The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter IV.

Recapitulations.

From such fitful lights as could be cast upon his dark history by the broken narrative of his poor patron, torn by remorse and struggling in the last pangs of dissolution, Mr. Esmond had been made to understand so far, that his mother was long since dead; and so there could be no question as regarded her or her honor, tarnished by her husband’s desertion and injury, to influence her son in any steps which he might take either for prosecuting or relinquishing his own just claims. It appeared from my poor lord’s hurried confession, that he had been made acquainted with the real facts of the case only two years since, when Mr. Holt visited him, and would have implicated him in one of those many conspiracies by which the secret leaders of King James’s party in this country were ever endeavoring to destroy the Prince of Orange’s life or power: conspiracies so like murder, so cowardly in the means used, so wicked in the end, that our nation has sure done well in throwing off all allegiance and fidelity to the unhappy family that could not vindicate its right except by such treachery — by such dark intrigue and base agents. There were designs against King William that were no more honorable than the ambushes of cut-throats and footpads. ’Tis humiliating to think that a great Prince, possessor of a great and sacred right, and upholder of a great cause, should have stooped to such baseness of assassination and treasons as are proved by the unfortunate King James’s own warrant and sign manual given to his supporters in this country. What he and they called levying war was, in truth, no better than instigating murder. The noble Prince of Orange burst magnanimously through those feeble meshes of conspiracy in which his enemies tried to envelop him: it seemed as if their cowardly daggers broke upon the breast of his undaunted resolution. After King James’s death, the Queen and her people at St. Germains — priests and women for the most part — continued their intrigues in behalf of the young Prince, James the Third, as he was called in France and by his party here (this Prince, or Chevalier de St. George, was born in the same year with Esmond’s young pupil Frank, my Lord Viscount’s son); and the Prince’s affairs, being in the hands of priests and women, were conducted as priests and women will conduct them, artfully, cruelly, feebly, and to a certain bad issue. The moral of the Jesuits’ story I think as wholesome a one as ever was writ: the artfullest, the wisest, the most toilsome, and dexterous plot-builders in the world — there always comes a day when the roused public indignation kicks their flimsy edifice down, and sends its cowardly enemies a-flying. Mr. Swift hath finely described that passion for intrigue, that love of secrecy, slander, and lying, which belongs to weak people, hangers-on of weak courts. ’Tis the nature of such to hate and envy the strong, and conspire their ruin; and the conspiracy succeeds very well, and everything presages the satisfactory overthrow of the great victim; until one day Gulliver rouses himself, shakes off the little vermin of an enemy, and walks away unmolested. Ah! the Irish soldiers might well say after the Boyne, “Change kings with us and we will fight it over again.” Indeed, the fight was not fair between the two. ’Twas a weak, priest-ridden, woman-ridden man, with such puny allies and weapons as his own poor nature led him to choose, contending against the schemes, the generalship, the wisdom, and the heart of a hero.

On one of these many coward’s errands then, (for, as I view them now, I can call them no less,) Mr. Holt had come to my lord at Castlewood, proposing some infallible plan for the Prince of Orange’s destruction, in which my Lord Viscount, loyalist as he was, had indignantly refused to join. As far as Mr. Esmond could gather from his dying words, Holt came to my lord with a plan of insurrection, and offer of the renewal, in his person, of that marquis’s title which King James had conferred on the preceding viscount; and on refusal of this bribe, a threat was made, on Holt’s part, to upset my Lord Viscount’s claim to his estate and title of Castlewood altogether. To back this astounding piece of intelligence, of which Henry Esmond’s patron now had the first light, Holt came armed with the late lord’s dying declaration, after the affair of the Boyne, at Trim, in Ireland, made both to the Irish priest and a French ecclesiastic of Holt’s order, that was with King James’s army. Holt showed, or pretended to show, the marriage certificate of the late Viscount Esmond with my mother, in the city of Brussels, in the year 1677, when the viscount, then Thomas Esmond, was serving with the English army in Flanders; he could show, he said, that this Gertrude, deserted by her husband long since, was alive, and a professed nun in the year 1685, at Brussels, in which year Thomas Esmond married his uncle’s daughter, Isabella, now called Viscountess Dowager of Castlewood; and leaving him, for twelve hours, to consider this astounding news (so the poor dying lord said), disappeared with his papers in the mysterious way in which he came. Esmond knew how, well enough: by that window from which he had seen the Father issue:— but there was no need to explain to my poor lord, only to gather from his parting lips the words which he would soon be able to utter no more.

Ere the twelve hours were over, Holt himself was a prisoner, implicated in Sir John Fenwick’s conspiracy, and locked up at Hexton first, whence he was transferred to the Tower; leaving the poor Lord Viscount, who was not aware of the others being taken, in daily apprehension of his return, when (as my Lord Castlewood declared, calling God to witness, and with tears in his dying eyes) it had been his intention at once to give up his estate and his title to their proper owner, and to retire to his own house at Walcote with his family. “And would to God I had done it,” the poor lord said. “I would not be here now, wounded to death, a miserable, stricken man!”

My lord waited day after day, and, as may be supposed, no messenger came; but at a month’s end Holt got means to convey to him a message out of the Tower, which was to this effect: that he should consider all unsaid that had been said, and that things were as they were.

“I had a sore temptation,” said my poor lord. “Since I had come into this cursed title of Castlewood, which hath never prospered with me, I have spent far more than the income of that estate, and my paternal one, too. I calculated all my means down to the last shilling, and found I never could pay you back, my poor Harry, whose fortune I had had for twelve years. My wife and children must have gone out of the house dishonored, and beggars. God knows, it hath been a miserable one for me and mine. Like a coward, I clung to that respite which Holt gave me. I kept the truth from Rachel and you. I tried to win money of Mohun, and only plunged deeper into debt; I scarce dared look thee in the face when I saw thee. This sword hath been hanging over my head these two years. I swear I felt happy when Mohun’s blade entered my side.”

After lying ten months in the Tower, Holt, against whom nothing could be found except that he was a Jesuit priest, known to be in King James’s interest, was put on shipboard by the incorrigible forgiveness of King William, who promised him, however, a hanging if ever he should again set foot on English shore. More than once, whilst he was in prison himself, Esmond had thought where those papers could be, which the Jesuit had shown to his patron, and which had such an interest for himself. They were not found on Mr. Holt’s person when that Father was apprehended, for had such been the case my Lords of the Council had seen them, and this family history had long since been made public. However, Esmond cared not to seek the papers. His resolution being taken; his poor mother dead; what matter to him that documents existed proving his right to a title which he was determined not to claim, and of which he vowed never to deprive that family which he loved best in the world? Perhaps he took a greater pride out of his sacrifice than he would have had in those honors which he was resolved to forego. Again, as long as these titles were not forthcoming, Esmond’s kinsman, dear young Francis, was the honorable and undisputed owner of the Castlewood estate and title. The mere word of a Jesuit could not overset Frank’s right of occupancy, and so Esmond’s mind felt actually at ease to think the papers were missing, and in their absence his dear mistress and her son the lawful Lady and Lord of Castlewood.

Very soon after his liberation, Mr. Esmond made it his business to ride to that village of Ealing where he had passed his earliest years in this country, and to see if his old guardians were still alive and inhabitants of that place. But the only relique which he found of old M. Pastoureau was a stone in the churchyard, which told that Athanasius Pastoureau, a native of Flanders, lay there buried, aged 87 years. The old man’s cottage, which Esmond perfectly recollected, and the garden (where in his childhood he had passed many hours of play and reverie, and had many a beating from his termagant of a foster-mother), were now in the occupation of quite a different family; and it was with difficulty that he could learn in the village what had come of Pastoureau’s widow and children. The clerk of the parish recollected her — the old man was scarce altered in the fourteen years that had passed since last Esmond set eyes on him. It appeared she had pretty soon consoled herself after the death of her old husband, whom she ruled over, by taking a new one younger than herself, who spent her money and ill-treated her and her children. The girl died; one of the boys ‘listed; the other had gone apprentice. Old Mr. Rogers, the clerk, said he had heard that Mrs. Pastoureau was dead too. She and her husband had left Ealing this seven year; and so Mr. Esmond’s hopes of gaining any information regarding his parentage from this family were brought to an end. He gave the old clerk a crown-piece for his news, smiling to think of the time when he and his little playfellows had slunk out of the churchyard or hidden behind the gravestones, at the approach of this awful authority.

Who was his mother? What had her name been? When did she die? Esmond longed to find some one who could answer these questions to him, and thought even of putting them to his aunt the Viscountess, who had innocently taken the name which belonged of right to Henry’s mother. But she knew nothing, or chose to know nothing, on this subject, nor, indeed, could Mr. Esmond press her much to speak on it. Father Holt was the only man who could enlighten him, and Esmond felt he must wait until some fresh chance or new intrigue might put him face to face with his old friend, or bring that restless indefatigable spirit back to England again.

The appointment to his ensigncy, and the preparations necessary for the campaign, presently gave the young gentleman other matters to think of. His new patroness treated him very kindly and liberally; she promised to make interest and pay money, too, to get him a company speedily; she bade him procure a handsome outfit, both of clothes and of arms, and was pleased to admire him when he made his first appearance in his laced scarlet coat, and to permit him to salute her on the occasion of this interesting investiture. “Red,” says she, tossing up her old head, “hath always been the color worn by the Esmonds.” And so her ladyship wore it on her own cheeks very faithfully to the last. She would have him be dressed, she said, as became his father’s son, and paid cheerfully for his five-pound beaver, his black buckled periwig, and his fine holland shirts, and his swords, and his pistols, mounted with silver. Since the day he was born, poor Harry had never looked such a fine gentleman: his liberal step-mother filled his purse with guineas, too, some of which Captain Steele and a few choice spirits helped Harry to spend in an entertainment which Dick ordered (and, indeed, would have paid for, but that he had no money when the reckoning was called for; nor would the landlord give him any more credit) at the “Garter,” over against the gate of the Palace, in Pall Mall.

The old Viscountess, indeed, if she had done Esmond any wrong formerly, seemed inclined to repair it by the present kindness of her behavior: she embraced him copiously at parting, wept plentifully, bade him write by every packet, and gave him an inestimable relic, which she besought him to wear round his neck — a medal, blessed by I know not what pope, and worn by his late sacred Majesty King James. So Esmond arrived at his regiment with a better equipage than most young officers could afford. He was older than most of his seniors, and had a further advantage which belonged but to very few of the army gentlemen in his day — many of whom could do little more than write their names — that he had read much, both at home and at the University, was master of two or three languages, and had that further education which neither books nor years will give, but which some men get from the silent teaching of adversity. She is a great schoolmistress, as many a poor fellow knows, that hath held his hand out to her ferule, and whimpered over his lesson before her awful chair.

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