The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXV

Entanglements

Our good Colonel had, no doubt, taken counsel with his good wife, and they had determined to remove their little Hetty as speedily as possible out of the reach of the charmer. In complaints such as that under which the poor little maiden was supposed to be suffering, the remedy of absence and distance often acts effectually with men; but I believe women are not so easily cured by the alibi treatment. Some of them will go away ever so far, and forever so long, and the obstinate disease hangs by them, spite of distance or climate. You may whip, abuse, torture, insult them, and still the little deluded creatures will persist in their fidelity. Nay, if I may speak, after profound and extensive study and observation, there are few better ways of securing the faithfulness and admiration of the beautiful partners of our existence than a little judicious ill-treatment, a brisk dose of occasional violence as an alterative, and, for general and wholesome diet, a cooling but pretty constant neglect. At sparing intervals administer small quantities of love and kindness; but not every day, or too often, as this medicine, much taken, loses its effect. Those dear creatures who are the most indifferent to their husbands, are those who are cloyed by too much surfeiting of the sugar-plums and lollipops of Love. I have known a young being, with every wish gratified, yawn in her adoring husband’s face, and prefer the conversation and petits soins of the merest booby and idiot; whilst, on the other hand, I have seen Chloe — at whom Strephon has flung his bootjack in the morning, or whom he has cursed before the servants at dinner — come creeping and fondling to his knee at tea-time, when he is comfortable after his little nap and his good wine; and pat his head and play him his favourite tunes; and, when old John, the butler, or old Mary, the maid, comes in with the bed-candles, look round proudly, as much as to say, Now, John, look how good my dearest Henry is! Make your game, gentlemen, then! There is the coaxing, fondling, adoring line, when you are henpecked, and Louisa is indifferent, and bored out of her existence. There is the manly, selfish, effectual system, where she answers to the whistle and comes in at “Down Charge;” and knows her master; and frisks and fawns about him; and nuzzles at his knees; and “licks the hand that’s raised”— that’s raised to do her good, as (I quote from memory) Mr. Pope finely observes. What used the late lamented O’Connell to say, over whom a grateful country has raised such a magnificent testimonial? “Hereditary bondsmen,” he used to remark, “know ye not, who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?” Of course you must, in political as in domestic circles. So up with your cudgels, my enslaved, injured boys!

Women will be pleased with these remarks, because they have such a taste for humour and understand irony; and I should not be surprised if young Grubstreet, who corresponds with three penny papers and describes the persons and conversation of gentlemen whom he meets at his “clubs,” will say, “I told you so! He advocates the thrashing of women! He has no nobility of soul! He has no heart!” Nor have I, my eminent young Grubstreet! any more than you have ears. Dear ladies! I assure you I am only joking in the above remarks — I do not advocate the thrashing of your sex at all — and, as you can’t understand the commonest bit of fun, beg leave flatly to tell you, that I consider your sex a hundred times more loving and faithful than ours.

So, what is the use of Hetty’s parents taking her home, if the little maid intends to be just as fond of Harry absent as of Harry present? Why not let her see him before Ball and Dobbin are put to, and say, “Good-bye, Harry! I was very wilful and fractious last night, and you were very kind: but good-bye, Harry!” She will show no special emotion: she is so ashamed of her secret, that she will not betray it. Harry is too much preoccupied to discover it for himself. He does not know what grief is lying behind Hetty’s glances, or hidden under the artifice of her innocent young smiles. He has, perhaps, a care of his own. He will part from her calmly, and fancy she is happy to get back to her music and her poultry and her flower-garden.

He did not even ride part of the way homewards by the side of his friend’s carriage. He had some other party arranged for, that afternoon, and when he returned thence, the good Lamberts were gone from Tunbridge Wells. There were their windows open, and the card in one of them signifying that the apartments were once more to let. A little passing sorrow at the blank aspect of the rooms lately enlivened by countenances so frank and friendly, may have crossed the young gentleman’s mind; but he dines at the White Horse at four o’clock, and eats his dinner and calls fiercely for his bottle. Poor little Hester will choke over her tea about the same hour when the Lamberts arrive to sleep at the house of their friends at Westerham. The young roses will be wan in her cheeks in the morning, and there will be black circles round her eyes. It was the thunder: the night was hot: she could not sleep: she will be better when she gets home again the next day. And home they come. There is the gate where he fell. There is the bed he lay in, the chair in which he used to sit — what ages seem to have passed! What a gulf between today and yesterday! Who is that little child calling her chickens, or watering her roses yonder? Are she and that girl the same Hester Lambert? Why, she is ever so much older than Theo now — Theo, who has always been so composed, and so clever, and so old for her age. But in a night or two Hester has lived — oh, long, long years! So have many besides: and poppy and mandragora will never medicine them to the sweet sleep they tasted yesterday.

Maria Esmond saw the Lambert cavalcade drive away, and felt a grim relief. She looks with hot eyes at Harry when he comes into his aunt’s card-tables, flushed with Barbeau’s good wine. He laughs, rattles in reply to his aunt, who asks him which of the girls is his sweetheart? He gaily says he loves them both like sisters. He has never seen a better gentleman, nor better people, than the Lamberts. Why is Lambert not a general? He has been a most distinguished officer: his Royal Highness the Duke is very fond of him. Madame Bernstein says that Harry must make interest with Lady Yarmouth for his protege.

“Elle ravvole de fous, cher bedid anche!” says Madame Bernstein, mimicking the Countess’s German accent. The Baroness is delighted with her boy’s success. “You carry off the hearts of all the old women, doesn’t he, Maria?” she says, with a sneer at her niece, who quivers under the stab.

“You were quite right, my dear, not to perceive that she cheated at cards, and you play like a grand seigneur,” continues Madame de Bernstein.

“Did she cheat?” cries Harry, astonished. “I am sure, ma’am, I saw no unfair play.”

“No more did I, my dear, but I am sure she cheated. Bah! every woman cheats, I and Maria included, when we can get a chance. But when you play with the Walmoden, you don’t do wrong to lose in moderation; and many men cheat in that way. Cultivate her. She has taken a fancy to your beaux yeux. Why should your Excellency not be Governor of Virginia, sir? You must go and pay your respects to the Duke and his Majesty at Kensington. The Countess of Yarmouth will be your best friend at court.”

“Why should you not introduce me, aunt?” asked Harry.

The old lady’s rouged cheek grew a little redder. “I am not in favour at Kensington,” she said. “I may have been once; and there are no faces so unwelcome to kings as those they wish to forget. All of us want to forget something or somebody. I dare say our ingenu here would like to wipe a sum or two off the slate. Wouldst thou not, Harry?”

Harry turned red, too, and so did Maria, and his aunt laughed one of those wicked laughs which are not altogether pleasant to hear. What meant those guilty signals on the cheeks of her nephew and niece? What account was scored upon the memory of either, which they were desirous to efface? I fear Madame Bernstein was right, and that most folks have some ugly reckonings written up on their consciences, which we were glad to be quit of.

Had Maria known one of the causes of Harry’s disquiet, the middle-aged spinster would have been more unquiet still. For some days he had missed a pocket-book. He had remembered it in his possession on that day when he drank so much claret at the White Horse, and Gumbo carried him to bed. He sought for it in the morning, but none of his servants had seen it. He had inquired for it at the White Horse, but there were no traces of it. He could not cry the book, and could only make very cautious inquiries respecting it. He must not have it known that the book was lost. A pretty condition of mind Lady Maria Esmond would be in, if she knew that the outpourings of her heart were in the hands of the public! The letters contained all sorts of disclosures: a hundred family secrets were narrated by the artless correspondent: there were ever so much satire and abuse of persons with whom she and Mr. Warrington came in contact. There were expostulations about his attentions to other ladies. There was scorn, scandal, jokes, appeals, protests of eternal fidelity; the usual farrago, dear madam, which you may remember you wrote to your Edward, when you were engaged to him, and before you became Mrs. Jones. Would you like those letters to be read by any one else? Do you recollect what you said about the Miss Browns in two or three of those letters, and the unfavourable opinion you expressed of Mrs. Thompson’s character? Do you happen to recall the words which you used regarding Jones himself, whom you subsequently married (for in consequence of disputes about the settlements your engagement with Edward was broken off)? and would you like Mr. J. to see those remarks? You know you wouldn’t. Then be pleased to withdraw that imputation which you have already cast in your mind upon Lady Maria Esmond. No doubt her letters were very foolish, as most love-letters are, but it does not follow that there was anything wrong in them. They are foolish when written by young folks to one another, and how much more foolish when written by an old man to a young lass, or by an old lass to a young lad! No wonder Lady Maria should not like her letters to be read. Why, the very spelling — but that didn’t matter so much in her ladyship’s days, and people are just as foolish now, though they spell better. No, it is not the spelling which matters so much; it is the writing at all. I for one, and for the future, am determined never to speak or write my mind out regarding anything or anybody. I intend to say of every woman that she is chaste and handsome; of every man that he is handsome, clever, and rich; of every book that it is delightfully interesting; of Snobmore’s manners that they are gentlemanlike; of Screwby’s dinners that they are luxurious; of Jawkins’s conversation that it is lively and amusing; of Xantippe, that she has a sweet temper; of Jezebel, that her colour is natural; of Bluebeard, that he really was most indulgent to his wives, and that very likely they died of bronchitis. What? a word against the spotless Messalina? What an unfavourable view of human nature! What? King Cheops was not a perfect monarch? Oh, you railer at royalty and slanderer of all that is noble and good! When this book is concluded, I shall change the jaundiced livery which my books have worn since I began to lisp in numbers, have rose-coloured coats for them with cherubs on the cover, and all the characters within shall be perfect angels.

Meanwhile we are in a society of men and women, from whose shoulders no sort of wings have sprouted as yet, and who, without any manner of doubt, have their little failings. There is Madame Bernstein: she has fallen asleep after dinner, and eating and drinking too much — those are her ladyship’s little failings. Mr. Harry Warrington has gone to play a match at billiards with Count Caramboli: I suspect idleness is his failing. That is what Mr. Chaplain Sampson remarks to Lady Maria, as they are talking together in a low tone, so as not to interrupt Aunt Bernstein’s doze in the neighbouring room.

“A gentleman of Mr. Warrington’s means can afford to be idle,” says Lady Maria. “Why, sure you love cards and billiards yourself, my good Mr. Sampson?”

“I don’t say, madam, my practice is good, only my doctrine is sound,” says Mr. Chaplain with a sigh. “This young gentleman should have some employment. He should appear at court, and enter the service of his country, as befits a man of his station. He should settle down, and choose a woman of a suitable rank as his wife.” Sampson looks in her ladyship’s face as he speaks.

“Indeed, my cousin is wasting his time,” says Lady Maria, blushing slightly.

“Mr. Warrington might see his relatives of his father’s family,” suggests Mr. Chaplain.

“Suffolk country boobies drinking beer and hallooing after foxes! I don’t see anything to be gained by his frequenting them, Mr. Sampson!”

“They are of an ancient family, of which the chief has been knight of the shire these hundred years,” says the chaplain. “I have heard Sir Miles hath a daughter of Mr. Harry’s age — and beauty, too.”

“I know nothing, sir, about Sir Miles Warrington, and his daughters, and his beauties!” cries Maria, in a fluster.

“The Baroness stirred — no — her ladyship is in a sweet sleep,” says the chaplain, in a very soft voice. “I fear, madam, for your ladyship’s cousin, Mr. Warrington. I fear for his youth; for designing persons who may get about him; for extravagances, follies, intrigues even into which he will be led, and into which everybody will try to tempt him. His lordship, my kind patron, bade me to come and watch over him, and I am here accordingly, as your ladyship knoweth. I know the follies of young men. Perhaps I have practised them myself. I own it with a blush,” adds Mr. Sampson with much unction — not, however, bringing the promised blush forward to corroborate the asserted repentance.

“Between ourselves, I fear Mr. Warrington is in some trouble now, madam,” continues the chaplain, steadily looking at Lady Maria.

“What, again?” shrieks the lady.

“Hush! Your ladyship’s dear invalid!” whispers the chaplain again pointing towards Madame Bernstein. “Do you think your cousin has any partiality for any — any member of Mr. Lambert’s family? for example, Miss Lambert?”

“There is nothing between him and Miss Lambert,” says Lady Maria.

“Your ladyship is certain?”

“Women are said to have good eyes in such matters, my good Sampson,” says my lady, with an easy air. “I thought the little girl seemed to be following him.”

“Then I am at fault once more,” the frank chaplain said. “Mr. Warrington said of the young lady, that she ought to go back to her doll, and called her a pert, stuck-up little hussy.”

“Ah!” sighed Lady Maria, as if relieved by the news.

“Then, madam, there must be somebody else,” said the chaplain. Has he confided nothing to your ladyship?”

“To me, Mr. Sampson? What? Where? How?” exclaims Maria.

“Some six days ago, after we had been dining at the White Horse, and drinking too freely, Mr. Warrington lost a pocket-book containing letters.”

“Letters?” gasps Lady Maria.

“And probably more money than he likes to own,” continues Mr. Sampson, with a grave nod of the head. “He is very much disturbed about the book. We have both made cautious inquiries about it. We have —— Gracious powers, is your ladyship ill?”

Here my Lady Maria gave three remarkably shrill screams, and tumbled off her chair.

“I will see the Prince. I have a right to see him. What’s this? — Where am I? — What’s the matter?” cries Madame Bernstein, waking up from her sleep. She had been dreaming of old days, no doubt. The old lady shook in all her limbs — her face was very much flushed. She stared about wildly a moment, and then tottered forward on her tortoiseshell cane. “What — what’s the matter?” she asked again. “Have you killed her, sir?”

“Some sudden qualm must have come over her ladyship. Shall I cut her laces, madam? or send for a doctor?” cries the chaplain, with every look of innocence and alarm.

“What has passed between you, sir?” asked the old lady, fiercely.

“I give you my honour, madam, I have done I don’t know what. I but mentioned that Mr. Warrington had lost a pocket-book containing letters, and my lady swooned, as you see.”

Madame Bernstein dashed water on her niece’s face. A feeble moan told presently that the lady was coming to herself.

The Baroness looked sternly after Mr. Sampson, as she sent him away on his errand for the doctor. Her aunt’s grim countenance was of little comfort to poor Maria when she saw it on waking up from her swoon.

“What has happened?” asked the younger lady, bewildered and gasping.

“H’m! You know best what has happened, madam, I suppose. What hath happened before in our family?” cried the old Baroness, glaring at her niece with savage eyes.

“Ah, yes! the letters have been lost — ach lieber Himmel!” And Maria, as she would sometimes do, when much moved, began to speak in the language of her mother.

“Yes! the seal has been broken, and the letters have been lost, ’tis the old story of the Esmonds,” cried the elder, bitterly.

“Seal broken, letters lost? What do you mean — aunt?” asked Maria, faintly.

“I mean that my mother was the only honest woman that ever entered the family!” cried the Baroness, stamping her foot. “And she was a parson’s daughter of no family in particular, or she would have gone wrong, too. Good heavens! is it decreed that we are all to be . . .?”

“To be what, madam?” cried Maria.

“To be what my Lady Queensberry said we were last night. To be what we are! You know the word for it!” cried the indignant old woman. “I say, what has come to the whole race? Your father’s mother was an honest woman, Maria. Why did I leave her? Why couldn’t you remain so?”

“Madam!” exclaims Maria, “I declare, before Heaven, I am as ——”

“Bah! Don’t madam me! Don’t call heaven to witness — there’s nobody by! And if you swore to your innocence till the rest of your teeth dropped out of your mouth, my Lady Maria Esmond, I would not believe you!”

“Ah! it was you told him!” gasped Maria. She recognised an arrow out of her aunt’s quiver.

“I saw some folly going on between you and the boy, and I told him that you were as old as his mother. Yes, I did! Do you suppose I am going to let Henry Esmond’s boy fling himself and his wealth away upon such a battered old rock as you? The boy shan’t be robbed and cheated in our family. Not a shilling of mine shall any of you have if he comes to any harm amongst you.

“Ah! you told him!” cried Maria, with a sudden burst of rebellion. “Well, then! I’d have you to know that I don’t care a penny, madam, for your paltry money! I have Mr. Harry Warrington’s word — yes, and his letters — and I know he will die rather than break it.”

“He will die if he keeps it!” (Maria shrugged her shoulders.)

“But you don’t care for that — you’ve no more heart ——”

“Than my father’s sister, madam!” cries Maria again. The younger woman, ordinarily submissive, had turned upon here persecutor.

“Ah! Why did not I marry an honest man?” said the of lady, shaking her head sadly. “Henry Esmond was noble and good, and perhaps might have made me so. But no, no — we have all got the taint in us — all! You don’t mean to sacrifice this boy, Maria?”

“Madame ma tante, do you take me for a fool at my age?” asks Maria.

“Set him free! I’ll give you five thousand pounds — in my — in my will, Maria. I will, on my honour!”

“When you were young, and you liked Colonel Esmond, you threw him aside for an earl, and the earl for a duke?”

“Yes.”

“Eh! Bon sang ne peut mentir! I have no money, I have no friends. My father was a spendthrift, my brother is a beggar. I have Mr. Warrington’s word, and I know, madam, he will keep it. And that’s what I tell your ladyship!” cries Lady Maria with a wave of her hand. “Suppose my letters are published to all the world tomorrow? Apres? I know they contain things I would as lieve not tell. Things not about me alone. Comment! Do you suppose there are no stories but mine in the family? It is not my letters that I am afraid of, so long as I have his, madam. Yes, his and his word, and I trust them both.”

“I will send to my merchant, and give you the money now, Maria,” pleaded the old lady.

“No, I shall have my pretty Harry, and ten times five thousand pounds!” cries Maria.

“Not till his mother’s death, madam, who is just your age!”

“We can afford to wait, aunt. At my age, as you say, I am not so eager as young chits for a husband.”

“But to wait my sister’s death, at least, is a drawback?”

“Offer me ten thousand pounds, Madam Tusher, and then we will see!” cries Maria.

“I have not so much money in the world, Maria,” said the old lady,

“Then, madam, let me make what I can for myself!” says Maria.

“Ah, if he heard you?”

“Apres? I have his word. I know he will keep it. I can afford to wait, madam,” and she flung out of the room, just as the chaplain returned. It was Madame Bernstein who wanted cordials now. She was immensely moved and shocked by the news which had been thus suddenly brought to her.

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