The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LIX

In which we are treated to a Play

The real business of life, I fancy, can form but little portion of the novelist’s budget. When he is speaking of the profession of arms, in which men can show courage or the reverse, and in treating of which the writer naturally has to deal with interesting circumstances, actions, and characters, introducing recitals of danger, devotedness, heroic deaths, and the like, the novelist may perhaps venture to deal with actual affairs of life: but otherwise, they scarcely can enter into our stories. The main part of Ficulnus’s life, for instance, is spent in selling sugar, spices and cheese; of Causidicus’s in poring over musty volumes of black-letter law; of Sartorius’s in sitting, cross-legged, on a board after measuring gentlemen for coats and breeches. What can a story-teller say about the professional existence of these men? Would a real rustical history of hobnails and eighteenpence a day be endurable? In the days whereof we are writing, the poets of the time chose to represent a shepherd in pink breeches and a chintz waistcoat, dancing before his flocks, and playing a flageolet tied up with a blue satin ribbon. I say, in reply to some objections which have been urged by potent and friendly critics, that of the actual affairs of life the novelist cannot be expected to treat — with the almost single exception of war before named. But law, stockbroking, polemical theology, linen-drapery, apothecary-business, and the like, how can writers manage fully to develop these in their stories? All authors can do, is to depict men out of their business — in their passions, loves, laughters, amusements, hatreds, and what not — and describe these as well as they can, taking the business part for granted, and leaving it as it were for subaudition.

Thus, in talking of the present or the past world, I know I am only dangling about the theatre-lobbies, coffee-houses, ridottos, pleasure-haunts, fair-booths, and feasting — and fiddling-rooms of life; that, meanwhile, the great serious past or present world is plodding in its chambers, toiling at its humdrum looms, or jogging on its accustomed labours, and we are only seeing our characters away from their work. Corydon has to cart the litter and thresh the barley, as well as to make love to Phillis; Ancillula has to dress and wash the nursery, to wait at breakfast and on her misses, to take the children out, etc., before she can have her brief sweet interview through the area-railings with Boopis, the policeman. All day long have his heels to beat the stale pavement before he has the opportunity to snatch the hasty kiss or the furtive cold pie. It is only at moments, and away from these labours, that we can light upon one character or the other; and hence, though most of the persons of whom we are writing have doubtless their grave employments and avocations, it is only when they are disengaged and away from their work, that we can bring them and the equally disengaged reader together.

The macaronis and fine gentlemen at White’s and Arthur’s continued to show poor Harry Warrington such a very cold shoulder, that he sought their society less and less, and the Ring and the Mall and the gaming-table knew him no more. Madame de Bernstein was for her nephew’s braving the indifference of the world, and vowed that it would be conquered, if he would but have courage to face it; but the young man was too honest to wear a smiling face when he was discontented; to disguise mortification or anger; to parry slights by adroit flatteries or cunning impudence; as many gentlemen and gentlewomen must and do who wish to succeed in society.

“You pull a long face, Harry, and complain of the world’s treatment of you,” the old lady said. “Fiddlededee, sir! Everybody has to put up with impertinences: and if you get a box on the ear now you are poor and cast down, you must say nothing about it, bear it with a smile, and if you can, revenge it ten years after. Moi qui vous parle, sir! — do you suppose I have had no humble-pie to eat? All of us in our turn are called upon to swallow it: and, now you are no longer the Fortunate Youth, be the Clever Youth, and win back the place you have lost by your ill luck. Go about more than ever. Go to all the routs and parties to which you are asked, and to more still. Be civil to everybody — to all women especially. Only of course take care to show your spirit, of which you have plenty. With economy, and by your brother’s, I must say, admirable generosity, you can still make a genteel figure. With your handsome person, sir, you can’t fail to get a rich heiress. Tenez! You should go amongst the merchants in the City, and look out there. They won’t know that you are out of fashion at the Court end of the town. With a little management, there is not the least reason, sir, why you should not make a good position for yourself still. When did you go to see my Lady Yarmouth, pray? Why did you not improve that connexion? She took a great fancy to you. I desire you will be constant at her ladyship’s evenings, and lose no opportunity of paying court to her.”

Thus the old woman who had loved Harry so on his first appearance in England, who had been so eager for his company, and pleased with his artless conversation, was taking the side of the world, and turning against him. Instead of the smiles and kisses with which the fickle old creature used once to greet him, she received him with coldness; she became peevish and patronising; she cast gibes and scorn at him before her guests, making his honest face flush with humiliation, and awaking the keenest pangs of grief and amazement in his gentle, manly heart. Madame de Bernstein’s servants, who used to treat him with such eager respect, scarcely paid him now any attention. My lady was often indisposed or engaged when he called on her; her people did not press him to wait; did not volunteer to ask whether he would stay and dine, as they used in the days when he was the Fortunate Youth and companion of the wealthy and great. Harry carried his woes to Mrs. Lambert. In a passion of sorrow he told her of his aunt’s cruel behaviour to him. He was stricken down and dismayed by the fickleness and heartlessness of the world in its treatment of him. While the good lady and her daughters would move to and fro, and busy themselves with the cares of the house, our poor lad would sit glum in a window-seat, heart-sick and silent.

“I know you are the best people alive,” he would say to the ladies, “and the kindest, and that I must be the dullest company in the world — yes, that I am.”

“Well, you are not very lively, Harry,” says Miss Hetty, who began to command him, and perhaps to ask herself, “What? Is this the gentleman whom I took to be such a hero?”

“If he is unhappy, why should he be lively?” asks Theo, gently. “He has a good heart, and is pained at his friends’ desertion of him. Sure there is no harm in that?”

“I would have too much spirit to show I was hurt, though,” cries Hetty, clenching her little fists. “And I would smile, though that horrible old painted woman boxed my ears. She is horrible, mamma. You think so yourself, Theo! Own, now, you think so yourself! You said so last night, and acted her coming in on her crutch, and grinning round to the company.”

“I mayn’t like her,” said Theo, turning very red. “But there is no reason why I should call Harry’s aunt names before Harry’s face.”

“You provoking thing; you are always right!” cries Hetty, “and that’s what makes me so angry. Indeed, Harry, it was very wrong of me to make rude remarks about any of your relations.”

“I don’t care about the others, Hetty; but it seems hard that this one should turn upon me. I had got to be very fond of her; and you see, it makes me mad, somehow, when people I’m very fond of turn away from me, or act unkind to me.”

“Suppose George were to do so?” asks Hetty. You see, it was George and Hetty, and Theo and Harry, amongst them now.

“You are very clever and very lively, and you may suppose a number of things; but not that, Hetty, if you please,” cried Harry, standing up and looking very resolute and angry. “You don’t know my brother as I know him — or you wouldn’t take — such a — liberty as to suppose — my brother George could do anything unkind or unworthy!” Mr. Harry was quite in a flush as he spoke.

Hetty turned very white. Then she looked up at Harry, and then she did not say a single word.

Then Harry said, in his simple way, before taking leave, “I’m very sorry, and I beg your pardon, Hetty, if I said anything rough, or that seemed unkind; but I always fight up if anybody says anything against George.”

Hetty did not answer a word out of her pale lips, but gave him her hand, and dropped a prim little curtsey.

When she and Theo were together at night, making curl-paper confidences, “Oh!” said Hetty, “I thought it would be so happy to see him every day, and was so glad when papa said we were to stay in London! And now I do see him, you see, I go on offending him. I can’t help offending him; and I know he is not clever, Theo. But oh! isn’t he good, and kind, and brave? Didn’t he look handsome when he was angry?”

“You silly little thing, you are always trying to make him look handsome,” Theo replied.

It was Theo and Hetty, and Harry and George, among these young people, then; and I dare say the reason why General Lambert chose to apply the monosyllable “Bo” to the mother of his daughters, was as a rebuke to that good woman for the inveterate love of sentiment and propensity to match-making which belonged to her (and every other woman in the world whose heart is worth a fig); and as a hint that Madam Lambert was a goose if she fancied the two Virginian lads were going to fall in love with the young women of the Lambert house. Little Het might have her fancy; little girls will; but they get it over: “and you know, Molly” (which dear, soft-hearted Mrs. Lambert could not deny), “you fancied somebody else before you fancied me,” says the General; but Harry had evidently not been smitten by Hetty; and now he was superseded, as it were, by having an elder brother over him, and could not even call the coat upon his back his own, Master Harry was no great catch.

“Oh yes: now he is poor we will show him the door, as all the rest of the world does, I suppose,” says Mrs. Lambert.

“That is what I always do, isn’t it, Molly? turn my back on my friends in distress?” asks the General.

“No, my dear! I am a goose, now, and that I own, Martin!” says the wife, having recourse to the usual pocket-handkerchief.

“Let the poor boy come to us and welcome: ours is almost the only house in this selfish place where so much can be said for him. He is unhappy, and to be with us puts him at ease; in God’s name let him be with us!” says the kind-hearted officer. Accordingly, whenever poor crestfallen Hal wanted a dinner, or an evening’s entertainment, Mr. Lambert’s table had a corner for him. So was George welcome, too. He went among the Lamberts, not at first with the cordiality which Harry felt for these people, and inspired among them: for George was colder in his manner, and more mistrustful of himself and others than his twin-brother: but there was a goodness and friendliness about the family which touched almost all people who came into frequent contact with them; and George soon learned to love them for their own sake, as well as for their constant regard and kindness to his brother. He could not but see and own how sad Harry was, and pity his brother’s depression. In his sarcastic way, George would often take himself to task before his brother for coming to life again, and say, “Dear Harry, I am George the Unlucky, though you have ceased to be Harry the Fortunate. Florac would have done much better not to pass his sword through that Indian’s body, and to have left my scalp as an ornament for the fellow’s belt. I say he would, sir! At White’s the people would have respected you. Our mother would have wept over me, as a defunct angel, instead of being angry with me for again supplanting her favourite — you are her favourite, you deserve to be her favourite: everybody’s favourite: only, if I had not come back, your favourite, Maria, would have insisted on marrying you; and that is how the gods would have revenged themselves upon you for your prosperity.”

“I never know whether you are laughing at me or yourself, George” says the brother. I never know whether you are serious or jesting.

“Precisely my own case, Harry, my dear!” says George.

“But this I know, that there never was a better brother in the world; and never better people than the Lamberts.”

“Never was truer word said!” cries George, taking his brother’s hand.

“And if I’m unhappy, ’tis not your fault — nor their fault — nor perhaps mine, George,” continues the younger. ’Tis fate, you see, ’tis the having nothing to do. I must work; and how, George? that is the question.”

“We will see what our mother says. We must wait till we hear from her,” says George.

“I say, George! Do you know, I don’t think I should much like going back to Virginia?” says Harry, in a low, alarmed voice.

“What! in love with one of the lasses here?”

“Love ’em like sisters — with all my heart, of course, dearest, best girls! but, having come out of that business, thanks to you, I don’t want to go back, you know. No! no! It is not for that I fancy staying in Europe better than going home. But, you see, I don’t fancy hunting, duck-shooting, tobacco-planting, whist-playing, and going to sermon, over and over and over again, for all my life, George. And what else is there to do at home? What on earth is there for me to do at all, I say? That’s what makes me miserable. It would not matter for you to be a younger son you are so clever you would make your way anywhere; but, for a poor fellow like me, what chance is there? Until I do something, George, I shall be miserable, that’s what I shall!”

“Have I not always said so? Art thou not coming round to my opinion?”

“What opinion, George? You know pretty much whatever you think, I think, George!” says the dutiful junior.

“That Florac had best have left the Indian to take my scalp, my dear!”

At which Harry bursts away with an angry exclamation; and they continue to puff their pipes in friendly union.

They lived together, each going his own gait; and not much intercourse, save that of affection, was carried on between them. Harry never would venture to meddle with George’s books, and would sit as dumb as a mouse at the lodgings whilst his brother was studying. They removed presently from the Court end of the town, Madame de Bernstein pishing and pshaing at their change of residence. But George took a great fancy to frequenting Sir Hans Sloane’s new reading-room and museum, just set up in Montagu House, and he took cheerful lodgings in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, looking over the delightful fields towards Hampstead, at the back of the Duke of Bedford’s gardens. And Lord Wrotham’s family coming to Mayfair, and Mr. Lambert having business which detained him in London, had to change his house, too, and engaged furnished apartments in Soho, not very far off from the dwelling of our young men; and it was, as we have said, with the Lamberts that Harry, night after night, took refuge.

George was with them often, too; and, as the acquaintance ripened, he frequented their house with increasing assiduity, finding their company more to his taste than that of Aunt Bernstein’s polite circle of gamblers, than Sir Miles Warrington’s port and mutton, or the daily noise and clatter of the coffee-houses. And as he and the Lambert ladies were alike strangers in London, they partook of its pleasures together, and, no doubt, went to Vauxhall and Ranelagh, to Marybone Gardens, and the play, and the Tower, and wherever else there was honest amusement to be had in those days. Martin Lambert loved that his children should have all the innocent pleasure which he could procure for them, and Mr. George, who was of a most generous, open-handed disposition, liked to treat his friends likewise, especially those who had been so admirably kind to his brother.

With all the passion of his heart Mr. Warrington loved a play. He had never enjoyed this amusement in Virginia, and only once or twice at Quebec, when he visited Canada; and when he came to London, where the two houses were in their full glory, I believe he thought he never could have enough of the delightful entertainment. Anything he liked himself, he naturally wished to share amongst his companions. No wonder that he was eager to take his friends to the theatre, and we may be sure our young countryfolks were not unwilling. Shall it be Drury Lane or Covent Garden, ladies? There was Garrick and Shakspeare at Drury Lane. Well, will it be believed, the ladies wanted to hear the famous new author whose piece was being played at Covent Garden?

At this time a star of genius had arisen, and was blazing with quite a dazzling brilliancy. The great Mr. John Home, of Scotland, had produced a tragedy, than which, since the days of the ancients, there had been nothing more classic and elegant. What had Mr. Garrick meant by refusing such a masterpiece for his theatre? Say what you will about Shakspeare; in the works of that undoubted great poet (who had begun to grow vastly more popular in England since Monsieur Voltaire attacked him) there were many barbarisms that could not but shock a polite auditory; whereas, Mr. Home, the modern author, knew how to be refined in the very midst of grief and passion; to represent death, not merely as awful, but graceful and pathetic; and never condescended to degrade the majesty of the Tragic Muse by the ludicrous apposition of buffoonery and familiar punning, such as the elder playwright certainly had resort to. Besides, Mr. Home’s performance had been admired in quarters so high, and by personages whose taste was known to be as elevated as their rank, that all Britons could not but join in the plaudits for which august hands had given the signal. Such, it was said, was the opinion of the very best company, in the coffee-houses, and amongst the wits about town. Why, the famous Mr. Gray, of Cambridge, said there had not been for a hundred years any dramatic dialogue of such a true style; and as for the poet’s native capital of Edinburgh, where the piece was first brought out, it was even said that the triumphant Scots called out from the pit (in their dialect), “Where’s Wully Shakspeare noo?”

“I should like to see the man who could beat Willy Shakspeare?” says the General, laughing.

“Mere national prejudice,” says Mr. Warrington.

“Beat Shakspeare, indeed!” cries Mrs. Lambert.

“Pooh, pooh! you have cried more over Mr. Sam Richardson than ever you did over Mr. Shakspeare, Molly!” remarks the General. “I think few women love to read Shakspeare: they say they love it, but they don’t.”

“Oh, papa!” cry three ladies, throwing up three pair of hands.

“Well, then, why do you all three prefer Douglas? And you, boys, who are such Tories, will you go see a play which is wrote by a Whig Scotchman, who was actually made prisoner at Falkirk?”

“Relicta non bene parmula,” says Mr. Jack the scholar.

“Nay; it was relicta bene parmula,” cried the General. “It was the Highlanders who flung their targes down, and made fierce work among us redcoats. If they had fought all their fields as well as that, and young Perkin had not turned back from Derby ——”

“I know which side would be rebels, and who would be called the Young Pretender,” interposed George.

“Hush! you must please to remember my cloth, Mr. Warrington,” said the General, with some gravity; “and that the cockade I wear is a black, not a white one! Well, if you will not love Mr. Home for his politics, there is, I think, another reason, George, why you should like him.”

“I may have Tory fancies, Mr. Lambert, but I think I know how to love and honour a good Whig,” said George, with a bow to the General: “but why should I like this Mr. Home, sir?”

“Because, being a Presbyterian clergyman, he has committed the heinous crime of writing a play, and his brother-parsons have barked out an excommunication at him. They took the poor fellow’s means of livelihood away from him for his performance; and he would have starved, but that the young Pretender on our side of the water has given him a pension.”

“If he has been persecuted by the parsons, there is hope for him,” said George, smiling. “And henceforth I declare myself ready to hear his sermons.”

“Mrs. Woffington is divine in it, though not generally famous in tragedy. Barry is drawing tears from all eyes; and Garrick is wild at having refused the piece. Girls, you must bring each half a dozen handkerchiefs! As for mamma, I cannot trust her; and she positively must be left at home.”

But mamma persisted she would go; and, if need were to weep, she would sit and cry her eyes out in a corner. They all went to Covent Garden, then; the most of the party duly prepared to see one of the masterpieces of the age and drama. Could they not all speak long pages of Congreve; had they not wept and kindled over Otway and Rowe? O ye past literary glories, that were to be eternal, how long have you been dead? Who knows much more now than where your graves are? Poor, neglected Muse of the bygone theatre! She pipes for us, and we will not dance; she tears her hair, and we will not weep. And the Immortals of our time, how soon shall they be dead and buried, think you? How many will survive? How long shall it be ere Nox et Domus Plutonia shall overtake them?

So away went the pleased party to Covent Garden to see the tragedy of the immortal John Home. The ladies and the General were conveyed in a glass coach, and found the young men in waiting to receive them at the theatre door. Hence they elbowed their way through a crowd of torch-boys, and a whole regiment of footmen. Little Hetty fell to Harry’s arm in this expedition, and the blushing Miss Theo was handed to the box by Mr. George. Gumbo had kept the places until his masters arrived, when he retired, with many bows, to take his own seat in the footman’s gallery. They had good places in a front box, and there was luckily a pillar behind which mamma could weep in comfort. And opposite them they had the honour to see the august hope of the empire, his Royal Highness George Prince of Wales, with the Princess Dowager his mother, whom the people greeted with loyal, but not very enthusiastic, plaudits. That handsome man standing behind his Royal Highness was my Lord Bute, the Prince’s Groom of the Stole, the patron of the poet whose performance they had come to see, and over whose work the Royal party had already wept more than once.

How can we help it, if during the course of the performance, Mr. Lambert would make his jokes and mar the solemnity of the scene? At first, as the reader of the tragedy well knows, the characters are occupied in making a number of explanations. Lady Randolph explains how it is that she is so melancholy. Married to Lord Randolph somewhat late in life, she owns, and his lordship perceives, that a dead lover yet occupies all her heart; and her husband is fain to put up with this dismal, second-hand regard, which is all that my lady can bestow. Hence, an invasion of Scotland by the Danes is rather a cause of excitement than disgust to my lord, who rushes to meet the foe, and forgets the dreariness of his domestic circumstances. Welcome, Vikings and Norsemen! Blow, northern blasts, the invaders’ keels to Scotland’s shore! Randolph and other heroes will be on the beach to give the foemen a welcome! His lordship has no sooner disappeared behind the trees of the forest, but Lady Randolph begins to explain to her confidante the circumstances of her early life. The fact was, she had made a private marriage, and what would the confidante say, if, in early youth, she, Lady Randolph, had lost a husband? In the cold bosom of the earth was lodged the husband of her youth, and in some cavern of the ocean lies her child and his!

Up to this the General behaved with as great gravity as any of his young companions to the play; but when Lady Randolph proceeded to say, “Alas! Hereditary evil was the cause of my misfortunes,” he nudged George Warrington, and looked so droll, that the young man burst out laughing.

The magic of the scene was destroyed after that. These two gentlemen went on cracking jokes during the whole of the subsequent performance, to their own amusement, but the indignation of their company, and perhaps of the people in the adjacent boxes. Young Douglas, in those days, used to wear a white satin “shape” slashed at the legs and body, and when Mr. Barry appeared in this droll costume, the General vowed it was the exact dress of the Highlanders in the late war. The Chevalier’s Guard, he declared, had all white satin slashed breeches, and red boots —“only they left them at home, my dear,” adds this wag. Not one pennyworth of sublimity would he or George allow henceforth to Mr. Home’s performance. As for Harry, he sate in very deep meditation over the scene; and when Mrs. Lambert offered him a penny for his thoughts, he said, “That he thought, Young Norval, Douglas, What-d’ye-call-’em, the fellow in white satin — who looked as old as his mother — was very lucky to be able to distinguish himself so soon. I wish I could get a chance, Aunt Lambert,” says he, drumming on his hat; on which mamma sighed, and Theo, smiling, said, “We must wait, and perhaps the Danes will land.”

“How do you mean?” asks simple Harry.

“Oh, the Danes always land, pour qui scait attendre!” says kind Theo, who had hold of her sister’s little hand, and, I dare say, felt its pressure.

She did not behave unkindly — that was not in Miss Theo’s nature — but somewhat coldly to Mr. George, on whom she turned her back, addressing remarks, from time to time, to Harry. In spite of the gentlemen’s scorn, the women chose to be affected. A mother and son, meeting in love and parting in tears, will always awaken emotion in female hearts.

“Look, papa! there is an answer to all your jokes!” says Theo, pointing towards the stage.

At a part of the dialogue between Lady Randolph and her son, one of the grenadiers on guard on each side of the stage, as the custom of those days was, could not restrain his tears, and was visibly weeping before the side-box.

“You are right, my dear,” says papa.

“Didn’t I tell you she always is?” interposes Hetty.

“Yonder sentry is a better critic than we are, and a touch of nature masters us all.”

“Tamen usque recurrit!” cries the young student from college.

George felt abashed somehow, and interested too. He had been sneering, and Theo sympathising. Her kindness was better — nay, wiser — than his scepticism, perhaps. Nevertheless, when, at the beginning of the fifth act of the play, young Douglas, drawing his sword and looking up at the gallery, bawled out —

“Ye glorious stars! high heaven’s resplendent host!
To whom I oft have of my lot complained,
Hear and record my soul’s unaltered wish
Living or dead, let me but be renowned!
May Heaven inspire some fierce gigantic Dane
To give a bold defiance to our host!
Before he speaks it out, I will accept,
Like Douglas conquer, or like Douglas die!”—

The gods, to whom Mr. Barry appealed, saluted this heroic wish with immense applause, and the General clapped his hands prodigiously. His daughter was rather disconcerted.

“This Douglas is not only brave, but he is modest!” says papa.

“I own I think he need not have asked for a gigantic Dane,” says Theo, smiling, as Lady Randolph entered in the midst of the gallery thunder.

When the applause had subsided, Lady Randolph is made to say —

“My son, I heard a voice!”

“I think she did hear a voice!” cries papa. “Why, the fellow was bellowing like a bull of Bashan.” And the General would scarcely behave himself from thenceforth to the end of the performance. He said he was heartily glad that the young gentleman was put to death behind the scenes. When Lady Randolph’s friend described how her mistress had “flown like lightning up the hill, and plunged herself into the empty air,” Mr. Lambert said he was delighted to be rid of her. “And as for that story of her early marriage,” says he, “I have my very strongest doubts about it.”

“Nonsense, Martin! Look, children! their Royal Highnesses are moving.”

The tragedy over, the Princess Dowager and the Prince were, in fact, retiring; though, I dare say, the latter, who was always fond of a farce, would have been far better pleased with that which followed than he had been with Mr. Home’s dreary tragic masterpiece.

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