The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXII

(From the Warrington MS.) In which My Lady is on the Top of the Ladder

Looking across the fire, towards her accustomed chair, who has been the beloved partner of my hearth during the last half of my life, I often ask (for middle aged gentlemen have the privilege of repeating their jokes, their questions, their stories) whether two young people ever were more foolish and imprudent than we were when we married, as we did, in the year of the old King’s death? My son, who has taken some prodigious leaps in the heat of his fox-hunting, says he surveys the gaps and rivers which he crossed so safely over with terror afterwards, and astonishment at his own foolhardiness in making such desperate ventures; and yet there is no more eager sportsman in the two counties than Miles. He loves his amusement so much that he cares for no other. He has broken his collar-bone, and had a hundred tumbles (to his mother’s terror); but so has his father (thinking, perhaps, of a copy of verse, or his speech at Quarter Sessions) been thrown over his old mare’s head, who has slipped on a stone as they were both dreaming along a park road at four miles an hour; and Miles’s reckless sport has been the delight of his life, as my marriage has been the blessing of mine; and I never think of it but to thank Heaven. Mind, I don’t set up my worship as an example. I don’t say to all young folks, “Go and marry upon twopence a year;” or people would look very black at me at our vestry-meetings; but my wife is known to be a desperate match-maker; and when Hodge and Susan appear in my justice-room with a talk of allowance, we urge them to spend their half-crown a week at home, add a little contribution of our own, and send for the vicar.

Now, when I ask a question of my dear oracle, I know what the answer will be; and hence, no doubt, the reason why I so often consult her. I have but to wear a particular expression of face and my Diana takes her reflection from it. Suppose I say, “My dear, don’t you think the moon was made of cream cheese to-night?” She will say, “Well, papa, it did look very like cream cheese, indeed — there’s nobody like you for droll similes.” Or, suppose I say, “My love, Mr. Pitt’s speech was very fine, but I don’t think he is equal to what I remember his father.” “Nobody was equal to my Lord Chatham,” says my wife. And then one of the girls cries, “Why, I have often heard our papa say Lord Chatham was a charlatan!” On which mamma says, “How like she is to her Aunt Hetty!”

As for Miles, Tros Tyriusve is all one to him. He only reads the sporting announcements in the Norwich paper. So long as there is good scent, he does not care about the state of the country. I believe the rascal has never read my poems, much more my tragedies (for I mentioned Pocahontas to him the other day, and the dunce thought she was a river in Virginia); and with respect to my Latin verses, how can he understand them when I know he can’t construe Corderius? Why, this notebook lies publicly on the little table at my corner of the fireside, and any one may read in it who will take the trouble of lifting my spectacles off the cover: but Miles never hath. I insert in the loose pages caricatures of Miles: jokes against him: but he never knows nor heeds them. Only once, in place of a neat drawing of mine, in China-ink, representing Miles asleep after dinner, and which my friend Bunbury would not disown, I found a rude picture of myself going over my mare Sultana’s head, and entitled “The Squire on Horseback, or Fish out of Water.” And the fellow to roar with laughter, and all the girls to titter, when I came upon the page! My wife said she never was in such a fright as when I went to my book: but I can bear a joke against myself, and have heard many, though (strange to say, for one who has lived among some of the chief wits of the age) I never heard a good one in my life. Never mind, Miles, though thou art not a wit, I love thee none the worse (there never was any love lost between two wits in a family); though thou hast no great beauty, thy mother thinks thee as handsome as Apollo, or his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was born in the very same year with thee. Indeed, she always think Coates’s picture of the Prince is very like her eldest boy, and has the print in her dressing-room to this very day.

[Note, in a female hand: “My son is not a spendthrift, nor a breaker of women’s hearts, as some gentlemen are; but that he was exceeding like H.R.H. when they were both babies, is most certain, the Duchess of Aneaster having herself remarked him in St. James’s Park, where Gumbo and my poor Molly used often to take him for an airing. Th. W.”]

In that same year, with what different prospects! my Lord Esmond, Lord Castlewood’s son, likewise appeared to adorn the world. My Lord C. and his humble servant had already come to a coolness at that time, and, heaven knows! my honest Miles’s godmother, at his entrance into life, brought no gold pap-boats to his christening! Matters have mended since, laus Deo — laus Deo, indeed! for I suspect neither Miles nor his father would ever have been able to do much for themselves, and by their own wits.

Castlewood House has quite a different face now from that venerable one which it wore in the days of my youth, when it was covered with the wrinkles of time, the scars of old wars, the cracks and blemishes which years had marked on its hoary features. I love best to remember it in its old shape, as I saw it when young Mr. George Warrington went down at the owner’s invitation, to be present at his lordship’s marriage with Miss Lydia Van den Bosch —“an American lady of noble family of Holland,” as the county paper announced her ladyship to be. Then the towers stood as Warrington’s grandfather the Colonel (the Marquis, as Madam Esmond would like to call her father) had seen them. The woods (thinned not a little to be sure) stood, nay, some of the self-same rooks may have cawed over them, which the Colonel had seen threescore years back. His picture hung in the hall which might have been his, had he not preferred love and gratitude to wealth and worldly honour; and Mr. George Esmond Warrington (that is, Egomet Ipse who write this page down), as he walked the old place, pacing the long corridors, the smooth dew-spangled terraces and cool darkling avenues, felt a while as if he was one of Mr. Walpole’s cavaliers with ruff, rapier, buff-coat, and gorget, and as if an Old Pretender, or a Jesuit emissary in disguise, might appear from behind any tall tree-trunk round about the mansion, or antique carved cupboard within it. I had the strangest, saddest, pleasantest, old-world fancies as I walked the place; I imagined tragedies, intrigues, serenades, escaladoes, Oliver’s Roundheads battering the towers, or bluff Hal’s Beefeaters pricking over the plain before the castle. I was then courting a certain young lady (madam, your ladyship’s eyes had no need of spectacles then, and on the brow above them there was never a wrinkle or a silver hair), and I remember I wrote a ream of romantic description, under my Lord Castlewood’s franks, to the lady who never tired of reading my letters then. She says I only send her three lines now, when I am away in London or elsewhere. ’Tis that I may not fatigue your old eyes, my dear!

Mr. Warrington thought himself authorised to order a genteel new suit of clothes for my lord’s marriage, and with Mons. Gumbo in attendance, made his appearance at Castlewood a few days before the ceremony. I may mention that it had been found expedient to send my faithful Sady home on board a Virginia ship. A great inflammation attacking the throat and lungs, and proving fatal in very many cases, in that year of Wolfe’s expedition, had seized and well-nigh killed my poor lad, for whom his native air was pronounced to be the best cure. We parted with an abundance of tears, and Gumbo shed as many when his master went to Quebec: but he had attractions in this country and none for the military life, so he remained attached to my service. We found Castlewood House full of friends, relations, and visitors. Lady Fanny was there upon compulsion, a sulky bridesmaid. Some of the virgins of the neighbourhood also attended the young Countess. A bishop’s widow herself, the Baroness Beatrix brought a holy brother-inlaw of the bench from London to tie the holy knot of matrimony between Eugene Earl of Castlewood and Lydia Van den Bosch, spinster; and for some time before and after the nuptials the old house in Hampshire wore an appearance of gaiety to which it had long been unaccustomed. The country families came gladly to pay their compliments to the newly married couple. The lady’s wealth was the subject of everybody’s talk, and no doubt did not decrease in the telling. Those naughty stories which were rife in town, and spread by her disappointed suitors there, took some little time to travel into Hampshire; and when they reached the country found it disposed to treat Lord Castlewood’s wife with civility, and not inclined to be too curious about her behaviour in town. Suppose she had jilted this man, and laughed at the other? It was her money they were anxious about, and she was no more mercenary than they. The Hampshire folks were determined that it was a great benefit to the country to have Castlewood House once more open, with beer in the cellars, horses in the stables, and spits turning before the kitchen fires. The new lady took her place with great dignity, and ’twas certain she had uncommon accomplishments and wit. Was it not written, in the marriage advertisements, that her ladyship brought her noble husband seventy thousand pounds? On a beaucoup d’esprit with seventy thousand pounds. The Hampshire people said this was only a small portion of her wealth. When the grandfather should fall, ever so many plums would be found on that old tree.

That quiet old man, and keen reckoner, began quickly to put the dilapidated Castlewood accounts in order, of which long neglect, poverty, and improvidence had hastened the ruin. The business of the old gentleman’s life now, and for some time henceforth, was to advance, improve, mend my lord’s finances; to screw the rents up where practicable, to pare the expenses of the establishment down. He could, somehow, look to every yard of worsted lace on the footmen’s coats, and every pound of beef that went to their dinner. A watchful old eye noted every flagon of beer which was fetched from the buttery, and marked that no waste occurred in the larder. The people were fewer, but more regularly paid; the liveries were not so ragged, and yet the tailor had no need to dun for his money; the gardeners and grooms grumbled, though their wages were no longer overdue: but the horses fattened on less corn, and the fruit and vegetables were ever so much more plentiful — so keenly did my lady’s old grandfather keep a watch over the household affairs, from his lonely little chamber in the turret.

These improvements, though here told in a paragraph or two, were the affairs of months and years at Castlewood; where, with thrift, order, and judicious outlay of money (however, upon some pressing occasions, my lord might say he had none), the estate and household increased in prosperity. That it was a flourishing and economical household no one could deny: not even the dowager lady and her two children, who now seldom entered within Castlewood gates, my lady considering them in the light of enemies — for who, indeed, would like a stepmother-inlaw? The little reigning Countess gave the dowager battle, and routed her utterly and speedily. Though educated in the colonies, and ignorant of polite life during her early years, the Countess Lydia had a power of language and a strength of will that all had to acknowledge who quarrelled with her. The dowager and my Lady Fanny were no match for the young American: they fled from before her to their jointure house in Kensington, and no wonder their absence was not regretted by my lord, who was in the habit of regretting no one whose back was turned. Could cousin Warrington, whose hand his lordship pressed so affectionately on coming and parting, with whom cousin Eugene was so gay and frank and pleasant when they were together, expect or hope that his lordship would grieve at his departure, at his death, at any misfortune which could happen to him, or any souls alive? Cousin Warrington knew better. Always of a sceptical turn, Mr. W. took a grim delight in watching the peculiarities of his neighbours, and could like this one even though he had no courage and no heart. Courage? Heart? What are these to you and me in the world? A man may have private virtues as he may have half a million in the funds. What we du monde expect is, that he should be lively, agreeable, keep a decent figure, and pay his way. Colonel Esmond Warrington’s grandfather (in whose history and dwelling-place Mr. W. took an extraordinary interest), might once have been owner of this house of Castlewood, and of the titles which belonged to its possessor. The gentleman often looked at the Colonel’s grave picture as it still hung in the saloon, a copy or replica of which piece Mr. Warrington fondly remembered in Virginia.

“He must have been a little touched here,” my lord said, tapping his own tall, placid forehead.

There are certain actions, simple and common with some men, which others cannot understand, and deny as utter lies, or deride as acts of madness.

“I do you the justice to think, cousin,” says Mr. Warrington to his lordship, “that you would not give up any advantage for any friend in the world.”

“Eh! I am selfish: but am I more selfish than the rest of the world?” asks my lord, with a French shrug of his shoulders, and a pinch out of his box. Once, in their walks in the fields, his lordship happening to wear a fine scarlet coat, a cow ran towards him; and the ordinarily languid nobleman sprang over a stile with the agility of a schoolboy. He did not conceal his tremor, or his natural want of courage. “I dare say you respect me no more than I respect myself, George,” he would say, in his candid way, and begin a very pleasant sardonical discourse upon the fall of man, and his faults, and shortcomings; and wonder why Heaven had not made us all brave and tall, and handsome and rich? As for Mr. Warrington, who very likely loved to be king of his company (as some people do), he could not help liking this kinsman of his, so witty, graceful, polished, high-placed in the world — so utterly his inferior. Like the animal in Mr. Sterne’s famous book, “Do not beat me,” his lordship’s look seemed to say, “but, if you will, you may.” No man, save a bully and coward himself, deals hardly with a creature so spiritless.

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