The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LV

Between Brothers

Of course our young men had had their private talk about home, and all the people and doings there, and each had imparted to the other full particulars of his history since their last meeting. How were Harry’s dogs, and little Dempster, and good old Nathan, and the rest of the household? Was Mountain well, and Fanny grown to be a pretty girl? So Parson Broadbent’s daughter was engaged to marry Tom Barker of Savannah, and they were to go and live in Georgia! Harry owns that at one period he was very sweet upon Parson Broadbent’s daughter, and lost a great deal of pocket-money at cards, and drank a great quantity of strong-waters with the father, in order to have a pretext for being near the girl. But, Heaven help us! Madam Esmond would never have consented to his throwing himself away upon Polly Broadbent. So Colonel G. Washington’s wife was a pretty woman, very good-natured and pleasant, and with a good fortune? He had brought her into Richmond, and paid a visit of state to Madam Esmond. George described, with much humour, the awful ceremonials at the interview between these two personages, and the killing politeness of his mother to Mr. Washington’s young wife. “Never mind, George, my dear!” says Mrs. Mountain. “The Colonel has taken another wife, but I feel certain that at one time two young gentlemen I know of ran a very near chance of having a tall stepfather six feet two in his boots.” To be sure, Mountain was for ever match-making in her mind. Two people could not play a game at cards together, or sit down to a dish of tea, but she fancied their conjunction was for life. It was she — the foolish tattler — who had set the report abroad regarding the poor Indian woman. As for Madam Esmond, she had repelled the insinuation with scorn when Parson Stack brought it to her, and said, “I should as soon fancy Mr. Esmond stealing the spoons, or marrying a negro woman out of the kitchen.” But, though she disdained to find the poor Biche guilty, and even thanked her for attending her son in his illness, she treated her with such a chilling haughtiness of demeanour, that the Indian slunk away into the servants’ quarters, and there tried to drown her disappointments with drink. It was not a cheerful picture that which George gave of his two months at home. “The birthright is mine, Harry,” he said, “but thou art the favourite, and God help me! I think my mother almost grudges it to me. Why should I have taken the pas, and preceded your worship into the world? Had you been the eider, you would have had the best cellar, and ridden the best nag, and been the most popular man in the country, whereas I have not a word to say for myself, and frighten people by my glum face: I should have been second son, and set up as lawyer, or come to England and got my degrees, and turned parson, and said grace at your honour’s table. The time is out of joint, sir. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”

“Why, Georgy, you are talking verses, I protest you are!” says Harry.

“I think, my dear, some one else talked those verses before me,” says George, with a smile.

“It’s out of one of your books. You know every book that ever was wrote, that I do believe!” cries Harry, and then told his brother how he had seen the two authors at Tunbridge, and how he had taken off his hat to them. “Not that I cared much about their books, not being clever enough. But I remembered how my dear old George used to speak of ’em,” says Harry, with a choke in his voice, “and that’s why I liked to see them. I say, dear, it’s like a dream seeing you over again. Think of that bloody Indian with his knife at my George’s head! I should like to give that Monsieur de Florac something for saving you — but I haven’t got much now, only my little gold knee-buckles, and they ain’t worth two guineas.”

“You have got the half of what I have, child, and we’ll divide as soon as I have paid the Frenchman,” George said.

On which Harry broke out not merely into blessings but actual imprecations, indicating his intense love and satisfaction; and he swore that there never was such a brother in the world as his brother George. Indeed, for some days after his brother’s arrival his eyes followed George about: he would lay down his knife and fork, or his newspaper, when they were sitting together, and begin to laugh to himself. When he walked with George on the Mall or in Hyde Park, he would gaze round at the company, as much as to say, “Look here, gentlemen! This is he. This is my brother, that was dead and is alive again! Can any man in Christendom produce such a brother as this?”

Of course he was of opinion that George should pay to Museau’s heirs the sum which he had promised for his ransom. This question had been the cause of no small unhappiness to poor George at home. Museau dead, Madam Esmond argued with much eagerness, and not a little rancour, the bargain fell to the ground, and her son was free. The man was a rogue in the first instance. She would not pay the wages of iniquity. Mr. Esmond had a small independence from his father, and might squander his patrimony if he chose. He was of age, and the money was in his power; but she would be no party to such extravagance, as giving twelve thousand livres to a parcel of peasants in Normandy with whom we were at war, and who would very likely give it all to the priests and the pope. She would not subscribe to any such wickedness. If George wanted to squander away his father’s money (she must say that formerly he had not been so eager, and when Harry’s benefit was in question had refused to touch a penny of it!)— if he wished to spend it now, why not give it to his own flesh and blood, to poor Harry, who was suddenly deprived of his inheritance, and not to a set of priest-ridden peasants in France? This dispute had raged between mother and son during the whole of the latter’s last days in Virginia. It had never been settled. On the morning of George’s departure, Madam Esmond had come to his bedside after a sleepless night, and asked him whether he still persisted in his intention to fling away his father’s property?

He replied in a depth of grief and perplexity, that his word was passed, and he must do as his honour bade him. She answered that she would continue to pray that Heaven might soften his proud heart, and enable her to bear her heavy trials: and the last view George had of his mother’s face was as she stood yet a moment by his bedside, pale and with tearless eyes, before she turned away and slowly left his chamber.

“Where didst thou learn the art of winning over everybody to thy side, Harry?” continued George; “and how is it that you and all the world begin by being friends? Teach me a few lessons in popularity, nay, I don’t know that I will have them; and when I find and hear certain people hate me, I think I am rather pleased than angry. At first, at Richmond, Mr. Esmond Warrington, the only prisoner who had escaped from Braddock’s field — the victim of so much illness and hardship — was a favourite with the town-folks, and received privately and publicly with no little kindness. The parson glorified my escape in a sermon; the neighbours came to visit the fugitive; the family coach was ordered out, and Madam Esmond and I paid our visits in return. I think some pretty little caps were set at me. But these our mother routed off, and frightened with the prodigious haughtiness of her demeanour; and my popularity was already at the decrease before the event occurred which put the last finishing stroke to it. I was not jolly enough for the officers, and didn’t care for their drinking-bouts, dice-boxes, and swearing. I was too sarcastic for the ladies, and their tea and tattle stupefied me almost as much as the men’s blustering and horse-talk. I cannot tell thee, Harry, how lonely I felt in that place, amidst the scandal and squabbles: I regretted my prison almost, and found myself more than once wishing for the freedom of thought, and the silent ease of Duquesne. I am very shy, I suppose: I can speak unreservedly to very few people. Before most, I sit utterly silent. When we two were at home, it was thou who used to talk at table, and get a smile now and then from our mother. When she and I were together we had no subject in common, and we scarce spoke at all until we began to dispute about law and divinity.

“So the gentlemen had determined I was supercilious, and a dull companion (and, indeed, I think their opinion was right), and the ladies thought I was cold and sarcastic — could never make out whether I was in earnest or no, and, I think, generally voted I was a disagreeable fellow, before my character was gone quite away; and that went with the appearance of the poor Biche. Oh, a nice character they made for me, my dear!” cried George, in a transport of wrath, “and a pretty life they led me after Museau’s unlucky messenger had appeared amongst us! The boys hooted the poor woman if she appeared in the street; the ladies dropped me half-curtseys, and walked over to the other side. That precious clergyman went from one tea-table to another preaching on the horrors of seduction, and the lax principles which young men learned in popish countries and brought back thence. The poor Fawn’s appearance at home a few weeks after my return home, was declared to be a scheme between her and me; and the best informed agreed that she had waited on the other side of the river until I gave her the signal to come and join me in Richmond. The officers bantered me at the coffee-house, and cracked their clumsy jokes about the woman I had selected. Oh, the world is a nice charitable world! I was so enraged that I thought of going to Castlewood and living alone there — for our mother finds the place dull, and the greatest consolation in precious Mr. Stack’s ministry — when the news arrived of your female perplexity, and I think we were all glad that I should have a pretext for coming to Europe.”

“I should like to see any of the infernal scoundrels who said word against you, and break their rascally bones,” roars out Harry, striding up and down the room.

“I had to do something like it for Bob Clubber.”

“What! that little sneaking, backbiting, toad-eating wretch, who is always hanging about my lord at Greenway Court, and spunging on every gentleman in the country? If you whipped him, I hope you whipped him well, George?”

“We were bound over to keep the peace; and I offered to go into Maryland with him and settle our difference there, and of course the good folk said, that having made free with the seventh commandment I was inclined to break the sixth. So, by this and by that — and being as innocent of the crime imputed to me as you are — I left home, my dear Harry, with as awful a reputation as ever a young gentleman earned.”

Ah, what an opportunity is there here to moralise! If the esteemed reader and his humble servant could but know — could but write down in a book — could but publish, with illustrations, a collection of the lies which have been told regarding each of us since we came to man’s estate — what a harrowing and thrilling work of fiction that romance would be! Not only is the world informed of everything about you, but of a great deal more. Not long since the kind postman brought a paper containing a valuable piece of criticism, which stated —“This author states he was born in such and such a year. It is a lie. He was born in the year so and so.” The critic knew better: of course he did. Another (and both came from the country which gave MULLIGAN birth) warned some friend, saying, “Don’t speak of New South Wales to him. He has a brother there, and the family never mention his name.” But this subject is too vast and noble for a mere paragraph. I shall prepare a memoir, or let us have rather, par une societe de gens de lettres, a series of biographies, of lives of gentlemen, as told by their dear friends whom they don’t know.

George having related his exploits as champion and martyr, of course Harry had to unbosom himself to his brother, and lay before his elder an account of his private affairs. He gave up all the family of Castlewood — my lord, not for getting the better of him at play; for Harry was a sporting man, and expected to pay when he lost, and receive when he won; but for refusing to aid the chaplain in his necessity, and dismissing him with such false and heartless pretexts. About Mr. Will he had made up his mind, after the horse-dealing matter, and freely marked his sense of the latter’s conduct upon Mr. Will’s eyes and nose. Respecting the Countess and Lady Fanny, Harry spoke in a manner more guarded, but not very favourable. He had heard all sorts of stories about them. The Countess was a card-playing old cat; Lady Fanny was a desperate flirt. Who told him? Well, he had heard the stories from a person who knew them both very well indeed. In fact, in those days of confidence, of which we made mention in the last volume, Maria had freely imparted to her cousin a number of anecdotes respecting her stepmother and her half-sister, which were by no means in favour of those ladies.

But in respect to Lady Maria herself, the young man was staunch and hearty. “It may be imprudent: I don’t say no, George. I may be a fool: I think I am. I know there will be a dreadful piece of work at home, and that Madam and she will fight. Well! we must live apart. Our estate is big enough to live on without quarrelling, and I can go elsewhere than to Richmond or Castlewood. When you come to the property, you’ll give me a bit — at any rate, Madam will let me off at an easy rent — or I’ll make a famous farmer or factor. I can’t and won’t part from Maria. She has acted so nobly by me, that I should be a rascal to turn my back on her. Think of her bringing me every jewel she had in the world, dear brave creature! and flinging them into my lap with her last guineas — and — and — God bless her!” Here Harry dashed his sleeve across his eyes, with a stamp of his foot, and said, “No, brother, I won’t part with her — not to be made Governor of Virginia tomorrow; and my dearest old George would never advise me to do so, I know that.”

“I am sent here to advise you,” George replied. “I am sent to break the marriage off, if I can: and a more unhappy one I can’t imagine. But I can’t counsel you to break your word, my boy.”

“I knew you couldn’t! What’s said is said, George. I have made my bed, and must lie on it,” says Mr. Harry, gloomily.

Such had been the settlement between our two young worthies, when they first talked over Mr. Harry’s love affair. But after George’s conversation with his aunt, and the further knowledge of his family, which he acquired through the information of that keen old woman of the world, Mr. Warrington, who was naturally of a sceptical turn, began to doubt about Lady Maria, as well as regarding her brothers and sister, and looked at Harry’s engagement with increased distrust and alarm. Was it for his wealth that Maria wanted Harry? Was it his handsome young person that she longed after? Were those stories true which Aunt Bernstein had told of her? Certainly he could not advise Harry to break his word; but he might cast about in his mind for some scheme for putting Maria’s affection to the trial; and his ensuing conduct, which appeared not very amiable, I suppose resulted from this deliberation.

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