The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


A Hot Afternoon

General Braddock and the other guests of Castlewood being duly consigned to their respective quarters, the boys retired to their own room, and there poured out to one another their opinions respecting the great event of the day. They would not bear such a marriage — no. Was the representative of the Marquises of Esmond to marry the younger son of a colonial family, who had been bred up as a land-surveyor? Castlewood, and the boys at nineteen years of age, handed over to the tender mercies of a stepfather of three-and-twenty! Oh, it was monstrous! Harry was for going straightway to his mother in her bedroom — where her black maidens were divesting her ladyship of the simple jewels and fineries which she had assumed in compliment to the feast — protesting against the odious match, and announcing that they would go home, live upon their little property there, and leave her for ever, if the unnatural union took place.

George advocated another way of stopping it, and explained his plan to his admiring brother. “Our mother,” he said, “can’t marry a man with whom one or both of us has been out on the field, and who has wounded us or killed us, or whom we have wounded or killed. We must have him out, Harry.”

Harry saw the profound truth conveyed in George’s statement, and admired his brother’s immense sagacity. “No, George,” says he, “you are right. Mother can’t marry our murderer; she won’t be as bad as that. And if we pink him he is done for. ‘Cadit quaestio,’ as Mr. Dempster used to say. Shall I send my boy with a challenge to Colonel George now?”

“My dear Harry,” the elder replied, thinking with some complacency of his affair of honour at Quebec, “you are not accustomed to affairs of this sort.”

“No,” owned Harry, with a sigh, looking with envy and admiration on his senior.

“We can’t insult a gentleman in our own house,” continued George, with great majesty; “the laws of honour forbid such inhospitable treatment. But, sir, we can ride out with him, and, as soon as the park gates are closed, we can tell him our mind.”

“That we can, by George!” cries Harry, grasping his brother’s hand, “and that we will, too. I say, Georgy . . .” Here the lad’s face became very red, and his brother asked him what he would say?

“This is my turn, brother,” Harry pleaded. “If you go the campaign, I ought to have the other affair. Indeed, indeed, I ought.” And he prayed for this bit of promotion.

“Again the head of the house must take the lead, my dear,” George said, with a superb air. “If I fall, my Harry will avenge me. But I must fight George Washington, Hal: and ’tis best I should; for, indeed, I hate him the worst. Was it not he who counselled my mother to order that wretch, Ward, to lay hands on me?”

“Ah, George,” interposed the more pacable younger brother, “you ought to forget and forgive.”

“Forgive? Never, sir, as long as I remember. You can’t order remembrance out of a man’s mind; and a wrong that was a wrong yesterday must be a wrong tomorrow. I never, of my knowledge, did one to any man, and I never will suffer one, if I can help it. I think very ill of Mr. Ward, but I don’t think so badly of him as to suppose he will ever forgive thee that blow with the ruler. Colonel Washington is our enemy, mine especially. He has advised one wrong against me, and he meditates a greater. I tell you, brother, we must punish him.”

The grandsire’s old Bordeaux had set George’s ordinarily pale countenance into a flame. Harry, his brother’s fondest worshipper, could not but admire George’s haughty bearing and rapid declamation, and prepared himself, with his usual docility, to follow his chief. So the boys went to their beds, the elder conveying special injunctions to his junior to be civil to all the guests so long as they remained under the maternal roof on the morrow.

Good manners and a repugnance to telling tales out of school, forbid us from saying which of Madam Esmond’s guests was the first to fall under the weight of her hospitality. The respectable descendants of Messrs. Talmadge and Danvers, aides-de-camp to his Excellency, might not care to hear how their ancestors were intoxicated a hundred years ago; and yet the gentlemen themselves took no shame in the fact, and there is little doubt they or their comrades were tipsy twice or thrice in the week. Let us fancy them reeling to bed, supported by sympathising negroes; and their vinous General, too stout a toper to have surrendered himself to a half-dozen bottles of Bordeaux, conducted to his chamber by the young gentlemen of the house, and speedily sleeping the sleep which friendly Bacchus gives. The good lady of Castlewood saw the condition of her guests without the least surprise or horror; and was up early in the morning, providing cooling drinks for their hot palates, which the servants carried to their respective chambers. At breakfast, one of the English officers rallied Mr. Franklin, who took no wine at all, and therefore refused the morning cool draught of toddy, by showing how the Philadelphia gentleman lost two pleasures, the drink and the toddy. The young fellow said the disease was pleasant and the remedy delicious, and laughingly proposed to continue repeating them both. The General’s new American aide-de-camp, Colonel Washington, was quite sober and serene. The British officers vowed they must take him in hand, and teach him what the ways of the English army were; but the Virginian gentleman gravely said he did not care to learn that part of the English military education.

The widow, occupied as she had been with the cares of a great dinner, followed by a great breakfast on the morning ensuing, had scarce leisure to remark the behaviour of her sons very closely, but at least saw that George was scrupulously polite to her favourite, Colonel Washington, as to all the other guests of the house.

Before Mr. Braddock took his leave, he had a private audience of Madam Esmond, in which his Excellency formally offered to take her son into his family; and when the arrangements for George’s departure were settled between his mother and future chief, Madam Esmond, though she might feel them, did not show any squeamish terrors about the dangers of the bottle, which she saw were amongst the severest and most certain which her son would have to face. She knew her boy must take his part in the world, and encounter his portion of evil and good. “Mr. Braddock is a perfect fine gentleman in the morning,” she said stoutly to her aide-de-camp, Mrs. Mountain; “and though my papa did not drink, ’tis certain that many of the best company in England do.” The jolly General good-naturedly shook hands with George, who presented himself to his Excellency after the maternal interview was over, and bade George welcome, and to be in attendance at Frederick three days hence; shortly after which time the expedition would set forth.

And now the great coach was again called into requisition, the General’s escort pranced round it, the other guests and their servants went to horse. The lady of Castlewood attended his Excellency to the steps of the verandah in front of her house, the young gentlemen followed, and stood on each side of his coach-door. The guard trumpeter blew a shrill blast, the negroes shouted “Huzzay, and God sabe de King,” as Mr. Braddock most graciously took leave of his hospitable entertainers, and rolled away on his road to headquarters.

As the boys went up the steps, there was the Colonel once more taking leave of their mother. No doubt she had been once more recommending George to his namesake’s care; for Colonel Washington said: “With my life. You may depend on me,” as the lads returned to their mother and the few guests still remaining in the porch. The Colonel was booted and ready to depart. “Farewell, my dear Harry,” he said. “With you, George, ’tis no adieu. We shall meet in three days at the camp.”

Both the young men were going to danger, perhaps to death. Colonel Washington was taking leave of her, and she was to see him no more before the campaign. No wonder the widow was very much moved.

George Warrington watched his mother’s emotion, and interpreted it with a pang of malignant scorn. “Stay yet a moment, and console our mamma,” he said with a steady countenance, “only the time to get ourselves booted, and my brother and I will ride with you a little way, George.” George Warrington had already ordered his horses. The three young men were speedily under way, their negro grooms behind them, and Mrs. Mountain, who knew she had made mischief between them and trembled for the result, felt a vast relief that Mr. Washington was gone without a quarrel with the brothers, without, at any rate, an open declaration of love to their mother.

No man could be more courteous in demeanour than George Warrington to his neighbour and namesake, the Colonel. The latter was pleased and surprised at his young friend’s altered behaviour. The community of danger, the necessity of future fellowship, the softening influence of the long friendship which bound him to the Esmond family, the tender adieux which had just passed between him and the mistress of Castlewood, inclined the Colonel to forget the unpleasantness of the past days, and made him more than usually friendly with his young companion. George was quite gay and easy: it was Harry who was melancholy now: he rode silently and wistfully by his brother, keeping away from Colonel Washington, to whose side he used always to press eagerly before. If the honest Colonel remarked his young friend’s conduct, no doubt he attributed it to Harry’s known affection for his brother, and his natural anxiety to be with George now the day of their parting was so near.

They talked further about the war, and the probable end of the campaign: none of the three doubted its successful termination. Two thousand veteran British troops with their commander must get the better of any force the French could bring against them, if only they moved in decent time. The ardent young Virginian soldier had an immense respect for the experienced valour and tactics of the regular troops. King George II. had no more loyal subject than Mr. Braddock’s new aide-de-camp.

So the party rode amicably together, until they reached a certain rude log-house, called Benson’s, of which the proprietor, according to the custom of the day and country, did not disdain to accept money from his guests in return for hospitalities provided. There was a recruiting station here, and some officers and men of Halkett’s regiment assembled, and here Colonel Washington supposed that his young friends would take leave of him.

Whilst their horses were baited, they entered the public room, and found a rough meal prepared for such as were disposed to partake. George Warrington entered the place with a particularly gay and lively air, whereas poor Harry’s face was quite white and woebegone.

“One would think, Squire Harry, ’twas you who was going to leave home and fight the French and Indians, and not Mr. George,” says Benson.

“I may be alarmed about danger to my brother,” said Harry, “though I might bear my own share pretty well. ’Tis not my fault that I stay at home.”

“No, indeed, brother,” cries George.

“Harry Warrington’s courage does not need any proof!” cries Mr. Washington.

“You do the family honour by speaking so well of us, Colonel,” says Mr. George, with a low bow. “I dare say we can hold our own, if need be.”

Whilst his friend was vaunting his courage, Harry looked, to say the truth, by no means courageous. As his eyes met his brother’s, he read in George’s look an announcement which alarmed the fond faithful lad. “You are not going to do it now?” he whispered his brother.

“Yes, now,” says Mr. George, very steadily.

“For God’s sake, let me have the turn. You are going on the campaign, you ought not to have everything — and there may be an explanation, George. We may be all wrong.”

“Psha, how can we? It must be done now — don’t be alarmed. No names shall be mentioned — I shall easily find a subject.”

A couple of Halkett’s officers, whom our young gentlemen knew, were sitting under the porch, with the Virginian toddy-bowl before them.

“What are you conspiring, gentlemen?” cried one of them. “Is it a drink?”

By the tone of their voices and their flushed cheeks, it was clear the gentlemen had already been engaged in drinking that morning.

“The very thing, sir,” George said gaily. “Fresh glasses, Mr. Benson! What, no glasses? Then we must have at the bowl.”

“Many a good man has drunk from it,” says Mr. Benson; and the lads one after another, and bowing first to their military acquaintance, touched the bowl with their lips. The liquor did not seem to be much diminished for the boys’ drinking, though George especially gave himself a toper’s airs, and protested it was delicious after their ride. He called out to Colonel Washington, who was at the porch, to join his friends, and drink.

The lad’s tone was offensive, and resembled the manner lately adopted by him, and which had so much chafed Mr. Washington. He bowed, and said he was not thirsty.

“Nay, the liquor is paid for,” says George; “never fear, Colonel.”

“I said I was not thirsty. I did not say the liquor was not paid for,” said the young Colonel, drumming with his foot.

“When the King’s health is proposed, an officer can hardly say no. I drink the health of his Majesty, gentlemen,” cried George. “Colonel Washington can drink it or leave it. The King!”

This was a point of military honour. The two British officers of Halkett’s, Captain Grace and Mr. Waring, both drank “The King.” Harry Warrington drank “The King.” Colonel Washington, with glaring eyes, gulped, too, a slight draught from the bowl.

Then Captain Grace proposed “The Duke and the Army,” which toast there was likewise no gainsaying. Colonel Washington had to swallow “The Duke and the Army.”

“You don’t seem to stomach the toast, Colonel,” said George.

“I tell you again, I don’t want to drink,” replied the Colonel. “It seems to me the Duke and the Army would be served all the better if their healths were not drunk so often.”

“You are not up to the ways of regular troops as yet,” said Captain Grace, with rather a thick voice.

“May be not, sir.”

“A British officer,” continues Captain Grace, with great energy but doubtful articulation, “never neglects a toast of that sort, nor any other duty. A man who refuses to drink the health of the Duke — hang me, such a man should be tried by a court-martial!”

“What means this language to me? You are drunk, sir!” roared Colonel Washington, jumping up, and striking the table with his fist.

“A cursed provincial officer say I’m drunk!” shrieks out Captain Grace. “Waring, do you hear that?”

“I heard it, sir!” cried George Warrington. “We all heard it. He entered at my invitation — the liquor called for was mine: the table was mine — and I am shocked to hear such monstrous language used at it as Colonel Washington has just employed towards my esteemed guest, Captain Waring.”

“Confound your impudence, you infernal young jackanapes!” bellowed out Colonel Washington. “You dare to insult me before British officers, and find fault with my language? For months past, I have borne with such impudence from you, that if I had not loved your mother — yes, sir, and your good grandfather and your brother — I would — I would —” Here his words failed him, and the irate Colonel, with glaring eyes and purple face, and every limb quivering with wrath, stood for a moment speechless before his young enemy.

“You would what, sir?” says George, very quietly, “if you did not love my grandfather, and my brother, and my mother. You are making her petticoat a plea for some conduct of yours — you would do what, sir, may I ask again?”

“I would put you across my knee and whip you, you snarling little puppy, that’s what I would do!” cried the Colonel, who had found breath by this time, and vented another explosion of fury.

“Because you have known us all our lives, and made our house your own, that is no reason you should insult either of us!” here cried Harry, starting up. “What you have said, George Washington, is an insult to me and my brother alike. You will ask pardon, sir!”


“Or give us the reparation that is due to gentlemen,” continues Harry.

The stout Colonel’s heart smote him to think that he should be at mortal quarrel or called upon to shed the blood of one of the lads he loved. As Harry stood facing him, with his fair hair, flushing cheeks, and quivering voice, an immense tenderness and kindness filled the bosom of the elder man. “I— I am bewildered,” he said. “My words, perhaps, were very hasty. What has been the meaning of George’s behaviour to me for months back? Only tell me, and, perhaps ——”

The evil spirit was awake and victorious in young George Warrington: his black eyes shot out scorn and hatred at the simple and guileless gentleman before him. “You are shirking from the question, sir, as you did from the toast just now,” he said. “I am not a boy to suffer under your arrogance. You have publicly insulted me in a public place, and I demand a reparation.”

“In Heaven’s name, be it!” says Mr. Washington, with the deepest grief in his face.

“And you have insulted me,” continues Captain Grace, reeling towards him. “What was it he said? Confound the militia captain — colonel, what is he? You’ve insulted me! Oh, Waring! to think I should be insulted by a captain of militia!” And tears bedewed the noble Captain’s cheek as this harrowing thought crossed his mind.

“I insult you, you hog!” the Colonel again yelled out, for he was little affected by humour, and had no disposition to laugh as the others had at the scene. And, behold, at this minute a fourth adversary was upon him.

“Great Powers, sir!” said Captain Waring, “are three affairs not enough for you, and must I come into the quarrel, too? You have a quarrel with these two young gentlemen.”

“Hasty words, sir!” cries poor Harry once more.

“Hasty words, sir!” cries Captain Waring. “A gentleman tells another gentleman that he will put him across his knees and whip him, and you call those hasty words? Let me tell you if any man were to say to me, ‘Charles Waring,’ or ‘Captain Waring, I’ll put you across my knees and whip you,’ I’d say, ‘I’ll drive my cheese-toaster through his body,’ if he were as big as Goliath, I would. That’s one affair with young Mr. George Warrington. Mr. Harry, of course, as a young man of spirit, will stand by his brother. That’s two. Between Grace and the Colonel apology is impossible. And, now — run me through the body! — you call an officer of my regiment — of Halkett’s, sir! — a hog before my face! Great heavens, sir! Mr. Washington, are you all like this in Virginia? Excuse me, I would use no offensive personality, as, by George! I will suffer none from any man! but, by Gad, Colonel! give me leave to tell you that you are the most quarrelsome man I ever saw in my life. Call a disabled officer of my regiment — for he is disabled, ain’t you, Grace? — call him a hog before me! You withdraw it, sir — you withdraw it?”

“Is this some infernal conspiracy in which you are all leagued against me?” shouted the Colonel. “It would seem as if I was drunk, and not you, as you all are. I withdraw nothing. I apologise for nothing. By heavens! I will meet one or half a dozen of you in your turn, young or old, drunk or sober.”

“I do not wish to hear myself called more names,” cried Mr. George Warrington. “This affair can proceed, sir, without any further insult on your part. When will it please you to give me the meeting?”

“The sooner the better, sir!” said the Colonel, fuming with rage.

“The sooner the better,” hiccupped Captain Grace, with many oaths needless to print —(in those days, oaths were the customary garnish of all gentlemen’s conversation)— and he rose staggering from his seat, and reeled towards his sword, which he had laid by the door, and fell as he reached the weapon. “The sooner the better!” the poor tipsy wretch again cried out from the ground, waving his weapon and knocking his own hat over his eyes.

“At any rate, this gentleman’s business will keep cool till tomorrow,” the militia Colonel said, turning to the other king’s officer. “You will hardly bring your man out today, Captain Waring?”

“I confess that neither his hand nor mine are particularly steady,” said Waring.

“Mine is!” cried Mr. Warrington, glaring at his enemy.

His comrade of former days was as hot and as savage. “Be it so — with what weapon, sir?” Washington said sternly.

“Not with small-swords, Colonel. We can beat you with them. You know that from our old bouts. Pistols had better be the word.”

“As you please, George Warrington — and God forgive you, George! God pardon you, Harry! for bringing me into this quarrel,” said the Colonel, with a face full of sadness and gloom.

Harry hung his head, but George continued with perfect calmness: “I, sir? It was not I who called names, who talked of a cane, who insulted a gentleman in a public place before gentlemen of the army. It is not the first time you have chosen to take me for a negro, and talked of the whip for me.”

The Colonel started back, turning very red, and as if struck by a sudden remembrance.

“Great heavens, George! is it that boyish quarrel you are still recalling?”

“Who made you the overseer of Castlewood?” said the boy, grinding his teeth. “I am not your slave, George Washington, and I never will be. I hated you then, and I hate you now. And you have insulted me, and I am a gentleman, and so are you. Is that not enough?”

“Too much, only too much,” said the Colonel, with a genuine grief on his face, and at his heart. “Do you bear malice too, Harry? I had not thought this of thee!”

“I stand by my brother,” said Harry, turning away from the Colonel’s look, and grasping George’s hand. The sadness on their adversary’s face did not depart. “Heaven be good to us! ’Tis all clear now,” he muttered to himself. “The time to write a few letters, and I am at your service, Mr. Warrington,” he said.

“You have your own pistols at your saddle. I did not ride out with any; but will send Sady back for mine. That will give you time enough, Colonel Washington?”

“Plenty of time, sir.” And each gentleman made the other a low bow, and, putting his arm in his brother’s, George walked away. The Virginian officer looked towards the two unlucky captains, who were by this time helpless with liquor. Captain Benson, the master of the tavern, was propping the hat of one of them over his head.

“It is not altogether their fault, Colonel,” said my landlord, with a grim look of humour. “Jack Firebrace and Tom Humbold of Spotsylvania was here this morning, chanting horses with ’em. And Jack and Tom got ’em to play cards; and they didn’t win — the British Captains didn’t. And Jack and Tom challenged them to drink for the honour of Old England, and they didn’t win at that game, neither, much. They are kind, free-handed fellows when they are sober, but they are a pretty pair of fools — they are.”

“Captain Benson, you are an old frontier man, and an officer of ours, before you turned farmer and taverner. You will help me in this matter with yonder young gentlemen?” said the Colonel.

“I’ll stand by and see fair play, Colonel. I won’t have no hand in it, beyond seeing fair play. Madam Esmond has helped me many a time, tended my poor wife in her lying-in, and doctored our Betty in the fever. You ain’t a-going to be very hard with them poor boys? Though I seen ’em both shoot: the fair one hunts well, as you know, but the old one’s a wonder at an ace of spades.”

“Will you be pleased to send my man with my valise, Captain, into any private room which you can spare me? I must write a few letters before this business comes on. God grant it were well over!” And the Captain led the Colonel into almost the only other room of his house, calling, with many oaths, to a pack of negro servants, to disperse thence, who were chattering loudly among one another, and no doubt discussing the quarrel which had just taken place. Edwin, the Colonel’s man, returned with his master’s portmanteau, and as he looked from the window, he saw Sady, George Warrington’s negro, galloping away upon his errand, doubtless, and in the direction of Castlewood. The Colonel, young and naturally hot-headed, but the most courteous and scrupulous of men, and ever keeping his strong passions under guard, could not but think with amazement of the position in which he found, himself, and of the three, perhaps four enemies, who appeared suddenly before him, menacing his life. How had this strange series of quarrels been brought about? He had ridden away a few hours since from Castlewood, with his young companions, and, to all seeming, they were perfect friends. A shower of rain sends them into a tavern, where there are a couple of recruiting officers, and they are not seated for half an hour at a social table, but he has quarrelled with the whole company, called this one names, agreed to meet another in combat, and threatened chastisement to a third, the son of his most intimate friend!

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