The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XVII

On the Scent

Young Harry Warrington’s act of revolt came so suddenly upon Madame de Bernstein, that she had no other way of replying to it, than by the prompt outbreak of anger with which we left her in the last chapter. She darted two fierce glances at Lady Fanny and her mother as she quitted the room. Lady Maria over her tambour-frame escaped without the least notice, and scarcely lifted up her head from her embroidery, to watch the aunt retreating, or the looks which mamma-inlaw and sister threw at one another.

“So, in spite of all, you have, madam?” the maternal looks seemed to say.

“Have what?” asked Lady Fanny’s eyes. But what good in looking innocent? She looked puzzled. She did not look one-tenth part as innocent as Maria. Had she been guilty, she would have looked not guilty much more cleverly; and would have taken care to study and compose a face so as to be ready to suit the plea. Whatever was the expression of Fanny’s eyes, mamma glared on her as if she would have liked to tear them out.

But Lady Castlewood could not operate upon the said eyes then and there, like the barbarous monsters in the stage-direction in King Lear. When her ladyship was going to tear out her daughter’s eyes, she would retire smiling, with an arm round her dear child’s waist, and then gouge her in private.

“So you don’t fancy going with the old lady to Tunbridge Wells?” was all she said to Cousin Warrington, wearing at the same time a perfectly well-bred simper on her face.

“And small blame to our cousin!” interposed my lord. (The face over the tambour-frame looked up for one instant.) “A young fellow must not have it all idling and holiday. Let him mix up something useful with his pleasures, and go to the fiddles and pump-rooms at Tunbridge or the Bath later. Mr. Warrington has to conduct a great estate in America: let him see how ours in England are carried on. Will hath shown him the kennel and the stables; and the games in vogue, which I think, cousin, you seem to play as well as your teachers. After harvest we will show him a little English fowling and shooting: in winter we will take him out a-hunting. Though there has been a coolness between us and our aunt-kinswoman in Virginia, yet we are of the same blood. Ere we send our cousin back to his mother, let us show him what an English gentleman’s life at home is. I should like to read with him as well as sport with him, and that is why I have been pressing him of late to stay and bear me company.”

My lord spoke with such perfect frankness that his mother-inlaw and half-brother and sister could not help wondering what his meaning could be. The three last-named persons often held little conspiracies together, and caballed or grumbled against the head of the house. When he adopted that frank tone, there was no fathoming his meaning: often it would not be discovered until months had passed. He did not say, “This is true,” but, “I mean that this statement should be accepted and believed in my family.” It was then a thing convenue, that my Lord Castlewood had a laudable desire to cultivate the domestic affections, and to educate, amuse, and improve his young relative; and that he had taken a great fancy to the lad, and wished that Harry should stay for some time near his lordship.

“What is Castlewood’s game now?” asked William of his mother and sister as they disappeared into the corridors. “Stop! By George, I have it!”

“What, William?”

“He intends to get him to play, and to win the Virginia estate back from him. That’s what it is!”

“But the lad has not got the Virginia estate to pay, if he loses,” remarks mamma.

“If my brother has not some scheme in view, may I be ——.”

“Hush! Of course he has a scheme in view. But what is it?”

“He can’t mean Maria — Maria is as old as Harry’s mother,” muses Mr. William.

“Pooh! with her old face and sandy hair and freckled skin! Impossible!” cries Lady Fanny, with somewhat of a sigh.

“Of course, your ladyship had a fancy for the Iroquois, too!” cried mamma.

“I trust I know my station and duty better, madam! If I had liked him, that is no reason why I should marry him. Your ladyship hath taught me as much as that.”

“My Lady Fanny!”

“I am sure you married our papa without liking him. You have told me so a thousand times!”

“And if you did not love our father before marriage, you certainly did not fall in love with him afterwards,” broke in Mr. William, with a laugh. “Fan and I remember how our honoured parents used to fight. Don’t us, Fan? And our brother Esmond kept the peace.”

“Don’t recall those dreadful low scenes, William!” cries mamma. “When your father took too much drink, he was like a madman; and his conduct should be a warning to you, sir, who are fond of the same horrid practice.”

“I am sure, madam, you were not much the happier for marrying the man you did not like, and your ladyship’s title hath brought very little along with it,” whimpered out Lady Fanny. “What is the use of a coronet with the jointure of a tradesman’s wife? — how many of them are richer than we are? There is come lately to live in our Square, at Kensington, a grocer’s widow from London Bridge, whose daughters have three gowns where I have one; and who, though they are waited on but by a man and a couple of maids, I know eat and drink a thousand times better than we do with our scraps of cold meat on our plate, and our great flaunting, trapesing, impudent, lazy lacqueys!”

“He! he! glad I dine at the palace, and not at home!” said Mr. Will. (Mr. Will, through his aunt’s interest with Count Puffendorff, Groom of the Royal {and Serene Electoral} Powder-Closet, had one of the many small places at Court, that of Deputy Powder.)

“Why should I not be happy without any title except my own?” continued Lady Frances. “Many people are. I dare say they are even happy in America.”

“Yes! — with a mother-inlaw who is a perfect Turk and Tartar, for all I hear — with Indian war-whoops howling all around you and with a danger of losing your scalp, or of being eat up by a wild beast every time you went to church.”

“I wouldn’t go to church,” said Lady Fanny.

“You’d go with anybody who asked you, Fan!” roared out Mr. Will: “and so would old Maria, and so would any woman, that’s the fact.” And Will laughed at his own wit.

“Pray, good folks, what is all your merriment about?” here asked Madame Bernstein, peeping in on her relatives from the tapestried door which led into the gallery where their conversation was held.

Will told her that his mother and sister had been having a fight (which was not a novelty, as Madame Bernstein knew), because Fanny wanted to marry their cousin, the wild Indian, and my lady Countess would not let her. Fanny protested against this statement. Since the very first day when her mother had told her not to speak to the young gentleman, she had scarcely exchanged two words with him. She knew her station better. She did not want to be scalped by wild Indians, or eat up by bears.

Madame de Bernstein looked puzzled. “If he is not staying for you, for whom is he staying?” she asked. “At the houses to which he has been carried, you have taken care not to show him a woman that is not a fright or in the nursery; and I think the boy is too proud to fall in love with a dairymaid, Will.”

“Humph! That is a matter of taste, ma’am,” says Mr. William, with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Of Mr. William Esmond’s taste, as you say; but not of yonder boy’s. The Esmonds of his grandfather’s nurture, sir, would not go a-courting in the kitchen.”

“Well, ma’am, every man to his taste, I say again. A fellow might go farther and fare worse than my brother’s servants’-hall, and besides Fan, there’s only the maids or old Maria to choose from.”

“Maria! Impossible!” And yet, as she spoke the very words, a sudden thought crossed Madame Bernstein’s mind, that this elderly Calypso might have captivated her young Telemachus. She called to mind half a dozen instances in her own experience of young men who had been infatuated by old women. She remembered how frequent Harry Warrington’s absences had been of late — absences which she attributed to his love for field sports. She remembered how often, when he was absent, Maria Esmond was away too. Walks in cool avenues, whisperings in garden temples, or behind clipt hedges, casual squeezes of the hand in twilight corridors, or sweet glances and ogles in meetings on the stairs — a lively fancy, an intimate knowledge of the world, very likely a considerable personal experience in early days, suggested all these possibilities and chances to Madame de Bernstein, just as she was saying that they were impossible.

“Impossible, ma’am! I don’t know,” Will continued. “My mother warned Fan off him.”

“Oh, your mother did warn Fanny off?”

“Certainly, my dear Baroness!”

“Didn’t she? Didn’t she pinch Fanny’s arm black-and-blue? Didn’t they fight about it?”

“Nonsense, William! For shame, William!” cry both the implicated ladies in a breath.

“And now, since we have heard how rich he is, perhaps it is sour grapes, that is all. And now, since he is warned off the young bird, perhaps he is hunting the old one, that’s all. Impossible why impossible? You know old Lady Suffolk, ma’am?”

“William, how can you speak about Lady Suffolk to your aunt?”

A grin passed over the countenance of the young gentleman. “Because Lady Suffolk was a special favourite at Court? Well, other folks have succeeded her.”

“Sir!” cries Madame de Bernstein, who may have had her reasons to take offence.

“So they have, I say; or who, pray, is my Lady Yarmouth now? And didn’t old Lady Suffolk go and fall in love with George Berkeley, and marry him when she was ever so old? Nay, ma’am, if I remember right — and we hear a deal of town-talk at our table — Harry Estridge went mad about your ladyship when you were somewhat rising twenty; and would have changed your name a third time if you would but have let him.”

This allusion to an adventure of her own later days, which was, indeed, pretty notorious to all the world, did not anger Madame de Bernstein, like Will’s former hint about his aunt having been a favourite at George the Second’s Court; but, on the contrary, set her in good-humour.

“Au fait,” she said, musing, as she played a pretty little hand on the table, and no doubt thinking about mad young Harry Estridge; ’tis not impossible, William, that old folks, and young folks, too, should play the fool.”

“But I can’t understand a young fellow being in love with Maria,” continued Mr. William, “however he might be with you, ma’am. That’s oter shose, as our French tutor used to say. You remember the Count, ma’am; he! he! — and so does Maria!”

“William!”

“And I dare say the Count remembers the bastinado Castlewood had given to him. A confounded French dancing-master calling himself a count, and daring to fall in love in our family! Whenever I want to make myself uncommonly agreeable to old Maria, I just say a few words of parly voo to her. She knows what I mean.”

“Have you abused her to your cousin, Harry Warrington?” asked Madame de Bernstein.

“Well — I know she is always abusing me — and I have said my mind about her,” said Will.

“Oh, you idiot!” cried the old lady. “Who but a gaby ever spoke ill of a woman to her sweetheart? He will tell her everything, and they both will hate you.”

“The very thing, ma’am!” cried Will, bursting into a great laugh. “I had a sort of a suspicion, you see, and two days ago, as we were riding together, I told Harry Warrington a bit of my mind about Maria; — why shouldn’t I, I say? She is always abusing me, ain’t she, Fan? And your favourite turned as red as my plush waistcoat — wondered how a gentleman could malign his own flesh and blood, and, trembling all over with rage, said I was no true Esmond.”

“Why didn’t you chastise him, sir, as my lord did the dancing-master?” cried Lady Castlewood.

“Well, mother — you see that at quarter-staff there’s two sticks used,” replied Mr. William; “and my opinion is, that Harry Warrington can guard his own head uncommonly well. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I did not offer to treat my cousin to a caning. And now you say so, ma’am, I know he has told Maria. She has been looking battle, murder, and sudden death at me ever since. All which shows ——” and here he turned to his aunt.

“All which shows what?”

“That I think we are on the right scent; and that we’ve found Maria — the old fox!” And the ingenuous youth here clapped his hand to his mouth, and gave a loud halloo.

How far had this pretty intrigue gone? now was the question. Mr. Will said, that at her age, Maria would be for conducting matters as rapidly as possible, not having much time to lose. There was not a great deal of love lost between Will and his half-sister.

“Who would sift the matter to the bottom? Scolding one party or the other was of no avail. Threats only serve to aggravate people in such cases. I never was in danger but once, young people,” said Madame de Bernstein, “and I think that was because my poor mother contradicted me. If this boy is like others of his family, the more we oppose him, the more entete he will be; and we shall never get him out of his scrape.”

“Faith, ma’am, suppose we leave him in it?” grumbled Will. “Old Maria and I don’t love each other too much, I grant you; but an English earl’s daughter is good enough for an American tobacco-planter, when all is said and done.”

Here his mother and sister broke out. They would not hear of such a union. To which Will answered, “You are like the dog in the manger. You don’t want the man yourself, Fanny”

“I want him, indeed!” cries Lady Fanny, with a toss of her head.

“Then why grudge him to Maria? I think Castlewood wants her to have him.”

“Why grudge him to Maria, sir?” cried Madame de Bernstein, with great energy. “Do you remember who the poor boy is, and what your house owes to his family? His grandfather was the best friend your father ever had, and gave up this estate, this title, this very castle, in which you are conspiring against the friendless Virginian lad, that you and yours might profit by it. And the reward for all this kindness is, that you all but shut the door on the child when he knocks at it, and talk of marrying him to a silly elderly creature who might be his mother! He shan’t marry her.”

“The very thing we were saying and thinking, my dear Baroness!” interposes Lady Castlewood. “Our part of the family is not eager about the match, though my lord and Maria may be.”

“You would like him for yourself, now that you hear he is rich — and may be richer, young people, mind you that,” cried Madam Beatrix, turning upon the other women.

“Mr. Warrington may be ever so rich, madam, but there is no need why your ladyship should perpetually remind us that we are poor,” broke in Lady Castlewood, with some spirit. “At least there is very little disparity in Fanny’s age and Mr. Harry’s; and you surely will be the last to say that a lady of our name and family is not good enough for any gentleman born in Virginia or elsewhere.”

“Let Fanny take an English gentleman, Countess, not an American. With such a name and such a mother to help her, and with all her good looks and accomplishments, sure, she can’t fail of finding a man worthy of her. But from what I know about the daughters of this house, and what I imagine about our young cousin, I am certain that no happy match could be made between them.”

“What does my aunt know about me?” asked Lady Fanny, turning very red.

“Only your temper, my dear. You don’t suppose that I believe all the tittle-tattle and scandal which one cannot help hearing in town? But the temper and early education are sufficient. Only fancy one of you condemned to leave St. James’s and the Mall, and live in a plantation surrounded by savages! You would die of ennui, or worry your husband’s life out with your ill-humour. You are born, ladies, to ornament courts — not wigwams. Let this lad go back to his wilderness with a wife who is suited to him.”

The other two ladies declared in a breath that, for their parts, they desired no better, and, after a few more words, went on their way, while Madame de Bernstein, lifting up her tapestried door, retired into her own chamber. She saw all the scheme now; she admired the ways of women, calling a score of little circumstances back to mind. She wondered at her own blindness during the last few days, and that she should not have perceived the rise and progress of this queer little intrigue. How far had it gone? was now the question. Was Harry’s passion of the serious and tragical sort, or a mere fire of straw which a day or two would burn out? How deeply was he committed? She dreaded the strength of Harry’s passion, and the weakness of Maria’s. A woman of her age is so desperate, Madame Bernstein may have thought, that she will make any efforts to secure a lover. Scandal, bah! She will retire and be a princess in Virginia, and leave the folks in England to talk as much scandal as they choose.

Is there always, then, one thing which women do not tell to one another, and about which they agree to deceive each other? Does the concealment arise from deceit or modesty? A man, as soon as he feels an inclination for one of the other sex, seeks for a friend of his own to whom he may impart the delightful intelligence. A woman (with more or less skill) buries her secret away from her kind. For days and weeks past, had not this old Maria made fools of the whole house — Maria, the butt of the family?

I forbear to go into too curious inquiries regarding the Lady Maria’s antecedents. I have my own opinion about Madame Bernstein’s. A hundred years ago people of the great world were not so straitlaced as they are now, when everybody is good, pure, moral, modest; when there is no skeleton in anybody’s closet; when there is no scheming; no slurring over old stories; when no girl tries to sell herself for wealth, and no mother abets her. Suppose my Lady Maria tries to make her little game, wherein is her ladyship’s great eccentricity?

On these points no doubt the Baroness de Bernstein thought, as she communed with herself in her private apartment.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/virginians/chapter17.html

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