The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter IV.

I am Placed Under a Popish Priest and Bred to That Religion. — Viscountess Castlewood.

Had time enough been given, and his childish inclinations been properly nurtured, Harry Esmond had been a Jesuit priest ere he was a dozen years older, and might have finished his days a martyr in China or a victim on Tower Hill: for, in the few months they spent together at Castlewood, Mr. Holt obtained an entire mastery over the boy’s intellect and affections; and had brought him to think, as indeed Father Holt thought with all his heart too, that no life was so noble, no death so desirable, as that which many brethren of his famous order were ready to undergo. By love, by a brightness of wit and good-humor that charmed all, by an authority which he knew how to assume, by a mystery and silence about him which increased the child’s reverence for him, he won Harry’s absolute fealty, and would have kept it, doubtless, if schemes greater and more important than a poor little boy’s admission into orders had not called him away.

After being at home for a few months in tranquillity (if theirs might be called tranquillity, which was, in truth, a constant bickering), my lord and lady left the country for London, taking their director with them: and his little pupil scarce ever shed more bitter tears in his life than he did for nights after the first parting with his dear friend, as he lay in the lonely chamber next to that which the Father used to occupy. He and a few domestics were left as the only tenants of the great house: and, though Harry sedulously did all the tasks which the Father set him, he had many hours unoccupied, and read in the library, and bewildered his little brains with the great books he found there.

After a while, the little lad grew accustomed to the loneliness of the place; and in after days remembered this part of his life as a period not unhappy. When the family was at London the whole of the establishment travelled thither with the exception of the porter — who was, moreover, brewer, gardener, and woodman — and his wife and children. These had their lodging in the gate-house hard by, with a door into the court; and a window looking out on the green was the Chaplain’s room; and next to this a small chamber where Father Holt had his books, and Harry Esmond his sleeping closet. The side of the house facing the east had escaped the guns of the Cromwellians, whose battery was on the height facing the western court; so that this eastern end bore few marks of demolition, save in the chapel, where the painted windows surviving Edward the Sixth had been broke by the Commonwealthmen. In Father Holt’s time little Harry Esmond acted as his familiar and faithful little servitor; beating his clothes, folding his vestments, fetching his water from the well long before daylight, ready to run anywhere for the service of his beloved priest. When the Father was away, he locked his private chamber; but the room where the books were was left to little Harry, who, but for the society of this gentleman, was little less solitary when Lord Castlewood was at home.

The French wit saith that a hero is none to his valet-de-chambre, and it required less quick eyes than my lady’s little page was naturally endowed with, to see that she had many qualities by no means heroic, however much Mrs. Tusher might flatter and coax her. When Father Holt was not by, who exercised an entire authority over the pair, my lord and my lady quarrelled and abused each other so as to make the servants laugh, and to frighten the little page on duty. The poor boy trembled before his mistress, who called him by a hundred ugly names, who made nothing of boxing his ears, and tilting the silver basin in his face which it was his business to present to her after dinner. She hath repaired, by subsequent kindness to him, these severities, which it must be owned made his childhood very unhappy. She was but unhappy herself at this time, poor soul! and I suppose made her dependants lead her own sad life. I think my lord was as much afraid of her as her page was, and the only person of the household who mastered her was Mr. Holt. Harry was only too glad when the Father dined at table, and to slink away and prattle with him afterwards, or read with him, or walk with him. Luckily my Lady Viscountess did not rise till noon. Heaven help the poor waiting-woman who had charge of her toilet! I have often seen the poor wretch come out with red eyes from the closet where those long and mysterious rites of her ladyship’s dress were performed, and the backgammon-box locked up with a rap on Mrs. Tusher’s fingers when she played ill, or the game was going the wrong way.

Blessed be the king who introduced cards, and the kind inventors of piquet and cribbage, for they employed six hours at least of her ladyship’s day, during which her family was pretty easy. Without this occupation my lady frequently declared she should die. Her dependants one after another relieved guard —’twas rather a dangerous post to play with her ladyship — and took the cards turn about. Mr. Holt would sit with her at piquet during hours together, at which time she behaved herself properly; and as for Dr. Tusher, I believe he would have left a parishioner’s dying bed, if summoned to play a rubber with his patroness at Castlewood. Sometimes, when they were pretty comfortable together, my lord took a hand. Besides these my lady had her faithful poor Tusher, and one, two, three gentlewomen whom Harry Esmond could recollect in his time. They could not bear that genteel service very long; one after another tried and failed at it. These and the housekeeper, and little Harry Esmond, had a table of their own. Poor ladies their life was far harder than the page’s. He was sound asleep, tucked up in his little bed, whilst they were sitting by her ladyship reading her to sleep, with the “News Letter” or the “Grand Cyrus.” My lady used to have boxes of new plays from London, and Harry was forbidden, under the pain of a whipping, to look into them. I am afraid he deserved the penalty pretty often, and got it sometimes. Father Holt applied it twice or thrice, when he caught the young scapegrace with a delightful wicked comedy of Mr. Shadwell’s or Mr. Wycherley’s under his pillow.

These, when he took any, were my lord’s favorite reading. But he was averse to much study, and, as his little page fancied, to much occupation of any sort.

It always seemed to young Harry Esmond that my lord treated him with more kindness when his lady was not present, and Lord Castlewood would take the lad sometimes on his little journeys a-hunting or a-birding; he loved to play at cards and tric-trac with him, which games the boy learned to pleasure his lord: and was growing to like him better daily, showing a special pleasure if Father Holt gave a good report of him, patting him on the head, and promising that he would provide for the boy. However, in my lady’s presence, my lord showed no such marks of kindness, and affected to treat the lad roughly, and rebuked him sharply for little faults, for which he in a manner asked pardon of young Esmond when they were private, saying if he did not speak roughly, she would, and his tongue was not such a bad one as his lady’s — a point whereof the boy, young as he was, was very well assured.

Great public events were happening all this while, of which the simple young page took little count. But one day, riding into the neighboring town on the step of my lady’s coach, his lordship and she and Father Holt being inside, a great mob of people came hooting and jeering round the coach, bawling out “The Bishops for ever!” “Down with the Pope!” “No Popery! no Popery! Jezebel, Jezebel!” so that my lord began to laugh, my lady’s eyes to roll with anger, for she was as bold as a lioness, and feared nobody; whilst Mr. Holt, as Esmond saw from his place on the step, sank back with rather an alarmed face, crying out to her ladyship, “For God’s sake, madam, do not speak or look out of window; sit still.” But she did not obey this prudent injunction of the Father; she thrust her head out of the coach window, and screamed out to the coachman, “Flog your way through them, the brutes, James, and use your whip!”

The mob answered with a roaring jeer of laughter, and fresh cries of “Jezebel! Jezebel!” My lord only laughed the more: he was a languid gentleman: nothing seemed to excite him commonly, though I have seen him cheer and halloo the hounds very briskly, and his face (which was generally very yellow and calm) grow quite red and cheerful during a burst over the Downs after a hare, and laugh, and swear, and huzzah at a cockfight, of which sport he was very fond. And now, when the mob began to hoot his lady, he laughed with something of a mischievous look, as though he expected sport, and thought that she and they were a match.

James the coachman was more afraid of his mistress than the mob, probably, for he whipped on his horses as he was bidden, and the post-boy that rode with the first pair (my lady always rode with her coach-and-six,) gave a cut of his thong over the shoulders of one fellow who put his hand out towards the leading horse’s rein.

It was a market-day, and the country-people were all assembled with their baskets of poultry, eggs, and such things; the postilion had no sooner lashed the man who would have taken hold of his horse, but a great cabbage came whirling like a bombshell into the carriage, at which my lord laughed more, for it knocked my lady’s fan out of her hand, and plumped into Father Holt’s stomach. Then came a shower of carrots and potatoes.

“For Heaven’s sake be still!” says Mr. Holt; “we are not ten paces from the ‘Bell’ archway, where they can shut the gates on us, and keep out this canaille.”

The little page was outside the coach on the step, and a fellow in the crowd aimed a potato at him, and hit him in the eye, at which the poor little wretch set up a shout; the man laughed, a great big saddler’s apprentice of the town. “Ah! you d —— little yelling Popish bastard,” he said, and stooped to pick up another; the crowd had gathered quite between the horses and the inn door by this time, and the coach was brought to a dead stand-still. My lord jumped as briskly as a boy out of the door on his side of the coach, squeezing little Harry behind it; had hold of the potato-thrower’s collar in an instant, and the next moment the brute’s heels were in the air, and he fell on the stones with a thump.

“You hulking coward!” says he; “you pack of screaming blackguards! how dare you attack children, and insult women? Fling another shot at that carriage, you sneaking pigskin cobbler, and by the Lord I’ll send my rapier through you!”

Some of the mob cried, “Huzzah, my lord!” for they knew him, and the saddler’s man was a known bruiser, near twice as big as my lord Viscount.

“Make way there,” says he (he spoke in a high shrill voice, but with a great air of authority). “Make way, and let her ladyship’s carriage pass.” The men that were between the coach and the gate of the “Bell” actually did make way, and the horses went in, my lord walking after them with his hat on his head.

As he was going in at the gate, through which the coach had just rolled, another cry begins, of “No Popery — no Papists!” My lord turns round and faces them once more.

“God save the King!” says he at the highest pitch of his voice. “Who dares abuse the King’s religion? You, you d — d psalm-singing cobbler, as sure as I’m a magistrate of this county I’ll commit you!” The fellow shrank back, and my lord retreated with all the honors of the day. But when the little flurry caused by the scene was over, and the flush passed off his face, he relapsed into his usual languor, trifled with his little dog, and yawned when my lady spoke to him.

This mob was one of many thousands that were going about the country at that time, huzzahing for the acquittal of the seven bishops who had been tried just then, and about whom little Harry Esmond at that time knew scarce anything. It was Assizes at Hexton, and there was a great meeting of the gentry at the “Bell;” and my lord’s people had their new liveries on, and Harry a little suit of blue and silver, which he wore upon occasions of state; and the gentlefolks came round and talked to my lord: and a judge in a red gown, who seemed a very great personage, especially complimented him and my lady, who was mighty grand. Harry remembers her train borne up by her gentlewoman. There was an assembly and ball at the great room at the “Bell,” and other young gentlemen of the county families looked on as he did. One of them jeered him for his black eye, which was swelled by the potato, and another called him a bastard, on which he and Harry fell to fisticuffs. My lord’s cousin, Colonel Esmond of Walcote, was there, and separated the two lads — a great tall gentleman, with a handsome good-natured face. The boy did not know how nearly in after-life he should be allied to Colonel Esmond, and how much kindness he should have to owe him.

There was little love between the two families. My lady used not to spare Colonel Esmond in talking of him, for reasons which have been hinted already; but about which, at his tender age, Henry Esmond could be expected to know nothing.

Very soon afterwards, my lord and lady went to London with Mr. Holt, leaving, however, the page behind them. The little man had the great house of Castlewood to himself; or between him and the housekeeper, Mrs. Worksop, an old lady who was a kinswoman of the family in some distant way, and a Protestant, but a staunch Tory and king’s-man, as all the Esmonds were. He used to go to school to Dr. Tusher when he was at home, though the Doctor was much occupied too. There was a great stir and commotion everywhere, even in the little quiet village of Castlewood, whither a party of people came from the town, who would have broken Castlewood Chapel windows, but the village people turned out, and even old Sieveright, the republican blacksmith, along with them: for my lady, though she was a Papist, and had many odd ways, was kind to the tenantry, and there was always a plenty of beef, and blankets, and medicine for the poor at Castlewood Hall.

A kingdom was changing hands whilst my lord and lady were away. King James was flying, the Dutchmen were coming; awful stories about them and the Prince of Orange used old Mrs. Worksop to tell to the idle little page.

He liked the solitude of the great house very well; he had all the play-books to read, and no Father Holt to whip him, and a hundred childish pursuits and pastimes, without doors and within, which made this time very pleasant.

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