The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXIV

From Oakhurst to Tunbridge

Having her lily handkerchief in token of adieu to the departing travellers, Mrs. Lambert and her girls watched them pacing leisurely on the first few hundred yards of their journey, and until such time as a tree-clumped corner of the road hid them from the ladies’ view. Behind that clump of limes the good matron had many a time watched those she loved best disappear. Husband departing to battle and danger, sons to school, each after the other had gone on his way behind yonder green trees, returning as it pleased Heaven’s will at his good time, and bringing pleasure and love back to the happy little family. Besides their own instinctive nature (which to be sure aids wonderfully in the matter), the leisure and contemplation attendant upon their home life serve to foster the tenderness and fidelity of our women. The men gone, there is all day to think about them, and tomorrow and tomorrow — when there certainly will be a letter — and so on. There is the vacant room to go look at, where the boy slept last night, and the impression of his carpet bag is still on the bed. There is his whip hung up in the hall, and his fishing-rod and basket — mute memorials of the brief bygone pleasures. At dinner there comes up that cherry-tart, half of which our darling ate at two o’clock in spite of his melancholy, and with a choking little sister on each side of him. The evening prayer is said without that young scholar’s voice to utter the due responses. Midnight and silence come, and the good mother lies wakeful, thinking how one of the dear accustomed brood is away from the nest. Morn breaks, home and holidays have passed away, and toil and labour have begun for him. So those rustling limes formed, as it were, a screen between the world and our ladies of the house at Oakhurst. Kind-hearted Mrs. Lambert always became silent and thoughtful, if by chance she and her girls walked up to the trees in the absence of the men of the family. She said she would like to carve their names up on the grey silvered trunks, in the midst of true-lovers’ knots, as was then the kindly fashion; and Miss Theo, who had an exceeding elegant turn that way, made some verses regarding the trees, which her delighted parent transmitted to a periodical of those days.

“Now we are out of sight of the ladies,” says Colonel Lambert, giving a parting salute with his hat, as the pair of gentlemen trotted past the limes in question. “I know my wife always watches at her window until we are round this corner. I hope we shall have you seeing the trees and the house again, Mr. Warrington; and the boys being at home, mayhap there will be better sport for you.”

“I never want to be happier, sir, than I have been,” replied Mr. Warrington; “and I hope you will let me say, that I feel as if I am leaving quite old friends behind me.”

“The friend at whose house we shall sup to-night hath a son, who is an old friend of our family, too; and my wife, who is an inveterate marriage-monger, would have made a match between him and one of my girls, but that the Colonel hath chosen to fall in love with somebody else.”

“Ah!” sighed Mr. Warrington.

“Other folks have done the same thing. There were brave fellows before Agamemnon.”

“I beg your pardon, sir. Is the gentleman’s name — Aga ——? I did not quite gather it,” meekly inquired the young traveller.

“No, his name is James Wolfe,” cried the Colonel, smiling. “He is a young fellow still, or what we call so, being scarce thirty years old. He is the youngest lieutenant-colonel in the army, unless, to be sure, we except a few scores of our nobility, who take rank before us common folk.”

“Of course of course!” says the Colonel’s young companion with true colonial notions of aristocratic precedence.

“And I have seen him commanding captains, and very brave captains, who were thirty years his seniors, and who had neither his merit nor his good fortune. But, lucky as he hath been, no one envies his superiority, for, indeed, most of us acknowledge that he is our superior. He is beloved by every man of our old regiment and knows every one of them. He is a good scholar as well as a consummate soldier, and a master of many languages.”

“Ah, sir!” said Harry Warrington, with a sigh of great humility; “I feel that I have neglected my own youth sadly; and am come to England but an ignoramus. Had my dear brother been alive, he would have represented our name and our colony, too, better than I can do. George was a scholar; George was a musician; George could talk with the most learned people in our country, and I make no doubt would have held his own here. Do you know, sir, I am glad to have come home, and to you especially, if but to learn how ignorant I am.”

“If you know that well, ’tis a great gain already,” said the Colonel, with a smile.

“At home, especially of late, and since we lost my brother, I used to think myself a mighty fine fellow, and have no doubt that the folks round about flattered me. I am wiser now — that is, I hope I am — though perhaps I am wrong, and only bragging again. But you see, sir, the gentry in our colony don’t know very much, except about dogs and horses, and betting and games. I wish I knew more about books, and less about them.”

“Nay. Dogs and horses are very good books, too, in their way, and we may read a deal of truth out of ’em. Some men are not made to be scholars, and may be very worthy citizens and gentlemen in spite of their ignorance. What call have all of us to be especially learned or wise, or to take a first place in the world? His Royal Highness is commander, and Martin Lambert is colonel, and Jack Hunt, who rides behind yonder, was a private soldier, and is now a very honest, worthy groom. So as we all do our best in our station, it matters not much whether that be high or low. Nay, how do we know what is high and what is low? and whether Jack’s currycomb, or my epaulets, or his Royal Highness’s baton, may not turn out to be pretty equal? When I began life, et militavi non sine — never mind what — I dreamed of success and honour; now I think of duty, and yonder folks, from whom we parted a few hours ago. Let us trot on, else we shall not reach Westerham before nightfall.”

At Westerham the two friends were welcomed by their hosts, a stately matron, an old soldier, whose recollections and services were of five-and-forty years back, and the son of this gentleman and lady, the Lieutenant-Colonel of Kingsley’s regiment, that was then stationed at Maidstone, whence the Colonel had come over on a brief visit to his parents. Harry looked with some curiosity at this officer, who, young as he was, had seen so much service, and obtained a character so high. There was little of the beautiful in his face. He was very lean and very pale; his hair was red, his nose and cheek-bones were high; but he had a fine courtesy towards his elders, a cordial greeting towards his friends, and an animation in conversation which caused those who heard him to forget, even to admire, his homely looks.

Mr. Warrington was going to Tunbridge? Their James would bear him company, the lady of the house said, and whispered something to Colonel Lambert at supper, which occasioned smiles and a knowing wink or two from that officer. He called for wine, and toasted “Miss Lowther.” “With all my heart,” cried the enthusiastic Colonel James, and drained his glass to the very last drop. Mamma whispered her friend how James and the lady were going to make a match, and how she came of the famous Lowther family of the North.

“If she was the daughter of King Charlemagne,” cries Lambert, “she is not too good for James Wolfe, or for his mother’s son.”

“Mr. Lambert would not say so if he knew her,” the young Colonel declared.

“Oh, of course, she is the priceless pearl, and you are nothing,” cries mamma. “No. I am of Colonel Lambert’s opinion; and, if she brought all Cumberland to you for a jointure, I should say it was my James’s due. That is the way with ’em, Mr. Warrington. We tend our children through fevers, and measles, and whooping-cough, and small-pox; we send them to the army and can’t sleep at night for thinking; we break our hearts at parting with ’em, and have them at home only for a week or two in the year, or maybe ten years, and, after all our care, there comes a lass with a pair of bright eyes, and away goes our boy, and never cares a fig for us afterwards.”

“And pray, my dear, how did you come to marry James’s papa?” said the elder Colonel Wolfe. “And why didn’t you stay at home with your parents?”

“Because James’s papa was gouty, and wanted somebody to take care of him, I suppose; not because I liked him a bit,” answers the lady: and so with much easy talk and kindness the evening passed away.

On the morrow, and with many expressions of kindness and friendship for his late guest, Colonel Lambert gave over the young Virginian to Mr. Wolfe’s charge, and turned his horse’s head homewards, while the two gentlemen sped towards Tunbridge Wells. Wolfe was in a hurry to reach the place, Harry Warrington was, perhaps, not quite so eager: nay, when Lambert rode towards his own home, Harry’s thoughts followed him with a great deal of longing desire to the parlour at Oakhurst, where he had spent three days in happy calm. Mr. Wolfe agreed in all Harry’s enthusiastic praises of Mr. Lambert, and of his wife, and of his daughters, and of all that excellent family. “To have such a good name, and to live such a life as Colonel Lambert’s,” said Wolfe, “seem to me now the height of human ambition.”

“And glory and honour?” asked Warrington, “are those nothing? and would you give up the winning of them?”

“They were my dreams once,” answered the Colonel, who had now different ideas of happiness, “and now my desires are much more tranquil. I have followed arms ever since I was fourteen years of age. I have seen almost every kind of duty connected with my calling. I know all the garrison towns in this country, and have had the honour to serve wherever there has been work to be done during the last ten years. I have done pretty near the whole of a soldier’s duty, except, indeed, the command of an army, which can hardly be hoped for by one of my years; and now, methinks, I would like quiet, books to read, a wife to love me, and some children to dandle on my knee. I have imagined some such Elysium for myself, Mr. Warrington. True love is better than glory; and a tranquil fireside, with the woman of your heart seated by it, the greatest good the gods can send to us.”

Harry imagined to himself the picture which his comrade called up. He said “Yes,” in answer to the other’s remark; but, no doubt, did not give a very cheerful assent, for his companion observed upon the expression of his face.

“You say ‘Yes’ as if a fireside and a sweetheart were not particularly to your taste.”

“Why, look you, Colonel, there are other things which a young fellow might like to enjoy. You have had sixteen years of the world: and I am but a few months away from my mother’s apron-strings. When I have seen a campaign or two, or six, as you have: when I have distinguished myself like Mr. Wolfe, and made the world talk of me, I then may think of retiring from it.”

To these remarks, Mr. Wolfe, whose heart was full of a very different matter, replied by breaking out in a further encomium of the joys of marriage; and a special rhapsody upon the beauties and merits of his mistress — a theme intensely interesting to himself, though not so, possibly, to his hearer, whose views regarding a married life, if he permitted himself to entertain any, were somewhat melancholy and despondent. A pleasant afternoon brought them to the end of their ride; nor did any accident or incident accompany it, save, perhaps, a mistake which Harry Warrington made at some few miles’ distance from Tunbridge Wells, where two horsemen stopped them, whom Harry was for charging, pistol in hand, supposing them to be highwaymen. Colonel Wolfe, laughing, bade Mr. Warrington reserve his fire, for these folks were only innkeepers’ agents, and not robbers (except in their calling). Gumbo, whose horse ran away with him at this particular juncture, was brought back after a great deal of bawling on his master’s part, and the two gentlemen rode into the little town, alighted at their inn, and then separated, each in quest of the ladies whom he had come to visit.

Mr. Warrington found his aunt installed in handsome lodgings, with a guard of London lacqueys in her anteroom, and to follow her chair when she went abroad. She received him with the utmost kindness. His cousin, my Lady Maria, was absent when he arrived: I don’t know whether the young gentleman was unhappy at not seeing her: or whether he disguised his feelings, or whether Madame de Bernstein took any note regarding them.

A beau in a rich figured suit, the first specimen of the kind Harry had seen, and two dowagers with voluminous hoops and plenty of rouge, were on a visit to the Baroness when her nephew made his bow to her. She introduced the young man to these personages as her nephew, the young Croesus out of Virginia, of whom they had heard. She talked about the immensity of his estate, which was as large as Kent; and, as she had read, infinitely more fruitful. She mentioned how her half-sister, Madam Esmond, was called Princess Pocahontas in her own country. She never tired in her praises of mother and son, of their riches and their good qualities. The beau shook the young man by the hand, and was delighted to have the honour to make his acquaintance. The ladies praised him to his aunt so loudly that the modest youth was fain to blush at their compliments. They went away to inform the Tunbridge society of the news of his arrival. The little place was soon buzzing with accounts of the wealth, the good breeding, and the good looks of the Virginian.

“You could not have come at a better moment, my dear,” the Baroness said to her nephew, as her visitors departed with many curtseys and congees. “Those three individuals have the most active tongues in the Wells. They will trumpet your good qualities in every company where they go. I have introduced you to a hundred people already, and, Heaven help me! have told all sorts of fibs about the geography of Virginia in order to describe your estate. It is a prodigious large one, but I am afraid I have magnified it. I have filled it with all sorts of wonderful animals, gold mines, spices; I am not sure I have not said diamonds. As for your negroes, I have given your mother armies of them, and, in fact, represented her as a sovereign princess reigning over a magnificent dominion. So she has a magnificent dominion: I cannot tell to a few hundred thousand pounds how much her yearly income is, but I have no doubt it is a very great one. And you must prepare, sir, to be treated here as the heir-apparent of this royal lady. Do not let your head be turned. From this day forth you are going to be flattered as you have never been flattered in your life.”

“And to what end, ma’am?” asked the young gentleman. “I see no reason why I should be reputed so rich, or get so much flattery.”

“In the first place, sir, you must not contradict your old aunt, who has no desire to be made a fool of before her company. And as for your reputation, you must know we found it here almost ready-made on our arrival. A London newspaper has somehow heard of you, and come out with a story of the immense wealth of a young gentleman from Virginia lately landed, and a nephew of my Lord Castlewood. Immensely wealthy you are, and can’t help yourself. All the world is eager to see you. You shall go to church tomorrow morning, and see how the whole congregation will turn away from its books and prayers, to worship the golden calf in your person. You would not have had me undeceive them, would you, and speak ill of my own flesh and blood?”

“But how am I bettered by this reputation for money?” asked Harry.

“You are making your entry into the world, and the gold key will open most of its doors to you. To be thought rich is as good as to be rich. You need not spend much money. People will say that you hoard it, and your reputation for avarice will do you good rather than harm. You’ll see how the mothers will smile upon you, and the daughters will curtsey! Don’t look surprised! When I was a young woman myself I did as all the rest of the world did, and tried to better myself by more than one desperate attempt at a good marriage. Your poor grandmother, who was a saint upon earth to be sure, bating a little jealousy, used to scold me, and called me worldly. Worldly, my dear! So is the world worldly; and we must serve it as it serves us; and give it nothing for nothing. Mr. Henry Esmond Warrington — I can’t help loving the two first names, sir, old woman as I am, and that I tell you — on coming here or to London, would have been nobody. Our protection would have helped him but little. Our family has little credit, and, entre nous, not much reputation. I suppose you know that Castlewood was more than suspected in ‘45, and hath since ruined himself by play?”

Harry had never heard about Lord Castlewood or his reputation.

“He never had much to lose, but he has lost that and more: his wretched estate is eaten up with mortgages. He has been at all sorts of schemes to raise money:— my dear, he has been so desperate at times, that I did not think my diamonds were safe with him; and have travelled to and from Castlewood without them. Terrible, isn’t it, to speak so of one’s own nephew? But you are my nephew, too, and not spoiled by the world yet, and I wish to warn you of its wickedness. I heard of your play-doings with Will and the chaplain, but they could do you no harm — nay, I am told you had the better of them. Had you played with Castlewood, you would have had no such luck: and you would have played, had not an old aunt of yours warned my Lord Castlewood to keep his hands off you.”

“What, ma’am, did you interfere to preserve me?”

“I kept his clutches off from you: be thankful that you are come out of that ogre’s den with any flesh on your bones! My dear, it has been the rage and passion of all our family. My poor silly brother played; both his wives played, especially the last one, who has little else to live upon now but her nightly assemblies in London, and the money for the cards. I would not trust her at Castlewood alone with you: the passion is too strong for them, and they would fall upon you, and fleece you; and then fall upon each other, and fight for the plunder. But for his place about the Court my poor nephew hath nothing, and that is Will’s fortune, too, sir, and Maria’s and her sister’s.”

“And are they, too, fond of the cards?”

“No; to do poor Molly justice, gaming is not her passion: but when she is amongst them in London, little Fanny will bet her eyes out of her head. I know what the passion is, sir: do not look so astonished; I have had it, as I had the measles when I was a child. I am not cured quite. For a poor old woman there is nothing left but that. You will see some high play at my card-tables to-night. Hush! my dear. It was that I wanted, and without which I moped so at Castlewood! I could not win of my nieces or their mother. They would not pay if they lost. ’Tis best to warn you, my dear, in time, lest you should be shocked by the discovery. I can’t live without the cards, there’s the truth!”

A few days before, and while staying with his Castlewood relatives, Harry, who loved cards, and cock-fighting, and betting, and every conceivable sport himself, would have laughed very likely at this confession. Amongst that family into whose society he had fallen, many things were laughed at, over which some folks looked grave. Faith and honour were laughed at; pure lives were disbelieved; selfishness was proclaimed as common practice; sacred duties were sneeringly spoken of, and vice flippantly condoned. These were no Pharisees: they professed no hypocrisy of virtue, they flung no stones at discovered sinners:— they smiled, shrugged their shoulders, and passed on. The members of this family did not pretend to be a whit better than their neighbours, whom they despised heartily; they lived quite familiarly with the folks about whom and whose wives they told such wicked, funny stories; they took their share of what pleasure or plunder came to hand, and lived from day to day till their last day came for them. Of course there are no such people now; and human nature is very much changed in the last hundred years. At any rate, card-playing is greatly out of mode: about that there can be no doubt: and very likely there are not six ladies of fashion in London who know the difference between Spadille and Manille.

“How dreadfully dull you must have found those humdrum people at that village where we left you — but the savages were very kind to you, child!” said Madame de Bernstein, patting the young man’s cheek with her pretty old hand.

“They were very kind; and it was not at all dull, ma’am, and I think they are some of the best people in the world,” said Harry, with his face flushing up. His aunt’s tone jarred upon him. He could not bear that any one should speak or think lightly of the new friends whom he had found. He did not want them in such company.

The old lady, imperious and prompt to anger, was about to resent the check she had received, but a second thought made her pause. “Those two girls,” she thought, “a sick-bed — an interesting stranger — of course he has been falling in love with one of them.” Madame Bernstein looked round with a mischievous glance at Lady Maria, who entered the room at this juncture.

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