Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER IV

In Which Barry Takes A Near View of Military Glory

I never had a taste for anything but genteel company, and hate all descriptions of low life. Hence my account of the society in which I at present found myself must of necessity be short; and, indeed, the recollection of it is profoundly disagreeable to me. Pah! the reminiscences of the horrid black-hole of a place in which we soldiers were confined; of the wretched creatures with whom I was now forced to keep company; of the ploughmen, poachers, pickpockets, who had taken refuge from poverty, or the law (as, in truth, I had done myself), is enough to make me ashamed even now, and it calls the blush into my old cheeks to think I was ever forced to keep such company. I should have fallen into despair, but that, luckily, events occurred to rouse my spirits, and in some measure to console me for my misfortunes.

The first of these consolations I had was a good quarrel, which took place on the day after my entrance into the transport-ship, with a huge red-haired monster of a fellow — a chairman, who had enlisted to fly from a vixen of a wife, who, boxer as he was, had been more than a match for him. As soon as this fellow — Toole, I remember, was his name — got away from the arms of the washerwoman his lady, his natural courage and ferocity returned, and he became the tyrant of all round about him. All recruits, especially, were the object of the brute’s insult and ill-treatment.

I had no money, as I said, and was sitting very disconsolately over a platter of rancid bacon and mouldy biscuit, which was served to us at mess, when it came to my turn to be helped to drink, and I was served, like the rest, with a dirty tin noggin, containing somewhat more than half a pint of rum-and-water. The beaker was so greasy and filthy that I could not help turning round to the messman and saying, ‘Fellow, get me a glass!’ At which all the wretches round about me burst into a roar of laughter, the very loudest among them being, of course, Mr. Toole. ‘Get the gentleman a towel for his hands, and serve him a basin of turtle-soup,’ roared the monster, who was sitting, or rather squatting, on the deck opposite me; and as he spoke he suddenly seized my beaker of grog and emptied it, in the midst of another burst of applause.

‘If you want to vex him, ax him about his wife the washerwoman, who BATES him,’ here whispered in my ear another worthy, a retired link-boy, who, disgusted with his profession, had adopted the military life.

‘Is it a towel of your wife’s washing, Mr. Toole?’ said I. ‘I’m told she wiped your face often with one.’

‘Ax him why he wouldn’t see her yesterday, when she came to the ship,’ continued the link-boy. And so I put to him some other foolish jokes about soapsuds, henpecking, and flat-irons, which set the man into a fury, and succeeded in raising a quarrel between us. We should have fallen to at once, but a couple of grinning marines, who kept watch at the door, for fear we should repent of our bargain and have a fancy to escape, came forward and interposed between us with fixed bayonets; but the sergeant coming down the ladder, and hearing the dispute, condescended to say that we might fight it out like men with FISTES if we chose, and that the fore-deck should be free to us for that purpose. But the use of fistes, as the Englishman called them, was not then general in Ireland, and it was agreed that we should have a pair of cudgels; with one of which weapons I finished the fellow in four minutes, giving him a thump across his stupid sconce which laid him lifeless on the deck, and not receiving myself a single hurt of consequence.

This victory over the cock of the vile dunghill obtained me respect among the wretches of whom I formed part, and served to set up my spirits, which otherwise were flagging; and my position was speedily made more bearable by the arrival on board our ship of an old friend. This was no other than my second in the fatal duel which had sent me thus early out into the world, Captain Fagan. There was a young nobleman who had a company in our regiment (Gale’s foot), and who, preferring the delights of the Mall and the clubs to the dangers of a rough campaign, had given Fagan the opportunity of an exchange; which, as the latter had no fortune but his sword, he was glad to make. The sergeant was putting us through our exercise on deck (the seamen and officers of the transport looking grinning on) when a boat came from the shore bringing our captain to the ship; and though I started and blushed red as he recognised me — a descendant of the Barrys — in this degrading posture, I promise you that the sight of Fagan’s face was most welcome to me, for it assured me that a friend was near me. Before that I was so melancholy that I would certainly have deserted had I found the means, and had not the inevitable marines kept a watch to prevent any such escapes. Fagan gave me a wink of recognition, but offered no public token of acquaintance; it was not until two days afterwards, and when we had bidden adieu to old Ireland and were standing out to sea, that he called me into his cabin, and then, shaking hands with me cordially, gave me news, which I much wanted, of my family. ‘I had news of you in Dublin,’ he said. ‘‘Faith you’ve begun early, like your father’s son; and I think you could not do better than as you have done. But why did you not write home to your poor mother? She has sent a half-dozen letters to you at Dublin.’

I said I had asked for letters at the post-office, but there were none for Mr. Redmond. I did not like to add that I had been ashamed, after the first week, to write to my mother.

‘We must write to her by the pilot,’ said he, ‘who will leave us in two hours; and you can tell her that you are safe, and married to Brown Bess.’ I sighed when he talked about being married; on which he said with a laugh, ‘I see you are thinking of a certain young lady at Brady’s Town.’

‘Is Miss Brady well?’ said I; and indeed, could hardly utter it, for I certainly WAS thinking about her: for, though I had forgotten her in the gaieties of Dublin, I have always found adversity makes man very affectionate.

‘There’s only seven Miss Bradys now,’ answered Fagan, in a solemn voice. ‘Poor Nora’—

‘Good heavens! what of her?’ I thought grief had killed her.

‘She took on so at your going away that she was obliged to console herself with a husband. She’s now Mrs. John Quin.’

‘Mrs. John Quin! Was there ANOTHER Mr. John Quin?’ asked I, quite wonder-stricken.

‘No; the very same one, my boy. He recovered from his wound. The ball you hit him with was not likely to hurt him. It was only made of tow. Do you think the Bradys would let you kill fifteen hundred a year out of the family?’ And then Fagan further told me that, in order to get me out of the way — for the cowardly Englishman could never be brought to marry from fear of me — the plan of the duel had been arranged. ‘But hit him you certainly did, Redmond, and with a fine thick plugget of tow; and the fellow was so frightened, that he was an hour in coming to. We told your mother the story afterwards, and a pretty scene she made; she despatched a half-score of letters to Dublin after you, but I suppose addressed them to you in your real name, by which you never thought to ask for them.’

‘The coward!’ said I (though, I confess, my mind was considerably relieved at the thoughts of not having killed him). ‘And did the Bradys of Castle Brady consent to admit a poltroon like that into one of the most ancient and honourable families in the world?’

‘He has paid off your uncle’s mortgage,’ said Fagan; ‘he gives Nora a coach-and-six; he is to sell out, and Lieutenant Ulick Brady of the Militia is to purchase his company. That coward of a fellow has been the making of your uncle’s family. ‘Faith! the business was well done.’ And then, laughing, he told me how Mick and Ulick had never let him out of their sight, although he was for deserting to England, until the marriage was completed and the happy couple off on their road to Dublin. ‘Are you in want of cash, my boy?’ continued the good-natured Captain. ‘You may draw upon me, for I got a couple of hundred out of Master Quin for my share, and while they last you shall never want.’

And so he bade me sit down and write a letter to my mother, which I did forthwith in very sincere and repentant terms, stating that I had been guilty of extravagances, that I had not known until that moment under what a fatal error I had been labouring, and that I had embarked for Germany as a volunteer. The letter was scarcely finished when the pilot sang out that he was going on shore; and he departed, taking with him, from many an anxious fellow besides myself, our adieux to friends in old Ireland.

Although I was called Captain Barry for many years of my life, and have been known as such by the first people of Europe, yet I may as well confess I had no more claim to the title than many a gentleman who assumes it, and never had a right to an epaulet, or to any military decoration higher than a corporal’s stripe of worsted. I was made corporal by Fagan during our voyage to the Elbe, and my rank was confirmed on TERRA FIRMA. I was promised a halbert, too, and afterwards, perhaps, an ensigncy, if I distinguished myself; but Fate did not intend that I should remain long an English soldier: as shall appear presently. Meanwhile, our passage was very favourable; my adventures were told by Fagan to his brother officers, who treated me with kindness; and my victory over the big chairman procured me respect from my comrades of the fore-deck. Encouraged and strongly exhorted by Fagan, I did my duty resolutely; but, though affable and good-humoured with the men, I never at first condescended to associate with such low fellows: and, indeed, was called generally amongst them ‘my Lord.’ I believe it was the ex-link-boy, a facetious knave, who gave me the title; and I felt that I should become such a rank as well as any peer in the kingdom.

It would require a greater philosopher and historian than I am to explain the causes of the famous Seven Years’ War in which Europe was engaged; and, indeed, its origin has always appeared to me to be so complicated, and the books written about it so amazingly hard to understand, that I have seldom been much wiser at the end of a chapter than at the beginning, and so shall not trouble my reader with any personal disquisitions concerning the matter. All I know is, that after His Majesty’s love of his Hanoverian dominions had rendered him most unpopular in his English kingdom, with Mr. Pitt at the head of the anti-German war-party, all of a sudden, Mr. Pitt becoming Minister, the rest of the empire applauded the war as much as they had hated it before. The victories of Dettingen and Crefeld were in every-body’s mouths, and ‘the Protestant hero,’ as we used to call the godless old Frederick of Prussia, was adored by us as a saint, a very short time after we had been about to make war against him in alliance with the Empress-queen. Now, somehow, we were on Frederick’s side: the Empress, the French, the Swedes, and the Russians, were leagued against us; and I remember, when the news of the battle of Lissa came even to our remote quarter of Ireland, we considered it as a triumph for the cause of Protestantism, and illuminated and bonfired, and had a sermon at church, and kept the Prussian king’s birthday; on which my uncle would get drunk: as indeed on any other occasion. Most of the low fellows enlisted with myself were, of course, Papists (the English army was filled with such, out of that never-failing country of ours), and these, forsooth, were fighting the battles of Protestantism with Frederick; who was belabouring the Protestant Swedes and the Protestant Saxons, as well as the Russians of the Greek Church, and the Papist troops of the Emperor and the King of France. It was against these latter that the English auxiliaries were employed, and we know that, be the quarrel what it may, an Englishman and a Frenchman are pretty willing to make a fight of it.

We landed at Cuxhaven, and before I had been a month in the Electorate I was transformed into a tall and proper young soldier, and having a natural aptitude for military exercise, was soon as accomplished at the drill as the oldest sergeant in the regiment. It is well, however, to dream of glorious war in a snug arm-chair at home; ay, or to make it as an officer, surrounded by gentlemen, gorgeously dressed, and cheered by chances of promotion. But those chances do not shine on poor fellows in worsted lace: the rough texture of our red coats made me ashamed when I saw an officer go by; my soul used to shudder when, on going the rounds, I would hear their voices as they sat jovially over the mess-table; my pride revolted at being obliged to plaster my hair with flour and candle-grease, instead of using the proper pomatum for a gentleman. Yes, my tastes have always been high and fashionable, and I loathed the horrid company in which I was fallen. What chances had I of promotion? None of my relatives had money to buy me a commission, and I became soon so low-spirited, that I longed for a general action and a ball to finish me, and vowed that I would take some opportunity to desert.

When I think that I, the descendant of the kings of Ireland, was threatened with a caning by a young scoundrel who had just joined from Eton College — when I think that he offered to make me his footman, and that I did not, on either occasion, murder him! On the first occasion I burst into tears (I do not care to own it) and had serious thoughts of committing suicide, so great was my mortification. But my kind friend Fagan came to my aid in the circumstance, with some very timely consolation. ‘My poor boy,’ said he, ‘you must not take the matter to heart so. Caning is only a relative disgrace. Young Ensign Fakenham was flogged himself at Eton School only a month ago: I would lay a wager that his scars are not yet healed. You must cheer up, my boy; do your duty, be a gentleman, and no serious harm can fall on you.’ And I heard afterwards that my champion had taken Mr. Fakenham very severely to task for this threat, and said to him that any such proceedings for the future he should consider as an insult to himself; whereon the young ensign was, for the moment, civil. As for the sergeants, I told one of them, that if any man struck me, no matter who he might be, or what the penalty, I would take his life. And, ‘faith! there was an air of sincerity in my speech which convinced the whole bevy of them; and as long as I remained in the English service no rattan was ever laid on the shoulders of Redmond Barry. Indeed, I was in that savage moody state, that my mind was quite made up to the point, and I looked to hear my own dead march played as sure as I was alive. When I was made a corporal, some of my evils were lessened; I messed with the sergeants by special favour, and used to treat them to drink, and lose money to the rascals at play: with which cash my good friend Mr. Fagan punctually supplied me.

Our regiment, which was quartered about Stade and Luneburg, speedily got orders to march southwards towards the Rhine, for news came that our great General, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, had been defeated-no, not defeated, but foiled in his attack upon the French under the Duke of Broglio, at Bergen, near Frankfort-on-the-Main, and had been obliged to fall back. As the allies retreated the French rushed forward, and made a bold push for the Electorate of our gracious monarch in Hanover, threatening that they would occupy it; as they had done before, when D’Estrees beat the hero of Culloden, the gallant Duke of Cumberland, and caused him to sign the capitulation of Closter Zeven. An advance upon Hanover always caused a great agitation in the Royal bosom of the King of England; more troops were sent to join us, convoys of treasure were passed over to our forces, and to our ally’s the King of Prussia; and although, in spite of all assistance, the army under Prince Ferdinand was very much weaker than that of the invading enemy, yet we had the advantage of better supplies, one of the greatest Generals in the world: and, I was going to add, of British valour, but the less we say about THAT the better. My Lord George Sackville did not exactly cover himself with laurels at Minden; otherwise there might have been won there one of the greatest victories of modern times.

Throwing himself between the French and the interior of the Electorate, Prince Ferdinand wisely took possession of the free town of Bremen, which he made his storehouse and place of arms; and round which he gathered all his troops, making ready to fight the famous battle of Minden.

Were these Memoirs not characterised by truth, and did I deign to utter a single word for which my own personal experience did not give me the fullest authority, I might easily make myself the hero of some strange and popular adventures, and, after the fashion of novel-writers, introduce my reader to the great characters of this remarkable time. These persons (I mean the romance-writers), if they take a drummer or a dustman for a hero, somehow manage to bring him in contact with the greatest lords and most notorious personages of the empire; and I warrant me there’s not one of them but, in describing the battle of Minden, would manage to bring Prince Ferdinand, and my Lord George Sackville, and my Lord Granby, into presence. It would have been easy for me to have SAID I was present when the orders were brought to Lord George to charge with the cavalry and finish the rout of the Frenchmen, and when he refused to do so, and thereby spoiled the great victory. But the fact is, I was two miles off from the cavalry when his Lordship’s fatal hesitation took place, and none of us soldiers of the line knew of what had occurred until we came to talk about the fight over our kettles in the evening, and repose after the labours of a hard-fought day. I saw no one of higher rank that day than my colonel and a couple of orderly officers riding by in the smoke — no one on our side, that is. A poor corporal (as I then had the, disgrace of being) is not generally invited into the company of commanders and the great; but, in revenge, I saw, I promise you, some very good company on the FRENCH part, for their regiments of Lorraine and Royal Cravate were charging us all day; and in THAT sort of MELEE high and low are pretty equally received. I hate bragging, but I cannot help saying that I made a very close acquaintance with the colonel of the Cravates; for I drove my bayonet into his body, and finished off a poor little ensign, so young, slender, and small, that a blow from my pigtail would have despatched him, I think, in place of the butt of my musket, with which I clubbed him down. I killed, besides, four more officers and men, and in the poor ensign’s pocket found a purse of fourteen louis-d’or, and a silver box of sugar-plums; of which the former present was very agreeable to me. If people would tell their stories of battles in this simple way, I think the cause of truth would not suffer by it. All I know of this famous fight of Minden (except from books) is told here above. The ensign’s silver bon-bon box and his purse of gold; the livid face of the poor fellow as he fell; the huzzas of the men of my company as I went out under a smart fire and rifled him; their shouts and curses as we came hand in hand with the Frenchmen — these are, in truth, not very dignified recollections, and had best be passed over briefly. When my kind friend Fagan was shot, a brother captain, and his very good friend, turned to Lieutenant Rawson and said, ‘Fagan’s down; Rawson, there’s your company.’ It was all the epitaph my brave patron got. ‘I should have left you a hundred guineas, Redmond,’ were his last words to me, ‘but for a cursed run of ill luck last night at faro.’ And he gave me a faint squeeze of the hand; then, as the word was given to advance, I left him. When we came back to our old ground, which we presently did, he was lying there still; but he was dead. Some of our people had already torn off his epaulets, and, no doubt, had rifled his purse. Such knaves and ruffians do men in war become! It is well for gentlemen to talk of the age of chivalry; but remember the starving brutes whom they lead — men nursed in poverty, entirely ignorant, made to take a pride in deeds of blood — men who can have no amusement but in drunkenness, debauch, and plunder. It is with these shocking instruments that your great warriors and kings have been doing their murderous work in the world; and while, for instance, we are at the present moment admiring the ‘Great Frederick,’ as we call him, and his philosophy, and his liberality, and his military genius, I, who have served him, and been, as it were, behind the scenes of which that great spectacle is composed, can only look at it with horror. What a number of items of human crime, misery, slavery, go to form that sum-total of glory! I can recollect a certain day about three weeks after the battle of Minden, and a farmhouse in which some of us entered; and how the old woman and her daughters served us, trembling, to wine; and how we got drunk over the wine, and the house was in a flame, presently; and woe betide the wretched fellow afterwards who came home to look for his house and his children!

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