The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter XII.

My Lord Mohun Comes Among Us for No Good.

There had ridden along with this old Princess’s cavalcade, two gentlemen: her son, my Lord Firebrace, and his friend, my Lord Mohun, who both were greeted with a great deal of cordiality by the hospitable Lord of Castlewood. My Lord Firebrace was but a feeble-minded and weak-limbed young nobleman, small in stature and limited in understanding to judge from the talk young Esmond had with him; but the other was a person of a handsome presence, with the bel air, and a bright daring warlike aspect, which, according to the chronicle of those days, had already achieved for him the conquest of several beauties and toasts. He had fought and conquered in France, as well as in Flanders; he had served a couple of campaigns with the Prince of Baden on the Danube, and witnessed the rescue of Vienna from the Turk. And he spoke of his military exploits pleasantly, and with the manly freedom of a soldier, so as to delight all his hearers at Castlewood, who were little accustomed to meet a companion so agreeable.

On the first day this noble company came, my lord would not hear of their departure before dinner, and carried away the gentlemen to amuse them, whilst his wife was left to do the honors of her house to the old Marchioness and her daughter within. They looked at the stables where my Lord Mohun praised the horses, though there was but a poor show there: they walked over the old house and gardens, and fought the siege of Oliver’s time over again: they played a game of rackets in the old court, where my Lord Castlewood beat my Lord Mohun, who said he loved ball of all things, and would quickly come back to Castlewood for his revenge. After dinner they played bowls and drank punch in the green alley; and when they parted they were sworn friends, my Lord Castlewood kissing the other lord before he mounted on horseback, and pronouncing him the best companion he had met for many a long day. All night long, over his tobacco-pipe, Castlewood did not cease to talk to Harry Esmond in praise of his new friend, and in fact did not leave off speaking of him until his lordship was so tipsy that he could not speak plainly any more.

At breakfast next day it was the same talk renewed; and when my lady said there was something free in the Lord Mohun’s looks and manner of speech which caused her to mistrust him, her lord burst out with one of his laughs and oaths; said that he never liked man, woman, or beast, but what she was sure to be jealous of it; that Mohun was the prettiest fellow in England; that he hoped to see more of him whilst in the country; and that he would let Mohun know what my Lady Prude said of him.

“Indeed,” Lady Castlewood said, “I liked his conversation well enough. ’Tis more amusing than that of most people I know. I thought it, I own, too free; not from what he said, as rather from what he implied.”

“Psha! your ladyship does not know the world,” said her husband; “and you have always been as squeamish as when you were a miss of fifteen.”

“You found no fault when I was a miss at fifteen.”

“Begad, madam, you are grown too old for a pinafore now; and I hold that ’tis for me to judge what company my wife shall see,” said my lord, slapping the table.

“Indeed, Francis, I never thought otherwise,” answered my lady, rising and dropping him a curtsy, in which stately action, if there was obedience, there was defiance too; and in which a bystander, deeply interested in the happiness of that pair as Harry Esmond was, might see how hopelessly separated they were; what a great gulf of difference and discord had run between them.

“By G-d! Mohun is the best fellow in England; and I’ll invite him here, just to plague that woman. Did you ever see such a frigid insolence as it is, Harry? That’s the way she treats me,” he broke out, storming, and his face growing red as he clenched his fists and went on. “I’m nobody in my own house. I’m to be the humble servant of that parson’s daughter. By Jove! I’d rather she should fling the dish at my head than sneer at me as she does. She puts me to shame before the children with her d — d airs; and, I’ll swear, tells Frank and Beaty that papa’s a reprobate, and that they ought to despise me.”

“Indeed and indeed, sir, I never heard her say a word but of respect regarding you,” Harry Esmond interposed.

“No, curse it! I wish she would speak. But she never does. She scorns me, and holds her tongue. She keeps off from me, as if I was a pestilence. By George! she was fond enough of her pestilence once. And when I came a-courting, you would see miss blush — blush red, by George! for joy. Why, what do you think she said to me, Harry? She said herself, when I joked with her about her d — d smiling red cheeks: ‘’Tis as they do at St. James’s; I put up my red flag when my king comes.’ I was the king, you see, she meant. But now, sir, look at her! I believe she would be glad if I was dead; and dead I’ve been to her these five years — ever since you all of you had the small-pox: and she never forgave me for going away.”

“Indeed, my lord, though ’twas hard to forgive, I think my mistress forgave it,” Harry Esmond said; “and remember how eagerly she watched your lordship’s return, and how sadly she turned away when she saw your cold looks.”

“Damme!” cries out my lord; “would you have had me wait and catch the small-pox? Where the deuce had been the good of that? I’ll bear danger with any man — but not useless danger — no, no. Thank you for nothing. And — you nod your head, and I know very well, Parson Harry, what you mean. There was the — the other affair to make her angry. But is a woman never to forgive a husband who goes a-tripping? Do you take me for a saint?”

“Indeed, sir, I do not,” says Harry, with a smile.

“Since that time my wife’s as cold as the statue at Charing Cross. I tell thee she has no forgiveness in her, Henry. Her coldness blights my whole life, and sends me to the punch-bowl, or driving about the country. My children are not mine, but hers, when we are together. ’Tis only when she is out of sight with her abominable cold glances, that run through me, that they’ll come to me, and that I dare to give them so much as a kiss; and that’s why I take ’em and love ’em in other people’s houses, Harry. I’m killed by the very virtue of that proud woman. Virtue! give me the virtue that can forgive; give me the virtue that thinks not of preserving itself, but of making other folks happy. Damme, what matters a scar or two if ’tis got in helping a friend in ill fortune?”

And my lord again slapped the table, and took a great draught from the tankard. Harry Esmond admired as he listened to him, and thought how the poor preacher of this self-sacrifice had fled from the small-pox, which the lady had borne so cheerfully, and which had been the cause of so much disunion in the lives of all in this house. “How well men preach,” thought the young man, “and each is the example in his own sermon. How each has a story in a dispute, and a true one, too, and both are right or wrong as you will!” Harry’s heart was pained within him, to watch the struggles and pangs that tore the breast of this kind, manly friend and protector.

“Indeed, sir,” said he, “I wish to God that my mistress could hear you speak as I have heard you; she would know much that would make her life the happier, could she hear it.” But my lord flung away with one of his oaths, and a jeer; he said that Parson Harry was a good fellow; but that as for women, all women were alike — all jades and heartless. So a man dashes a fine vase down, and despises it for being broken. It may be worthless — true: but who had the keeping of it, and who shattered it?

Harry, who would have given his life to make his benefactress and her husband happy, bethought him, now that he saw what my lord’s state of mind was, and that he really had a great deal of that love left in his heart, and ready for his wife’s acceptance if she would take it, whether he could not be a means of reconciliation between these two persons, whom he revered the most in the world. And he cast about how he should break a part of his mind to his mistress, and warn her that in his, Harry’s opinion, at least, her husband was still her admirer, and even her lover.

But he found the subject a very difficult one to handle, when he ventured to remonstrate, which he did in the very gravest tone, (for long confidence and reiterated proofs of devotion and loyalty had given him a sort of authority in the house, which he resumed as soon as ever he returned to it,) and with a speech that should have some effect, as, indeed, it was uttered with the speaker’s own heart, he ventured most gently to hint to his adored mistress that she was doing her husband harm by her ill opinion of him, and that the happiness of all the family depended upon setting her right.

She, who was ordinarily calm and most gentle, and full of smiles and soft attentions, flushed up when young Esmond so spoke to her, and rose from her chair, looking at him with a haughtiness and indignation that he had never before known her to display. She was quite an altered being for that moment; and looked an angry princess insulted by a vassal.

“Have you ever heard me utter a word in my lord’s disparagement?” she asked hastily, hissing out her words, and stamping her foot.

“Indeed, no,” Esmond said, looking down.

“Are you come to me as his ambassador — YOU?” she continued.

“I would sooner see peace between you than anything else in the world,” Harry answered, “and would go of any embassy that had that end.”

“So YOU are my lord’s go-between?” she went on, not regarding this speech. “You are sent to bid me back into slavery again, and inform me that my lord’s favor is graciously restored to his handmaid? He is weary of Covent Garden, is he, that he comes home and would have the fatted calf killed?”

“There’s good authority for it, surely,” said Esmond.

“For a son, yes; but my lord is not my son. It was he who cast me away from him. It was he who broke our happiness down, and he bids me to repair it. It was he who showed himself to me at last, as he was, not as I had thought him. It is he who comes before my children stupid and senseless with wine — who leaves our company for that of frequenters of taverns and bagnios — who goes from his home to the City yonder and his friends there, and when he is tired of them returns hither, and expects that I shall kneel and welcome him. And he sends YOU as his chamberlain! What a proud embassy! Monsieur, I make you my compliment of the new place.”

“It would be a proud embassy, and a happy embassy too, could I bring you and my lord together,” Esmond replied.

“I presume you have fulfilled your mission now, sir. ’Twas a pretty one for you to undertake. I don’t know whether ’tis your Cambridge philosophy, or time, that has altered your ways of thinking,” Lady Castlewood continued, still in a sarcastic tone. “Perhaps you too have learned to love drink, and to hiccup over your wine or punch; — which is your worship’s favorite liquor? Perhaps you too put up at the ‘Rose’ on your way to London, and have your acquaintances in Covent Garden. My services to you, sir, to principal and ambassador, to master and — and lackey.”

“Great heavens! madam,” cried Harry. “What have I done that thus, for a second time, you insult me? Do you wish me to blush for what I used to be proud of, that I lived on your bounty? Next to doing you a service (which my life would pay for), you know that to receive one from you is my highest pleasure. What wrong have I done you that you should wound me so, cruel woman?”

“What wrong?” she said, looking at Esmond with wild eyes. “Well, none — none that you know of, Harry, or could help. Why did you bring back the small-pox,” she added, after a pause, “from Castlewood village? You could not help it, could you? Which of us knows whither fate leads us? But we were all happy, Henry, till then.” And Harry went away from this colloquy, thinking still that the estrangement between his patron and his beloved mistress was remediable, and that each had at heart a strong attachment to the other.

The intimacy between the Lords Mohun and Castlewood appeared to increase as long as the former remained in the country; and my Lord of Castlewood especially seemed never to be happy out of his new comrade’s sight. They sported together, they drank, they played bowls and tennis: my Lord Castlewood would go for three days to Sark, and bring back my Lord Mohun to Castlewood — where indeed his lordship made himself very welcome to all persons, having a joke or a new game at romps for the children, all the talk of the town for my lord, and music and gallantry and plenty of the beau langage for my lady, and for Harry Esmond, who was never tired of hearing his stories of his campaigns and his life at Vienna, Venice, Paris, and the famous cities of Europe which he had visited both in peace and war. And he sang at my lady’s harpsichord, and played cards or backgammon, or his new game of billiards with my lord (of whom he invariably got the better) always having a consummate good-humor, and bearing himself with a certain manly grace, that might exhibit somewhat of the camp and Alsatia perhaps, but that had its charm, and stamped him a gentleman: and his manner to Lady Castlewood was so devoted and respectful, that she soon recovered from the first feelings of dislike which she had conceived against him — nay, before long, began to be interested in his spiritual welfare, and hopeful of his conversion, lending him books of piety, which he promised dutifully to study. With her my lord talked of reform, of settling into quiet life, quitting the court and town, and buying some land in the neighborhood — though it must be owned that, when the two lords were together over their Burgundy after dinner, their talk was very different, and there was very little question of conversion on my Lord Mohun’s part. When they got to their second bottle, Harry Esmond used commonly to leave these two noble topers, who, though they talked freely enough, heaven knows, in his presence (Good Lord, what a set of stories, of Alsatia and Spring Garden, of the taverns and gaming-houses, of the ladies of the court, and mesdames of the theatres, he can recall out of their godly conversation!)— although, I say, they talked before Esmond freely, yet they seemed pleased when he went away, and then they had another bottle, and then they fell to cards, and then my Lord Mohun came to her ladyship’s drawing-room; leaving his boon companion to sleep off his wine.

’Twas a point of honor with the fine gentlemen of those days to lose or win magnificently at their horse-matches, or games of cards and dice — and you could never tell, from the demeanor of these two lords afterwards, which had been successful and which the loser at their games. And when my lady hinted to my lord that he played more than she liked, he dismissed her with a “pish,” and swore that nothing was more equal than play betwixt gentlemen, if they did but keep it up long enough. And these kept it up long enough, you may be sure. A man of fashion of that time often passed a quarter of his day at cards, and another quarter at drink: I have known many a pretty fellow, who was a wit too, ready of repartee, and possessed of a thousand graces, who would be puzzled if he had to write more than his name.

There is scarce any thoughtful man or woman, I suppose, but can look back upon his course of past life, and remember some point, trifling as it may have seemed at the time of occurrence, which has nevertheless turned and altered his whole career. ’Tis with almost all of us, as in M. Massillon’s magnificent image regarding King William, a grain de sable that perverts or perhaps overthrows us; and so it was but a light word flung in the air, a mere freak of perverse child’s temper, that brought down a whole heap of crushing woes upon that family whereof Harry Esmond formed a part.

Coming home to his dear Castlewood in the third year of his academical course, (wherein he had now obtained some distinction, his Latin Poem on the death of the Duke of Gloucester, Princess Anne of Denmark’s son, having gained him a medal, and introduced him to the society of the University wits,) Esmond found his little friend and pupil Beatrix grown to be taller than her mother, a slim and lovely young girl, with cheeks mantling with health and roses: with eyes like stars shining out of azure, with waving bronze hair clustered about the fairest young forehead ever seen: and a mien and shape haughty and beautiful, such as that of the famous antique statue of the huntress Diana — at one time haughty, rapid, imperious, with eyes and arrows that dart and kill. Harry watched and wondered at this young creature, and likened her in his mind to Artemis with the ringing bow and shafts flashing death upon the children of Niobe; at another time she was coy and melting as Luna shining tenderly upon Endymion. This fair creature, this lustrous Phoebe, was only young as yet, nor had nearly reached her full splendor: but crescent and brilliant, our young gentleman of the University, his head full of poetical fancies, his heart perhaps throbbing with desires undefined, admired this rising young divinity; and gazed at her (though only as at some “bright particular star,” far above his earth) with endless delight and wonder. She had been a coquette from the earliest times almost, trying her freaks and jealousies, her wayward frolics and winning caresses, upon all that came within her reach; she set her women quarrelling in the nursery, and practised her eyes on the groom as she rode behind him on the pillion.

She was the darling and torment of father and mother. She intrigued with each secretly; and bestowed her fondness and withdrew it, plied them with tears, smiles, kisses, cajolements; — when the mother was angry, as happened often, flew to the father, and sheltering behind him, pursued her victim; when both were displeased, transferred her caresses to the domestics, or watched until she could win back her parents’ good graces, either by surprising them into laughter and good-humor, or appeasing them by submission and artful humility. She was saevo laeta negotio, like that fickle goddess Horace describes, and of whose “malicious joy” a great poet of our own has written so nobly — who, famous and heroic as he was, was not strong enough to resist the torture of women.

It was but three years before that the child, then but ten years old, had nearly managed to make a quarrel between Harry Esmond and his comrade, good-natured, phlegmatic Thomas Tusher, who never of his own seeking quarrelled with anybody: by quoting to the latter some silly joke which Harry had made regarding him —(it was the merest idlest jest, though it near drove two old friends to blows, and I think such a battle would have pleased her)— and from that day Tom kept at a distance from her; and she respected him, and coaxed him sedulously whenever they met. But Harry was much more easily appeased, because he was fonder of the child: and when she made mischief, used cutting speeches, or caused her friends pain, she excused herself for her fault, not by admitting and deploring it, but by pleading not guilty, and asserting innocence so constantly, and with such seeming artlessness, that it was impossible to question her plea. In her childhood, they were but mischiefs then which she did; but her power became more fatal as she grew older — as a kitten first plays with a ball, and then pounces on a bird and kills it. ’Tis not to be imagined that Harry Esmond had all this experience at this early stage of his life, whereof he is now writing the history — many things here noted were but known to him in later days. Almost everything Beatrix did or undid seemed good, or at least pardonable, to him then, and years afterwards.

It happened, then, that Harry Esmond came home to Castlewood for his last vacation, with good hopes of a fellowship at his college, and a contented resolve to advance his fortune that way. ’Twas in the first year of the present century, Mr. Esmond (as far as he knew the period of his birth) being then twenty-two years old. He found his quondam pupil shot up into this beauty of which we have spoken, and promising yet more: her brother, my lord’s son, a handsome high-spirited brave lad, generous and frank, and kind to everybody, save perhaps his sister, with whom Frank was at war (and not from his but her fault)— adoring his mother, whose joy he was: and taking her side in the unhappy matrimonial differences which were now permanent, while of course Mistress Beatrix ranged with her father. When heads of families fall out, it must naturally be that their dependants wear the one or the other party’s color; and even in the parliaments in the servants’ hall or the stables, Harry, who had an early observant turn, could see which were my lord’s adherents and which my lady’s, and conjecture pretty shrewdly how their unlucky quarrel was debated. Our lackeys sit in judgment on us. My lord’s intrigues may be ever so stealthily conducted, but his valet knows them; and my lady’s woman carries her mistress’s private history to the servants’ scandal market, and exchanges it against the secrets of other abigails.

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