The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LIV

During which Harry sits smoking his Pipe at Home

The maternal grandfather of our Virginians, the Colonel Esmond of whom frequent mention has been made, and who had quitted England to reside in the New World, had devoted some portion of his long American leisure to the composition of the memoirs of his early life. In these volumes, Madame de Bernstein (Mrs. Beatrice Esmond was her name as a spinster) played a very considerable part; and as George had read his grandfather’s manuscript many times over, he had learned to know his kinswoman long before he saw her — to know, at least, the lady, young, beautiful, and wilful, of half a century since, with whom he now became acquainted in the decline of her days. When cheeks are faded and eyes are dim, is it sad or pleasant, I wonder, for the woman who is a beauty no more, to recall the period of her bloom! When the heart is withered, do the old love to remember how it once was fresh and beat with warm emotions? When the spirits are languid and weary, do we like to think how bright they were in other days, the hope how buoyant, the sympathies how ready, the enjoyment of life how keen and eager? So they fall — the buds of prime, the roses of beauty, the florid harvests of summer — fall and wither, and the naked branches shiver in the winter.

“And that was a beauty once!” thinks George Warrington, as his aunt, in her rouge and diamonds, comes in from her rout, “and that ruin was a splendid palace. Crowds of lovers have sighed before those decrepit feet, and been bewildered by the brightness of those eyes.” He remembered a firework at home, at Williamsburg, on the King’s birthday, and afterwards looking at the skeleton-wheel and the sockets of the exploded Roman candles. The dazzle and brilliancy of Aunt Beatrice’s early career passed before him, as he thought over his grandsire’s journals. Honest Harry had seen them, too, but Harry was no bookman, and had not read the manuscript very carefully: nay, if he had, he would probably not have reasoned about it as his brother did, being by no means so much inclined to moralising as his melancholy senior.

Mr. Warrington thought that there was no cause why he should tell his aunt how intimate he was with her early history, and accordingly held his peace upon that point. When their meal was over, she pointed with her cane to her escritoire, and bade her attendant bring the letter which lay under the inkstand there; and George, recognising the superscription, of course knew the letter to be that of which he had been the bearer from home.

“It would appear by this letter,” said the old lady, looking hard at her nephew, “that ever since your return, there have been some differences between you and my sister.”

“Indeed? I did not know that Madam Esmond had alluded to them,” George said.

The Baroness puts a great pair of glasses upon eyes which shot fire and kindled who knows how many passions in old days, and, after glancing over the letter, hands it to George, who reads as follows:—

“RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, December 26th, 1756.

“HONOURED MADAM! AND SISTER! — I have received, and thankfully acknowledge, your ladyship’s favour, per Rose packet, of October 23 ult.; and straightway answer you at a season which should be one of goodwill and peace to all men: but in which Heaven hath nevertheless decreed we should still bear our portion of earthly sorrow and trouble. My reply will be brought to you by my eldest son, Mr. Esmond Warrington, who returned to us so miraculously out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death (as our previous letters have informed my poor Henry), and who is desirous, not without my consent to his wish, to visit Europe, though he has been amongst us so short a while. I grieve to think that my dearest Harry should have appeared at home — I mean in England — under false colours, as it were; and should have been presented to his Majesty, to our family, and his own, as his father’s heir, whilst my dear son George was still alive, though dead to us. Ah, madam! During the eighteen months of his captivity, what anguish have his mother’s, his brother’s, hearts undergone! My Harry’s is the tenderest of any man’s now alive. In the joy of seeing Mr. Esmond Warrington returned to life, he will forget the worldly misfortune which befalls him. He will return to (comparative) poverty without a pang. The most generous, the most obedient of human beings, of sons, he will gladly give up to his elder brother that inheritance which had been his own but for the accident of birth, and for the providential return of my son George.

“Your beneficent intentions towards dearest Harry will be more than ever welcome, now he is reduced to a younger brother’s slender portion! Many years since, an advantageous opportunity occurred of providing for him in this province, and he would by this time have been master of a noble estate and negroes, and have been enabled to make a figure with most here, could his mother’s wishes have been complied with, and his father’s small portion, now lying at small interest in the British funds, have been invested in this most excellent purchase. But the forms of the law, and, I grieve to own, my elder son’s scruples, prevailed, and this admirable opportunity was lost to me! Harry will find the savings of his income have been carefully accumulated — long, long may he live to enjoy them! May Heaven bless you, dear sister, for what your ladyship may add to his little store! As I gather from your letter, that the sum which has been allowed to him has not been sufficient for his expenses in the fine company which he has kept (and the grandson of the Marquis of Esmond — one who had so nearly been his lordship’s heir — may sure claim equality with any other nobleman in Great Britain), and having a sum by me which I had always intended for the poor child’s establishment, I entrust it to my eldest son, who, to do him justice, hath a most sincere regard for his brother, to lay it out for Harry’s best advantage.”

“It took him out of prison yesterday, madam. I think that was the best use to which we could put it,” interposed George, at this stage of his mother’s letter.

“Nay, sir, I don’t know any such thing! Why not have kept it to buy a pair of colours for him, or to help towards another estate and some negroes, if he has a fancy for home?” cried the old lady. “Besides, I had a fancy to pay that debt myself.”

“I hope you will let his brother do that. I ask leave to be my brother’s banker in this matter, and consider I have borrowed so much from my mother, to be paid back to my dear Harry.”

“Do you say so, sir? Give me a glass of wine! You are an extravagant fellow! Read on, and you will see your mother thinks so. I drink to your health, nephew George! ’Tis good Burgundy. Your grandfather never loved Burgundy. He loved claret, the little he drank.”

And George proceeded with the letter:

“This remittance will, I trust, amply cover any expenses which, owing to the mistake respecting his position, dearest Harry may have incurred. I wish I could trust his elder brother’s prudence as confidently as my Harry’s! But I fear that, even in his captivity, Mr. Esmond W. has learned little of that humility which becomes all Christians, and which I have ever endeavoured to teach to my children. Should you by chance show him these lines, when, by the blessing of Heaven on those who go down to the sea in ships, the Great Ocean divides us! he will know that a fond mother’s blessing and prayers follow both her children, and that there is no act I have ever done, no desire I have ever expressed (however little he may have been inclined to obey it!) but hath been dictated by the fondest wishes for my dearest boys’ welfare.”

“There is a scratch with a penknife, and a great blot upon the letter there, as if water had fallen on it. Your mother writes well, George. I suppose you and she had a difference?” said George’s aunt, not unkindly.

“Yes, ma’am, many,” answered the young man, sadly. “The last was about a question of money — of ransom which I promised to the old lieutenant of the fort who aided me to make my escape. I told you he had a mistress, a poor Indian woman, who helped me, and was kind to me. Six weeks after my arrival at home, the poor thing made her appearance at Richmond, having found her way through the wood by pretty much the same track which I had followed, and bringing me the token which Museau had promised to send me when he connived to my flight. A commanding officer and a considerable reinforcement had arrived at Duquesne. Charges, I don’t know of what peculation (for his messenger could not express herself very clearly), had been brought against this Museau. He had been put under arrest, and had tried to escape; but, less fortunate than myself, he had been shot on the rampart, and he sent the Indian woman to me, with my grandfather’s watch, and a line scrawled in his prison on his deathbed, begging me to send ce que je scavais to a notary at Havre de Grace in France to be transmitted to his relatives at Caen in Normandy. My friend Silverheels, the hunter, had helped my poor Indian on her way. I don’t know how she would have escaped scalping else. But at home they received the poor thing sternly. They hardly gave her a welcome. I won’t say what suspicions they had regarding her and me. The poor wretch fell to drinking whenever she could find means. I ordered that she should have food and shelter, and she became the jest of our negroes, and formed the subject of the scandal and tittle-tattle of the old fools in our little town. Our Governor was, luckily, a man of sense, and I made interest with him, and procured a pass to send her back to her people. Her very grief at parting with me only served to confirm the suspicions against her. A fellow preached against me from the pulpit, I believe; I had to treat another with a cane. And I had a violent dispute with Madam Esmond — a difference which is not healed yet — because I insisted upon paying to the heirs Museau pointed out the money I had promised for my deliverance. You see that scandal flourishes at the borders of the wilderness, and in the New World as well as the Old.”

“I have suffered from it myself, my dear!” said Madame Bernstein, demurely. “Fill thy glass, child! A little tass of cherry-brandy! ’Twill do thee all the good in the world.”

“As for my poor Harry’s marriage,” Madam Esmond’s letter went on, “though I know too well, from sad experience, the dangers to which youth is subject, and would keep my boy, at any price, from them, though I should wish him to marry a person of rank, as becomes his birth, yet my Lady Maria Esmond is out of the question. Her age is almost the same as mine; and I know my brother Castlewood left his daughters with the very smallest portions. My Harry is so obedient that I know a desire from me will be sufficient to cause him to give up this imprudent match. Some foolish people once supposed that I myself once thought of a second union, and with a person of rank very different from ours. No! I knew what was due to my children. As succeeding to this estate after me, Mr. Esmond W. is amply provided for. Let my task now be to save for his less fortunate younger brother: and, as I do not love to live quite alone, let him return without delay to his fond and loving mother.

“The report which your ladyship hath given of my Harry fills my heart with warmest gratitude. He is all indeed a mother may wish. A year in Europe will have given him a polish and refinement which he could not acquire in our homely Virginia. Mr. Stack, one of our invaluable ministers in Richmond, hath a letter from Mr. Ward — my darlings’ tutor of early days — who knows my Lady Warrington and her excellent family, and saith that my Harry has lived much with his cousins of late. I am grateful to think that my boy has the privilege of being with his good aunt. May he follow her counsels, and listen to those around him who will guide him on the way of his best welfare! Adieu, dear madam and sister! For your kindness to my boy accept the grateful thanks of a mother’s heart. Though we have been divided hitherto, may these kindly ties draw us nearer and nearer. I am thankful that you should speak of my dearest father so. He was, indeed, one of the best of men! He, too, thanks you, I know, for the love you have borne to one of his children; and his daughter subscribes herself — With sincere thanks, your ladyship’s most dutiful and grateful sister and servant, RACHEL ESMOND WN.

“P.S. — I have communicated with my Lady Maria; but there will no need to tell her and dear Harry that his mother or your ladyship hope to be able to increase his small fortune. The match is altogether unsuitable.”

“As far as regards myself, madam,” George said, laying down the paper, “my mother’s letter conveys no news to me. I always knew that Harry was the favourite son with Madam Esmond, as he deserves indeed to be. He has a hundred good qualities which I have not the good fortune to possess. He has better looks ——”

“Nay, that is not your fault,” said the old lady, slily looking at him; “and, but that he is fair and you are brown, one might almost pass for the other.”

Mr. George bowed, and a faint blush tinged his pale cheek.

“His disposition is bright, and mine is dark,” he continued; “Harry is cheerful, and I am otherwise, perhaps. He knows how to make himself beloved by every one, and it has been my lot to find but few friends.”

“My sister and you have pretty little quarrels. There were such in old days in our family,” the Baroness said; “and if Madam Esmond takes after our mother ——”

“My mother has always described hers as an angel upon earth,” interposed George.

“Eh! That is a common character for people when they are dead!” cried the Baroness; “and Rachel Castlewood was an angel, if you like — at least your grandfather thought so. But let me tell you, sir, that angels are sometimes not very commodes a vivre. It may be they are too good to live with us sinners, and the air down below here don’t agree with them. My poor mother was so perfect that she never could forgive me for being otherwise. Ah, mon Dieu! how she used to oppress me with those angelical airs!”

George cast down his eyes, and thought of his own melancholy youth. He did not care to submit more of his family secrets to the cynical inquisition of this old worldling, who seemed, however, to understand him in spite of his reticence.

“I quite comprehend you, sir, though you hold your tongue,” the Baroness continued. “A sermon in the morning: a sermon at night: and two or three of a Sunday. That is what people call being good. Every pleasure cried fie upon; all us worldly people excommunicated; a ball an abomination of desolation; a play a forbidden pastime; and a game of cards perdition! What a life! Mon Dieu, what a life!”

“We played at cards every night, if we were so inclined,” said George, smiling; “and my grandfather loved Shakspeare so much, that my mother had not a word to say against her father’s favourite author.”

“I remember. He could say whole pages by heart; though, for my part, I like Mr. Congreve a great deal better. And then, there was that dreadful, dreary Milton, whom he and Mr. Addison pretended to admire!” cried the old lady, tapping her fan.

“If your ladyship does not like Shakspeare, you will not quarrel with my mother for being indifferent to him, too,” said George. “And indeed I think, and I am sure, that you don’t do her justice. Wherever there are any poor she relieves them; wherever there are any sick she ——”

“She doses them with her horrible purges and boluses!” cried the Baroness. “Of course, just as my mother did!”

“She does her best to cure them! She acts for the best, and performs her duty as far as she knows it.”

“I don’t blame you, sir, for doing yours, and keeping your own counsel about Madam Esmond,” said the old lady. “But at least there is one point upon which we all three agree — that this absurd marriage must be prevented. Do you know how old the woman is? I can tell you, though she has torn the first leaf out of the family Bible at Castlewood.”

“My mother has not forgotten her cousin’s age, and is shocked at the disparity between her and my poor brother. Indeed, a city-bred lady of her time of life, accustomed to London gaiety and luxury, would find but a dismal home in our Virginian plantation. Besides, the house, such as it is, is not Harry’s. He is welcome there, Heaven knows; more welcome, perhaps, than I, to whom the property comes in natural reversion; but, as I told him, I doubt how his wife would — would like our colony,” George said, with a blush, and a hesitation in his sentence.

The old lady laughed shrilly. “He, he! nephew Warrington!” she said, “you need not scruple to speak your mind out. I shall tell no tales to your mother: though ’tis no news to me that she has a high temper, and loves her own way. Harry has held his tongue, too; but it needed no conjurer to see who was the mistress at home, and what sort of a life my sister led you. I love my niece, my Lady Molly, so well, that I could wish her two or three years of Virginia, with your mother reigning over her. You may well look alarmed, sir! Harry has said quite enough to show me who governs the family.”

“Madam,” said George, smiling, “I may say as much as this, that I don’t envy any woman coming into our house against my mother’s will: and my poor brother knows this perfectly well.”

“What? You two have talked the matter over? No doubt you have. And the foolish child considers himself bound in honour — of course he does, the gaby!”

“He says Lady Maria has behaved most nobly to him. When he was sent to prison, she brought him her trinkets and jewels, and every guinea she had in the world. This behaviour has touched him so, that he feels more deeply than ever bound to her ladyship. But I own my brother seems bound by honour rather than love — such at least is his present feeling.”

“My good creature,” cries Madame Bernstein, “don’t you see that Maria brings a few twopenny trinkets and a half-dozen guineas to Mr. Esmond, the heir of the great estate in Virginia — not to the second son, who is a beggar, and has just squandered away every shilling of his fortune? I swear to you, on my credit as a gentlewoman, that, knowing Harry’s obstinacy, and the misery he had in store for himself, I tried to bribe Maria to give up her engagement with him, and only failed because I could not bribe high enough! When he was in prison, I sent my lawyer to him, with orders to pay his debts immediately, if he would but part from her, but Maria had been beforehand with us, and Mr. Harry chose not to go back from his stupid word. Let me tell you what has passed in the last month!” And here the old lady narrated at length the history which we know already, but in that cynical language which was common in her times, when the finest folks and the most delicate ladies called things and people by names which we never utter in good company nowadays. And so much the better on the whole. We mayn’t be more virtuous, but it is something to be more decent: perhaps we are not more pure, but of a surety we are more cleanly.

Madame Bernstein talked so much, so long, and so cleverly, that she was quite pleased with herself and her listener; and when she put herself into the hands of Mrs. Brett to retire for the night, informed the waiting-maid that she had changed her opinion about her eldest nephew, and that Mr. George was handsome, that he was certainly much wittier than poor Harry (whom Heaven, it must be confessed, had not furnished with a very great supply of brains), and that he had quite the bel air — a something melancholy — a noble and distinguished je ne scais quoy — which reminded her of the Colonel. Had she ever told Brett about the Colonel? Scores of times, no doubt. And now she told Brett about the Colonel once more. Meanwhile, perhaps, her new favourite was not quite so well pleased with her as she was with him. What a strange picture of life and manners had the old lady unveiled to her nephew! How she railed at all the world round about her! How unconsciously did she paint her own family — her own self; how selfish, one and all; pursuing what mean ends; grasping and scrambling frantically for what petty prizes; ambitious for what shabby recompenses; trampling — from life’s beginning to its close — through what scenes of stale dissipations and faded pleasures! “Are these the inheritors of noble blood?” thought George, as he went home quite late from his aunt’s house, passing by doors whence the last guests of fashion were issuing, and where the chairmen were yawning over their expiring torches. “Are these the proud possessors of ancestral honours and ancient names, and were their forefathers, when in life, no better? We have our pedigree at home with noble coats-of-arms emblazoned all over the branches, and titles dating back before the Conquest and the Crusaders. When a knight of old found a friend in want, did he turn his back upon him, or an unprotected damsel, did he delude her and leave her? When a nobleman of the early time received a young kinsman, did he get the better of him at dice, and did the ancient chivalry cheat in horseflesh? Can it be that this wily woman of the world, as my aunt has represented, has inveigled my poor Harry into an engagement, that her tears are false, and that as soon as she finds him poor she will desert him? Had we not best pack the trunks and take a cabin in the next ship bound for home?” George reached his own door revolving these thoughts, and Gumbo came up yawning with a candle, and Harry was asleep before the extinguished fire, with the ashes of his emptied pipe on the table beside him.

He starts up; his eyes, for a moment dulled by sleep, lighten with pleasure as he sees his dear George. He puts his arm round his brother with a boyish laugh.

“There he is in flesh and blood, thank God!” he says; “I was dreaming of thee but now, George, and that Ward was hearing us our lesson! Dost thou remember the ruler, Georgy? Why, bless my soul, ’tis three o’clock! Where have you been a-gadding, Mr. George? Hast thou supped? I supped at White’s, but I’m hungry again. I did not play, sir — no, no; no more of that for younger brothers! And my Lord March paid me fifty he lost to me. I bet against his horse and on the Duke of Hamilton’s! They both rode the match at Newmarket this morning, and he lost because he was under weight. And he paid me, and he was as sulky as a bear. Let us have one pipe, Georgy! — just one.”

And after the smoke the young men went to bed, where I, for one, wish them a pleasant rest, for sure it is a good and pleasant thing to see brethren who love one another.

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