The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER VIII

In which George suffers from a Common Disease

On the day appointed for Madam Esmond’s entertainment to the General, the house of Castlewood was set out with the greatest splendour; and Madam Esmond arrayed herself in a much more magnificent dress than she was accustomed to wear. Indeed, she wished to do every honour to her guest, and to make the entertainment — which, in reality, was a sad one to her — as pleasant as might be for her company. The General’s new aide-de-camp was the first to arrive. The widow received him in the covered gallery before the house. He dismounted at the steps, and his servants led away his horses to the well-known quarters. No young gentleman in the colony was better mounted or a better horseman than Mr. Washington.

For a while ere the Major retired to divest himself of his riding-boots, he and his hostess paced the gallery in talk. She had much to say to him; she had to hear from him a confirmation of his own appointment as aide-de-camp to General Braddock, and to speak of her son’s approaching departure. The negro servants bearing the dishes for the approaching feast were passing perpetually as they talked. They descended the steps down to the rough lawn in front of the house, and paced a while in the shade. Mr. Washington announced his Excellency’s speedy approach, with Mr. Franklin of Pennsylvania in his coach.

This Mr. Franklin had been a common printer’s boy, Mrs. Esmond had heard; a pretty pass things were coming to when such persons rode in the coach of the Commander-inChief! Mr. Washington said, a more shrewd and sensible gentleman never rode in coach or walked on foot. Mrs. Esmond thought the Major was too liberally disposed towards this gentleman; but Mr. Washington stoutly maintained against the widow that the printer was a most ingenious, useful, and meritorious man.

“I am glad, at least, that, as my boy is going to make the campaign, he will not be with tradesmen, but with gentlemen, with gentlemen of honour and fashion,” says Madam Esmond, in her most stately manner.

Mr. Washington had seen the gentlemen of honour and fashion over their cups, and perhaps thought that all their sayings and doings were not precisely such as would tend to instruct or edify a young man on his entrance into life; but he wisely chose to tell no tales out of school, and said that Harry and George, now they were coming into the world, must take their share of good and bad, and hear what both sorts had to say.

“To be with a veteran officer of the finest army in the world,” faltered the widow; “with gentlemen who have been bred in the midst of the Court; with friends of his Royal Highness, the Duke ——”

The widow’s friend only inclined his head. He did not choose to allow his countenance to depart from its usual handsome gravity.

“And with you, dear Colonel Washington, by whom my father always set such store. You don’t know how much he trusted in you. You will take care of my boy, sir, will not you? You are but five years older, yet I trust to you more than to his seniors; my father always told the children, I alway bade them, to look up to Mr. Washington.”

“You know I would have done anything to win Colonel Esmond’s favour. Madam, how much would I not venture to merit his daughter’s?”

The gentleman bowed with not too ill a grace. The lady blushed, and dropped one of the lowest curtsies. (Madam Esmond’s curtsey was considered unrivalled over the whole province.) “Mr. Washington,” she said, “will be always sure of a mother’s affection, whilst he gives so much of his to her children.” And so saying she gave him her hand, which he kissed with profound politeness. The little lady presently re-entered her mansion, leaning upon the tall young officer’s arm. Here they were joined by George, who came to them, accurately powdered and richly attired, saluting his parent and his friend alike with low and respectful bows. Nowadays, a young man walks into his mother’s room with hobnailed high-lows, and a wideawake on his head; and instead of making her a bow, puffs a cigar into her face.

But George, though he made the lowest possible bow to Mr. Washington and his mother, was by no means in good-humour with either of them. A polite smile played round the lower part of his countenance, whilst watchfulness and wrath glared out from the two upper windows. What had been said or done? Nothing that might not have been performed or uttered before the most decent, polite, or pious company. Why then should Madam Esmond continue to blush, and the brave Colonel to look somewhat red, as he shook his young friend’s hand?

The Colonel asked Mr. George if he had had good sport? “No,” says George, curtly. “Have you?” And then he looked at the picture of his father, which hung in the parlour.

The Colonel, not a talkative man ordinarily, straightway entered into a long description of his sport, and described where he had been in the morning, and what woods he had hunted with the king’s officers; how many birds they had shot, and what game they had brought down. Though not a jocular man ordinarily, the Colonel made a long description of Mr. Braddock’s heavy person and great boots, as he floundered through the Virginian woods, hunting, as they called it, with a pack of dogs gathered from various houses, with a pack of negroes barking as loud as the dogs, and actually shooting the deer when they came in sight of him. “Great God, sir!” says Mr. Braddock, puffing and blowing, “what would Sir Robert have said in Norfolk, to see a man hunting with a fowling-piece in his hand, and a pack of dogs actually laid on to a turkey!”

“Indeed, Colonel, you are vastly comical this afternoon!” cries Madam Esmond, with a neat little laugh, whilst her son listened to the story, looking more glum than ever. “What Sir Robert is there at Norfolk? Is he one of the newly arrived army-gentlemen?”

“The General meant Norfolk at home, madam, not Norfolk in Virginia,” said Colonel Washington. “Mr. Braddock had been talking of a visit to Sir Robert Walpole, who lived in that county, and of the great hunts the old Minister kept there, and of his grand palace, and his pictures at Houghton. I should like to see a good field and a good fox-chase at home better than any sight in the world,” the honest sportsman added with a sigh.

“Nevertheless, there is good sport here, as I was saying,” said young Esmond, with a sneer.

“What sport?” cries the other, looking at him.

“Why, sure you know, without looking at me so fiercely, and stamping your foot, as if you were going to charge me with the foils. Are you not the best sportsman of the country-side? Are there not all the fish of the field, and the beasts of the trees, and the fowls of the sea — no — the fish of the trees, and the beasts of the sea — and the — bah! You know what I mean. I mean shad, and salmon, and rock-fish, and roe-deer, and hogs, and buffaloes, and bisons, and elephants, for what I know. I’m no sportsman.”

“No, indeed,” said Mr. Washington, with a look of scarcely repressed scorn.

“Yes, I understand you. I am a milksop. I have been bred at my mamma’s knee. Look at these pretty apron-strings, Colonel! Who would not like to be tied to them? See of what a charming colour they are! I remember when they were black — that was for my grandfather.”

“And who would not mourn for such a gentleman?” said the Colonel, as the widow, surprised, looked at her son.

“And, indeed, I wish my grandfather were here, and would resurge, as he promises to do on his tombstone; and would bring my father, the Ensign, with him.”

“Ah, Harry!” cries Mrs. Esmond, bursting into tears, as at this juncture her second son entered the room — in just such another suit, gold-corded frock, braided waistcoat, silver-hilted sword, and solitaire, as that which his elder brother wore. “Oh, Harry, Harry!” cries Madam Esmond, and flies to her younger son.

“What is it, mother?” asks Harry, taking her in his arms. “What is the matter, Colonel?”

“Upon my life, it would puzzle me to say,” answered the Colonel, biting his lips.

“A mere question, Hal, about pink ribbons, which I think vastly becoming to our mother; as, no doubt, the Colonel does.”

“Sir, will you please to speak for yourself?” cried the Colonel, bustling up, and then sinking his voice again.

“He speaks too much for himself,” wept the widow.

“I protest I don’t any more know the source of these tears, than the source of the Nile,” said George, “and if the picture of my father were to begin to cry, I should almost as much wonder at the paternal tears. What have I uttered? An allusion to ribbons! Is there some poisoned pin in them, which has been struck into my mother’s heart by a guilty fiend of a London mantua-maker? I professed to wish to be led in these lovely reins all my life long,” and he turned a pirouette on his scarlet heels.

“George Warrington! what devil’s dance are you dancing now?” asked Harry, who loved his mother, who loved Mr. Washington, but who, of all creatures, loved and admired his brother George.

“My dear child, you do not understand dancing — you care not for the politer arts — you can get no more music out of a spinet than by pulling a dead hog by the ear. By nature you were made for a man — a man of war — I do not mean a seventy-four, Colonel George, like that hulk which brought the hulking Mr. Braddock into our river. His Excellency, too, is a man of warlike turn, a follower of the sports of the field. I am a milksop, as I have had the honour to say.”

“You never showed it yet. You beat that great Maryland man was twice your size,” breaks out Harry.

“Under compulsion, Harry. ’Tis tuptu, my lad, or else ’tis tuptomai, as thy breech well knew when we followed school. But I am of a quiet turn, and would never lift my hand to pull a trigger, no, nor a nose, nor anything but a rose,” and here he took and handled one of Madam Esmond’s bright pink apron ribbons. “I hate sporting, which you and the Colonel love, and I want to shoot nothing alive, not a turkey, nor a titmouse, nor an ox, nor an ass, nor anything that has ears. Those curls of Mr. Washington’s are prettily powdered.”

The militia colonel, who had been offended by the first part of the talk, and very much puzzled by the last, had taken a modest draught from the great china bowl of apple-toddy which stood to welcome the guests in this as in all Virginian houses, and was further cooling himself by pacing the balcony in a very stately manner.

Again almost reconciled with the elder, the appeased mother stood giving a hand to each of her sons. George put his disengaged hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I say one thing, George,” says he with a flushing face.

“Say twenty things, Don Enrico,” cries the other.

“If you are not fond of sporting and that, and don’t care for killing game and hunting, being cleverer than me, why shouldst thou not stop at home and be quiet, and let me go out with Colonel George and Mr. Braddock? — that’s what I say,” says Harry, delivering himself of his speech.

The widow looked eagerly from the dark-haired to the fair-haired boy. She knew not from which she would like to part.

“One of our family must go because honneur oblige, and my name being number one, number one must go first,” says George.

“Told you so,” said poor Harry.

“One must stay, or who is to look after mother at home? We cannot afford to be both scalped by Indians or fricasseed by French.”

“Fricasseed by French!” cries Harry; “the best troops of the world! Englishmen! I should like to see them fricasseed by the French! — What a mortal thrashing you will give them!” and the brave lad sighed to think he should not be present at the battue.

George sate down to the harpsichord and played and sang “Malbrouk s’en va-t-en guerre, Mironton, mironton, mirontaine,” at the sound of which music the gentleman from the balcony entered. “I am playing ‘God save the King,’ Colonel, in compliment to the new expedition.”

“I never know whether thou art laughing or in earnest,” said the simple gentleman, “but surely methinks that is not the air.”

George performed ever so many trills and quavers upon his harpsichord, and their guest watched him, wondering, perhaps, that a gentleman of George’s condition could set himself to such an effeminate business. Then the Colonel took out his watch, saying that his Excellency’s coach would be here almost immediately, and asking leave to retire to his apartment, and put himself in a fit condition to appear before her ladyship’s company.

“Colonel Washington knows the way to his room pretty well,” said George, from the harpsichord, looking over his shoulder, but never offering to stir.”

“Let me show the Colonel to his chamber,” cried the widow, in great wrath, and sailed out of the apartment, followed by the enraged and bewildered Colonel, as George continued crashing among the keys. Her high-spirited guest felt himself insulted, he could hardly say how; he was outraged and he could not speak; he was almost stifling with anger.

Harry Warrington remarked their friend’s condition. “For heaven’s sake, George, what does this all mean?” he asked his brother. “Why shouldn’t he kiss her hand?” (George had just before fetched out his brother from their library, to watch this harmless salute.) “I tell you it is nothing but common kindness.”

“Nothing but common kindness!” shrieked out George. “Look at that, Hal! Is that common kindness?” and he showed his junior the unlucky paper over which he had been brooding for some time. It was but a fragment, though the meaning was indeed clear without the preceding text.

The paper commenced: “ . . . is older than myself, but I, again, am older than my years; and you know, dear brother, have ever been considered a sober person. All children are better for a father’s superintendence, and her two, I trust, will find in me a tender friend and guardian.”

“Friend and guardian! Curse him!” shrieked out George, clenching his fists — and his brother read on:

“ . . . The flattering offer which General Braddock hath made me, will, of course, oblige me to postpone this matter until after the campaign. When we have given the French a sufficient drubbing, I shall return to repose under my own vine and fig-tree.”

“He means Castlewood. These are his vines,” George cries again, shaking his fist at the creepers sunning themselves on the wall.

“ . . . Under my own vine and fig-tree; where I hope soon to present my dear brother to his new sister-inlaw. She has a pretty Scripture name, which is . . .”— and here the document ended.

“Which is Rachel,” George went on bitterly. “Rachel is by no means weeping for her children, and has every desire to be comforted. Now, Harry! Let us upstairs at once, kneel down as becomes us, and say, ‘Dear papa, welcome to your house of Castlewood.’”

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