The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER VI

The Virginians begin to see the World

After the departure of her unfortunate spiritual adviser and chaplain, Madam Esmond and her son seemed to be quite reconciled: but although George never spoke of the quarrel with his mother, it must have weighed upon the boy’s mind very painfully, for he had a fever soon after the last recounted domestic occurrences, during which illness his brain once or twice wandered, when he shrieked out, “Broken! Broken! It never, never can be mended!” to the silent terror of his mother, who sate watching the poor child as he tossed wakeful upon his midnight bed. His malady defied her skill, and increased in spite of all the nostrums which the good widow kept in her closet and administered so freely to her people. She had to undergo another humiliation, and one day little Mr. Dempster beheld her at his door on horseback. She had ridden through the snow on her pony, to implore him to give his aid to her poor boy. “I shall bury my resentment, madam,” said he, “as your ladyship buried your pride. Please God, I maybe time enough to help my dear young pupil!” So he put up his lancet, and his little provision of medicaments; called his only negro-boy after him, shut up his lonely hut, and once more returned to Castlewood. That night and for some days afterwards it seemed very likely that poor Harry would become heir of Castlewood; but by Mr. Dempster’s skill the fever was got over, the intermittent attacks diminished in intensity, and George was restored almost to health again. A change of air, a voyage even to England, was recommended, but the widow had quarrelled with her children’s relatives there, and owned with contrition that she had been too hasty. A journey to the north and east was determined on, and the two young gentlemen, with Mr. Dempster as their tutor, and a couple of servants to attend them, took a voyage to New York, and thence up the beautiful Hudson river to Albany, where they were received by the first gentry of the province, and thence into the French provinces, where they had the best recommendations, and were hospitably entertained by the French gentry. Harry camped with the Indians, and took furs and shot bears. George, who never cared for field-sports, and whose health was still delicate, was a special favourite with the French ladies, who were accustomed to see very few young English gentlemen speaking the French language so readily as our young gentlemen. George especially perfected his accent so as to be able to pass for a Frenchman. He had the bel air completely, every person allowed. He danced the minuet elegantly. He learned the latest imported French catches and songs, and played them beautifully on his violin, and would have sung them too but that his voice broke at this time, and changed from treble to bass; and, to the envy of poor Harry, who was absent on a bear-hunt, he even had an affair of honour with a young ensign of the regiment of Auvergne, the Chevalier de la Jabotiere, whom he pinked in the shoulder, and with whom he afterwards swore an eternal friendship. Madame de Mouchy, the superintendent’s lady, said the mother was blest who had such a son, and wrote a complimentary letter to Madam Esmond upon Mr. George’s behaviour. I fear, Mr. Whitfield would not have been over-pleased with the widow’s elation on hearing of her son’s prowess.

When the lads returned home at the end of ten delightful months, their mother was surprised at their growth and improvement. George especially was so grown as to come up to his younger-born brother. The boys could hardly be distinguished one from another, especially when their hair was powdered; but that ceremony being too cumbrous for country life, each of the gentlemen commonly wore his own hair, George his raven black, and Harry his light locks tied with a ribbon.

The reader who has been so kind as to look over the first pages of the lad’s simple biography, must have observed that Mr. George Esmond was of a jealous and suspicious disposition, most generous and gentle and incapable of an untruth, and though too magnanimous to revenge, almost incapable of forgiving any injury. George left home with no goodwill towards an honourable gentleman, whose name afterwards became one of the most famous in the world; and he returned from his journey not in the least altered in his opinion of his mother’s and grandfather’s friend. Mr. Washington, though then but just of age, looked and felt much older. He always exhibited an extraordinary simplicity and gravity; he had managed his mother’s and his family’s affairs from a very early age, and was trusted by all his friends and the gentry of his county more than persons twice his senior.

Mrs. Mountain, Madam Esmond’s friend and companion, who dearly loved the two boys and her patroness, in spite of many quarrels with the latter, and daily threats of parting, was a most amusing, droll letter-writer, and used to write to the two boys on their travels. Now, Mrs. Mountain was of a jealous turn likewise; especially she had a great turn for match-making, and fancied that everybody had a design to marry everybody else. There scarce came an unmarried man to Castlewood but Mountain imagined the gentleman had an eye towards the mistress of the mansion. She was positive that odious Mr. Ward intended to make love to the widow, and pretty sure the latter liked him. She knew that Mr. Washington wanted to be married, was certain that such a shrewd young gentleman would look out for a rich wife, and, as for the differences of ages, what matter that the Major (major was his rank in the militia) was fifteen years younger than Madam Esmond? They were used to such marriages in the family; my lady her mother was how many years older than the Colonel when she married him? — When she married him and was so jealous that she never would let the poor Colonel out of her sight. The poor Colonel! after his wife, he had been henpecked by his little daughter. And she would take after her mother, and marry again, be sure of that. Madam was a little chit of a woman, not five feet in her highest headdress and shoes, and Mr. Washington a great tall man of six feet two. Great tall men always married little chits of women: therefore, Mr. W. must be looking after the widow. What could be more clear than the deduction?

She communicated these sage opinions to her boy, as she called George, who begged her, for Heaven’s sake, to hold her tongue. This she said she could do, but she could not keep her eyes always shut; and she narrated a hundred circumstances which had occurred in the young gentleman’s absence, and which tended, as she thought, to confirm her notions. Had Mountain imparted these pretty suspicions to his brother? George asked sternly. No. George was her boy; Harry was his mother’s boy. “She likes him best, and I like you best, George,” cries Mountain. “Besides, if I were to speak to him, he would tell your mother in a minute. Poor Harry can keep nothing quiet, and then there would be a pretty quarrel between Madam and me!”

“I beg you to keep this quiet, Mountain,” said Mr. George, with great dignity, “or you and I shall quarrel too. Neither to me nor to any one else in the world must you mention such an absurd suspicion.”

Absurd! Why absurd? Mr. Washington was constantly with the widow. His name was forever in her mouth. She was never tired of pointing out his virtues and examples to her sons. She consulted him on every question respecting her estate and its management. She never bought a horse or sold a barrel of tobacco without his opinion. There was a room at Castlewood regularly called Mr. Washington’s room. “He actually leaves his clothes here and his portmanteau when he goes away. Ah! George, George! One day will come when he won’t go away,” groaned Mountain, who, of course, always returned to the subject of which she was forbidden to speak. Meanwhile Mr. George adopted towards his mother’s favourite a frigid courtesy, at which the honest gentleman chafed but did not care to remonstrate, or a stinging sarcasm, which he would break through as he would burst through so many brambles on those hunting excursions in which he and Harry Warrington rode so constantly together; whilst George, retreating to his tents, read mathematics, and French, and Latin, and sulked in his book-room more and more lonely.

Harry was away from home with some other sporting friends (it is to be feared the young gentleman’s acquaintances were not all as eligible as Mr. Washington), when the latter came to pay a visit at Castlewood. He was so peculiarly tender and kind to the mistress there, and received by her with such special cordiality, that George Warrington’s jealousy had well-nigh broken out in open rupture. But the visit was one of adieu, as it appeared.

Major Washington was going on a long and dangerous journey, quite to the western Virginia frontier and beyond it. The French had been for some time past making inroads into our territory. The government at home, as well as those of Virginia and Pennsylvania, were alarmed at this aggressive spirit of the Lords of Canada and Louisiana. Some of our settlers had already been driven from their holdings by Frenchmen in arms, and the governors of the British provinces were desirous to stop their incursions, or at any rate to protest against their invasion.

We chose to hold our American colonies by a law that was at least convenient for its framers. The maxim was, that whoever possessed the coast had a right to all the territory inland as far as the Pacific; so that the British charters only laid down the limits of the colonies from north to south, leaving them quite free from east to west. The French, meanwhile, had their colonies to the north and south, and aimed at connecting them by the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence and the great intermediate lakes and waters lying to the westward of the British possessions. In the year 1748, though peace was signed between the two European kingdoms, the colonial question remained unsettled, to be opened again when either party should be strong enough to urge it. In the year 1753, it came to an issue, on the Ohio river, where the British and French settlers met. To be sure, there existed other people besides French and British, who thought they had a title to the territory about which the children of their White Fathers were battling, namely, the native Indians and proprietors of the soil. But the logicians of St. James’s and Versailles wisely chose to consider the matter in dispute as a European and not a Red-man’s question, eliminating him from the argument, but employing his tomahawk as it might serve the turn of either litigant.

A company, called the Ohio Company, having grants from the Virginia government of lands along that river, found themselves invaded in their settlements by French military detachments, who roughly ejected the Britons from their holdings. These latter applied for protection to Mr. Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, who determined upon sending an ambassador to the French commanding officer on the Ohio, demanding that the French should desist from their inroads upon the territories of his Majesty King George.

Young Mr. Washington jumped eagerly at the chance of distinction which this service afforded him, and volunteered to leave his home and his rural and professional pursuits in Virginia, to carry the governor’s message to the French officer. Taking a guide, an interpreter, and a few attendants, and following the Indian tracks, in the fall of the year 1753, the intrepid young envoy made his way from Williamsburg almost to the shores of Lake Erie, and found the French commander at Fort le Boeuf. That officer’s reply was brief: his orders were to hold the place and drive all the English from it. The French avowed their intention of taking possession of the Ohio. And with this rough answer the messenger from Virginia had to return through danger and difficulty, across lonely forest and frozen river, shaping his course by the compass, and camping at night in the snow by the forest fires.

Harry Warrington cursed his ill-fortune that he had been absent from home on a cock-fight, when he might have had chance of sport so much nobler; and on his return from his expedition, which he had conducted with an heroic energy and simplicity, Major Washington was a greater favourite than ever with the lady of Castlewood. She pointed him out as a model to both her sons. “Ah, Harry!” she would say, “think of you, with your cock-fighting and your racing-matches, and the Major away there in the wilderness, watching the French, and battling with the frozen rivers! Ah, George! learning may be a very good thing, but I wish my eldest son were doing something in the service of his country!”

“I desire no better than to go home and seek for employment, ma’am,” says George. “You surely will not have me serve under Mr. Washington, in his new regiment, or ask a commission from Mr. Dinwiddie?”

“An Esmond can only serve with the king’s commission,” says Madam, “and as for asking a favour from Mr. Lieutenant-Governor Dinwiddie, I would rather beg my bread.”

Mr. Washington was at this time raising such a regiment as, with the scanty pay and patronage of the Virginian government, he could get together, and proposed, with the help of these men-of-war, to put a more peremptory veto upon the French invaders than the solitary ambassador had been enabled to lay. A small force under another officer, Colonel Trent, had been already despatched to the west, with orders to fortify themselves so as to be able to resist any attack of the enemy. The French troops, greatly outnumbering ours, came up with the English outposts, who were fortifying themselves at a place on the confines of Pennsylvania where the great city of Pittsburg now stands. A Virginian officer with but forty men was in no condition to resist twenty times that number of Canadians, who appeared before his incomplete works. He was suffered to draw back without molestation; and the French, taking possession of his fort, strengthened it, and christened it by the name of the Canadian governor, Du Quesne. Up to this time no actual blow of war had been struck. The troops representing the hostile nations were in presence — the guns were loaded, but no one as yet had cried “Fire.” It was strange, that in a savage forest of Pennsylvania, a young Virginian officer should fire a shot, and waken up a war which was to last for sixty years, which was to cover his own country and pass into Europe, to cost France her American colonies, to sever ours from us, and create the great Western republic; to rage over the Old World when extinguished in the New; and, of all the myriads engaged in the vast contest, to leave the prize of the greatest fame with him who struck the first blow!

He little knew of the fate in store for him. A simple gentleman, anxious to serve his king and do his duty, he volunteered for the first service, and executed it with admirable fidelity. In the ensuing year he took the command of the small body of provincial troops with which he marched to repel the Frenchmen. He came up with their advanced guard and fired upon them, killing their leader. After this he had himself to fall back with his troops, and was compelled to capitulate to the superior French force. On the 4th of July, 1754, the Colonel marched out with his troops from the little fort where he had hastily entrenched himself (and which they called Fort Necessity), gave up the place to the conqueror, and took his way home.

His command was over: his regiment disbanded after the fruitless, inglorious march and defeat. Saddened and humbled in spirit, the young officer presented himself after a while to his old friends at Castlewood. He was very young: before he set forth on his first campaign he may have indulged in exaggerated hopes of success, and uttered them. “I was angry when I parted from you,” he said to George Warrington, holding out his hand, which the other eagerly took. “You seemed to scorn me and my regiment, George. I thought you laughed at us, and your ridicule made me angry. I boasted too much of what we would do.”

“Nay, you have done your best, George,” says the other, who quite forgot his previous jealousy in his old comrade’s misfortune. “Everybody knows that a hundred and fifty starving men, with scarce a round of ammunition left, could not face five times their number perfectly armed, and everybody who knows Mr. Washington knows that he would do his duty. Harry and I saw the French in Canada last year. They obey but one will: in our provinces each governor has his own. They were royal troops the French sent against you . . .”

“Oh, but that some of ours were here!” cries Madam Esmond, tossing her head up. “I promise you a few good English regiments would make the white-coats run.”

“You think nothing of the provincials: and I must say nothing now we have been so unlucky,” said the Colonel, gloomily. “You made much of me when I was here before. Don’t you remember what victories you prophesied for me — how much I boasted myself very likely over your good wine? All those fine dreams are over now. ’Tis kind of your ladyship to receive a poor beaten fellow as you do:” and the young soldier hung down his head.

George Warrington, with his extreme acute sensibility, was touched at the other’s emotion and simple testimony of sorrow under defeat. He was about to say something friendly to Mr. Washington, had not his mother, to whom the Colonel had been speaking, replied herself: “Kind of us to receive you, Colonel Washington!” said the widow. “I never heard that when men were unhappy, our sex were less their friends.”

And she made the Colonel a very fine curtsey, which straightway caused her son to be more jealous of him than ever.

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