The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER L

Contains a Great deal of the Finest Morality

When first we had the honour to be presented to Sir Miles Warrington at the King’s drawing-room, in St. James’s Palace, I confess that I, for one — looking at his jolly round face, his broad round waistcoat, his hearty country manner — expected that I had lighted upon a most eligible and agreeable acquaintance at last, and was about to become intimate with that noblest specimen of the human race, the bepraised of songs and men, the good old English country gentleman. In fact, to be a good old country gentleman is to hold a position nearest the gods, and at the summit of earthly felicity. To have a large unencumbered rent-roll, and the rents regularly paid by adoring farmers, who bless their stars at having such a landlord as his honour; to have no tenant holding back with his money, excepting just one, perhaps, who does so in order to give occasion to Good Old Country Gentleman to show his sublime charity and universal benevolence of soul; to hunt three days a week, love the sport of all things, and have perfect good health and good appetite in consequence; to have not only good appetite, but a good dinner; to sit down at church in the midst of a chorus of blessings from the villagers, the first man in the parish, the benefactor of the parish, with a consciousness of consummate desert, saying, “Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners,” to be sure, but only for form’s sake, because the words are written in the book, and to give other folks an example — a G. O. C. G. a miserable sinner! So healthy, so wealthy, so jolly, so much respected by the vicar, so much honoured by the tenants, so much beloved and admired by his family, amongst whom his story of grouse in the gunroom causes laughter from generation to generation; — this perfect being a miserable sinner! Allons donc! Give any man good health and temper, five thousand a year, the adoration of his parish, and the love and worship of his family, and I’ll defy you to make him so heartily dissatisfied with his spiritual condition as to set himself down a miserable anything. If you were a Royal Highness, and went to church in the most perfect health and comfort, the parson waiting to begin the service until your R. H. came in, would you believe yourself to be a miserable, etc.? You might when racked with gout, in solitude, the fear of death before your eyes, the doctor having cut off your bottle of claret, and ordered arrowroot and a little sherry — you might then be humiliated, and acknowledge your own shortcomings, and the vanity of things in general; but, in high health, sunshine, spirits, that word miserable is only a form. You can’t think in your heart that you are to be pitied much for the present. If you are to be miserable, what is Colin Ploughman, with the ague, seven children, two pounds a year rent to pay for his cottage, and eight shillings a week? No: a healthy, rich, jolly, country gentleman, if miserable, has a very supportable misery: if a sinner, has very few people to tell him so.

It may be he becomes somewhat selfish; but at least he is satisfied with himself. Except my lord at the castle, there is nobody for miles and miles round so good or so great. His admirable wife ministers to him, and to the whole parish, indeed: his children bow before him: the vicar of the parish reverences him: he is respected at quarter-sessions: he causes poachers to tremble: off go all hats before him at market: and round about his great coach, in which his spotless daughters and sublime lady sit, all the country-town tradesmen cringe, bareheaded, and the farmeers’ women drop innumerable curtseys. From their cushions in the great coach the ladies look down beneficently, and smile on the poorer folk. They buy a yard of ribbon with affability; they condescend to purchase an ounce of salts, or a packet of flower-seeds: they deign to cheapen a goose: their drive is like a royal progress; a happy people is supposed to press round them and bless them. Tradesmen bow, farmers’ wives bob, town-boys, waving their ragged hats, cheer the red-faced coachman as he drives the fat bays, and cry, “Sir Miles for ever! Throw us a halfpenny, my lady!”

But suppose the market-woman should hide her fat goose when Sir Miles’s coach comes, out of terror lest my lady, spying the bird, should insist on purchasing it a bargain? Suppose no coppers ever were known to come out of the royal coach window? Suppose Sir Miles regaled his tenants with notoriously small beer, and his poor with especially thin broth? This may be our fine old English gentleman’s way. There have been not a few fine English gentlemen and ladies of this sort; who patronised the poor without ever relieving them, who called out “Amen!” at church as loud as the clerk; who went through all the forms of piety, and discharged all the etiquette of old English gentlemanhood; who bought virtue a bargain, as it were, and had no doubt they were honouring her by the purchase. Poor Harry in his distress asked help from his relations: his aunt sent him a tract and her blessing; his uncle had business out of town, and could not, of course, answer the poor boy’s petition. How much of this behaviour goes on daily in respectable life, think you? You can fancy Lord and Lady Macbeth concocting a murder, and coming together with some little awkwardness, perhaps, when the transaction was done and over; but my Lord and Lady Skinflint, when they consult in their bedroom about giving their luckless nephew a helping hand, and determine to refuse, and go down to family prayers, and meet their children and domestics, and discourse virtuously before them, and then remain together, and talk nose to nose — what can they think of one another? and of the poor kinsman fallen among the thieves, and groaning for help unheeded? How can they go on with those virtuous airs? How can they dare look each other in the face?

Dare? Do you suppose they think they have done wrong? Do you suppose Skinflint is tortured with remorse at the idea of the distress which called to him in vain, and of the hunger which he sent empty away? Not he. He is indignant with Prodigal for being a fool: he is not ashamed of himself for being a curmudgeon. What? a young man with such opportunities throw them away? A fortune spent amongst gamblers and spendthrifts? Horrible, horrible! Take warning, my child, by this unfortunate young man’s behaviour, and see the consequences of extravagance. According to the great and always Established Church of the Pharisees, here is an admirable opportunity for a moral discourse, and an assertion of virtue. “And to think of his deceiving us so!” cries out Lady Warrington.

“Very sad, very sad, my dear!” says Sir Miles, wagging his head.

“To think of so much extravagance in one so young!” cries Lady Warrington. “Cards, bets, feasts at taverns of the most wicked profusion, carriage and riding horses, the company of the wealthy and profligate of his own sex, and, I fear, of the most iniquitous persons of ours.”

“Hush, my Lady Warrington!” cries her husband, glancing towards the spotless Dora and Flora, who held down their blushing heads, at the mention of the last naughty persons.

“No wonder my poor children hide their faces!” mamma continues. “My dears, I wish even the existence of such creatures could be kept from you!”

“They can’t go to an opera, or the park, without seeing ’em, to be sure,” says Sir Miles.

“To think we should have introduced such a young serpent into the bosom of our family! and have left him in the company of that guileless darling!” and she points to Master Miles.

“Who’s a serpent, mamma?” inquires that youth. “First you said cousin Harry was bad: then he was good: now he is bad again. Which is he, Sir Miles?”

“He has faults, like all of us, Miley, my dear. Your cousin has been wild, and you must take warning by him.”

“Was not my elder brother, who died — my naughty brother — was not he wild too? He was not kind to me when I was quite a little boy. He never gave me money, nor toys, nor rode with me, nor — why do you cry, mamma? Sure I remember how Hugh and you were always fight ——”

“Silence, sir!” cry out papa and the girls in a breath. “Don’t you know you are never to mention that name?”

“I know I love Harry, and I didn’t love Hugh,” says the sturdy little rebel. “And if cousin Harry is in prison, I’ll give him my half-guinea that my godpapa gave me, and anything I have — yes, anything, except — except my little horse — and my silver waistcoat — and — and Snowball and Sweetlips at home — and — and, yes, my custard after dinner.” This was in reply to a hint of sister Dora. “But I’d give him some of it,” continues Miles, after a pause.

“Shut thy mouth with it, child, and then go about thy business,” says papa, amused. Sir Miles Warrington had a considerable fund of easy humour.

“Who would have thought he should ever be so wild?” mamma goes on.

“Nay. Youth is the season for wild oats, my dear.”

“That we should be so misled in him!” sighed the girls.

“That he should kiss us both!” cries papa.

“Sir Miles Warrington, I have no patience with that sort of vulgarity!” says the majestic matron.

“Which of you was the favourite yesterday, girls?” continues the father.

“Favourite, indeed! I told him over and over again of my engagement to dear Tom — I did, Dora — why do you sneer, if you please?” says the handsome sister.

“Nay, to do her justice, so did Dora too,” said papa.

“Because Flora seemed to wish to forget her engagement with dear Tom sometimes,” remarks the sister.

“I never, never, never wished to break with Tom! It’s wicked of you to say so, Dora! It is you who were for ever sneering at him: it is you who are always envious because I happen — at least, because gentlemen imagine that I am not ill-looking, and prefer me to some folks, in spite of all their learning and wit!” cries Flora, tossing her head over her shoulder, and looking at the glass.

“Why are you always looking there, sister?” says the artless Miles junior. “Sure, you must know your face well enough!”

“Some people look at it just as often, child, who haven’t near such good reason,” says papa, gallantly.

“If you mean me, Sir Miles, I thank you,” cries Dora. “My face is as Heaven made it, and my father and mother gave it me. ’Tis not my fault if I resemble my papa’s family. If my head is homely, at least I have got some brains in it. I envious of Flora, indeed, because she has found favour in the sight of poor Tom Claypool! I should as soon be proud of captivating a ploughboy!”

“Pray, miss, was your Mr. Harry, of Virginia, much wiser than Tom Claypool? You would have had him for the asking!” exclaims Flora.

“And so would you, miss, and have dropped Tom Claypool into the sea!” cries Dora.

“I wouldn’t.”

“You would.”

“I wouldn’t;"— and da capo goes the conversation — the shuttlecock of wrath being briskly battled from one sister to another.

“Oh, my children! Is this the way you dwell together in unity?” exclaims their excellent female parent, laying down her embroidery. “What an example you set to this Innocent!”

“Like to see ’em fight, my lady!” cries the Innocent, rubbing his hands.

“At her, Flora! Worry her, Dora! To it again, you little rogues!” says facetious papa. ’Tis good sport, ain’t it, Miley?”

“Oh, Sir Miles! Oh, my children! These disputes are unseemly. They tear a fond mother’s heart,” says mamma, with majestic action, though bearing the laceration of her bosom with much seeming equanimity. “What cause for thankfulness ought we to have that watchful parents have prevented any idle engagements between you and your misguided cousin. If we have been mistaken in him, is it not a mercy that we have found out our error in time? If either of you had any preference for him, your excellent good sense, my loves, will teach you to overcome, to eradicate, the vain feeling. That we cherished and were kind to him can never be a source of regret. ’Tis a proof of our good-nature. What we have to regret, I fear, is, that your cousin should have proved unworthy of our kindness, and, coming away from the society of gamblers, play-actors, and the like, should have brought contamination — pollution, I had almost said — into this pure family!”

“Oh, bother mamma’s sermons!” says Flora, as my lady pursues a harangue of which we only give the commencement here, but during which papa, whistling, gently quits the room on tiptoe, whilst the artless Miles junior winds his top and pegs it under the robes of his sisters. It has done humming, and staggered and tumbled over, and expired in its usual tipsy manner, long ere Lady Warrington has finished her sermon.

“Were you listening to me, my child?” she asks, laying her hand on her darling’s head.

“Yes, mother,” says he, with the whipcord in his mouth, and proceeding to wind up his sportive engine. “You was a-saying that Harry was very poor now, and that we oughtn’t to help him. That’s what you was saying; wasn’t it, madam?”

“My poor child, thou wilt understand me better when thou art older!” says mamma, turning towards that ceiling to which her eyes always have recourse.

“Get out, you little wretch!” cries one of the sisters. The artless one has pegged his top at Dora’s toes, and laughs with the glee of merry boyhood at his sister’s discomfiture.

But what is this? Who comes here? Why does Sir Miles return to the drawing-room, and why does Tom Claypool, who strides after the Baronet, wear a countenance so disturbed?

“Here’s a pretty business, my Lady Warrington!” cries Sir Miles. “Here’s a wonderful wonder of wonders, girls!”

“For goodness’ sake, gentlemen, what is your intelligence?” asks the virtuous matron.

“The whole town’s talking about it, my lady!” says Tom Claypool puffing for breath.

“Tom has seen him,” continued Sir Miles.

“Seen both of them, my Lady Warrington. They were at Ranelagh last night, with a regular mob after ’em. And so like, that but for their different ribbons you would hardly have told one from the other. One was in blue, the other in brown; but I’m certain he has worn both the suits here.”

“What suits?”

“What one — what other?” call the girls.

“Why, your fortunate youth, to be sure.”

“Our precious Virginian, and heir to the principality!” says Sir Miles.

“Is my nephew, then, released from his incarceration?” asks her ladyship. “And is he again plunged in the vortex of dissip ——”

“Confound him!” roars out the Baronet, with an expression which I fear was even stronger. “What should you think, my Lady Warrington, if this precious nephew of mine should turn out to be an impostor; by George! no better than an adventurer?”

“An inward monitor whispered me as much!” cried the lady; “but I dashed from me the unworthy suspicion. Speak, Sir Miles, we burn with impatience to listen to your intelligence.”

“I’ll — speak, my love, when you’ve done,” says Sir Miles. “Well, what do you think of my gentleman, who comes into my house, dines at my table, is treated as one of this family, kisses my —”

“What?” asks Tom Claypool, firing as red as his waistcoat.

“— Hem! Kisses my wife’s hand, and is treated in the fondest manner, by George! What do you think of this fellow, who talks of his property and his principality, by Jupiter! — turning out to be a beggarly SECOND SON! A beggar, my Lady Warrington, by ——”

“Sir Miles Warrington, no violence of language before these dear ones! I sink to the earth, confounded by this unutterable hypocrisy. And did I entrust thee to a pretender, my blessed boy? Did I leave thee with an impostor, my innocent one?” the matron cries, fondling her son.

“Who’s an impostor, my lady?” asks the child.

“That confounded young scamp of a Harry Warrington!” bawls out papa; on which the little Miles, after wearing a puzzled look for a moment, and yielding to I know not what hidden emotion, bursts out crying.

His admirable mother proposes to clutch him to her heart, but he rejects the pure caress, bawling only the louder, and kicking frantically about the maternal gremium, as the butler announces “Mr. George Warrington, Mr. Henry Warrington!” Miles is dropped from his mother’s lap. Sir Miles’s face emulates Mr. Claypool’s waistcoat. The three ladies rise up, and make three most frigid curtseys, as our two young men enter the room.

Little Miles runs towards them. He holds out a little hand. “Oh, Harry! No! which is Harry? You’re my Harry,” and he chooses rightly this time. “Oh, you dear Harry! I’m so glad you are come! and they’ve been abusing you so!”

“I am come to pay my duty to my uncle,” says the dark-haired Mr. Warrington; “and to thank him for his hospitalities to my brother Henry.”

“What, nephew George? My brother’s face and eyes! Boys both, I am delighted to see you!” cries their uncle, grasping affectionately a hand of each, as his honest face radiates with pleasure.

“This indeed hath been a most mysterious and a most providential resuscitation,” says Lady Warrington. “Only I wonder that my nephew Henry concealed the circumstance until now,” she adds, with a sidelong glance at both young gentlemen.

“He knew it no more than your ladyship,” says Mr. Warrington. The young ladies looked at each other with downcast eyes.

“Indeed, sir! a most singular circumstance,” says mamma, with another curtsey. “We had heard of it, sir; and Mr. Claypool, our county neighbour, had just brought us the intelligence, and it even now formed the subject of my conversation with my daughters.”

“Yes,” cries out a little voice, “and do you know, Harry, father and mother said you was a — a imp ——”

“Silence, my child! Screwby, convey Master Warrington to his own apartment! These, Mr. Warrington — or, I suppose I should say nephew George — are your cousins.” Two curtseys — two cheeses are made — two hands are held out. Mr. Esmond Warrington makes a profound low bow, which embraces (and it is the only embrace which the gentleman offers) all three ladies. He lays his hat to his heart. He says, “It is my duty, madam, to pay my respects to my uncle and cousins, and to thank your ladyship for such hospitality as you have been enabled to show to my brother.”

“It was not much, nephew, but it was our best. Ods bobs!” cries the hearty Sir Miles, “it was our best!”

“And I appreciate it, sir,” says Mr. Warrington, looking gravely round at the family.

“Give us thy hand. Not a word more,” says Sir Miles “What? do you think I’m a cannibal, and won’t extend the hand of hospitality to my dear brother’s son? What say you, lads? Will you eat our mutton at three? This is my neighbour, Tom Claypool, son to Sir Thomas Claypool, Baronet, and my very good friend. Hey, Tom! Thou wilt be of the party, Tom? Thou knowest our brew, hey, my boy?”

“Yes, I know it, Sir Miles,” replies Tom, with no peculiar expression of rapture on his face.

“And thou shalt taste it, my boy,” thou shalt taste it! What is there for dinner, my Lady Warrington? Our food is plain, but plenty, lads — plain, but plenty!”

“We cannot partake of it today, sir. We dine with a friend who occupies my Lord Wrotham’s house, your neighbour. Colonel Lambert — Major-General Lambert he has just been made.”

“With two daughters, I think — countrified-looking girls — are they not?” asks Flora.

“I think I have remarked two little rather dowdy things,” says Dora.

“They are as good girls as any in England!” breaks out Harry, to whom no one had thought of saying a single word. His reign was over, you see. He was nobody. What wonder, then, that he should not be visible?

“Oh, indeed, cousin!” says Dora, with a glance at the young man, who sate with burning cheeks, chafing at the humiliation put upon him, but not knowing how or whether he should notice it. “Oh, indeed, cousin! You are very charitable — or very lucky, I’m sure! You see angels where we only see ordinary little persons. I’m sure I could not imagine who were those odd-looking people in Lord Wrotham’s coach, with his handsome liveries. But if they were three angels, I have nothing to say.”

“My brother is an enthusiast,” interposes George. “He is often mistaken about women.”

“Oh, really!” says Dora, looking a little uneasy.

“I fear my nephew Henry has indeed met with some unfavourable specimens of our sex,” the matron remarks, with a groan.

“We are so easily taken in, madam — we are both very young yet — we shall grow older and learn better.”

“Most sincerely, nephew George, I trust you may. You have my best wishes, my prayers, for your brother’s welfare and your own. No efforts of ours have been wanting. At a painful moment, to which I will not further allude —”

“And when my uncle Sir Miles was out of town,” says George, looking towards the Baronet, who smiles at him with affectionate approval.

“— I sent your brother a work which I thought might comfort him, and I know might improve him. Nay, do not thank me; I claim no credit; I did but my duty — a humble woman’s duty — for what are this world’s goods, nephew, compared to the welfare of a soul? If I did good, I am thankful; if I was useful, I rejoice. If, through my means, you have been brought, Harry, to consider ——”

“Oh! the sermon, is it?” breaks in downright Harry. “I hadn’t time to read a single syllable of it, aunt — thank you. You see I don’t care much about that kind of thing — but thank you all the same.”

“The intention is everything,” says Mr. Warrington, “and we are both grateful. Our dear friend, General Lambert, intended to give bail for Harry; but, happily, I had funds of Harry’s with me to meet any demands upon us. But the kindness is the same, and I am grateful to the friend who hastened to my brother’s rescue when he had most need of aid, and when his own relations happened — so unfortunately — to be out of town.”

“Anything I could do, my dear boy, I’m sure — my brother’s son — my own nephew — ods bobs! you know — that is, anything — anything, you know!” cries Sir Miles, bringing his own hand into George’s with a generous smack. “You can’t stay and dine with us? Put off the Colonel — the General — do, now! Or name a day. My Lady Warrington, make my nephew name a day when he will sit under his grandfather’s picture, and drink some of his wine!”

“His intellectual faculties seem more developed than those of his unlucky younger brother,” remarked my lady, when the young gentlemen had taken their leave. “The younger must be reckless and extravagant about money indeed, for did you remark, Sir Miles, the loss of his reversion in Virginia — the amount of which has, no doubt, been grossly exaggerated, but, nevertheless, must be something considerable — did you, I say, remark that the ruin of Harry’s prospects scarcely seemed to affect him?”

“I shouldn’t be at all surprised that the elder turns out to be as poor as the young one,” says Dora, tossing her head.

“He! he! Did you see that cousin George had one of cousin Harry’s suits of clothes on — the brown and gold — that one he wore when he went with you to the oratorio, Flora?”

“Did he take Flora to an oratorio?” asks Mr. Claypool, fiercely.

“I was ill and couldn’t go, and my cousin went with her,” says Dora.

“Far be it from me to object to any innocent amusement, much less to the music of Mr. Handel, dear Mr. Claypool,” says mamma. “Music refines the soul, elevates the understanding, is heard in our churches, and ’tis well known was practised by King David. Your operas I shun as deleterious; your ballets I would forbid to my children as most immoral; but music, my dears! May we enjoy it, like everything else in reason — may we ——”

“There’s the music of the dinner-bell,” says papa, rubbing his hands. “Come, girls. Screwby, go and fetch Master Miley. Tom take down my lady.”

“Nay, dear Thomas, I walk but slowly. Go you with dearest Flora downstairs,” says Virtue.

But Dora took care to make the evening pleasant by talking of Handel and oratorios constantly during dinner.

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