The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXVII

In which various Matches are fought

Reading in the London Advertiser, which was served to his worship with his breakfast, an invitation to all lovers of manly British sport to come and witness a trial of skill between the great champions Sutton and Figg, Mr. Warrington determined upon attending these performances, and accordingly proceeded to the Wooden House, in Marybone Fields, driving thither the pair of horses which he had purchased on the previous day. The young charioteer did not know the road very well, and veered and tacked very much more than was needful upon his journey from Covent Garden, losing himself in the green lanes behind Mr. Whitfield’s round Tabernacle of Tottenham Road, and the fields in the midst of which Middlesex Hospital stood. He reached his destination at length, however, and found no small company assembled to witness the valorous achievements of the two champions.

A crowd of London blackguards was gathered round the doors of this temple of British valour; together with the horses and equipages of a few persons of fashion, who came, like Mr. Warrington, to patronise the sport. A variety of beggars and cripples hustled round the young gentleman, and whined to him for charity. Shoeblack-boys tumbled over each other for the privilege of blacking his honour’s boots; nosegay-women and flying fruiterers plied Mr. Gumbo with their wares; piemen, pads, tramps, strollers of every variety, hung round the battle-ground. A flag was flying upon the building; and, on to the stage in front, accompanied by a drummer and a horn-blower, a manager repeatedly issued to announce to the crowd that the noble English sports were just about to begin.

Mr. Warrington paid his money, and was accommodated with a seat in a gallery commanding a perfect view of the platform whereon the sports were performed; Mr. Gumbo took his seat in the amphitheatre below; or, when tired, issued forth into the outer world to drink a pot of beer, or play a game at cards with his brother-lacqueys, and the gentlemen’s coachmen on the boxes of the carriages waiting without. Lacqueys, liveries, footmen — the old society was encumbered with a prodigious quantity of these. Gentlemen or women could scarce move without one, sometimes two or three, vassals in attendance. Every theatre had its footman’s gallery: an army of the liveried race hustled around every chapel-door: they swarmed in anterooms: they sprawled in halls and on landings: they guzzled, devoured, debauched, cheated, played cards, bullied visitors for vails:— that noble old race of footmen is well-nigh gone. A few thousand of them may still be left among us. Grand, tall, beautiful, melancholy, we still behold them on levee days, with their nosegays and their buckles, their plush and their powder. So have I seen in America specimens, nay camps and villages, of Red Indians. But the race is doomed. The fatal decree has gone forth, and Uncas with his tomahawk and eagle’s plume, and Jeames with his cocked hat and long cane, are passing out of the world where they once walked in glory.

Before the principal combatants made their appearance, minor warriors and exercises were exhibited. A boxing-match came off, but neither of the men were very game or severely punished, so that Mr. Warrington and the rest of the spectators had but little pleasure out of that encounter. Then ensued some cudgel-playing; but the heads broken were of so little note, and the wounds given so trifling and unsatisfactory, that no wonder the company began to hiss, grumble, and show other signs of discontent. “The masters, the masters!” shouted the people, whereupon those famous champions at length thought fit to appear.

The first who walked up the steps to the stage was the intrepid Sutton, sword in hand, who saluted the company with his warlike weapon, making an especial bow and salute to a private box or gallery in which sate a stout gentleman, who was seemingly a person of importance. Sutton was speedily followed by the famous Figg, to whom the stout gentleman waved a hand of approbation. Both men were in their shirts, their heads were shaven clean, but bore the cracks and scars of many former glorious battles. On his burly sword-arm, each intrepid champion wore an “armiger,” or ribbon of his colour. And now the gladiators shook hands, and, as a contemporary poet says: “The word it was bilboe.” [The antiquarian reader knows the pleasant poem in the sixth volume of Dodsley’s Collection, in which the above combat is described.]

At the commencement of the combat the great Figg dealt a blow so tremendous at his opponent, that had it encountered the other’s honest head, that comely noddle would have been shorn off as clean as the carving-knife chops the carrot. But Sutton received his adversary’s blade on his own sword, whilst Figg’s blow was delivered so mightily that the weapon brake in his hands, less constant than the heart of him who wielded it. Other sword were now delivered to the warriors. The first blood drawn spouted from the panting side of Figg amidst a yell of delight from Sutton’s supporters; but the veteran appealing to his audience, and especially, as it seemed, to the stout individual in the private gallery, showed that his sword broken in the previous encounter had caused the wound.

Whilst the parley occasioned by this incident was going on, Mr. Warrington saw a gentleman in a riding-frock and plain scratch-wig enter the box devoted to the stout personage, and recognised with pleasure his Tunbridge Wells friend, my Lord of March and Ruglen. Lord March, who was by no means prodigal of politeness seemed to show singular deference to the stout gentleman, and Harry remarked how his lordship received, with a profound bow, some bank-bills which the other took out from a pocket-book and handed to him. Whilst thus engaged, Lord March spied out our Virginian, and, his interview with the stout personage finished, my lord came over to Harry’s gallery and warmly greeted his young friend. They sat and beheld the combat waging with various success, but with immense skill and valour on both sides. After the warriors had sufficiently fought with swords, they fell to with the quarter-staff, and the result of this long and delightful battle was, that victory remained with her ancient champion Figg.

Whilst the warriors were at battle, a thunderstorm had broken over the building, and Mr. Warrington gladly enough accepted a seat in my Lord March’s chariot, leaving his own phaeton to be driven home by his groom. Harry was in great delectation with the noble sight he had witnessed: be pronounced this indeed to be something like sport, and of the best he had seen since his arrival in England: and, as usual, associating any pleasure which he enjoyed with the desire that the dear companion of his boyhood should share the amusement in common with him, he began by sighing out, “I wish . . .” then he stopped. “No, I don’t,” says he.

“What do you wish and what don’t you wish?” asks Lord March.

“I was thinking, my lord, of my elder brother, and wished he had been with me. We had promised to have our sport together at home, you see; and many’s the time we talked of it. But he wouldn’t have liked this rough sort of sport, and didn’t care for fighting, though he was the bravest lad alive.”

“Oh! he was the bravest lad alive, was he?” asks my lord, lolling on his cushion, and eyeing his Virginian friend with some curiosity.

“You should have seen him in a quarrel with a very gallant officer, our friend — an absurd affair, but it was hard to keep George off him. I never saw a fellow so cool, nor more savage and determined, God help me. Ah! I wish for the honour of the country, you know, that he could have come here instead of me, and shown you a real Virginian gentleman.”

“Nay, sir, you’ll do very well. What is this I hear of Lady Yarmouth taking you into favour?” said the amused nobleman.

“I will do as well as another. I can ride, and, I think, I can shoot better than George; but then my brother had the head, sir, the head!” says Harry, tapping his own honest skull. “Why, I give you my word, my lord, that he had read almost every book that was ever written; could play both on the fiddle and harpsichord, could compose poetry and sermons most elegant. What can I do? I am only good to ride and play at cards, and drink Burgundy.” And the penitent hung down his head. “But them I can do as well as most fellows, you see. In fact, my lord, I’ll back myself,” he resumed, to the other’s great amusement.

Lord March relished the young man’s naivete, as the jaded voluptuary still to the end always can relish the juicy wholesome mutton-chop. “By Gad, Mr. Warrington,” says he, “you ought to be taken to Exeter ‘Change, and put in a show.”

“And for why?”

“A gentleman from Virginia who has lost his elder brother and absolutely regrets him. The breed ain’t known in this country. Upon my honour and conscience, I believe that you would like to have him back again.”

“Believe!” cries the Virginian, growing red in the face.

“That is, you believe you believe you would like him back again. But depend on it you wouldn’t. ’Tis not in human nature, sir; not as I read it, at least. Here are some fine houses we are coming to. That at the corner is Sir Richard Littleton’s, that great one was my Lord Bingley’s. ’Tis a pity they do nothing better with this great empty space of Cavendish Square than fence it with these unsightly boards. By George! I don’t know where the town’s running. There’s Montagu House made into a confounded Don Saltero’s museum, with books and stuffed birds and rhinoceroses. They have actually run a cursed cut — New Road they call it — at the back of Bedford House Gardens, and spoilt the Duke’s comfort, though, I guess, they will console him in the pocket. I don’t know where the town will stop. Shall we go down Tyburn Road and the Park, or through Swallow Street, and into the habitable quarter of the town? We can dine at Pall Mall, or, if you like, with you; and we can spend the evening as you like — with the Queen of Spades, or . . .”

“With the Queen of Spades, if your lordship pleases,” says Mr. Warrington, blushing. So the equipage drove to his hotel in Covent Garden, where the landlord came forward with his usual obsequiousness, and recognising my Lord of March and Ruglen, bowed his wig on to my lord’s shoes in his humble welcomes to his lordship. A rich young English peer in the reign of George the Second; a wealthy patrician in the reign of Augustus; which would you rather have been? There is a question for any young gentlemen’s debating-clubs of the present day.

The best English dinner which could be produced, of course, was at the service of the young Virginian and his noble friend. After dinner came wine in plenty, and of quality good enough even for the epicurean earl. Over the wine there was talk of going to see the fireworks at Vauxhall, or else of cards. Harry, who had never seen a firework beyond an exhibition of a dozen squibs at Williamsburg on the fifth of November (which he thought a sublime display), would have liked the Vauxhall, but yielded to his guest’s preference for piquet; and they were very soon absorbed in that game.

Harry began by winning as usual; but, in the course of a half-hour, the luck turned and favoured my Lord March, who was at first very surly when Mr. Draper, Mr. Warrington’s man of business, came bowing into the room, where he accepted Harry’s invitation to sit and drink. Mr. Warrington always asked everybody to sit and drink, and partake of his best. Had he a crust, he would divide it; had he a haunch, he would share it; had he a jug of water, he would drink about with a kindly spirit; had he a bottle of Burgundy, it was gaily drunk with a thirsty friend. And don’t fancy the virtue is common. You read of it in books, my dear sir, and fancy that you have it yourself because you give six dinners of twenty people and pay your acquaintance all round; but the welcome, the friendly spirit, the kindly heart? Believe me, these are rare qualities in our selfish world. We may bring them with us from the country when we are young, but they mostly wither after transplantation, and droop and perish in the stifling London air.

Draper did not care for wine very much, but it delighted the lawyer to be in the company of a great man. He protested that he liked nothing better than to see piquet played by two consummate players and men of fashion; and, taking a seat, undismayed by the sidelong scowls of his lordship, surveyed the game between the gentlemen. Harry was not near a match for the experienced player of the London clubs. To-night, too, Lord March held better cards to aid his skill.

What their stakes were was no business of Mr. Draper’s. The gentlemen said they would play for shillings, and afterwards counted up their gains and losses, with scarce any talking, and that in an undertone. A bow on both sides, a perfectly grave and polite manner on the part of each, and the game went on.

But it was destined to a second interruption, which brought an execration from Lord March’s lips. First was heard a scuffling without — then a whispering — then an outcry as of a woman in tears, and then, finally, a female rushed into the room, and produced that explosion of naughty language from Lord March.

“I wish your women would take some other time for coming, confound ’em,” says my lord, laying his cards down in a pet.

“What, Mrs. Betty!” cried Harry.

Indeed it was no other than Mrs. Betty, Lady Maria’s maid; and Gumbo stood behind her, his fine countenance beslobbered with tears.

“What has happened?” asks Mr. Warrington, in no little perturbation of spirit. “The Baroness is well?”

“Help! help! sir, your honour!” ejaculates Mrs. Betty, and proceeds to fall on her knees.

“Help whom?”

A howl ensues from Gumbo.

“Gumbo! you scoundrel! has anything happened between Mrs. Betty and you?” asks the black’s master.

Mr. Gumbo steps back with great dignity, laying his hand on his heart, and saying, “No, sir; nothing hab happened ‘twix’ this lady and me.”

“It’s my mistress, sir,” cries Betty. “Help! help! here’s the letter she have wrote, sir! They have gone and took her, sir!”

“Is it only that old Molly Esmond? She’s known to be over head and heels in debt! Dry your eyes in the next room, Mrs. Betty, and let me and Mr. Warrington go on with our game,” says my lord, taking up his cards.

“Help! help her!” cries Betty again. “Oh, Mr. Harry! you won’t be a-going on with your cards, when my lady calls out to you to come and help her! Your honour used to come quick enough when my lady used to send me to fetch you at Castlewood!”

“Confound you! can’t you hold your tongue?” says my lord, with more choice words and oaths.

But Betty would not cease weeping, and it was decreed that Lord March was to cease winning for that night. Mr. Warrington rose from his seat, and made for the bell, saying:

“My dear lord, the game must be over for to-night. My relative writes to me in great distress, and I am bound to go to her.”

“Curse her! Why couldn’t she wait till tomorrow?” cries my lord, testily.

Mr. Warrington ordered a postchaise instantly. His own horses would take him to Bromley.

“Bet you, you don’t do it within the hour! bet you, you don’t do it within five quarters of an hour! bet you four to one — or I’ll take your bet, which you please — that you’re not robbed on Blackheath! Bet you, you are not at Tunbridge Wells before midnight!” cries Lord March.

“Done!” says Mr. Warrington. And my lord carefully notes down the terms of the four wagers in his pocket-book.

Lady Maria’s letter ran as follows:—

“MY DEAR COUSIN— I am fell into a trapp, which I perceive the machinations of villians. I am a prisner. Betty will tell you all. Ah, my Henrico! come to the resque of your MOLLY.”

In half an hour after the receipt of this missive, Mr. Warrington was in his postchaise and galloping over Westminster Bridge on the road to succour his kinswoman.

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