The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LXXXVII

The Last of God Save the King

What perverse law of Fate is it that ever places me in a minority? Should a law be proposed to hand over this realm to the Pretender of Rome, or the Grand Turk, and submit it to the new sovereign’s religion, it might pass, as I should certainly be voting against it. At home in Virginia, I found myself disagreeing with everybody as usual. By the Patriots I was voted (as indeed I professed myself to be) a Tory; by the Tories I was presently declared to be a dangerous Republican. The time was utterly out of joint. O cursed spite! Ere I had been a year in Virginia, how I wished myself back by the banks of the Waveney! But the aspect of affairs was so troublous, that I could not leave my mother, a lone lady, to face possible war and disaster, nor would she quit the country at such a juncture, nor should a man of spirit leave it. At his Excellency’s table, and over his Excellency’s plentiful claret, that point was agreed on by numbers of the well-affected, that vow was vowed over countless brimming bumpers. No: it was statue signum, signifer! We Cavaliers would all rally round it; and at these times, our Governor talked like the bravest of the brave.

Now, I will say, of all my Virginian acquaintance, Madam Esmond was the most consistent. Our gentlefolks had come in numbers to Williamsburg; and a great number of them proposed to treat her Excellency, the Governor’s lady, to a ball, when the news reached us of the Boston Port Bill. Straightway the House of Burgesses adopts an indignant protest against this measure of the British Parliament, and decrees a solemn day of fast and humiliation throughout the country, and of solemn prayer to Heaven to avert the calamity of Civil War. Meanwhile, the invitation to my Lady Dunmore having been already given and accepted, the gentlemen agreed that their ball should take place on the appointed evening, and then sackcloth and ashes should be assumed some days afterwards.

“A ball!” says Madam Esmond. “I go to a ball which is given by a set of rebels who are going publicly to insult his Majesty a week afterwards! I will die sooner!” And she wrote to the gentlemen who were stewards for the occasion to say, that viewing the dangerous state of the country, she, for her part, could not think of attending a ball.

What was her surprise then, the next time she went abroad in her chair, to be cheered by a hundred persons, white and black, and shouts of “Huzzah, Madam!” “Heaven bless your ladyship!” They evidently thought her patriotism had caused her determination not to go to the ball.

Madam, that there should be no mistake, puts her head out of the chair, and cries out “God save the King” as loud as she can. The people cried “God save the King,” too. Everybody cried “God save the King” in those days. On the night of that entertainment, my poor Harry, as a Burgess of the House, and one of the givers of the feast, donned his uniform red coat of Wolfe’s (which he so soon was to exchange for another colour), and went off with Madam Fanny to the ball. My Lady Warrington and her humble servant, as being strangers in the country, and English people as it were, were permitted by Madam to attend the assembly from which she of course absented herself. I had the honour to dance a country-dance with the lady of Mount Vernon, whom I found a most lively, pretty, and amiable partner; but am bound to say that my wife’s praises of her were received with a very grim acceptance by my mother, when Lady Warrington came to recount the events of the evening. Could not Sir George Warrington have danced with my Lady Dunmore or her daughters, or with anybody but Mrs. Washington; to be sure the Colonel thought so well of himself and his wife, that no doubt he considered her the grandest lady in the room; and she who remembered him a road-surveyor at a guinea a day! Well, indeed! there was no measuring the pride of these provincial upstarts, and as for this gentleman, my Lord Dunmore’s partiality for him had evidently turned his head. I do not know about Mr. Washington’s pride, I know that my good mother never could be got to love him or anything that was his.

She was no better pleased with him for going to the ball, than with his conduct three days afterwards, when the day of fast and humiliation was appointed, and when he attended the service which our new clergyman performed. She invited Mr. Belman to dinner that day, and sundry colonial authorities. The clergyman excused himself. Madam Esmond tossed up her head, and said he might do as he liked. She made a parade of a dinner; she lighted her house up at night, when all the rest of the city was in darkness and gloom; she begged Mr. Hardy, one of his Excellency’s aides-de-camp, to sing “God save the King,” to which the people in the street outside listened, thinking that it might be a part of some religious service which Madam was celebrating; but then she called for “Britons, strike home!” which the simple young gentleman just from Europe began to perform, when a great yell arose in the street, and a large stone, flung from some rebellious hand, plumped into the punch-bowl before me, and scattered it and its contents about our dining-room.

My mother went to the window nothing daunted. I can see her rigid little figure now, as she stands with a tossed-up head, outstretched frilled arms, and the twinkling stars for a background, and sings in chorus, “Britons, strike home! strike home!” The crowd in front of the palings shout and roar, “Silence! for shame! go back!” but she will not go back, not she. “Fling more stones, if you dare!” says the brave little lady; and more might have come, but some gentlemen issuing out of the Raley Tavern interpose with the crowd. “You mustn’t insult a lady,” says a voice I think I know. “Huzza, Colonel! Hurrah, Captain! God bless your honour!” say the people in the street. And thus the enemies are pacified.

My mother, protesting that the whole disturbance was over, would have had Mr. Hardy sing another song, but he gave a sickly grin, and said, “he really did not like to sing to such accompaniments,” and the concert for that evening was ended; though I am bound to say that some scoundrels returned at night, frightened my poor wife almost out of wits, and broke every single window in the front of our tenement. “Britons, strike home!” was a little too much; Madam should have contented herself with “God save the King.” Militia was drilled, bullets were cast, supplies of ammunition got ready, cunning plans for disappointing the royal ordinances devised and carried out; but, to be sure, “God save the King” was the cry everywhere, and in reply to my objections to the gentlemen-patriots, “Why, you are scheming for a separation; you are bringing down upon you the inevitable wrath of the greatest power in the world!”— the answer to me always was, “We mean no separation at all; we yield to no men in loyalty; we glory in the name of Britons,” and so forth, and so forth. The powder-barrels were heaped in the cellar, the train was laid, but Mr. Fawkes was persistent in his dutiful petitions to King and Parliament and meant no harm, not he! ’Tis true when I spoke of the power of our country, I imagined she would exert it; that she would not expect to overcome three millions of fellow-Britons on their own soil with a few battalions, a half-dozen generals from Bond Street, and a few thousand bravos hired out of Germany. As if we wanted to insult the thirteen colonies as well as to subdue them, we must set upon them these hordes of Hessians, and the murderers out of the Indian wigwams. Was our great quarrel not to be fought without tali auxilio and istis defensoribus? Ah! ’tis easy, now we are worsted, to look over the map of the great empire wrested from us, and show how we ought not to have lost it. Long Island ought to have exterminated Washington’s army; he ought never to have come out of Valley Forge except as a prisoner. The South was ours after the battle of Camden, but for the inconceivable meddling of the Commander-inChief at New York, who paralysed the exertions of the only capable British General who appeared during the war, and sent him into that miserable cul-de-sac at York Town, whence he could only issue defeated and a prisoner. Oh, for a week more! a day more, an hour more of darkness or light! In reading over our American campaigns from their unhappy commencement to their inglorious end, now that we are able to see the enemy’s movements and conditions as well as our own, I fancy we can see how an advance, a march, might have put enemies into our power who had no means to withstand it, and changed the entire issue of the struggle. But it was ordained by Heaven, and for the good, as we can now have no doubt, of both empires, that the great Western Republic should separate from us: and the gallant soldiers who fought on her side, their indomitable and heroic Chief above all, had the glory of facing and overcoming, not only veteran soldiers amply provided and inured to war, but wretchedness, cold, hunger, dissensions, treason within their own camp, where all must have gone to rack, but for the pure unquenchable flame of patriotism that was for ever burning in the bosom of the heroic leader. What a constancy, what a magnanimity, what a surprising persistence against fortune! Washington before the enemy was no better nor braver than hundreds that fought with him or against him (who has not heard the repeated sneers against “Fabius” in which his factious captains were accustomed to indulge?), but Washington the Chief of a nation in arms, doing battle with distracted parties; calm in the midst of conspiracy; serene against the open foe before him and the darker enemies at his back; Washington inspiring order and spirit into troops hungry and in rags; stung by ingratitude, but betraying no anger, and ever ready to forgive; in defeat invincible, magnanimous in conquest, and never so sublime as on that day when he laid down his victorious sword and sought his noble retirement:— here indeed is a character to admire and revere; a life without a stain, a fame without a flaw. Quando invenies parem? In that more extensive work, which I have planned and partly written on the subject of this great war, I hope I have done justice to the character of its greatest leader. [And I trust that in the opinions I have recorded regarding him, I have shown that I also can be just and magnanimous towards those who view me personally with no favour. For my brother Hal being at Mount Vernon, and always eager to bring me and his beloved Chief on good terms, showed his Excellency some of the early sheets of my History. General Washington (who read but few books, and had not the slightest pretensions to literary taste) remarked, “If you will have my opinion, my dear General, I think Sir George’s projected work, from the specimen I have of it, is certain to offend both parties.”— G. E. W.]. And this from the sheer force of respect which his eminent virtues extorted. With the young Mr. Washington of my own early days I had not the honour to enjoy much sympathy: though my brother, whose character is much more frank and affectionate than mine, was always his fast friend in early times, when they were equals, as in latter days when the General, as I do own and think, was all mankind’s superior.

I have mentioned that contrariety in my disposition, and, perhaps, in my brother’s, which somehow placed us on wrong sides in the quarrel which ensued, and which from this time forth raged for five years, until the mother country was fain to acknowledge her defeat. Harry should have been the Tory, and I the Whig. Theoretically my opinions were very much more liberal than those of my brother, who, especially after his marriage, became what our Indian nabobs call a Bahadoor — a person ceremonious, stately, and exacting respect. When my Lord Dunmore, for instance, talked about liberating the negroes, so as to induce them to join the King’s standard, Hal was for hanging the Governor and the Black Guards (as he called them) whom his Excellency had crimped. “If you, gentlemen are fighting for freedom,” says I, “sure the negroes may fight, too.” On which Harry roars out, shaking his fist, “Infernal villains, if I meet any of ’em, they shall die by this hand!” And my mother agreed that this idea of a negro insurrection was the most abominable and parricidal notion which had ever sprung up in her unhappy country. She at least was more consistent than brother Hal. She would have black and white obedient to the powers that be: whereas Hal only could admit that freedom was the right of the latter colour.

As a proof of her argument, Madam Esmond and Harry too would point to an instance in our own family in the person of Mr. Gumbo. Having got his freedom from me, as a reward for his admirable love and fidelity to me when times were hard, Gumbo, on his return to Virginia, was scarce a welcome guest in his old quarters, amongst my mother’s servants. He was free, and they were not: he was, as it were, a centre of insurrection. He gave himself no small airs of protection and consequence amongst them; bragging of his friends in Europe (“at home,” as he called it), and his doings there; and for a while bringing the household round about him to listen to him and admire him, like the monkey who had seen the world. Now, Sady, Hal’s boy, who went to America of his own desire, was not free. Hence jealousies between him and Mr. Gum; and battles, in which they both practised the noble art of boxing and butting, which they had learned at Marybone Gardens and Hockley-inthe-Hole. Nor was Sady the only jealous person: almost all my mother’s servants hated Signor Gumbo for the airs which he gave himself; and I am sorry to say, that our faithful Molly, his wife, was as jealous as his old fellow-servants. The blacks could not pardon her for having demeaned herself so far as to marry one of their kind. She met with no respect, could exercise no authority, came to her mistress with ceaseless complaints of the idleness, knavery, lies, stealing of the black people; and finally with a story of jealousy against a certain Dinah, or Diana, who, I heartily trust, was as innocent as her namesake the moonlight visitant of Endymion. Now, on the article of morality Madam Esmond was a very Draconess; and a person accused was a person guilty. She made charges against Mr. Gumbo to which he replied with asperity. Forgetting that he was a free gentleman, my mother now ordered Gumbo to be whipped, on which Molly flew at her ladyship, all her wrath at her husband’s infidelity vanishing at the idea of the indignity put upon him; there was a rebellion in our house at Castlewood. A quarrel took place between me and my mother, as I took my man’s side. Hal and Fanny sided with her, on the contrary; and in so far the difference did good, as it brought about some little intimacy between Madam and her younger children. This little difference was speedily healed; but it was clear that the Standard of Insurrection must be removed out of our house; and we determined that Mr. Gumbo and his lady should return to Europe.

My wife and I would willingly have gone with them, God wot, for our boy sickened and lost his strength, and caught the fever in our swampy country; but at this time she was expecting to lie in (of our son Henry), and she knew, too, that I had promised to stay in Virginia. It was agreed that we should send the two back; but when I offered Theo to go, she said her place was with her husband; — her father and Hetty at home would take care of our children; and she scarce would allow me to see a tear in her eyes whilst she was making her preparations for the departure of her little ones. Dost thou remember the time, madam, and the silence round the worktables, as the piles of little shirts are made ready for the voyage? and the stealthy visits to the children’s chambers whilst they are asleep and yet with you? and the terrible time of parting, as our barge with the servants and children rows to the ship, and you stand on the shore? Had the Prince of Wales been going on that voyage, he could not have been better provided. Where, sirrah, is the Tompion watch your grandmother gave you? and how did you survive the boxes of cakes which the good lady stowed away in your cabin?

The ship which took out my poor Theo’s children, returned with the Reverend Mr. Hagan and my Lady Maria on board, who meekly chose to resign her rank, and was known in the colony (which was not to be a colony very long) only as Mrs. Hagan. At the time when I was in favour with my Lord Dunmore, a living falling vacant in Westmoreland county, he gave it to our kinsman, who arrived in Virginia time enough to christen our boy Henry, and to preach some sermons on the then gloomy state of affairs, which Madam Esmond pronounced to be prodigious fine. I think my Lady Maria won Madam’s heart by insisting on going out of the room after her. “My father, your brother, was an earl, ’tis true,” says she, “but you know your ladyship is a marquis’s daughter, and I never can think of taking precedence of you!” So fond did Madam become of her niece, that she even allowed Hagan to read plays — my own humble compositions amongst others — and was fairly forced to own that there was merit in the tragedy of Pocahontas, which our parson delivered with uncommon energy and fire.

Hal and his wife came but rarely to Castlewood and Richmond when the chaplain and his lady were with us. Fanny was very curt and rude with Maria, used to giggle and laugh strangely in her company, and repeatedly remind her of her age, to our mother’s astonishment, who would often ask, was there any cause of quarrel between her niece and her daughter-inlaw? I kept my own counsel on these occasions, and was often not a little touched by the meekness with which the elder lady bore her persecutions. Fanny loved to torture her in her husband’s presence (who, poor fellow, was also in happy ignorance about his wife’s early history), and the other bore her agony, wincing as little as might be. I sometimes would remonstrate with Madam Harry, and ask her was she a Red Indian, that she tortured her victims so? “Have not I had torture enough in my time?” says the young lady, and looked as though she was determined to pay back the injuries inflicted on her.

“Nay,” says I, “you were bred in our wigwam, and I don’t remember anything but kindness!”

“Kindness!” cries she. “No slave was ever treated as I was. The blows which wound most, often are those which never are aimed. The people who hate us are not those we have injured.”

I thought of little Fanny in our early days, silent, smiling, willing to run and do all our biddings for us, and I grieved for my poor brother, who had taken this sly creature into his bosom.

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