The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XIV

Harry in England

When the famous Trojan wanderer narrated his escapes and adventures to Queen Dido, her Majesty, as we read, took the very greatest interest in the fascinating story-teller who told his perils so eloquently. A history ensued, more pathetic than any of the previous occurrences in the life of Pius Aeneas, and the poor princess had reason to rue the day when she listened to that glib and dangerous orator. Harry Warrington had not pious Aeneas’s power of speech, and his elderly aunt, we may presume, was by no means so soft-hearted as the sentimental Dido; but yet the lad’s narrative was touching, as he delivered it with his artless eloquence and cordial voice; and more than once, in the course of his story, Madam Bernstein found herself moved to a softness to which she had very seldom before allowed herself to give way. There were not many fountains in that desert of a life — not many sweet, refreshing resting-places. It had been a long loneliness, for the most part, until this friendly voice came and sounded in her ears and caused her heart to beat with strange pangs of love and sympathy. She doted on this lad, and on this sense of compassion and regard so new to her. Save once, faintly, in very very early youth, she had felt no tender sentiment for any human being. Such a woman would, no doubt, watch her own sensations very keenly, and must have smiled after the appearance of this boy, to mark how her pulses rose above their ordinary beat. She longed after him. She felt her cheeks flush with happiness when he came near. Her eyes greeted him with welcome, and followed him with fond pleasure. “Ah, if she could have had a son like that, how she would have loved him!” “Wait,” says Conscience, the dark scoffer mocking within her, “wait, Beatrix Esmond! You know you will weary of this inclination, as you have of all. You know, when the passing fancy has subsided, that the boy may perish, and you won’t have a tear for him; or talk, and you weary of his stories; and that your lot in life is to be lonely — lonely.” Well? suppose life be a desert? There are halting-places and shades, and refreshing waters; let us profit by them for today. We know that we must march when tomorrow comes, and tramp on our destiny onward.

She smiled inwardly, whilst following the lad’s narrative, to recognise in his simple tales about his mother, traits of family resemblance. Madam Esmond was very jealous? — Yes, that Harry owned. She was fond of Colonel Washington? She liked him, but only as a friend, Harry declared. A hundred times he had heard his mother vow that she had no other feeling towards him. He was ashamed to have to own that he himself had been once absurdly jealous of the Colonel. “Well, you will see that my half-sister will never forgive him,” said Madam Beatrix. “And you need not be surprised, sir, at women taking a fancy to men younger than themselves; for don’t I dote upon you; and don’t all these Castlewood people crevent with jealousy?”

However great might be their jealousy of Madame de Bernstein’s new favourite, the family of Castlewood allowed no feeling of illwill to appear in their language or behaviour to their young guest and kinsman. After a couple of days’ stay in the ancestral house, Mr. Harry Warrington had become Cousin Harry with young and middle-aged. Especially in Madame Bernstein’s presence, the Countess of Castlewood was most gracious to her kinsman, and she took many amiable private opportunities of informing the Baroness how charming the young Huron was, of vaunting the elegance of his manners and appearance, and wondering how, in his distant province, the child should ever have learned to be so polite?

These notes of admiration or interrogation, the Baroness took with equal complacency (speaking parenthetically, and, for his own part, the present chronicler cannot help putting in a little respectful remark here, and signifying his admiration of the conduct of ladies towards one another, and of the things which they say, which they forbear to say, and which they say behind each other’s backs. With what smiles and curtseys they stab each other! with what compliments they hate each other! with what determination of long-suffering they won’t be offended! with what innocent dexterity they can drop the drop of poison into the cup of conversation, hand round the goblet, smiling, to the whole family to drink, and make the dear, domestic circle miserable!)— I burst out of my parenthesis. I fancy my Baroness and Countess smiling at each other a hundred years ago, and giving each other the hand or the cheek, and calling each other, My dear, My dear creature, My dear Countess, My dear Baroness, My dear sister — even, when they were most ready to fight.

“You wonder, my dear Maria, that the boy should be so polite?” cries Madame de Bernstein. “His mother was bred up by two very perfect gentlefolks. Colonel Esmond had a certain grave courteousness, and a grand manner, which I do not see among the gentlemen nowadays.”

“Eh, my dear, we all of us praise our own time! My grandmamma used to declare there was nothing like Whitehall and Charles the Second.”

“My mother saw King James the Second’s court for a short while, and though not a court-educated person, as you know — her father was a country clergyman — yet was exquisitely well-bred. The Colonel, her second husband, was a person of great travel and experience, as well as of learning, and had frequented the finest company of Europe. They could not go into their retreat and leave their good manners behind them, and our boy has had them as his natural inheritance.”

“Nay, excuse me, my dear, for thinking you too partial about your mother. She could not have been that perfection which your filial fondness imagines. She left off liking her daughter — my dear creature, you have owned that she did — and I cannot fancy a complete woman who has a cold heart. No, no, my dear sister-inlaw! Manners are very requisite, no doubt, and, for a country parson’s daughter, your mamma was very well — I have seen many of the cloth who are very well. Mr. Sampson, our chaplain, is very well. Dr. Young is very well. Mr. Dodd is very well; but they have not the true air — as how should they? I protest, I beg pardon! I forgot my lord bishop, your ladyship’s first choice. But, as I said before, to be a complete woman, one must have, what you have, what I may say and bless Heaven for, I think I have — a good heart. Without the affections, all the world is vanity, my love! I protest I only live, exist, eat, drink, rest, for my sweet, sweet children! — for my wicked Willy, for my self-willed Fanny, dear naughty loves!” (She rapturously kisses a bracelet on each arm which contains the miniature representations of those two young persons.) “Yes, Mimi! yes, Fanchon! you know I do, you dear, dear little things! and if they were to die, or you were to die, your poor mistress would die too!” Mimi and Fanchon, two quivering Italian greyhounds, jump into their lady’s arms, and kiss her hands, but respect her cheeks, which are covered with rouge. “No, my dear! For nothing do I bless Heaven so much (though it puts me to excruciating torture very often) as for having endowed me with sensibility and a feeling heart!”

“You are full of feeling, dear Anna,” says the Baroness. “You are celebrated for your sensibility. You must give a little of it to our American nephew — cousin — I scarce know his relationship.”

“Nay, I am here but as a guest in Castlewood now. The house is my Lord Castlewood’s, not mine, or his lordship’s whenever he shall choose to claim it. What can I do for the young Virginian that has not been done? He is charming. Are we even jealous of him for being so, my dear? and though we see what a fancy the Baroness de Bernstein has taken for him, do your ladyship’s nephews and nieces — your real nephews and nieces — cry out? My poor children might be mortified, for indeed, in a few hours, the charming young man has made as much way as my poor things have been able to do in all their lives: but are they angry? Willy hath taken him out to ride. This morning, was not Maria playing the harpsichord whilst my Fanny taught him the minuet? ’Twas a charming young group, I assure you, and it brought tears into my eyes to look at the young creatures. Poor lad! we are as fond of him as you are, dear Baroness!”

Now, Madame de Bernstein had happened, through her own ears or her maid’s, to overhear what really took place in consequence of this harmless little scene. Lady Castlewood had come into the room where the young people were thus engaged in amusing and instructing themselves, accompanied by her son William, who arrived in his boots from the kennel.

“Bravi, bravi! Oh, charming!” said the Countess, clapping her hands, nodding with one of her best smiles to Harry Warrington, and darting a look at his partner, which my Lady Fanny perfectly understood; and so, perhaps, did my Lady Maria at her harpsichord, for she played with redoubled energy, and nodded her waving curls, over the chords.

“Infernal young Choctaw! Is he teaching Fanny the war-dance? and is Fan going to try her tricks upon him now?” asked Mr. William, whose temper was not of the best.

And that was what Lady Castlewood’s look said to Fanny. “Are you going to try your tricks upon him now?”

She made Harry a very low curtsey, and he blushed, and they both stopped dancing, somewhat disconcerted. Lady Maria rose from the harpsichord and walked away.

“Nay, go on dancing, young people! Don’t let me spoil sport, and let me play for you,” said the Countess; and she sate down to the instrument and played.

“I don’t know how to dance,” says Harry, hanging his head down, with a blush that the Countess’s finest carmine could not equal.

“And Fanny was teaching you? Go on teaching him, dearest Fanny!”

“Go on, do!” says William, with a sidelong growl.

“I— I had rather not show off my awkwardness in company,” adds Harry, recovering himself. “When I know how to dance a minuet, be sure I will ask my cousin to walk one with me.”

“That will be very soon, dear Cousin Warrington, I am certain,” remarks the Countess, with her most gracious air.

“What game is she hunting now?” thinks Mr. William to himself, who cannot penetrate his mother’s ways; and that lady, fondly calling her daughter to her elbow, leaves the room.

They are no sooner in the tapestried passage leading away to their own apartment, but Lady Castlewood’s bland tone entirely changes. “You booby!” she begins to her adored Fanny. “You double idiot! What are you going to do with the Huron? You don’t want to marry a creature like that, and be a squaw in a wigwam?”

“Don’t, mamma!” gasps Lady Fanny. Mamma was pinching her ladyship’s arm black-and-blue. “I am sure our cousin is very well,” Fanny whimpers, “and you said so yourself.”

“Very well! Yes; and heir to a swamp, a negro, a log-cabin and a barrel of tobacco! My Lady Frances Esmond, do you remember what your ladyship’s rank is, and what your name is, and who was your ladyship’s mother, when, at three days’ acquaintance, you commence dancing — a pretty dance, indeed — with this brat out of Virginia?”

“Mr. Warrington is our cousin,” pleads Lady Fanny.

“A creature come from nobody knows where is not your cousin! How do we know he is your cousin? He may be a valet who has taken his master’s portmanteau, and run away in his postchaise.”

“But Madame de Bernstein says he is our cousin,” interposes Fanny; “and he is the image of the Esmonds.”

“Madame de Bernstein has her likes and dislikes, takes up people and forgets people; and she chooses to profess a mighty fancy for this young man. Because she likes him today, is that any reason why she should like him tomorrow? Before company, and in your aunt’s presence, your ladyship will please to be as civil to him as necessary; but, in private, I forbid you to see him or encourage him.”

“I don’t care, madam, whether your ladyship forbids me or not!” cries out Lady Fanny, wrought up to a pitch of revolt.

“Very good, Fanny! then I speak to my lord, and we return to Kensington. If I can’t bring you to reason, your brother will.”

At this juncture the conversation between mother and daughter stopped, or Madame de Bernstein’s informer had no further means of hearing or reporting it.

It was only in after days that she told Harry Warrington a part of what she knew. At present he but saw that his kinsfolks received him not unkindly. Lady Castlewood was perfectly civil to him; the young ladies pleasant and pleased; my Lord Castlewood, a man of cold and haughty demeanour, was not more reserved towards Harry than to any of the rest of the family; Mr. William was ready to drink with him, to ride with him, to go to races with him, and to play cards with him. When he proposed to go away, they one and all pressed him to stay. Madame de Bernstein did not tell him how it arose that he was the object of such eager hospitality. He did not know what schemes he was serving or disarranging, whose or what anger he was creating. He fancied he was welcome because those around him were his kinsmen, and never thought that those could be his enemies out of whose cup he was drinking, and whose hand he was pressing every night and morning.

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