The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXIV

News from Canada

Our Castlewood relatives kept us with them till the commencement of the new year, and after a fortnight’s absence (which seemed like an age to the absurd and infatuated young man) he returned to the side of his charmer. Madame de Bernstein was not sorry to leave the home of her father. She began to talk more freely as we got away from the place. What passed during that interview in which the battle-royal between her and her niece occurred, she never revealed. But the old lady talked no more of forming cette petite, and, indeed, when she alluded to her, spoke in a nervous, laughing way, but without any hostility towards the young Countess. Her nephew Eugene, she said, was doomed to be henpecked for the rest of his days that she saw clearly. A little order brought into the house would do it all the good possible. The little old vulgar American gentleman seemed to be a shrewd person, and would act advantageously as a steward. The Countess’s mother was a convict, she had heard, sent out from England, where no doubt she had beaten hemp in most of the gaols; but this news need not be carried to the town-crier; and, after all, in respect to certain kind of people, what mattered what their birth was? The young woman would be honest for her own sake now: was shrewd enough, and would learn English presently; and the name to which she had a right was great enough to get her into any society. A grocer, a smuggler, a slave-dealer, what mattered Mr. Van den Bosch’s pursuit or previous profession? The Countess of Castlewood could afford to be anybody’s daughter, and as soon as my nephew produced her, says the old lady, it is our duty to stand by her.

The ties of relationship binding Madame de Bernstein strongly to her nephew, Mr. Warrington hoped that she would be disposed to be equally affectionate to her niece; and spoke of his visit to Mr. Hagan and his wife, for whom he entreated her aunt’s favour. But the old lady was obdurate regarding Lady Maria; begged that her name might never be mentioned, and immediately went on for two hours talking about no one else. She related a series of anecdotes regarding her niece, which, as this book lies open virginibus puerisque, to all the young people of the family, I shall not choose to record. But this I will say of the kind creature, that if she sinned, she was not the only sinner of the family, and if she repented, that others will do well to follow her example. Hagan, ’tis known, after he left the stage, led an exemplary life, and was remarkable for elegance and eloquence in the pulpit. His lady adopted extreme views, but was greatly respected in the sect which she joined; and when I saw her last, talked to me of possessing a peculiar spiritual illumination, which I strongly suspected at the time to be occasioned by the too free use of liquor: but I remember when she and her husband were good to me and mine, at a period when sympathy was needful, and many a Pharisee turned away.

I have told how easy it was to rise and fall in my fickle aunt’s favour, and how each of us brothers, by turns, was embraced and neglected. My turn of glory had been after the success of my play. I was introduced to the town-wits; held my place in their company tolerably well; was pronounced to be pretty well bred by the macaronis and people of fashion, and might have run a career amongst them had my purse been long enough; had I chose to follow that life; had I not loved at that time a pair of kind eyes better than the brightest orbs of the Gunnings or Chudleighs, or all the painted beauties of the Ranelagh ring. Because I was fond of your mother, will it be believed, children, that my tastes were said to be low, and deplored by my genteel family? So it was, and I know that my godly Lady Warrington and my worldly Madame Bernstein both laid their elderly heads together and lamented my way of life. “Why, with his name, he might marry anybody,” says meek Religion, who had ever one eye on Heaven and one on the main chance. “I meddle with no man’s affairs, and admire genius,” says uncle, “but it is a pity you consort with those poets and authors, and that sort of people, and that, when you might have had a lovely creature, with a hundred thousand pounds, you let her slip and make up to a country girl without a penny-piece.”

“But if I had promised her, uncle?” says I.

“Promise, promise! these things are matters of arrangement and prudence, and demand a careful look-out. When you first committed yourself with little Miss Lambert, you had not seen the lovely American lady whom your mother wished you to marry, as a good mother naturally would. And your duty to your mother, nephew — your duty to the Fifth Commandment, would have warranted your breaking with Miss L., and fulfilling your excellent mother’s intentions regarding Miss — What was the Countess’s Dutch name? Never mind. A name is nothing; but a plumb, Master George, is something to look at! Why, I have my dear little Miley at a dancing-school with Miss Barwell, Nabob Barwell’s daughter, and I don’t disguise my wish that the children may contract an attachment which may endure through their lives! I tell the Nabob so. We went from the House of Commons one dancing-day and saw them. ’Twas beautiful to see the young things walking a minuet together! It brought tears into my eyes, for I have a feeling heart, George, and I love my boy!”

“But if I prefer Miss Lambert, uncle, with twopence to her fortune, to the Countess, with her hundred thousand pounds?”

“Why then, sir, you have a singular taste, that’s all,” says the old gentleman, turning on his heel and leaving me. And I could perfectly understand his vexation at my not being able to see the world as he viewed it.

Nor did my Aunt Bernstein much like the engagement which I had made, or the family with which I passed so much of my time. Their simple ways wearied, and perhaps annoyed, the old woman of the world, and she no more relished their company than a certain person (who is not so black as he is painted) likes holy water. The old lady chafed at my for ever dangling at my sweetheart’s lap. Having risen mightily in her favour, I began to fall again: and once more Harry was the favourite, and his brother, Heaven knows, not jealous.

He was now our family hero. He wrote us brief letters from the seat of war where he was engaged; Madame Bernstein caring little at first about the letters or the writer, for they were simple, and the facts he narrated not over interesting. We had early learned in London the news of the action on the glorious first of August at Minden, where Wolfe’s old regiment was one of the British six which helped to achieve the victory on that famous day. At the same hour, the young General lay in his bed, in sight of Quebec, stricken down by fever, and perhaps rage and disappointment at the check which his troops had just received.

Arriving in the St. Lawrence in June, the fleet which brought Wolfe and his army had landed them on the last day of the month on the Island of Orleans, opposite which rises the great cliff of Quebec. After the great action in which his General fell, the dear brother who accompanied the chief, wrote home to me one of his simple letters, describing his modest share in that glorious day, but added nothing to the many descriptions already wrote of the action of the 13th of September, save only I remember he wrote, from the testimony of a brother aide-de-camp who was by his side, that the General never spoke at all after receiving his death-wound, so that the phrase which has been put into the mouth of the dying hero may be considered as no more authentic than an oration of Livy or Thucydides.

From his position on the island, which lies in the great channel of the river to the north of the town, the General was ever hungrily on the look-out for a chance to meet and attack his enemy. Above the city and below it he landed — now here and now there; he was bent upon attacking wherever he saw an opening. ’Twas surely a prodigious fault on the part of the Marquis of Montcalm, to accept a battle from Wolfe on equal terms, for the British General had no artillery, and when we had made our famous scalade of the heights, and were on the Plains of Abraham, we were a little nearer the city, certainly, but as far off as ever from being within it.

The game that was played between the brave chiefs of those two gallant little armies, and which lasted from July until Mr. Wolfe won the crowning hazard in September, must have been as interesting a match as ever eager players engaged in. On the very first night after the landing (as my brother has narrated it) the sport began. At midnight the French sent a flaming squadron of fireships down upon the British ships which were discharging their stores at Orleans. Our seamen thought it was good sport to tow the fireships clear of the fleet, and ground them on the shore, where they burned out.

As soon as the French commander heard that our ships had entered the river, he marched to Beauport in advance of the city and there took up a strong position. When our stores and hospitals were established, our General crossed over from his island to the left shore, and drew nearer to his enemy. He had the ships in the river behind him, but the whole country in face of him was in arms. The Indians in the forest seized our advanced parties as they strove to clear it, and murdered them with horrible tortures. The French were as savage as their Indian friends. The Montmorenci River rushed between Wolfe and the enemy. He could neither attack these nor the city behind them.

Bent on seeing whether there was no other point at which his foe might be assailable, the General passed round the town of Quebec and skirted the left shore beyond. Everywhere it was guarded, as well as in his immediate front, and having run the gauntlet of the batteries up and down the river, he returned to his post at Montmorenci. On the right of the French position, across the Montmorenci River, which was fordable at low tide, was a redoubt of the enemy. He would have that. Perhaps, to defend it the French chief would be forced out from his lines, and a battle be brought on. Wolfe determined to play these odds. He would fetch over the body of his army from the Island of Orleans, and attack from the St. Lawrence. He would time his attack, so that, at shallow water, his lieutenants, Murray and Townsend, might cross the Montmorenci, and, at the last day of July, he played this desperate game.

He first, and General Monckton, his second in command (setting out from Point Levi, which he occupied), crossed over the St. Lawrence from their respective stations, being received with a storm of shot and artillery as they rowed to the shore. No sooner were the troops landed than they rushed at the French redoubt without order, were shot down before it in great numbers, and were obliged to fall back. At the preconcerted signal the troops on the other side of the Montmorenci avanced across the river in perfect order. The enemy even evacuated the redoubt and fell back to their lines; but from these the assailants were received with so severe a fire that an impression on them was hopeless, and the General had to retreat.

The battle of Montmorenci (which my brother Harry and I have fought again many a time over our wine) formed the dismal burthen of the first despatch from Mr. Wolfe which reached England and plunged us all in gloom. What more might one expect of a commander so rash? What disasters might one not foretell? Was ever scheme so wild as to bring three great bodies of men, across broad rivers, in the face of murderous batteries, merely on the chance of inducing an enemy, strongly entrenched and guarded, to leave his position and come out and engage us? ’Twas the talk of the town. No wonder grave people shook their heads, and prophesied fresh disaster. The General, who took to his bed after this failure, shuddering with fever, was to live barely six weeks longer, and die immortal! How is it, and by what, and whom, that Greatness is achieved? Is Merit — is Madness the patron? Is it Frolic or Fortune? Is it Fate that awards successes and defeats? Is it the Just Cause that ever wins? How did the French gain Canada from the savage, and we from the French, and after which of the conquests was the right time to sing Te Deum? We are always for implicating Heaven in our quarrels, and causing the gods to intervene whatever the nodus may be. Does Broughton, after pummelling and beating Slack, lift up a black eye to Jove and thank him for the victory? And if ten thousand boxers are to be so heard, why not one? And if Broughton is to be grateful, what is Slack to be?

“By the list of disabled officers (many of whom are of rank) you may perceive, sir, that the army is much weakened. By the nature of this river the most formidable part of the armament is deprived of the power of acting, yet we have almost the whole force of Canada to oppose. In this situation there is such a choice of difficulties, that I own myself at a loss how to determine. The affairs of Great Britain, I know, require the most vigorous measures; but then the courage of a handful of brave men should be exerted only where there is some hope of a favourable event. The admiral and I have examined the town with a view to a general assault: and he would readily join in this or any other measure for the public service; but I cannot propose to him an undertaking of so dangerous a nature, and promising so little success. . . . I found myself so ill, and am still so weak, that I begged the general officers to consult together for the public utility. They are of opinion that they should try by conveying up a corps of 4000 or 5000 men (which is nearly the whole strength of the army, after the points of Levi and Orleans are put in a proper state of defence) to draw the enemy from their present position, and bring them to an action. I have acquiesced in their proposal, and we are preparing to put it into execution.”

So wrote the General (of whose noble letters it is clear our dear scribe was not the author or secretary) from his headquarters at Montmorenci Falls on 2nd day of September; and on the 14th of October following, the Rodney cutter arrived with the sad news in England. The attack had failed, the chief was sick, the army dwindling, the menaced city so strong that assault was almost impossible; “the only chance was to fight the Marquis of Montcalm upon terms of less disadvantage than attacking his entrenchments, and, if possible, to draw him from his present position.” Would the French chief, whose great military genius was known in Europe, fall into such a snare? No wonder there were pale looks in the City at the news, and doubt and gloom wheresoever it was known.

Three days after this first melancholy intelligence, came the famous letters announcing that wonderful consummation of fortune with which Mr. Wolfe’s wonderful career ended. If no man is to be styled happy till his death, what shall we say of this one? His end was so glorious, that I protest not even his mother nor his mistress ought to have deplored it, or at any rate have wished him alive again. I know it is a hero we speak of; and yet I vow I scarce know whether in the last act of his life I admire the result of genius, invention, and daring, or the boldness of a gambler winning surprising odds. Suppose his ascent discovered a half-hour sooner, and his people, as they would have been assuredly, beaten back? Suppose the Marquis of Montcalm not to quit his entrenched lines to accept that strange challenge? Suppose these points — and none of them depend upon Mr. Wolfe at all — and what becomes of the glory of the young hero, of the great minister who discovered him, of the intoxicated nation which rose up frantic with self-gratulation at the victory? I say, what fate is it that shapes our ends, or those of nations? In the many hazardous games which my Lord Chatham played, he won this prodigious one. And as the greedy British hand seized the Canadas, it let fall the United States out of its grasp.

To be sure this wisdom d’apres coup is easy. We wonder at this man’s rashness now the deed is done, and marvel at the other’s fault. What generals some of us are upon paper! what repartees come to our mind when the talk is finished! and, the game over, how well we see how it should have been played! Writing of an event at a distance of thirty years, ’tis not difficult now to criticise and find fault. But at the time when we first heard of Wolfe’s glorious deeds upon the Plains of Abraham — of that army marshalled in darkness and carried silently up the midnight river — of those rocks scaled by the intrepid leader and his troops — of that miraculous security of the enemy, of his present acceptance of our challenge to battle, and of his defeat on the open plain by the sheer valour of his conqueror — we were all intoxicated in England by the news. The whole nation rose up and felt itself the stronger for Wolfe’s victory. Not merely all men engaged in the battle, but those at home who had condemned its rashness, felt themselves heroes. Our spirit rose as that of our enemy faltered. Friends embraced each other when they met. Coffee-houses and public places were thronged with people eager to talk the news. Courtiers rushed to the King and the great Minister by whose wisdom the campaign had been decreed. When he showed himself, the people followed him with shouts and blessings. People did not deplore the dead warrior, but admired his euthanasia. Should James Wolfe’s friends weep and wear mourning, because a chariot had come from the skies to fetch him away? Let them watch with wonder, and see him departing, radiant; rising above us superior. To have a friend who had been near or about him was to be distinguished. Every soldier who fought with him was a hero. In our fond little circle I know ’twas a distinction to be Harry’s brother. We should not in the least wonder but that he, from his previous knowledge of the place, had found the way up the heights which the British army took, and pointed it out to his General. His promotion would follow as a matter of course. Why, even our Uncle Warrington wrote letters to bless Heaven and congratulate me and himself upon the share Harry had had in the glorious achievement. Our Aunt Beatrix opened her house and received company upon the strength of the victory. I became a hero from my likeness to my brother. As for Parson Sampson, he preached such a sermon that his auditors (some of whom had been warned by his reverence of the coming discourse) were with difficulty restrained from huzzaing the orator, and were mobbed as they left the chapel. “Don’t talk to me, madam, about grief,” says General Lambert to his wife, who, dear soul, was for allowing herself some small indulgence of her favourite sorrow on the day when Wolfe’s remains were gloriously buried at Greenwich. “If our boys could come by such deaths as James’s, you know you wouldn’t prevent them from being shot, but would scale the Abraham heights to see the thing done! Wouldst thou mind dying in the arms of victory, Charley?” he asks of the little hero from the Chartreux. “That I wouldn’t,” says the little man; “and the doctor gave us a holiday, too.”

Our Harry’s promotion was insured after his share in the famous battle, and our aunt announced her intention of purchasing a company for him.

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