The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Profitless Quest

At every step which Harry Warrington took towards Pennsylvania, the reports of the British disaster were magnified and confirmed. Those two famous regiments which had fought in the Scottish and Continental wars, had fled from an enemy almost unseen, and their boasted discipline and valour had not enabled them to face a band of savages and a few French infantry. The unfortunate commander of the expedition had shown the utmost bravery and resolution. Four times his horse had been shot under him. Twice he had been wounded, and the last time of the mortal hurt which ended his life three days after the battle. More than one of Harry’s informants described the action to the poor lad — the passage of the river, the long line of advance through the wilderness, the firing in front, the vain struggle of the men to advance, and the artillery to clear the way of the enemy; then the ambushed fire from behind every bush and tree, and the murderous fusillade, by which at least half of the expeditionary force had been shot down. But not all the General’s suite were killed, Harry heard. One of his aides-de-camp, a Virginian gentleman, was ill of fever and exhaustion at Dunbar’s camp.

One of them — but which? To the camp Harry hurried, and reached it at length. It was George Washington Harry found stretched in a tent there, and not his brother. A sharper pain than that of the fever Mr. Washington declared he felt, when he saw Harry Warrington, and could give him no news of George.

Mr. Washington did not dare to tell Harry all. For three days after the fight his duty had been to be near the General. On the fatal 9th of July, he had seen George go to the front with orders from the chief, to whose side he never returned. After Braddock himself died, the aide-de-camp had found means to retrace his course to the field. The corpses which remained there were stripped and horribly mutilated. One body he buried which he thought to be George Warrington’s. His own illness was increased, perhaps occasioned, by the anguish which he underwent in his search for the unhappy young volunteer.

“Ah, George! If you had loved him you would have found him dead or alive,” Harry cried out. Nothing would satisfy him but that he, too, should go to the ground and examine it. With money he procured a guide or two. He forded the river at the place where the army had passed over: he went from one end to the other of the dreadful field. It was no longer haunted by Indians now. The birds of prey were feeding on the mangled festering carcases. Save in his own grandfather, lying very calm, with a sweet smile on his lip, Harry had never yet seen the face of Death. The horrible spectacle of mutilation caused him to turn away with shudder and loathing. What news could the vacant woods, or those festering corpses lying under the trees, give the lad of his lost brother? He was for going, unarmed and with a white flag, to the French fort, whither, after their victory, the enemy had returned; but his guides refused to advance with him. The French might possibly respect them, but the Indians would not. “Keep your hair for your lady mother, my young gentleman,” said the guide. “’Tis enough that she loses one son in this campaign.”

When Harry returned to the English encampment at Dunbar’s, it was his turn to be down with the fever. Delirium set in upon him, and he lay some time in the tent and on the bed from which his friend had just risen convalescent. For some days he did not know who watched him; and poor Dempster, who had tended him in more than one of these maladies, thought the widow must lose both her children; but the fever was so far subdued that the boy was enabled to rally somewhat, and get to horseback. Mr. Washington and Dempster both escorted him home. It was with a heavy heart, no doubt, that all three beheld once more the gates of Castlewood.

A servant in advance had been sent to announce their coming. First came Mrs. Mountain and her little daughter, welcoming Harry with many tears and embraces, but she scarce gave a nod of recognition to Mr. Washington; and the little girl caused the young officer to start, and turn deadly pale, by coming up to him with her hands behind her, and asking, “Why have you not brought George back too?” Harry did not hear. The sobs and caresses of his good friend and nurse luckily kept him from listening to little Fanny.

Dempster was graciously received by the two ladies. “Whatever could be done, we know you would do, Mr. Dempster,” says Mrs. Mountain, giving him her hand. “Make a curtsey to Mr. Dempster, Fanny, and remember, child, to be grateful to all who have been friendly to our benefactors. Will it please you to take any refreshment before you ride, Colonel Washington?”

Mr. Washington had had a sufficient ride already, and counted as certainly upon the hospitality of Castlewood, as he would upon the shelter of his own house.

“The time to feed my horse, and a glass of water for myself, and I will trouble Castlewood hospitality no further,” Mr. Washington said.

“Sure, George, you have your room here, and my mother is above-stairs getting it ready!” cries Harry. “That poor horse of yours stumbled with you, and can’t go farther this evening.”

“Hush! Your mother won’t see him, child,” whispered Mrs. Mountain.

“Not see George? Why, he is like a son of the house,” cries Harry.

“She had best not see him. I don’t meddle any more in family matters, child: but when the Colonel’s servant rode in, and said you were coming, Madam Esmond left this room, my dear, where she was sitting reading Drelincourt, and said she felt she could not see Mr. Washington. Will you go to her?” Harry took his friend’s arm, and excusing himself to the Colonel, to whom he said he would return in a few minutes, he left the parlour in which they had assembled, and went to the upper rooms, where Madam Esmond was.

He was hastening across the corridor, and, with an averted head, passing by one especial door, which he did not like to look at, for it was that of his brother’s room; but as he came to it, Madam Esmond issued from it, and folded him to her heart, and led him in. A settee was by the bed, and a book of psalms lay on the coverlet. All the rest of the room was exactly as George had left it.

“My poor child! How thin thou art grown — how haggard you look! Never mind. A mother’s care will make thee well again. ’Twas nobly done to go and brave sickness and danger in search of your brother. Had others been as faithful, he might be here now. Never mind, my Harry; our hero will come back to us — I know he is not dead. One so good, and so brave, and so gentle, and so clever as he was, I know is not lost to us altogether.” (Perhaps Harry thought within himself that his mother had not always been accustomed so to speak of her eldest son.) “Dry up thy tears, my dear! He will come back to us, I know he will come.” And when Harry pressed her to give a reason for her belief, she said she had seen her father two nights running in a dream, and he had told her that her boy was a prisoner among the Indians.

Madam Esmond’s grief had not prostrated her as Harry’s had when first it fell upon him; it had rather stirred and animated her: her eyes were eager, her countenance angry and revengeful. The lad wondered almost at the condition in which he found his mother.

But when he besought her to go downstairs, and give a hand of welcome to George Washington, who had accompanied him, the lady’s excitement painfully increased. She said she should shudder at touching his hand. She declared Mr. Washington had taken her son from her, she could not sleep under the same roof with him.

“He gave me his bed when I was ill, mother; and if our George is alive, how has George Washington a hand in his death? Ah! please God it be only as you say,” cried Harry, in bewilderment.

“If your brother returns, as return he will, it will not be through Mr. Washington’s help,” said Madam Esmond. “He neither defended George on the field, nor would he bring him out of it.”

“But he tended me most kindly in my fever,” interposed Harry. “He was yet ill when he gave up his bed to me, and was thinking only of his friend, when any other man would have thought only of himself.”

“A friend! A pretty friend!” sneers the lady. “Of all his Excellency’s aides-de-camp, my gentleman is the only one who comes back unwounded. The brave and noble fall, but he, to be sure, is unhurt. I confide my boy to him, the pride of my life, whom he will defend with his, forsooth! And he leaves my George in the forest, and brings me back himself! Oh, a pretty welcome I must give him!”

“No gentleman,” cried Harry, warmly, “was ever refused shelter under my grandfather’s roof.”

“Oh no — no gentleman!” exclaims the little widow; “let us go down, if you like, son, and pay our respects to this one. Will you please to give me your arm?” And taking an arm which was very little able to give her support, she walked down the broad stairs, and into the apartment where the Colonel sate.

She made him a ceremonious curtsey, and extended one of the little hands, which she allowed for a moment to rest in his. “I wish that our meeting had been happier, Colonel Washington,” she said.

“You do not grieve more than I do that it is otherwise, madam,” said the Colonel.

“I might have wished that the meeting had been spared, that I might not have kept you from friends whom you are naturally anxious to see — that my boy’s indisposition had not detained you. Home and his good nurse Mountain, and his mother and our good Doctor Dempster, will soon restore him. ’Twas scarce necessary, Colonel, that you, who have so many affairs on your hands, military and domestic, should turn doctor too.”

“Harry was ill and weak, and I thought it was my duty to ride by him,” faltered the Colonel.

“You yourself, sir, have gone through the fatigues and dangers of the campaign in the most wonderful manner,” said the widow, curtseying again, and looking at him with her impenetrable black eyes.

“I wish to Heaven, madam, some one else had come back in my place!”

“Nay, sir, you have ties which must render your life more than ever valuable and dear to you, and duties to which, I know, you must be anxious to betake yourself. In our present deplorable state of doubt and distress, Castlewood can be a welcome place to no stranger, much less to you, and so I know, sir, you will be for leaving us ere long. And you will pardon me if the state of my own spirits obliges me for the most part to keep my chamber. But my friends here will bear you company as long as you favour us, whilst I nurse my poor Harry upstairs. Mountain, you will have the cedar-room on the ground-floor ready for Mr. Washington, and anything in the house is at his command. Farewell, sir. Will you be pleased to present my compliments to your mother, who will be thankful to have her son safe and sound out of the war — as also to my young friend Martha Custis, to whom and to whose children I wish every happiness. Come, my son!” and with these words, and another freezing curtsey, the pale little woman retreated, looking steadily at the Colonel, who stood dumb on the floor.

Strong as Madam Esmond’s belief appeared to be respecting her son’s safety, the house of Castlewood naturally remained sad and gloomy. She might forbid mourning for herself and family; but her heart was in black, whatever face the resolute little lady persisted in wearing before the world. To look for her son, was hoping against hope. No authentic account of his death had indeed arrived, and no one appeared who had seen him fall; but hundreds more had been so stricken on that fatal day, with no eyes to behold their last pangs, save those of the lurking enemy and the comrades dying by their side. A fortnight after the defeat, when Harry was absent on his quest, George’s servant, Sady, reappeared wounded and maimed at Castlewood. But he could give no coherent account of the battle, only of his flight from the centre, where he was with the baggage. He had no news of his master since the morning of the action. For many days Sady lurked in the negro quarters away from the sight of Madam Esmond, whose anger he did not dare to face. That lady’s few neighbours spoke of her as labouring under a delusion. So strong was it, that there were times when Harry and the other members of the little Castlewood family were almost brought to share in it. It seemed nothing strange to her, that her father out of another world should promise her her son’s life. In this world or the next, that family sure must be of consequence, she thought. Nothing had ever yet happened to her sons, no accident, no fever, no important illness, but she had a prevision of it. She could enumerate half a dozen instances, which, indeed, her household was obliged more or less to confirm, how, when anything had happened to the boys at ever so great a distance, she had known of their mishap and its consequences. No, George was not dead; George was a prisoner among the Indians; George would come back and rule over Castlewood; as sure, as sure as his Majesty would send a great force from home to recover the tarnished glory of the British arms, and to drive the French out of the Americas.

As for Mr. Washington, she would never with her own goodwill behold him again. He had promised to protect George with his life. Why was her son gone and the Colonel alive? How dared he to face her after that promise, and appear before a mother without her son? She trusted she knew her duty. She bore illwill to no one: but as an Esmond, she had a sense of honour, and Mr. Washington had forfeited hers in letting her son out of his sight. He had to obey superior orders (some one perhaps objected)? Psha! a promise was a promise. He had promised to guard George’s life with his own, and where was her boy? And was not the Colonel (a pretty Colonel, indeed!) sound and safe? Do not tell me that his coat and hat had shots through them! (This was her answer to another humble plea in Mr. Washington’s behalf.) Can’t I go into the study this instant and fire two shots with my papa’s pistols through this paduasoy skirt — and should I be killed? She laughed at the notion of death resulting from any such operation; nor was her laugh very pleasant to hear. The satire of people who have little natural humour is seldom good sport for bystanders. I think dull men’s faceticae are mostly cruel.

So, if Harry wanted to meet his friend, he had to do so in secret, at court-houses, taverns, or various places of resort; or in their little towns, where the provincial gentry assembled. No man of spirit, she vowed, could meet Mr. Washington after his base desertion of her family. She was exceedingly excited when she heard that the Colonel and her son absolutely had met. What a heart must Harry have to give his hand to one whom she considered as little better than George’s murderer! For shame to say so! For shame upon you, ungrateful boy, forgetting the dearest, noblest, most perfect of brothers, for that tall, gawky, fox-hunting Colonel, with his horrid oaths! How can he be George’s murderer, when I say my boy is not dead? He is not dead, because my instinct never deceived me: because, as sure as I see his picture now before me — only ’tis not near so noble or so good as he used to look — so surely two nights running did my papa appear to me in my dreams. You doubt about that, very likely? ’Tis because you never loved anybody sufficiently, my poor Harry; else you might have leave to see them in dreams, as has been vouchsafed to some.”

“I think I loved George, mother,” cried Harry. “I have often prayed that I might dream about him, and I don’t.”

“How you can talk, sir, of loving George, and then — go and meet your Mr. Washington at horse-races, I can’t understand! Can you, Mountain?”

“We can’t understand many things in our neighbours’ characters. I can understand that our boy is unhappy, and that he does not get strength, and that he is doing no good here, in Castlewood, or moping at the taverns and court-houses with horse-coupers and idle company,” grumbled Mountain in reply to her patroness; and, in truth, the dependant was right.

There was not only grief in the Castlewood House, but there was disunion. “I cannot tell how it came,” said Harry, as he brought the story to an end, which we have narrated in the last two numbers, and which he confided to his new-found English relative, Madame de Bernstein; “but since that fatal day of July, last year, and my return home, my mother never has been the same woman. She seemed to love none of us as she used. She was for ever praising George, and yet she did not seem as if she liked him much when he was with us. She hath plunged, more deeply than ever, into her books of devotion, out of which she only manages to extract grief and sadness, as I think. Such a gloom has fallen over our wretched Virginian house of Castlewood, that we all grew ill, and pale as ghosts, who inhabited it. Mountain told me, madam, that, for nights, my mother would not close her eyes. I have had her at my bedside, looking so ghastly, that I have started from my own sleep, fancying a ghost before me. By one means or other she has wrought herself into a state of excitement which if not delirium, is akin to it. I was again and again struck down by the fever, and all the Jesuits’ bark in America could not cure me. We have a tobacco-house and some land about the new town of Richmond, in our province, and went thither, as Williamsburg is no wholesomer than our own place; and there I mended a little, but still did not get quite well, and the physicians strongly counselled a sea-voyage. My mother, at one time, had thoughts of coming with me, but —” (and here the lad blushed and hung his head down) “— we did not agree very well, though I know we loved each other very heartily, and ’twas determined that I should see the world for myself. So I took passage in our ship from the James River, and was landed at Bristol. And ’twas only on the 9th of July, this year, at sea, as had been agreed between me and Madam Esmond, that I put mourning on for my dear brother.”

So that little Mistress of the Virginian Castlewood, for whom, I am sure, we have all the greatest respect, had the knack of rendering the people round about her uncomfortable; quarrelled with those she loved best, and exercised over them her wayward jealousies and imperious humours, until they were not sorry to leave her. Here was money enough, friends enough, a good position, and the respect of the world; a house stored with all manner of plenty, and good things, and poor Harry Warrington was glad to leave them all behind him. Happy! Who is happy? What good in a stalled ox for dinner every day, and no content therewith? Is it best to be loved and plagued by those you love, or to have an easy, comfortable indifference at home; to follow your fancies, live there unmolested, and die without causing any painful regrets or tears?

To be sure, when her boy was gone, Madam Esmond forgot all these little tiffs and differences. To hear her speak of both her children, you would fancy they were perfect characters, and had never caused her a moment’s worry or annoyance. These gone, Madam fell naturally upon Mrs. Mountain and her little daughter, and worried and annoyed them. But women bear with hard words more easily than men, are more ready to forgive injuries, or, perhaps, to dissemble anger. Let us trust that Madam Esmond’s dependants found their life tolerable, that they gave her ladyship sometimes as good as they got, that if they quarrelled in the morning they were reconciled at night, and sate down to a tolerably friendly game at cards and an amicable dish of tea.

But, without the boys, the great house of Castlewood was dreary to the widow. She left an overseer there to manage her estates, and only paid the place an occasional visit. She enlarged and beautified her house in the pretty little city of Richmond, which began to grow daily in importance. She had company there, and card-assemblies, and preachers in plenty; and set up her little throne there, to which the gentlefolks of the province were welcome to come and bow. All her domestic negroes, who loved society as negroes will do, were delighted to exchange the solitude of Castlewood for the gay and merry little town; where, for a time, and while we pursue Harry Warrington’s progress in Europe, we leave the good lady.

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