The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter VII.

I Am Left at Castlewood an Orphan, and Find Most Kind Protectors There.

During the stay of the soldiers in Castlewood, honest Dick the Scholar was the constant companion of the lonely little orphan lad Harry Esmond: and they read together, and they played bowls together, and when the other troopers or their officers, who were free-spoken over their cups, (as was the way of that day, when neither men nor women were over-nice,) talked unbecomingly of their amours and gallantries before the child, Dick, who very likely was setting the whole company laughing, would stop their jokes with a maxima debetur pueris reverentia, and once offered to lug out against another trooper called Hulking Tom, who wanted to ask Harry Esmond a ribald question.

Also, Dick seeing that the child had, as he said, a sensibility above his years, and a great and praiseworthy discretion, confided to Harry his love for a vintner’s daughter, near to the Tollyard, Westminster, whom Dick addressed as Saccharissa in many verses of his composition, and without whom he said it would be impossible that he could continue to live. He vowed this a thousand times in a day, though Harry smiled to see the love-lorn swain had his health and appetite as well as the most heart-whole trooper in the regiment: and he swore Harry to secrecy too, which vow the lad religiously kept, until he found that officers and privates were all taken into Dick’s confidence, and had the benefit of his verses. And it must be owned likewise that, while Dick was sighing after Saccharissa in London, he had consolations in the country; for there came a wench out of Castlewood village who had washed his linen, and who cried sadly when she heard he was gone: and without paying her bill too, which Harry Esmond took upon himself to discharge by giving the girl a silver pocket-piece, which Scholar Dick had presented to him, when, with many embraces and prayers for his prosperity, Dick parted from him, the garrison of Castlewood being ordered away. Dick the Scholar said he would never forget his young friend, nor indeed did he: and Harry was sorry when the kind soldiers vacated Castlewood, looking forward with no small anxiety (for care and solitude had made him thoughtful beyond his years) to his fate when the new lord and lady of the house came to live there. He had lived to be past twelve years old now; and had never had a friend, save this wild trooper, perhaps, and Father Holt; and had a fond and affectionate heart, tender to weakness, that would fain attach itself to somebody, and did not seem at rest until it had found a friend who would take charge of it.

The instinct which led Henry Esmond to admire and love the gracious person, the fair apparition of whose beauty and kindness had so moved him when he first beheld her, became soon a devoted affection and passion of gratitude, which entirely filled his young heart, that as yet, except in the case of dear Father Holt, had had very little kindness for which to be thankful. O Dea certe, thought he, remembering the lines out of the AEneas which Mr. Holt had taught him. There seemed, as the boy thought, in every look or gesture of this fair creature, an angelical softness and bright pity — in motion or repose she seemed gracious alike; the tone of her voice, though she uttered words ever so trivial, gave him a pleasure that amounted almost to anguish. It cannot be called love, that a lad of twelve years of age, little more than a menial, felt for an exalted lady, his mistress: but it was worship. To catch her glance, to divine her errand and run on it before she had spoken it; to watch, follow, adore her; became the business of his life. Meanwhile, as is the way often, his idol had idols of her own, and never thought of or suspected the admiration of her little pigmy adorer.

My lady had on her side her three idols: first and foremost, Jove and supreme ruler, was her lord, Harry’s patron, the good Viscount of Castlewood. All wishes of his were laws with her. If he had a headache, she was ill. If he frowned, she trembled. If he joked, she smiled and was charmed. If he went a-hunting, she was always at the window to see him ride away, her little son crowing on her arm, or on the watch till his return. She made dishes for his dinner: spiced wine for him: made the toast for his tankard at breakfast: hushed the house when he slept in his chair, and watched for a look when he woke. If my lord was not a little proud of his beauty, my lady adored it. She clung to his arm as he paced the terrace, her two fair little hands clasped round his great one; her eyes were never tired of looking in his face and wondering at its perfection. Her little son was his son, and had his father’s look and curly brown hair. Her daughter Beatrix was his daughter, and had his eyes — were there ever such beautiful eyes in the world? All the house was arranged so as to bring him ease and give him pleasure. She liked the small gentry round about to come and pay him court, never caring for admiration for herself; those who wanted to be well with the lady must admire him. Not regarding her dress, she would wear a gown to rags, because he had once liked it: and, if he brought her a brooch or a ribbon, would prefer it to all the most costly articles of her wardrobe.

My lord went to London every year for six weeks, and the family being too poor to appear at Court with any figure, he went alone. It was not until he was out of sight that her face showed any sorrow: and what a joy when he came back! What preparation before his return! The fond creature had his arm-chair at the chimney-side — delighting to put the children in it, and look at them there. Nobody took his place at the table; but his silver tankard stood there as when my lord was present.

A pretty sight it was to see, during my lord’s absence, or on those many mornings when sleep or headache kept him a-bed, this fair young lady of Castlewood, her little daughter at her knee, and her domestics gathered round her, reading the Morning Prayer of the English Church. Esmond long remembered how she looked and spoke, kneeling reverently before the sacred book, the sun shining upon her golden hair until it made a halo round about her. A dozen of the servants of the house kneeled in a line opposite their mistress; for a while Harry Esmond kept apart from these mysteries, but Doctor Tusher showing him that the prayers read were those of the Church of all ages, and the boy’s own inclination prompting him to be always as near as he might to his mistress, and to think all things she did right, from listening to the prayers in the ante-chamber, he came presently to kneel down with the rest of the household in the parlor; and before a couple of years my lady had made a thorough convert. Indeed, the boy loved his catechiser so much that he would have subscribed to anything she bade him, and was never tired of listening to her fond discourse and simple comments upon the book, which she read to him in a voice of which it was difficult to resist the sweet persuasion and tender appealing kindness. This friendly controversy, and the intimacy which it occasioned, bound the lad more fondly than ever to his mistress. The happiest period of all his life was this; and the young mother, with her daughter and son, and the orphan lad whom she protected, read and worked and played, and were children together. If the lady looked forward — as what fond woman does not? — towards the future, she had no plans from which Harry Esmond was left out; and a thousand and a thousand times, in his passionate and impetuous way, he vowed that no power should separate him from his mistress; and only asked for some chance to happen by which he might show his fidelity to her. Now, at the close of his life, as he sits and recalls in tranquillity the happy and busy scenes of it, he can think, not ungratefully, that he has been faithful to that early vow. Such a life is so simple that years may be chronicled in a few lines. But few men’s life-voyages are destined to be all prosperous; and this calm of which we are speaking was soon to come to an end.

As Esmond grew, and observed for himself, he found of necessity much to read and think of outside that fond circle of kinsfolk who had admitted him to join hand with them. He read more books than they cared to study with him; was alone in the midst of them many a time, and passed nights over labors, futile perhaps, but in which they could not join him. His dear mistress divined his thoughts with her usual jealous watchfulness of affection: began to forebode a time when he would escape from his home-nest; and, at his eager protestations to the contrary, would only sigh and shake her head. Before those fatal decrees in life are executed, there are always secret previsions and warning omens. When everything yet seems calm, we are aware that the storm is coming. Ere the happy days were over, two at least of that home-party felt that they were drawing to a close; and were uneasy, and on the look-out for the cloud which was to obscure their calm.

’Twas easy for Harry to see, however much his lady persisted in obedience and admiration for her husband, that my lord tired of his quiet life, and grew weary, and then testy, at those gentle bonds with which his wife would have held him. As they say the Grand Lama of Thibet is very much fatigued by his character of divinity, and yawns on his altar as his bonzes kneel and worship him, many a home-god grows heartily sick of the reverence with which his family-devotees pursue him, and sighs for freedom and for his old life, and to be off the pedestal on which his dependants would have him sit for ever, whilst they adore him, and ply him with flowers, and hymns, and incense, and flattery; — so, after a few years of his marriage my honest Lord Castlewood began to tire; all the high-flown raptures and devotional ceremonies with which his wife, his chief priestess, treated him, first sent him to sleep, and then drove him out of doors; for the truth must be told, that my lord was a jolly gentleman, with very little of the august or divine in his nature, though his fond wife persisted in revering it — and, besides, he had to pay a penalty for this love, which persons of his disposition seldom like to defray: and, in a word, if he had a loving wife, had a very jealous and exacting one. Then he wearied of this jealousy; then he broke away from it; then came, no doubt, complaints and recriminations; then, perhaps, promises of amendment not fulfilled; then upbraidings not the more pleasant because they were silent, and only sad looks and tearful eyes conveyed them. Then, perhaps, the pair reached that other stage which is not uncommon in married life, when the woman perceives that the god of the honeymoon is a god no more; only a mortal like the rest of us — and so she looks into her heart, and lo! vacuae sedes et inania arcana. And now, supposing our lady to have a fine genius and a brilliant wit of her own, and the magic spell and infatuation removed from her which had led her to worship as a god a very ordinary mortal — and what follows? They live together, and they dine together, and they say “my dear” and “my love” as heretofore; but the man is himself, and the woman herself: that dream of love is over as everything else is over in life; as flowers and fury, and griefs and pleasures, are over.

Very likely the Lady Castlewood had ceased to adore her husband herself long before she got off her knees, or would allow her household to discontinue worshipping him. To do him justice, my lord never exacted this subservience: he laughed and joked and drank his bottle, and swore when he was angry, much too familiarly for any one pretending to sublimity; and did his best to destroy the ceremonial with which his wife chose to surround him. And it required no great conceit on young Esmond’s part to see that his own brains were better than his patron’s, who, indeed, never assumed any airs of superiority over the lad, or over any dependant of his, save when he was displeased, in which case he would express his mind in oaths very freely; and who, on the contrary, perhaps, spoiled “Parson Harry,” as he called young Esmond, by constantly praising his parts and admiring his boyish stock of learning.

It may seem ungracious in one who has received a hundred favors from his patron to speak in any but a reverential manner of his elders; but the present writer has had descendants of his own, whom he has brought up with as little as possible of the servility at present exacted by parents from children (under which mask of duty there often lurks indifference, contempt, or rebellion): and as he would have his grandsons believe or represent him to be not an inch taller than Nature has made him: so, with regard to his past acquaintances, he would speak without anger, but with truth, as far as he knows it, neither extenuating nor setting down aught in malice.

So long, then, as the world moved according to Lord Castlewood’s wishes, he was good-humored enough; of a temper naturally sprightly and easy, liking to joke, especially with his inferiors, and charmed to receive the tribute of their laughter. All exercises of the body he could perform to perfection — shooting at a mark and flying, breaking horses, riding at the ring, pitching the quoit, playing at all games with great skill. And not only did he do these things well, but he thought he did them to perfection; hence he was often tricked about horses, which he pretended to know better than any jockey; was made to play at ball and billiards by sharpers who took his money, and came back from London wofully poorer each time than he went, as the state of his affairs testified when the sudden accident came by which his career was brought to an end.

He was fond of the parade of dress, and passed as many hours daily at his toilette as an elderly coquette. A tenth part of his day was spent in the brushing of his teeth and the oiling of his hair, which was curling and brown, and which he did not like to conceal under a periwig, such as almost everybody of that time wore. (We have the liberty of our hair back now, but powder and pomatum along with it. When, I wonder, will these monstrous poll-taxes of our age be withdrawn, and men allowed to carry their colors, black, red, or gray, as Nature made them?) And as he liked her to be well dressed, his lady spared no pains in that matter to please him; indeed, she would dress her head or cut it off if he had bidden her.

It was a wonder to young Esmond, serving as page to my lord and lady, to hear, day after day, to such company as came, the same boisterous stories told by my lord, at which his lady never failed to smile or hold down her head, and Doctor Tusher to burst out laughing at the proper point, or cry, “Fie, my lord, remember my cloth!” but with such a faint show of resistance, that it only provoked my lord further. Lord Castlewood’s stories rose by degrees, and became stronger after the ale at dinner and the bottle afterwards; my lady always taking flight after the very first glass to Church and King, and leaving the gentlemen to drink the rest of the toasts by themselves.

And, as Harry Esmond was her page, he also was called from duty at this time. “My lord has lived in the army and with soldiers,” she would say to the lad, “amongst whom great license is allowed. You have had a different nurture, and I trust these things will change as you grow older; not that any fault attaches to my lord, who is one of the best and most religious men in this kingdom.” And very likely she believed so. ’Tis strange what a man may do, and a woman yet think him an angel.

And as Esmond has taken truth for his motto, it must be owned, even with regard to that other angel, his mistress, that she had a fault of character which flawed her perfections. With the other sex perfectly tolerant and kindly, of her own she was invariably jealous; and a proof that she had this vice is, that though she would acknowledge a thousand faults that she had not, to this which she had she could never be got to own. But if there came a woman with even a semblance of beauty to Castlewood, she was so sure to find out some wrong in her, that my lord, laughing in his jolly way, would often joke with her concerning her foible. Comely servant-maids might come for hire, but none were taken at Castlewood. The housekeeper was old; my lady’s own waiting-woman squinted, and was marked with the small-pox; the housemaids and scullion were ordinary country wenches, to whom Lady Castlewood was kind, as her nature made her to everybody almost; but as soon as ever she had to do with a pretty woman, she was cold, retiring, and haughty. The country ladies found this fault in her; and though the men all admired her, their wives and daughters complained of her coldness and aims, and said that Castlewood was pleasanter in Lady Jezebel’s time (as the dowager was called) than at present. Some few were of my mistress’s side. Old Lady Blenkinsop Jointure, who had been at court in King James the First’s time, always took her side; and so did old Mistress Crookshank, Bishop Crookshank’s daughter, of Hexton, who, with some more of their like, pronounced my lady an angel: but the pretty women were not of this mind; and the opinion of the country was that my lord was tied to his wife’s apron-strings, and that she ruled over him.

The second fight which Harry Esmond had, was at fourteen years of age, with Bryan Hawkshaw, Sir John Hawkshaw’s son, of Bramblebrook, who, advancing this opinion, that my lady was jealous and henpecked my lord, put Harry in such a fury, that Harry fell on him and with such rage, that the other boy, who was two years older and by far bigger than he, had by far the worst of the assault, until it was interrupted by Doctor Tusher walking out of the dinner-room.

Bryan Hawkshaw got up bleeding at the nose, having, indeed, been surprised, as many a stronger man might have been, by the fury of the assault upon him.

“You little bastard beggar!” he said, “I’ll murder you for this!”

And indeed he was big enough.

“Bastard or not,” said the other, grinding his teeth, “I have a couple of swords, and if you like to meet me, as a man, on the terrace to-night —”

And here the Doctor coming up, the colloquy of the young champions ended. Very likely, big as he was, Hawkshaw did not care to continue a fight with such a ferocious opponent as this had been.

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