The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER IV

In which Harry finds a New Relative

Kind friends, neighbours hospitable, cordial, even respectful — an ancient name, a large estate and a sufficient fortune, a comfortable home, supplied with all the necessaries and many of the luxuries of life, and a troop of servants, black and white, eager to do your bidding; good health, affectionate children, and, let us humbly add, a good cook, cellar, and library — ought not a person in the possession of all these benefits to be considered very decently happy? Madam Esmond Warrington possessed all these causes for happiness; she reminded herself of them daily in her morning and evening prayers. She was scrupulous in her devotions, good to the poor, never knowingly did anybody a wrong. Yonder I fancy her enthroned in her principality of Castlewood, the country gentlefolks paying her court, the sons dutiful to her, the domestics tumbling over each other’s black heels to do her bidding, the poor whites grateful for her bounty and implicitly taking her doses when they were ill, the smaller gentry always acquiescing in her remarks, and for ever letting her win at backgammon — well, with all these benefits, which are more sure than fate allots to most mortals, I don’t think the little Princess Pocahontas, as she was called, was to be envied in the midst of her dominions. The Princess’s husband, who was cut off in early life, was as well perhaps out of the way. Had he survived his marriage by many years, they would have quarrelled fiercely, or, he would infallibly have been a henpecked husband, of which sort there were a few specimens still extant a hundred years ago. The truth is, little Madam Esmond never came near man or woman, but she tried to domineer over them. If people obeyed, she was their very good friend; if they resisted, she fought and fought until she or they gave in. We are all miserable sinners that’s a fact we acknowledge in public every Sunday — no one announced it in a more clear resolute voice than the little lady. As a mortal, she may have been in the wrong, of course; only she very seldom acknowledged the circumstance to herself, and to others never. Her father, in his old age, used to watch her freaks of despotism, haughtiness, and stubbornness, and amuse himself with them. She felt that his eye was upon her; his humour, of which quality she possessed little herself, subdued and bewildered her. But, the Colonel gone, there was nobody else whom she was disposed to obey — and so I am rather glad for my part that I did not live a hundred years ago at Castlewood in Westmorland County in Virginia. I fancy, one would not have been too happy there. Happy, who is happy? Was not there a serpent in Paradise itself? and if Eve had been perfectly happy beforehand, would she have listened to him?

The management of the house of Castlewood had been in the hands of the active little lady long before the Colonel slept the sleep of the just. She now exercised a rigid supervision over the estate; dismissed Colonel Esmond’s English factor and employed a new one; built, improved, planted, grew tobacco, appointed a new overseer, and imported a new tutor. Much as she loved her father, there were some of his maxims by which she was not inclined to abide. Had she not obeyed her papa and mamma during all their lives, as a dutiful daughter should? So ought all children to obey their parents, that their days might be long in the land. The little Queen domineered over her little dominion, and the Princes her sons were only her first subjects. Ere long she discontinued her husband’s name of Warrington and went by the name of Madam Esmond in the country. Her family pretensions were known there. She had no objection to talk of the Marquis’s title which King James had given to her father and grandfather. Her papa’s enormous magnanimity might induce him to give up his titles and rank to the younger branch of the family, and to her half-brother, my Lord Castlewood and his children; but she and her sons were of the elder branch of the Esmonds, and she expected that they should be treated accordingly. Lord Fairfax was the only gentleman in the colony of Virginia to whom she would allow precedence over her. She insisted on the pas before all Lieutenant-Governors’ and Judges’ ladies; before the wife of the Governor of a colony she would, of course, yield as to the representative of the Sovereign. Accounts are extant, in the family papers and letters, of one or two tremendous battles which Madam fought with the wives of colonial dignitaries upon these questions of etiquette. As for her husband’s family of Warrington, they were as naught in her eyes. She married an English baronet’s younger son out of Norfolk to please her parents, whom she was always bound to obey. At the early age at which she married — a chit out of a boarding-school — she would have jumped overboard if her papa had ordered. “And that is always the way with the Esmonds,” she said.

The English Warringtons were not over-much flattered by the little American Princess’s behaviour to them, and her manner of speaking about them. Once a year a solemn letter used to be addressed to the Warrington family, and to her noble kinsmen the Hampshire Esmonds; but a Judge’s lady with whom Madam Esmond had quarrelled returning to England out of Virginia chanced to meet Lady Warrington, who was in London with Sir Miles attending Parliament, and this person repeated some of the speeches which the Princess Pocahontas was in the habit of making regarding her own and her husband’s English relatives, and my Lady Warrington, I suppose, carried the story to my Lady Castlewood; after which the letters from Virginia were not answered, to the surprise and wrath of Madam Esmond, who speedily left off writing also.

So this good woman fell out with her neighbours, with her relatives, and, as it must be owned, with her sons also.

A very early difference which occurred between the Queen and Crown Prince arose out of the dismissal of Mr. Dempster, the lad’s tutor and the late Colonel’s secretary. In her father’s life Madam Esmond bore him with difficulty, or it should be rather said Mr. Dempster could scarce put up with her. She was jealous of books somehow, and thought your bookworms dangerous folks, insinuating bad principles. She had heard that Dempster was a Jesuit in disguise, and the poor fellow was obliged to go build himself a cabin in a clearing, and teach school and practise medicine where he could find customers among the sparse inhabitants of the province. Master George vowed he never would forsake his old tutor, and kept his promise. Harry had always loved fishing and sporting better than books, and he and the poor Dominie had never been on terms of close intimacy. Another cause of dispute presently ensued.

By the death of an aunt, and at his father’s demise, the heir of Mr. George Warrington became entitled to a sum of six thousand pounds, of which their mother was one of the trustees. She never could be made to understand that she was not the proprietor, and not merely the trustee of this money; and was furious with the London lawyer, the other trustee, who refused to send it over at her order. “Is not all I have my sons’?” she cried, “and would I not cut myself into little pieces to serve them? With the six thousand pounds I would have bought Mr. Boulter’s estate and negroes, which would have given us a good thousand pounds a year, and made a handsome provision for my Harry.” Her young friend and neighbour, Mr. Washington of Mount Vernon, could not convince her that the London agent was right, and must not give up his trust except to those for whom he held it. Madam Esmond gave the London lawyer a piece of her mind, and, I am sorry to say, informed Mr. Draper that he was an insolent pettifogger, and deserved to be punished for doubting the honour of a mother and an Esmond. It must be owned that the Virginian Princess had a temper of her own.

George Esmond, her firstborn, when this little matter was referred to him, and his mother vehemently insisted that he should declare himself, was of the opinion of Mr. Washington, and Mr. Draper, the London lawyer. The boy said he could not help himself. He did not want the money: he would be very glad to think otherwise, and to give the money to his mother, if he had the power. But Madam Esmond would not hear any of these reasons. Feelings were her reasons. Here was a chance of making Harry’s fortune — dear Harry, who was left with such a slender younger brother’s; pittance — and the wretches in London would not help him; his own brother, who inherited all her papa’s estate, would not help him. To think of a child of hers being so mean at fourteen year of age! etc. etc. Add tears, scorn, frequent innuendo, long estrangement, bitter outbreak, passionate appeals to Heaven, and the like, and we may fancy the widow’s state of mind. Are there not beloved beings of the gentler sex who argue in the same way nowadays? The book of female logic is blotted all over with tears, and Justice in their courts is for ever in a passion.

This occurrence set the widow resolutely saving for her younger son, for whom, as in duty bound, she was eager to make a portion. The fine buildings were stopped which the Colonel had commenced at Castlewood, who had freighted ships from New York with Dutch bricks, and imported, at great charges, mantelpieces, carved cornice-work, sashes and glass, carpets and costly upholstery from home. No more books were bought. The agent had orders to discontinue sending wine. Madam Esmond deeply regretted the expense of a fine carriage which she had had from England, and only rode in it to church groaning in spirit, and crying to the sons opposite her, “Harry, Harry! I wish I had put by the money for thee, my poor portionless child — three hundred and eighty guineas of ready money to Messieurs Hatchett!”

“You will give me plenty while you live, and George will give me plenty when you die,” says Harry, gaily.

“Not unless he changes in spirit, my dear,” says the lady, with a grim glance at her elder boy. “Not unless Heaven softens his heart and teaches him charity, for which I pray day and night; as Mountain knows; do you not, Mountain?”

Mrs. Mountain, Ensign Mountain’s widow, Madam Esmond’s companion and manager, who took the fourth seat in the family coach on these Sundays, said, “Humph! I know you are always disturbing yourself and crying out about this legacy, and I don’t see that there is any need.”

“Oh no! no need!” cries the widow, rustling in her silks; “of course I have no need to be disturbed, because my eldest born is a disobedient son and an unkind brother — because he has an estate, and my poor Harry, bless him, but a mess of pottage.”

George looked despairingly at his mother until he could see her no more for eyes welled up with tears. “I wish you would bless me, too, O my mother!” he said, and burst into a passionate fit of weeping. Harry’s arms were in a moment round his brother’s neck, and he kissed George a score of times.

“Never mind, George. I know whether you are a good brother or not. Don’t mind what she says. She don’t mean it.”

“I do mean it, child,” cries the mother. Would to Heaven ——”

“HOLD YOUR TONGUE, I SAY” roars out Harry. “It’s a shame to speak so to him, ma’am.”

“And so it is, Harry,” says Mrs. Mountain, shaking his hand. “You never said a truer word in your life.”

“Mrs. Mountain, do you dare to set my children against me?” cries the widow. “From this very day, madam ——”

“Turn me and my child into the street? Do,” says Mrs. Mountain. “That will be a fine revenge because the English lawyer won’t give you the boy’s money. Find another companion who will tell you black is white, and flatter you: it is not my way, madam. When shall I go? I shan’t be long a-packing. I did not bring much into Castlewood House, and I shall not take much out.”

“Hush! the bells are ringing for church, Mountain. Let us try, if you please, and compose ourselves,” said the widow, and she looked with eyes of extreme affection, certainly at one — perhap at both — of her children. George kept his head down, and Harry, who was near, got quite close to him during the sermon, and sat with his arm round his brother’s neck.

Harry had proceeded in his narrative after his own fashion, interspersing it with many youthful ejaculations, and answering a number of incidental questions asked by his listener. The old lady seemed never tired of hearing him. Her amiable hostess and her daughters came more than once, to ask if she would ride, or walk, or take a dish of tea, or play a game at cards; but all these amusements Madam Bernstein declined, saying that she found infinite amusement in Harry’s conversation. Especially when any of the Castlewood family were present, she redoubled her caresses, insisted upon the lad speaking close to her ear, and would call out to the others, “Hush, my dears! I can’t hear our cousin speak.” And they would quit the room, striving still to look pleased.

“Are you my cousin, too?” asked the honest boy. “You see kinder than my other cousins.”

Their talk took place in the wainscoted parlour, where the family had taken their meals in ordinary for at least two centuries past, and which, as we have said, was hung with portraits of the race. Over Madam Bernstein’s great chair was a Kneller, one of the most brilliant pictures of the gallery, representing a young lady of three or four and twenty, in the easy flowing dress and loose robes of Queen Anne’s time — a hand on a cushion near her, a quantity of auburn hair parted off a fair forehead, and flowing over pearly shoulders and a lovely neck. Under this sprightly picture the lady sate with her knitting-needles.

When Harry asked, “Are you my cousin, too?” she said, “That picture is by Sir Godfrey, who thought himself the greatest painter in the world. But he was not so good as Lely, who painted your grandmother — my — my Lady Castlewood, Colonel Esmond’s wife; nor he so good as Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who painted your great-grandfather, yonder — and who looks, Harry, a much finer gentleman than he was. Some of us are painted blacker than we are. Did you recognise your grandmother in that picture? She had the loveliest fair hair and shape of any woman of her time.”

“I fancied I knew the portrait from instinct, perhaps, and a certain likeness to my mother.”

“Did Mrs. Warrington — I beg her pardon, I think she calls herself Madam or my Lady Esmond now ——?”

“They call my mother so in our province,” said the boy.

“Did she never tell you of another daughter her mother had in England, before she married your grandfather?”

“She never spoke of one.”

“Nor your grandfather?”

“Never. But in his picture-books, which he constantly made for us children, he used to draw a head very like that above your ladyship. That, and Viscount Francis, and King James III., he drew a score of times, I am sure.”

“And the picture over me reminds you of no one, Harry?”

“No, indeed.”

“Ah! Here is a sermon!” says the lady, with a sigh. “Harry, that was my face once — yes, it was — and then I was called Beatrix Esmond. And your mother is my half-sister, child, and she has never even mentioned my name!”

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