The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter I.

I Am in Prison, and Visited, But Not Consoled There.

Those may imagine, who have seen death untimely strike down persons revered and beloved, and know how unavailing consolation is, what was Harry Esmond’s anguish after being an actor in that ghastly midnight scene of blood and homicide. He could not, he felt, have faced his dear mistress, and told her that story. He was thankful that kind Atterbury consented to break the sad news to her; but, besides his grief, which he took into prison with him, he had that in his heart which secretly cheered and consoled him.

A great secret had been told to Esmond by his unhappy stricken kinsman, lying on his death-bed. Were he to disclose it, as in equity and honor he might do, the discovery would but bring greater grief upon those whom he loved best in the world, and who were sad enough already. Should he bring down shame and perplexity upon all those beings to whom he was attached by so many tender ties of affection and gratitude? degrade his father’s widow? impeach and sully his father’s and kinsman’s honor? and for what? for a barren title, to be worn at the expense of an innocent boy, the son of his dearest benefactress. He had debated this matter in his conscience, whilst his poor lord was making his dying confession. On one side were ambition, temptation, justice even; but love, gratitude, and fidelity, pleaded on the other. And when the struggle was over in Harry’s mind, a glow of righteous happiness filled it; and it was with grateful tears in his eyes that he returned thanks to God for that decision which he had been enabled to make.

“When I was denied by my own blood,” thought he, “these dearest friends received and cherished me. When I was a nameless orphan myself, and needed a protector, I found one in yonder kind soul, who has gone to his account repenting of the innocent wrong he has done.”

And with this consoling thought he went away to give himself up at the prison, after kissing the cold lips of his benefactor.

It was on the third day after he had come to the Gatehouse prison, (where he lay in no small pain from his wound, which inflamed and ached severely,) and with those thoughts and resolutions that have been just spoke of, to depress, and yet to console him, that H. Esmond’s keeper came and told him that a visitor was asking for him, and though he could not see her face, which was enveloped in a black hood, her whole figure, too, being veiled and covered with the deepest mourning, Esmond knew at once that his visitor was his dear mistress.

He got up from his bed, where he was lying, being very weak; and advancing towards her as the retiring keeper shut the door upon him and his guest in that sad place, he put forward his left hand (for the right was wounded and bandaged), and he would have taken that kind one of his mistress, which had done so many offices of friendship for him for so many years.

But the Lady Castlewood went back from him, putting back her hood, and leaning against the great stanchioned door which the gaoler had just closed upon them. Her face was ghastly white, as Esmond saw it, looking from the hood; and her eyes, ordinarily so sweet and tender, were fixed on him with such a tragic glance of woe and anger, as caused the young man, unaccustomed to unkindness from that person, to avert his own glances from her face.

“And this, Mr. Esmond,” she said, “is where I see you; and ’tis to this you have brought me!”

“You have come to console me in my calamity, madam,” said he (though, in truth, he scarce knew how to address her, his emotions at beholding her so overpowered him).

She advanced a little, but stood silent and trembling, looking out at him from her black draperies, with her small white hands clasped together, and quivering lips and hollow eyes.

“Not to reproach me,” he continued after a pause. “My grief is sufficient as it is.”

“Take back your hand — do not touch me with it!” she cried. “Look! there’s blood on it!”

“I wish they had taken it all,” said Esmond; “if you are unkind to me.”

“Where is my husband?” she broke out. “Give me back my husband, Henry. Why did you stand by at midnight and see him murdered? Why did the traitor escape who did it? You, the champion of your house, who offered to die for us! You that he loved and trusted, and to whom I confided him — you that vowed devotion and gratitude, and I believed you — yes, I believed you — why are you here, and my noble Francis gone? Why did you come among us? You have only brought us grief and sorrow; and repentance, bitter, bitter repentance, as a return for our love and kindness. Did I ever do you a wrong, Henry? You were but an orphan child when I first saw you — when HE first saw you, who was so good, and noble, and trusting. He would have had you sent away, but, like a foolish woman, I besought him to let you stay. And you pretended to love us, and we believed you — and you made our house wretched, and my husband’s heart went from me: and I lost him through you — I lost him — the husband of my youth, I say. I worshipped him: you know I worshipped him — and he was changed to me. He was no more my Francis of old — my dear, dear soldier. He loved me before he saw you; and I loved him. Oh, God is my witness how I loved him! Why did he not send you from among us? ’Twas only his kindness, that could refuse me nothing then. And, young as you were — yes, and weak and alone — there was evil, I knew there was evil in keeping you. I read it in your face and eyes. I saw that they boded harm to us — and it came, I knew it would. Why did you not die when you had the small-pox — and I came myself and watched you, and you didn’t know me in your delirium — and you called out for me, though I was there at your side? All that has happened since, was a just judgment on my wicked heart — my wicked jealous heart. Oh, I am punished — awfully punished! My husband lies in his blood — murdered for defending me, my kind, kind, generous lord — and you were by, and you let him die, Henry!”

These words, uttered in the wildness of her grief, by one who was ordinarily quiet, and spoke seldom except with a gentle smile and a soothing tone, rung in Esmond’s ear; and ’tis said that he repeated many of them in the fever into which he now fell from his wound, and perhaps from the emotion which such passionate, undeserved upbraidings caused him. It seemed as if his very sacrifices and love for this lady and her family were to turn to evil and reproach: as if his presence amongst them was indeed a cause of grief, and the continuance of his life but woe and bitterness to theirs. As the Lady Castlewood spoke bitterly, rapidly, without a tear, he never offered a word of appeal or remonstrance: but sat at the foot of his prison-bed, stricken only with the more pain at thinking it was that soft and beloved hand which should stab him so cruelly, and powerless against her fatal sorrow. Her words as she spoke struck the chords of all his memory, and the whole of his boyhood and youth passed within him; whilst this lady, so fond and gentle but yesterday — this good angel whom he had loved and worshipped — stood before him, pursuing him with keen words and aspect malign.

“I wish I were in my lord’s place,” he groaned out. “It was not my fault that I was not there, madam. But Fate is stronger than all of us, and willed what has come to pass. It had been better for me to have died when I had the illness.”

“Yes, Henry,” said she — and as she spoke she looked at him with a glance that was at once so fond and so sad, that the young man, tossing up his arms, wildly fell back, hiding his head in the coverlet of the bed. As he turned he struck against the wall with his wounded hand, displacing the ligature; and he felt the blood rushing again from the wound. He remembered feeling a secret pleasure at the accident — and thinking, “Suppose I were to end now, who would grieve for me?”

This hemorrhage, or the grief and despair in which the luckless young man was at the time of the accident, must have brought on a deliquium presently; for he had scarce any recollection afterwards, save of some one, his mistress probably, seizing his hand — and then of the buzzing noise in his ears as he awoke, with two or three persons of the prison around his bed, whereon he lay in a pool of blood from his arm.

It was now bandaged up again by the prison surgeon, who happened to be in the place; and the governor’s wife and servant, kind people both, were with the patient. Esmond saw his mistress still in the room when he awoke from his trance; but she went away without a word; though the governor’s wife told him that she sat in her room for some time afterward, and did not leave the prison until she heard that Esmond was likely to do well.

Days afterwards, when Esmond was brought out of a fever which he had, and which attacked him that night pretty sharply, the honest keeper’s wife brought her patient a handkerchief fresh washed and ironed, and at the corner of which he recognized his mistress’s well-known cipher and viscountess’s crown. “The lady had bound it round his arm when he fainted, and before she called for help,” the keeper’s wife said. “Poor lady! she took on sadly about her husband. He has been buried today, and a many of the coaches of the nobility went with him — my Lord Marlborough’s and my Lord Sunderland’s, and many of the officers of the Guards, in which he served in the old King’s time; and my lady has been with her two children to the King at Kensington, and asked for justice against my Lord Mohun, who is in hiding, and my Lord the Earl of Warwick and Holland, who is ready to give himself up and take his trial.”

Such were the news, coupled with assertions about her own honesty and that of Molly her maid, who would never have stolen a certain trumpery gold sleeve-button of Mr. Esmond’s that was missing after his fainting fit, that the keeper’s wife brought to her lodger. His thoughts followed to that untimely grave, the brave heart, the kind friend, the gallant gentleman, honest of word and generous of thought, (if feeble of purpose, but are his betters much stronger than he?) who had given him bread and shelter when he had none; home and love when he needed them; and who, if he had kept one vital secret from him, had done that of which he repented ere dying — a wrong indeed, but one followed by remorse, and occasioned by almost irresistible temptation.

Esmond took his handkerchief when his nurse left him, and very likely kissed it, and looked at the bauble embroidered in the corner. “It has cost thee grief enough,” he thought, “dear lady, so loving and so tender. Shall I take it from thee and thy children? No, never! Keep it, and wear it, my little Frank, my pretty boy. If I cannot make a name for myself, I can die without one. Some day, when my dear mistress sees my heart, I shall be righted; or if not here or now, why, elsewhere; where Honor doth not follow us, but where Love reigns perpetual.”

’Tis needless to relate here, as the reports of the lawyers already have chronicled them, the particulars or issue of that trial which ensued upon my Lord Castlewood’s melancholy homicide. Of the two lords engaged in that sad matter, the second, my Lord the Earl of Warwick and Holland, who had been engaged with Colonel Westbury, and wounded by him, was found not guilty by his peers, before whom he was tried (under the presidence of the Lord Steward, Lord Somers); and the principal, the Lord Mohun, being found guilty of the manslaughter, (which, indeed, was forced upon him, and of which he repented most sincerely,) pleaded his clergy, and so was discharged without any penalty. The widow of the slain nobleman, as it was told us in prison, showed an extraordinary spirit; and, though she had to wait for ten years before her son was old enough to compass it, declared she would have revenge of her husband’s murderer. So much and suddenly had grief, anger, and misfortune appeared to change her. But fortune, good or ill, as I take it, does not change men and women. It but develops their characters. As there are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write, so the heart is a secret even to him (or her) who has it in his own breast. Who hath not found himself surprised into revenge, or action, or passion, for good or evil, whereof the seeds lay within him, latent and unsuspected, until the occasion called them forth? With the death of her lord, a change seemed to come over the whole conduct and mind of Lady Castlewood; but of this we shall speak in the right season and anon.

The lords being tried then before their peers at Westminster, according to their privilege, being brought from the Tower with state processions and barges, and accompanied by lieutenants and axe-men, the commoners engaged in that melancholy fray took their trial at Newgate, as became them; and, being all found guilty, pleaded likewise their benefit of clergy. The sentence, as we all know in these cases, is, that the culprit lies a year in prison, or during the King’s pleasure, and is burned in the hand, or only stamped with a cold iron; or this part of the punishment is altogether remitted at the grace of the Sovereign. So Harry Esmond found himself a criminal and a prisoner at two-and-twenty years old; as for the two colonels, his comrades, they took the matter very lightly. Duelling was a part of their business; and they could not in honor refuse any invitations of that sort.

But the case was different with Mr. Esmond. His life was changed by that stroke of the sword which destroyed his kind patron’s. As he lay in prison, old Dr. Tusher fell ill and died; and Lady Castlewood appointed Thomas Tusher to the vacant living; about the filling of which she had a thousand times fondly talked to Harry Esmond: how they never should part; how he should educate her boy; how to be a country clergyman, like saintly George Herbert or pious Dr. Ken, was the happiest and greatest lot in life; how (if he were obstinately bent on it, though, for her part, she owned rather to holding Queen Bess’s opinion, that a bishop should have no wife, and if not a bishop why a clergyman?) she would find a good wife for Harry Esmond: and so on, with a hundred pretty prospects told by fireside evenings, in fond prattle, as the children played about the hall. All these plans were overthrown now. Thomas Tusher wrote to Esmond, as he lay in prison, announcing that his patroness had conferred upon him the living his reverend father had held for many years; that she never, after the tragical events which had occurred (whereof Tom spoke with a very edifying horror), could see in the revered Tusher’s pulpit, or at her son’s table, the man who was answerable for the father’s life; that her ladyship bade him to say that she prayed for her kinsman’s repentance and his worldly happiness; that he was free to command her aid for any scheme of life which he might propose to himself; but that on this side of the grave she would see him no more. And Tusher, for his own part, added that Harry should have his prayers as a friend of his youth, and commended him whilst he was in prison to read certain works of theology, which his Reverence pronounced to be very wholesome for sinners in his lamentable condition.

And this was the return for a life of devotion — this the end of years of affectionate intercourse and passionate fidelity! Harry would have died for his patron, and was held as little better than his murderer: he had sacrificed, she did not know how much, for his mistress, and she threw him aside; he had endowed her family with all they had, and she talked about giving him alms as to a menial! The grief for his patron’s loss; the pains of his own present position, and doubts as to the future: all these were forgotten under the sense of the consummate outrage which he had to endure, and overpowered by the superior pang of that torture.

He writ back a letter to Mr. Tusher from his prison, congratulating his Reverence upon his appointment to the living of Castlewood: sarcastically bidding him to follow in the footsteps of his admirable father, whose gown had descended upon him; thanking her ladyship for her offer of alms, which he said he should trust not to need; and beseeching her to remember that, if ever her determination should change towards him, he would be ready to give her proofs of a fidelity which had never wavered, and which ought never to have been questioned by that house. “And if we meet no more, or only as strangers in this world,” Mr. Esmond concluded, “a sentence against the cruelty and injustice of which I disdain to appeal; hereafter she will know who was faithful to her, and whether she had any cause to suspect the love and devotion of her kinsman and servant.”

After the sending of this letter, the poor young fellow’s mind was more at ease than it had been previously. The blow had been struck, and he had borne it. His cruel goddess had shaken her wings and fled: and left him alone and friendless, but virtute sua. And he had to bear him up, at once the sense of his right and the feeling of his wrongs, his honor and his misfortune. As I have seen men waking and running to arms at a sudden trumpet, before emergency a manly heart leaps up resolute; meets the threatening danger with undaunted countenance; and, whether conquered or conquering, faces it always. Ah! no man knows his strength or his weakness, till occasion proves them. If there be some thoughts and actions of his life from the memory of which a man shrinks with shame, sure there are some which he may be proud to own and remember; forgiven injuries, conquered temptations (now and then) and difficulties vanquished by endurance.

It was these thoughts regarding the living, far more than any great poignancy of grief respecting the dead, which affected Harry Esmond whilst in prison after his trial: but it may be imagined that he could take no comrade of misfortune into the confidence of his feelings, and they thought it was remorse and sorrow for his patron’s loss which affected the young man, in error of which opinion he chose to leave them. As a companion he was so moody and silent that the two officers, his fellow-sufferers, left him to himself mostly, liked little very likely what they knew of him, consoled themselves with dice, cards, and the bottle, and whiled away their own captivity in their own way. It seemed to Esmond as if he lived years in that prison: and was changed and aged when he came out of it. At certain periods of life we live years of emotion in a few weeks — and look back on those times, as on great gaps between the old life and the new. You do not know how much you suffer in those critical maladies of the heart, until the disease is over and you look back on it afterwards. During the time, the suffering is at least sufferable. The day passes in more or less of pain, and the night wears away somehow. ’Tis only in after days that we see what the danger has been — as a man out a-hunting or riding for his life looks at a leap, and wonders how he should have survived the taking of it. O dark months of grief and rage! of wrong and cruel endurance! He is old now who recalls you. Long ago he has forgiven and blest the soft hand that wounded him: but the mark is there, and the wound is cicatrized only — no time, tears, caresses, or repentance, can obliterate the scar. We are indocile to put up with grief, however. Reficimus rates quassas: we tempt the ocean again and again, and try upon new ventures. Esmond thought of his early time as a novitiate, and of this past trial as an initiation before entering into life — as our young Indians undergo tortures silently before they pass to the rank of warriors in the tribe.

The officers, meanwhile, who were not let into the secret of the grief which was gnawing at the side of their silent young friend, and being accustomed to such transactions, in which one comrade or another was daily paying the forfeit of the sword, did not, of course, bemoan themselves very inconsolably about the fate of their late companion in arms. This one told stories of former adventures of love, or war, or pleasure, in which poor Frank Esmond had been engaged; t’other recollected how a constable had been bilked, or a tavern-bully beaten: whilst my lord’s poor widow was sitting at his tomb worshipping him as an actual saint and spotless hero — so the visitors said who had news of Lady Castlewood; and Westbury and Macartney had pretty nearly had all the town to come and see them.

The duel, its fatal termination, the trial of the two peers and the three commoners concerned, had caused the greatest excitement in the town. The prints and News Letters were full of them. The three gentlemen in Newgate were almost as much crowded as the bishops in the Tower, or a highwayman before execution. We were allowed to live in the Governor’s house, as hath been said, both before trial and after condemnation, waiting the King’s pleasure; nor was the real cause of the fatal quarrel known, so closely had my lord and the two other persons who knew it kept the secret, but every one imagined that the origin of the meeting was a gambling dispute. Except fresh air, the prisoners had, upon payment, most things they could desire. Interest was made that they should not mix with the vulgar convicts, whose ribald choruses and loud laughter and curses could be heard from their own part of the prison, where they and the miserable debtors were confined pell-mell.

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