The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which one of the Virginians visits home

On the library wall of one of the most famous writers of America, there hang two crossed swords, which his relatives wore in the great War of Independence. The one sword was gallantly drawn in the service of the king, the other was the weapon of a brave and honoured republican soldier. The possessor of the harmless trophy has earned for himself a name alike honoured in his ancestors’ country and his own, where genius such as his has always a peaceful welcome.

The ensuing history reminds me of yonder swords in the historian’s study at Boston. In the Revolutionary War, the subjects of this story, natives of America, and children of the Old Dominion, found themselves engaged on different sides in the quarrel, coming together peaceably at its conclusion, as brethren should, their love ever having materially diminished, however angrily the contest divided them. The colonel in scarlet, and the general in blue and buff, hang side by side in the wainscoted parlour of the Warringtons, in England, where a descendant of one of the brothers has shown their portraits to me, with many of the letters which they wrote, and the books and papers which belonged to them. In the Warrington family, and to distinguish them from other personages of that respectable race, these effigies have always gone by the name of “The Virginians”; by which name their memoirs are christened.

They both of them passed much time in Europe. They lived just on the verge of that Old World from which we are drifting away so swiftly. They were familiar with many varieties of men and fortune. Their lot brought them into contact with personages of whom we read only in books, who seem alive, as I read in the Virginians’ letters regarding them, whose voices I almost fancy I hear, as I read the yellow pages written scores of years since, blotted with the boyish tears of disappointed passion, dutifully despatched after famous balls and ceremonies of the grand Old World, scribbled by camp-fires, or out of prison; nay, there is one that has a bullet through it, and of which a greater portion of the text is blotted out with the blood of the bearer.

These letters had probably never been preserved, but for the affectionate thrift of one person, to whom they never failed in their dutiful correspondence. Their mother kept all her sons’ letters, from the very first, in which Henry, the younger of the twins, sends his love to his brother, then ill of a sprain at his grandfather’s house of Castlewood, in Virginia, and thanks his grandpapa for a horse which he rides with his tutor, down to the last, “from my beloved son,” which reached her but a few hours before her death. The venerable lady never visited Europe, save once with her parents in the reign of George the Second; took refuge in Richmond when the house of Castlewood was burned down during the war; and was called Madam Esmond ever after that event; never caring much for the name or family of Warrington, which she held in very slight estimation as compared to her own.

The letters of the Virginians, as the reader will presently see, from specimens to be shown to him, are by no means full. They are hints rather than descriptions — indications and outlines chiefly: it may be, that the present writer has mistaken the forms, and filled in the colour wrongly: but, poring over the documents, I have tried to imagine the situation of the writer, where he was, and by what persons surrounded. I have drawn the figures as I fancied they were; set down conversations as I think I might have heard them; and so, to the best of my ability, endeavoured to revivify the bygone times and people. With what success the task has been accomplished, with what profit or amusement to himself, the kind reader will please to determine.

One summer morning in the year 1756, and in the reign of his Majesty King George the Second, the Young Rachel, Virginian ship, Edward Franks master, came up the Avon river on her happy return from her annual voyage to the Potomac. She proceeded to Bristol with the tide, and moored in the stream as near as possible to Trail’s wharf, to which she was consigned. Mr. Trail, her part owner, who could survey his ship from his counting-house windows, straightway took boat and came up her side. The owner of the Young Rachel, a large grave man in his own hair, and of a demure aspect, gave the hand of welcome to Captain Franks, who stood on his deck, and congratulated the captain upon the speedy and fortunate voyage which he had made. And, remarking that we ought to be thankful to Heaven for its mercies, he proceeded presently to business by asking particulars relative to cargo and passengers.

Franks was a pleasant man, who loved a joke. “We have,” says he, “but yonder ugly negro boy, who is fetching the trunks, and a passenger who has the state cabin to himself.”

Mr. Trail looked as if he would have preferred more mercies from Heaven. “Confound you, Franks, and your luck! The Duke William, which came in last week, brought fourteen, and she is not half of our tonnage.”

“And this passenger, who has the whole cabin, don’t pay nothin’,” continued the Captain. “Swear now, it will do you good, Mr. Trail, indeed it will. I have tried the medicine.”

“A passenger take the whole cabin and not pay? Gracious mercy, are you a fool, Captain Franks?”

“Ask the passenger himself, for here he comes.” And, as the master spoke, a young man of some nineteen years of age came up the hatchway. He had a cloak and a sword under his arm, and was dressed in deep mourning, and called out, “Gumbo, you idiot, why don’t you fetch the baggage out of the cabin? Well, shipmate, our journey is ended. You will see all the little folks to-night whom you have been talking about. Give my love to Polly, and Betty, and Little Tommy; not forgetting my duty to Mrs. Franks. I thought, yesterday, the voyage would never be done, and now I am almost sorry it is over. That little berth in my cabin looks very comfortable now I am going to leave it.”

Mr. Trail scowled at the young passenger who had paid no money for his passage. He scarcely nodded his head to the stranger, when Captain Franks said, “This here gentleman is Mr. Trail, sir, whose name you have a-heerd of.”

“It’s pretty well known in Bristol, sir,” says Mr. Trail, majestically.

“And this is Mr. Warrington, Madam Esmond Warrington’s son, of Castlewood,” continued the Captain.

The British merchant’s hat was instantly off his head, and the owner of the beaver was making a prodigious number of bows as if a crown prince were before him.

“Gracious powers, Mr. Warrington! This is a delight, indeed! What a crowning mercy that your voyage should have been so prosperous! You must have my boat to go on shore. Let me cordially and respectfully welcome you to England: let me shake your hand as the son of my benefactress and patroness, Mrs. Esmond Warrington, whose name is known and honoured on Bristol ‘Change, I warrant you. Isn’t it, Franks?”

“There’s no sweeter tobacco comes from Virginia, and no better brand than the Three Castles,” says Mr. Franks, drawing a great brass tobacco-box from his pocket, and thrusting a quid into his jolly mouth. “You don’t know what a comfort it is, sir! you’ll take to it, bless you, as you grow older. Won’t he, Mr. Trail? I wish you had ten shiploads of it instead of one. You might have ten shiploads: I’ve told Madam Esmond so; I’ve rode over her plantation; she treats me like a lord when I go to the house; she don’t grudge me the best of wine, or keep me cooling my heels in the counting-room as some folks does” (with a look at Mr. Trail). “She is a real born lady, she is; and might have a thousand hogsheads as easy as her hundreds, if there were but hands enough.”

“I have lately engaged in the Guinea trade, and could supply her ladyship with any number of healthy young negroes before next fall,” said Mr. Trail, obsequiously.

“We are averse to the purchase of negroes from Africa,” said the young gentleman, coldly. “My grandfather and my mother have always objected to it, and I do not like to think of selling or buying the poor wretches.”

“It is for their good, my dear young sir! for their temporal and their spiritual good!” cried Mr. Trail. “And we purchase the poor creatures only for their benefit; let me talk this matter over with you at my own house. I can introduce you to a happy home, a Christian family, and a British merchant’s honest fare. Can’t I, Captain Franks?”

“Can’t say,” growled the Captain. “Never asked me to take bite or sup at your table. Asked me to psalm-singing once, and to hear Mr. Ward preach: don’t care for them sort of entertainments.”

Not choosing to take any notice of this remark, Mr. Trail continued in his low tone: “Business is business, my dear young sir, and I know, ’tis only my duty, the duty of all of us, to cultivate the fruits of the earth in their season. As the heir of Lady Esmond’s estate — for I speak, I believe, to the heir of that great property? —”

The young gentleman made a bow.

“— I would urge upon you, at the very earliest moment, the propriety, the duty of increasing the ample means with which Heaven has blessed you. As an honest factor, I could not do otherwise; as a prudent man, should I scruple to speak of what will tend to your profit and mine? No, my dear Mr. George.”

“My name is not George; my name is Henry,” said the young man as he turned his head away, and his eyes filled with tears.

“Gracious powers! what do you mean, sir? Did you not say you were my lady’s heir? and is not George Esmond Warrington, Esq. ——”

“Hold your tongue, you fool!” cried Mr. Franks, striking the merchant a tough blow on his sleek sides, as the young lad turned away. “Don’t you see the young gentleman a-swabbing his eyes, and note his black clothes?”

“What do you mean, Captain Franks, by laying your hand on your owners? Mr. George is the heir; I know the Colonel’s will well enough.”

“Mr. George is there,” said the Captain, pointing with his thumb to the deck.

“Where?” cries the factor.

“Mr. George is there!” reiterated the Captain, again lifting up his finger towards the topmast, or the sky beyond. “He is dead a year, sir, come next 9th of July. He would go out with General Braddock on that dreadful business to the Belle Riviere. He and a thousand more never came back again. Every man of them was murdered as he fell. You know the Indian way, Mr. Trail?” And here the Captain passed his hand rapidly round his head. “Horrible! ain’t it, sir? horrible! He was a fine young man, the very picture of this one; only his hair was black, which is now hanging in a bloody Indian wigwam. He was often and often on board of the Young Rachel, and would have his chests of books broke open on deck before they was landed. He was a shy and silent young gent: not like this one, which was the merriest, wildest young fellow, full of his songs and fun. He took on dreadful at the news; went to his bed, had that fever which lays so many of ’em by the heels along that swampy Potomac, but he’s got better on the voyage: the voyage makes every one better; and, in course, the young gentleman can’t be for ever a-crying after a brother who dies and leaves him a great fortune. Ever since we sighted Ireland he has been quite gay and happy, only he would go off at times, when he was most merry, saying, ‘I wish my dearest Georgy could enjoy this here sight along with me, and when you mentioned the t’other’s name, you see, he couldn’t stand it.’” And the honest Captain’s own eyes filled with tears, as he turned and looked towards the object of his compassion.

Mr. Trail assumed a lugubrious countenance befitting the tragic compliment with which he prepared to greet the young Virginian; but the latter answered him very curtly, declined his offers of hospitality, and only stayed in Mr. Trail’s house long enough to drink a glass of wine and to take up a sum of money of which he stood in need. But he and Captain Franks parted on the very warmest terms, and all the little crew of the Young Rachel cheered from the ship’s side as their passenger left it.

Again and again Harry Warrington and his brother had pored over the English map, and determined upon the course which they should take upon arriving at Home. All Americans who love the old country — and what gently-nurtured man or woman of Anglo-Saxon race does not? — have ere this rehearsed their English travels, and visited in fancy the spots with which their hopes, their parents’ fond stories, their friends’ descriptions, have rendered them familiar. There are few things to me more affecting in the history of the quarrel which divided the two great nations than the recurrence of that word Home, as used by the younger towards the elder country. Harry Warrington had his chart laid out. Before London, and its glorious temples of St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s; its grim Tower, where the brave and loyal had shed their blood, from Wallace down to Balmerino and Kilmarnock, pitied by gentle hearts; before the awful window of Whitehall, whence the martyr Charles had issued, to kneel once more, and then ascend to Heaven; — before Playhouses, Parks, and Palaces, wondrous resorts of wit, pleasure, and splendour; — before Shakspeare’s Resting-place under the tall spire which rises by Avon, amidst the sweet Warwickshire pastures; — before Derby, and Falkirk, and Culloden, where the cause of honour and loyalty had fallen, it might be to rise no more:— before all these points of their pilgrimage there was one which the young Virginian brothers held even more sacred, and that was the home of their family — that old Castlewood in Hampshire, about which their parents had talked so fondly. From Bristol to Bath, from Bath to Salisbury, to Winchester, to Hexton, to Home; they knew the way, and had mapped the journey many and many a time.

We must fancy our American traveller to be a handsome young fellow, whose suit of sables only made him look the more interesting. The plump landlady from her bar, surrounded by her china and punch-bowls, and stout gilded bottles of strong waters, and glittering rows of silver flagons, looked kindly after the young gentleman as he passed through the inn-hall from his post-chaise, and the obsequious chamberlain bowed him upstairs to the Rose or the Dolphin. The trim chambermaid dropped her best curtsey for his fee, and Gumbo, in the inn-kitchen, where the townsfolk drank their mug of ale by the great fire, bragged of his young master’s splendid house in Virginia, and of the immense wealth to which he was heir. The postchaise whirled the traveller through the most delightful home-scenery his eyes had ever lighted on. If English landscape is pleasant to the American of the present day, who must needs contrast the rich woods and glowing pastures, and picturesque ancient villages of the old country with the rough aspect of his own, how much pleasanter must Harry Warrington’s course have been, whose journeys had lain through swamps and forest solitudes from one Virginian ordinary to another log-house at the end of the day’s route, and who now lighted suddenly upon the busy, happy, splendid scene of English summer? And the highroad, a hundred years ago, was not that grass-grown desert of the present time. It was alive with constant travel and traffic: the country towns and inns swarmed with life and gaiety. The ponderous waggon, with its bells and plodding team; the light post-coach that achieved the journey from the White Hart, Salisbury, to the Swan with Two Necks, London, in two days; the strings of packhorses that had not yet left the road; my lord’s gilt postchaise-and-six, with the outriders galloping on ahead; the country squire’s great coach and heavy Flanders mares; the farmers trotting to market, or the parson jolting to the cathedral town on Dumpling, his wife behind on the pillion — all these crowding sights and brisk people greeted the young traveller on his summer journey. Hodge, the farmer’s boy, took off his hat, and Polly, the milkmaid, bobbed a curtsey, as the chaise whirled over the pleasant village-green, and the white-headed children lifted their chubby faces and cheered. The church-spires glistened with gold, the cottage-gables glared in sunshine, the great elms murmured in summer, or cast purple shadows over the grass. Young Warrington never had such a glorious day, or witnessed a scene so delightful. To be nineteen years of age, with high health, high spirits, and a full purse, to be making your first journey, and rolling through the country in a postchaise at nine miles an hour — O happy youth! almost it makes one young to think of him! But Harry was too eager to give more than a passing glance at the Abbey at Bath, or gaze with more than a moment’s wonder at the mighty Minster at Salisbury. Until he beheld Home it seemed to him he had no eyes for any other place.

At last the young gentleman’s postchaise drew up at the rustic inn on Castlewood Green, of which his grandsire had many a time talked to him, and which bears as its ensign, swinging from an elm near the inn porch, the Three Castles of the Esmond family. They had a sign, too, over the gateway of Castlewood House, bearing the same cognisance. This was the hatchment of Francis, Lord Castlewood, who now lay in the chapel hard by, his son reigning in his stead.

Harry Warrington had often heard of Francis, Lord Castlewood. It was for Frank’s sake, and for his great love towards the boy, that Colonel Esmond determined to forgo his claim to the English estates and rank of his family, and retired to Virginia. The young man had led a wild youth; he had fought with distinction under Marlborough; he had married a foreign lady, and most lamentably adopted her religion. At one time he had been a Jacobite (for loyalty to the sovereign was ever hereditary in the Esmond family), but had received some slight or injury from the Prince, which had caused him to rally to King George’s side. He had, on his second marriage, renounced the errors of Popery which he had temporarily embraced, and returned to the Established Church again. He had, from his constant support of the King and the Minister of the time being, been rewarded by his Majesty George II., and died an English peer. An earl’s coronet now figured on the hatchment which hung over Castlewood gate — and there was an end of the jolly gentleman. Between Colonel Esmond, who had become his stepfather, and his lordship there had ever been a brief but affectionate correspondence — on the Colonel’s part especially, who loved his stepson, and had a hundred stories to tell about him to his grandchildren. Madam Esmond, however, said she could see nothing in her half-brother. He was dull, except when he drank too much wine, and that, to be sure, was every day at dinner. Then he was boisterous, and his conversation not pleasant. He was good-looking — yes — a fine tall stout animal; she had rather her boys should follow a different model. In spite of the grandfather’s encomium of the late lord, the boys had no very great respect for their kinsman’s memory. The lads and their mother were staunch Jacobites, though having every respect for his present Majesty; but right was right, and nothing could make their hearts swerve from their allegiance to the descendants of the martyr Charles.

With a beating heart Harry Warrington walked from the inn towards the house where his grandsire’s youth had been passed. The little village-green of Castlewood slopes down towards the river, which is spanned by an old bridge of a single broad arch, and from this the ground rises gradually towards the house, grey with many gables and buttresses, and backed by a darkling wood. An old man sate at the wicket on a stone bench in front of the great arched entrance to the house, over which the earl’s hatchment was hanging. An old dog was crouched at the man’s feet. Immediately above the ancient sentry at the gate was an open casement with some homely flowers in the window, from behind which good-humoured girls’ faces were peeping. They were watching the young traveller dressed in black as he walked up gazing towards the castle, and the ebony attendant who followed the gentleman’s steps also accoutred in mourning. So was he at the gate in mourning, and the girls when they came out had black ribbons.

To Harry’s surprise, the old man accosted him by his name. “You have had a nice ride to Hexton, Master Harry, and the sorrel carried you well.”

“I think you must be Lockwood,” said Harry, with rather a tremulous voice, holding out his hand to the old man. His grandfather had often told him of Lockwood, and how he had accompanied the Colonel and the young Viscount in Marlborough’s wars forty years ago. The veteran seemed puzzled by the mark of affection which Harry extended to him. The old dog gazed at the new-comer, and then went and put his head between his knees. “I have heard of you often. How did you know my name?”

“They say I forget most things,” says the old man, with a smile; “but I ain’t so bad as that quite. Only this mornin’, when you went out, my darter says, ‘Father, do you know why you have a black coat on?’ ‘In course I know why I have a black coat,’ says I. ‘My lord is dead. They say ’twas a foul blow, and Master Frank is my lord now, and Master Harry’— why, what have you done since you’ve went out this morning? Why, you have a-grow’d taller and changed your hair — though I know — I know you.”

One of the young women had tripped out by this time from the porter’s lodge, and dropped the stranger a pretty curtsey. “Grandfather sometimes does not recollect very well,” she said, pointing to her head. “Your honour seems to have heard of Lockwood?”

“And you, have you never heard of Colonel Francis Esmond?”

“He was Captain and Major in Webb’s Foot, and I was with him in two campaigns, sure enough,” cries Lockwood. “Wasn’t I, Ponto?”

“The Colonel as married Viscountess Rachel, my late lord’s mother? and went to live amongst the Indians? We have heard of him. Sure we have his picture in our gallery, and hisself painted it.”

“Went to live in Virginia, and died there seven years ago, and I am his grandson.”

“Lord, your honour! Why, your honour’s skin’s as white as mine,” cries Molly. “Grandfather, do you hear this? His honour is Colonel Esmond’s grandson that used to send you tobacco, and his honour have come all the way from Virginia.”

“To see you, Lockwood,” says the young man, “and the family. I only set foot on English ground yesterday, and my first visit is for home. I may see the house, though the family are from home?” Molly dared to say Mrs. Barker would let his honour see the house, and Harry Warrington made his way across the court, seeming to know the place as well as if he had been born there, Miss Molly thought, who followed, accompanied by Mr. Gumbo making her a profusion of polite bows and speeches.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00