The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXIX

In which Harry continues to enjoy Otium sine Dignitate

Whilst there were card-players enough to meet her at her lodgings and the assembly-rooms, Madame de Bernstein remained pretty contentedly at the Wells, scolding her niece, and playing her rubber. At Harry’s age almost all places are pleasant, where you can have lively company, fresh air, and your share of sport and diversion. Even all pleasure is pleasant at twenty. We go out to meet it with alacrity, speculate upon its coming, and when its visit is announced, count the days until it and we shall come together. How very gently and coolly we regard it towards the close of Life’s long season! Madam, don’t you recollect your first ball; and does not your memory stray towards that happy past, sometimes, as you sit ornamenting the wall whilst your daughters are dancing? I, for my part, can remember when I thought it was delightful to walk three miles and back in the country to dine with old Captain Jones. Fancy liking to walk three miles, now, to dine with Jones and drink his half-pay port! No doubt it was bought from the little country-town wine-merchant, and cost but a small sum; but ’twas offered with a kindly welcome, and youth gave it a flavour which no age of wine or man can impart to it nowadays. Viximus nuper. I am not disposed to look so severely upon young Harry’s conduct and idleness, as his friend the stern Colonel of the Twentieth Regiment. O blessed idleness! Divine lazy nymph! Reach me a novel as I lie in my dressing-gown at three o’clock in the afternoon; compound a sherry-cobbler for me, and bring me a cigar! Dear slatternly, smiling Enchantress! They may assail thee with bad names — swear thy character away, and call thee the Mother of Evil; but, for all that, thou art the best company in the world!

My Lord of March went away to the North; and my Lord Chesterfield, finding the Tunbridge waters did no good to his deafness, returned to his solitude at Blackheath; but other gentlemen remained to sport and take their pleasure, and Mr. Warrington had quite enough of companions at his ordinary at the White Horse. He soon learned to order a French dinner as well as the best man of fashion out of St. James’s; could talk to Monsieur Barbeau, in Monsieur B.‘s native language, much more fluently than most other folks — discovered a very elegant and decided taste in wines, and could distinguish between Clos Vougeot and Romande with remarkable skill. He was the young King of the Wells, of which the general frequenters were easygoing men of the world, who were by no means shocked at that reputation for gallantry and extravagance which Harry had got, and which had so frightened Mr. Wolfe.

Though our Virginian lived amongst the revellers, and swam and sported in the same waters with the loose fish, the boy had a natural shrewdness and honesty which kept him clear of the snares and baits which are commonly set for the unwary. He made very few foolish bets with the jolly idle fellows round about him, and the oldest hands found it difficult to take him in. He engaged in games outdoors and in, because he had a natural skill and aptitude for them, and was good to hold almost any match with any fair competitor. He was scrupulous to play only with those gentlemen whom he knew, and always to settle his own debts on the spot. He would have made but a very poor figure at a college examination; though he possessed prudence and fidelity, keen, shrewd perception, great generosity, and dauntless personal courage.

And he was not without occasions for showing of what stuff he was made. For instance, when that unhappy little Cattarina, who had brought him into so much trouble, carried her importunities beyond the mark at which Harry thought his generosity should stop, he withdrew from the advances of the Opera-House Siren with perfect coolness and skill, leaving her to exercise her blandishments upon some more easy victim. In vain the mermaid’s hysterical mother waited upon Harry, and vowed that a cruel bailiff had seized all her daughter’s goods for debt, and that her venerable father was at present languishing in a London gaol. Harry declared that between himself and the bailiff there could be no dealings, and that because he had had the good fortune to become known to Mademoiselle Cattarina, and to gratify her caprices by presenting her with various trinkets and knick-knacks for which she had a fancy, he was not bound to pay the past debts of her family, and must decline being bail for her papa in London, or settling her outstanding accounts at Tunbridge. The Cattarina’s mother first called him a monster and an ingrate, and then asked him, with a veteran smirk, why he did not take pay for the services he had rendered to the young person? At first, Mr. Warrington could not understand what the nature of the payment might be: but when that matter was explained by the old woman, the honest lad rose up in horror, to think that a woman should traffic in her child’s dishonour, told her that he came from a country where the very savages would recoil from such a bargain; and, having bowed the old lady ceremoniously to the door, ordered Gumbo to mark her well, and never admit her to his lodgings again. No doubt she retired breathing vengeance against the Iroquois: no Turk or Persian, she declared, would treat a lady so: and she and her daughter retreated to London as soon as their anxious landlord would let them. Then Harry had his perils of gaming, as well as his perils of gallantry. A man who plays at bowls, as the phrase is, must expect to meet with rubbers. After dinner at the ordinary, having declined to play piquet any further with Captain Batts, and being roughly asked his reason for refusing, Harry fairly told the Captain that he only played with gentlemen who paid, like himself: but expressed himself so ready to satisfy Mr. Batts, as soon as their outstanding little account was settled, that the Captain declared himself satisfied d’avance, and straightway left the Wells without paying Harry or any other creditor. Also he had an occasion to show his spirit by beating a chairman who was rude to old Miss Whiffler one evening as she was going to the assembly: and finding that the calumny regarding himself and that unlucky opera-dancer was repeated by Mr. Hector Buckler, one of the fiercest frequenters of the Wells, Mr. Warrington stepped up to Mr. Buckler in the pump-room, where the latter was regaling a number of water-drinkers with the very calumny, and publicly informed Mr. Buckler that the story was a falsehood, and that he should hold any person accountable to himself who henceforth uttered it. So that though our friend, being at Rome, certainly did as Rome did, yet he showed himself to be a valorous and worthy Roman; and, hurlant avec les loups, was acknowledged by Mr. Wolfe himself to be as brave as the best of the wolves.

If that officer had told Colonel Lambert the stories which had given the latter so much pain, we may be sure that when Mr. Wolfe found his young friend was innocent, he took the first opportunity to withdraw the odious charges against him. And there was joy among the Lamberts, in consequence of the lad’s acquittal — something, doubtless, of that pleasure, which is felt by higher natures than ours, at the recovery of sinners. Never had the little family been so happy — no, not even when they got the news of Brother Tom winning his scholarship — as when Colonel Wolfe rode over with the account of the conversation which he had with Harry Warrington. “Hadst thou brought me a regiment, James, I think I should not have been better pleased,” said Mr. Lambert. Mrs. Lambert called to her daughters who were in the garden, and kissed them both when they came in, and cried out the good news to them. Hetty jumped for joy, and Theo performed some uncommonly brilliant operations upon the harpsichord that night; and when Dr. Boyle came in for his backgammon, he could not, at first, account for the illumination in all their faces, until the three ladies, in a happy chorus, told him how right he had been in his sermon, and how dreadfully they had wronged that poor dear, good young Mr. Warrington.

“What shall we do, my dear?” says the Colonel to his wife. “The hay is in, the corn won’t be cut for a fortnight — the horses have nothing to do. Suppose we . . .” And here he leans over the table and whispers in her ear.

“My dearest Martin! The very thing!” cries Mrs. Lambert, taking her husband’s hand and pressing it.

“What’s the very thing, mother?” cries young Charley, who is home for his Bartlemytide holidays.

“The very thing is to go to supper. Come, Doctor! We will have a bottle of wine to-night, and drink repentance to all who think evil.”

“Amen,” says the Doctor; “with all my heart!” And with this the worthy family went to their supper.

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