The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXVIII

Pyramus and Thisbe

In examining the old papers at home, years afterwards, I found, docketed and labelled with my mother’s well-known neat handwriting, “From London, April, 1760. My son’s dreadful letter.” When it came to be mine I burnt the document, not choosing that that story of domestic grief and disunion should remain amongst our family annals for future Warringtons to gaze on, mayhap, and disobedient sons to hold up as examples of foregone domestic rebellions. For similar reasons, I have destroyed the paper which my mother despatched to me at this time of tyranny, revolt, annoyance, and irritation.

Maddened by the pangs of separation from my mistress, and not unrightly considering that Mrs. Esmond was the prime cause of the greatest grief and misery which had ever befallen me in the world, I wrote home to Virginia a letter, which might have been more temperate, it is true, but in which I endeavoured to maintain the extremest respect and reticence. I said I did not know by what motives she had been influenced, but that I held her answerable for the misery of my future life, which she had chosen wilfully to mar and render wretched. She had occasioned a separation between me and a virtuous and innocent young creature, whose own hopes, health, and happiness were cast down for ever by Mrs. Esmond’s interference. The deed was done, as I feared, and I would offer no comment upon the conduct of the perpetrator, who was answerable to God alone; but I did not disguise from my mother that the injury which she had done me was so dreadful and mortal, that her life or mine could never repair it; that the tie of my allegiance was broken towards her, and that I never could be, as heretofore, her dutiful and respectful son.

Madam Esmond replied to me in a letter of very great dignity (her style and correspondence were extraordinarily elegant and fine). She uttered not a single reproach or hard word, but coldly gave me to understand that it was before that awful tribunal of God she had referred the case between us, and asked for counsel; that, in respect of her own conduct, as a mother, she was ready, in all humility, to face it. Might I, as a son, be equally able to answer for myself, and to show, when the Great Judge demanded the question of me, whether I had done my own duty, and honoured my father and mother! O popoi! My grandfather has quoted in his memoir a line of Homer, showing how in our troubles and griefs the gods are always called in question. When our pride, our avarice, our interest, our desire to domineer, are worked upon, are we not for ever pestering Heaven to decide in their favour? In our great American quarrel, did we not on both sides appeal to the skies as to the justice of our causes, sing Te Deum for victory, and boldly express our confidence that the right should prevail? Was America right because she was victorious? Then I suppose Poland was wrong because she was defeated? — How am I wandering into this digression about Poland, America, and what not, and all the while thinking of a little woman now no more, who appealed to Heaven and confronted it with a thousand texts out of its own book, because her son wanted to make a marriage not of her liking? We appeal, we imprecate, we go down on our knees, we demand blessings, we shriek out for sentence according to law; the great course of the great world moves on; we pant, and strive, and struggle; we hate; we rage; we weep passionate tears; we reconcile; we race and win; we race and lose; we pass away, and other little strugglers succeed; our days are spent; our night comes, and another morning rises, which shines on us no more.

My letter to Madam Esmond, announcing my revolt and disobedience (perhaps I myself was a little proud of the composition of that document), I showed in duplicate to Mr. Lambert, because I wished him to understand what my relations to my mother were, and how I was determined, whatever of threats or quarrels the future might bring, never for my own part to consider my separation from Theo as other than a forced one. Whenever I could see her again I would. My word given to her was in secula seculorum, or binding at least as long as my life should endure. I implied that the girl was similarly bound to me, and her poor father knew indeed as much. He might separate us; as he might give her a dose of poison, and the gentle, obedient creature would take it and die; but the death or separation would be his doing: let him answer them. Now he was tender about his children to weakness, and could not have the heart to submit any one of them — this one especially — to torture. We had tried to part: we could not. He had endeavoured to separate us: it was more than was in his power. The bars were up, but the young couple — the maid within and the knight without — were loving each other all the same. The wall was built, but Pyramus and Thisbe were whispering on either side. In the midst of all his grief and perplexity, Uncle Lambert had plenty of humour, and could not but see that his role was rather a sorry one. Light was beginning to show through that lime and rough plaster of the wall: the lovers were getting their hands through, then their heads through — indeed, it was wall’s best business to retire.

I forget what happened stage by stage and day by day; nor, for the instruction of future ages, does it much matter. When my descendants have love scrapes of their own, they will find their own means of getting out of them. I believe I did not go back to Dean Street, but that practice of driving in the open air was considered most healthful for Miss Lambert. I got a fine horse, and rode by the side of her carriage. The old woman at Tottenham Court came to know both of us quite well, and nod and wink in the most friendly manner when we passed by. I fancy the old goody was not unaccustomed to interest herself in young couples, and has dispensed the hospitality of her roadside cottage to more than one pair.

The doctor and the country air effected a prodigious cure upon Miss Lambert. Hetty always attended as duenna, and sometimes of his holiday, Master Charley rode my horse when I got into the carriage. What a deal of love-making Miss Hetty heard! — with what exemplary patience she listened to it! I do not say she went to hear the Methodist sermons any more, but ’tis certain that when we had a closed carriage she would very kindly and considerately look out of the window. Then, what heaps of letters there were! — what running to and fro! Gumbo’s bandy legs were for ever on the trot from my quarters to Dean Street; and, on my account or her own, Mrs. Molly, the girl’s maid, was for ever bringing back answers to Bloomsbury. By the time when the autumn leaves began to turn pale, Miss Theo’s roses were in full bloom again, and my good Doctor Heberden’s cure was pronounced to be complete. What else happened during this blessed period? Mr. Warrington completed his great tragedy of Pocahontas, which was not only accepted by Mr. Garrick this time (his friend Dr. Johnson having spoken not unfavourably of the work), but my friend and cousin, Hagan, was engaged by the manager to perform the part of the hero, Captain Smith. Hagan’s engagement was not made before it was wanted. I had helped him and his family with means disproportioned, perhaps, to my power, especially considering my feud with Madam Esmond, whose answer to my angry missive of April came to me towards autumn, and who wrote back from Virginia with war for war, controlment for controlment. These menaces, however, frightened me little: my poor mother’s thunder could not reach me; and my conscience, or casuistry, supplied me with other interpretations for her texts of Scripture, so that her oracles had not the least weight with me in frightening me from my purpose. How my new loves speeded I neither informed her, nor any other members of my maternal or paternal family, who, on both sides, had been bitter against my marriage. Of what use wrangling with them? It was better to carpere diem and its sweet loves and pleasures, and to leave the railers to grumble, or the seniors to advise, at their ease.

Besides Madam Esmond I had, it must be owned, in the frantic rage of my temporary separation, addressed notes of wondrous sarcasm to my Uncle Warrington, to my Aunt Madame de Bernstein, and to my Lord or Lady of Castlewood (I forget to which individually), thanking them for the trouble which they had taken in preventing the dearest happiness of my life, and promising them a corresponding gratitude from their obliged relative. Business brought the jovial Baronet and his family to London somewhat earlier than usual, and Madame de Bernstein was never sorry to get back to Clarges Street and her cards. I saw them. They found me perfectly well. They concluded the match was broken off, and I did not choose to undeceive them. The Baroness took heart at seeing how cheerful I was, and made many sly jokes about my philosophy, and my prudent behaviour as a man of the world. She was, as ever, bent upon finding a rich match for me: and I fear I paid many compliments at her house to a rich young soap-boiler’s daughter from Mile End, whom the worthy Baroness wished to place in my arms.

“You court her with infinite wit and esprit, my dear,” says my pleased kinswoman, “but she does not understand half you say, and the other half, I think, frightens her. This ton de persiflage is very well in our society, but you must be sparing of it, my dear nephew, amongst these roturiers.”

Miss Badge married a young gentleman of royal dignity, though shattered fortunes, from a neighbouring island; and I trust Mrs. Mackshane has ere this pardoned my levity. There was another person besides Miss at my aunt’s house, who did not understand my persiflage much better than Miss herself; and that was a lady who had seen James the Second’s reign, and who was alive and as worldly as ever in King George’s. I loved to be with her: but that my little folks have access to this volume, I could put down a hundred stories of the great old folks whom she had known in the great old days — of George the First and his ladies, of St. John and Marlborough, of his reigning Majesty and the late Prince of Wales, and the causes of the quarrel between them — but my modest muse pipes for boys and virgins. Son Miles does not care about court stories, or if he doth, has a fresh budget from Carlton House, quite as bad as the worst of our old Baroness. No, my dear wife, thou hast no need to shake thy powdered locks at me! Papa is not going to scandalise his nursery with old-world gossip, nor bring a blush over our chaste bread-and-butter.

But this piece of scandal I cannot help. My aunt used to tell it with infinite gusto; for, to do her justice, she hated your would-be good people, and sniggered over the faults of the self-styled righteous with uncommon satisfaction. In her later days she had no hypocrisy, at least; and in so far was better than some whitewashed . . . Well, to the story. My Lady Warrington, one of the tallest and the most virtuous of her sex, who had goodness for ever on her lips and “Heaven in her eye,” like the woman in Mr. Addison’s tedious tragedy (which has kept the stage, from which some others, which shall be nameless, have disappeared), had the world in her other eye, and an exceedingly shrewd desire of pushing herself in it. What does she do, when my marriage with your ladyship yonder was supposed to be broken off, but attempt to play off on me those arts which she had tried on my poor Harry with such signal ill success, and which failed with me likewise! It was not the Beauty — Miss Flora was for my master —(and what a master! I protest I take off my hat at the idea of such an illustrious connexion!)— it was Dora, the Muse, was set upon me to languish at me and to pity me, and to read even my godless tragedy, and applaud me and console me. Meanwhile, how was the Beauty occupied? Will it be believed that my severe aunt gave a great entertainment to my Lady Yarmouth, presented her boy to her, and placed poor little Miles under her ladyship’s august protection? That, so far, is certain; but can it be that she sent her daughter to stay at my lady’s house, which our gracious lord and master daily visited, and with the views which old Aunt Bernstein attributed to her? “But for that fit of apoplexy, my dear,” Bernstein said, “that aunt of yours intended there should have been a Countess in her own right in the Warrington family!” [Compare Walpole’s letters in Mr. Cunningham’s excellent new edition. See the story of the supper at N. House, to show what great noblemen would do for a king’s mistress, and the pleasant account of the waiting for the Prince of Wales before Holland House.-EDITOR.] My neighbour and kinswoman, my Lady Claypole, is dead and buried. Grow white, ye daisies, upon Flora’s tomb! I can see my pretty Miles, in a gay little uniform of the Norfolk Militia, led up by his parent to the lady whom the King delighted to honour, and the good-natured old Jezebel laying her hand upon the boy’s curly pate. I am accused of being but a lukewarm royalist; but sure I can contrast those times with ours, and acknowledge the difference between the late sovereign and the present, who, born a Briton, has given to every family in the empire an example of decorum and virtuous life. [The Warrington MS. is dated 1793.-ED.]

Thus my life sped in the pleasantest of all occupation; and, being so happy myself, I could afford to be reconciled to those who, after all, had done me no injury, but rather added to the zest of my happiness by the brief obstacle which they had placed in my way. No specific plans were formed, but Theo and I knew that a day would come when we need say Farewell no more. Should the day befall a year hence — ten years hence — we were ready to wait. Day after day we discussed our little plans, with Hetty for our confidante. On our drives we spied out pretty cottages that we thought might suit young people of small means; we devised all sorts of delightful schemes and childish economies. We were Strephon and Chloe to be sure. A cot and a brown loaf should content us! Gumbo and Molly should wait upon us (as indeed they have done from that day until this). At twenty, who is afraid of being poor? Our trials would only confirm our attachment. The “sweet sorrow” of every day’s parting but made the morrow’s meeting more delightful; and when we separated we ran home and wrote each other those precious letters which we and other young gentlemen and ladies write under such circumstances; but though my wife has them all in a great tin sugar-box in the closet in her bedroom, and, I own, I myself have looked at them once, and even thought some of them pretty — I hereby desire my heirs and executors to burn them all, unread, at our demise; specially desiring my son the Captain (to whom I know the perusal of MSS. is not pleasant) to perform this duty. Those secrets whispered to the penny-post, or delivered between Molly and Gumbo, were intended for us alone, and no ears of our descendants shall overhear them.

We heard in successive brief letters how our dear Harry continued with the army, as Mr. General Amherst’s aide-de-camp, after the death of his own glorious general. By the middle of October there came news of the Capitulation of Montreal and the whole of Canada, and a brief postscript in which Hal said he would ask for leave now, and must go and see the old lady at home, who wrote as sulky as a bare, Captain Warrington remarked. I could guess why, though the claws could not reach me. I had written pretty fully to my brother how affairs were standing with me in England.

Then, on the 25th October, comes the news that his Majesty has fallen down dead at Kensington, and that George III. reigned over us. I fear we grieved but little. What do those care for the Atridae whose hearts are strung only to erota mounon? A modest, handsome, brave new Prince, we gladly accept the common report that he is endowed with every virtue; and we cry huzzay with the loyal crowd that hails his accession: it could make little difference to us, as we thought, simple young sweethearts, whispering our little love-stories in our corner.

But who can say how great events affect him? Did not our little Charley, at the Chartreux, wish impiously for a new king immediately, because on his gracious Majesty’s accession Doctor Crusius gave his boys a holiday? He and I, and Hetty, and Theo (Miss Theo was strong enough to walk many a delightful mile now), heard the Heralds proclaim his new Majesty before Savile House in Leicester Fields, and a pickpocket got the watch and chain of a gentleman hard by us, and was caught and carried to Bridewell, all on account of his Majesty’s accession. Had the king not died, the gentleman would not have been in the crowd; the chain would not have been seized; the thief would not have been caught and soundly whipped: in this way many of us, more or less remotely, were implicated in the great change which ensued, and even we humble folks were affected by it presently.

As thus. My Lord Wrotham was a great friend of the august family of Savile House, who knew and esteemed his many virtues. Now, of all living men, my Lord Wrotham knew and loved best his neighbour and old fellow-soldier, Martin Lambert, declaring that the world contained few better gentlemen. And my Lord Bute, being all potent, at first, with his Majesty, and a nobleman, as I believe, very eager at the commencement of his brief and luckless tenure of power, to patronise merit wherever he could find it, was strongly prejudiced in Mr. Lambert’s favour by the latter’s old and constant friend.

My (and Harry’s) old friend Parson Sampson, who had been in and out of gaol I don’t know how many times of late years, and retained an ever-enduring hatred for the Esmonds of Castlewood, and as lasting a regard for me and my brother, was occupying poor Hal’s vacant bed at my lodgings at this time (being, in truth, hunted out of his own by the bailiffs). I liked to have Sampson near me, for a more amusing Jack-friar never walked in cassock; and, besides, he entered into all my rhapsodies about Miss Theo; was never tired (so he vowed) of hearing me talk of her; admired Pocahontas and Carpezan with, I do believe, an honest enthusiasm; and could repeat whole passages of those tragedies with an emphasis and effect that Barry or cousin Hagan himself could not surpass. Sampson was the go-between between Lady Maria and such of her relations as had not disowned her; and, always in debt himself, was never more happy than in drinking a pot, or mingling his tears with his friends in similar poverty. His acquaintance with pawnbrokers’ shops was prodigious. He could procure more money, he boasted, on an article than any gentleman of his cloth. He never paid his own debts, to be sure, but he was ready to forgive his debtors. Poor as he was, he always found means to love and help his needy little sister, and a more prodigal, kindly, amiable rogue never probably grinned behind bars. They say that I love to have parasites about me. I own to have had a great liking for Sampson, and to have esteemed him much better than probably much better men.

When he heard how my Lord Bute was admitted into the cabinet, Sampson vowed and declared that his lordship — a great lover of the drama, who had been to see Carpezan, who had admired it, and who would act the part of the king very finely in it — he vowed, by George! that my lord must give me a place worthy of my birth and merits. He insisted upon it that I should attend his lordship’s levee. I wouldn’t? The Esmonds were all as proud as Lucifer; and, to be sure, my birth was as good as that of any man in Europe. Demmy! Where was my lord himself when the Esmonds were lords of great counties, warriors, and Crusaders? Where were they? Beggarly Scotchmen, without a rag to their backs — by George! tearing raw fish in their islands. But now the times were changed. The Scotchmen were in luck. Mum’s the word! “I don’t envy him,” says Sampson, “but he shall provide for you and my dearest, noblest, heroic captain! He SHALL, by George!” would my worthy parson roar out. And when, in the month after his accession, his Majesty ordered the play of Richard III. at Drury Lane, my chaplain cursed, vowed, swore, but he would have him to Covent Garden to see Carpezan too. And now, one morning, he bursts into my apartment, where I happened to lie rather late, waving the newspaper in his hand, and singing “Huzza!” with all his might.

“What is it, Sampson?” says I. “Has my brother got his promotion?”

“No, in truth: but some one else has. Huzzay! huzzay! His Majesty has appointed Major-General Martin Lambert to be Governor and Commander-inChief of the Island of Jamaica.”

I started up. Here was news, indeed! Mr. Lambert would go to his government: and who would go with him? I had been supping with some genteel young fellows at the Cocoa-Tree. The rascal Gumbo had a note for me from my dear mistress on the night previous, conveying the same news to me, and had delayed to deliver it. Theo begged me to see her at the old place at midday the next day without fail. [In the Warrington MS. there is not a word to say what the “old place” was. Perhaps some obliging reader of Notes and Queries will be able to inform me, and who Mrs. Goodison was.-ED.]

There was no little trepidation in our little council when we reached our place of meeting. Papa had announced his acceptance of the appointment, and his speedy departure. He would have a frigate given him, and take his family with him. Merciful powers! and were we to be parted? My Theo’s old deathly paleness returned to her. Aunt Lambert thought she would have swooned; one of Mrs. Goodison’s girls had a bottle of salts, and ran up with it from the workroom. “Going away? Going away in a frigate, Aunt Lambert? Going to tear her away from me? Great God! Aunt Lambert, I shall die!” She was better when mamma came up from the workroom with the young lady’s bottle of salts. You see the women used to meet me: knowing dear Theo’s delicate state, how could they refrain from compassionating her! But the General was so busy with his levees and his waiting on Ministers, and his outfit, and the settlement of his affairs at home, that they never happened to tell him about our little walks and meetings; and even when orders for the outfit of the ladies were given, Mrs. Goodison, who had known and worked for Miss Molly Benson as a schoolgirl (she remembered Miss Esmond of Virginia perfectly, the worthy lady told me, and a dress she made for the young lady to be presented at her Majesty’s Ball)—“even when the outfit was ordered for the three ladies,” says Mrs. Goodison, demurely, “why, I thought I could do no harm in completing the order.”

Now I need not say in what perturbation of mind Mr. Warrington went home in the evening to his lodgings, after the discussion with the ladies of the above news. No, or at least a very few, more walks; no more rides to dear, dear Hampstead or beloved Islington; no more fetching and carrying of letters for Gumbo and Molly! The former blubbered so, that Mr. Warrington was quite touched by his fidelity, and gave him a crown-piece to go to supper with the poor girl, who turned out to be his sweetheart. What, you too unhappy, Gumbo, and torn from the maid you love? I was ready to mingle with him tear for tear.

What a solemn conference I had with Sampson that evening! He knew my affairs, my expectations, my mother’s anger. Psha! that was far off, and he knew some excellent liberal people (of the order of Melchizedek) who would discount the other. The General would not give his consent? Sampson shrugged his broad shoulders and swore a great roaring oath. My mother would not relent? What then? A man was a man, and to make his own way in the world? he supposed. He is only a churl who won’t play for such a stake as that, and lose or win, by George! shouts the chaplain, over a bottle of Burgundy at the Bedford Head, where he dined. I need not put down our conversation. We were two of us, and I think there was only one mind between us. Our talk was of a Saturday night . . . .

I did not tell Theo, nor any relative of hers, what was being done. But when the dear child faltered and talked, trembling, of the coming departure, I bade her bear up, and vowed all would be well, so confidently, that she, who ever has taken her alarms and joys from my face (I wish, my dear, it were sometimes not so gloomy), could not but feel confidence; and placed (with many fond words that need not here be repeated) her entire trust in me — murmuring those sweet words of Ruth that must have comforted myriads of tender hearts in my dearest maiden’s plight; that whither I would go she would go, and that my people should be hers. At last, one day, the General’s preparations being made, the trunks encumbering the passages of the dear old Dean Street lodging, which I shall love as long as I shall remember at all — one day, almost the last of his stay, when the good man (his Excellency we called him now) came home to his dinner — a comfortless meal enough it was in the present condition of the family — he looked round the table at the place where I had used to sit in happy old days, and sighed out: “I wish, Molly, George was here.”

“Do you, Martin?” says Aunt Lambert, flinging into his arms.

“Yes, I do; but I don’t wish you to choke me, Molly,” he says. “I love him dearly. I may go away and never see him again, and take his foolish little sweetheart along with me. I suppose you will write to each other, children? I can’t prevent that, you know; and until he changes his mind, I suppose Miss Theo won’t obey papa’s orders, and get him out of her foolish little head. Wilt thou, Theo?”

“No, dearest, dearest, best papa!”

“What! more embraces and kisses! What does all this mean?”

“It means that — that George is in the drawing-room,” says mamma.

“Is he! My dearest boy!” cries the General. “Come to me — come in!” And when I entered he held me to his heart, and kissed me.

I confess at this I was so overcome that I fell down on my knees before the dear, good man, and sobbed on his own.

“God bless you, my dearest boy!” he mutters hurriedly. “Always loved you as a son — haven’t I, Molly? Broke my heart nearly when I quarrelled with you about this little — What! — odds marrowbones! — all down on your knees! Mrs. Lambert, pray what is the meaning of all this?”

“Dearest, dearest papa! I will go with you all the same!” whimpers one of the kneeling party. “And I will wait — oh! — as long as ever my dearest father wants me!”

“In Heaven’s name!” roars the General, “tell me what has happened?”

What had happened was, that George Esmond Warrington and Theodosia Lambert had been married in Southwark that morning, their banns having been duly called in the church of a certain friend of the Reverend Mr. Sampson.

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