant father in look, though with his mother’s kind eyes: the lady of Castlewood herself seemed grown, too, since Harry saw her — in her look more stately, in her person fuller, in her face still as ever most tender and friendly, a greater air of command and decision than had appeared in that guileless sweet countenance which Harry remembered so gratefully. The tone of her voice was so much deeper and sadder when she spoke and welcomed him, that it quite startled Esmond, who looked up at her surprised as she spoke, when she withdrew her eyes from him; nor did she ever look at him afterwards when his own eyes were gazing upon her. A something hinting at grief and secret, and filling his mind with alarm undefinable, seemed to speak with that low thrilling voice of hers, and look out of those clear sad eyes. Her greeting to Esmond was so cold that it almost pained the lad, (who would have liked to fall on his knees, and kiss the skirt of her robe, so fond and ardent was his respect and regard for her,) and he faltered in answering the questions which she, hesitating on her side, began to put to him. Was he happy at Cambridge? Did he study too hard? She hoped not. He had grown very tall, and looked very well.

“He has got a moustache!” cries out Master Esmond.

“Why does he not wear a peruke like my Lord Mohun?” asked Miss Beatrix. “My lord says that nobody wears their own hair.”

“I believe you will have to occupy your old chamber,” says my lady. “I hope the housekeeper has got it ready.”

“Why, mamma, you have been there ten times these three days yourself!” exclaims Frank.

“And she cut some flowers which you planted in my garden — do you remember, ever so many years ago? when I was quite a little girl,” cries out Miss Beatrix, on tiptoe. “And mamma put them in your window.”

“I remember when you grew well after you were ill that you used to like roses,” said the lady, blushing like one of them. They all conducted Harry Esmond to his chamber; the children running before, Harry walking by his mistress hand-inhand.

The old room had been ornamented and beautified not a little to receive him. The flowers were in the window in a china vase; and there was a fine new counterpane on the bed, which chatterbox Beatrix said mamma had made too. A fire was crackling on the hearth, although it was June. My lady thought the room wanted warming; everything was done to make him happy and welcome: “And you are not to be a page any longer, but a gentleman and kinsman, and to walk with papa and mamma,” said the children. And as soon as his dear mistress and children had left him to himself, it was with a heart overflowing with love and gratefulness that he flung himself down on his knees by the side of the little bed, and asked a blessing upon those who were so kind to him.

The children, who are always house tell-tales, soon made him acquainted with the little history of the house and family. Papa had been to London twice. Papa often went away now. Papa had taken Beatrix to Westlands, where she was taller than Sir George Harper’s second daughter, though she was two years older. Papa had taken Beatrix and Frank both to Bellminster, where Frank had got the better of Lord Bellminster’s son in a boxing-match — my lord, laughing, told Harry afterwards. Many gentlemen came to stop with papa, and papa had gotten a new game from London, a French game, called a billiard — that the French king played it very well: and the Dowager Lady Castlewood had sent Miss Beatrix a present; and papa had gotten a new chaise, with two little horses, which he drove himself, beside the coach, which mamma went in; and Dr. Tusher was a cross old plague, and they did not like to learn from him at all; and papa did not care about them learning, and laughed when they were at their books, but mamma liked them to learn, and taught them; and “I don’t think papa is fond of mamma,” said Miss Beatrix, with her great eyes. She had come quite close up to Harry Esmond by the time this prattle took place, and was on his knee, and had examined all the points of his dress, and all the good or bad features of his homely face.

“You shouldn’t say that papa is not fond of mamma,” said the boy, at this confession. “Mamma never said so; and mamma forbade you to say it, Miss Beatrix.”

’Twas this, no doubt, that accounted for the sadness in Lady Castlewood’s eyes, and the plaintive vibrations of her voice. Who does not know of eyes, lighted by love once, where the flame shines no more? — of lamps extinguished, once properly trimmed and tended? Every man has such in his house. Such mementoes make our splendidest chambers look blank and sad; such faces seen in a day cast a gloom upon our sunshine. So oaths mutually sworn, and invocations of heaven, and priestly ceremonies, and fond belief, and love, so fond and faithful that it never doubted but that it should live for ever, are all of no avail towards making love eternal: it dies, in spite of the banns and the priest; and I have often thought there should be a visitation of the sick for it, and a funeral service, and an extreme unction, and an abi in pace. It has its course, like all mortal things — its beginning, progress, and decay. It buds and it blooms out into sunshine, and it withers and ends. Strephon and Chloe languish apart; join in a rapture: and presently you hear that Chloe is crying, and Strephon has broken his crook across her back. Can you mend it so as to show no marks of rupture? Not all the priests of Hymen, not all the incantations to the gods, can make it whole!

Waking up from dreams, books, and visions of college honors, in which for two years, Harry Esmond had been immersed, he found himself, instantly, on his return home, in the midst of this actual tragedy of life, which absorbed and interested him more than all his tutor had taught him. The persons whom he loved best in the world, and to whom he owed most, were living unhappily together. The gentlest and kindest of women was suffering ill usage and shedding tears in secret: the man who made her wretched by neglect, if not by violence, was Harry’s benefactor and patron. In houses where, in place of that sacred, inmost flame of love, there is discord at the centre, the whole household becomes hypocritical, and each lies to his neighbor. The husband (or it may be the wife) lies when the visitor comes in, and wears a grin of reconciliation or politeness before him. The wife lies (indeed, her business is to do that, and to smile, however much she is beaten), swallows her tears, and lies to her lord and master; lies in bidding little Jackey respect dear papa; lies in assuring grandpapa that she is perfectly happy. The servants lie, wearing grave faces behind their master’s chair, and pretending to be unconscious of the fighting; and so, from morning till bedtime, life is passed in falsehood. And wiseacres call this a proper regard of morals, and point out Baucis and Philemon as examples of a good life.

If my lady did not speak of her griefs to Harry Esmond, my lord was by no means reserved when in his cups, and spoke his mind very freely, bidding Harry in his coarse way, and with his blunt language, beware of all women as cheats, jades, jilts, and using other unmistakable monosyllables in speaking of them. Indeed, ’twas the fashion of the day, as I must own; and there’s not a writer of my time of any note, with the exception of poor Dick Steele, that does not speak of a woman as of a slave, and scorn and use her as such. Mr. Pope, Mr. Congreve, Mr. Addison, Mr. Gay, every one of ’em, sing in this key, each according to his nature and politeness, and louder and fouler than all in abuse is Dr. Swift, who spoke of them as he treated them, worst of all.

Much of the quarrels and hatred which arise between married people come in my mind from the husband’s rage and revolt at discovering that his slave and bedfellow, who is to minister to all his wishes, and is church-sworn to honor and obey him — is his superior; and that HE, and not she, ought to be the subordinate of the twain; and in these controversies, I think, lay the cause of my lord’s anger against his lady. When he left her, she began to think for herself, and her thoughts were not in his favor. After the illumination, when the love-lamp is put out that anon we spoke of, and by the common daylight we look at the picture, what a daub it looks! what a clumsy effigy! How many men and wives come to this knowledge, think you? And if it be painful to a woman to find herself mated for life to a boor, and ordered to love and honor a dullard; it is worse still for the man himself perhaps, whenever in his dim comprehension the idea dawns that his slave and drudge yonder is, in truth, his superior; that the woman who does his bidding, and submits to his humor, should be his lord; that she can think a thousand things beyond the power of his muddled brains; and that in yonder head, on the pillow opposite to him, lie a thousand feelings, mysteries of thought, latent scorns and rebellions, whereof he only dimly perceives the existence as they look out furtively from her eyes: treasures of love doomed to perish without a hand to gather them; sweet fancies and images of beauty that would grow and unfold themselves into flower; bright wit that would shine like diamonds could it be brought into the sun: and the tyrant in possession crushes the outbreak of all these, drives them back like slaves into the dungeon and darkness, and chafes without that his prisoner is rebellious, and his sworn subject undutiful and refractory. So the lamp was out in Castlewood Hall, and the lord and lady there saw each other as they were. With her illness and altered beauty my lord’s fire for his wife disappeared; with his selfishness and faithlessness her foolish fiction of love and reverence was rent away. Love! — who is to love what is base and unlovely? Respect! — who is to respect what is gross and sensual? Not all the marriage oaths sworn before all the parsons, cardinals, ministers, muftis, and rabbins in the world, can bind to that monstrous allegiance. This couple was living apart then; the woman happy to be allowed to love and tend her children (who were never of her own good-will away from her), and thankful to have saved such treasures as these out of the wreck in which the better part of her heart went down.

These young ones had had no instructors save their mother, and Doctor Tusher for their theology occasionally, and had made more progress than might have been expected under a tutor so indulgent and fond as Lady Castlewood. Beatrix could sing and dance like a nymph. Her voice was her father’s delight after dinner. She ruled over the house with little imperial ways, which her parents coaxed and laughed at. She had long learned the value of her bright eyes, and tried experiments in coquetry, in corpore vili, upon rustics and country squires, until she should prepare to conquer the world and the fashion. She put on a new ribbon to welcome Harry Esmond, made eyes at him, and directed her young smiles at him, not a little to the amusement of the young man, and the joy of her father, who laughed his great laugh, and encouraged her in her thousand antics. Lady Castlewood watched the child gravely and sadly: the little one was pert in her replies to her mother, yet eager in her protestations of love and promises of amendment; and as ready to cry (after a little quarrel brought on by her own giddiness) until she had won back her mamma’s favor, as she was to risk the kind lady’s displeasure by fresh outbreaks of restless vanity. From her mother’s sad looks she fled to her father’s chair and boozy laughter. She already set the one against the other: and the little rogue delighted in the mischief which she knew how to make so early.

The young heir of Castlewood was spoiled by father and mother both. He took their caresses as men do, and as if they were his right. He had his hawks and his spaniel dog, his little horse and his beagles. He had learned to ride, and to drink, and to shoot flying: and he had a small court, the sons of the huntsman and woodman, as became the heir-apparent, taking after the example of my lord his father. If he had a headache, his mother was as much frightened as if the plague were in the house: my lord laughed and jeered in his abrupt way —(indeed, ’twas on the day after New Year’s Day, and an excess of mince-pie)— and said with some of his usual oaths —“D— n it, Harry Esmond — you see how my lady takes on about Frank’s megrim. She used to be sorry about me, my boy (pass the tankard, Harry), and to be frightened if I had a headache once. She don’t care about my head now. They’re like that — women are — all the same, Harry, all jilts in their hearts. Stick to college — stick to punch and buttery ale: and never see a woman that’s handsomer than an old cinder-faced bed-maker. That’s my counsel.”

It was my lord’s custom to fling out many jokes of this nature, in presence of his wife and children, at meals — clumsy sarcasms which my lady turned many a time, or which, sometimes, she affected not to hear, or which now and again would hit their mark and make the poor victim wince (as you could see by her flushing face and eyes filling with tears), or which again worked her up to anger and retort, when, in answer to one of these heavy bolts, she would flash back with a quivering reply. The pair were not happy; nor indeed was it happy to be with them. Alas that youthful love and truth should end in bitterness and bankruptcy! To see a young couple loving each other is no wonder; but to see an old couple loving each other is the best sight of all. Harry Esmond became the confidant of one and the other — that is, my lord told the lad all his griefs and wrongs (which were indeed of Lord Castlewood’s own making), and Harry divined my lady’s; his affection leading him easily to penetrate the hypocrisy under which Lady Castlewood generally chose to go disguised, and see her heart aching whilst her face wore a smile. ’Tis a hard task for women in life, that mask which the world bids them wear. But there is no greater crime than for a woman who is ill used and unhappy to show that she is so. The world is quite relentless about bidding her to keep a cheerful face; and our women, like the Malabar wives, are forced to go smiling and painted to sacrifice themselves with their husbands; their relations being the most eager to push them on to their duty, and, under their shouts and applauses, to smother and hush their cries of pain.

So, into the sad secret of his patron’s household, Harry Esmond became initiated, he scarce knew how. It had passed under his eyes two years before, when he could not understand it; but reading, and thought, and experience of men, had oldened him; and one of the deepest sorrows of a life which had never, in truth, been very happy, came upon him now, when he was compelled to understand and pity a grief which he stood quite powerless to relieve.

It hath been said my lord would never take the oath of allegiance, nor his seat as a peer of the kingdom of Ireland, where, indeed, he had but a nominal estate; and refused an English peerage which King William’s government offered him as a bribe to secure his loyalty.

He might have accepted this, and would doubtless, but for the earnest remonstrances of his wife, who ruled her husband’s opinions better than she could govern his conduct, and who being a simple-hearted woman, with but one rule of faith and right, never thought of swerving from her fidelity to the exiled family, or of recognizing any other sovereign but King James; and though she acquiesced in the doctrine of obedience to the reigning power, no temptation, she thought, could induce her to acknowledge the Prince of Orange as rightful monarch, nor to let her lord so acknowledge him. So my Lord Castlewood remained a nonjuror all his life nearly, though his self-denial caused him many a pang, and left him sulky and out of humor.

The year after the Revolution, and all through King William’s life, ’tis known there were constant intrigues for the restoration of the exiled family; but if my Lord Castlewood took any share of these, as is probable, ’twas only for a short time, and when Harry Esmond was too young to be introduced into such important secrets.

But in the year 1695, when that conspiracy of Sir John Fenwick, Colonel Lowick, and others, was set on foot, for waylaying King William as he came from Hampton Court to London, and a secret plot was formed, in which a vast number of the nobility and people of honor were engaged, Father Holt appeared at Castlewood, and brought a young friend with him, a gentleman whom ’twas easy to see that both my lord and the Father treated with uncommon deference. Harry Esmond saw this gentleman, and knew and recognized him in after life, as shall be shown in its place; and he has little doubt now that my Lord Viscount was implicated somewhat in the transactions which always kept Father Holt employed and travelling hither and thither under a dozen of different names and disguises. The Father’s companion went by the name of Captain James; and it was under a very different name and appearance that Harry Esmond afterwards saw him.

It was the next year that the Fenwick conspiracy blew up, which is a matter of public history now, and which ended in the execution of Sir John and many more, who suffered manfully for their treason, and who were attended to Tyburn by my lady’s father Dean Armstrong, Mr. Collier, and other stout nonjuring clergymen, who absolved them at the gallows-foot.

’Tis known that when Sir John was apprehended, discovery was made of a great number of names of gentlemen engaged in the conspiracy; when, with a noble wisdom and clemency, the Prince burned the list of conspirators furnished to him, and said he would know no more. Now it was after this that Lord Castlewood swore his great oath, that he would never, so help him heaven, be engaged in any transaction against that brave and merciful man; and so he told Holt when the indefatigable priest visited him, and would have had him engage in a farther conspiracy. After this my lord ever spoke of King William as he was — as one of the wisest, the bravest, and the greatest of men. My Lady Esmond (for her part) said she could never pardon the King, first, for ousting his father-inlaw from his throne, and secondly, for not being constant to his wife, the Princess Mary. Indeed, I think if Nero were to rise again, and be king of England, and a good family man, the ladies would pardon him. My lord laughed at his wife’s objections — the standard of virtue did not fit him much.

The last conference which Mr. Holt had with his lordship took place when Harry was come home for his first vacation from college (Harry saw his old tutor but for a half-hour, and exchanged no private words with him), and their talk, whatever it might be, left my Lord Viscount very much disturbed in mind — so much so, that his wife, and his young kinsman, Henry Esmond, could not but observe his disquiet. After Holt was gone, my lord rebuffed Esmond, and again treated him with the greatest deference; he shunned his wife’s questions and company, and looked at his children with such a face of gloom and anxiety, muttering, “Poor children — poor children!” in a way that could not but fill those whose life it was to watch him and obey him with great alarm. For which gloom, each person interested in the Lord Castlewood, framed in his or her own mind an interpretation.

My lady, with a laugh of cruel bitterness said, “I suppose the person at Hexton has been ill, or has scolded him” (for my lord’s infatuation about Mrs. Marwood was known only too well). Young Esmond feared for his money affairs, into the condition of which he had been initiated; and that the expenses, always greater than his revenue, had caused Lord Castlewood disquiet.

One of the causes why my Lord Viscount had taken young Esmond into his special favor was a trivial one, that hath not before been mentioned, though it was a very lucky accident in Henry Esmond’s life. A very few months after my lord’s coming to Castlewood, in the winter time — the little boy, being a child in a petticoat, trotting about — it happened that little Frank was with his father after dinner, who fell asleep over his wine, heedless of the child, who crawled to the fire; and, as good fortune would have it, Esmond was sent by his mistress for the boy just as the poor little screaming urchin’s coat was set on fire by a log; when Esmond, rushing forward, tore the dress off the infant, so that his own hands were burned more than the child’s, who was frightened rather than hurt by this accident. But certainly ’twas providential that a resolute person should have come in at that instant, or the child had been burned to death probably, my lord sleeping very heavily after drinking, and not waking so cool as a man should who had a danger to face.

Ever after this the father, loud in his expressions of remorse and humility for being a tipsy good-for-nothing, and of admiration for Harry Esmond, whom his lordship would style a hero for doing a very trifling service, had the tenderest regard for his son’s preserver, and Harry became quite as one of the family. His burns were tended with the greatest care by his kind mistress, who said that heaven had sent him to be the guardian of her children, and that she would love him all her life.

And it was after this, and from the very great love and tenderness which had grown up in this little household, rather than from the exhortations of Dean Armstrong (though these had no small weight with him), that Harry came to be quite of the religion of his house and his dear mistress, of which he has ever since been a professing member. As for Dr. Tusher’s boasts that he was the cause of this conversion — even in these young days Mr. Esmond had such a contempt for the Doctor, that had Tusher bade him believe anything (which he did not — never meddling at all), Harry would that instant have questioned the truth on’t.

My lady seldom drank wine; but on certain days of the year, such as birthdays (poor Harry had never a one) and anniversaries, she took a little; and this day, the 29th December, was one. At the end, then, of this year, ‘96, it might have been a fortnight after Mr. Holt’s last visit, Lord Castlewood being still very gloomy in mind, and sitting at table — my lady bidding a servant bring her a glass of wine, and looking at her husband with one of her sweet smiles, said —

“My lord, will you not fill a bumper too, and let me call a toast?”

“What is it, Rachel?” says he, holding out his empty glass to be filled.

“’Tis the 29th of December,” says my lady, with her fond look of gratitude: “and my toast is, ‘Harry — and God bless him, who saved my boy’s life!’”

My lord looked at Harry hard, and drank the glass, but clapped it down on the table in a moment, and, with a sort of groan, rose up, and went out of the room. What was the matter? We all knew that some great grief was over him.

Whether my lord’s prudence had made him richer, or legacies had fallen to him, which enabled him to support a greater establishment than that frugal one which had been too much for his small means, Harry Esmond knew not; but the house of Castlewood was now on a scale much more costly than it had been during the first years of his lordship’s coming to the title. There were more horses in the stable and more servants in the hall, and many more guests coming and going now than formerly, when it was found difficult enough by the strictest economy to keep the house as befitted one of his lordship’s rank, and the estate out of debt. And it did not require very much penetration to find that many of the new acquaintances at Castlewood were not agreeable to the lady there: not that she ever treated them or any mortal with anything but courtesy; but they were persons who could not be welcome to her; and whose society a lady so refined and reserved could scarce desire for her children. There came fuddling squires from the country round, who bawled their songs under her windows and drank themselves tipsy with my lord’s punch and ale: there came officers from Hexton, in whose company our little lord was made to hear talk and to drink, and swear too, in a way that made the delicate lady tremble for her son. Esmond tried to console her by saying what he knew of his College experience; that with this sort of company and conversation a man must fall in sooner or later in his course through the world: and it mattered very little whether he heard it at twelve years old or twenty — the youths who quitted mother’s apron-strings the latest being not uncommonly the wildest rakes. But it was about her daughter that Lady Castlewood was the most anxious, and the danger which she thought menaced the little Beatrix from the indulgences which her father gave her, (it must be owned that my lord, since these unhappy domestic differences especially, was at once violent in his language to the children when angry, as he was too familiar, not to say coarse, when he was in a good humor,) and from the company into which the careless lord brought the child.

Not very far off from Castlewood is Sark Castle, where the Marchioness of Sark lived, who was known to have been a mistress of the late King Charles — and to this house, whither indeed a great part of the country gentry went, my lord insisted upon going, not only himself, but on taking his little daughter and son, to play with the children there. The children were nothing loth, for the house was splendid, and the welcome kind enough. But my lady, justly no doubt, thought that the children of such a mother as that noted Lady Sark had been, could be no good company for her two; and spoke her mind to her lord. His own language when he was thwarted was not indeed of the gentlest: to be brief, there was a family dispute on this, as there had been on many other points — and the lady was not only forced to give in, for the other’s will was law — nor could she, on account of their tender age, tell her children what was the nature of her objection to their visit of pleasure, or indeed mention to them any objection at all — but she had the additional secret mortification to find them returning delighted with their new friends, loaded with presents from them, and eager to be allowed to go back to a place of such delights as Sark Castle. Every year she thought the company there would be more dangerous to her daughter, as from a child Beatrix grew to a woman, and her daily increasing beauty, and many faults of character too, expanded.

It was Harry Esmond’s lot to see one of the visits which the old Lady of Sark paid to the Lady of Castlewood Hall: whither she came in state with six chestnut horses and blue ribbons, a page on each carriage step, a gentleman of the horse, and armed servants riding before and behind her. And, but that it was unpleasant to see Lady Castlewood’s face, it was amusing to watch the behavior of the two enemies: the frigid patience of the younger lady, and the unconquerable good-humor of the elder — who would see no offence whatever her rival intended, and who never ceased to smile and to laugh, and to coax the children, and to pay compliments to every man, woman, child, nay dog, or chair and table, in Castlewood, so bent was she upon admiring everything there. She lauded the children, and wished as indeed she well might — that her own family had been brought up as well as those cherubs. She had never seen such a complexion as dear Beatrix’s — though to be sure she had a right to it from father and mother — Lady Castlewood’s was indeed a wonder of freshness, and Lady Sark sighed to think she had not been born a fair woman; and remarking Harry Esmond, with a fascinating superannuated smile, she complimented him on his wit, which she said she could see from his eyes and forehead; and vowed that she would never have HIM at Sark until her daughter were out of the way.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07