The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXVI

Informs us how Mr. Warrington jumped into a Landau

The emotion at the first surprise and greeting over, the little maiden began at once.

“So you are come at last to ask after Theo, and you feel sorry that your neglect has made her so ill? For six weeks she has been unwell, and you have never asked a word about her! Very kind of you, Mr. George, I’m sure!”

“Kind!” gasps out Mr. Warrington.

“I suppose you call it kind to be with her every day and all day for a year, and then to leave her without a word?”

“My dear, you know my promise to your father?” I reply.

“Promise!” says Miss Hetty, shrugging her shoulders. “A very fine promise, indeed, to make my darling ill, and then suddenly, one fine day, to say, ‘Good-bye, Theo,’ and walk away for ever. I suppose gentlemen make these promises, because they wish to keep ’em. I wouldn’t trifle with a poor child’s heart, and leave her afterwards, if I were a man. What has she ever done to you, but be a fool and too fond of you? Pray, sir, by what right do you take her away from all of us, and then desert her, because an old woman in America don’t approve of her? She was happy with us before you came. She loved her sister — there never was such a sister — until she saw you. And now, because your mamma thinks her young gentleman might do better, you must leave her forsooth!”

“Great powers, child!” I cried, exasperated at this wrongheadedness. “Was it I that drew back? Is it not I that am forbidden your house? and did not your father require, on my honour, that I should not see her?”

“Honour! And you are the men who pretend to be our superiors; and it is we who are to respect you and admire you! I declare, George Warrington, you ought to go back to your schoolroom in Virginia again; have your black nurse to tuck you up in bed, and ask leave from your mamma when you might walk out. Oh, George! I little thought that my sister was giving her heart away to a man who hadn’t the spirit to stand by her; but, at the first difficulty, left her! When Doctor Heberden said he was attending you, I determined to come and see you, and you do look very ill, that I am glad to see; and I suppose it’s your mother you are frightened of. But I shan’t tell Theo that you are unwell. She hasn’t left off caring for you. She can’t walk out of a room, break her solemn engagements, and go into the world the next day as if nothing had happened! That is left for men, our superiors in courage and wisdom; and to desert an angel — yes, an angel ten thousand times too good for you; an angel who used to love me till she saw you, and who was the blessing of life and of all of us — is what you call honour? Don’t tell me, sir! I despise you all! You are our betters, are you? We are to worship and wait on you, I suppose? I don’t care about your wit, and your tragedies, and your verses; and I think they are often very stupid. I won’t set up of nights copying your manuscripts, nor watch hour after hour at a window wasting my time and neglecting everybody because I want to see your worship walk down the street with your hat cocked! If you are going away, and welcome, give me back my sister, I say! Give me back my darling of old days, who loved every one of us, till she saw you. And you leave her because your mamma thinks she can find somebody richer for you! Oh, you brave gentleman! Go and marry the person your mother chooses, and let my dear die here deserted!”

“Great heavens, Hetty!” I cry, amazed at the logic of the little woman. “Is it I who wish to leave your sister? Did I not offer to keep my promise, and was it not your father who refused me, and made me promise never to try and see her again? What have I but my word, and my honour?”

“Honour, indeed! You keep your word to him, and you break it to her! Pretty honour! If I were a man, I would soon let you know what I thought of your honour! Only I forgot — you are bound to keep the peace and mustn’t . . . Oh, George, George! Don’t you see the grief I am in? I am distracted, and scarce know what I say. You must not leave my darling. They don’t know it at home. They don’t think so but I know her best of all, and she will die if you leave her. Say you won’t! Have pity upon me, Mr. Warrington, and give me my dearest back!” Thus the warm-hearted, distracted creature ran from anger to entreaty, from scorn to tears. Was my little doctor right in thus speaking of the case of her dear patient? Was there no other remedy than that which Hetty cried for? Have not others felt the same cruel pain of amputation, undergone the same exhaustion and fever afterwards, lain hopeless of anything save death, and yet recovered after all, and limped through life subsequently? Why, but that love is selfish, and does not heed other people’s griefs and passions, or that ours was so intense and special that we deemed no other lovers could suffer like ourselves; — here in the passionate young pleader for her sister, we might have shown an instance that a fond heart could be stricken with the love malady and silently suffer it, live under it, recover from it. What had happened in Hetty’s own case? Her sister and I, in our easy triumph and fond confidential prattle, had many a time talked over that matter, and, egotists as we were, perhaps drawn a secret zest and security out of her less fortunate attachment. ’Twas like sitting by the fireside and hearing the winter howling without; ’twas like walking by the maxi magno, and seeing the ship tossing at sea. We clung to each other only the more closely, and, wrapped in our own happiness, viewed others’ misfortunes with complacent pity. Be the truth as it may. Grant that we might have been sundered, and after a while survived the separation, so much my sceptical old age may be disposed to admit. Yet, at that time, I was eager enough to share my ardent little Hetty’s terrors and apprehensions, and willingly chose to believe that the life dearest to me in the world would be sacrificed if separated from mine. Was I wrong? I would not say as much now. I may doubt about myself (or not doubt, I know), but of her, never; and Hetty found in her quite a willing sharer in her alarms and terrors. I was for imparting some of these to our doctor; but the good gentleman shut my mouth. “Hush,” says he, with a comical look of fright. “I must hear none of this. If two people who happen to know each other chance to meet and talk in my patients’ room, I cannot help myself; but as for match-making and love-making, I am your humble servant! What will the General do when he comes back to town? He will have me behind Montagu House as sure as I am a live doctor, and alive I wish to remain, my good sir!” and he skips into his carriage, and leaves me there meditating. “And you and Miss Hetty must have no meetings here again, mind you that,” he had said previously.

Oh no! Of course we would have none! We are gentlemen of honour, and so forth, and our word is our word. Besides, to have seen Hetty, was not that an inestimable boon, and would we not be for ever grateful? I am so refreshed with that drop of water I have had, that I think I can hold out for ever so long a time now. I walk away with Hetty to Soho, and never once thought of arranging a new meeting with her. But the little emissary was more thoughtful, and she asks me whether I go to the Museum now to read? And I say, “Oh yes, sometimes, my dear; but I am too wretched for reading now; I cannot see what is on the paper. I do not care about my books. Even Pocahontas is wearisome to me. I . . .” I might have continued ever so much further, when, “Nonsense!” she says, stamping her little foot. “Why, I declare, George, you are more stupid than Harry!”

“How do you mean, my dear child?” I asked.

“When do you go? You go away at three o’clock. You strike across on the road to Tottenham Court. You walk through the village, and return by the Green Lane that leads back towards the new hospital. You know you do! If you walk for a week there, it can’t do you any harm. Good morning, sir! You’ll please not follow me any farther.” And she drops me a curtsey, and walks away with a veil over her face.

That Green Lane, which lay to the north of the new hospital, is built all over with houses now. In my time, when good old George II. was yet king, ’twas a shabby rural outlet of London; so dangerous, that the City folks who went to their villas and junketing houses at Hampstead and the outlying villages, would return in parties of nights, and escorted by waiters with lanthorns, to defend them from the footpads who prowled about the town outskirts. Hampstead and Highgate churches, each crowning its hill, filled up the background of the view which you saw as you turned your back to London; and one, two, three days Mr. George Warrington had the pleasure of looking upon this landscape, and walking back in the direction of the new hospital.

Along the lane were sundry small houses of entertainment; and I remember at one place, where they sold cakes and beer, at the sign of the Protestant Hero, a decent woman smiling at me on the third or fourth day, and curtseying in her clean apron, as she says, “It appears the lady don’t come, sir! Your honour had best step in, and take a can of my cool beer.”

At length, as I am coming back through Tottenham Road, on the 25th of May — O day to be marked with the whitest stone! — a little way beyond Mr. Whitefield’s Tabernacle, I see a landau before me, and on the box-seat by the driver is my young friend Charley, who waves his hat to me and calls out, “George! George!” I ran up to the carriage, my knees knocking together so that I thought I should fall by the wheel; and inside I see Hetty, and by her my dearest Theo, propped with a pillow. How thin the little hand had become since last it was laid in mine! The cheeks were flushed and wasted, the eyes strangely bright, and the thrill of the voice when she spoke a word or two, smote me with a pang, I know not of grief or joy was it, so intimately were they blended.

“I am taking her an airing to Hampstead,” says Hetty, demurely. “The doctor says the air will do her good.”

“I have been ill, but I am better now, George,” says Theo. There came a great burst of music from the people in the chapel hard by, as she was speaking. I held her hand in mine. Her eyes were looking into mine once more. It seemed as if we had never been parted.

I can never forget the tune of that psalm. I have heard it all through my life. My wife has touched it on her harpsichord, and her little ones have warbled it. Now, do you understand, young people, why I love it so? Because ’twas the music played at our amoris redintegratio. Because it sang hope to me, at the period of my existence the most miserable. Yes, the most miserable: for that dreary confinement of Duquesne had its tendernesses and kindly associations connected with it; and many a time in after days I have thought with fondness of the poor Biche and my tipsy jailor, and the reveille of the forest birds and the military music of my prison.

Master Charley looks down from his box-seat upon his sister and me engaged in beatific contemplation, and Hetty listening too, to the music. “I think I should like to go and hear it. And that famous Mr. Whitfield, perhaps he is going to preach this very day! Come in with me, Charley — and George can drive for half an hour with dear Theo towards Hampstead and back.”

Charley did not seem to have any very strong desire for witnessing the devotional exercises of good Mr. Whitfield and his congregation, and proposed that George Warrington should take Hetty in; but Het was not to be denied. “I will never help you in another exercise as long as you live, sir,” cries Miss Hetty, “if you don’t come on,”— while the youth clambered down from his box-seat, and they entered the temple together.

Can any moralist, bearing my previous promises in mind, excuse me for jumping into the carriage and sitting down once more by my dearest Theo? Suppose I did break ’em? Will he blame me much? Reverend sir, you are welcome. I broke my promise; and if you would not do as much, good friend, you are welcome to your virtue. Not that I for a moment suspect my own children will ever be so bold as to think of having hearts of their own, and bestowing them according to their liking. No, my young people, you will let papa choose for you; be hungry when he tells you; be thirsty when he orders; and settle your children’s marriages afterwards.

And now of course you are anxious to hear what took place when papa jumped into the landau by the side of poor little mamma, propped up by her pillows. “I am come to your part of the story, my dear,” says I, looking over to my wife as she is plying her needles.

“To what, pray?” says my lady. “You should skip all that part, and come to the grand battles, and your heroic defence of ——”

“Of Fort Fiddlededee in the year 1778, when I pulled off Mr. Washington’s epaulet, gouged General Gates’s eye, cut off Charles Lee’s head, and pasted it on again!”

“Let us hear all about the fighting,” say the boys. Even the Captain condescends to own he will listen to any military details, though only from a militia officer.

“Fair and softly, young people! Everything in its turn. I am not yet arrived at the war. I am only a young gentleman, just stepping into a landau, by the side of a young lady whom I promised to avoid. I am taking her hand, which, after a little ado, she leaves in mine. Do you remember how hot it was, the little thing, how it trembled, and how it throbbed and jumped a hundred and twenty in a minute? And as we trot on towards Hampstead, I address Miss Lambert in the following terms ——”

“Ah, ah, ah!” say the girls in a chorus with mademoiselle, their French governess, who cries, “Nous ecoutons maintenant. La parole est a vous, Monsieur le Chevalier!”

Here we have them all in a circle: mamma is at her side of the fire, papa at his; Mademoiselle Eleonore, at whom the Captain looks rather sweetly (eyes off, Captain!); the two girls, listening like — like nymphas discentes to Apollo, let us say; and John and Tummas (with obtuse ears), who are bringing in the tea-trays and urns.

“Very good,” says the Squire, pulling out the MS., and waving it before him. “We are going to tell your mother’s secrets and mine.”

“I am sure you may, papa,” cries the house matron. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” And a blush rises over her kind face.

“But before I begin, young folks, permit me two or three questions.”

“Allons, toujours des questions!” says mademoiselle, with a shrug of her pretty shoulders. (Florac has recommended her to us, and I suspect the little Chevalier has himself an eye upon this pretty Mademoiselle de Blois.)

To the questions, then.

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