The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter XV.

General Webb Wins the Battle of Wynendael.

By the besiegers and besieged of Lille, some of the most brilliant feats of valor were performed that ever illustrated any war. On the French side (whose gallantry was prodigious, the skill and bravery of Marshal Boufflers actually eclipsing those of his conqueror, the Prince of Savoy) may be mentioned that daring action of Messieurs de Luxembourg and Tournefort, who, with a body of horse and dragoons, carried powder into the town, of which the besieged were in extreme want, each soldier bringing a bag with forty pounds of powder behind him; with which perilous provision they engaged our own horse, faced the fire of the foot brought out to meet them: and though half of the men were blown up in the dreadful errand they rode on, a part of them got into the town with the succors of which the garrison was so much in want. A French officer, Monsieur du Bois, performed an act equally daring, and perfectly successful. The Duke’s great army lying at Helchin, and covering the siege, and it being necessary for M. de Vendosme to get news of the condition of the place, Captain Dubois performed his famous exploit: not only passing through the lines of the siege, but swimming afterwards no less than seven moats and ditches: and coming back the same way, swimming with his letters in his mouth.

By these letters Monsieur de Boufflers said that he could undertake to hold the place till October; and that if one of the convoys of the Allies could be intercepted, they must raise the siege altogether.

Such a convoy as hath been said was now prepared at Ostend, and about to march for the siege; and on the 27th September we (and the French too) had news that it was on its way. It was composed of 700 wagons, containing ammunition of all sorts, and was escorted out of Ostend by 2,000 infantry and 300 horse. At the same time M. de la Mothe quitted Bruges, having with him five-and-thirty battalions, and upwards of sixty squadrons and forty guns, in pursuit of the convoy.

Major-General Webb had meanwhile made up a force of twenty battalions and three squadrons of dragoons at Turout, whence he moved to cover the convoy and pursue La Mothe: with whose advanced guard ours came up upon the great plain of Turout, and before the little wood and castle of Wynendael; behind which the convoy was marching.

As soon as they came in sight of the enemy, our advanced troops were halted, with the wood behind them, and the rest of our force brought up as quickly as possible, our little body of horse being brought forward to the opening of the plain, as our General said, to amuse the enemy. When M. de la Mothe came up, he found us posted in two lines in front of the wood; and formed his own army in battle facing ours, in eight lines, four of infantry in front, and dragoons and cavalry behind.

The French began the action, as usual, with a cannonade which lasted three hours, when they made their attack, advancing in eight lines, four of foot and four of horse, upon the allied troops in the wood where we were posted. Their infantry behaved ill; they were ordered to charge with the bayonet, but, instead, began to fire, and almost at the very first discharge from our men, broke and fled. The cavalry behaved better; with these alone, who were three or four times as numerous as our whole force, Monsieur de la Mothe might have won victory: but only two of our battalions were shaken in the least; and these speedily rallied: nor could the repeated attacks of the French horse cause our troops to budge an inch from the position in the wood in which our General had placed them.

After attacking for two hours, the French retired at nightfall entirely foiled. With all the loss we had inflicted upon him, the enemy was still three times stronger than we: and it could not be supposed that our General could pursue M. de la Mothe, or do much more than hold our ground about the wood, from which the Frenchman had in vain attempted to dislodge us. La Mothe retired behind his forty guns, his cavalry protecting them better than it had been enabled to annoy us; and meanwhile the convoy, which was of more importance than all our little force, and the safe passage of which we would have dropped to the last man to accomplish, marched away in perfect safety during the action, and joyfully reached the besieging camp before Lille.

Major-General Cadogan, my Lord Duke’s Quarter-Master-General, (and between whom and Mr. Webb there was no love lost), accompanied the convoy, and joined Mr. Webb with a couple of hundred horse just as the battle was over, and the enemy in full retreat. He offered, readily enough, to charge with his horse upon the French as they fell back; but his force was too weak to inflict any damage upon them; and Mr. Webb, commanding as Cadogan’s senior, thought enough was done in holding our ground before an enemy that might still have overwhelmed us had we engaged him in the open territory, and in securing the safe passage of the convoy. Accordingly, the horse brought up by Cadogan did not draw a sword; and only prevented, by the good countenance they showed, any disposition the French might have had to renew the attack on us. And no attack coming, at nightfall General Cadogan drew off with his squadron, being bound for head-quarters, the two Generals at parting grimly saluting each other.

“He will be at Roncq time enough to lick my Lord Duke’s trenchers at supper,” says Mr. Webb.

Our own men lay out in the woods of Wynendael that night, and our General had his supper in the little castle there.

“If I was Cadogan, I would have a peerage for this day’s work,” General Webb said; “and, Harry, thou shouldst have a regiment. Thou hast been reported in the last two actions: thou wert near killed in the first. I shall mention thee in my despatch to his Grace the Commander-inChief, and recommend thee to poor Dick Harwood’s vacant majority. Have you ever a hundred guineas to give Cardonnel? Slip them into his hand tomorrow, when you go to head-quarters with my report.”

In this report the Major-General was good enough to mention Captain Esmond’s name with particular favor; and that gentleman carried the despatch to head-quarters the next day, and was not a little pleased to bring back a letter by his Grace’s secretary, addressed to Lieutenant-General Webb. The Dutch officer despatched by Count Nassau Woudenbourg, Vaelt-Mareschal Auverquerque’s son, brought back also a complimentary letter to his commander, who had seconded Mr. Webb in the action with great valor and skill.

Esmond, with a low bow and a smiling face, presented his despatch, and saluted Mr. Webb as Lieutenant-General, as he gave it in. The gentlemen round about him — he was riding with his suite on the road to Menin as Esmond came up with him — gave a cheer, and he thanked them, and opened the despatch with rather a flushed, eager face.

He slapped it down on his boot in a rage after he had read it. “’Tis not even writ with his own hand. Read it out, Esmond.” And Esmond read it out:—

“SIR — Mr. Cadogan is just now come in, and has acquainted me with the success of the action you had yesterday in the afternoon against the body of troops commanded by M. de la Mothe, at Wynendael, which must be attributed chiefly to your good conduct and resolution. You may be sure I shall do you justice at home, and be glad on all occasions to own the service you have done in securing this convoy. — Yours, &c., M.”

“Two lines by that d — d Cardonnel, and no more, for the taking of Lille — for beating five times our number — for an action as brilliant as the best he ever fought,” says poor Mr. Webb. “Lieutenant-General! That’s not his doing. I was the oldest major-general. By — — I believe he had been better pleased if I had been beat.”

The letter to the Dutch officer was in French, and longer and more complimentary than that to Mr. Webb.

“And this is the man,” he broke out, “that’s gorged with gold — that’s covered with titles and honors that we won for him — and that grudges even a line of praise to a comrade in arms! Hasn’t he enough? Don’t we fight that he may roll in riches? Well, well, wait for the Gazette, gentlemen. The Queen and the country will do us justice if his Grace denies it us.” There were tears of rage in the brave warrior’s eyes as he spoke; and he dashed them off his face on to his glove. He shook his fist in the air. “Oh, by the Lord!” says he, “I know what I had rather have than a peerage!”

“And what is that, sir?” some of them asked.

“I had rather have a quarter of an hour with John Churchill, on a fair green field, and only a pair of rapiers between my shirt and his —”

“Sir!” interposes one.

“Tell him so! I know that’s what you mean. I know every word goes to him that’s dropped from every general officer’s mouth. I don’t say he’s not brave. Curse him! he’s brave enough; but we’ll wait for the Gazette, gentlemen. God save her Majesty! she’ll do us justice.”

The Gazette did not come to us till a month afterwards; when my General and his officers had the honor to dine with Prince Eugene in Lille; his Highness being good enough to say that we had brought the provisions, and ought to share in the banquet. ’Twas a great banquet. His Grace of Marlborough was on his Highness’s right, and on his left the Mareschal de Boufflers, who had so bravely defended the place. The chief officers of either army were present; and you may be sure Esmond’s General was splendid this day: his tall noble person, and manly beauty of face, made him remarkable anywhere; he wore, for the first time, the star of the Order of Generosity, that his Prussian Majesty had sent to him for his victory. His Highness the Prince of Savoy called a toast to the conqueror of Wynendael. My Lord Duke drank it with rather a sickly smile. The aides-de-camp were present: and Harry Esmond and his dear young lord were together, as they always strove to be when duty would permit: they were over against the table where the generals were, and could see all that passed pretty well. Frank laughed at my Lord Duke’s glum face: the affair of Wynendael, and the Captain-General’s conduct to Webb, had been the talk of the whole army. When his Highness spoke, and gave —“Le vainqueur de Wynendael; son armee et sa victoire,” adding, “qui nous font diner a Lille aujourd’huy”— there was a great cheer through the hall; for Mr. Webb’s bravery, generosity, and very weaknesses of character caused him to be beloved in the army.

“Like Hector, handsome, and like Paris, brave!” whispers Frank Castlewood. “A Venus, an elderly Venus, couldn’t refuse him a pippin. Stand up, Harry. See, we are drinking the army of Wynendael. Ramillies is nothing to it. Huzzay! huzzay!”

At this very time, and just after our General had made his acknowledgment, some one brought in an English Gazette — and was passing it from hand to hand down the table. Officers were eager enough to read it; mothers and sisters at home must have sickened over it. There scarce came out a Gazette for six years that did not tell of some heroic death or some brilliant achievement.

“Here it is — Action of Wynendael — here you are, General,” says Frank, seizing hold of the little dingy paper that soldiers love to read so; and, scrambling over from our bench, he went to where the General sat, who knew him, and had seen many a time at his table his laughing, handsome face, which everybody loved who saw. The generals in their great perukes made way for him. He handed the paper over General Dohna’s buff-coat to our General on the opposite side.

He came hobbling back, and blushing at his feat: “I thought he’d like it, Harry,” the young fellow whispered. “Didn’t I like to read my name after Ramillies, in the London Gazette? — Viscount Castlewood serving a volunteer — I say, what’s yonder?”

Mr. Webb, reading the Gazette, looked very strange — slapped it down on the table — then sprang up in his place, and began to —“Will your Highness please to —”

His Grace the Duke of Marlborough here jumped up too —“There’s some mistake, my dear General Webb.”

“Your Grace had better rectify it,” says Mr. Webb, holding out the letter; but he was five off his Grace the Prince Duke, who, besides, was higher than the General (being seated with the Prince of Savoy, the Electoral Prince of Hanover, and the envoys of Prussia and Denmark, under a baldaquin), and Webb could not reach him, tall as he was.

“Stay,” says he, with a smile, as if catching at some idea, and then, with a perfect courtesy, drawing his sword, he ran the Gazette through with the point, and said, “Permit me to hand it to your Grace.”

The Duke looked very black. “Take it,” says he, to his Master of the Horse, who was waiting behind him.

The Lieutenant-General made a very low bow, and retired and finished his glass. The Gazette in which Mr. Cardonnel, the Duke’s secretary, gave an account of the victory of Wynendael, mentioned Mr. Webb’s name, but gave the sole praise and conduct of the action to the Duke’s favorite, Mr. Cadogan.

There was no little talk and excitement occasioned by this strange behavior of General Webb, who had almost drawn a sword upon the Commander-inChief; but the General, after the first outbreak of his anger, mastered it outwardly altogether; and, by his subsequent behavior, had the satisfaction of even more angering the Commander-inChief, than he could have done by any public exhibition of resentment.

On returning to his quarters, and consulting with his chief adviser, Mr. Esmond, who was now entirely in the General’s confidence, and treated by him as a friend, and almost a son, Mr. Webb writ a letter to his Grace the Commander-inChief, in which he said:—

“Your Grace must be aware that the sudden perusal of the London Gazette, in which your Grace’s secretary, Mr. Cardonnel, hath mentioned Major-General Cadogan’s name as the officer commanding in the late action of Wynendael, must have caused a feeling of anything but pleasure to the General who fought that action.

“Your Grace must be aware that Mr. Cadogan was not even present at the battle, though he arrived with squadrons of horse at its close, and put himself under the command of his superior officer. And as the result of the battle of Wynendael, in which Lieutenant-General Webb had the good fortune to command, was the capture of Lille, the relief of Brussels, then invested by the enemy under the Elector of Bavaria, the restoration of the great cities of Ghent and Bruges, of which the enemy (by treason within the walls) had got possession in the previous year, Mr. Webb cannot consent to forego the honors of such a success and service, for the benefit of Mr. Cadogan, or any other person.

“As soon as the military operations of the year are over, Lieutenant-General Webb will request permission to leave the army, and return to his place in Parliament, where he gives notice to his Grace the Commander-in Chief, that he shall lay his case before the House of Commons, the country, and her Majesty the Queen.

“By his eagerness to rectify that false statement of the Gazette, which had been written by his Grace’s secretary, Mr. Cardonnel, Mr. Webb, not being able to reach his Grace the Commander-inChief on account of the gentlemen seated between them, placed the paper containing the false statement on his sword, so that it might more readily arrive in the hands of his Grace the Duke of Marlborough, who surely would wish to do justice to every officer of his army.

“Mr. Webb knows his duty too well to think of insubordination to his superior officer, or of using his sword in a campaign against any but the enemies of her Majesty. He solicits permission to return to England immediately the military duties will permit, and take with him to England Captain Esmond, of his regiment, who acted as his aide-de-camp, and was present during the entire action, and noted by his watch the time when Mr. Cadogan arrived at its close.”

The Commander-inChief could not but grant this permission, nor could he take notice of Webb’s letter, though it was couched in terms the most insulting. Half the army believed that the cities of Ghent and Bruges were given up by a treason, which some in our army very well understood; that the Commander-inChief would not have relieved Lille if he could have helped himself; that he would not have fought that year had not the Prince of Savoy forced him. When the battle once began, then, for his own renown, my Lord Marlborough would fight as no man in the world ever fought better; and no bribe on earth could keep him from beating the enemy.5

5 Our Grandfather’s hatred of the Duke of Marlborough appears all through his account of these campaigns. He always persisted that the Duke was the greatest traitor and soldier history ever told of: and declared that he took bribes on all hands during the war. My Lord Marquis (for so we may call him here, though he never went by any other name than Colonel Esmond) was in the habit of telling many stories which he did not set down in his memoirs, and which he had from his friend the Jesuit, who was not always correctly informed, and who persisted that Marlborough was looking for a bribe of two millions of crowns before the campaign of Ramillies.

And our Grandmother used to tell us children, that on his
first presentation to my Lord duke, the Duke turned his back
upon my Grandfather; and said to the Duchess, who told my
lady dowager at Chelsey, who afterwards told Colonel Esmond
—“Tom Esmond’s bastard has been to my levee: he has the
hang-dog look of his rogue of a father”— an expression which
my Grandfather never forgave. He was as constant in his
dislikes as in his attachments; and exceedingly partial to
Webb, whose side he took against the more celebrated
general. We have General Webb’s portrait now at Castlewood,
Va.

But the matter was taken up by the subordinates; and half the army might have been by the ears, if the quarrel had not been stopped. General Cadogan sent an intimation to General Webb to say that he was ready if Webb liked, and would meet him. This was a kind of invitation our stout old general was always too ready to accept, and ’twas with great difficulty we got the General to reply that he had no quarrel with Mr. Cadogan, who had behaved with perfect gallantry, but only with those at head-quarters, who had belied him. Mr. Cardonnel offered General Webb reparation; Mr. Webb said he had a cane at the service of Mr. Cardonnel, and the only satisfaction he wanted from him was one he was not likely to get, namely, the truth. The officers in our staff of Webb’s, and those in the immediate suite of the General, were ready to come to blows; and hence arose the only affair in which Mr. Esmond ever engaged as principal, and that was from a revengeful wish to wipe off an old injury.

My Lord Mohun, who had a troop in Lord Macclesfield’s regiment of the Horse Guards, rode this campaign with the Duke. He had sunk by this time to the very worst reputation; he had had another fatal duel in Spain; he had married, and forsaken his wife; he was a gambler, a profligate, and debauchee. He joined just before Oudenarde; and, as Esmond feared, as soon as Frank Castlewood heard of his arrival, Frank was for seeking him out, and killing him. The wound my lord got at Oudenarde prevented their meeting, but that was nearly healed, and Mr. Esmond trembled daily lest any chance should bring his boy and this known assassin together. They met at the mess-table of Handyside’s regiment at Lille; the officer commanding not knowing of the feud between the two noblemen.

Esmond had not seen the hateful handsome face of Mohun for nine years, since they had met on that fatal night in Leicester Field. It was degraded with crime and passion now; it wore the anxious look of a man who has three deaths, and who knows how many hidden shames, and lusts, and crimes on his conscience. He bowed with a sickly low bow, and slunk away when our host presented us round to one another. Frank Castlewood had not known him till then, so changed was he. He knew the boy well enough.

’Twas curious to look at the two — especially the young man, whose face flushed up when he heard the hated name of the other; and who said in his bad French and his brave boyish voice —“He had long been anxious to meet my Lord Mohun.” The other only bowed, and moved away from him. I do him justice, he wished to have no quarrel with the lad.

Esmond put himself between them at table. “D—— it,” says Frank, “why do you put yourself in the place of a man who is above you in degree? My Lord Mohun should walk after me. I want to sit by my Lord Mohun.”

Esmond whispered to Lord Mohun, that Frank was hurt in the leg at Oudenarde; and besought the other to be quiet. Quiet enough he was for some time; disregarding the many taunts which young Castlewood flung at him, until after several healths, when my Lord Mohun got to be rather in liquor.

“Will you go away, my lord?” Mr. Esmond said to him, imploring him to quit the table.

“No, by G — ” says my Lord Mohun. “I’ll not go away for any man;” he was quite flushed with wine by this time.

The talk got round to the affairs of yesterday. Webb had offered to challenge the Commander-inChief: Webb had been ill-used: Webb was the bravest, handsomest, vainest man in the army. Lord Mohun did not know that Esmond was Webb’s aide-de-camp. He began to tell some stories against the General; which, from t’other side of Esmond, young Castlewood contradicted.

“I can’t bear any more of this,” says my Lord Mohun.

“Nor can I, my lord,” says Mr. Esmond, starting up. “The story my Lord Mohun has told respecting General Webb is false, gentlemen — false, I repeat,” and making a low bow to Lord Mohun, and without a single word more, Esmond got up and left the dining-room. These affairs were common enough among the military of those days. There was a garden behind the house, and all the party turned instantly into it; and the two gentlemen’s coats were off and their points engaged within two minutes after Esmond’s words had been spoken. If Captain Esmond had put Mohun out of the world, as he might, a villain would have been punished and spared further villanies — but who is one man to punish another? I declare upon my honor that my only thought was to prevent Lord Mohun from mischief with Frank, and the end of this meeting was, that after half a dozen passes my lord went home with a hurt which prevented him from lifting his right arm for three months.

“Oh, Harry! why didn’t you kill the villain?” young Castlewood asked. “I can’t walk without a crutch: but I could have met him on horseback with sword and pistol.” But Harry Esmond said, “’Twas best to have no man’s life on one’s conscience, not even that villain’s.” And this affair, which did not occupy three minutes, being over, the gentlemen went back to their wine, and my Lord Mohun to his quarters, where he was laid up with a fever which had spared mischief had it proved fatal. And very soon after this affair Harry Esmond and his General left the camp for London; whither a certain reputation had preceded the Captain, for my Lady Castlewood of Chelsey received him as if he had been a conquering hero. She gave a great dinner to Mr. Webb, where the General’s chair was crowned with laurels; and her ladyship called Esmond’s health in a toast, to which my kind General was graciously pleased to bear the strongest testimony: and took down a mob of at least forty coaches to cheer our General as he came out of the House of Commons, the day when he received the thanks of Parliament for his action. The mob huzza’d and applauded him, as well as the fine company: it was splendid to see him waving his hat, and bowing, and laying his hand upon his Order of Generosity. He introduced Mr. Esmond to Mr. St. John and the Right Honorable Robert Harley, Esquire, as he came out of the House walking between them; and was pleased to make many flattering observations regarding Mr. Esmond’s behavior during the three last campaigns.

Mr. St. John (who had the most winning presence of any man I ever saw, excepting always my peerless young Frank Castlewood) said he had heard of Mr. Esmond before from Captain Steele, and how he had helped Mr. Addison to write his famous poem of the “Campaign.”

“’Twas as great an achievement as the victory of Blenheim itself,” Mr. Harley said, who was famous as a judge and patron of letters, and so, perhaps, it may be — though for my part I think there are twenty beautiful lines, but all the rest is commonplace, and Mr. Addison’s hymn worth a thousand such poems.

All the town was indignant at my Lord Duke’s unjust treatment of General Webb, and applauded the vote of thanks which the House of Commons gave to the General for his victory at Wynendael. ’Tis certain that the capture of Lille was the consequence of that lucky achievement, and the humiliation of the old French King, who was said to suffer more at the loss of this great city, than from any of the former victories our troops had won over him. And, I think, no small part of Mr. Webb’s exultation at his victory arose from the idea that Marlborough had been disappointed of a great bribe the French King had promised him, should the siege be raised. The very sum of money offered to him was mentioned by the Duke’s enemies; and honest Mr. Webb chuckled at the notion, not only of beating the French, but of beating Marlborough too, and intercepting a convoy of three millions of French crowns, that were on their way to the Generalissimo’s insatiable pockets. When the General’s lady went to the Queen’s drawing-room, all the Tory women crowded round her with congratulations, and made her a train greater than the Duchess of Marlborough’s own. Feasts were given to the General by all the chiefs of the Tory party, who vaunted him as the Duke’s equal in military skill; and perhaps used the worthy soldier as their instrument, whilst he thought they were but acknowledging his merits as a commander. As the General’s aide-de-camp and favorite officer, Mr. Esmond came in for a share of his chief’s popularity, and was presented to her Majesty, and advanced to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, at the request of his grateful chief.

We may be sure there was one family in which any good fortune that happened to Esmond caused such a sincere pride and pleasure, that he, for his part, was thankful he could make them so happy. With these fond friends, Blenheim and Oudenarde seemed to be mere trifling incidents of the war; and Wynendael was its crowning victory. Esmond’s mistress never tired to hear accounts of the battle; and I think General Webb’s lady grew jealous of her, for the General was for ever at Kensington, and talking on that delightful theme. As for his aide-de-camp, though, no doubt, Esmond’s own natural vanity was pleased at the little share of reputation which his good fortune had won him, yet it was chiefly precious to him (he may say so, now that he hath long since outlived it,) because it pleased his mistress, and, above all, because Beatrix valued it.

As for the old Dowager of Chelsey, never was an old woman in all England more delighted nor more gracious than she. Esmond had his quarters in her ladyship’s house, where the domestics were instructed to consider him as their master. She bade him give entertainments, of which she defrayed the charges, and was charmed when his guests were carried away tipsy in their coaches. She must have his picture taken; and accordingly he was painted by Mr. Jervas, in his red coat, and smiling upon a bomb-shell, which was bursting at the corner of the piece. She vowed that unless he made a great match, she should never die easy, and was for ever bringing young ladies to Chelsey, with pretty faces and pretty fortunes, at the disposal of the Colonel. He smiled to think how times were altered with him, and of the early days in his father’s lifetime, when a trembling page he stood before her, with her ladyship’s basin and ewer, or crouched in her coach-step. The only fault she found with him was, that he was more sober than an Esmond ought to be; and would neither be carried to bed by his valet, nor lose his heart to any beauty, whether of St. James’s or Covent Garden.

What is the meaning of fidelity in love, and whence the birth of it? ’Tis a state of mind that men fall into, and depending on the man rather than the woman. We love being in love, that’s the truth on’t. If we had not met Joan, we should have met Kate, and adored her. We know our mistresses are no better than many other women, nor no prettier, nor no wiser, nor no wittier. ’Tis not for these reasons we love a woman, or for any special quality or charm I know of; we might as well demand that a lady should be the tallest woman in the world, like the Shropshire giantess,6 as that she should be a paragon in any other character, before we began to love her. Esmond’s mistress had a thousand faults beside her charms; he knew both perfectly well! She was imperious, she was light-minded, she was flighty, she was false, she had no reverence in her character; she was in everything, even in beauty, the contrast of her mother, who was the most devoted and the least selfish of women. Well, from the very first moment he saw her on the stairs at Walcote, Esmond knew he loved Beatrix. There might be better women — he wanted that one. He cared for none other. Was it because she was gloriously beautiful? Beautiful as she was, he had heard people say a score of times in their company that Beatrix’s mother looked as young, and was the handsomer of the two. Why did her voice thrill in his ear so? She could not sing near so well as Nicolini or Mrs. Tofts; nay, she sang out of tune, and yet he liked to hear her better than St. Cecilia. She had not a finer complexion than Mrs. Steele, (Dick’s wife, whom he had now got, and who ruled poor Dick with a rod of pickle,) and yet to see her dazzled Esmond; he would shut his eyes, and the thought of her dazzled him all the same. She was brilliant and lively in talk, but not so incomparably witty as her mother, who, when she was cheerful, said the finest things; but yet to hear her, and to be with her, was Esmond’s greatest pleasure. Days passed away between him and these ladies, he scarce knew how. He poured his heart out to them, so as he never could in any other company, where he hath generally passed for being moody, or supercilious and silent. This society7 was more delightful than that of the greatest wits to him. May heaven pardon him the lies he told the Dowager at Chelsey, in order to get a pretext for going away to Kensington: the business at the Ordnance which he invented; the interview with his General, the courts and statesmen’s levees which he DIDN’T frequent and describe; who wore a new suit on Sunday at St. James’s or at the Queen’s birthday; how many coaches filled the street at Mr. Harley’s levee; how many bottles he had had the honor to drink over-night with Mr. St. John at the “Cocoa-Tree,” or at the “Garter” with Mr. Walpole and Mr. Steele.

6 ’Tis not thus WOMAN LOVES: Col. E. hath owned to this folly for a SCORE OF WOMEN besides. — R.

7 And, indeed, so was his to them, a thousand thousand times more charming, for where was his equal? — R.

Mistress Beatrix Esmond had been a dozen times on the point of making great matches, so the Court scandal said; but for his part Esmond never would believe the stories against her; and came back, after three years’ absence from her, not so frantic as he had been perhaps, but still hungering after her and no other; still hopeful, still kneeling, with his heart in his hand for the young lady to take. We were now got to 1709. She was near twenty-two years old, and three years at Court, and without a husband.

“’Tis not for want of being asked,” Lady Castlewood said, looking into Esmond’s heart, as she could, with that perceptiveness affection gives. “But she will make no mean match, Harry: she will not marry as I would have her; the person whom I should like to call my son, and Henry Esmond knows who that is, is best served by my not pressing his claim. Beatrix is so wilful, that what I would urge on her, she would be sure to resist. The man who would marry her, will not be happy with her, unless he be a great person, and can put her in a great position. Beatrix loves admiration more than love; and longs, beyond all things, for command. Why should a mother speak so of her child? You are my son, too, Harry. You should know the truth about your sister. I thought you might cure yourself of your passion,” my lady added, fondly. “Other people can cure themselves of that folly, you know. But I see you are still as infatuated as ever. When we read your name in the Gazette, I pleaded for you, my poor boy. Poor boy, indeed! You are growing a grave old gentleman, now, and I am an old woman. She likes your fame well enough, and she likes your person. She says you have wit, and fire, and good-breeding, and are more natural than the fine gentlemen of the Court. But this is not enough. She wants a commander-inchief, and not a colonel. Were a duke to ask her, she would leave an earl whom she had promised. I told you so before. I know not how my poor girl is so worldly.”

“Well,” says Esmond, “a man can but give his best and his all. She has that from me. What little reputation I have won, I swear I cared for it because I thought Beatrix would be pleased with it. What care I to be a colonel or a general? Think you ’twill matter a few score years hence, what our foolish honors today are? I would have had a little fame, that she might wear it in her hat. If I had anything better, I would endow her with it. If she wants my life, I would give it her. If she marries another, I will say God bless him. I make no boast, nor no complaint. I think my fidelity is folly, perhaps. But so it is. I cannot help myself. I love her. You are a thousand times better: the fondest, the fairest, the dearest of women. Sure, my dear lady, I see all Beatrix’s faults as well as you do. But she is my fate. ’Tis endurable. I shall not die for not having her. I think I should be no happier if I won her. Que voulez-vous? as my Lady of Chelsey would say. Je l’aime.”

“I wish she would have you,” said Harry’s fond mistress, giving a hand to him. He kissed the fair hand (’twas the prettiest dimpled little hand in the world, and my Lady Castlewood, though now almost forty years old, did not look to be within ten years of her age). He kissed and kept her fair hand, as they talked together.

“Why,” says he, “should she hear me? She knows what I would say. Far or near, she knows I’m her slave. I have sold myself for nothing, it may be. Well, ’tis the price I choose to take. I am worth nothing, or I am worth all.”

“You are such a treasure,” Esmond’s mistress was pleased to say, “that the woman who has your love, shouldn’t change it away against a kingdom, I think. I am a country-bred woman, and cannot say but the ambitions of the town seem mean to me. I never was awe-stricken by my Lady Duchess’s rank and finery, or afraid,” she added, with a sly laugh, “of anything but her temper. I hear of Court ladies who pine because her Majesty looks cold on them; and great noblemen who would give a limb that they might wear a garter on the other. This worldliness, which I can’t comprehend, was born with Beatrix, who, on the first day of her waiting, was a perfect courtier. We are like sisters, and she the eldest sister, somehow. She tells me I have a mean spirit. I laugh, and say she adores a coach-and-six. I cannot reason her out of her ambition. ’Tis natural to her, as to me to love quiet, and be indifferent about rank and riches. What are they, Harry? and for how long do they last? Our home is not here.” She smiled as she spoke, and looked like an angel that was only on earth on a visit. “Our home is where the just are, and where our sins and sorrows enter not. My father used to rebuke me, and say that I was too hopeful about heaven. But I cannot help my nature, and grow obstinate as I grow to be an old woman; and as I love my children so, sure our Father loves us with a thousand and a thousand times greater love. It must be that we shall meet yonder, and be happy. Yes, you — and my children, and my dear lord. Do you know, Harry, since his death, it has always seemed to me as if his love came back to me, and that we are parted no more. Perhaps he is here now, Harry — I think he is. Forgiven I am sure he is: even Mr. Atterbury absolved him, and he died forgiving. Oh, what a noble heart he had! How generous he was! I was but fifteen and a child when he married me. How good he was to stoop to me! He was always good to the poor and humble.” She stopped, then presently, with a peculiar expression, as if her eyes were looking into heaven, and saw my lord there, she smiled, and gave a little laugh. “I laugh to see you, sir,” she says; “when you come, it seems as if you never were away.” One may put her words down, and remember them, but how describe her sweet tones, sweeter than music!

My young lord did not come home at the end of the campaign, and wrote that he was kept at Bruxelles on military duty. Indeed, I believe he was engaged in laying siege to a certain lady, who was of the suite of Madame de Soissons, the Prince of Savoy’s mother, who was just dead, and who, like the Flemish fortresses, was taken and retaken a great number of times during the war, and occupied by French, English, and Imperialists. Of course, Mr. Esmond did not think fit to enlighten Lady Castlewood regarding the young scapegrace’s doings: nor had he said a word about the affair with Lord Mohun, knowing how abhorrent that man’s name was to his mistress. Frank did not waste much time or money on pen and ink; and, when Harry came home with his General, only writ two lines to his mother, to say his wound in the leg was almost healed, that he would keep his coming of age next year — that the duty aforesaid would keep him at Bruxelles, and that Cousin Harry would tell all the news.

But from Bruxelles, knowing how the Lady Castlewood always liked to have a letter about the famous 29th of December, my lord writ her a long and full one, and in this he must have described the affair with Mohun; for when Mr. Esmond came to visit his mistress one day, early in the new year, to his great wonderment, she and her daughter both came up and saluted him, and after them the Dowager of Chelsey, too, whose chairman had just brought her ladyship from her village to Kensington across the fields. After this honor, I say, from the two ladies of Castlewood, the Dowager came forward in great state, with her grand tall head-dress of King James’s reign, that, she never forsook, and said, “Cousin Henry, all our family have met; and we thank you, cousin, for your noble conduct towards the head of our house.” And pointing to her blushing cheek, she made Mr. Esmond aware that he was to enjoy the rapture of an embrace there. Having saluted one cheek, she turned to him the other. “Cousin Harry,” said both the other ladies, in a little chorus, “we thank you for your noble conduct;” and then Harry became aware that the story of the Lille affair had come to his kinswomen’s ears. It pleased him to hear them all saluting him as one of their family.

The tables of the dining-room were laid for a great entertainment; and the ladies were in gala dresses — my Lady of Chelsey in her highest tour, my Lady Viscountess out of black, and looking fair and happy a ravir; and the Maid of Honor attired with that splendor which naturally distinguished her, and wearing on her beautiful breast the French officer’s star which Frank had sent home after Ramillies.

“You see, ’tis a gala day with us,” says she, glancing down to the star complacently, “and we have our orders on. Does not mamma look charming? ’Twas I dressed her!” Indeed, Esmond’s dear mistress, blushing as he looked at her, with her beautiful fair hair, and an elegant dress according to the mode, appeared to have the shape and complexion of a girl of twenty.

On the table was a fine sword, with a red velvet scabbard, and a beautiful chased silver handle, with a blue ribbon for a sword-knot. “What is this?” says the Captain, going up to look at this pretty piece.

Mrs. Beatrix advanced towards it. “Kneel down,” says she: “we dub you our knight with this”— and she waved the sword over his head. “My Lady Dowager hath given the sword; and I give the ribbon, and mamma hath sewn on the fringe.”

“Put the sword on him, Beatrix,” says her mother. “You are our knight, Harry — our true knight. Take a mother’s thanks and prayers for defending her son, my dear, dear friend.” She could say no more, and even the Dowager was affected, for a couple of rebellious tears made sad marks down those wrinkled old roses which Esmond had just been allowed to salute.

“We had a letter from dearest Frank,” his mother said, “three days since, whilst you were on your visit to your friend Captain Steele, at Hampton. He told us all that you had done, and how nobly you had put yourself between him and that — that wretch.”

“And I adopt you from this day,” says the Dowager, “and I wish I was richer, for your sake, son Esmond,” she added with a wave of her hand; and as Mr. Esmond dutifully went down on his knee before her ladyship, she cast her eyes up to the ceiling, (the gilt chandelier, and the twelve wax-candles in it, for the party was numerous,) and invoked a blessing from that quarter upon the newly adopted son.

“Dear Frank,” says the other viscountess, “how fond he is of his military profession! He is studying fortification very hard. I wish he were here. We shall keep his coming of age at Castlewood next year.”

“If the campaign permit us,” says Mr. Esmond.

“I am never afraid when he is with you,” cries the boy’s mother. “I am sure my Henry will always defend him.”

“But there will be a peace before next year; we know it for certain,” cries the Maid of Honor. “Lord Marlborough will be dismissed, and that horrible duchess turned out of all her places. Her Majesty won’t speak to her now. Did you see her at Bushy, Harry? She is furious, and she ranges about the park like a lioness, and tears people’s eyes out.”

“And the Princess Anne will send for somebody,” says my Lady of Chelsey, taking out her medal and kissing it.

“Did you see the King at Oudenarde, Harry?” his mistress asked. She was a staunch Jacobite, and would no more have thought of denying her king than her God.

“I saw the young Hanoverian only,” Harry said. “The Chevalier de St. George —”

“The King, sir, the King!” said the ladies and Miss Beatrix; and she clapped her pretty hands, and cried, “Vive le Roy.”

By this time there came a thundering knock, that drove in the doors of the house almost. It was three o’clock, and the company were arriving; and presently the servant announced Captain Steele and his lady.

Captain and Mrs. Steele, who were the first to arrive, had driven to Kensington from their country-house, the Hovel at Hampton Wick. “Not from our mansion in Bloomsbury Square,” as Mrs. Steele took care to inform the ladies. Indeed Harry had ridden away from Hampton that very morning, leaving the couple by the ears; for from the chamber where he lay, in a bed that was none of the cleanest, and kept awake by the company which he had in his own bed, and the quarrel which was going on in the next room, he could hear both night and morning the curtain lecture which Mrs. Steele was in the habit of administering to poor Dick.

At night it did not matter so much for the culprit; Dick was fuddled, and when in that way no scolding could interrupt his benevolence. Mr. Esmond could hear him coaxing and speaking in that maudlin manner, which punch and claret produce, to his beloved Prue, and beseeching her to remember that there was a distiwisht officer ithe rex roob, who would overhear her. She went on, nevertheless, calling him a drunken wretch, and was only interrupted in her harangues by the Captain’s snoring.

In the morning, the unhappy victim awoke to a headache, and consciousness, and the dialogue of the night was resumed. “Why do you bring captains home to dinner when there’s not a guinea in the house? How am I to give dinners when you leave me without a shilling? How am I to go traipsing to Kensington in my yellow satin sack before all the fine company? I’ve nothing fit to put on; I never have:” and so the dispute went on — Mr. Esmond interrupting the talk when it seemed to be growing too intimate by blowing his nose as loudly as ever he could, at the sound of which trumpet there came a lull. But Dick was charming, though his wife was odious, and ’twas to give Mr. Steele pleasure, that the ladies of Castlewood, who were ladies of no small fashion, invited Mrs. Steele.

Besides the Captain and his lady, there was a great and notable assemblage of company: my Lady of Chelsey having sent her lackeys and liveries to aid the modest attendance at Kensington. There was Lieutenant-General Webb, Harry’s kind patron, of whom the Dowager took possession, and who resplended in velvet and gold lace; there was Harry’s new acquaintance, the Right Honorable Henry St. John, Esquire, the General’s kinsman, who was charmed with the Lady Castlewood, even more than with her daughter; there was one of the greatest noblemen in the kingdom, the Scots Duke of Hamilton, just created Duke of Brandon in England; and two other noble lords of the Tory party, my Lord Ashburnham, and another I have forgot; and for ladies, her Grace the Duchess of Ormonde and her daughters, the Lady Mary and the Lady Betty, the former one of Mistress Beatrix’s colleagues in waiting on the Queen.

“What a party of Tories!” whispered Captain Steele to Esmond, as we were assembled in the parlor before dinner. Indeed, all the company present, save Steele, were of that faction.

Mr. St. John made his special compliments to Mrs. Steele, and so charmed her that she declared she would have Steele a Tory too.

“Or will you have me a Whig?” says Mr. St. John. “I think, madam, you could convert a man to anything.”

“If Mr. St. John ever comes to Bloomsbury Square I will teach him what I know,” says Mrs. Steele, dropping her handsome eyes. “Do you know Bloomsbury Square?”

“Do I know the Mall? Do I know the Opera? Do I know the reigning toast? Why, Bloomsbury is the very height of the mode,” says Mr. St. John. “’Tis rus in urbe. You have gardens all the way to Hampstead, and palaces round about you — Southampton House and Montague House.”

“Where you wretches go and fight duels,” cries Mrs. Steele.

“Of which the ladies are the cause!” says her entertainer. “Madam, is Dick a good swordsman? How charming the ‘Tatler’ is! We all recognized your portrait in the 49th number, and I have been dying to know you ever since I read it. ‘Aspasia must be allowed to be the first of the beauteous order of love.’ Doth not the passage run so? ‘In this accomplished lady love is the constant effect, though it is never the design; yet though her mien carries much more invitation than command, to behold her is an immediate check to loose behavior, and to love her is a liberal education.’”

“Oh, indeed!” says Mrs. Steele, who did not seem to understand a word of what the gentleman was saying.

“Who could fail to be accomplished under such a mistress?” says Mr. St. John, still gallant and bowing.

“Mistress! upon my word, sir!” cries the lady. “If you mean me, sir, I would have you know that I am the Captain’s wife.”

“Sure we all know it,” answers Mr. St. John, keeping his countenance very gravely; and Steele broke in saying, “’Twas not about Mrs. Steele I writ that paper — though I am sure she is worthy of any compliment I can pay her — but of the Lady Elizabeth Hastings.”

“I hear Mr. Addison is equally famous as a wit and a poet,” says Mr. St. John. “Is it true that his hand is to be found in your ‘Tatler,’ Mr. Steele?”

“Whether ’tis the sublime or the humorous, no man can come near him,” cries Steele.

“A fig, Dick, for your Mr. Addison!” cries out his lady: “a gentleman who gives himself such airs and holds his head so high now. I hope your ladyship thinks as I do: I can’t bear those very fair men with white eyelashes — a black man for me.” (All the black men at table applauded, and made Mrs. Steele a bow for this compliment.) “As for this Mr. Addison,” she went on, “he comes to dine with the Captain sometimes, never says a word to me, and then they walk up stairs both tipsy, to a dish of tea. I remember your Mr. Addison when he had but one coat to his back, and that with a patch at the elbow.”

“Indeed — a patch at the elbow! You interest me,” says Mr. St. John. “’Tis charming to hear of one man of letters from the charming wife of another.”

“La, I could tell you ever so much about ’em,” continues the voluble lady. “What do you think the Captain has got now? — a little hunchback fellow — a little hop-o’-my-thumb creature that he calls a poet — a little Popish brat!”

“Hush, there are two in the room,” whispers her companion.

“Well, I call him Popish because his name is Pope,” says the lady. “’Tis only my joking way. And this little dwarf of a fellow has wrote a pastoral poem — all about shepherds and shepherdesses, you know.”

“A shepherd should have a little crook,” says my mistress, laughing from her end of the table: on which Mrs. Steele said, “She did not know, but the Captain brought home this queer little creature when she was in bed with her first boy, and it was a mercy he had come no sooner; and Dick raved about his genus, and was always raving about some nonsense or other.”

“Which of the ‘Tatlers’ do you prefer, Mrs. Steele?” asked Mr. St. John.

“I never read but one, and think it all a pack of rubbish, sir,” says the lady. “Such stuff about Bickerstaffe, and Distaff, and Quarterstaff, as it all is! There’s the Captain going on still with the Burgundy — I know he’ll be tipsy before he stops — Captain Steele!”

“I drink to your eyes, my dear,” says the Captain, who seemed to think his wife charming, and to receive as genuine all the satiric compliments which Mr. St. John paid her.

All this while the Maid of Honor had been trying to get Mr. Esmond to talk, and no doubt voted him a dull fellow. For, by some mistake, just as he was going to pop into the vacant place, he was placed far away from Beatrix’s chair, who sat between his Grace and my Lord Ashburnham, and shrugged her lovely white shoulders, and cast a look as if to say, “Pity me,” to her cousin. My Lord Duke and his young neighbor were presently in a very animated and close conversation. Mrs. Beatrix could no more help using her eyes than the sun can help shining, and setting those it shines on a-burning. By the time the first course was done the dinner seemed long to Esmond; by the time the soup came he fancied they must have been hours at table: and as for the sweets and jellies he thought they never would be done.

At length the ladies rose, Beatrix throwing a Parthian glance at her duke as she retreated; a fresh bottle and glasses were fetched, and toasts were called. Mr. St. John asked his Grace the Duke of Hamilton and the company to drink to the health of his Grace the Duke of Brandon. Another lord gave General Webb’s health, “and may he get the command the bravest officer in the world deserves.” Mr. Webb thanked the company, complimented his aide-de-camp, and fought his famous battle over again.

“Il est fatiguant,” whispers Mr. St. John, “avec sa trompette de Wynendael.”

Captain Steele, who was not of our side, loyally gave the health of the Duke of Marlborough, the greatest general of the age.

“I drink to the greatest general with all my heart,” says Mr. Webb; “there can be no gainsaying that character of him. My glass goes to the General, and not to the Duke, Mr. Steele.” And the stout old gentleman emptied his bumper; to which Dick replied by filling and emptying a pair of brimmers, one for the General and one for the Duke.

And now his Grace of Hamilton, rising up with flashing eyes (we had all been drinking pretty freely), proposed a toast to the lovely, to the incomparable Mrs. Beatrix Esmond; we all drank it with cheers, and my Lord Ashburnham especially, with a shout of enthusiasm.

“What a pity there is a Duchess of Hamilton,” whispers St. John, who drank more wine and yet was more steady than most of the others, and we entered the drawing-room where the ladies were at their tea. As for poor Dick, we were obliged to leave him alone at the dining-table, where he was hiccupping out the lines from the “Campaign,” in which the greatest poet had celebrated the greatest general in the world; and Harry Esmond found him, half an hour afterwards, in a more advanced stage of liquor, and weeping about the treachery of Tom Boxer.

The drawing-room was all dark to poor Harry, in spite of the grand illumination. Beatrix scarce spoke to him. When my Lord Duke went away, she practised upon the next in rank, and plied my young Lord Ashburnham with all the fire of her eyes and the fascinations of her wit. Most of the party were set to cards, and Mr. St. John, after yawning in the face of Mrs. Steele, whom he did not care to pursue any more; and talking in his most brilliant animated way to Lady Castlewood, whom he pronounced to be beautiful, of a far higher order of beauty than her daughter, presently took his leave, and went his way. The rest of the company speedily followed, my Lord Ashburnham the last, throwing fiery glances at the smiling young temptress, who had bewitched more hearts than his in her thrall.

No doubt, as a kinsman of the house, Mr. Esmond thought fit to be the last of all in it; he remained after the coaches had rolled away — after his dowager aunt’s chair and flambeaux had marched off in the darkness towards Chelsey, and the town’s people had gone to bed, who had been drawn into the square to gape at the unusual assemblage of chairs and chariots, lackeys, and torchmen. The poor mean wretch lingered yet for a few minutes, to see whether the girl would vouchsafe him a smile, or a parting word of consolation. But her enthusiasm of the morning was quite died out, or she chose to be in a different mood. She fell to joking about the dowdy appearance of Lady Betty, and mimicked the vulgarity of Mrs. Steele; and then she put up her little hand to her mouth and yawned, lighted a taper, and shrugged her shoulders, and dropping Mr. Esmond a saucy curtsy, sailed off to bed.

“The day began so well, Henry, that I hoped it might have ended better,” was all the consolation that poor Esmond’s fond mistress could give him; and as he trudged home through the dark alone, he thought with bitter rage in his heart, and a feeling of almost revolt against the sacrifice he had made:—“She would have me,” thought he, “had I but a name to give her. But for my promise to her father, I might have my rank and my mistress too.”

I suppose a man’s vanity is stronger than any other passion in him; for I blush, even now, as I recall the humiliation of those distant days, the memory of which still smarts, though the fever of balked desire has passed away more than a score of years ago. When the writer’s descendants come to read this memoir, I wonder will they have lived to experience a similar defeat and shame? Will they ever have knelt to a woman who has listened to them, and played with them, and laughed with them — who beckoning them with lures and caresses, and with Yes smiling from her eyes, has tricked them on to their knees, and turned her back and left them. All this shame Mr. Esmond had to undergo; and he submitted, and revolted, and presently came crouching back for more.

After this feste, my young Lord Ashburnham’s coach was for ever rolling in and out of Kensington Square; his lady-mother came to visit Esmond’s mistress, and at every assembly in the town, wherever the Maid of Honor made her appearance, you might be pretty sure to see the young gentleman in a new suit every week, and decked out in all the finery that his tailor or embroiderer could furnish for him. My lord was for ever paying Mr. Esmond compliments: bidding him to dinner, offering him horses to ride, and giving him a thousand uncouth marks of respect and good-will. At last, one night at the coffee-house, whither my lord came considerably flushed and excited with drink, he rushes up to Mr. Esmond, and cries out —“Give me joy, my dearest Colonel; I am the happiest of men.”

“The happiest of men needs no dearest colonel to give him joy,” says Mr. Esmond. “What is the cause of this supreme felicity?”

“Haven’t you heard?” says he. “Don’t you know? I thought the family told you everything: the adorable Beatrix hath promised to be mine.”

“What!” cries out Mr. Esmond, who had spent happy hours with Beatrix that very morning — had writ verses for her, that she had sung at the harpsichord.

“Yes,” says he; “I waited on her today. I saw you walking towards Knightsbridge as I passed in my coach; and she looked so lovely, and spoke so kind, that I couldn’t help going down on my knees, and — and — sure I am the happiest of men in all the world; and I’m very young; but she says I shall get older: and you know I shall be of age in four months; and there’s very little difference between us; and I’m so happy. I should like to treat the company to something. Let us have a bottle — a dozen bottles — and drink the health of the finest woman in England.”

Esmond left the young lord tossing off bumper after bumper, and strolled away to Kensington to ask whether the news was true. ’Twas only too sure: his mistress’s sad, compassionate face told him the story; and then she related what particulars of it she knew, and how my young lord had made his offer, half an hour after Esmond went away that morning, and in the very room where the song lay yet on the harpsichord, which Esmond had writ, and they had sung together.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/esmond/chapter29.html

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