The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XII

News from the Camp

We must fancy that the parting between the brothers is over, that George has taken his place in Mr. Braddock’s family, and Harry has returned home to Castlewood and his duty. His heart is with the army, and his pursuits at home offer the boy no pleasure. He does not care to own how deep his disappointment is, at being obliged to stay under the homely, quiet roof, now more melancholy than ever since George is away. Harry passes his brother’s empty chamber with an averted face; takes George’s place at the head of the table, and sighs as he drinks from his silver tankard. Madam Warrington calls the toast of “The King” stoutly every day; and, on Sundays, when Harry reads the service, and prays for all travellers by land and by water, she says, “We beseech Thee to hear us,” with a peculiar solemnity. She insists on talking about George constantly, but quite cheerfully, and as if his return was certain. She walks into his vacant room, with head upright, and no outward signs of emotion. She sees that his books, linen, papers, etc., are arranged with care; talking of him with a very special respect, and specially appealing to the old servants at meals, and so forth, regarding things which are to be done “when Mr. George comes home.” Mrs. Mountain is constantly on the whimper when George’s name is mentioned, and Harry’s face wears a look of the most ghastly alarm; but his mother’s is invariably grave and sedate. She makes more blunders at piquet and backgammon than you would expect from her; and the servants find her awake and dressed, however early they may rise. She has prayed Mr. Dempster to come back into residence at Castlewood. She is not severe or haughty (as her wont certainly was) with any of the party, but quiet in her talk with them, and gentle in assertion and reply. She is for ever talking of her father and his campaigns, who came out of them all with no very severe wounds to hurt him; and so she hopes and trusts will her eldest son.

George writes frequent letters home to his brother, and, now the army is on its march, compiles a rough journal, which he forwards as occasion serves. This document is perused with great delight and eagerness by the youth to whom it is addressed, and more than once read out in family council, on the long summer nights, as Madam Esmond sits upright at her tea-table —(she never condescends to use the back of a chair)— as little Fanny Mountain is busy with her sewing, as Mr. Dempster and Mrs. Mountain sit over their cards, as the hushed old servants of the house move about silently in the gloaming, and listen to the words of the young master. Hearken to Harry Warrington reading out his brother’s letter! As we look at the slim characters on the yellow page, fondly kept and put aside, we can almost fancy him alive who wrote and who read it — and yet, lo! they are as if they never had been; their portraits faint images in frames of tarnished gold. Were they real once, or are they mere phantasms? Did they live and die once? Did they love each other as true brothers, and loyal gentlemen? Can we hear their voices in the past? Sure I know Harry’s, and yonder he sits in the warm summer evening, and reads his young brother’s simple story:

“It must be owned that the provinces are acting scurvily by his Majesty King George II., and his representative here is in a flame of fury. Virginia is bad enough, and poor Maryland not much better, but Pennsylvania is worst of all. We pray them to send us troops from home to fight the French; and we promise to maintain the troops when they come. We not only don’t keep our promise, and make scarce any provision for our defenders, but our people insist upon the most exorbitant prices for their cattle and stores, and actually cheat the soldiers who are come to fight their battles. No wonder the General swears, and the troops are sulky. The delays have been endless. Owing to the failure of the several provinces to provide their promised stores and means of locomotion, weeks and months have elapsed, during which time, no doubt, the French have been strengthening themselves on our frontier and in the forts they have turned us out of. Though there never will be any love lost between me and Colonel Washington, it must be owned that your favourite (I am not jealous, Hal) is a brave man and a good officer. The family respect him very much, and the General is always asking his opinion. Indeed, he is almost the only man who has seen the Indians in their war-paint, and I own I think he was right in firing upon Mons. Jumonville last year.

“There is to be no more suite to that other quarrel at Benson’s Tavern than there was to the proposed battle between Colonel W. and a certain young gentleman who shall be nameless. Captain Waring wished to pursue it on coming into camp, and brought the message from Captain Grace, which your friend, who is as bold as Hector, was for taking up, and employed a brother aide-de-camp, Colonel Wingfield, on his side. But when Wingfield heard the circumstances of the quarrel, how it had arisen from Grace being drunk, and was fomented by Waring being tipsy, and how the two 44th gentlemen had chosen to insult a militia officer, he swore that Colonel Washington should not meet the 44th men; that he would carry the matter straightway to his Excellency, who would bring the two captains to a court-martial for brawling with the militia, and drunkenness, and indecent behaviour, and the captains were fain to put up their toasting-irons, and swallow their wrath. They were good-natured enough out of their cups, and ate their humble-pie with very good appetites at a reconciliation dinner which Colonel W. had with the 44th, and where he was as perfectly stupid and correct as Prince Prettyman need be. Hang him! He has no faults, and that’s why I dislike him. When he marries that widow — ah me! what a dreary life she will have of it.”

“I wonder at the taste of some men, and the effrontery of some women,” says Madam Esmond, laying her teacup down. “I wonder at any woman who has been married once, so forgetting herself as to marry again! Don’t you, Mountain?”

“Monstrous!” says Mountain, with a queer look.

Dempster keeps his eyes steadily fixed on his glass of punch. Harry looks as if he was choking with laughter, or with some other concealed emotion, but his mother says, “Go on, Harry! Continue with your brother’s journal. He writes well: but, ah, will he ever be able to write like my papa?”

Harry resumes: “We keep the strictest order here in camp, and the orders against drunkenness and ill-behaviour on the part of the men are very severe. The roll of each company is called at morning, noon, and night, and a return of the absent and disorderly is given in by the officer to the commanding officer of the regiment, who has to see that they are properly punished. The men are punished, and the drummers are always at work. Oh, Harry, but it made one sick to see the first blood drawn from a great strong white back, and to hear the piteous yell of the poor fellow.”

“Oh, horrid!” says Madam Esmond.

“I think I should have murdered Ward if he had flogged me. Thank Heaven he got off with only a crack of the ruler! The men, I say, are looked after carefully enough. I wish the officers were. The Indians have just broken up their camp, and retired in dudgeon, because the young officers were for ever drinking with the squaws — and — and — hum — ha.” Here Mr. Harry pauses, as not caring to proceed with the narrative, in the presence of little Fanny, very likely, who sits primly in her chair by her mother’s side, working her little sampler.

“Pass over that about the odious tipsy creatures,” says Madam. And Harry commences, in a loud tone, a much more satisfactory statement: “Each regiment has Divine Service performed at the head of its colours every Sunday. The General does everything in the power of mortal man to prevent plundering, and to encourage the people round about to bring in provisions. He has declared soldiers shall be shot who dare to interrupt or molest the market-people. He has ordered the price of provisions to be raised a penny a pound, and has lent money out of his own pocket to provide the camp. Altogether, he is a strange compound, this General. He flogs his men without mercy, but he gives without stint. He swears most tremendous oaths in conversation, and tells stories which Mountain would be shocked to hear —”

“Why me?” asks Mountain; “and what have I to do with the General’s silly stories?”

“Never mind the stories; and go on, Harry,” cries the mistress of the house.

“— would be shocked to hear after dinner; but he never misses service. He adores his Great Duke, and has his name constantly on his lips. Our two regiments both served in Scotland, where I dare say Mr. Dempster knew the colour of their facings.”

“We saw the tails of their coats, as well as their facings,” growls the little Jacobite tutor.

“Colonel Washington has had the fever very smartly, and has hardly been well enough to keep up with the march. Had he not better go home and be nursed by his widow? When either of us is ill, we are almost as good friends again as ever. But I feel somehow as if I can’t forgive him for having wronged him. Good Powers! How I have been hating him for these months past! Oh, Harry! I was in a fury at the tavern the other day, because Mountain came up so soon, and put an end to our difference. We ought to have burned a little gunpowder between us, and cleared the air. But though I don’t love him, as you do, I know he is a good soldier, a good officer, and a brave, honest man; and, at any rate, shall love him none the worse for not wanting to be our stepfather.”

“A stepfather, indeed!” cries Harry’s mother. “Why, jealousy and prejudice have perfectly maddened the poor child! Do you suppose the Marquis of Esmond’s daughter and heiress could not have found other stepfathers for her sons than a mere provincial surveyor? If there are any more such allusions in George’s journal, I beg you skip ’em, Harry, my dear. About this piece of folly and blundering, there hath been quite talk enough already.”

“’Tis a pretty sight,” Harry continued, reading from his brother’s journal, “to see a long line of redcoats, threading through the woods or taking their ground after the march. The care against surprise is so great and constant, that we defy prowling Indians to come unawares upon us, and our advanced sentries and savages have on the contrary fallen in with the enemy and taken a scalp or two from them. They are such cruel villains, these French and their painted allies, that we do not think of showing them mercy. Only think, we found but yesterday a little boy scalped but yet alive in a lone house, where his parents had been attacked and murdered by the savage enemy, of whom — so great is his indignation at their cruelty — our General has offered a reward of five pounds for all the Indian scalps brought in.

“When our march is over, you should see our camp, and all the care bestowed on it. Our baggage and our General’s tents and guard are placed quite in the centre of the camp. We have outlying sentries by twos, by threes, by tens, by whole companies. At the least surprise, they are instructed to run in on the main body and rally round the tents and baggage, which are so arranged themselves as to be a strong fortification. Sady and I, you must know, are marching on foot now, and my horses are carrying baggage. The Pennsylvanians sent such rascally animals into camp that they speedily gave in. What good horses were left, ’twas our duty to give up: and Roxana has a couple of packs upon her back instead of her young master. She knows me right well, and whinnies when she sees me, and I walk by her side, and we have many a talk together on the march.

“July 4. To guard against surprises, we are all warned to pay especial attention to the beat of the drum; always halting when they hear the long roll beat, and marching at the beat of the long march. We are more on the alert regarding the enemy now. We have our advanced pickets doubled, and two sentries at every post. The men on the advanced pickets are constantly under arms, with fixed bayonets, all through the night, and relieved every two hours. The half that are relieved lie down by their arms, but are not suffered to leave their pickets. ’Tis evident that we are drawing very near to the enemy now. This packet goes out with the General’s to Colonel Dunbar’s camp, who is thirty miles behind us; and will be carried thence to Frederick, and thence to my honoured mother’s house at Castlewood, to whom I send my duty, with kindest remembrances, as to all friends there, and bow much love I need not say to my dearest brother from his affectionate — GEORGE E. WARRINGTON.”

The whole land was now lying parched and scorching in the July heat. For ten days no news had come from the column advancing on the Ohio. Their march, though it toiled but slowly through the painful forest, must bring them ere long up with the enemy; the troops, led by consummate captains, were accustomed now to the wilderness, and not afraid of surprise. Every precaution had been taken against ambush. It was the outlying enemy who were discovered, pursued, destroyed, by the vigilant scouts and skirmishers of the British force. The last news heard was that the army had advanced considerably beyond the ground of Mr. Washington’s discomfiture on the previous year, and two days after must be within a day’s march of the French fort. About taking it no fears were entertained; the amount of the French reinforcements from Montreal was known. Mr. Braddock, with his two veteran regiments from Britain, and their allies of Virginia and Pennsylvania, were more than a match for any troops that could be collected under the white flag.

Such continued to be the talk, in the sparse towns of our Virginian province, at the gentry’s houses, and the rough roadside taverns, where people met and canvassed the war. The few messengers who were sent back by the General reported well of the main force. ’Twas thought the enemy would not stand or defend himself at all. Had he intended to attack, he might have seized a dozen occasions for assaulting our troops at passes through which they had been allowed to go entirely free. So George had given up his favourite mare, like a hero as he was, and was marching afoot with the line? Madam Esmond vowed that he should have the best horse in Virginia or Carolina in place of Roxana. There were horses enough to be had in the provinces, and for money. It was only for the King’s service that they were not forthcoming.

Although at their family meetings and repasts the inmates of Castlewood always talked cheerfully, never anticipating any but a triumphant issue to the campaign, or acknowledging any feeling of disquiet, yet, it must be owned they were mighty uneasy when at home, quitting it ceaselessly, and for ever on the trot from one neighbour’s house to another in quest of news. It was prodigious how quickly reports ran and spread. When, for instance, a certain noted border warrior, called Colonel Jack, had offered himself and his huntsmen to the General, who had declined the ruffian’s terms or his proffered service, the defection of Jack and his men was the talk of thousands of tongues immediately. The house negroes, in their midnight gallops about the country, in search of junketing or sweethearts, brought and spread news over amazingly wide districts. They had a curious knowledge of the incidents of the march for a fortnight at least after its commencement. They knew and laughed at the cheats practised on the army, for horses, provisions, and the like; for a good bargain over the foreigner was not an unfrequent or unpleasant practice among New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, or Marylanders; though ’tis known that American folks have become perfectly artless and simple in later times, and never grasp, and never overreach, and are never selfish now. For three weeks after the army’s departure, the thousand reports regarding it were cheerful; and when our Castlewood friends met at their supper, their tone was confident and their news pleasant.

But on the 10th of July a vast and sudden gloom spread over the province. A look of terror and doubt seemed to fall upon every face. Affrighted negroes wistfully eyed their masters and retired, and hummed and whispered with one another. The fiddles ceased in the quarters: the song and laugh of those cheery black folk were hushed. Right and left, everybody’s servants were on the gallop for news. The country taverns were thronged with horsemen, who drank and cursed and brawled at the bars, each bringing his gloomy story. The army had been surprised. The troops had fallen into an ambuscade, and had been cut up almost to a man. All the officers were taken down by the French marksmen and the savages. The General had been wounded, and carried off the field in his sash. Four days afterwards the report was that the General was dead, and scalped by a French Indian.

Ah, what a scream poor Mrs. Mountain gave, when Gumbo brought this news from across the James River, and little Fanny sprang crying to her mother’s arms! “Lord God Almighty, watch over us, and defend my boy!” said Mrs. Esmond, sinking down on her knees, and lifting her rigid hands to Heaven. The gentlemen were not at home when this rumour arrived, but they came in an hour or two afterwards, each from his hunt for news. The Scots tutor did not dare to look up and meet the widow’s agonising looks. Harry Warrington was as pale as his mother. It might not be true about the manner of the General’s death — but he was dead. The army had been surprised by Indians, and had fled, and been killed without seeing the enemy. An express had arrived from Dunbar’s camp. Fugitives were pouring in there. Should he go and see? He must go and see. He and stout little Dempster armed themselves and mounted, taking a couple of mounted servants with them.

They followed the northward track which the expeditionary army had hewed out for itself, and at every step which brought them nearer to the scene of action, the disaster of the fearful day seemed to magnify. The day after the defeat a number of the miserable fugitives from the fatal battle of the 9th July had reached Dunbar’s camp, fifty miles from the field. Thither poor Harry and his companions rode, stopping stragglers, asking news, giving money, getting from one and all the same gloomy tale — a thousand men were slain — two-thirds of the officers were down — all the General’s aides-de-camp were hit. Were hit? — but were they killed? Those who fell never rose again. The tomahawk did its work upon them. O brother, brother! All the fond memories of their youth, all the dear remembrances of their childhood, the love and the laughter, the tender romantic vows which they had pledged to each other as lads, were recalled by Harry with pangs inexpressibly keen. Wounded men looked up and were softened by his grief: rough women melted as they saw the woe written on the handsome young face: the hardy old tutor could scarcely look at him for tears, and grieved for him even more than for his dear pupil who lay dead under the savage Indian knife.

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