The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXI

The Bear and the Leader

Our candid readers know the real state of the case regarding Harry Warrington and that luckless Cattarina; but a number of the old ladies at Tunbridge Wells supposed the Virginian to be as dissipated as any young English nobleman of the highest quality, and Madame de Bernstein was especially incredulous about her nephew’s innocence. It was the old lady’s firm belief that Harry was leading not only a merry life, but a wicked one, and her wish was father to the thought that the lad might be no better than his neighbours. An old Roman herself, she liked her nephew to do as Rome did. All the scandal regarding Mr. Warrington’s Lovelace adventures she eagerly and complacently accepted. We have seen how, on one or two occasions, he gave tea and music to the company at the Wells; and he was so gallant and amiable to the ladies (to ladies of a much better figure and character than the unfortunate Cattarina), that Madame Bernstein ceased to be disquieted regarding the silly love affair which had had a commencement at Castlewood, and relaxed in her vigilance over Lady Maria. Some folks — many old folks — are too selfish to interest themselves long about the affairs of their neighbours. The Baroness had her trumps to think of, her dinners, her twinges of rheumatism: and her suspicions regarding Maria and Harry, lately so lively, now dozed, and kept a careless, unobservant watch. She may have thought that the danger was over, or she may have ceased to care whether it existed or not, or that artful Maria, by her conduct, may have quite cajoled, soothed, and misguided the old Dragon, to whose charge she was given over. At Maria’s age, nay, earlier indeed, maidens have learnt to be very sly, and at Madame Bernstein’s time of life dragons are not so fierce and alert. They cannot turn so readily, some of their old teeth have dropped out, and their eyes require more sleep than they needed in days when they were more active, venomous, and dangerous. I, for my part, know a few female dragons, de par le monde, and, as I watch them and remember what they were, admire the softening influence of years upon these whilom destroyers of man — and woman-kind. Their scales are so soft that any knight with a moderate power of thrust can strike them: their claws, once strong enough to tear out a thousand eyes, only fall with a feeble pat that scarce raises the skin: their tongues, from their toothless old gums, dart a venom which is rather disagreeable than deadly. See them trailing their languid tails, and crawling home to their caverns at roosting-time! How weak are their powers of doing injury! their maleficence how feeble! How changed are they since the brisk days when their eyes shot wicked fire; their tongue spat poison; their breath blasted reputation; and they gobbled up a daily victim at least!

If the good folks at Oakhurst could not resist the testimony which was brought to them regarding Harry’s ill-doings, why should Madame Bernstein, who in the course of her long days had had more experience of evil than all the Oakhurst family put together, be less credulous than they? Of course every single old woman of her ladyship’s society believed every story that was told about Mr. Harry Warrington’s dissipated habits, and was ready to believe as much more ill of him as you please. When the little dancer went back to London, as she did, it was because that heartless Harry deserted her. He deserted her for somebody else, whose name was confidently given — whose name? — whose half-dozen names the society at Tunbridge Wells would whisper about; where there congregated people of all ranks and degrees, women of fashion, women of reputation, of demi-reputation, of virtue, of no virtue — all mingling in the same rooms, dancing to the same fiddles, drinking out of the same glasses at the Wells, and alike in search of health, or society, or pleasure. A century ago, and our ancestors, the most free or the most straitlaced, met together at a score of such merry places as that where our present scene lies, and danced, and frisked, and gamed, and drank at Epsom, Bath, Tunbridge, Harrogate, as they do at Homburg and Baden now.

Harry’s bad reputation, then, comforted his old aunt exceedingly, and eased her mind in respect to the boy’s passion for Lady Maria. So easy was she in her mind, that when the chaplain said he came to escort her ladyship home, Madame Bernstein did not even care to part from her niece. She preferred rather to keep her under her eye, to talk to her about her wicked young cousin’s wild extravagances, to whisper to her that boys would be boys, to confide to Maria her intention of getting a proper wife for Harry — some one of a suitable age — some one with a suitable fortune — all which pleasantries poor Maria had to bear with as much fortitude as she could muster.

There lived, during the last century, a certain French duke and marquis, who distinguished himself in Europe, and America likewise, and has obliged posterity by leaving behind him a choice volume of memoirs, which the gentle reader is specially warned not to consult. Having performed the part of Don Juan in his own country, in ours, and in other parts of Europe, he has kindly noted down the names of many court-beauties who fell victims to his powers of fascination; and very pleasant reading no doubt it must be for the grandsons and descendants of the fashionable persons amongst whom our brilliant nobleman moved, to find the names of their ancestresses adorning M. le Duc’s sprightly pages, and their frailties recorded by the candid writer who caused them.

In the course of the peregrinations of this nobleman, he visited North America, and, as had been his custom in Europe, proceeded straightway to fall in love. And curious it is to contrast the elegant refinements of European society, where, according to monseigneur, he had but to lay siege to a woman in order to vanquish her, with the simple lives and habits of the colonial folks, amongst whom this European enslaver of hearts did not, it appears, make a single conquest. Had he done so, he would as certainly have narrated his victories in Pennsylvania and New England, as he described his successes in this and his own country. Travellers in America have cried out quite loudly enough against the rudeness and barbarism of transatlantic manners; let the present writer give the humble testimony of his experience that the conversation of American gentlemen is generally modest, and, to the best of his belief, the lives of the women pure.

We have said that Mr. Harry Warrington brought his colonial modesty along with him to the old country; and though he could not help hearing the free talk of the persons amongst whom he lived, and who were men of pleasure and the world, he sat pretty silent himself in the midst of their rattle; never indulged in double entendre in his conversation with women; had no victories over the sex to boast of; and was shy and awkward when he heard such narrated by others.

This youthful modesty Mr. Sampson had remarked during his intercourse with the lad at Castlewood, where Mr. Warrington had more than once shown himself quite uneasy whilst cousin Will was telling some of his choice stories; and my lord had curtly rebuked his brother, bidding him keep his jokes for the usher’s table at Kensington, and not give needless offence to their kinsman. Hence the exclamation of “Reverentia pueris,” which the chaplain had addressed to his neighbour at the ordinary on Harry’s first appearance there. Mr. Sampson, if he had not strength sufficient to do right himself, at least had grace enough not to offend innocent young gentlemen by his cynicism.

The chaplain was touched by Harry’s gift of the horse; and felt a genuine friendliness towards the lad. “You see, sir,” says he, “I am of the world, and must do as the rest of the world does. I have led a rough life, Mr. Warrington, and can’t afford to be more particular than my neighbours. Video meliora, deteriora sequor, as we said at college. I have got a little sister, who is at boarding-school, not very far from here, and, as I keep a decent tongue in my head when I am talking with my little Patty, and expect others to do as much, sure I may try and do as much by you.”

The chaplain was loud in his praises of Harry to his aunt, the old Baroness. She liked to hear him praised. She was as fond of him as she could be of anything; was pleased in his company, with his good looks, his manly courageous bearing, his blushes, which came so readily, his bright eyes, his deep youthful voice. His shrewdness and simplicity constantly amused her; she would have wearied of him long before, had he been clever, or learned, or witty, or other than he was. “We must find a good wife for him, Chaplain,” she said to Mr. Sampson. “I have one or two in my eye, who, I think, will suit him. We must set him up here; he never will bear going back to his savages again, or to live with his little Methodist of a mother.”

Now about this point Mr. Sampson, too, was personally anxious, and had also a wife in his eye for Harry. I suppose he must have had some conversations with his lord at Castlewood, whom we have heard expressing some intention of complimenting his chaplain with a good living or other provision, in event of his being able to carry out his lordship’s wishes regarding a marriage for Lady Maria. If his good offices could help that anxious lady to a husband, Sampson was ready to employ them: and he now waited to see in what most effectual manner he could bring his influence to bear.

Sampson’s society was most agreeable, and he and his young friend were intimate in the course of a few hours. The parson rejoiced in high spirits, good appetite, good humour; pretended to no sort of squeamishness, and indulged in no sanctified hypocritical conversation; nevertheless, he took care not to shock his young friend by any needless outbreaks of levity or immorality of talk, initiating his pupil, perhaps from policy, perhaps from compunction, only into the minor mysteries, as it were; and not telling him the secrets with which the unlucky adept himself was only too familiar. With Harry, Sampson was only a brisk, lively, jolly companion, ready for any drinking bout, or any sport, a cock-fight, a shooting-match, a game at cards, or a gallop across the common; but his conversation was decent, and he tried much more to amuse the young man, than to lead him astray. The chaplain was quite successful: he had immense animal spirits as well as natural wit, and aptitude as well as experience in that business of toad-eater which had been his calling and livelihood from his very earliest years — ever since he first entered college as a servitor, and cast about to see by whose means he could make his fortune in life. That was but satire just now, when we said there were no toad-eaters left in the world. There are many men of Sampson’s profession now, doubtless; nay, little boys at our public schools are sent thither at the earliest age, instructed by their parents, and put out apprentices to toad-eating. But the flattery is not so manifest as it used to be a hundred years since. Young men and old have hangers-on, and led captains, but they assume an appearance of equality, borrow money, or swallow their toads in private, and walk abroad arm-inarm with the great man, and call him by his name without his title. In those good old times, when Harry Warrington first came to Europe, a gentleman’s toad-eater pretended to no airs of equality at all; openly paid court to his patron, called him by that name to other folks, went on his errands for him — any sort of errands which the patron might devise — called him sir in speaking to him, stood up in his presence until bidden to sit down, and flattered him ex officio. Mr. Sampson did not take the least shame in speaking of Harry as his young patron — as a young Virginian nobleman recommended to him by his other noble patron, the Earl of Castlewood. He was proud of appearing at Harry’s side, and as his humble retainer, in public talked about him to the company, gave orders to Harry’s tradesmen, from whom, let us hope, he received a percentage in return for his recommendations, performed all the functions of aide-de-camp — others, if our young gentleman demanded them from the obsequious divine, who had gaily discharged the duties of ami du prince to ever so many young men of fashion, since his own entrance into the world. It must be confessed that, since his arrival in Europe, Mr. Warrington had not been uniformly lucky in the friendships which he had made.

“What a reputation, sir, they have made for you in this place!” cries Mr. Sampson, coming back from the coffee-house to his patron. “Monsieur de Richelieu was nothing to you!”

“How do you mean, Monsieur de Richelieu? — Never was at Minorca in my life,” says downright Harry, who had not heard of those victories at home, which made the French duke famous.

Mr. Sampson explained. The pretty widow Patcham who had just arrived was certainly desperate about Mr. Warrington: her way of going on at the rooms, the night before, proved that. As for Mrs. Hooper, that was a known case, and the Alderman had fetched his wife back to London for no other reason. It was the talk of the whole Wells.

“Who says so?” cries out Harry, indignantly. “I should like to meet the man who dares say so, and confound the villain!”

“I should not like to show him to you,” says Mr. Sampson, laughing. “It might be the worse for him.”

“It’s a shame to speak with such levity about the character of ladies or of gentlemen either,” continues Mr. Warrington, pacing up and down the room in a fume.

“So I told them,” says the chaplain, wagging his head and looking very much moved and very grave, though, if the truth were known, it had never come into his mind at all to be angry at hearing charges of this nature against Harry.

“It’s a shame, I say, to talk away the reputation of any man or woman as people do here. Do you know, in our country, a fellow’s ears would not be safe; and a little before I left home, three brothers shot down a man, for having spoken ill of their sister.”

“Serve the villain right!” cries Sampson.

“Already they have had that calumny about me set a-going here, Sampson — about me and the poor little French dancing-girl.”

“I have heard,” says Mr. Sampson, shaking powder out of his wig.

“Wicked; wasn’t it?”

“Abominable.”

“They said the very same thing about my Lord March. Isn’t it shameful?”

“Indeed it is,” says Mr. Sampson, preserving a face of wonderful gravity.

“I don’t know what I should do if these stories were to come to my mother’s ears. It would break her heart, I do believe it would. Why, only a few days before you came, a military friend of mine, Mr. Wolfe, told me how the most horrible lies were circulated about me. Good heavens! What do they think a gentleman of my name and country can be capable of — I a seducer of women? They might as well say I was a horse-stealer or a housebreaker. I vow if I hear any man say so, I’ll have his ears!”

“I have read, sir, that the Grand Seignior of Turkey has bushels of ears sometimes sent in to him,” says Mr. Sampson, laughing. “If you took all those that had heard scandal against you or others, what basketsful you would fill!”

“And so I would, Sampson, as soon as look at ’em:— any fellow’s who said a word against a lady or a gentleman of honour!” cries the Virginian.

“If you’ll go down to the Well, you’ll find a harvest of ’em. I just came from there. It was the high tide of Scandal. Detraction was at its height. And you may see the nymphas discentes and the aures satyrorum acutas,” cries the chaplain, with a shrug of his shoulders.

“That may be as you say, Sampson,” Mr. Warrington replies, “but if ever I hear any man speak against my character I’ll punish him. Mark that.”

“I shall be very sorry for his sake, that I should; for you’ll mark him in a way he won’t like, sir; and I know you are a man of your word.”

“You may be sure of that, Sampson. And now shall we go to dinner, and afterwards to my Lady Trumpington’s tea?”

“You know, sir, I can’t resist a card or a bottle,” says Mr. Sampson. “Let us have the last first and then the first shall come last.” And with this the two gentlemen went off to their accustomed place of refection.

That was an age in which wine-bibbing was more common than in our politer time; and, especially since the arrival of General Braddock’s army in his native country, our young Virginian had acquired rather a liking for the filling of bumpers and the calling of toasts; having heard that it was a point of honour among the officers never to decline a toast or a challenge. So Harry and his chaplain drank their claret in peace and plenty, naming, as the simple custom was, some favourite lady with each glass.

The chaplain had reasons of his own for desiring to know how far the affair between Harry and my Lady Maria had gone; whether it was advancing, or whether it was ended; and he and his young friend were just warm enough with the claret to be able to talk with that great eloquence, that candour, that admirable friendliness, which good wine taken in rather injudicious quantity inspires. O kindly harvests of the Aquitanian grape! O sunny banks of Garonne! O friendly caves of Gledstane and Morol, where the dusky flasks lie recondite! May we not say a word of thanks for all the pleasure we owe you? Are the Temperance men to be allowed to shout in the public places? are the Vegetarians to bellow “Cabbage for ever?” and may we modest Enophilists not sing the praises of our favourite plant? After the drinking of good Bordeaux wine, there is a point (I do not say a pint) at which men arrive, when all the generous faculties of the soul are awakened and in full vigour; when the wit brightens and breaks out in sudden flashes; when the intellects are keenest; when the pent-up words and confined thoughts get a night-rule, and rush abroad and disport themselves; when the kindliest affection, come out and shake hands with mankind, and the timid Truth jumps up naked out of his well and proclaims himself to all the world. How, by the kind influence of the wine-cup, we succour the poor and humble! How bravely we rush to the rescue of the oppressed! I say, in the face of all the pumps which ever spouted, that there is a moment in a bout of good wine at which, if a man could but remain, wit, wisdom, courage, generosity, eloquence, happiness were his; but the moment passes, and that other glass somehow spoils the state of beatitude. There is a headache in the morning; we are not going into Parliament for our native town; we are not going to shoot those French officers who have been speaking disrespectfully of our country; and poor Jeremy Diddler calls about eleven o’clock for another half-sovereign, and we are unwell in bed, and can’t see him, and send him empty away.

Well, then, as they sate over their generous cups, the company having departed, and the bottle of claret being brought in by Monsieur Barbeau, the chaplain found himself in an eloquent state, with a strong desire for inculcating sublime moral precepts whilst Harry was moved by an extreme longing to explain his whole private history, and to impart all his present feelings to his new friend. Mark that fact. Why must a man say everything that comes uppermost in his noble mind, because, forsooth, he has swallowed a half-pint more wine than he ordinarily drinks? Suppose I had committed a murder (of course I allow the sherry, and champagne at dinner), should I announce that homicide somewhere about the third bottle (in a small party of men) of claret at dessert? Of course: and hence the fidelity to water-gruel announced a few pages back.

“I am glad to hear what your conduct has really been with regard to the Cattarina, Mr. Warrington; I am glad from my soul,” says the impetuous chaplain. “The wine is with you. You have shown that you can bear down calumny, and resist temptation. Ah! my dear sir, men are not all so fortunate. What famous good wine this is!” and he sucks up a glass with “A toast from you, my dear sir, if you please?”

“I give you ‘Miss Fanny Mountain, of Virginia,’” says Mr. Warrington, filling a bumper as his thoughts fly straightway, ever so many thousand miles, to home.

“One of your American conquests, I suppose?” says the chaplain.

“Nay, she is but ten years old, and I have never made any conquests at all in Virginia, Mr. Sampson,” says the young gentleman.

“You are like a true gentleman, and don’t kiss and tell, sir.”

“I neither kiss nor tell. It isn’t the custom of our country, Sampson, to ruin girls, or frequent the society of low women. We Virginian gentlemen honour women: we don’t wish to bring them to shame,” cries the young toper, looking very proud and handsome. “The young lady whose name I mentioned hath lived in our family since her infancy, and I would shoot the man who did her a wrong; — by Heaven, I would!”

“Your sentiments do you honour! Let me shake hands with you! I will shake hands with you, Mr. Warrington,” cried the enthusiastic Sampson. “And let me tell you ’tis the grasp of honest friendship offered you, and not merely the poor retainer paying court to the wealthy patron. No! with such liquor as this, all men are equal; — faith, all men are rich, whilst it lasts! and Tom Sampson is as wealthy with his bottle as your honour with all the acres of your principality!”

“Let us have another bottle of riches,” says Harry, with a laugh. “Encore du cachet jaune, mon bon Monsieur Barbeau!” and exit Monsieur Barbeau to the caves below.

“Another bottle of riches! Capital, capital! How beautifully you speak French, Mr. Harry!”

“I do speak it well,” says Harry. “At least, when I speak, Monsieur Barbeau understands me well enough.”

“You do everything well, I think. You succeed in whatever you try. That is why they have fancied here you have won the hearts of so many women, sir.”

“There you go again about the women! I tell you I don’t like these stories about women. Confound me, Sampson, why is a gentleman’s character to be blackened so?”

“Well, at any rate, there is one, unless my eyes deceive me very much indeed, sir!” cries the chaplain.

“Whom do you mean?” asked Harry, flushing very red.

“Nay, I name no names. It isn’t for a poor chaplain to meddle with his betters’ doings, or to know their thoughts,” says Mr. Sampson.

“Thoughts! what thoughts, Sampson?”

“I fancied I saw, on the part of a certain lovely and respected lady at Castlewood, a preference exhibited. I fancied, on the side of a certain distinguished young gentleman, a strong liking manifested itself: but I may have been wrong, and ask pardon.”

“Oh, Sampson, Sampson!” broke out the young man. “I tell you I am miserable. I tell you I have been longing for some one to confide in, or ask advice of. You do know, then, that there has been something going on — something between me and — help Mr. Sampson, Monsieur Barbeau — and — and some one else?”

“I have watched it this month past,” says the chaplain.

“Confound me, sir, do you mean you have been a spy on me?” says the other hotly.

“A spy! You made little disguise of the matter, Mr. Warrington, and her ladyship wasn’t a much better hand at deceiving. You were always together. In the shrubberies, in the walks, in the village, in the galleries of the house — you always found a pretext for being together, and plenty of eyes besides mine watched you.”

“Gracious powers! What did you see, Sampson?” cries the lad.

“Nay, sir, ’tis forbidden to kiss and tell. I say so again,” says the chaplain.

The young man turned very red. “Oh, Sampson!” he cried, “can I— can I confide in you?”

“Dearest sir — dear generous youth — you know I would shed my heart’s blood for you!” exclaimed the chaplain, squeezing his patron’s hand, and turning a brilliant pair of eyes ceilingwards.

“Oh, Sampson! I tell you I am miserable. With all this play and wine, whilst I have been here, I tell you I have been trying to drive away care. I own to you that when we were at Castlewood there were things passed between a certain lady and me.”

The parson gave a slight whistle over his glass of Bordeaux.

“And they’ve made me wretched, those things have. I mean, you see, that if a gentleman has given his word, why, it’s his word, and he must stand by it, you know. I mean that I thought I loved her — and so I do very much, and she’s a most dear, kind, darling, affectionate creature, and very handsome, too — quite beautiful; but then, you know, our ages, Sampson! Think of our ages, Sampson! She’s as old as my mother!”

“Who would never forgive you.”

“I don’t intend to let anybody meddle in my affairs, not Madam Esmond nor anybody else,” cries Harry: “but you see, Sampson, she is old — and, oh, hang it! Why did Aunt Bernstein tell me ——?”

“Tell you what?”

“Something I can’t divulge to anybody, something that tortures me!”

“Not about the — the ——” the chaplain paused: he was going to say about her ladyship’s little affair with the French dancing-master; about other little anecdotes affecting her character. But he had not drunk wine enough to be quite candid, or too much, and was past the real moment of virtue.

“Yes, yes, every one of ’em false — every one of ’em!” shrieks out Harry.

“Great powers, what do you mean?” asks his friend.

“These, sir, these!” says Harry, beating a tattoo on his own white teeth. “I didn’t know it when I asked her. I swear I didn’t know it. Oh, it’s horrible — it’s horrible! and it has caused me nights of agony, Sampson. My dear old grandfather had a set a Frenchman at Charleston made them for him, and we used to look at ’em grinning in a tumbler, and when they were out, his jaws used to fall in-I never thought she had ’em.”

“Had what, sir?” again asked the chaplain.

“Confound it, sir, don’t you see I mean teeth?” says Harry, rapping the table.

“Nay, only two.”

“And how the devil do you know, sir?” asks the young man, fiercely.

“I— I had it from her maid. She had two teeth knocked out by a stone which cut her lip a little, and they have been replaced.”

“Oh, Sampson, do you mean to say they ain’t all sham ones?” cries the boy.

“But two, sir, at least so Peggy told me, and she would just as soon have blabbed about the whole two-and-thirty — the rest are as sound as yours, which are beautiful.”

“And her hair, Sampson, is that all right, too?” asks the young gentleman.

“’Tis lovely — I have seen that. I can take my oath to that. Her ladyship can sit upon it; and her figure is very fine; and her skin is as white as snow; and her heart is the kindest that ever was; and I know, that is I feel sure, it is very tender about you, Mr. Warrington.”

“Oh, Sampson! Heaven, Heaven bless you! What a weight you’ve taken off my mind with those — those — never mind them! Oh, Sam! How happy — that is, no, no — ob, how miserable I am! She’s as old as Madam Esmond — by George she is — she’s as old as my mother. You wouldn’t have a fellow marry a woman as old as his mother? It’s too bad: by George it is. It’s too bad.” And here, I am sorry to say, Harry Esmond Warrington, Esquire, of Castlewood, in Virginia, began to cry. The delectable point, you see, must have been passed several glasses ago.

“You don’t want to marry her, then?” asks the chaplain.

“What’s that to you, sir? I’ve promised her, and an Esmond — a Virginia Esmond mind that — Mr. What’s-your-name — Sampson — has but his word!” The sentiment was noble, but delivered by Harry with rather a doubtful articulation.

“Mind you, I said a Virginia Esmond,” continued poor Harry, lifting up his finger. “I don’t mean the younger branch here. I don’t mean Will, who robbed me about the horse, and whose bones I’ll break. I give you Lady Maria — Heaven bless her, and Heaven bless you, Sampson, and you deserve to be a bishop, old boy!”

“There are letters between you, I suppose?” says Sampson.

“Letters! Dammy, she’s always writing me letters! — never lets me into a window but she sticks one in my cuff. Letters! that is a good idea! Look here! Here’s letters!” And he threw down a pocket-book containing a heap of papers of the poor lady’s composition.

“Those are letters, indeed. What a post-bag!” says the chaplain.

“But any man who touches them — dies — dies on the spot!” shrieks Harry, starting from his seat, and reeling towards his sword; which he draws, and then stamps with his foot, and says, “Ha! ha!” and then lunges at M. Barbeau, who skips away from the lunge behind the chaplain, who looks rather alarmed. I know we could have had a much more exciting picture than either of those we present of Harry this month, and the lad, with his hair dishevelled, raging about the room flamberge au vent, and pinking the affrighted innkeeper and chaplain, would have afforded a good subject for the pencil. But oh, to think of him stumbling over a stool, and prostrated by an enemy who has stole away his brains! Come, Gumbo! and help your master to bed!

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