The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXIII

Holidays

Mrs. Lambert’s little day-dream was over. Miss Theo and her mother were obliged to confess in their hearts that their hero was but an ordinary mortal. They uttered few words on the subject, but each knew the other’s thoughts as people who love each other do; and mamma, by an extra tenderness and special caressing manner towards her daughter, sought to console her for her disappointment. “Never mind, my dear”— the maternal kiss whispered on the filial cheek —“our hero has turned out to be but an ordinary mortal, and none such is good enough for my Theo. Thou shalt have a real husband ere long, if there be one in England. Why, I was scarce fifteen when your father saw me at the Bury Assembly, and while I was yet at school, I used to vow that I never would have any other man. If Heaven gave me such a husband — the best man in the whole kingdom — sure it will bless my child equally, who deserves a king if she fancies him!” Indeed, I am not sure that Mrs. Lambert — who, of course, knew the age of the Prince of Wales, and was aware how handsome and good a young prince he was — did not expect that he too would come riding by her gate, and perhaps tumble down from his horse there, and be taken into the house, and be cured, and cause his royal grandpapa to give Martin Lambert a regiment, and fall in love with Theo.

The Colonel for his part, and his second daughter, Miss Hetty, were on the laughing, scornful, unbelieving side. Mamma was always match-making. Indeed, Mrs. Lambert was much addicted to novels, and cried her eyes out over them with great assiduity. No coach ever passed the gate, but she expected a husband for her girls would alight from it and ring the bell. As for Miss Hetty, she allowed her tongue to wag in a more than usually saucy way: she made a hundred sly allusions to their guest. She introduced Prussia and Persia into their conversation with abominable pertness and frequency. She asked whether the present King of Prussia was called the Shaw or the Sophy, and how far it was from Ispahan to Saxony, which his Majesty was at present invading, and about which war papa was so busy with his maps and his newspapers? She brought down the Persian Tales from her mamma’s closet, and laid them slily on the table in the parlour where the family sate. She would not marry a Persian prince for her part; she would prefer a gentleman who might not have more than one wife at a time. She called our young Virginian Theo’s gentleman, Theo’s prince. She asked her mamma if she wished her, Hetty, to take the other visitor, the black prince, for herself? Indeed, she rallied her sister and her mother unceasingly on their sentimentalities, and would never stop until she had made them angry, when she would begin to cry herself, and kiss them violently one after the other, and coax them back into good-humour. Simple Harry Warrington, meanwhile, knew nothing of all the jokes, the tears, quarrels, reconciliations, hymeneal plans, and so forth, of which he was the innocent occasion. A hundred allusions to the Prussians and Persians were shot at him, and those Parthian arrows did not penetrate his hide at all. A Shaw? A Sophy? Very likely he thought a Sophy was a lady, and would have deemed it the height of absurdity that a man with a great black beard should have any such name. We fall into the midst of a quiet family: we drop like a stone, say, into a pool — we are perfectly compact and cool, and little know the flutter and excitement we make there, disturbing the fish, frightening the ducks, and agitating the whole surface of the water. How should Harry know the effect which his sudden appearance produced in this little, quiet, sentimental family? He thought quite well enough of himself on many points, but was diffident as yet regarding women, being of that age when young gentlemen require encouragement and to be brought forward, and having been brought up at home in very modest and primitive relations towards the other sex. So Miss Hetty’s jokes played round the lad, and he minded them no more than so many summer gnats. It was not that he was stupid, as she certainly thought him: he was simple, too much occupied with himself and his own honest affairs to think of others. Why, what tragedies, comedies, interludes, intrigues, farces, are going on under our noses in friends’ drawing-rooms where we visit every day, and we remain utterly ignorant, self-satisfied, and blind! As these sisters sate and combed their flowing ringlets of nights, or talked with each other in the great bed where, according to the fashion of the day, they lay together, how should Harry know that he had so great a share in their thoughts, jokes, conversation? Three days after his arrival, his new and hospitable friends were walking with him in my Lord Wrotham’s fine park, where they were free to wander; and here, on a piece of water, they came to some swans, which the young ladies were in the habit of feeding with bread. As the birds approached the young women, Hetty said, with a queer look at her mother and sister, and then a glance at her father, who stood by, honest, happy, in a red waistcoat — Hetty said: “Mamma’s swans are something like these, papa.”

“What swans, my dear?” says mamma.

“Something like, but not quite. They have shorter necks than these, and are, scores of them, on our common,” continues Miss Hetty. “I saw Betty plucking one in the kitchen this morning. We shall have it for dinner, with apple-sauce and ——”

“Don’t be a little goose!” says Miss Theo.

“And sage and onions. Do you love swan, Mr. Warrington?”

“I shot three last winter on our river,” said the Virginian gentleman. “Ours are not such white birds as these — they eat very well, though.” The simple youth had not the slightest idea that he himself was an allegory at that very time, and that Miss Hetty was narrating a fable regarding him. In some exceedingly recondite Latin work I have read that, long before Virginia was discovered, other folks were equally dull of comprehension.

So it was a premature sentiment on the part of Miss Theo — that little tender flutter of the bosom which we have acknowledged she felt on first beholding the Virginian, so handsome, pale, and bleeding. This was not the great passion which she knew her heart could feel. Like the birds, it had wakened and begun to sing at a false dawn. Hop back to thy perch, and cover thy head with thy wing, thou tremulous little fluttering creature! It is not yet light, and roosting is as yet better than singing. Anon will come morning, and the whole sky will redden, and you shall soar up into it and salute the sun with your music.

One little phrase, some three-and-thirty lines back, perhaps the fair and suspicious reader has remarked: “Three days after his arrival, Harry was walking with,” etc. etc. If he could walk — which it appeared he could do perfectly well — what business had he to be walking with anybody but Lady Maria Esmond on the Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells? His shoulder was set: his health was entirely restored: he had not even a change of coats, as we have seen, and was obliged to the Colonel for his raiment. Surely a young man in such a condition had no right to be lingering on at Oakhurst, and was bound by every tie of duty and convenience, by love, by relationship, by a gentle heart waiting for him, by the washerwoman finally, to go to Tunbridge. Why did he stay behind, unless he was in love with either of the young ladies (and we say he wasn’t)? Could it be that he did not want to go? Hath the gracious reader understood the meaning of the mystic S with which the last chapter commences, and in which the designer has feebly endeavoured to depict the notorious Sinbad the Sailor, surmounted by that odious old man of the sea? What if Harry Warrington should be that sailor, and his fate that choking, deadening, inevitable old man? What if for two days past he has felt those knees throttling him round the neck? if his fell aunt’s purpose is answered, and if his late love is killed as dead by her poisonous communications as fair Rosamond was by her royal and legitimate rival? Is Hero then lighting the lamp up, and getting ready the supper, whilst Leander is sitting comfortably with some other party, and never in the least thinking of taking to the water? Ever since that coward’s blow was struck in Lady Maria’s back by her own relative, surely kind hearts must pity her ladyship. I know she has faults — ay, and wears false hair and false never mind what. But a woman in distress, shall we not pity her — a lady of a certain age, are we going to laugh at her because of her years? Between her old aunt and her unhappy delusion, be sure my Lady Maria Esmond is having no very pleasant time of it at Tunbridge Wells. There is no one to protect her. Madam Beatrix has her all to herself. Lady Maria is poor, and hopes for money from her aunt. Lady Maria has a secret or two which the old woman knows, and brandishes over her. I for one am quite melted and grow soft-hearted as I think of her. Imagine her alone, and a victim to that old woman! Paint to yourself that antique Andromeda (if you please we will allow that rich flowing head of hair to fall over her shoulders) chained to a rock on Mount Ephraim, and given up to that dragon of a Baroness! Succour, Perseus! Come quickly with thy winged feet and flashing falchion! Perseus is not in the least hurry. The dragon has her will of Andromeda for day after day.

Harry Warrington, who would not have allowed his dislocated and mended shoulder to keep him from going out hunting, remained day after day contentedly at Oakhurst, with each day finding the kindly folks who welcomed him more to his liking. Perhaps he had never, since his grandfather’s death, been in such good company. His lot had lain amongst fox-hunting Virginian squires, with whose society he had put up very contentedly, riding their horses, living their lives, and sharing their punch-bowls. The ladies of his own and mother’s acquaintance were very well bred, and decorous, and pious, no doubt, but somewhat narrow-minded. It was but a little place, his home, with its pompous ways, small etiquettes and punctilios, small flatteries, small conversations and scandals. Until he had left the place, some time after, he did not know how narrow and confined his life had been there. He was free enough personally. He had dogs and horses, and might shoot and hunt for scores of miles round about: but the little lady-mother domineered at home, and when there he had to submit to her influence and breathe her air.

Here the lad found himself in the midst of a circle where everything about him was incomparably gayer, brighter, and more free. He was living with a man and woman who had seen the world, though they lived retired from it, who had both of them happened to enjoy from their earliest times the use not only of good books, but of good company — those live books, which are such pleasant and sometimes such profitable reading. Society has this good at least: that it lessens our conceit, by teaching us our insignificance, and making us acquainted with our betters. If you are a young person who read this, depend upon it, sir or madam, there is nothing more wholesome for you than to acknowledge and to associate with your superiors. If I could, I would not have my son Thomas first Greek and Latin prize boy, first oar, and cock of the school. Better for his soul’s and body’s welfare that he should have a good place, not the first — a fair set of competitors round about him, and a good thrashing now and then, with a hearty shake afterwards of the hand which administered the beating. What honest man that can choose his lot would be a prince, let us say, and have all society walking backwards before him, only obsequious household-gentlemen to talk to, and all mankind mum except when your High Mightiness asks a question and gives permission to speak? One of the great benefits which Harry Warrington received from this family, before whose gate Fate had shot him, was to begin to learn that he was a profoundly ignorant young fellow, and that there were many people in the world far better than he knew himself to be. Arrogant a little with some folks, in the company of his superiors he was magnanimously docile. We have seen how faithfully he admired his brother at home, and his friend, the gallant young Colonel of Mount Vernon: of the gentlemen, his kinsmen at Castlewood, he had felt himself at least the equal. In his new acquaintance at Oakhurst he found a man who had read far more books than Harry could pretend to judge of, who had seen the world and come unwounded out of it, as he had out of the dangers and battles which he had confronted, and who had goodness and honesty written on his face and breathing from his lips, for which qualities our brave lad had always an instinctive sympathy and predilection.

As for the women, they were the kindest, merriest, most agreeable he had as yet known. They were pleasanter than Parson Broadbent’s black-eyed daughter at home, whose laugh carried as far as a gun. They were quite as well-bred as the Castlewood ladies, with the exception of Madam Beatrix (who, indeed, was as grand as an empress on some occasions). But somehow, after a talk with Madam Beatrix, and vast amusement and interest in her stories, the lad would come away as with a bitter taste in his mouth, and fancy all the world wicked round about him. They were not in the least squeamish; and laughed over pages of Mr. Fielding, and cried over volumes of Mr. Richardson, containing jokes and incidents which would make Mrs. Grundy’s hair stand on end, yet their merry prattle left no bitterness behind it: their tales about this neighbour and that were droll, not malicious; the curtseys and salutations with which the folks of the little neighbouring town received them, how kindly and cheerful! their bounties how cordial! Of a truth it is good to be with good people. How good Harry Warrington did not know at the time, perhaps, or until subsequent experience showed him contrasts, or caused him to feel remorse. Here was a tranquil, sunshiny day of a life that was to be agitated and stormy — a happy hour or two to remember. Not much happened during the happy hour or two. It was only sweet sleep, pleasant waking, friendly welcome, serene pastime. The gates of the old house seemed to shut the wicked world out somehow, and the inhabitants within to be better, and purer, and kinder than other people. He was not in love; oh no! not the least, either with saucy Hetty or generous Theodosia but when the time came for going away, he fastened on both their hands, and felt an immense regard for them. He thought he should like to know their brothers, and that they must be fine fellows; and as for Mrs. Lambert, I believe she was as sentimental at his departure as if he had been the last volume of Clarissa Harlowe.

“He is very kind and honest,” said Theo, gravely, as, looking from the terrace, they saw him and their father and servants riding away on the road to Westerham.

“I don’t think him stupid at all now,” said little Hetty; “and, mamma, I think, he is very like a swan indeed.”

“It felt just like one of the boys going to school,” said mamma.

“Just like it,” said Theo, sadly.

“I am glad he has got papa to ride with him to Westerham,” resumed Miss Hetty, “and that he bought Farmer Briggs’s horse. I don’t like his going to those Castlewood people. I am sure that Madame Bernstein is a wicked old woman. I expected to see her ride away on her crooked stick.”

“Hush, Hetty!”

“Do you think she would float if they tried her in the pond, as poor old mother Hely did at Elmhurst? The other old woman seemed fond of him — I mean the one with the fair tour. She looked very melancholy when she went away; but Madame Bernstein whisked her off with her crutch, and she was obliged to go. I don’t care, Theo. I know she is a wicked woman. You think everybody good, you do, because you never do anything wrong yourself.”

“My Theo is a good girl,” says the mother, looking fondly at both her daughters.

“Then why do we call her a miserable sinner?”

“We are all so, my love,” said mamma.

“What, papa too? You know you don’t think so,” cries Miss Hester. And to allow this was almost more than Mrs. Lambert could afford.

“What was that you told John to give to Mr. Warrington’s black man?”

Mamma owned, with some shamefacedness, it was a bottle of her cordial water and a cake which she had bid Betty make. “I feel quite like a mother to him, my dears, I can’t help owning it — and you know both our boys still like one of our cakes to take to school or college with them.”

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