The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXIV

In which Mr. Warrington treats the Company with Tea and a Ball

Generous with his very easily gotten money, hospitable and cordial to all, our young Virginian, in his capacity of man of fashion, could not do less than treat his country friends to an entertainment at the Assembly Rooms, whither, according to the custom of the day, he invited almost all the remaining company at the Wells. Card-tables were set in one apartment, for all those who could not spend an evening without the pastime then common to all European society: a supper with champagne in some profusion and bowls of negus was prepared in another chamber: the large assembly-room was set apart for the dance, of which enjoyment Harry Warrington’s guests partook in our ancestors’ homely fashion. I cannot fancy that the amusement was especially lively. First, minuets were called, two or three of which were performed by as many couple. The spinsters of the highest rank in the assembly went out for the minuet, and my Lady Maria Esmond, being an earl’s daughter, and the person of the highest rank present (with the exception of Lady Augusta Crutchley, who was lame), Mr. Warrington danced the first minuet with his cousin, acquitting himself to the satisfaction of the whole room, and performing much more elegantly than Mr. Wolfe, who stood up with Miss Lowther. Having completed the dance with Lady Maria, Mr. Warrington begged Miss Theo to do him the honour of walking the next minuet, and accordingly Miss Theo, blushing and looking very happy, went through her exercise to the great delight of her parents and the rage of Miss Humpleby, Sir John Humpleby’s daughter, of Liphook, who expected, at least, to have stood up next after my Lady Maria. Then, after the minuets, came country dances, the music being performed by a harp, fiddle, and flageolet, perched in a little balcony, and thrumming through the evening rather feeble and melancholy tunes. Take up an old book of music, and play a few of those tunes now, and one wonders how people at any time could have found the airs otherwise than melancholy. And yet they loved and frisked and laughed and courted to that sad accompaniment. There is scarce one of the airs that has not an amari aliquid, a tang of sadness. Perhaps it is because they are old and defunct, and their plaintive echoes call out to us from the limbo of the past, whither they have been consigned for this century. Perhaps they were gay when they were alive; and our descendants when they hear — well, never mind names — when they hear the works of certain maestri now popular, will say: Bon Dieu, is this the music which amused our forefathers?

Mr. Warrington had the honour of a duchess’s company at his tea-drinking — Colonel Lambert’s and Mr. Prior’s heroine, the Duchess of Queensberry. And though the duchess carefully turned her back upon a countess who was present, laughed loudly, glanced at the latter over her shoulder, and pointed at her with her fan, yet almost all the company pushed, and bowed, and cringed, and smiled, and backed before this countess, scarcely taking any notice of her Grace of Queensberry and her jokes, and her fan, and her airs. Now this countess was no other than the Countess of Yarmouth-Walmoden, the lady whom his Majesty George the Second, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, delighted to honour. She had met Harry Warrington in the walks that morning, and had been mighty gracious to the young Virginian. She had told him they would have a game at cards that night; and purblind old Colonel Blinkinsop, who fancied the invitation had been addressed to him, had made the profoundest of bows. “Pooh! pooh!” said the Countess of England and Hanover, “I don’t mean you. I mean the young Firshinian!” And everybody congratulated the youth on his good fortune. At night, all the world, in order to show their loyalty, doubtless, thronged round my Lady Yarmouth; my Lord Bamborough was eager to make her parti at quadrille. My Lady Blanche Pendragon, that model of virtue; Sir Lancelot Quintain, that pattern of knighthood and valour; Mr. Dean of Ealing, that exemplary divine and preacher; numerous gentlemen, noblemen, generals, colonels, matrons, and spinsters of the highest rank, were on the watch for a smile from her, or eager to jump up and join her card-table. Lady Maria waited upon her with meek respect, and Madame de Bernstein treated the Hanoverian lady with profound gravity and courtesy.

Harry’s bow had been no lower than hospitality required; but, such as it was, Miss Hester chose to be indignant with it. She scarce spoke a word to her partner during their dance together; and when he took her to the supper-room for refreshment she was little more communicative. To enter that room they had to pass by Madame Walmoden’s card-table, who good-naturedly called out to her host as he was passing, and asked him if his “breddy liddle bardner liked tanzing?”

“I thank your ladyship, I don’t like tanzing, and I don’t like cards,” says Miss Hester, tossing up her head; and, dropping a curtsey like a “cheese,” she strutted away from the Countess’s table.

Mr. Warrington was very much offended. Sarcasm from the young to the old pained him: flippant behaviour towards himself hurt him. Courteous in his simple way to all persons whom he met, he expected a like politeness from them. Hetty perfectly well knew what offence she was giving; could mark the displeasure reddening on her partner’s honest face, with a sidelong glance of her eye; nevertheless she tried to wear her most ingenuous smile; and, as she came up to the sideboard where the refreshments were set, artlessly said:

“What a horrid, vulgar old woman that is; don’t you think so?”

“What woman?” asked the young man.

“That German woman — my Lady Yarmouth — to whom all the men are bowing and cringing.”

“Her ladyship has been very kind to me,” says Harry, grimly. “Won’t you have some of this custard?”

“And you have been bowing to her, too! You look as if your negus was not nice,” harmlessly continues Miss Hetty.

“It is not very good negus,” says Harry, with a gulp.

“And the custard is bad too! I declare ’tis made with bad eggs!” cries Miss Lambert.

“I wish, Hester, that the entertainment and the company had been better to your liking,” says poor Harry.

“’Tis very unfortunate; but I dare say you could not help it,” cries the young woman, tossing her little curly head.

Mr. Warrington groaned in spirit, perhaps in body, and clenched his fists and his teeth. The little torturer artlessly continued, “You seem disturbed: shall we go to my mamma?”

“Yes, let us go to your mamma,” cries Mr. Warrington, with glaring eyes and a “Curse you, why are you always standing in the way?” to an unlucky waiter.

“La! Is that the way you speak in Virginia?” asks Miss Pertness.

“We are rough there sometimes, madam, and can’t help being disturbed,” he says slowly, and with a quiver in his whole frame, looking down upon her with fire flashing out of his eyes. Hetty saw nothing distinctly afterwards, and until she came to her mother. Never had she seen Harry look so handsome or so noble.

“You look pale, child!” cries mamma, anxious, like all pavidae matres.

“’Tis the cold — no, I mean the heat. Thank you, Mr. Warrington.” And she makes him a faint curtsey, as Harry bows a tremendous bow, and walks elsewhere amongst his guests. He hardly knows what is happening at first, so angry is he.

He is aroused by another altercation, between his aunt and the Duchess of Queensberry. When the royal favourite passed the Duchess, her Grace gave her Ladyship an awful stare out of eyes that were not so bright now as they had been in the young days when they “set the world on fire;” turned round with an affected laugh to her neighbour, and shot at the jolly Hanoverian lady a ceaseless fire of giggles and sneers. The Countess pursued her game at cards, not knowing, or not choosing, perhaps, to know how her enemy was gibing at her. There had been a feud of many years’ date between their Graces of Queensberry and the family on the throne.

“How you all bow down to the idol! Don’t tell me! You are as bad as the rest, my good Madame Bernstein!” the Duchess says. “Ah, what a true Christian country this is! and how your dear first husband, the Bishop, would have liked to see such a sight!”

“Forgive me, if I fail quite to understand your Grace.”

“We are both of us growing old, my good Bernstein, or, perhaps, we won’t understand when we don’t choose to understand. That is the way with us women, my good young Iroquois.”

“Your Grace remarked, that it was a Christian country,” said Madame de Bernstein, “and I failed to perceive the point of the remark.”

“Indeed, my good creature, there is very little point in it! I meant we were such good Christians, because we were so forgiving. Don’t you remember reading, when you were young, or your husband the Bishop reading, when he was in the pulpit, how when a woman amongst the Jews was caught doing wrong, the Pharisees were for stoning her out of hand? Far from stoning such a woman now, look, how fond we are of her! Any man in this room would go round it on his knees if yonder woman bade him. Yes, Madame Walmoden, you may look up from your cards with your great painted face, and frown with your great painted eyebrows at me. You know I am talking about you; and intend to go on talking about you, too. I say any man here would go round the room on his knees, if you bade him!”

“I think, madam, I know two or three who wouldn’t!” says Mr. Warrington, with some spirit.

“Quick, let me hug them to my heart of hearts!” cries the old Duchess. “Which are they? Bring ’em to me, my dear Iroquois! Let us have a game of four — of honest men and women; that is to say, if we can find a couple more partners, Mr. Warrington!”

“Here are we three,” says the Baroness Bernstein, with a forced laugh; “let us play a dummy.”

“Pray, madam, where is the third?” asks the old Duchess, looking round.

“Madam!” cries out the other elderly lady, “I leave your Grace to boast of your honesty, which I have no doubt is spotless: but I will thank you not to doubt mine before my own relatives and children!”

“See how she fires up at a word! I am sure, my dear creature, you are quite as honest as most of the company,” says the Duchess.

“Which may not be good enough for her Grace the Duchess of Queensberry and Dover, who, to be sure, might have stayed away in such a case, but it is the best my nephew could get, madam, and his best he has given you. You look astonished, Harry, my dear — and well you may. He is not used to our ways, madam.”

“Madam, he has found an aunt who can teach him our ways, and a great deal more!” cries the Duchess, rapping her fan.

“She will teach him to try and make all his guests welcome, old or young, rich or poor. That is the Virginian way, isn’t it, Harry? She will tell him, when Catherine Hyde is angry with his old aunt, that they were friends as girls, and ought not to quarrel now they are old women. And she will not be wrong, will she, Duchess?” And herewith the one dowager made a superb curtsey to the other, and the battle just impending between them passed away.

“Egad, it was like Byng and Galissoniere!” cried Chaplain Sampson, as Harry talked over the night’s transactions with his tutor next morning. “No power on earth, I thought, could have prevented those two from going into action!”

“Seventy-fours at least — both of ’em!” laughs Harry.

“But the Baroness declined the battle, and sailed out of fire with inimitable skill.”

“Why should she be afraid? I have heard you say my aunt is as witty as any woman alive, and need fear the tongue of no dowager in England.”

“Hem! Perhaps she had good reasons for being peaceable!” Sampson knew very well what they were, and that poor Bernstein’s reputation was so hopelessly flawed and cracked, that any sarcasms levelled at Madame Walmoden were equally applicable to her.

“Sir,” cried Harry, in great amazement, “you don’t mean to say there is anything against the character of my aunt, the Baroness de Bernstein!”

The chaplain looked at the young Virginian with such an air of utter wonderment, that the latter saw there must be some history against his aunt, and some charge which Sampson did not choose to reveal. “Good heavens!” Harry groaned out, “are there two then in the family, who are ——?”

“Which two?” asked the chaplain.

But here Harry stopped, blushing very red. He remembered, and we shall presently have to state, whence he had got his information regarding the other family culprit, and bit his lip, and was silent.

“Bygones are always unpleasant things, Mr. Warrington,” said the chaplain; “and we had best hold our peace regarding them. No man or woman can live long in this wicked world of ours without some scandal attaching to them, and I fear our excellent Baroness has been no more fortunate than her neighbours. We cannot escape calumny, my dear young friend! You have had sad proof enough of that in your brief stay amongst us. But we can have clear consciences, and that is the main point!” And herewith the chaplain threw his handsome eyes upward, and tried to look as if his conscience was as white as the ceiling.

“Has there been anything very wrong, then, about my Aunt Bernstein?” continued Harry, remembering how at home his mother had never spoken of the Baroness.

“O sancta simplicitas!” the chaplain muttered to himself. “Stories, my dear sir, much older than your time or mine. Stories such as were told about everybody, de me, de te; you know with what degree of truth in your own case.”

“Confound the villain! I should like to hear any scoundrel say a word against the dear old lady,” cries the young gentleman. “Why, this world, parson, is full of lies and scandal!”

“And you are just beginning to find it out, my dear sir,” cries the clergyman, with his most beatified air. “Whose character has not been attacked? My lord’s, yours, mine — every one’s. We must bear as well as we can, and pardon to the utmost of our power.”

“You may. It’s your cloth, you know; but, by George, I won’t!” cries Mr. Warrington, and again goes down the fist with a thump on the table. “Let any fellow say a word in my hearing against that dear old creature, and I’ll pull his nose, as sure as my name is Harry Esmond. How do you do, Colonel Lambert? You find us late again, sir. Me and his reverence kept it up pretty late with some of the young fellows, after the ladies went away. I hope the dear ladies are well, sir?” and here Harry rose, greeting his friend the Colonel very kindly, who had come to pay him a morning visit, and had entered the room followed by Mr. Gumbo (the latter preferred walking very leisurely about all the affairs of life), just as Harry — suiting the action to the word — was tweaking the nose of Calumny.

“The ladies are purely. Whose nose were you pulling when I came in, Mr. Warrington?” says the Colonel, laughing.

“Isn’t it a shame, sir? The parson, here, was telling me that there are villains here who attack the character of my aunt, the Baroness of Bernstein!”

“You don’t mean to say so!” cries Mr. Lambert.

“I tell Mr. Harry that everybody is calumniated!” says the chaplain, with a clerical intonation; but, at the same time, he looks at Colonel Lambert and winks, as much as to say, “He knows nothing — keep him in the dark.”

The Colonel took the hint. “Yes,” says he, “the jaws of slander are for ever wagging. Witness that story about the dancing-girl, that we all believed against you, Harry Warrington.”

“What, all, sir?”

“No, not all. One didn’t — Hetty didn’t. You should have heard her standing up for you, Harry, t’other day, when somebody — a little bird — brought us another story about you; about a game at cards on Sunday morning, when you and a friend of yours might have been better employed.” And here there was a look of mingled humour and reproof at the clergyman.

“Faith, I own it, sir!” says the chaplain. “It was mea culpa, mea maxima — no, mea minima culpa, only the rehearsal of an old game at piquet, which we had been talking over.”

“And did Miss Hester stand up for me?” says Harry.

“Miss Hester did. But why that wondering look?” asks the Colonel.

“She scolded me last night like — like anything,” says downright Harry. “I never heard a young girl go on so. She made fun of everybody — hit about at young and old — so that I couldn’t help telling her, sir, that in our country, leastways in Virginia (they say the Yankees are very pert), young people don’t speak of their elders so. And, do you know, sir, we had a sort of a quarrel, and I’m very glad you’ve told me she spoke kindly of me,” says Harry, shaking his friend’s hand, a ready boyish emotion glowing in his cheeks and in his eyes.

“You won’t come to much hurt if you find no worse enemy than Hester, Mr. Warrington,” said the girl’s father, gravely, looking not without a deep thrill of interest at the flushed face and moist eyes of his young friend. “Is he fond of her?” thought the Colonel. “And how fond? ’Tis evident he knows nothing, and Miss Het has been performing some of her tricks. He is a fine, honest lad, and God bless him!” And Colonel Lambert looked towards Harry with that manly, friendly kindness which our lucky young Virginian was not unaccustomed to inspire, for he was comely to look at, prone to blush, to kindle, nay, to melt, at a kind story. His laughter was cheery to hear: his eyes shone confidently: his voice spoke truth.

“And the young lady of the minuet? She distinguished herself to perfection: the whole room admired,” asked the courtly chaplain. “I trust Miss — Miss ——”

“Miss Theodosia is perfectly well, and ready to dance at this minute with your reverence,” says her father. “Or stay, Chaplain, perhaps you only dance on Sunday?” The Colonel then turned to Harry again. “You paid your court very neatly to the great lady, Mr. Flatterer. My Lady Yarmouth has been trumpeting your praises at the Pump Room. She says she has got a leedel boy in Hannover dat is wery like you, and you are a sharming young mans.”

“If her ladyship were a queen, people could scarcely be more respectful to her,” says the chaplain.

“Let us call her a vice-queen, parson,” says the Colonel, with a twinkle of his eye.

“Her Majesty pocketed forty of my guineas at quadrille,” cries Mr. Warrington, with a laugh.

“She will play you on the same terms another day. The Countess is fond of play, and she wins from most people,” said the Colonel, drily. “Why don’t you bet her ladyship five thousand on a bishopric, parson? I have heard of a clergyman who made such a bet, and who lost it, and who paid it, and who got the bishopric.

“Ah! who will lend me the five thousand? Will you, sir? asked the chaplain.

“No, sir! I won’t give her five thousand to be made Commander-inChief or Pope of Rome,” says the Colonel, stoutly. “I shall fling no stones at the woman; but I shall bow no knee to her, as I see a pack of rascals do. No offence — I don’t mean you. And I don’t mean Harry Warrington, who was quite right to be civil to her, and to lose his money with good-humour. Harry, I am come to bid thee farewell, my boy. We have had our pleasuring — my money is run out, and we must jog back to Oakhurst. Will you ever come and see the old place again?”

“Now, sir, now! I’ll ride back with you!” cries Harry, eagerly.

“Why — no — not now,” says the Colonel, in a hurried manner. “We haven’t got room — that is, we’re — we’re expecting some friends.” [“The Lord forgive me for the lie!” he mutters.] “But — but you’ll come to us when — when Tom’s at home — yes, when Tom’s at home. That will be famous fun — and I’d have you to know, sir, that my wife and I love you sincerely, sir — and so do the girls, however much they scold you. And if you ever are in a scrape — and such things have happened, Mr. Chaplain! you will please to count upon me. Mind that, sir!”

And the Colonel was for taking leave of Harry then and there, on the spot, but the young man followed him down the stairs, and insisted upon saying good-bye to his dear ladies.

Instead, however, of proceeding immediately to Mr. Lambert’s lodging, the two gentlemen took the direction of the common, where, looking from Harry’s windows, Mr. Sampson saw the pair in earnest conversation. First, Lambert smiled and looked roguish. Then, presently, at a farther stage of the talk, he flung up both his hands and performed other gestures indicating surprise and agitation.

“The boy is telling him,” thought the chaplain. When Mr. Warrington came back in an hour, he found his reverence deep in the composition of a sermon. Harry’s face was grave and melancholy; he flung down his hat, buried himself in a great chair, and then came from his lips something like an execration.

“The young ladies are going, and our heart is affected?” said the chaplain, looking up from his manuscript.

“Heart!” sneered Harry.

“Which of the young ladies is the conqueror, sir? I thought the youngest’s eyes followed you about at your ball.”

“Confound the little termagant!” broke out Harry. “What does she mean by being so pert to me? She treats me as if I was a fool!”

“And no man is, sir, with a woman!” said the scribe of the sermon.

“Ain’t they, Chaplain?” And Harry growled out more naughty words expressive of inward disquiet.

“By the way, have you heard anything of your lost property?” asked the chaplain, presently looking up from his pages.

Harry said “No!” with another word, which I would not print for the world.

“I begin to suspect, sir, that there was more money than you like to own in that book. I wish I could find some.”

“There were notes in it,” said Harry, very gloomily, “and — and papers that I am very sorry to lose. What the deuce has come of it? I had it when we dined together.”

“I saw you put it in your pocket,” cried the chaplain. “I saw you take it out and pay at the toy-shop a bill for a gold thimble and workbox for one of your young ladies. Of course you have asked there, sir?”

“Of course I have,” says Mr. Warrington, plunged in melancholy.

“Gumbo put you to bed — at least, if I remember right. I was so cut myself that I scarce remember anything. Can you trust those black fellows, sir?”

“I can trust him with my head. With my head?” groaned out Mr. Warrington, bitterly., “I can’t trust myself with it.”

“‘Oh, that a man should put an enemy into his mouth to steal away his brains!’”

“You may well call it an enemy, Chaplain. Hang it, I have a great mind to make a vow never to drink another drop! A fellow says anything when he is in drink.”

The chaplain laughed. “You, sir,” he said, “are close enough!” And the truth was, that, for the last few days, no amount of wine would unseal Mr. Warrington’s lips, when the artless Sampson by chance touched on the subject of his patron’s loss.

“And so the little country nymphs are gone, or going, sir?” asked the chaplain. “They were nice, fresh little things; but I think the mother was the finest woman of the three. I declare, a woman at five-and-thirty or so is at her prime. What do you say, sir?”

Mr. Warrington looked, for a moment, askance at the clergyman. “Confound all women, I say!” muttered the young misogynist. For which sentiment every well-conditioned person will surely rebuke him.

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