The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXV

Soldier’s Return

Great Powers! will the vainglory of men, especially of Frenchmen, never cease? Will it be believed, that after the action of St. Cas — a mere affair of cutting off a rearguard, as you are aware — they were so unfeeling as to fire away I don’t know how much powder at the Invalides at Paris, and brag and bluster over our misfortune? Is there any magnanimity in hallooing and huzzaying because five or six hundred brave fellows have been caught by ten thousand on a seashore, and that fate has overtaken them which is said to befall the hindmost? I had a mind to design an authentic picture of the rejoicings at London upon our glorious success at St. Malo. I fancied the polished guns dragged in procession by our gallant tars; the stout horse-grenadiers prancing by; the mob waving hats, roaring cheers, picking pockets, and our friends in a balcony in Fleet Street looking on and blessing this scene of British triumph. But now that the French Invalides have been so vulgar as to imitate the Tower, and set up their St. Cas against our St. Malo, I scorn to allude to the stale subject. I say Nolo, not Malo: content, for my part, if Harry has returned from one expedition and t’other with a whole skin. And have I ever said he was so much as bruised? Have I not, for fear of exciting my fair young reader, said that he was as well as ever he had been in his life? The sea air had browned his cheek, and the ball whistling by his side-curl had spared it. The ocean had wet his gaiters and other garments, without swallowing up his body. He had, it is true, shown the lapels of his coat to the enemy; but for as short a time as possible, withdrawing out of their sight as quick as might be. And what, pray, are lapels but reverses? Coats have them, as well as men; and our duty is to wear them with courage and good-humour.

“I can tell you,” said Harry, “we all had to run for it; and when our line broke, it was he who could get to the boats who was most lucky. The French horse and foot pursued us down to the sea, and were mingled among us, cutting our men down, and bayoneting them on the ground. Poor Armytage was shot in advance of me, and fell; and I took him up and staggered through the surf to a boat. It was lucky that the sailors in our boat weren’t afraid; for the shot were whistling about their ears, breaking the blades of their oars, and riddling their flag with shot; but the officer in command was as cool as if he had been drinking a bowl of punch at Portsmouth, which we had one on landing, I can promise you. Poor Sir John was less lucky than me. He never lived to reach the ship, and the service has lost a fine soldier, and Miss Howe a true gentleman to her husband. There must be these casualties, you see; and his brother gets the promotion — the baronetcy.”

“It is of the poor lady I am thinking,” says Miss Hetty (to whom haply our volunteer is telling his story); “and the King. Why did the King encourage Sir John Armytage to go? A gentleman could not refuse a command from such a quarter. And now the poor gentleman is dead! Oh, what a state his Majesty must be in!”

“I have no doubt his Majesty will be in a deep state of grief,” says papa, wagging his head.

“Now you are laughing! Do you mean, sir, that when a gentleman dies in his service, almost at his feet, the King of England won’t feel for him?” Hetty asks. “If I thought that, I vow I would be for the Pretender!”

“The sauce-box would make a pretty little head for Temple Bar,” says the General, who could see Miss Hetty’s meaning behind her words, and was aware in what a tumult of remorse, of consternation, of gratitude that the danger was over, the little heart was beating. “No,” says he, “my dear. Were kings to weep for every soldier, what a life you would make for them! I think better of his Majesty than to suppose him so weak; and, if Miss Hester Lambert got her Pretender, I doubt whether she would be any the happier. That family was never famous for too much feeling.”

“But if the King sent Harry — I mean Sir John Armytage — actually to the war in which he lost his life, oughtn’t his Majesty to repent very much?” asks the young lady.

“If Harry had fallen, no doubt the court would have gone into mourning: as it is, gentlemen and ladies were in coloured clothes yesterday,” remarks the General.

“Why should we not make bonfires for a defeat, and put on sackcloth and ashes after a victory?” asks George. “I protest I don’t want to thank Heaven for helping us to burn the ships at Cherbourg.”

“Yes you do, George! Not that I have a right to speak, and you ain’t ever so much cleverer. But when your country wins you’re glad — I know I am. When I run away before Frenchmen I’m ashamed — I can’t help it, though I done it,” says Harry. “It don’t seem to me right somehow that Englishmen should have to do it,” he added, gravely. And George smiled; but did not choose to ask his brother what, on the other hand, was the Frenchman’s opinion.

“’Tis a bad business,” continued Harry, gravely; “but ’tis lucky ’twas no worse. The story about the French is, that their Governor, the Duke of Aiguillon, was rather what you call a moistened chicken. Our whole retreat might have been cut off, only, to be sure, we ourselves were in a mighty hurry to move. The French local militia behaved famous, I am happy to say; and there was ever so many gentlemen volunteers with ’em, who showed, as they ought to do, in the front. They say the Chevalier of Tour d’Auvergne engaged in spite of the Duke of Aiguillon’s orders. Officers told us, who came off with a list of our prisoners and wounded to General Bligh and Lord Howe. He is a lord now, since the news came of his brother’s death to home, George. He is a brave fellow, whether lord or commoner.”

“And his sister, who was to have married poor Sir John Armytage, think what her state must be!” sighs Miss Hetty, who has grown of late so sentimental.

“And his mother!” cries Mrs. Lambert. “Have you seen her ladyship’s address in the papers to the electors of Nottingham? ‘Lord Howe being now absent upon the publick service, and Lieutenant-Colonel Howe with his regiment at Louisbourg, it rests upon me to beg the favour of your votes and interests that Lieutenant-Colonel Howe may supply the place of his late brother as your representative in Parliament.’ Isn’t this a gallant woman?”

“A Laconic woman,” says George.

“How can sons help being brave who have been nursed by such a mother as that?” asks the General.

Our two young men looked at each other.

“If one of us were to fall in defence of his country, we have a mother in Sparta who would think and write so too,” says George.

“If Sparta is anywhere Virginia way, I reckon we have,” remarks Mr. Harry. “And to think that we should both of us have met the enemy, and both of us been whipped by him, brother!” he adds pensively.

Hetty looks at him, and thinks of him only as he was the other day, tottering through the water towards the boats, his comrade bleeding on his shoulder, the enemy in pursuit, the shot flying round. And it was she who drove him into the danger! Her words provoked him. He never rebukes her now he is returned. Except when asked, he scarcely speaks about his adventures at all. He is very grave and courteous with Hetty; with the rest of the family especially frank and tender. But those taunts of hers wounded him. “Little hand!” his looks and demeanour seem to say, “thou shouldst not have been lifted against me! It is ill to scorn any one, much more one who has been so devoted to you and all yours. I may not be over quick of wit, but in as far as the heart goes, I am the equal of the best, and the best of my heart your family has had.”

Harry’s wrong, and his magnanimous endurance of it, served him to regain in Miss Hetty’s esteem that place which he had lost during the previous months’ inglorious idleness. The respect which the fair pay to the brave she gave him. She was no longer pert in her answers, or sarcastic in her observations regarding his conduct. In a word, she was a humiliated, an altered, an improved Miss Hetty.

And all the world seemed to change towards Harry, as he towards the world. He was no longer sulky and indolent: he no more desponded about himself, or defied his neighbours. The colonel of his regiment reported his behaviour as exemplary, and recommended him for one of the commissions vacated by the casualties during the expedition. Unlucky as its termination was, it at least was fortunate to him. His brother-volunteers, when they came back to St. James’s Street, reported highly of his behaviour. These volunteers and their actions were the theme of everybody’s praise. Had he been a general commanding, and slain in the moment of victory, Sir John Armytage could scarce have had more sympathy than that which the nation showed him. The papers teemed with letters about him, and men of wit and sensibility vied with each other in composing epitaphs in his honour. The fate of his affianced bride was bewailed. She was, as we have said, the sister of the brave Commodore who had just returned from this unfortunate expedition, and succeeded to the title of his elder brother, an officer as gallant as himself, who had just fallen in America.

My Lord Howe was heard to speak in special praise of Mr. Warrington, and so he had a handsome share of the fashion and favour which the town now bestowed on the volunteers. Doubtless there were thousands of men employed who were as good as they but the English ever love their gentlemen, and love that they should distinguish themselves; and these volunteers were voted Paladins and heroes by common accord. As our young noblemen will, they accepted their popularity very affably. White’s and Almack’s illuminated when they returned, and St. James’s embraced its young knights. Harry was restored to full favour amongst them. Their hands were held out eagerly to him again. Even his relations congratulated him; and there came a letter from Castlewood, whither Aunt Bernstein had by this time betaken herself, containing praises of his valour, and a pretty little bank-bill, as a token of his affectionate aunt’s approbation. This was under my Lord Castlewood’s frank, who sent his regards to both his kinsmen, and an offer of the hospitality of his country-house, if they were minded to come to him. And besides this, there came to him a private letter through the post — not very well spelt, but in a handwriting which Harry smiled to see again, in which his affeetionate cousin, Maria Esmond, told him she always loved to hear his praises (which were in everybody’s mouth now), and sympathised in his good or evil fortune; and that, whatever occurred to him, she begged to keep a little place in his heart. Parson Sampson, she wrote, had preached a beautiful sermon about the horrors of war, and the noble actions of men who volunteered to face battle and danger in the service of their country. Indeed, the chaplain wrote himself, presently, a letter full of enthusiasm, in which he saluted Mr. Harry as his friend, his benefactor, his glorious hero. Even Sir Miles Warrington despatched a basket of game from Norfolk: and one bird (shot sitting), with love to my cousin, had a string and paper round the leg, and was sent as the first victim of young Miles’s fowling-piece.

And presently, with joy beaming in his countenance, Mr. Lambert came to visit his young friends at their lodgings in Southampton Row, and announced to them that Mr. Henry Warrington was forthwith to be gazetted as Ensign in the Second Battalion of Kingsley’s, the 20th Regiment, which had been engaged in the campaign, and which now at this time was formed into a separate regiment, the 67th. Its colonel was not with his regiment during its expedition to Brittany. He was away at Cape Breton, and was engaged in capturing those guns at Louisbourg, of which the arrival in England had caused such exultation.

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