The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XVIII

An Old Story

As my Lady Castlewood and her son and daughter passed through one door of the saloon where they had all been seated, my Lord Castlewood departed by another issue; and then the demure eyes looked up from the tambour-frame on which they had persisted hitherto in examining the innocent violets and jonquils. The eyes looked up at Harry Warrington, who stood at an ancestral portrait under the great fireplace. He had gathered a great heap of blushes (those flowers which bloom so rarely after gentlefolks’ springtime), and with them ornamented his honest countenance, his cheeks, his forehead, nay, his youthful ears.

“Why did you refuse to go with our aunt, cousin?” asked the lady of the tambour frame.

“Because your ladyship bade me stay,” answered the lad.

“I bid you stay! La! child! What one says in fun, you take in earnest! Are all you Virginian gentlemen so obsequious as to fancy every idle word a lady says is a command? Virginia must be a pleasant country for our sex if it be so!”

“You said — when — when we walked in the terrace two nights since — O heaven!” cried Harry, with a voice trembling with emotion.

“Ah, that sweet night, cousin!” cries the Tambour-frame.

“Whe — whe — when you gave me this rose from your own neck,”— roared out Harry, pulling suddenly a crumpled and decayed vegetable from his waistcoat —“which I will never part with — with, no, by heavens, whilst this heart continues to beat! You said, ‘Harry, if your aunt asks you to go away, you will go, and if you go, you will forget me.’— Didn’t you say so?”

“All men forget!” said the Virgin, with a sigh.

“In this cold selfish country they may, cousin, not in ours,” continues Harry, yet in the same state of exaltation —“I had rather have lost an arm almost than refused the old lady. I tell you it went to my heart to say no to her, and she so kind to me, and who had been the means of introducing me to — to — O heaven!”

(Here a kick to an intervening spaniel, which flies yelping from before the fire, and a rapid advance on the tambour-frame.) “Look here, cousin! If you were to bid me jump out of yonder window, I should do it; or murder, I should do it.”

“La! but you need not squeeze one’s hand so, you silly child!” remarks Maria.

“I can’t help it — we are so in the south. Where my heart is, I can’t help speaking my mind out, cousin — and you know where that heart is! Ever since that evening — that — O heaven! I tell you I have hardly slept since — I want to do something — to distinguish myself — to be ever so great. I wish there was giants, Maria, as I have read of in-in books, that I could go and fight ’em. I wish you was in distress, that I might help you, somehow. I wish you wanted my blood, that I might spend every drop of it for you. And when you told me not to go with Madame Bernstein . . .”

“I tell thee, child? never.”

“I thought you told me. You said you knew I preferred my aunt to my cousin, and I said then what I say now, ‘Incomparable Maria! I prefer thee to all the women in the world and all the angels in Paradise — and I would go anywhere, were it to dungeons, if you ordered me!’ And do you think I would not stay anywhere, when you only desired that I should be near you?” he added, after a moment’s pause.

“Men always talk in that way — that is — that is, I have heard so,” said the spinster, correcting herself; “for what should a country-bred woman know about you creatures? When you are near us, they say you are all raptures and flames and promises and I don’t know what; when you are away, you forget all about us.”

“But I think I never want to go away as long as I live,” groaned out the young man. “I have tired of many things; not books and that, I never cared for study much, but games and sports which I used to be fond of when I was a boy. Before I saw you, it was to be a soldier I most desired; I tore my hair with rage when my poor dear brother went away instead of me on that expedition in which we lost him. But now, I only care for one thing in the world, and you know what that is.”

“You silly child! don’t you know I am almost old enough to be . . .?”

“I know — I know! but what is that to me? Hasn’t your br . . . — well, never mind who, some of ’em-told me stories against you, and didn’t they show me the Family Bible, where all your names are down, and the dates of your birth?”

“The cowards! Who did that?” cried out Lady Maria. “Dear Harry, tell me who did that? Was it my mother-inlaw, the grasping, odious, abandoned, brazen harpy? Do you know all about her? How she married my father in his cups — the horrid hussey! — and . . .”

“Indeed it wasn’t Lady Castlewood,” interposed the wondering Harry.

“Then it was my aunt,” continued the infuriate lady. “A pretty moralist, indeed! A bishop’s widow, forsooth, and I should like to know whose widow before and afterwards. Why, Harry, she intrigue: with the Pretender, and with the Court of Hanover, and, I dare say, would with the Court of Rome and the Sultan of Turkey if she had had the means. Do you know who her second husband was? A creature who . . .”

“But our aunt never spoke a word against you,” broke in Harry, more and more amazed at the nymph’s vehemence.

She checked her anger. In the inquisitive countenance opposite to her she thought she read some alarm as to the temper which she was exhibiting.

“Well, well! I am a fool,” she said. “I want thee to think well of me, Harry!”

A hand is somehow put out and seized and, no doubt, kissed by the rapturous youth. “Angel!” he cries, looking into her face with his eager, honest eyes.

Two fish-pools irradiated by a pair of stars would not kindle to greater warmth than did those elderly orbs into which Harry poured his gaze. Nevertheless, he plunged into their blue depths, and fancied he saw heaven in their calm brightness. So that silly dog (of whom Aesop or the Spelling-book used to tell us in youth) beheld a beef-bone in the pond, and snapped at it, and lost the beef-bone he was carrying. O absurd cur! He saw the beefbone in his own mouth reflected in the treacherous pool, which dimpled, I dare say, with ever so many smiles, coolly sucked up the meat, and returned to its usual placidity. Ah! what a heap of wreck lie beneath some of those quiet surfaces! What treasures we have dropped into them! What chased golden dishes, what precious jewels of love, what bones after bones, and sweetest heart’s flesh! Do not some very faithful and unlucky dogs jump in bodily, when they are swallowed up heads and tails entirely? When some women come to be dragged, it is a marvel what will be found in the depths of them. Cavete, canes! Have a care how ye lap that water. What do they want with us, the mischievous siren sluts? A green-eyed Naiad never rests until she has inveigled a fellow under the water; she sings after him, she dances after him; she winds round him, glittering tortuously; she warbles and whispers dainty secrets at his cheek, she kisses his feet, she leers at him from out of her rushes: all her beds sigh out, “Come, sweet youth! Hither, hither, rosy Hylas!” Pop goes Hylas. (Surely the fable is renewed for ever and ever?) Has his captivator any pleasure? Doth she take any account of him? No more than a fisherman landing at Brighton does of one out of a hundred thousand herrings. . . . The last time. Ulysses rowed by the Sirens’ bank, he and his men did not care though a whole shoal of them were singing and combing their longest locks. Young Telemachus was for jumping overboard: but the tough old crew held the silly, bawling lad. They were deaf, and could not hear his bawling nor the sea-nymphs’ singing. They were dim of sight, and did not see how lovely the witches were. The stale, old, leering witches! Away with ye! I dare say you have painted your cheeks by this time; your wretched old songs are as out of fashion as Mozart, and it is all false hair you are combing!

In the last sentence you see Lector Benevolus and Scriptor Doctissimus figure as tough old Ulysses and his tough old Boatswain, who do not care a quid of tobacco for any Siren at Sirens’ Point; but Harry Warrington is green Telemachus, who, be sure, was very unlike the soft youth in the good Bishop of Cambray’s twaddling story. He does not see that the siren paints the lashes from under which she ogles him; will put by into a box when she has done the ringlets into which she would inveigle him; and if she eats him, as she proposes to do, will crunch his bones with a new set of grinders just from the dentist’s, and warranted for mastication. The song is not stale to Harry Warrington, nor the voice cracked or out of tune that sings it. But — but — oh, dear me, Brother Boatswain! Don’t you remember how pleasant the opera was when we first heard it? Cosi fan tutti was its name — Mozart’s music. Now, I dare say, they have other words, and other music, and other singers and fiddlers, and another great crowd in the pit. Well, well, Cosi fan tutti is still upon the bills, and they are going on singing it over and over and over.

Any man or woman with a pennyworth of brains, or the like precious amount of personal experience, or who has read a novel before, must, when Harry pulled out those faded vegetables just now, have gone off into a digression of his own, as the writer confesses for himself he was diverging whilst he has been writing the last brace of paragraphs. If he sees a pair of lovers whispering in a garden alley or the embrasure of a window, or a pair of glances shot across the room from Jenny to the artless Jessamy, he falls to musing on former days when, etc. etc. These things follow each other by a general law, which is not as old as the hills, to be sure, but as old as the people who walk up and down them. When, I say, a lad pulls a bunch of amputated and now decomposing greens from his breast and falls to kissing it, what is the use of saying much more? As well tell the market-gardener’s name from whom the slip-rose was bought — the waterings, clippings, trimmings, manurings, the plant has undergone — as tell how Harry Warrington came by it. Rose, elle a vecu la vie des roses, has been trimmed, has been watered, has been potted, has been sticked, has been cut, worn, given away, transferred to yonder boy’s pocket-book and bosom, according to the laws and fate appertaining to roses.

And how came Maria to give it to Harry? And how did he come to want it and to prize it so passionately when he got the bit of rubbish? Is not one story as stale as the other? Are not they all alike? What is the use, I say, of telling them over and over? Harry values that rose because Maria has ogled him in the old way; because she has happened to meet him in the garden in the old way; because he has taken her hand in the old way; because they have whispered to one another behind the old curtain (the gaping old rag, as if everybody could not peep through it!); because, in this delicious weather, they have happened to be early risers and go into the park; because dear Goody Jenkins in the village happened to have a bad knee, and my lady Maria went to read to her, and gave her calves’-foot jelly, and because somebody, of course, must carry the basket. Whole chapters might have been written to chronicle all these circumstances, but A quoi bon? The incidents of life, and love-making especially, I believe to resemble each other so much, that I am surprised, gentlemen and ladies, you read novels any more. Psha! Of course that rose in young Harry’s pocket-book had grown, and had budded, and had bloomed, and was now rotting, like other roses. I suppose you will want me to say that the young fool kissed it next? Of course he kissed it. What were lips made for, pray, but for smiling and simpering, and (possibly) humbugging, and kissing, and opening to receive mutton-chops, cigars, and so forth? I cannot write this part of the story of our Virginians, because Harry did not dare to write it himself to anybody at home, because, if he wrote any letters to Maria (which, of course, he did, as they were in the same house, and might meet each other as much as they liked), they were destroyed; because he afterwards chose to be very silent about the story, and we can’t have it from her ladyship, who never told the truth about anything. But cui bono? I say again. What is the good of telling the story? My gentle reader, take your story: take mine. To-morrow it shall be Miss Fanny’s, who is just walking away with her doll to the schoolroom and the governess (poor victim! she has a version of it in her desk): and next day it shall be Baby’s, who is bawling out on the stairs for his bottle.

Maria might like to have and exercise power over the young Virginian; but she did not want that Harry should quarrel with his aunt for her sake, or that Madame de Bernstein should be angry with her. Harry was not the Lord of Virginia yet: he was only the Prince, and the Queen might marry and have other Princes, and the laws of primogeniture might not be established in Virginia, qu’en savait elle? My lord her brother and she had exchanged no words at all about the delicate business. But they understood each other, and the Earl had a way of understanding things without speaking. He knew his Maria perfectly well: in the course of a life of which not a little had been spent in her brother’s company and under his roof, Maria’s disposition, ways, tricks, faults, had come to be perfectly understood by the head of the family; and she would find her little schemes checked or aided by him, as to his lordship seemed good, and without need of any words between them. Thus three days before, when she happened to be going to see that poor dear old Goody, who was ill with the sore knee in the village (and when Harry Warrington happened to be walking behind the elms on the green too), my lord with his dogs about him, and his gardener walking after him, crossed the court, just as Lady Maria was tripping to the gate-house — and his lordship called his sister, and said: “Molly, you are going to see Goody Jenkins. You are a charitable soul, my dear. Give Gammer Jenkins this half-crown for me — unless our cousin, Warrington, has already given her money. A pleasant walk to you. Let her want for nothing.” And at supper, my lord asked Mr. Warrington many questions about the poor in Virginia, and the means of maintaining them, to which the young gentleman gave the best answers he might. His lordship wished that in the old country there were no more poor people than in the new: and recommended Harry to visit the poor and people of every degree, indeed, high and low — in the country to look at the agriculture, in the city at the manufactures and municipal institutions — to which edifying advice Harry acceded with becoming modesty and few words, and Madame Bernstein nodded approval over her piquet with the chaplain. Next day, Harry was in my lord’s justice-room: the next day he was out ever so long with my lord on the farm — and coming home, what does my lord do, but look in on a sick tenant? I think Lady Maria was out on that day, too; she had been reading good books to that poor dear Goody Jenkins, though I don’t suppose Madame Bernstein ever thought of asking about her niece.

“CASTLEWOOD, HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND, August 5, 1757.

“MY DEAR MOUNTAIN— At first, as I wrote, I did not like Castlewood, nor my cousins there, very much. Now, I am used to their ways, and we begin to understand each other much better. With my duty to my mother, tell her, I hope, that considering her ladyship’s great kindness to me, Madam Esmond will be reconciled to her half-sister, the Baroness de Bernstein. The Baroness, you know, was my Grandmamma’s daughter by her first husband, Lord Castlewood (only Grandpapa really was the real lord); however, that was not his, that is, the other Lord Castlewood’s fault, you know, and he was very kind to Grandpapa, who always spoke most kindly of him to us as you know.

“Madame the Baroness Bernstein first married a clergyman, Reverend Mr. Tusher, who was so learned and good, and such a favourite of his Majesty, as was my aunt too, that he was made a Bishop. When he died, Our gracious King continued his friendship to my aunt; who married a Hanoverian nobleman, who occupied a post at the Court — and, I believe, left the Baroness very rich. My cousin, my Lord Castlewood, told me so much about her, and I am sure I have found from her the greatest kindness and affection.

“The (Dowiger) Countess Castlewood and my cousins Will and Lady Fanny have been described per last, that went by the Falmouth packet on the 20th ult. The ladies are not changed since then. Me and Cousin Will are very good friends. We have rode out a good deal. We have had some famous cocking matches at Hampton and Winton. My cousin is a sharp blade, but I think I have shown him that we in Virginia know a thing or two. Reverend Mr. Sampson, chaplain of the famaly, most excellent preacher, without any biggatry.

“The kindness of my cousin the Earl improves every day, and by next year’s ship I hope my mother will send his lordship some of our best roll tobacco (for tennants) and hamms. He is most charatable to the poor. His sister, Lady Maria, equally so. She sits for hours reading good books to the sick: she is most beloved in the village.”

“Nonsense!” said a lady to whom Harry submitted his precious manuscript. “Why do you flatter me, cousin?”

“You are beloved in the village and out of it,” said Harry, with a knowing emphasis, “and I have flattered you, as you call it, a little more still, farther on.”

“There is a sick old woman there, whom Madam Esmond would like, a most raligious, good, old lady.

“Lady Maria goes very often to read to her; which, she says, gives her comfort. But though her Ladyship hath the sweetest voice, both in speaking and singeing (she plays the church organ, and singes there most beautifully), I cannot think Gammer Jenkins can have any comfort from it, being very deaf, by reason of her great age. She has her memory perfectly, however, and remembers when my honoured Grandmother Rachel Lady Castlewood lived here. She says, my Grandmother was the best woman in the whole world, gave her a cow when she was married, and cured her husband, Gaffer Jenkins, of the collects, which he used to have very bad. I suppose it was with the Pills and Drops which my honoured Mother put up in my boxes, when I left dear Virginia. Having never been ill since, have had no use for the pills. Gumbo hath, eating and drinking a great deal too much in the Servants’ Hall. The next angel to my Grandmother (N.B. I think I spelt angel wrong per last), Gammer Jenkins says, is Lady Maria, who sends her duty to her Aunt in Virginia, and remembers her, and my Grandpapa and Grandmamma when they were in Europe, and she was a little girl. You know they have Grandpapa’s picture here, and I live in the very rooms which he had, and which are to be called mine, my Lord Castlewood says.

“Having no more to say, at present, I close with best love and duty to my honoured Mother, and with respects to Mr. Dempster, and a kiss for Fanny, and kind remembrances to Old Gumbo, Nathan, Old and Young Dinah, and the pointer dog and Slut, and all friends, from their well-wisher

HENRY ESMOND WARRINGTON.”

“Have wrote and sent my duty to my Uncle Warrington in Norfolk. No anser as yet.”

“I hope the spelling is right, cousin?” asked the author of the letter, from the critic to whom he showed it.

“’Tis quite well enough spelt for any person of fashion,” answered Lady Maria, who did not choose to be examined too closely regarding the orthography.

“One word ‘Angel,’ I know, I spelt wrong in writing to my mamma, but I have learned a way of spelling it right, now.”

“And how is that, sir?”

“I think ’tis by looking at you, cousin;” saying which words, Mr. Harry made her ladyship a low bow, and accompanied the bow by one of his best blushes, as if he were offering her a bow and a bouquet.

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