The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXIV

In which Harry lives to fight another Day

The trusty Gumbo could not console himself for the departure of his beloved master: at least, to judge from his tears and howls on first hearing the news of Mr. Harry’s enlistment, you would have thought the negro’s heart must break at the separation. No wonder he went for sympathy to the maid-servants at Mr. Lambert’s lodgings. Wherever that dusky youth was, he sought comfort in the society of females. Their fair and tender bosoms knew how to feel pity for the poor African, and the darkness of Gumbo’s complexion was no more repulsive to them than Othello’s to Desdemona. I believe Europe has never been so squeamish in regard to Africa, as a certain other respected Quarter. Nay, some Africans — witness the Chevalier de St. Georges, for instance — have been notorious favourites with the fair sex.

So, in his humbler walk, was Mr. Gumbo. The Lambert servants wept freely in his company; the maids kindly considered him not only as Mr. Harry’s man, but their brother. Hetty could not help laughing when she found Gumbo roaring because his master had gone a volumteer, as he called it, and had not taken him. He was ready to save Master Harry’s life any day, and would have done it and had himself cut in twenty thousand hundred pieces for Master Harry, that he would! Meanwhile, Nature must be supported, and he condescended to fortify her by large supplies of beer and cold meat in the kitchen. That he was greedy, idle, and told lies, is certain; but yet Hetty gave him half a crown, and was especially kind to him. Her tongue, that was wont to wag so pertly, was so gentle now, that you might fancy it had never made a joke. She moved about the house mum and meek. She was humble to mamma; thankful to John and Betty when they waited at dinner; patient to Polly when the latter pulled her hair in combing it; long-suffering when Charley from school trod on her toes, or deranged her workbox; silent in papa’s company — oh, such a transmogrified little Hetty! If papa had ordered her to roast the leg of mutton, or walk to church arm-inarm with Gumbo, she would have made a curtsey, and said, “Yes, if you please, dear papa!” Leg of mutton! What sort of meal were some poor volunteers having, with the cannon-balls flying about their heads? Church! When it comes to the prayer in time of war, oh, how her knees smite together as she kneels, and hides her head in the pew! She holds down her head when the parson reads out, “Thou shalt do no murder,” from the communion-rail, and fancies he must be looking at her. How she thinks of all travellers by land or by water! How she sickens as she runs to the paper to read if there is news of the Expedition! How she watches papa when he comes home from his Ordnance Office, and looks in his face to see if there is good news or bad! Is he well? Is he made a General yet? Is he wounded and made a prisoner? ah me! or, perhaps, are both his legs taken off by one shot, like that pensioner they saw in Chelsea Garden t’other day? She would go on wooden legs all her life, if his can but bring him safe home; at least, she ought never to get up off her knees until he is returned. “Haven’t you heard of people, Theo,” says she, “whose hair has grown grey in a single night? I shouldn’t wonder if mine did — shouldn’t wonder in the least.” And she looks in the glass to ascertain that phenomenon.

“Hetty dear, you used not to be so nervous when papa was away in Minorca,” remarks Theo.

“Ah, Theo! one may very well see that George is not with the army, but safe at home,” rejoins Hetty; whereat the elder sister blushes, and looks very pensive. Au fait, if Mr. George had been in the army, that, you see, would have been another pair of boots. Meanwhile, we don’t intend to harrow anybody’s kind feelings any longer, but may as well state that Harry is, for the present, as safe as any officer of the Life Guards at Regent’s Park Barracks.

The first expedition in which our gallant volunteer was engaged may be called successful, but certainly was not glorious. The British Lion, or any other lion, cannot always have a worthy enemy to combat, or a battle-royal to deliver. Suppose he goes forth in quest of a tiger who won’t come, and lays his paws on a goose, and gobbles him up? Lions, we know, must live like any other animals. But suppose, advancing into the forest in search of the tiger aforesaid, and bellowing his challenge of war, he espies not one but six tigers coming towards him? This manifestly is not his game at all. He puts his tail between his royal legs, and retreats into his own snug den as quickly as he may. Were he to attempt to go and fight six tigers, you might write that Lion down an Ass.

Now, Harry Warrington’s first feat of war was in this wise. He and about 13,000 other fighting men embarked in various ships and transports on the 1st of June, from the Isle of Wight, and at daybreak on the 5th the fleet stood in to the Bay of Cancale in Brittany. For a while he and the gentlemen volunteers had the pleasure of examining the French coast from their ships, whilst the Commander-inChief and the Commodore reconnoitred the bay in a cutter. Cattle were seen, and some dragoons, who trotted off into the distance; and a little fort with a couple of guns had the audacity to fire at his Grace of Marlborough and the Commodore in the cutter. By two o’clock the whole British fleet was at anchor, and signal was made for all the grenadier companies of eleven regiments to embark on board flat-bottomed boats and assemble round the Commodore’s ship, the Essex. Meanwhile, Mr. Howe, hoisting his broad pennant on board the Success frigate, went in as near as possible to shore, followed by the other frigates, to protect the landing of the troops; and, now, with Lord George Sackville and General Dury in command, the gentlemen volunteers, the grenadier companies, and three battalions of guards pulled to shore.

The gentlemen volunteers could not do any heroic deed upon this occasion, because the French, who should have stayed to fight them, ran away, and the frigates having silenced the fire of the little fort which had disturbed the reconnaissance of the Commander-inChief, the army presently assaulted it, taking the whole garrison prisoner, and shooting him in the leg. Indeed, he was but one old gentleman, who gallantly had fired his two guns, and who told his conquerors, “If every Frenchman had acted like me, you would not have landed at Cancale at all.”

The advanced detachment of invaders took possession of the village of Cancale, where they lay upon their arms all night; and our volunteer was joked by his comrades about his eagerness to go out upon the war-path, and bring in two or three scalps of Frenchmen. None such, however, fell under his tomahawk; the only person slain on the whole day being a French gentleman, who was riding with his servant, and was surprised by volunteer Lord Downe, marching in the front with a company of Kingsley’s. My Lord Downe offered the gentleman quarter, which he foolishly refused, whereupon he, his servant, and the two horses, were straightway shot.

Next day the whole force was landed, and advanced from Cancale to St. Malo. All the villages were emptied through which the troops passed, and the roads were so narrow in many places that the men had to march single file, and might have been shot down from behind the tall leafy hedges had there been any enemy to disturb them.

At nightfall the army arrived before St. Malo, and were saluted by a fire of artillery from that town, which did little damage in the darkness. Under cover of this, the British set fire to the ships, wooden buildings, pitch and tar magazines in the harbour, and made a prodigious conflagration that lasted the whole night.

This feat was achieved without any attempt on the part of the French to molest the British force: but, as it was confidently asserted that there was a considerable French force in the town of St. Malo, though they wouldn’t come out, his Grace the Duke of Marlborough and my Lord George Sackville determined not to disturb the garrison, marched back to Cancale again, and — and so got on board their ships.

If this were not a veracious history, don’t you see that it would have been easy to send our Virginian on a more glorious campaign? Exactly four weeks after his departure from England, Mr. Warrington found himself at Portsmouth again, and addressed a letter to his brother George, with which the latter ran off to Dean Street so soon as ever he received it.

“Glorious news, ladies!” cries he, finding the Lambert family all at breakfast. “Our champion has come back. He has undergone all sorts of dangers, but has survived them all. He has seen dragons — upon my word, he says so.”

“Dragons! What do you mean, Mr. Warrington?”

“But not killed any — he says so, as you shall hear. He writes:

“‘DEAREST BROTHER— I think you will be glad to hear that I am returned, without any commission as yet; without any wounds or glory; but — at any rate, alive and harty. On board our ship, we were almost as crowded as poor Mr. Holwell and his friends in their Black Hole at Calicutta. We had rough weather, and some of the gentlemen volunteers, who prefer smooth water, grumbled not a little. My gentlemen’s stomachs are dainty; and after Braund’s cookery and White’s kick-shaws, they don’t like plain sailor’s rum and bisket. But I, who have been at sea before, took my rations and can of flip very contentedly: being determined to put a good face on everything before our fine English macaronis, and show that a Virginia gentleman is as good as the best of ’em. I wish, for the honour of old Virginia, that I had more to brag about. But all I can say in truth is, that we have been to France and come back again. Why, I don’t think even your tragick pen could make anything of such a campaign as ours has been. We landed on the 6 at Cancalle Bay, we saw a few dragons on a hill . . .’

“There! Did I not tell you there were dragons?” asks George, laughing.

“Mercy! What can he mean by dragons?” cries Hetty.

“Immense, long-tailed monsters, with steel scales on their backs, who vomit fire, and gobble up a virgin a day. Haven’t you read about them in The Seven Champions?” says papa. “Seeing St. George’s flag, I suppose, they slunk off.”

“I have read of ’em,” says the little boy from Chartreux, solemnly. “They like to eat women. One was going to eat Andromeda, you know, papa; and Jason killed another, who was guarding the apple-tree.”

“ . . . A few dragons on a hill,” George resumes, “who rode away from us without engaging. We slept under canvass. We marched to St. Malo, and burned ever so many privateers there. And we went on board shipp again, without ever crossing swords with an enemy or meeting any except a few poor devils whom the troops plundered. Better luck next time! This hasn’t been very much nor particular glorious: but I have liked it for my part. I have smelt powder, besides a good deal of rosn and pitch we burned. I’ve seen the enemy; have sleppt under canvass, and been dredful crowdid and sick at sea. I like it. My best compliments to dear Aunt Lambert, and tell Miss Hetty I wasn’t very much fritened when I saw the French horse. — Your most affectionate brother, H. E. WARRINGTON.”

We hope Miss Hetty’s qualms of conscience were allayed by Harry’s announcement that his expedition was over, and that he had so far taken no hurt. Far otherwise. Mr. Lambert, in the course of his official duties, had occasion to visit the troops at Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, and George Warrington bore him company. They found Harry vastly improved in spirits and health from the excitement produced by the little campaign, quite eager and pleased to learn his new military duties, active, cheerful, and healthy, and altogether a different person from the listless moping lad who had dawdled in London coffee-houses and Mrs. Lambert’s drawing-room. The troops were under canvas; the weather was glorious, and George found his brother a ready pupil in a fine brisk open-air school of war. Not a little amused, the elder brother, arm-inarm with the young volunteer, paced the streets of the warlike city, recalled his own brief military experiences of two years back, and saw here a much greater army than that ill-fated one of which he had shared the disasters. The expedition, such as we have seen it, was certainly not glorious, and yet the troops and the nation were in high spirits with it. We were said to have humiliated the proud Gaul. We should have vanquished as well as humbled him had he dared to appear. What valour, after all, is like British valour? I dare say some such expressions have been heard in later times. Not that I would hint that our people brag much more than any other, or more now than formerly. Have not these eyes beheld the battle-grounds of Leipzig, Jena, Dresden, Waterloo, Blenheim, Bunker’s Hill, New Orleans? What heroic nation has not fought, has not conquered, has not run away, has not bragged in its turn? Well, the British nation was much excited by the glorious victory of St. Malo. Captured treasures were sent home and exhibited in London. The people were so excited, that more laurels and more victories were demanded, and the enthusiastic army went forth to seek some.

With this new expedition went a volunteer so distinguished, that we must give him precedence of all other amateur soldiers or sailors. This was our sailor Prince, H.R.H. Prince Edward, who was conveyed on board the Essex in the ship’s twelve-oared barge, the standard of England flying in the bow of the boat, the Admiral with his flag and boat following the Prince’s, and all the captains following in seniority.

Away sails the fleet, Harry, in high health and spirits, waving his hat to his friends as they cheer from the shore. He must and will have his commission before long. There can be no difficulty about that, George thinks. There is plenty of money in his little store to buy his brother’s ensigncy; but if he can win it without purchase by gallantry and good conduct, that were best. The colonel of the regiment reports highly of his recruit; men and officers like him. It is easy to see that he is a young fellow of good promise and spirit.

Hip, hip, huzzay! What famous news are these which arrive ten days after the expedition has sailed? On the 7th and 8th of August his Majesty’s troops had effected a landing in the Bay des Marais, two leagues westward of Cherbourg, in the face of a large body of the enemy. Awed by the appearance of British valour, that large body of the enemy has disappeared. Cherbourg has surrendered at discretion; and the English colours are hoisted on the three outlying forts. Seven-and-twenty ships have been burned in the harbours, and a prodigious number of fine brass cannon taken. As for your common iron guns, we have destroyed ’em, likewise the basin (about which the mounseers bragged so), and the two piers at the entrance to the harbour.

There is no end of jubilation in London; just as Mr. Howe’s guns arrive from Cherbourg, come Mr. Wolfe’s colours captured at Louisbourg. The colours are taken from Kensington to St Paul’s, escorted by fourscore life-guards and fourscore horse-grenadiers with officers in proportion, their standards, kettle-drums, and trumpets. At St. Paul’s they are received by the Dean and Chapter at the West Gate, and at that minute — bang, bong, bung — the Tower and Park guns salute them! Next day is the turn of the Cherbourg cannon and mortars. These are the guns we took. Look at them with their carving and flaunting emblems — their lilies, and crowns, and mottoes! Here they are, the Teneraire, the Malfaisant, the Vainqueur (the Vainqueur, indeed! a pretty vainqueur of Britons!), and ever so many more. How the people shout as the pieces are trailed through the streets in procession! As for Hetty and Mrs. Lambert, I believe they are of opinion that Harry took every one of the guns himself, dragging them out of the batteries, and destroying the artillerymen. He has immensely risen in the general estimation in the last few days. Madame de Bernstein has asked about him. Lady Maria has begged her dear cousin George to see her, and, if possible, give her news of his brother. George, who was quite the head of the family a couple of months since, finds himself deposed, and of scarce any account, in Miss Hetty’s eyes at least. Your wit, and your learning, and your tragedies, may be all very well; but what are these in comparison to victories and brass cannon? George takes his deposition very meekly. They are fifteen thousand Britons. Why should they not march and take Paris itself? Nothing more probable, think some of the ladies. They embrace; they congratulate each other; they are in a high state of excitement. For once, they long that Sir Miles and Lady Warrington were in town, so that they might pay her ladyship a visit, and ask, “What do you say to your nephew now, pray? Has he not taken twenty-one finest brass cannon; flung a hundred and twenty iron guns into the water, seized twenty-seven ships in the harbour, and destroyed the basin and the two piers at the entrance?” As the whole town rejoices and illuminates, so these worthy folks display brilliant red hangings in their cheeks, and light up candles of joy in their eyes, in honour of their champion and conqueror.

But now, I grieve to say, comes a cloudy day after the fair weather. The appetite of our commanders, growing by what it fed on, led them to think they had not feasted enough on the plunder of St. Malo; and thither, after staying a brief time at Portsmouth and the Wight, the conquerors of Cherbourg returned. They were landed in the Bay of St. Lunar, at a distance of a few miles from the place, and marched towards it, intending to destroy it this time. Meanwhile the harbour of St. Lunar was found insecure, and the fleet moved up to St. Cas, keeping up its communication with the invading army.

Now the British Lion found that the town of St. Malo — which he had proposed to swallow at a single mouthful — was guarded by an army of French, which the Governor of Brittany had brought to the succour of his good town, and the meditated coup-de-main being thus impossible, our leaders marched for their ships again, which lay duly awaiting our warriors in the Bay of St. Cas.

Hide, blushing glory, hide St. Cas’s day! As our troops were marching down to their ships they became aware of an army following them, which the French governor of the province had sent from Brest. Two-thirds of the troops, and all the artillery, were already embarked, when the Frenchmen came down upon the remainder. Four companies of the first regiment of guards and the grenadier companies of the army, faced about on the beach to await the enemy, whilst the remaining troops were carried off in the boats. As the French descended from the heights round the bay, these guards and grenadiers marched out to attack them, leaving an excellent position which they had occupied — a great dyke raised on the shore, and behind which they might have resisted to advantage. And now, eleven hundred men were engaged with six — nay, ten times their number; and, after a while, broke and made for the boats with a sauve qui peut! Seven hundred out of the eleven were killed, drowned, or taken prisoners — the General himself was killed — and, ah! where were the volunteers?

A man of peace myself, and little intelligent of the practice or the details of war, I own I think less of the engaged troops than of the people they leave behind. Jack the Guardsman and La Tulipe of the Royal Bretagne are face to face, and striving to knock each other’s brains out. Bon! It is their nature to — like the bears and lions — and we will not say Heaven, but some power or other has made them so to do. But the girl of Tower Hill, who hung on Jack’s neck before he departed; and the lass at Quimper, who gave the Frenchman his brule-gueule and tobacco-box before he departed on the noir trajet? What have you done, poor little tender hearts, that you should grieve so? My business is not with the army, but with the people left behind. What a fine state Miss Hetty Lambert must be in, when she hears of the disaster to the troops and the slaughter of the grenadier companies! What grief and doubt are in George Warrington’s breast; what commiseration in Martin Lambert’s, as he looks into his little girl’s face and reads her piteous story there! Howe, the brave Commodore, rowing in his barge under the enemy’s fire, has rescued with his boats scores and scores of our flying people. More are drowned; hundreds are prisoners, or shot on the beach. Among these, where is our Virginian?

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