The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XLI

Rake’s Progress

People were still very busy in Harry Warrington’s time (not that our young gentleman took much heed of the controversy) in determining the relative literary merits of the ancients and the moderns; and the learned, and the world with them, indeed, pretty generally pronounced in favour of the former. The moderns of that day are the ancients of ours, and we speculate upon them in the present year of grace, as our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, will give their judgment about us. As for your book-learning, O respectable ancestors (though, to be sure, you have the mighty Gibbon with you), I think you will own that you are beaten, and could point to a couple of professors at Cambridge and Glasgow who know more Greek than was to be had in your time in all the universities of Europe, including that of Athens, if such an one existed. As for science, you were scarce more advanced than those heathen to whom in literature you owned yourselves inferior. And in public and private morality? Which is the better, this actual year 1858, or its predecessor a century back? Gentlemen of Mr. Disraeli’s House of Commons! has every one of you his price, as in Walpole’s or Newcastle’s time — or (and that is the delicate question) have you almost all of you had it? Ladies, I do not say that you are a society of Vestals — but the chronicle of a hundred years since contains such an amount of scandal, that you may be thankful you did not live in such dangerous times. No: on my conscience, I believe that men and women are both better; not only that the Susannas are more numerous, but that the Elders are not nearly so wicked. Did you ever hear of such books as Clarissa, Tom Jones, Roderick Random; paintings by contemporary artists, of the men and women, the life and society, of their day? Suppose we were to describe the doings of such a person as Mr. Lovelace or my Lady Bellaston, or that wonderful “Lady of Quality” who lent her memoirs to the author of Peregrine Pickle. How the pure and outraged Nineteenth Century would blush, scream, run out of the room, call away the young ladies, and order Mr. Mudie never to send one of that odious author’s books again! You are fifty-eight years old, madam, and it may be that you are too squeamish, that you cry out before you are hurt, and when nobody had any intention of offending your ladyship. Also, it may be that the novelist’s art is injured by the restraints put upon him as many an honest, harmless statue at St. Peter’s and the Vatican is spoiled by the tin draperies in which ecclesiastical old women have swaddled the fair limbs of the marble. But in your prudery there is reason. So there is in the state censorship of the Press. The page may contain matter dangerous to bonos mores. Out with your scissors, censor, and clip off the prurient paragraph! We have nothing for it but to submit. Society, the despot, has given his imperial decree. We may think the statue had been seen to greater advantage without the tin drapery; we may plead that the moral were better might we recite the whole fable. Away with him — not a word! I never saw the pianofortes in the United States with the frilled muslin trousers on their legs; but, depend on it, the muslin covered some of the notes as well as the mahogany, muffled the music, and stopped the player.

To what does this prelude introduce us? I am thinking of Harry Warrington, Esquire, in his lodgings in Bond Street, London, and of the life which he and many of the young bucks of fashion led in those times, and how I can no more take my faire young reader into them, than Lady Squeams can take her daughter to Cremorne Gardens on an ordinary evening. My dear Miss Diana (psha! I know you are eight-and-thirty, although you are so wonderfully shy, and want to make us believe you have just left off schoolroom dinners and a pinafore), when your grandfather was a young man about town, and a member of one of the clubs at White’s, and dined at Pontac’s off the feasts provided by Braund and Lebeck, and rode to Newmarket with March and Rockingham, and toasted the best in England with Gilly Williams and George Selwyn (and didn’t understand George’s jokes, of which, indeed, the flavour has very much evaporated since the bottling)— the old gentleman led a life of which your noble aunt (author of Legends of the Squeams’s; or, Fair Fruits of a Family Tree) has not given you the slightest idea.

It was before your grandmother adopted those serious views for which she was distinguished during her last long residence at Bath, and after Colonel Tibbalt married Miss Lye, the rich soap-boiler’s heiress, that her ladyship’s wild oats were sown. When she was young, she was as giddy as the rest of the genteel world. At her house in Hill Street, she had ten card-tables on Wednesdays and Sunday evenings, except for a short time when Ranelagh was open on Sundays. Every night of her life she gambled for eight, nine, ten hours. Everybody else in society did the like. She lost; she won; she cheated; she pawned her jewels; who knows what else she was not ready to pawn, so as to find funds to supply her fury for play? What was that after-supper duel at the Shakspeare’s Head in Covent Garden, between your grandfather and Colonel Tibbalt: where they drew swords and engaged only in the presence of Sir John Screwby, who was drunk under the table? They were interrupted by Mr. John Fielding’s people, and your grandfather was carried home to Hill Street wounded in a chair. I tell you those gentlemen in powder and ruffles, who turned out the toes of their buckled pumps so delicately, were terrible fellows. Swords were perpetually being drawn; bottles after bottles were drunk; oaths roared unceasingly in conversation; tavern-drawers and watchmen were pinked and maimed; chairmen belaboured; citizens insulted by reeling pleasure-hunters. You have been to Cremorne with proper “vouchers” of course? Do you remember our great theatres thirty years ago? You were too good to go to a play. Well, you have no idea what the playhouses were, or what the green boxes were, when Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard were playing before them! And I, for my children’s sake, thank that good Actor in his retirement who was the first to banish that shame from the theatre. No, madam, you are mistaken; I do not plume myself on my superior virtue. I do not say you are naturally better than your ancestress in her wild, rouged, gambling, flaring tearing days; or even than poor Polly Fogle, who is just taken up for shoplifting, and would have been hung for it a hundred years ago. Only, I am heartily thankful that my temptations are less, having quite enough to do with those of the present century.

So, if Harry Warrington rides down to Newmarket to the October meeting, and loses or wins his money there; if he makes one of a party at the Shakspeare or Bedford Head; if he dines at White’s ordinary, and sits down to macco and lansquenet afterwards; if he boxes the watch, and makes his appearance at the Roundhouse; if he turns out for a short space a wild dissipated, harum-scarum young Harry Warrington; I, knowing the weakness of human nature, am not going to be surprised; and, quite aware of my own shortcomings, don’t intend to be very savage at my neighbour’s. Mr. Sampson was: in his chapel in Long Acre he whipped Vice tremendously; gave Sin no quarter; out-cursed Blasphemy with superior Anathemas; knocked Drunkenness down, and trampled on the prostrate brute wallowing in the gutter; dragged out conjugal Infidelity, and pounded her with endless stones of rhetoric — and, after service, came to dinner at the Star and Garter, made a bowl of punch for Harry and his friends at the Bedford Head, or took a hand at whist at Mr. Warrington’s lodgings or my Lord March’s, or wherever there was a supper and good company for him.

I often think, however, in respect of Mr. Warrington’s doings at this period of his coming to London, that I may have taken my usual degrading and uncharitable views of him — for, you see, I have not uttered a single word of virtuous indignation against his conduct, and if it was not reprehensible, have certainly judged him most cruelly. O the Truthful, O the Beautiful, O Modesty, O Benevolence, O Pudor, O Mores, O Blushing Shame, O Namby Pamby — each with your respective capital letters to your honoured names! O Niminy, O Piminy! how shall I dare for to go for to say that a young man ever was a young man?

No doubt, dear young lady, I am calumniating Mr. Warrington according to my heartless custom. As a proof here is a letter out of the Warrington collection, from Harry to his mother in which there is not a single word that would lead you to suppose he was leading a wild life. And such a letter from an only son to a fond and exemplary parent, we know must be true:—

“BOND STREET, LONDON, October 25, 1756.

“HONORD MADAM— I take up my pen to acknowledge your honored favor of 10 July per Lively Virginia packet, which has duly come to hand, forwarded by our Bristol agent, and rejoice to hear that the prospect of the crops is so good. ’Tis Tully who says that agriculture is the noblest pursuit; how delightful when that pursuit is also prophetable!

“Since my last, dated from Tunbridge Wells, one or two insadence have occurred of which it is nessasery [This word has been much operated upon with the penknife, but is left sic, no doubt to the writer’s satisfaction.] I should advise my honored Mother. Our party there broke up end of August: the partridge-shooting commencing. Baroness Bernstein, whose kindness to me has been most invariable, has been to Bath, her usual winter resort, and has made me a welcome present of a fifty-pound bill. I rode back with Rev. Mr. Sampson, whose instruction I find most valluble, and my cousin, Lady Maria, to Castlewood. [Could Parson Sampson have been dictating the above remarks to Mr. Warrington?] I paid a flying visit on the way to my dear kind friends Col. and Mrs. Lambert, Oakhurst House, who send my honored mother their most affectionate remembrances. The youngest Miss Lambert, I grieve to say, was dellicate; and her parents in some anxiety.

“At Castlewood I lament to state my stay was short, owing to a quarrel with my cousin William. He is a young man of violent passions, and alas! addicted to liquor, when he has no controul over them. In a triffling dispute about a horse, high words arose between us, and he aymed a blow at me or its equivulent — which my Grandfathers my honored mothers child could not brook. I rejoyned, and feld him to the ground, whents he was carried almost sencelis to bed. I sent to enquire after his health in the morning: but having no further news of him, came away to London where I have been ever since with brief intavles of absence.

“Knowing you would wish me to see my dear Grandfathers University of Cambridge, I rode thither lately in company with some friends, passing through part of Harts, and lying at the famous bed of Ware. The October meeting was just begun at Cambridge when I went. I saw the students in their gownds and capps, and rode over to the famous Newmarket Heath, where there happened to be some races — my friend Lord Marchs horse Marrowbones by Cleaver coming off winner of a large steak. It was an amusing day — the jockeys, horses, etc., very different to our poor races at home — the betting awful — the richest noblemen here mix with the jox, and bett all round. Cambridge pleased me: especially King’s College Chapel, of a rich but elegant Gothick.

“I have been out into the world, and am made member of the Club at White’s, where I meet gentlemen of the first fashion. My Lords Rockingham, Carlisle, Orford, Bolingbroke, Coventry are of my friends, introduced to me by my Lord March, of whom I have often wrote before. Lady Coventry is a fine woman, but thinn. Every lady paints here, old and young; so, if you and Mountain and Fanny wish to be in fashion, I must send you out some roogepots: everybody plays — eight, ten, card-tables at every house on every receiving-night. I am sorry to say all do not play fair, and some do not pay fair. I have been obliged to sit down, and do as Rome does, and have actually seen ladies whom I could name take my counters from before my face!

“One day, his regiment the 20th being paraded in St. James’s Park, a friend of mine, Mr. Wolfe, did me the honour to present me to his Royal Highness the Captain-General, who was most gracious; a fat, jolly Prince, if I may speak so without disrespect, reminding me in his manner of that unhappy General Braddock; whom we knew to our sorrow last year. When he heard my name, and how dearest George had served and fallen in Braddock’s unfortunate campaign, he talked a great deal with me; asked why a young fellow like me did not serve too; why I did not go to the King of Prussia, who was a great General, and see a campaign or two; and whether that would not be better than dawdling about at routs and card-parties in London? I said, I would like to go with all my heart, but was an only son now, on leave from my mother, and belonged to our estate in Virginia. His Royal Highness said, Mr. Braddock had wrote home accounts of Mrs. Esmond’s loyalty, and that he would gladly serve me. Mr. Wolfe and I have waited on him since, at his Royal Highness’s house in Pall Mall. The latter, who is still quite a young man, made the Scots campaign with his Highness, whom Mr. Dempster loves so much at home. To be sure, he was too severe: if anything can be top severe against rebels in arms.

“Mr. Draper has had half the Stock, my late Papa’s property, transferred to my name. Until there can be no doubt of that painful loss in our family which I would give my right hand to replace, the remaining stock must remain in the trustees’ name in behalf of him who inherited it. Ah, dear mother! There is no day, scarce any hour, when I don’t think of him. I wish he were by me often. I feel like as if I was better when I am thinking of him, and would like, for the honour of my family, that he was representing of it here instead of — Honored madam, your dutiful and affectionate son, HENRY ESMOND WARRINGTON.”

“P.S. — I am like your sex, who always, they say, put their chief news in a poscrip. I had something to tell you about a person to whom my heart is engaged. I shall write more about it, which there is no hurry. Safice she is a nobleman’s daughter, and her family as good as our own.”

“CLARGIS STREET, LONDON, October 23, 1756.

“I think, my good sister, we have been all our lives a little more than kin and less than kind, to use the words of a poet whom your dear father loved dearly. When you were born in our Western Principallitie, my mother was not as old as Isaac’s; but even then I was much more than old enough to be yours. And though she gave you all she could leave or give, including the little portion of love that ought to have been my share, yet, if we can have good will for one another, we may learn to do without affection: and some little kindness you owe me, for your son’s sake; as well as your father’s, whom I loved and admired more than any man I think ever I knew in this world: he was greater than almost all, though he made no noyse in it. I have seen very many who have, and, believe me, have found but few with such good heads and good harts as Mr. Esmond.

“Had we been better acquainted, I might have given you some advice regarding your young gentleman’s introduction to Europe, which you would have taken or not, as people do in this world. At least you would have sed afterwards, ‘What she counselled me was right, and had Harry done as Madam Beatrix wisht, it had been better for him.’ My good sister, it was not for you to know, or for me to whom you never wrote to tell you, but your boy in coming to England and Castlewood found but ill friends there; except one, an old aunt, of whom all kind of evil hath been spoken and sed these fifty years past — and not without cawse too, perhaps.

“Now, I must tell Harry’s mother what will doubtless scarce astonish her, that almost everybody who knows him loves him. He is prudent of his tongue, generous of his money, as bold as a lyon, with an imperious domineering way that sets well upon him; you know whether he is handsome or not: my dear, I like him none the less for not being over witty or wise, and never cared for your sett-the-Thames afire gentlemen, who are so much more clever than their neighbours. Your father’s great friend, Mr. Addison, seemed to me but a supercillious prig, and his follower, Sir Dick Steele, was not pleasant in his cupps, nor out of ’em. And (revenons a luy) your Master Harry will certainly, pot burn the river up with his wits. Of book-learning he is as ignorant as any lord in England, and for this I hold him none the worse. If Heaven have not given him a turn that way, ’tis of no use trying to bend him.

“Considering the place he is to hold in his own colony when he returns, and the stock he comes from, let me tell you, that he hath not means enough allowed him to support his station, and is likely to make the more depence from the narrowness of his income — from sheer despair breaking out of all bounds, and becoming extravagant, which is not his turn. But he likes to live as well as the rest of his company, and, between ourselves, has fell into some of the finist and most rakish in England. He thinks ’tis for the honour of the family not to go back, and many a time calls for ortolans and champaign when he would as leaf dine with a stake and a mugg of beer. And in this kind of spirit I have no doubt from what he hath told me in his talk (which is very naif, as the French say), that his mamma hath encouraged him in his high opinion of himself. We women like our belongings to have it, however little we love to pay the cost. Will you have your ladd make a figar in London? Trebble his allowance at the very least, and his Aunt Bernstein (with his honored mamma’s permission) will add a little more on to whatever summ you give him. Otherwise he will be spending the little capital I learn he has in this country, which, when a ladd once begins to manger, there is very soon an end to the loaf. Please God, I shall be able to leave Henry Esmond’s grandson something at my death; but my savings are small, and the pension with which my gracious Sovereign hath endowed me dies with me. As for feu M. de Bernstein, he left only debt at his decease: the officers of his Majesty’s Electoral Court of Hannover are but scantily paid.

“A lady who is at present very high in his Majesty’s confidence hath taken a great phancy to your ladd, and will take an early occasion to bring him to the Sovereign’s favorable notice. His Royal Highness the Duke he hath seen. If live in America he must, why should not Mr. Esmond Warrington return as Governor of Virginia, and with a title to his name? That is what I hope for him.

“Meanwhile, I must be candid with you, and tell you I fear he hath entangled himself here in a very silly engagement. Even to marry an old woman for money is scarce pardonable — the game ne valant gueres la chandelle — Mr. Bernstein, when alive, more than once assured me of this fact, and I believe him, poor gentleman! to engage yourself to an old woman without money, and to marry her merely because you have promised her, this seems to me a follie which only very young lads fall into, and I fear Mr. Warrington is one. How, or for what consideration, I know not, but my niece Maria Esmond hath escamote a promise from Harry. He knows nothing of her antecedens, which I do. She hath laid herself out for twenty husbands these twenty years past. I care not how she hath got the promise from him. ’Tis a sin and a shame that a woman more than forty years old should surprize the honour of a child like that, and hold him to his word. She is not the woman she pretends to be. A horse jockey (he saith) cannot take him in-but a woman!

“I write this news to you advisedly, displeasant as it must be. Perhaps ’twill bring you to England: but I would be very cautious, above all, very gentle, for the bitt will instantly make his high spirit restive. I fear the property is entailed, so that threats of cutting him off from it will not move Maria. Otherwise I know her to be so mercenary that (though she really hath a great phancy for this handsome ladd) without money she would not hear of him. All I could, and more than I ought, I have done to prevent the match. What and more I will not say in writing; but that I am, for Henry Esmond’s sake, his grandson’s sincerest friend, and madam, — Your faithful sister and servant, BEATRIX BARONESS DE BERNSTEIN.

“To Mrs. Esmond Warrington of Castlewood, in Virginia.”

On the back of this letter is written, in Madam Esmond’s hand, “My sister Bernstein’s letter, received with Henry’s December 24 on receipt of which it was determined my son should instantly go home.”

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