The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXIII

Contains a Soliloquy by Hester

Martin Lambert’s first feeling, upon learning the little secret which his younger daughter’s emotion had revealed, was to be angry with the lad who had robbed his child’s heart away from him and her family. “A plague upon all scapegraces, English or Indian!” cried the Colonel to his wife. “I wish this one had broke his nose against any doorpost but ours.”

“Perhaps we are to cure him of being a scapegrace, my dear,” says Mrs. Lambert, mildly interposing, “and the fall at our door hath something providential in it. You laughed at me, Mr. Lambert, when I said so before; but if Heaven did not send the young gentleman to us, who did? And it may be for the blessing and happiness of us all that he came, too.”

“It’s hard, Molly!” groaned the Colonel. “We cherish and fondle and rear ’em: we tend them through sickness and health: we toil and we scheme: we hoard away money in the stocking, and patch our own old coats: if they’ve a headache we can’t sleep for thinking of their ailment; if they have a wish or fancy, we work day and night to compass it, and ’tis darling daddy and dearest pappy, and whose father is like ours? and so forth. On Tuesday morning I am king of my house and family. On Tuesday evening Prince Whippersnapper makes his appearance, and my reign is over. A whole life is forgotten and forsworn for a pair of blue eyes, a pair of lean shanks, and a head of yellow hair.”

“’Tis written that we women should leave all to follow our husband. I think our courtship was not very long, dear Martin!” said the matron, laying her hand on her husband’s arm.

“’Tis human nature, and what can you expect of the jade?” sighed the Colonel.

“And I think I did my duty to my husband, though I own I left my papa for him,” added Mrs. Lambert, softly.

“Excellent wench! Perdition catch my soul! but I do love thee, Molly!” says the good Colonel; “but, then, mind you, your father never did me; and if ever I am to have sons-inlaw ——”

“Ever, indeed! Of course my girls are to have husbands, Mr. Lambert!” cries mamma.

“Well, when they come, I’ll hate them, madam, as your father did me; and quite right too, for taking his treasure away from him.”

“Don’t be irreligious and unnatural, Martin Lambert! I say you are unnatural, sir!” continues the matron.

“Nay, my dear, I have an old tooth in my left jaw, here; and ’tis natural that the tooth should come out. But when the toothdrawer pulls it, ’tis natural that I should feel pain. Do you suppose, madam, that I don’t love Hetty better than any tooth in my head?” asks Mr. Lambert. But no woman was ever averse to the idea of her daughter getting a husband, however fathers revolt against the invasion of the son-inlaw. As for mothers and grandmothers, those good folks are married over again in the marriage of their young ones; and their souls attire themselves in the laces and muslins of twenty-forty years ago; the postillion’s white ribbons bloom again, and they flutter into the postchaise, and drive away. What woman, however old, has not the bridal favours and raiment stowed away, and packed in lavender, in the inmost cupboards of her heart?

“It will be a sad thing, parting with her,” continued Mrs. Lambert, with a sigh.

“You have settled that point already, Molly,” laughs the Colonel. “Had I not best go out and order raisins and corinths for the wedding-cake?”

“And then I shall have to leave the house in their charge when I go to her, you know, in Virginia. How many miles is it to Virginia, Martin? I should think it must be thousands of miles.”

“A hundred and seventy-three thousand three hundred and ninety-one and three-quarters, my dear, by the near way,” answers Lambert, gravely; “that through Prester John’s country. By the other route, through Persia ——”

“Oh, give me the one where there is the least of the sea, and your horrid ships, which I can’t bear!” cries the Colonel’s spouse. “I hope Rachel Esmond and I shall be better friends. She had a very high spirit when we were girls at school.”

“Had we not best go about the baby-linen, Mrs. Martin Lambert?” here interposed her wondering husband. Now, Mrs. Lambert, I dare say, thought there was no matter for wonderment at all, and had remarked some very pretty lace caps and bibs in Mrs. Bobbinit’s toy-shop. And on that Sunday afternoon, when the discovery was made, and while little Hetty was lying upon her pillow with feverish cheeks, closed eyes, and a piteous face, her mother looked at the child with the most perfect ease of mind, and seemed to be rather pleased than otherwise at Hetty’s woe.

The girl was not only unhappy, but enraged with herself for having published her secret. Perhaps she had not known it until the sudden emotion acquainted her with her own state of mind; and now the little maid chose to be as much ashamed as if she had done a wrong, and been discovered in it. She was indignant with her own weakness, and broke into transports of wrath against herself. She vowed she never would forgive herself for submitting to such a humiliation. So the young pard, wounded by the hunter’s dart, chafes with rage in the forest, is angry with the surprise of the rankling steel in her side, and snarls and bites at her sister-cubs, and the leopardess, her spotted mother.

Little Hetty tore and gnawed, and growled, so that I should not like to have been her fraternal cub, or her spotted dam or sire. “What business has any young woman,” she cried out, “to indulge in any such nonsense? Mamma, I ought to be whipped, and sent to bed. I know perfectly well that Mr. Warrington does not care a fig about me. I dare say he likes French actresses and the commonest little milliner-girl in the toy-shop better than me. And so he ought, and so they are better than me. Why, what a fool I am to burst out crying like a ninny about nothing, and because Mr. Wolfe said Harry played cards of a Sunday! I know he is not clever, like papa. I believe he is stupid — I am certain he is stupid: but he is not so stupid as I am. Why, of course, I can’t marry him. How am I to go to America, and leave you and Theo? Of course, he likes somebody else, at America, or at Tunbridge, or at Jericho, or somewhere. He is a prince in his own country, and can’t think of marrying a poor half-pay officer’s daughter, with twopence to her fortune. Used not you to tell me how, when I was a baby, I cried and wanted the moon? I am a baby now, a most absurd, silly, little baby — don’t talk to me, Mrs. Lambert, I am. Only there is this to be said, he don’t know anything about it, and I would rather cut my tongue out than tell him.”

Dire were the threats with which Hetty menaced Theo, in case her sister should betray her. As for the infantile Charley, his mind being altogether set on cheese-cakes, he had not remarked or been moved by Miss Hester’s emotion; and the parents and the kind sister of course all promised not to reveal the little maid’s secret.

“I begin to think it had been best for us to stay at home,” sighed Mrs. Lambert to her husband.

“Nay, my dear,” replied the other. “Human nature will be human nature; surely Hetty’s mother told me herself that she had the beginning of a liking for a certain young curate before she fell over head and ears in love with a certain young officer of Kingsley’s. And as for me, my heart was wounded in a dozen places ere Miss Molly Benson took entire possession of it. Our sons and daughters must follow in the way of their parents before them, I suppose. Why, but yesterday, you were scolding me for grumbling at Miss Het’s precocious fancies. To do the child justice, she disguises her feelings entirely, and I defy Mr. Warrington to know from her behaviour how she is disposed towards him.”

“A daughter of mine and yours, Martin,” cries the mother, with great dignity, “is not going to fling herself at a gentleman’s head!”

“Neither herself nor the teacup, my dear,” answers the Colonel. Little Miss Het treats Mr. Warrington like a vixen. He never comes to us, but she boxes his ears in one fashion or t’other. I protest she is barely civil to him; but, knowing what is going on in the young hypocrite’s mind, I am not going to be angry at her rudeness.”

“She hath no need to be rude at all, Martin; and our girl is good enough for any gentleman in England or America. Why, if their ages suit, shouldn’t they marry after all, sir?”

“Why, if he wants her, shouldn’t he ask her, my dear? I am sorry we came. I am for putting the horses into the carriage, and turning their heads towards home again.”

But mamma fondly said, “Depend on it, my dear, that these matters are wisely ordained for us. Depend upon it, Martin, it was not for nothing that Harry Warrington was brought to our gate in that way; and that he and our children are thus brought together again. If that marriage has been decreed in Heaven, a marriage it will be.”

“At what age, Molly, I wonder, do women begin and leave off match-making? If our little chit falls in love and falls out again, she will not be the first of her sex, Mrs. Lambert. I wish we were on our way home again, and, if I had my will, would trot off this very night.”

“He has promised to drink his tea here to-night. You would not take away our child’s pleasure, Martin?” asked the mother, softly.

In his fashion, the father was not less good-natured. “You know, my dear,” says Lambert, “that if either of ’em had a fancy to our ears, we would cut them off and serve them in a fricassee.”

Mary Lambert laughed at the idea of her pretty little delicate ears being so served. When her husband was most tender-hearted, his habit was to be most grotesque. When he pulled the pretty little delicate ear, behind which the matron’s fine hair was combed back, wherein twinkled a shining line or two of silver, I dare say he did not hurt her much. I dare say she was thinking of the soft, well-remembered times of her own modest youth and sweet courtship. Hallowed remembrances of sacred times! If the sight of youthful love is pleasant to behold, how much more charming the aspect of the affection that has survived years, sorrows, faded beauty perhaps, and life’s doubts, differences, trouble!

In regard of her promise to disguise her feelings for Mr. Warrington in that gentleman’s presence, Miss Hester was better, or worse if you will, than her word. Harry not only came to take tea with his friends, but invited them for the next day to an entertainment at the Rooms, to be given in their special honour.

“A dance, and given for us!” cries Theo. “Oh, Harry, how delightful! I wish we could begin this very minute!”

“Why, for a savage Virginian, I declare, Harry Warrington, thou art the most civilised young man possible!” says the Colonel. “My dear, shall we dance a minuet together?”

“We have done such a thing before, Martin Lambert!” says the soldier’s fond wife. Her husband hums a minuet tune; whips a plate from the tea-table, and makes a preparatory bow and flourish with it as if it were a hat, whilst madam performs her best curtsey.

Only Hetty, of the party, persists in looking glum and displeased. “Why, child, have you not a word of thanks to throw to Mr. Warrington?” asks Theo of her sister.

“I never did care for dancing much,” says Hetty. “What is the use of standing up opposite a stupid man, and dancing down a room with him?”

“Merci du compliment!” says Mr. Warrington.

“I don’t say that you are stupid — that is — that is, I— I only meant country dances,” says Hetty, biting her lips, as she caught her sister’s eye. She remembered she had said Harry was stupid, and Theo’s droll humorous glance was her only reminder.

But with this Miss Hetty chose to be as angry as if it had been quite a cruel rebuke. “I hate dancing — there — I own it,” she says, with a toss of her head.

“Nay, you used to like it well enough, child!!” interposes her mother.

“That was when she was a child: don’t you see she is grown up to be an old woman?” remarks Hetty’s father. “Or perhaps Miss Hester has got the gout?”

“Fiddle!” says Hester, snappishly, drubbing with her little feet.

“What’s a dance without a fiddle?” says imperturbed papa.

Darkness has come over Harry Warrington’s face. “I come to try my best, and give them pleasure and a dance,” he thinks, “and the little thing tells me she hates dancing. We don’t practise kindness, or acknowledge hospitality so in our country. No — nor speak to our parents so, neither.” I am afraid, in this particular usages have changed in the United States during the last hundred years, and that the young folks there are considerably Hettified.

Not content with this, Miss Hester must proceed to make such fun of all the company at the Wells, and especially of Harry’s own immediate pursuits and companions, that the honest lad was still further pained at her behaviour; and, when he saw Mrs. Lambert alone, asked how or in what he had again offended, that Hester was so angry with him? The kind matron felt more than ever well disposed towards the boy, after her daughter’s conduct to him. She would have liked to tell the secret which Hester hid so fiercely. Theo, too, remonstrated with her sister in private; but Hester would not listen to the subject, and was as angry in her bedroom, when the girls were alone, as she had been in the parlour before her mother’s company. “Suppose he hates me?” says she. “I expect he will. I hate myself, I do, and scorn myself for being such an idiot. How ought he to do otherwise than hate me? Didn’t I abuse him, call him goose, all sorts of names? And know he is not clever all the time. I know I have better wits than he has. It is only because he is tall, and has blue eyes, and a pretty nose that I like him. What an absurd fool a girl must be to like a man merely because he has a blue nose and hooked eyes! So I am a fool, and I won’t have you say a word to the contrary, Theo!”

Now Theo thought that her little sister, far from being a fool, was a wonder of wonders, and that if any girl was worthy of any prince in Christendom, Hetty was that spinster. “You are silly sometimes, Hetty,” says Theo, “that is when you speak unkindly to people who mean you well, as you did to Mr. Warrington at tea to-night. When he proposed to us his party at the Assembly Rooms, and nothing could be more gallant of him, why did you say you didn’t care for music, or dancing, or tea? You know you love them all!”

“I said it merely to vex myself, Theo, and annoy myself, and whip myself, as I deserve, child. And, besides, how can you expect such an idiot as I am to say anything but idiotic things? Do you know, it quite pleased me to see him angry. I thought, ah! now I have hurt his feelings! Now he will say, Hetty Lambert is an odious little set-up, sour-tempered vixen. And that will teach him, and you, and mamma, and papa, at any rate, that I am not going to set my cap at Mr. Harry. No; our papa is ten times as good as he is. I will stay by our papa, and if he asked me to go to Virginia with him tomorrow, I wouldn’t, Theo. My sister is worth all the Virginians that ever were made since the world began.”

And here, I suppose, follow osculations between the sisters, and mother’s knock comes to the door, who has overheard their talk through the wainscot, and calls out, “Children, ’tis time to go to sleep.” Theo’s eyes close speedily, and she is at rest; but ob, poor little Hetty! Think of the hours tolling one after another, and the child’s eyes wide open, as she lies tossing and wakeful with the anguish of the new wound!

“It is a judgment upon me,” she says, “for having thought and spoke scornfully of him. Only, why should there be a judgment upon me? I was only in fun. I knew I liked him very much all the time: but I thought Theo liked him too, and I would give up anything for my darling Theo. If she had, no tortures should ever have drawn a word from me — I would have got a rope-ladder to help her to run away with Harry, that I would, or fetched the clergyman to marry them. And then I would have retired alone, and alone, and alone, and taken care of papa and mamma, and of the poor in the village, and have read sermons, though I hate ’em, and would have died without telling a word — not a word — and I shall die soon, I know I shall.” But when the dawn rises, the little maid is asleep, nestling by her sister, the stain of a tear or two upon her flushed downy cheek.

Most of us play with edged tools at some period of our lives, and cut ourselves accordingly. At first the cut hurts and stings, and down drops the knife, and we cry out like wounded little babies as we are. Some very very few and unlucky folks at the game cut their heads sheer off, or stab themselves mortally, and perish outright, and there is an end of them. But — heaven help us! — many people have fingered those ardentes sagittas which Love sharpens on his whetstone, and are stabbed, scarred, pricked, perforated, tattooed all over with the wounds, who recovered, and live to be quite lively. Wir auch have tasted das irdische Glueck; we also have gelebt and — und so weiter. Warble your death-song, sweet Thekla! Perish off the face of the earth, poor pulmonary victim, if so minded! Had you survived to a later period of life, my dear, you would have thought of a sentimental disappointment without any reference to the undertaker. Let us trust there is no present need of a sexton for Miss Hetty. But meanwhile, the very instant she wakes, there, tearing at her little heart, will that Care be, which has given her a few hours’ respite, melted, no doubt, by her youth and her tears.

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