The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXV

New Acquaintances

Cousin Maria made her appearance, attended by a couple of gardener’s boys bearing baskets of flowers, with which it was proposed to decorate Madame de Bernstein’s drawing-room against the arrival of her ladyship’s company. Three footmen in livery, gorgeously laced with worsted, set out twice as many card-tables. A major-domo in black and a bag, with fine laced ruffles; and looking as if he ought to have a sword by his side, followed the lacqueys bearing fasces of wax candles, which he placed a pair on each card-table, and in the silver sconces on the wainscoted wall that was now gilt with the slanting rays of the sun, as was the prospect of the green common beyond, with its rocks and clumps of trees and houses twinkling in the sunshine. Groups of many-coloured figures in hoops and powder and brocade sauntered over the green, and dappled the plain with their shadows. On the other side from the Baroness’s windows you saw the Pantiles, where a perpetual fair was held, and heard the clatter and buzzing of the company. A band of music was here performing for the benefit of the visitors to the Wells. Madame Bernstein’s chief sitting-room might not suit a recluse or a student, but for those who liked bustle, gaiety, a bright cross light, and a view of all that was going on in the cheery busy place, no lodging could be pleasanter. And when the windows were lighted up, the passengers walking below were aware that her ladyship was at home and holding a card-assembly, to which an introduction was easy enough. By the way, in speaking of the past, I think the night-life of society a hundred years since was rather a dark life. There was not one wax-candle for ten which we now see in a lady’s drawing-room: let alone gas and the wondrous new illuminations of clubs. Horrible guttering tallow smoked and stunk in passages. The candle-snuffer was a notorious officer in the theatre. See Hogarth’s pictures: how dark they are, and how his feasts are, as it were, begrimed with tallow! In “Marriage a la Mode,” in Lord Viscount Squanderfield’s grand saloons, where he and his wife are sitting yawning before the horror-stricken steward when their party is over — there are but eight candles — one on each card-table, and half a dozen in a brass chandelier. If Jack Briefless convoked his friends to oysters and beer in his chambers, Pump Court, he would have twice as many. Let us comfort ourselves by thinking that Louis Quatorze in all his glory held his revels in the dark, and bless Mr. Price and other Luciferous benefactors of mankind, for banishing the abominable mutton of our youth.

So Maria with her flowers (herself the fairest flower), popped her roses, sweet-williams, and so forth, in vases here and there, and adorned the apartment to the best of her art. She lingered fondly over this bowl and that dragon jar, casting but sly timid glances the while at young cousin Harry, whose own blush would have become any young woman, and you might have thought that she possibly intended to outstay her aunt; but that Baroness, seated in her arm-chair, her crooked tortoiseshell stick in her hand, pointed the servants imperiously to their duty; rated one and the other soundly: Tom for having a darn in his stocking; John for having greased his locks too profusely out of the candle-box; and so forth — keeping a stern domination over them. Another remark concerning poor Jeames of a hundred years ago: Jeames slept two in a bed, four in a room, and that room a cellar very likely, and he washed in a trough such as you would hardly see anywhere in London now out of the barracks of her Majesty’s Foot Guards.

If Maria hoped a present interview, her fond heart was disappointed. “Where are you going to dine, Harry?” asks Madame de Bernstein. “My niece Maria and I shall have a chicken in the little parlour — I think you should go to the best ordinary. There is one at the White Horse at three, we shall hear his bell in a minute or two. And you will understand, sir, that you ought not to spare expense, but behave like Princess Pocahontas’s son. Your trunks have been taken over to the lodging I have engaged for you. It is not good for a lad to be always hanging about the aprons of two old women. Is it, Maria?”

“No,” says her ladyship, dropping her meek eyes; whilst the other lady’s glared in triumph. I think Andromeda had been a good deal exposed to the Dragon in the course of the last five or six days: and if Perseus had cut the latter’s cruel head off he would have committed not unjustifiable monstricide. But he did not bare sword or shield; he only looked mechanically at the lacqueys in tawny and blue as they creaked about the room.

“And there are good mercers and tailors from London always here to wait on the company at the Wells. You had better see them, my dear, for your suit is not of the very last fashion — a little lace ——”

“I can’t go out of mourning, ma’am,” said the young man, looking down at his sables.

“Ho, sir,” cried the lady, rustling up from her chair and rising on her cane, “wear black for your brother till you are as old as Methuselah, if you like. I am sure I don’t want to prevent you. I only want you to dress, and to do like other people, and make a figure worthy of your name.”

“Madam,” said Mr. Warrington with great state, “I have not done anything to disgrace it that I know.”

Why did the old Woman stop and give a little start as if she had been struck? Let bygones be bygones. She and the boy had a score of little passages of this kind in which swords were crossed and thrusts rapidly dealt or parried. She liked Harry none the worse for his courage in facing her. “Sure a little finer linen than that shirt you wear will not be a disgrace to you, sir,” she said, with rather a forced laugh.

Harry bowed and blushed. It was one of the homely gifts of his Oakhurst friends. He felt pleased somehow to think he wore it; thought of the new friends, so good, so pure, so simple, so kindly, with immense tenderness, and felt, while invested in this garment, as if evil could not touch him. He said he would go to his lodging, and make a point of returning arrayed in the best linen he had.

“Come back here, sir,” said Madame Bernstein, “and if our company has not arrived, Maria and I will find some ruffles for you!” And herewith, under a footman’s guidance, the young fellow walked off to his new lodgings.

Harry found not only handsome and spacious apartments provided for him, but a groom in attendance waiting to be engaged by his honour, and a second valet, if he was inclined to hire one to wait upon Mr. Gumbo. Ere he had been many minutes in his rooms, emissaries from a London tailor and bootmaker waited him with the cards and compliments of their employers, Messrs. Regnier and Tull; the best articles in his modest wardrobe were laid out by Gumbo, and the finest linen with which his thrifty Virginian mother had provided him. Visions of the snow-surrounded home in his own country, of the crackling logs and the trim quiet ladies working by the fire, rose up before him. For the first time a little thought that the homely clothes were not quite smart enough, the home-worked linen not so fine as it might be, crossed the young man’s mind. That he should be ashamed of anything belonging to him or to Castlewood! That was strange. The simple folks there were only too well satisfied with all things that were done, or said, or produced at Castlewood; and Madam Esmond, when she sent her son forth on his travels, thought no young nobleman need be better provided. The clothes might have fitted better and been of a later fashion, to be sure — but still the young fellow presented a comely figure enough when he issued from his apartments, his toilet over; and Gumbo calling a chair, marched beside it, until they reached the ordinary where the young gentleman was to dine.

Here he expected to find the beau whose acquaintance he had made a few hours before at his aunt’s lodging, and who had indicated to Harry that the White Horse was the most modish place for dining at the Wells, and he mentioned his friend’s name to the host: but the landlord and waiters leading him into the room with many smiles and bows assured his honour that his honour did not need any other introduction than his own, helped him to hang up his coat and sword on a peg, asked him whether he would drink Burgundy, Pontac, or champagne to his dinner, and led him to a table.

Though the most fashionable ordinary in the village, the White Horse did not happen to be crowded on this day. Monsieur Barbeau, the landlord, informed Harry that there was a great entertainment at Summer Hill, which had taken away most of the company; indeed, when Harry entered the room, there were but four other gentlemen in it. Two of these guests were drinking wine, and had finished their dinner: the other two were young men in the midst of their meal, to whom the landlord, as he passed, must have whispered the name of the new-comer, for they looked at him with some appearance of interest, and made him a slight bow across the table as the smiling host bustled away for Harry’s dinner.

Mr. Warrington returned the salute of the two gentlemen, who bade him welcome to Tunbridge, and hoped he would like the place upon better acquaintance. Then they smiled and exchanged waggish looks with each other, of which Harry did not understand the meaning, nor why they cast knowing glances at the two other guests over their wine.

One of these persons was in a somewhat tarnished velvet coat with a huge queue and bag, and voluminous ruffles and embroidery. The other was a little beetle-browed, hook-nosed, high-shouldered gentleman, whom his opposite companion addressed as milor, or my lord, in a very high voice. My lord, who was sipping the wine before him, barely glanced at the new-comer, and then addressed himself to his own companion.

“And so you know the nephew of the old woman — the Croesus who comes to arrive?”

“You’re thrown out there, Jack!” says one young gentleman to the other.

“Never could manage the lingo,” said Jack. The two elders had begun to speak in the French language.

“But assuredly, my dear lord!” says the gentleman with the long queue.

“You have shown energy, my dear Baron! He has been here but two hours. My people told me of him only as I came to dinner.”

“I knew him before! — I have met him often in London with the Baroness and my lord, his cousin,” said the Baron.

A smoking soup for Harry here came in, borne by the smiling host. “Behold, sir! Behold a potage of my fashion!” says my landlord, laying down the dish and whispering to Harry the celebrated name of the nobleman opposite. Harry thanked Monsieur Barbeau in his own language, upon which the foreign gentleman, turning round, grinned most graciously at Harry, and said, “Fous bossedez notre langue barfaidement, monsieur.” Mr. Warrington had never heard the French language pronounced in that manner in Canada. He bowed in return to the foreign gentleman.

“Tell me more about the Croesus, my good Baron,” continued his lordship, speaking rather superciliously to his companion, and taking no notice of Harry, which perhaps somewhat nettled the young man.

“What will you, that I tell you, my dear lord? Croesus is a youth like other youths; he is tall, like other youths; he is awkward, like other youths; he has black hair, as they all have who come from the Indies. Lodgings have been taken for him at Mrs. Rose’s toy-shop.”

“I have lodgings there too,” thought Mr. Warrington. “Who is Croesus they are talking of? How good the soup is!”

“He travels with a large retinue,” the Baron continued, “four servants, two postchaises, and a pair of outriders. His chief attendant is a black man who saved his life from the savages in America, and who will not hear, on any account, of being made free. He persists in wearing mourning for his elder brother from whom he inherits his principality.”

“Could anything console you for the death of yours, Chevalier?” cried out the elder gentleman.

“Milor! his property might,” said the Chevalier, “which you know is not small.”

“Your brother lives on his patrimony — which you have told me is immense — you by your industry, my dear Chevalier.”

“Milor!” cries the individual addressed as Chevalier.

“By your industry or your esprit — how much more noble! Shall you be at the Baroness’s to-night? She ought to be a little of your parents, Chevalier?”

“Again I fail to comprehend your lordship,” said the other gentleman, rather sulkily.

“Why, she is a woman of great wit — she is of noble birth — she has undergone strange adventures — she has but little principle (there you happily have the advantage of her). But what care we men of the world? You intend to go and play with the young Creole, no doubt, and get as much money from him as you can. By the way, Baron, suppose he should be a guet-apens, that young Creole? Suppose our excellent friend has invented him up in London, and brings him down with his character for wealth to prey upon the innocent folks here?”

“J’y ai souvent pense, milor,” says the little Baron, placing his finger to his nose very knowingly, “that Baroness is capable of anything.”

“A Baron — a Baroness, que voulez-vous, my friend? I mean the late lamented husband. Do you know who he was?”

“Intimately. A more notorious villain never dealt a card. At Venice, at Brussels, at Spa, at Vienna — the gaols of every one of which places he knew. I knew the man, my lord.”

“I thought you would. I saw him at the Hague, where I first had the honour of meeting you, and a more disreputable rogue never entered my doors. A minister must open them to all sorts of people, Baron — spies, sharpers, ruffians of every sort.”

“Parbleu, milor, how you treat them!” says my lord’s companion.

“A man of my rank, my friend — of the rank I held then — of course, must see all sorts of people — entre autres your acquaintance. What his wife could want with such a name as his I can’t conceive.”

“Apparently, it was better than the lady’s own.”

“Effectively! So I have heard of my friend Paddy changing clothes with the scarecrow. I don’t know which name is the most distinguished, that of the English bishop or the German baron.”

“My lord,” cried the other gentleman, rising and laying his hand on a large star on his coat, “you forget that I, too, am a Baron and a Chevalier of the Holy Roman ——”

“— Order of the Spur! — not in the least, my dear knight and baron! You will have no more wine? We shall meet at Madame de Bernstein’s to-night.” The knight and baron quitted the table, felt in his embroidered pockets, as if for money to give the waiter, who brought him his great laced hat, and waving that menial off with a hand surrounded by large ruffles and blazing rings, he stalked away from the room.

It was only when the person addressed as my lord had begun to speak of the bishop’s widow and the German baron’s wife that Harry Warrington was aware how his aunt and himself had been the subject of the two gentlemen’s conversation. Ere the conviction had settled itself on his mind, one of the speakers had quitted the room, and the other, turning to a table at which two gentlemen sate, said, “What a little sharper it is! Everything I said about Bernstein relates mutato nomine to him. I knew the fellow to be a spy and a rogue. He has changed his religion I don’t know how many times. I had him turned out of the Hague myself when I was ambassador, and I know he was caned in Vienna.”

“I wonder my Lord Chesterfield associates with such a villain!” called out Harry from his table. The other couple of diners looked at him. To his surprise the nobleman so addressed went on talking.

“There cannot be a more fieffe coquin than this Poellnitz. Why, Heaven be thanked, he has actually left me my snuff-box! You laugh? — the fellow is capable of taking it.” And my lord thought it was his own satire at which the young men were laughing.

“You are quite right, sir,” said one of the two diners, turning to Mr. Warrington, “though, saving your presence, I don’t know what business it is of yours. My lord will play with anybody who will set him. Don’t be alarmed, he is as deaf as a post, and did not hear a word that you said; and that’s why my lord will play with anybody who will put a pack of cards before him, and that is the reason why he consorts with this rogue.”

“Faith, I know other noblemen who are not particular as to their company,” says Mr. Jack.

“Do you mean because I associate with you? I know my company, my good friend, and I defy most men to have the better of me.”

Not having paid the least attention to Mr. Warrington’s angry interruption, my lord opposite was talking in his favourite French with Monsieur Barbeau, the landlord, and graciously complimenting him on his dinner. The host bowed again and again; was enchanted that his Excellency was satisfied: had not forgotten the art which he had learned when he was a young man in his Excellency’s kingdom of Ireland. The salmi was to my lord’s liking? He had just served a dish to the young American seigneur who sate opposite, the gentleman from Virginia.

“To whom?” My lord’s pale face became red for a moment, as he asked this question, and looked towards Harry Warrington, opposite to him.

“To the young gentleman from Virginia who has just arrived, and who perfectly possesses our beautiful language!” says Mr. Barbeau, thinking to kill two birds, as it were, with this one stone of a compliment.

“And to whom your lordship will be answerable for language reflecting upon my family, and uttered in the presence of these gentlemen,” cried out Mr. Warrington, at the top of his voice, determined that his opponent should hear.

“You must go and call into his ear, and then he may perchance hear you,” said one of the younger guests.

“I will take care that his lordship shall understand my meaning, one way or other,” Mr. Warrington said, with much dignity; “and will not suffer calumnies regarding my relatives to be uttered by him or any other man!”

Whilst Harry was speaking, the little nobleman opposite to him did not hear him, but had time sufficient to arrange his own reply. He had risen, passing his handkerchief once or twice across his mouth, and laying his slim fingers on the table. “Sir,” said he, “you will believe, on the word of a gentleman, that I had no idea before whom I was speaking, and it seems that my acquaintance, Monsieur de Poellnitz, knew you no better than myself. Had I known you, believe me that I should have been the last man in the world to utter a syllable that should give you annoyance; and I tender you my regrets and apologies, before my Lord March and Mr. Morris here present.”

To these words, Mr. Warrington could only make a bow, and mumble out a few words of acknowledgment: which speech having made believe to hear, my lord made Harry another very profound bow, and saying he should have the honour of waiting upon Mr. Warrington at his lodgings, saluted the company, and went away.

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