The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter VIII.

Family Talk.

What Harry admired and submitted to in the pretty lad his kinsman was (for why should he resist it?) the calmness of patronage which my young lord assumed, as if to command was his undoubted right, and all the world (below his degree) ought to bow down to Viscount Castlewood.

“I know my place, Harry,” he said. “I’m not proud — the boys at Winchester College say I’m proud: but I’m not proud. I am simply Francis James Viscount Castlewood in the peerage of Ireland. I might have been (do you know that?) Francis James Marquis and Earl of Esmond in that of England. The late lord refused the title which was offered to him by my godfather, his late Majesty. You should know that — you are of our family, you know you cannot help your bar sinister, Harry, my dear fellow; and you belong to one of the best families in England, in spite of that; and you stood by my father, and by G—! I’ll stand by you. You shall never want a friend, Harry, while Francis James Viscount Castlewood has a shilling. It’s now 1703 — I shall come of age in 1709. I shall go back to Castlewood; I shall live at Castlewood; I shall build up the house. My property will be pretty well restored by then. The late viscount mismanaged my property, and left it in a very bad state. My mother is living close, as you see, and keeps me in a way hardly befitting a peer of these realms; for I have but a pair of horses, a governor, and a man that is valet and groom. But when I am of age, these things will be set right, Harry. Our house will be as it should be. You will always come to Castlewood, won’t you? You shall always have your two rooms in the court kept for you; and if anybody slights you, d —— them! let them have a care of ME. I shall marry early — Trix will be a duchess by that time, most likely; for a cannon ball may knock over his grace any day, you know.”

“How?” says Harry.

“Hush, my dear!” says my Lord Viscount. “You are of the family — you are faithful to us, by George, and I tell you everything. Blandford will marry her — or”— and here he put his little hand on his sword —“you understand the rest. Blandford knows which of us two is the best weapon. At small-sword, or back-sword, or sword and dagger if he likes; I can beat him. I have tried him, Harry; and begad he knows I am a man not to be trifled with.”

“But you do not mean,” says Harry, concealing his laughter, but not his wonder, “that you can force my Lord Blandford, the son of the first man of this kingdom, to marry your sister at sword’s point?”

“I mean to say that we are cousins by the mother’s side, though that’s nothing to boast of. I mean to say that an Esmond is as good as a Churchill; and when the King comes back, the Marquis of Esmond’s sister may be a match for any nobleman’s daughter in the kingdom. There are but two marquises in all England, William Herbert Marquis of Powis, and Francis James Marquis of Esmond; and hark you, Harry — now swear you will never mention this. Give me your honor as a gentleman, for you ARE a gentleman, though you are a —”

“Well, well?” says Harry, a little impatient.

“Well, then, when after my late viscount’s misfortune, my mother went up with us to London, to ask for justice against you all (as for Mohun, I’ll have his blood, as sure as my name is Francis Viscount Esmond)— we went to stay with our cousin my Lady Marlborough, with whom we had quarrelled for ever so long. But when misfortune came, she stood by her blood:— so did the Dowager Viscountess stand by her blood — so did you. Well, sir, whilst my mother was petitioning the late Prince of Orange — for I will never call him king — and while you were in prison, we lived at my Lord Marlborough’s house, who was only a little there, being away with the army in Holland. And then . . . I say, Harry, you won’t tell, now?”

Harry again made a vow of secrecy.

“Well, there used to be all sorts of fun, you know: my Lady Marlborough was very fond of us, and she said I was to be her page; and she got Trix to be a maid of honor, and while she was up in her room crying, we used to be always having fun, you know; and the Duchess used to kiss me, and so did her daughters, and Blandford fell tremendous in love with Trix, and she liked him; and one day he — he kissed her behind a door — he did though — and the Duchess caught him, and she banged such a box of the ear both at Trix and Blandford — you should have seen it! And then she said that we must leave directly, and abused my mamma who was cognizant of the business; but she wasn’t — never thinking about anything but father. And so we came down to Walcote. Blandford being locked up, and not allowed to see Trix. But I got at him. I climbed along the gutter, and in through the window, where he was crying.

“‘Marquis,’ says I, when he had opened it and helped me in, ‘you know I wear a sword,’ for I had brought it.

“‘Oh, viscount,’ says he —‘oh, my dearest Frank!’ and he threw himself into my arms and burst out a-crying. ‘I do love Mistress Beatrix so, that I shall die if I don’t have her.’

“‘My dear Blandford,’ says I, ‘you are young to think of marrying;’ for he was but fifteen, and a young fellow of that age can scarce do so, you know.

“‘But I’ll wait twenty years, if she’ll have me,’ says he. ‘I’ll never marry — no, never, never, never, marry anybody but her. No, not a princess, though they would have me do it ever so. If Beatrix will wait for me, her Blandford swears he will be faithful.’ And he wrote a paper (it wasn’t spelt right, for he wrote ‘I’m ready to SINE WITH MY BLODE,’ which, you know, Harry, isn’t the way of spelling it), and vowing that he would marry none other but the Honorable Mistress Gertrude Beatrix Esmond, only sister of his dearest friend Francis James, fourth Viscount Esmond. And so I gave him a locket of her hair.”

“A locket of her hair?” cries Esmond.

“Yes. Trix gave me one after the fight with the Duchess that very day. I am sure I didn’t want it; and so I gave it him, and we kissed at parting, and said —‘Good-by, brother.’ And I got back through the gutter; and we set off home that very evening. And he went to King’s College, in Cambridge, and I’M going to Cambridge soon; and if he doesn’t stand to his promise (for he’s only wrote once) — he knows I wear a sword, Harry. Come along, and let’s go see the cocking-match at Winchester.

“. . . . But I say,” he added, laughing, after a pause, “I don’t think Trix will break her heart about him. La bless you! whenever she sees a man, she makes eyes at him; and young Sir Wilmot Crawley of Queen’s Crawley, and Anthony Henley of Airesford, were at swords drawn about her, at the Winchester Assembly, a month ago.”

That night Mr. Harry’s sleep was by no means so pleasant or sweet as it had been on the first two evenings after his arrival at Walcote. “So the bright eyes have been already shining on another,” thought he, “and the pretty lips, or the cheeks at any rate, have begun the work which they were made for. Here’s a girl not sixteen, and one young gentleman is already whimpering over a lock of her hair, and two country squires are ready to cut each other’s throats that they may have the honor of a dance with her. What a fool am I to be dallying about this passion, and singeing my wings in this foolish flame. Wings! — why not say crutches? ‘There is but eight years’ difference between us, to be sure; but in life I am thirty years older. How could I ever hope to please such a sweet creature as that, with my rough ways and glum face? Say that I have merit ever so much, and won myself a name, could she ever listen to me? She must be my Lady Marchioness, and I remain a nameless bastard. Oh! my master, my master!” (here he fell to thinking with a passionate grief of the vow which he had made to his poor dying lord.) “Oh! my mistress, dearest and kindest, will you be contented with the sacrifice which the poor orphan makes for you, whom you love, and who so loves you?”

And then came a fiercer pang of temptation. “A word from me,” Harry thought, “a syllable of explanation, and all this might be changed; but no, I swore it over the dying bed of my benefactor. For the sake of him and his; for the sacred love and kindness of old days; I gave my promise to him, and may kind heaven enable me to keep my vow!”

The next day, although Esmond gave no sign of what was going on in his mind, but strove to be more than ordinarily gay and cheerful when he met his friends at the morning meal, his dear mistress, whose clear eyes it seemed no emotion of his could escape, perceived that something troubled him, for she looked anxiously towards him more than once during the breakfast, and when he went up to his chamber afterwards she presently followed him, and knocked at his door.

As she entered, no doubt the whole story was clear to her at once, for she found our young gentleman packing his valise, pursuant to the resolution which he had come to over-night of making a brisk retreat out of this temptation.

She closed the door very carefully behind her, and then leant against it, very pale, her hands folded before her, looking at the young man, who was kneeling over his work of packing. “Are you going so soon?” she said.

He rose up from his knees, blushing, perhaps, to be so discovered, in the very act, as it were, and took one of her fair little hands — it was that which had her marriage ring on — and kissed it.

“It is best that it should be so, dearest lady,” he said.

“I knew you were going, at breakfast. I— I thought you might stay. What has happened? Why can’t you remain longer with us? What has Frank told you — you were talking together late last night?”

“I had but three days’ leave from Chelsey,” Esmond said, as gayly as he could. “My aunt — she lets me call her aunt — is my mistress now! I owe her my lieutenancy and my laced coat. She has taken me into high favor; and my new General is to dine at Chelsey tomorrow — General Lumley, madam — who has appointed me his aide-de-camp, and on whom I must have the honor of waiting. See, here is a letter from the Dowager; the post brought it last night; and I would not speak of it, for fear of disturbing our last merry meeting.”

My lady glanced at the letter, and put it down with a smile that was somewhat contemptuous. “I have no need to read the letter,” says she —(indeed, ’twas as well she did not; for the Chelsey missive, in the poor Dowager’s usual French jargon, permitted him a longer holiday than he said. “Je vous donne,” quoth her ladyship, “oui jour, pour vous fatigay parfaictement de vos parens fatigans”)—“I have no need to read the letter,” says she. “What was it Frank told you last night?”

“He told me little I did not know,” Mr. Esmond answered. “But I have thought of that little, and here’s the result: I have no right to the name I bear, dear lady; and it is only by your sufferance that I am allowed to keep it. If I thought for an hour of what has perhaps crossed your mind too —”

“Yes, I did, Harry,” said she; “I thought of it; and think of it. I would sooner call you my son than the greatest prince in Europe — yes, than the greatest prince. For who is there so good and so brave, and who would love her as you would? But there are reasons a mother can’t tell.”

“I know them,” said Mr. Esmond, interrupting her with a smile. “I know there’s Sir Wilmot Crawley of Queen’s Crawley, and Mr. Anthony Henley of the Grange, and my Lord Marquis of Blandford, that seems to be the favored suitor. You shall ask me to wear my Lady Marchioness’s favors and to dance at her ladyship’s wedding.”

“Oh! Harry, Harry, it is none of these follies that frighten me,” cried out Lady Castlewood. “Lord Churchill is but a child, his outbreak about Beatrix was a mere boyish folly. His parents would rather see him buried than married to one below him in rank. And do you think that I would stoop to sue for a husband for Francis Esmond’s daughter; or submit to have my girl smuggled into that proud family to cause a quarrel between son and parents, and to be treated only as an inferior? I would disdain such a meanness. Beatrix would scorn it. Ah! Henry, ’tis not with you the fault lies, ’tis with her. I know you both, and love you: need I be ashamed of that love now? No, never, never, and ’tis not you, dear Harry, that is unworthy. ’Tis for my poor Beatrix I tremble — whose headstrong will frightens me; whose jealous temper (they say I was jealous too, but, pray God, I am cured of that sin) and whose vanity no words or prayers of mine can cure — only suffering, only experience, and remorse afterwards. Oh! Henry, she will make no man happy who loves her. Go away, my son: leave her: love us always, and think kindly of us: and for me, my dear, you know that these walls contain all that I love in the world.”

In after life, did Esmond find the words true which his fond mistress spoke from her sad heart? Warning he had: but I doubt others had warning before his time, and since: and he benefited by it as most men do.

My young Lord Viscount was exceeding sorry when he heard that Harry could not come to the cock-match with him, and must go to London, but no doubt my lord consoled himself when the Hampshire cocks won the match; and he saw every one of the battles, and crowed properly over the conquered Sussex gentlemen.

As Esmond rode towards town his servant, coming up to him, informed him with a grin, that Mistress Beatrix had brought out a new gown and blue stockings for that day’s dinner, in which she intended to appear, and had flown into a rage and given her maid a slap on the face soon after she heard he was going away. Mistress Beatrix’s woman, the fellow said, came down to the servants’ hall crying, and with the mark of a blow still on her cheek: but Esmond peremptorily ordered him to fall back and be silent, and rode on with thoughts enough of his own to occupy him — some sad ones, some inexpressibly dear and pleasant.

His mistress, from whom he had been a year separated, was his dearest mistress again. The family from which he had been parted, and which he loved with the fondest devotion, was his family once more. If Beatrix’s beauty shone upon him, it was with a friendly lustre, and he could regard it with much such a delight as he brought away after seeing the beautiful pictures of the smiling Madonnas in the convent at Cadiz, when he was despatched thither with a flag; and as for his mistress, ’twas difficult to say with what a feeling he regarded her. ’Twas happiness to have seen her; ’twas no great pang to part; a filial tenderness, a love that was at once respect and protection, filled his mind as he thought of her; and near her or far from her, and from that day until now, and from now till death is past and beyond it, he prays that sacred flame may ever burn.

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