The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter III.

I Take the Queen’s Pay in Quin’s Regiment.

The fellow in the orange-tawny livery with blue lace and facings was in waiting when Esmond came out of prison, and, taking the young gentleman’s slender baggage, led the way out of that odious Newgate, and by Fleet Conduit, down to the Thames, where a pair of oars was called, and they went up the river to Chelsey. Esmond thought the sun had never shone so bright; nor the air felt so fresh and exhilarating. Temple Garden, as they rowed by, looked like the garden of Eden to him, and the aspect of the quays, wharves, and buildings by the river, Somerset House, and Westminster (where the splendid new bridge was just beginning), Lambeth tower and palace, and that busy shining scene of the Thames swarming with boats and barges, filled his heart with pleasure and cheerfulness — as well such a beautiful scene might to one who had been a prisoner so long, and with so many dark thoughts deepening the gloom of his captivity. They rowed up at length to the pretty village of Chelsey, where the nobility have many handsome country-houses; and so came to my Lady Viscountess’s house, a cheerful new house in the row facing the river, with a handsome garden behind it, and a pleasant look-out both towards Surrey and Kensington, where stands the noble ancient palace of the Lord Warwick, Harry’s reconciled adversary.

Here in her ladyship’s saloon, the young man saw again some of those pictures which had been at Castlewood, and which she had removed thence on the death of her lord, Harry’s father. Specially, and in the place of honor, was Sir Peter Lely’s picture of the honorable Mistress Isabella Esmond as Diana, in yellow satin, with a bow in her hand and a crescent in her forehead; and dogs frisking about her. ’Twas painted about the time when royal Endymions were said to find favor with this virgin huntress; and, as goddesses have youth perpetual, this one believed to the day of her death that she never grew older: and always persisted in supposing the picture was still like her.

After he had been shown to her room by the groom of the chamber, who filled many offices besides in her ladyship’s modest household, and after a proper interval, his elderly goddess Diana vouchsafed to appear to the young man. A blackamoor in a Turkish habit, with red boots and a silver collar, on which the Viscountess’s arms were engraven, preceded her and bore her cushion; then came her gentlewoman; a little pack of spaniels barking and frisking about preceded the austere huntress — then, behold, the Viscountess herself “dropping odors.” Esmond recollected from his childhood that rich aroma of musk which his mother-inlaw (for she may be called so) exhaled. As the sky grows redder and redder towards sunset, so, in the decline of her years, the cheeks of my Lady Dowager blushed more deeply. Her face was illuminated with vermilion, which appeared the brighter from the white paint employed to set it off. She wore the ringlets which had been in fashion in King Charles’s time; whereas the ladies of King William’s had head-dresses like the towers of Cybele. Her eyes gleamed out from the midst of this queer structure of paint, dyes, and pomatums. Such was my Lady Viscountess, Mr. Esmond’s father’s widow.

He made her such a profound bow as her dignity and relationship merited, and advanced with the greatest gravity, and once more kissed that hand, upon the trembling knuckles of which glittered a score of rings — remembering old times when that trembling hand made him tremble. “Marchioness,” says he, bowing, and on one knee, “is it only the hand I may have the honor of saluting?” For, accompanying that inward laughter, which the sight of such an astonishing old figure might well produce in the young man, there was good will too, and the kindness of consanguinity. She had been his father’s wife, and was his grandfather’s daughter. She had suffered him in old days, and was kind to him now after her fashion. And now that bar-sinister was removed from Esmond’s thought, and that secret opprobrium no longer cast upon his mind, he was pleased to feel family ties and own them — perhaps secretly vain of the sacrifice he had made, and to think that he, Esmond, was really the chief of his house, and only prevented by his own magnanimity from advancing his claim.

At least, ever since he had learned that secret from his poor patron on his dying bed, actually as he was standing beside it, he had felt an independency which he had never known before, and which since did not desert him. So he called his old aunt Marchioness, but with an air as if he was the Marquis of Esmond who so addressed her.

Did she read in the young gentleman’s eyes, which had now no fear of hers or their superannuated authority, that he knew or suspected the truth about his birth? She gave a start of surprise at his altered manner: indeed, it was quite a different bearing to that of the Cambridge student who had paid her a visit two years since, and whom she had dismissed with five pieces sent by the groom of the chamber. She eyed him, then trembled a little more than was her wont, perhaps, and said, “Welcome, cousin,” in a frightened voice.

His resolution, as has been said before, had been quite different, namely, so to bear himself through life as if the secret of his birth was not known to him; but he suddenly and rightly determined on a different course. He asked that her ladyship’s attendants should be dismissed, and when they were private —“Welcome, nephew, at least, madam, it should be,” he said. “A great wrong has been done to me and to you, and to my poor mother, who is no more.”

“I declare before heaven that I was guiltless of it,” she cried out, giving up her cause at once. “It was your wicked father who —”

“Who brought this dishonor on our family,” says Mr. Esmond. “I know it full well. I want to disturb no one. Those who are in present possession have been my dearest benefactors, and are quite innocent of intentional wrong to me. The late lord, my dear patron, knew not the truth until a few months before his death, when Father Holt brought the news to him.”

“The wretch! he had it in confession! he had it in confession!” cried out the Dowager Lady.

“Not so. He learned it elsewhere as well as in confession,” Mr. Esmond answered. “My father, when wounded at the Boyne, told the truth to a French priest, who was in hiding after the battle, as well as to the priest there, at whose house he died. This gentleman did not think fit to divulge the story till he met with Mr. Holt at Saint Omer’s. And the latter kept it back for his own purpose, and until he had learned whether my mother was alive or no. She is dead years since, my poor patron told me with his dying breath, and I doubt him not. I do not know even whether I could prove a marriage. I would not if I could. I do not care to bring shame on our name, or grief upon those whom I love, however hardly they may use me. My father’s son, madam, won’t aggravate the wrong my father did you. Continue to be his widow, and give me your kindness. ’Tis all I ask from you; and I shall never speak of this matter again.”

“Mais vous etes un noble jeune homme!” breaks out my lady, speaking, as usual with her when she was agitated, in the French language.

“Noblesse oblige,” says Mr. Esmond, making her a low bow. “There are those alive to whom, in return for their love to me, I often fondly said I would give my life away. Shall I be their enemy now, and quarrel about a title? What matters who has it? ’Tis with the family still.”

“What can there be in that little prude of a woman that makes men so raffoler about her?” cries out my Lady Dowager. “She was here for a month petitioning the King. She is pretty, and well conserved; but she has not the bel air. In his late Majesty’s Court all the men pretended to admire her, and she was no better than a little wax doll. She is better now, and looks the sister of her daughter; but what mean you all by bepraising her? Mr. Steele, who was in waiting on Prince George, seeing her with her two children going to Kensington, writ a poem about her, and says he shall wear her colors, and dress in black for the future. Mr. Congreve says he will write a ‘Mourning Widow,’ that shall be better than his ‘Mourning Bride.’ Though their husbands quarrelled and fought when that wretch Churchill deserted the King (for which he deserved to be hung), Lady Marlborough has again gone wild about the little widow; insulted me in my own drawing-room, by saying ’twas not the OLD widow, but the young Viscountess, she had come to see. Little Castlewood and little Lord Churchill are to be sworn friends, and have boxed each other twice or thrice like brothers already. ’Twas that wicked young Mohun who, coming back from the provinces last year, where he had disinterred her, raved about her all the winter; said she was a pearl set before swine; and killed poor stupid Frank. The quarrel was all about his wife. I know ’twas all about her. Was there anything between her and Mohun, nephew? Tell me now — was there anything? About yourself, I do not ask you to answer questions.”

Mr. Esmond blushed up. “My lady’s virtue is like that of a saint in heaven, madam,” he cried out.

“Eh! — mon neveu. Many saints get to heaven after having a deal to repent of. I believe you are like all the rest of the fools, and madly in love with her.”

“Indeed, I loved and honored her before all the world,” Esmond answered. “I take no shame in that.”

“And she has shut her door on you — given the living to that horrid young cub, son of that horrid old bear, Tusher, and says she will never see you more. Monsieur mon neveu — we are all like that. When I was a young woman, I’m positive that a thousand duels were fought about me. And when poor Monsieur de Souchy drowned himself in the canal at Bruges because I danced with Count Springbock, I couldn’t squeeze out a single tear, but danced till five o’clock the next morning. ’Twas the Count — no, ’twas my Lord Ormond that played the fiddles, and his Majesty did me the honor of dancing all night with me. — How you are grown! You have got the bel air. You are a black man. Our Esmonds are all black. The little prude’s son is fair; so was his father — fair and stupid. You were an ugly little wretch when you came to Castlewood — you were all eyes, like a young crow. We intended you should be a priest. That awful Father Holt — how he used to frighten me when I was ill! I have a comfortable director now — the Abbe Douillette — a dear man. We make meagre on Fridays always. My cook is a devout pious man. You, of course, are of the right way of thinking. They say the Prince of Orange is very ill indeed.”

In this way the old Dowager rattled on remorselessly to Mr. Esmond, who was quite astounded with her present volubility, contrasting it with her former haughty behavior to him. But she had taken him into favor for the moment, and chose not only to like him, as far as her nature permitted, but to be afraid of him; and he found himself to be as familiar with her now as a young man, as, when a boy, he had been timorous and silent. She was as good as her word respecting him. She introduced him to her company, of which she entertained a good deal — of the adherents of King James of course — and a great deal of loud intriguing took place over her card-tables. She presented Mr. Esmond as her kinsman to many persons of honor; she supplied him not illiberally with money, which he had no scruple in accepting from her, considering the relationship which he bore to her, and the sacrifices which he himself was making in behalf of the family. But he had made up his mind to continue at no woman’s apron-strings longer; and perhaps had cast about how he should distinguish himself, and make himself a name, which his singular fortune had denied him. A discontent with his former bookish life and quietude — a bitter feeling of revolt at that slavery in which he had chosen to confine himself for the sake of those whose hardness towards him make his heart bleed — a restless wish to see men and the world — led him to think of the military profession: at any rate, to desire to see a few campaigns, and accordingly he pressed his new patroness to get him a pair of colors; and one day had the honor of finding himself appointed an ensign in Colonel Quin’s regiment of Fusileers on the Irish establishment.

Mr. Esmond’s commission was scarce three weeks old when that accident befell King William which ended the life of the greatest, the wisest, the bravest, and most clement sovereign whom England ever knew. ’Twas the fashion of the hostile party to assail this great prince’s reputation during his life; but the joy which they and all his enemies in Europe showed at his death, is a proof of the terror in which they held him. Young as Esmond was, he was wise enough (and generous enough too, let it be said) to scorn that indecency of gratulation which broke out amongst the followers of King James in London, upon the death of this illustrious prince, this invincible warrior, this wise and moderate statesman. Loyalty to the exiled king’s family was traditional, as has been said, in that house to which Mr. Esmond belonged. His father’s widow had all her hopes, sympathies, recollections, prejudices, engaged on King James’s side; and was certainly as noisy a conspirator as ever asserted the King’s rights, or abused his opponent’s, over a quadrille table or a dish of bohea. Her ladyship’s house swarmed with ecclesiastics, in disguise and out; with tale-bearers from St. Germains; and quidnuncs that knew the last news from Versailles; nay, the exact force and number of the next expedition which the French king was to send from Dunkirk, and which was to swallow up the Prince of Orange, his army and his court. She had received the Duke of Berwick when he landed here in ‘96. She kept the glass he drank from, vowing she never would use it till she drank King James the Third’s health in it on his Majesty’s return; she had tokens from the Queen, and relics of the saint who, if the story was true, had not always been a saint as far as she and many others were concerned. She believed in the miracles wrought at his tomb, and had a hundred authentic stories of wondrous cures effected by the blessed king’s rosaries, the medals which he wore, the locks of his hair, or what not. Esmond remembered a score of marvellous tales which the credulous old woman told him. There was the Bishop of Autun, that was healed of a malady he had for forty years, and which left him after he said mass for the repose of the king’s soul. There was M. Marais, a surgeon in Auvergne, who had a palsy in both his legs, which was cured through the king’s intercession. There was Philip Pitet, of the Benedictines, who had a suffocating cough, which wellnigh killed him, but he besought relief of heaven through the merits and intercession of the blessed king, and he straightway felt a profuse sweat breaking out all over him, and was recovered perfectly. And there was the wife of Mons. Lepervier, dancing-master to the Duke of Saxe-Gotha, who was entirely eased of a rheumatism by the king’s intercession, of which miracle there could be no doubt, for her surgeon and his apprentice had given their testimony, under oath, that they did not in any way contribute to the cure. Of these tales, and a thousand like them, Mr. Esmond believed as much as he chose. His kinswoman’s greater faith had swallow for them all.

The English High Church party did not adopt these legends. But truth and honor, as they thought, bound them to the exiled king’s side; nor had the banished family any warmer supporter than that kind lady of Castlewood, in whose house Esmond was brought up. She influenced her husband, very much more perhaps than my lord knew, who admired his wife prodigiously though he might be inconstant to her, and who, adverse to the trouble of thinking himself, gladly enough adopted the opinions which she chose for him. To one of her simple and faithful heart, allegiance to any sovereign but the one was impossible. To serve King William for interest’s sake would have been a monstrous hypocrisy and treason. Her pure conscience could no more have consented to it than to a theft, a forgery, or any other base action. Lord Castlewood might have been won over, no doubt, but his wife never could: and he submitted his conscience to hers in this case as he did in most others, when he was not tempted too sorely. And it was from his affection and gratitude most likely, and from that eager devotion for his mistress, which characterized all Esmond’s youth, that the young man subscribed to this, and other articles of faith, which his fond benefactress set him. Had she been a Whig, he had been one; had she followed Mr. Fox, and turned Quaker, no doubt he would have abjured ruffles and a periwig, and have forsworn swords, lace-coats, and clocked stockings. In the scholars’ boyish disputes at the University, where parties ran very high, Esmond was noted as a Jacobite, and very likely from vanity as much as affection took the side of his family.

Almost the whole of the clergy of the country and more than a half of the nation were on this side. Ours is the most loyal people in the world surely; we admire our kings, and are faithful to them long after they have ceased to be true to us. ’Tis a wonder to any one who looks back at the history of the Stuart family to think how they kicked their crowns away from them; how they flung away chances after chances; what treasures of loyalty they dissipated, and how fatally they were bent on consummating their own ruin. If ever men had fidelity, ’twas they; if ever men squandered opportunity, ’twas they; and, of all the enemies they had, they themselves were the most fatal.

When the Princess Anne succeeded, the wearied nation was glad enough to cry a truce from all these wars, controversies, and conspiracies, and to accept in the person of a Princess of the blood royal a compromise between the parties into which the country was divided. The Tories could serve under her with easy consciences; though a Tory herself, she represented the triumph of the Whig opinion. The people of England, always liking that their Princes should be attached to their own families, were pleased to think the Princess was faithful to hers; and up to the very last day and hour of her reign, and but for that fatality which he inherited from his fathers along with their claims to the English crown, King James the Third might have worn it. But he neither knew how to wait an opportunity, nor to use it when he had it; he was venturesome when he ought to have been cautious, and cautious when he ought to have dared everything. ’Tis with a sort of rage at his inaptitude that one thinks of his melancholy story. Do the Fates deal more specially with kings than with common men? One is apt to imagine so, in considering the history of that royal race, in whose behalf so much fidelity, so much valor, so much blood were desperately and bootlessly expended.

The King dead then, the Princess Anne (ugly Anne Hyde’s daughter, our Dowager at Chelsey called her) was proclaimed by trumpeting heralds all over the town from Westminster to Ludgate Hill, amidst immense jubilations of the people.

Next week my Lord Marlborough was promoted to the Garter, and to be Captain-General of her Majesty’s forces at home and abroad. This appointment only inflamed the Dowager’s rage, or, as she thought it, her fidelity to her rightful sovereign. “The Princess is but a puppet in the hands of that fury of a woman, who comes into my drawing-room and insults me to my face. What can come to a country that is given over to such a woman?” says the Dowager: “As for that double-faced traitor, my Lord Marlborough, he has betrayed every man and every woman with whom he has had to deal, except his horrid wife, who makes him tremble. ’Tis all over with the country when it has got into the clutches of such wretches as these.”

Esmond’s old kinswoman saluted the new powers in this way; but some good fortune at last occurred to a family which stood in great need of it, by the advancement of these famous personages who benefited humbler people that had the luck of being in their favor. Before Mr. Esmond left England in the month of August, and being then at Portsmouth, where he had joined his regiment, and was busy at drill, learning the practice and mysteries of the musket and pike, he heard that a pension on the Stamp Office had been got for his late beloved mistress, and that the young Mistress Beatrix was also to be taken into court. So much good, at least, had come of the poor widow’s visit to London, not revenge upon her husband’s enemies, but reconcilement to old friends, who pitied, and seemed inclined to serve her. As for the comrades in prison and the late misfortune, Colonel Westbury was with the Captain-General gone to Holland; Captain Macartney was now at Portsmouth, with his regiment of Fusileers and the force under command of his Grace the Duke of Ormond, bound for Spain it was said; my Lord Warwick was returned home; and Lord Mohun, so far from being punished for the homicide which had brought so much grief and change into the Esmond family, was gone in company of my Lord Macclesfield’s splendid embassy to the Elector of Hanover, carrying the Garter to his Highness, and a complimentary letter from the Queen.

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