The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter IX.

I Have the Small-Pox, and Prepare to Leave Castlewood.

When Harry Esmond passed through the crisis of that malady, and returned to health again, he found that little Frank Esmond had also suffered and rallied after the disease, and the lady his mother was down with it, with a couple more of the household. “It was a Providence, for which we all ought to be thankful,” Doctor Tusher said, “that my lady and her son were spared, while Death carried off the poor domestics of the house;” and rebuked Harry for asking, in his simple way, For which we ought to be thankful — that the servants were killed, or the gentlefolks were saved? Nor could young Esmond agree in the Doctor’s vehement protestations to my lady, when he visited her during her convalescence, that the malady had not in the least impaired her charms, and had not been churl enough to injure the fair features of the Viscountess of Castlewood; whereas, in spite of these fine speeches, Harry thought that her ladyship’s beauty was very much injured by the small-pox. When the marks of the disease cleared away, they did not, it is true, leave furrows or scars on her face (except one, perhaps, on her forehead over her left eyebrow); but the delicacy of her rosy color and complexion was gone: her eyes had lost their brilliancy, her hair fell, and her face looked older. It was as if a coarse hand had rubbed off the delicate tints of that sweet picture, and brought it, as one has seen unskilful painting-cleaners do, to the dead color. Also, it must be owned, that for a year or two after the malady, her ladyship’s nose was swollen and redder.

There would be no need to mention these trivialities, but that they actually influenced many lives, as trifles will in the world, where a gnat often plays a greater part than an elephant, and a mole-hill, as we know in King William’s case, can upset an empire. When Tusher in his courtly way (at which Harry Esmond always chafed and spoke scornfully) vowed and protested that my lady’s face was none the worse — the lad broke out and said, “It IS worse and my mistress is not near so handsome as she was;” on which poor Lady Castlewood gave a rueful smile, and a look into a little Venice glass she had, which showed her, I suppose, that what the stupid boy said was only too true, for she turned away from the glass, and her eyes filled with tears.

The sight of these in Esmond’s heart always created a sort of rage of pity, and seeing them on the face of the lady whom he loved best, the young blunderer sank down on his knees, and besought her to pardon him, saying that he was a fool and an idiot, that he was a brute to make such a speech, he who had caused her malady; and Doctor Tusher told him that a bear he was indeed, and a bear he would remain, at which speech poor young Esmond was so dumbstricken that he did not even growl.

“He is MY bear, and I will not have him baited, Doctor,” my lady said, patting her hand kindly on the boy’s head, as he was still kneeling at her feet. “How your hair has come off! And mine, too,” she added with another sigh.

“It is not for myself that I cared,” my lady said to Harry, when the parson had taken his leave; “but AM I very much changed? Alas! I fear ’tis too true.”

“Madam, you have the dearest, and kindest, and sweetest face in the world, I think,” the lad said; and indeed he thought and thinks so.

“Will my lord think so when he comes back?” the lady asked with a sigh, and another look at her Venice glass. “Suppose he should think as you do, sir, that I am hideous — yes, you said hideous — he will cease to care for me. ’Tis all men care for in women, our little beauty. Why did he select me from among my sisters? ’Twas only for that. We reign but for a day or two: and be sure that Vashti knew Esther was coming.”

“Madam,” said Mr. Esmond, “Ahasuerus was the Grand Turk, and to change was the manner of his country, and according to his law.”

“You are all Grand Turks for that matter,” said my lady, “or would be if you could. Come, Frank, come, my child. You are well, praised be Heaven. YOUR locks are not thinned by this dreadful small-pox: nor your poor face scarred — is it, my angel?”

Frank began to shout and whimper at the idea of such a misfortune. From the very earliest time the young lord had been taught to admire his beauty by his mother: and esteemed it as highly as any reigning toast valued hers.

One day, as he himself was recovering from his fever and illness, a pang of something like shame shot across young Esmond’s breast, as he remembered that he had never once during his illness given a thought to the poor girl at the smithy, whose red cheeks but a month ago he had been so eager to see. Poor Nancy! her cheeks had shared the fate of roses, and were withered now. She had taken the illness on the same day with Esmond — she and her brother were both dead of the small-pox, and buried under the Castlewood yew-trees. There was no bright face looking now from the garden, or to cheer the old smith at his lonely fireside. Esmond would have liked to have kissed her in her shroud (like the lass in Mr. Prior’s pretty poem); but she rested many a foot below the ground, when Esmond after his malady first trod on it.

Doctor Tusher brought the news of this calamity, about which Harry Esmond longed to ask, but did not like. He said almost the whole village had been stricken with the pestilence; seventeen persons were dead of it, among them mentioning the names of poor Nancy and her little brother. He did not fail to say how thankful we survivors ought to be. It being this man’s business to flatter and make sermons, it must be owned he was most industrious in it, and was doing the one or the other all day.

And so Nancy was gone; and Harry Esmond blushed that he had not a single tear for her, and fell to composing an elegy in Latin verses over the rustic little beauty. He bade the dryads mourn and the river-nymphs deplore her. As her father followed the calling of Vulcan, he said that surely she was like a daughter of Venus, though Sievewright’s wife was an ugly shrew, as he remembered to have heard afterwards. He made a long face, but, in truth, felt scarcely more sorrowful than a mute at a funeral. These first passions of men and women are mostly abortive; and are dead almost before they are born. Esmond could repeat, to his last day, some of the doggerel lines in which his muse bewailed his pretty lass; not without shame to remember how bad the verses were, and how good he thought them; how false the grief, and yet how he was rather proud of it. ’Tis an error, surely, to talk of the simplicity of youth. I think no persons are more hypocritical, and have a more affected behavior to one another, than the young. They deceive themselves and each other with artifices that do not impose upon men of the world; and so we get to understand truth better, and grow simpler as we grow older.

When my lady heard of the fate which had befallen poor Nancy, she said nothing so long as Tusher was by, but when he was gone, she took Harry Esmond’s hand and said —

“Harry, I beg your pardon for those cruel words I used on the night you were taken ill. I am shocked at the fate of the poor creature, and am sure that nothing had happened of that with which, in my anger, I charged you. And the very first day we go out, you must take me to the blacksmith, and we must see if there is anything I can do to console the poor old man. Poor man! to lose both his children! What should I do without mine?”

And this was, indeed, the very first walk which my lady took, leaning on Esmond’s arm, after her illness. But her visit brought no consolation to the old father; and he showed no softness, or desire to speak. “The Lord gave and took away,” he said; and he knew what His servant’s duty was. He wanted for nothing — less now than ever before, as there were fewer mouths to feed. He wished her ladyship and Master Esmond good morning — he had grown tall in his illness, and was but very little marked; and with this, and a surly bow, he went in from the smithy to the house, leaving my lady, somewhat silenced and shamefaced, at the door. He had a handsome stone put up for his two children, which may be seen in Castlewood churchyard to this very day; and before a year was out his own name was upon the stone. In the presence of Death, that sovereign ruler, a woman’s coquetry is seared; and her jealousy will hardly pass the boundaries of that grim kingdom. ’Tis entirely of the earth, that passion, and expires in the cold blue air, beyond our sphere.

At length, when the danger was quite over, it was announced that my lord and his daughter would return. Esmond well remembered the day. The lady his mistress was in a flurry of fear: before my lord came, she went into her room, and returned from it with reddened cheeks. Her fate was about to be decided. Her beauty was gone — was her reign, too, over? A minute would say. My lord came riding over the bridge — he could be seen from the great window, clad in scarlet, and mounted on his gray hackney — his little daughter ambled by him in a bright riding-dress of blue, on a shining chestnut horse. My lady leaned against the great mantel-piece, looking on, with one hand on her heart — she seemed only the more pale for those red marks on either cheek. She put her handkerchief to her eyes, and withdrew it, laughing hysterically — the cloth was quite red with the rouge when she took it away. She ran to her room again, and came back with pale cheeks and red eyes — her son in her hand — just as my lord entered, accompanied by young Esmond, who had gone out to meet his protector, and to hold his stirrup as he descended from horseback.

“What, Harry, boy!” my lord said, good-naturedly, “you look as gaunt as a greyhound. The small-pox hasn’t improved your beauty, and your side of the house hadn’t never too much of it — ho, ho!”

And he laughed, and sprang to the ground with no small agility, looking handsome and red, within a jolly face and brown hair, like a Beef-eater; Esmond kneeling again, as soon as his patron had descended, performed his homage, and then went to greet the little Beatrix, and help her from her horse.

“Fie! how yellow you look,” she said; “and there are one, two, red holes in your face;” which, indeed, was very true; Harry Esmond’s harsh countenance bearing, as long as it continued to be a human face, the marks of the disease.

My lord laughed again, in high good-humor.

“D—— it!” said he, with one of his usual oaths, “the little slut sees everything. She saw the Dowager’s paint t’other day, and asked her why she wore that red stuff — didn’t you, Trix? and the Tower; and St. James’s; and the play; and the Prince George, and the Princess Anne — didn’t you, Trix?”

“They are both very fat, and smelt of brandy,” the child said.

Papa roared with laughing.

“Brandy!” he said. “And how do you know, Miss Pert?”

“Because your lordship smells of it after supper, when I embrace you before you go to bed,” said the young lady, who, indeed, was as pert as her father said, and looked as beautiful a little gipsy as eyes ever gazed on.

“And now for my lady,” said my lord, going up the stairs, and passing under the tapestry curtain that hung before the drawing-room door. Esmond remembered that noble figure, handsomely arrayed in scarlet. Within the last few months he himself had grown from a boy to be a man, and with his figure his thoughts had shot up, and grown manly.

My lady’s countenance, of which Harry Esmond was accustomed to watch the changes, and with a solicitous affection to note and interpret the signs of gladness or care, wore a sad and depressed look for many weeks after her lord’s return: during which it seemed as if, by caresses and entreaties, she strove to win him back from some ill humor he had, and which he did not choose to throw off. In her eagerness to please him she practised a hundred of those arts which had formerly charmed him, but which seemed now to have lost their potency. Her songs did not amuse him; and she hushed them and the children when in his presence. My lord sat silent at his dinner, drinking greatly, his lady opposite to him, looking furtively at his face, though also speechless. Her silence annoyed him as much as her speech; and he would peevishly, and with an oath, ask her why she held her tongue and looked so glum; or he would roughly check her when speaking, and bid her not talk nonsense. It seemed as if, since his return, nothing she could do or say could please him.

When a master and mistress are at strife in a house, the subordinates in the family take the one side or the other. Harry Esmond stood in so great fear of my lord, that he would run a league barefoot to do a message for him; but his attachment for Lady Esmond was such a passion of grateful regard, that to spare her a grief, or to do her a service, he would have given his life daily: and it was by the very depth and intensity of this regard that he began to divine how unhappy his adored lady’s life was, and that a secret care (for she never spoke of her anxieties) was weighing upon her.

Can any one, who has passed through the world and watched the nature of men and women there, doubt what had befallen her? I have seen, to be sure, some people carry down with them into old age the actual bloom of their youthful love, and I know that Mr. Thomas Parr lived to be a hundred and sixty years old. But, for all that, threescore and ten is the age of men, and few get beyond it; and ’tis certain that a man who marries for mere beaux yeux, as my lord did, considers this part of the contract at an end when the woman ceases to fulfil hers, and his love does not survive her beauty. I know ’tis often otherwise, I say; and can think (as most men in their own experience may) of many a house, where, lighted in early years, the sainted lamp of love hath never been extinguished; but so there is Mr. Parr, and so there is the great giant at the fair that is eight feet high — exceptions to men — and that poor lamp whereof I speak, that lights at first the nuptial chamber, is extinguished by a hundred winds and draughts down the chimney, or sputters out for want of feeding. And then — and then it is Chloe, in the dark, stark awake, and Strephon snoring unheeding; or vice versa, ’tis poor Strephon that has married a heartless jilt, and awoke out of that absurd vision of conjugal felicity, which was to last for ever, and is over like any other dream. One and other has made his bed, and so must lie in it, until that final day when life ends, and they sleep separate.

About this time young Esmond, who had a knack of stringing verses, turned some of Ovid’s Epistles into rhymes, and brought them to his lady for her delectation. Those which treated of forsaken women touched her immensely, Harry remarked; and when Oenone called after Paris, and Medea bade Jason come back again, the lady of Castlewood sighed, and said she thought that part of the verses was the most pleasing. Indeed, she would have chopped up the Dean, her old father, in order to bring her husband back again. But her beautiful Jason was gone, as beautiful Jasons will go, and the poor enchantress had never a spell to keep him.

My lord was only sulky as long as his wife’s anxious face or behavior seemed to upbraid him. When she had got to master these, and to show an outwardly cheerful countenance and behavior, her husband’s good-humor returned partially, and he swore and stormed no longer at dinner, but laughed sometimes, and yawned unrestrainedly; absenting himself often from home, inviting more company thither, passing the greater part of his days in the hunting-field, or over the bottle as before; but with this difference, that the poor wife could no longer see now, as she had done formerly, the light of love kindled in his eyes. He was with her, but that flame was out: and that once welcome beacon no more shone there.

What were this lady’s feelings when forced to admit the truth whereof her foreboding glass had given her only too true warning, that within her beauty her reign had ended, and the days of her love were over? What does a seaman do in a storm if mast and rudder are carried away? He ships a jurymast, and steers as he best can with an oar. What happens if your roof falls in a tempest? After the first stun of the calamity the sufferer starts up, gropes around to see that the children are safe, and puts them under a shed out of the rain. If the palace burns down, you take shelter in the barn. What man’s life is not overtaken by one or more of these tornadoes that send us out of the course, and fling us on rocks to shelter as best we may?

When Lady Castlewood found that her great ship had gone down, she began as best she might after she had rallied from the effects of the loss, to put out small ventures of happiness; and hope for little gains and returns, as a merchant on ‘Change, indocilis pauperiem pati, having lost his thousands, embarks a few guineas upon the next ship. She laid out her all upon her children, indulging them beyond all measure, as was inevitable with one of her kindness of disposition; giving all her thoughts to their welfare — learning, that she might teach them; and improving her own many natural gifts and feminine accomplishments, that she might impart them to her young ones. To be doing good for some one else, is the life of most good women. They are exuberant of kindness, as it were, and must impart it to some one. She made herself a good scholar of French, Italian, and Latin, having been grounded in these by her father in her youth; hiding these gifts from her husband out of fear, perhaps, that they should offend him, for my lord was no bookman — pish’d and psha’d at the notion of learned ladies, and would have been angry that his wife could construe out of a Latin book of which he could scarce understand two words. Young Esmond was usher, or house tutor, under her or over her, as it might happen. During my lord’s many absences, these school-days would go on uninterruptedly: the mother and daughter learning with surprising quickness; the latter by fits and starts only, and as suited her wayward humor. As for the little lord, it must be owned that he took after his father in the matter of learning — liked marbles and play, and the great horse and the little one which his father brought him, and on which he took him out a-hunting, a great deal better than Corderius and Lily; marshalled the village boys, and had a little court of them, already flogging them, and domineering over them with a fine imperious spirit, that made his father laugh when he beheld it, and his mother fondly warn him. The cook had a son, the woodman had two, the big lad at the porter’s lodge took his cuffs and his orders. Doctor Tusher said he was a young nobleman of gallant spirit; and Harry Esmond, who was his tutor, and eight years his little lordship’s senior, had hard work sometimes to keep his own temper, and hold his authority over his rebellious little chief and kinsman.

In a couple of years after that calamity had befallen which had robbed Lady Castlewood of a little — a very little — of her beauty, and her careless husband’s heart (if the truth must be told, my lady had found not only that her reign was over, but that her successor was appointed, a Princess of a noble house in Drury Lane somewhere, who was installed and visited by my lord at the town eight miles off — pudet haec opprobria dicere nobis)— a great change had taken place in her mind, which, by struggles only known to herself, at least never mentioned to any one, and unsuspected by the person who caused the pain she endured — had been schooled into such a condition as she could not very likely have imagined possible a score of months since, before her misfortunes had begun.

She had oldened in that time as people do who suffer silently great mental pain; and learned much that she had never suspected before. She was taught by that bitter teacher Misfortune. A child the mother of other children, but two years back her lord was a god to her; his words her law; his smile her sunshine; his lazy commonplaces listened to eagerly, as if they were words of wisdom — all his wishes and freaks obeyed with a servile devotion. She had been my lord’s chief slave and blind worshipper. Some women bear farther than this, and submit not only to neglect but to unfaithfulness too — but here this lady’s allegiance had failed her. Her spirit rebelled, and disowned any more obedience. First she had to bear in secret the passion of losing the adored object; then to get further initiation, and to find this worshipped being was but a clumsy idol: then to admit the silent truth, that it was she was superior, and not the monarch her master: that she had thoughts which his brains could never master, and was the better of the two; quite separate from my lord although tied to him, and bound, as almost all people (save a very happy few), to work all her life alone. My lord sat in his chair, laughing his laugh, cracking his joke, his face flushing with wine — my lady in her place over against him — he never suspecting that his superior was there, in the calm resigned lady, cold of manner, with downcast eyes. When he was merry in his cups, he would make jokes about her coldness, and, “D—— it, now my lady is gone, we will have t’other bottle,” he would say. He was frank enough in telling his thoughts, such as they were. There was little mystery about my lord’s words or actions. His Fair Rosamond did not live in a Labyrinth, like the lady of Mr. Addison’s opera, but paraded with painted cheeks and a tipsy retinue in the country town. Had she a mind to be revenged, Lady Castlewood could have found the way to her rival’s house easily enough; and, if she had come with bowl and dagger, would have been routed off the ground by the enemy with a volley of Billingsgate, which the fair person always kept by her.

Meanwhile, it has been said, that for Harry Esmond his benefactress’s sweet face had lost none of its charms. It had always the kindest of looks and smiles for him — smiles, not so gay and artless perhaps as those which Lady Castlewood had formerly worn, when, a child herself, playing with her children, her husband’s pleasure and authority were all she thought of; but out of her griefs and cares, as will happen I think when these trials fall upon a kindly heart, and are not too unbearable, grew up a number of thoughts and excellences which had never come into existence, had not her sorrow and misfortunes engendered them. Sure, occasion is the father of most that is good in us. As you have seen the awkward fingers and clumsy tools of a prisoner cut and fashion the most delicate little pieces of carved work; or achieve the most prodigious underground labors, and cut through walls of masonry, and saw iron bars and fetters; ’tis misfortune that awakens ingenuity, or fortitude, or endurance, in hearts where these qualities had never come to life but for the circumstance which gave them a being.

“’Twas after Jason left her, no doubt,” Lady Castlewood once said with one of her smiles to young Esmond (who was reading to her a version of certain lines out of Euripides), “that Medea became a learned woman and a great enchantress.”

“And she could conjure the stars out of heaven,” the young tutor added, “but she could not bring Jason back again.”

“What do you mean?” asked my lady, very angry.

“Indeed I mean nothing,” said the other, “save what I’ve read in books. What should I know about such matters? I have seen no woman save you and little Beatrix, and the parson’s wife and my late mistress, and your ladyship’s woman here.”

“The men who wrote your books,” says my lady, “your Horaces, and Ovids, and Virgils, as far as I know of them, all thought ill of us, as all the heroes they wrote about used us basely. We were bred to be slaves always; and even of our own times, as you are still the only lawgivers, I think our sermons seem to say that the best woman is she who bears her master’s chains most gracefully. ’Tis a pity there are no nunneries permitted by our church: Beatrix and I would fly to one, and end our days in peace there away from you.”

“And is there no slavery in a convent?” says Esmond.

“At least if women are slaves there, no one sees them,” answered the lady. “They don’t work in street gangs with the public to jeer them: and if they suffer, suffer in private. Here comes my lord home from hunting. Take away the books. My lord does not love to see them. Lessons are over for today, Mr. Tutor.” And with a curtsy and a smile she would end this sort of colloquy.

Indeed “Mr. Tutor,” as my lady called Esmond, had now business enough on his hands in Castlewood house. He had three pupils, his lady and her two children, at whose lessons she would always be present; besides writing my lord’s letters, and arranging his accompts for him — when these could be got from Esmond’s indolent patron.

Of the pupils the two young people were but lazy scholars, and as my lady would admit no discipline such as was then in use, my lord’s son only learned what he liked, which was but little, and never to his life’s end could be got to construe more than six lines of Virgil. Mistress Beatrix chattered French prettily, from a very early age; and sang sweetly, but this was from her mother’s teaching — not Harry Esmond’s, who could scarce distinguish between “Green Sleeves” and “Lillibullero;” although he had no greater delight in life than to hear the ladies sing. He sees them now (will he ever forget them?) as they used to sit together of the summer evenings — the two golden heads over the page — the child’s little hand, and the mother’s beating the time, with their voices rising and falling in unison.

But if the children were careless, ’twas a wonder how eagerly the mother learnt from her young tutor — and taught him too. The happiest instinctive faculty was this lady’s — a faculty for discerning latent beauties and hidden graces of books, especially books of poetry, as in a walk she would spy out field-flowers and make posies of them, such as no other hand could. She was a critic, not by reason but by feeling; the sweetest commentator of those books they read together; and the happiest hours of young Esmond’s life, perhaps, were those passed in the company of this kind mistress and her children.

These happy days were to end soon, however; and it was by the Lady Castlewood’s own decree that they were brought to a conclusion. It happened about Christmas-time, Harry Esmond being now past sixteen years of age, that his old comrade, adversary, and friend, Tom Tusher, returned from his school in London, a fair, well-grown, and sturdy lad, who was about to enter college, with an exhibition from his school, and a prospect of after promotion in the church. Tom Tusher’s talk was of nothing but Cambridge now; and the boys, who were good friends, examined each other eagerly about their progress in books. Tom had learned some Greek and Hebrew, besides Latin, in which he was pretty well skilled, and also had given himself to mathematical studies under his father’s guidance, who was a proficient in those sciences, of which Esmond knew nothing; nor could he write Latin so well as Tom, though he could talk it better, having been taught by his dear friend the Jesuit Father, for whose memory the lad ever retained the warmest affection, reading his books, keeping his swords clean in the little crypt where the Father had shown them to Esmond on the night of his visit; and often of a night sitting in the chaplain’s room, which he inhabited, over his books, his verses, and rubbish, with which the lad occupied himself, he would look up at the window, thinking he wished it might open and let in the good Father. He had come and passed away like a dream; but for the swords and books Harry might almost think the Father was an imagination of his mind — and for two letters which had come to him, one from abroad, full of advice and affection, another soon after he had been confirmed by the Bishop of Hexton, in which Father Holt deplored his falling away. But Harry Esmond felt so confident now of his being in the right, and of his own powers as a casuist, that he thought he was able to face the Father himself in argument, and possibly convert him.

To work upon the faith of her young pupil, Esmond’s kind mistress sent to the library of her father the Dean, who had been distinguished in the disputes of the late king’s reign; and, an old soldier now, had hung up his weapons of controversy. These he took down from his shelves willingly for young Esmond, whom he benefited by his own personal advice and instruction. It did not require much persuasion to induce the boy to worship with his beloved mistress. And the good old nonjuring Dean flattered himself with a conversion which, in truth, was owing to a much gentler and fairer persuader.

Under her ladyship’s kind eyes (my lord’s being sealed in sleep pretty generally), Esmond read many volumes of the works of the famous British Divines of the last age, and was familiar with Wake and Sherlock, with Stillingfleet and Patrick. His mistress never tired to listen or to read, to pursue the texts with fond comments, to urge those points which her fancy dwelt on most, or her reason deemed most important. Since the death of her father the Dean, this lady hath admitted a certain latitude of theological reading which her orthodox father would never have allowed; his favorite writers appealing more to reason and antiquity than to the passions or imaginations of their readers, so that the works of Bishop Taylor, nay, those of Mr. Baxter and Mr. Law, have in reality found more favor with my Lady Castlewood than the severer volumes of our great English schoolmen.

In later life, at the University, Esmond reopened the controversy, and pursued it in a very different manner, when his patrons had determined for him that he was to embrace the ecclesiastical life. But though his mistress’s heart was in this calling, his own never was much. After that first fervor of simple devotion, which his beloved Jesuit priest had inspired in him, speculative theology took but little hold upon the young man’s mind. When his early credulity was disturbed, and his saints and virgins taken out of his worship, to rank little higher than the divinities of Olympus, his belief became acquiescence rather than ardor; and he made his mind up to assume the cassock and bands, as another man does to wear a breastplate and jack-boots, or to mount a merchant’s desk, for a livelihood, and from obedience and necessity, rather than from choice. There were scores of such men in Mr. Esmond’s time at the universities, who were going to the church with no better calling than his.

When Thomas Tusher was gone, a feeling of no small depression and disquiet fell upon young Esmond, of which, though he did not complain, his kind mistress must have divined the cause: for soon after she showed not only that she understood the reason of Harry’s melancholy, but could provide a remedy for it. Her habit was thus to watch, unobservedly, those to whom duty or affection bound her, and to prevent their designs, or to fulfil them, when she had the power. It was this lady’s disposition to think kindnesses, and devise silent bounties and to scheme benevolence, for those about her. We take such goodness, for the most part, as if it was our due; the Marys who bring ointment for our feet get but little thanks. Some of us never feel this devotion at all, or are moved by it to gratitude or acknowledgment; others only recall it years after, when the days are past in which those sweet kindnesses were spent on us, and we offer back our return for the debt by a poor tardy payment of tears. Then forgotten tones of love recur to us, and kind glances shine out of the past — oh so bright and clear! — oh so longed after! — because they are out of reach; as holiday music from withinside a prison wall — or sunshine seen through the bars; more prized because unattainable — more bright because of the contrast of present darkness and solitude, whence there is no escape.

All the notice, then, which Lady Castlewood seemed to take of Harry Esmond’s melancholy, upon Tom Tusher’s departure, was, by a gayety unusual to her, to attempt to dispel his gloom. She made his three scholars (herself being the chief one) more cheerful than ever they had been before, and more docile, too, all of them learning and reading much more than they had been accustomed to do. “For who knows,” said the lady, “what may happen, and whether we may be able to keep such a learned tutor long?”

Frank Esmond said he for his part did not want to learn any more, and cousin Harry might shut up his book whenever he liked, if he would come out a-fishing; and little Beatrix declared she would send for Tom Tusher, and HE would be glad enough to come to Castlewood, if Harry chose to go away.

At last comes a messenger from Winchester one day, bearer of a letter, with a great black seal, from the Dean there, to say that his sister was dead, and had left her fortune of 2,000L. among her six nieces, the Dean’s daughters; and many a time since has Harry Esmond recalled the flushed face and eager look wherewith, after this intelligence, his kind lady regarded him. She did not pretend to any grief about the deceased relative, from whom she and her family had been many years parted.

When my lord heard of the news, he also did not make any very long face. “The money will come very handy to furnish the music-room and the cellar, which is getting low, and buy your ladyship a coach and a couple of horses that will do indifferent to ride or for the coach. And, Beatrix, you shall have a spinnet: and, Frank, you shall have a little horse from Hexton Fair; and, Harry, you shall have five pounds to buy some books,” said my lord, who was generous with his own, and indeed with other folk’s money. “I wish your aunt would die once a year, Rachel; we could spend your money, and all your sisters’, too.”

“I have but one aunt — and — and I have another use for the money, my lord,” says my lady, turning very red.

“Another use, my dear; and what do you know about money?” cries my lord. “And what the devil is there that I don’t give you which you want!”

“I intend to give this money — can’t you fancy how, my lord?”

My lord swore one of his large oaths that he did not know in the least what she meant.

“I intend it for Harry Esmond to go to college. Cousin Harry,” says my lady, “you mustn’t stay longer in this dull place, but make a name to yourself, and for us too, Harry.”

“D— n it, Harry’s well enough here,” says my lord, for a moment looking rather sulky.

“Is Harry going away? You don’t mean to say you will go away?” cry out Frank and Beatrix at one breath.

“But he will come back: and this will always be his home,” cries my lady, with blue eyes looking a celestial kindness: “and his scholars will always love him; won’t they?”

“By G-d, Rachel, you’re a good woman!” says my lord, seizing my lady’s hand, at which she blushed very much, and shrank back, putting her children before her. “I wish you joy, my kinsman,” he continued, giving Harry Esmond a hearty slap on the shoulder. “I won’t balk your luck. Go to Cambridge, boy, and when Tusher dies you shall have the living here, if you are not better provided by that time. We’ll furnish the dining-room and buy the horses another year. I’ll give thee a nag out of the stable: take any one except my hack and the bay gelding and the coach-horses; and God speed thee, my boy!”

“Have the sorrel, Harry; ’tis a good one. Father says ’tis the best in the stable,” says little Frank, clapping his hands, and jumping up. “Let’s come and see him in the stable.” And the other, in his delight and eagerness, was for leaving the room that instant to arrange about his journey.

The Lady Castlewood looked after him with sad penetrating glances. “He wishes to be gone already, my lord,” said she to her husband.

The young man hung back abashed. “Indeed, I would stay for ever, if your ladyship bade me,” he said.

“And thou wouldst be a fool for thy pains, kinsman,” said my lord. “Tut, tut, man. Go and see the world. Sow thy wild oats; and take the best luck that Fate sends thee. I wish I were a boy again, that I might go to college, and taste the Trumpington ale.”

“Ours, indeed, is but a dull home,” cries my lady, with a little of sadness and, maybe, of satire, in her voice: “an old glum house, half ruined, and the rest only half furnished; a woman and two children are but poor company for men that are accustomed to better. We are only fit to be your worship’s handmaids, and your pleasures must of necessity lie elsewhere than at home.”

“Curse me, Rachel, if I know now whether thou art in earnest or not,” said my lord.

“In earnest, my lord!” says she, still clinging by one of her children. “Is there much subject here for joke?” And she made him a grand curtsy, and, giving a stately look to Harry Esmond, which seemed to say, “Remember; you understand me, though he does not,” she left the room with her children.

“Since she found out that confounded Hexton business,” my lord said —“and be hanged to them that told her! — she has not been the same woman. She, who used to be as humble as a milkmaid, is as proud as a princess,” says my lord. “Take my counsel, Harry Esmond, and keep clear of women. Since I have had anything to do with the jades, they have given me nothing but disgust. I had a wife at Tangier, with whom, as she couldn’t speak a word of my language, you’d have thought I might lead a quiet life. But she tried to poison me, because she was jealous of a Jew girl. There was your aunt, for aunt she is — aunt Jezebel, a pretty life your father led with HER! and here’s my lady. When I saw her on a pillion, riding behind the Dean her father, she looked and was such a baby, that a sixpenny doll might have pleased her. And now you see what she is — hands off, highty-tighty, high and mighty, an empress couldn’t be grander. Pass us the tankard, Harry my boy. A mug of beer and a toast at morn, says my host. A toast and a mug of beer at noon, says my dear. D— n it, Polly loves a mug of ale, too, and laced with brandy, by Jove!” Indeed, I suppose they drank it together; for my lord was often thick in his speech at mid-day dinner; and at night at supper, speechless altogether.

Harry Esmond’s departure resolved upon, it seemed as if the Lady Castlewood, too, rejoiced to lose him; for more than once, when the lad, ashamed perhaps at his own secret eagerness to go away (at any rate stricken with sadness at the idea of leaving those from whom he had received so many proofs of love and kindness inestimable), tried to express to his mistress his sense of gratitude to her, and his sorrow at quitting those who had so sheltered and tended a nameless and houseless orphan, Lady Castlewood cut short his protests of love and his lamentations, and would hear of no grief, but only look forward to Harry’s fame and prospects in life. “Our little legacy will keep you for four years like a gentleman. Heaven’s Providence, your own genius, industry, honor, must do the rest for you. Castlewood will always be a home for you; and these children, whom you have taught and loved, will not forget to love you. And, Harry,” said she (and this was the only time when she spoke with a tear in her eye, or a tremor in her voice), “it may happen in the course of nature that I shall be called away from them: and their father — and — and they will need true friends and protectors. Promise me that you will be true to them — as — as I think I have been to you — and a mother’s fond prayer and blessing go with you.”

“So help me God, madam, I will,” said Harry Esmond, falling on his knees, and kissing the hand of his dearest mistress. “If you will have me stay now, I will. What matters whether or no I make my way in life, or whether a poor bastard dies as unknown as he is now? ’Tis enough that I have your love and kindness surely; and to make you happy is duty enough for me.”

“Happy!” says she; “but indeed I ought to be, with my children, and —”

“Not happy!” cried Esmond (for he knew what her life was, though he and his mistress never spoke a word concerning it). “If not happiness, it may be ease. Let me stay and work for you — let me stay and be your servant.”

“Indeed, you are best away,” said my lady, laughing, as she put her hand on the boy’s head for a moment. “You shall stay in no such dull place. You shall go to college and distinguish yourself as becomes your name. That is how you shall please me best; and — and if my children want you, or I want you, you shall come to us; and I know we may count on you.”

“May heaven forsake me if you may not!” Harry said, getting up from his knee.

“And my knight longs for a dragon this instant that he may fight,” said my lady, laughing; which speech made Harry Esmond start, and turn red; for indeed the very thought was in his mind, that he would like that some chance should immediately happen whereby he might show his devotion. And it pleased him to think that his lady had called him “her knight,” and often and often he recalled this to his mind, and prayed that he might be her true knight, too.

My lady’s bed-chamber window looked out over the country, and you could see from it the purple hills beyond Castlewood village, the green common betwixt that and the Hall, and the old bridge which crossed over the river. When Harry Esmond went away for Cambridge, little Frank ran alongside his horse as far as the bridge, and there Harry stopped for a moment, and looked back at the house where the best part of his life had been passed. It lay before him with its gray familiar towers, a pinnacle or two shining in the sun, the buttresses and terrace walls casting great blue shades on the grass. And Harry remembered, all his life after, how he saw his mistress at the window looking out on him in a white robe, the little Beatrix’s chestnut curls resting at her mother’s side. Both waved a farewell to him, and little Frank sobbed to leave him. Yes, he WOULD be his lady’s true knight, he vowed in his heart; he waved her an adieu with his hat. The village people had Good-by to say to him too. All knew that Master Harry was going to college, and most of them had a kind word and a look of farewell. I do not stop to say what adventures he began to imagine, or what career to devise for himself before he had ridden three miles from home. He had not read Monsieur Galland’s ingenious Arabian tales as yet; but be sure that there are other folks who build castles in the air, and have fine hopes, and kick them down too, besides honest Alnaschar.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/esmond/chapter9.html

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