The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


A Sunday at Castlewood

The second day after Harry’s arrival at Castlewood was a Sunday. The chapel appertaining to the castle was the village church. A door from the house communicated with a great state pew which the family occupied, and here after due time they all took their places in order, whilst a rather numerous congregation from the village filled the seats below. A few ancient dusty banners hung from the church roof; and Harry pleased himself in imagining that they had been borne by retainers of his family in the Commonwealth wars, in which, as he knew well, his ancestors had taken a loyal and distinguished part. Within the altar-rails was the effigy of the Esmond of the time of King James the First, the common forefather of all the group assembled in the family pew. Madame de Bernstein, in her quality of Bishop’s widow, never failed in attendance, and conducted her devotions with a gravity almost as exemplary as that of the ancestor yonder, in his square beard and red gown, for ever kneeling on his stone hassock before his great marble desk and book, under his emblazoned shield of arms. The clergyman, a tall, high-coloured, handsome young man, read the service in a lively, agreeable voice, giving almost a dramatic point to the chapters of Scripture which he read. The music was good — one of the young ladies of the family touching the organ — and would have been better but for an interruption and something like a burst of laughter from the servants’ pew, which was occasioned by Mr. Warrington’s lacquey Gumbo, who, knowing the air given out for the psalm, began to sing it in a voice so exceedingly loud and sweet, that the whole congregation turned towards the African warbler; the parson himself put his handkerchief to his mouth, and the liveried gentlemen from London were astonished out of all propriety. Pleased, perhaps, with the sensation which he had created, Mr. Gumbo continued his performance until it became almost a solo, and the voice of the clerk himself was silenced. For the truth is, that though Gumbo held on to the book, along with pretty Molly, the porter’s daughter, who had been the first to welcome the strangers to Castlewood, he sang and recited by ear and not by note, and could not read a syllable of the verses in the book before him.

This choral performance over, a brief sermon in due course followed, which, indeed, Harry thought a deal too short. In a lively, familiar, striking discourse the clergyman described a scene of which he had been witness the previous week — the execution of a horse-stealer after Assizes. He described the man and his previous good character, his family, the love they bore one another, and his agony at parting from them. He depicted the execution in a manner startling, terrible, and picturesque. He did not introduce into his sermon the Scripture phraseology, such as Harry had been accustomed to hear it from those somewhat Calvinistic preachers whom his mother loved to frequent, but rather spoke as one man of the world to other sinful people, who might be likely to profit by good advice. The unhappy man just gone, had begun as a farmer of good prospects; he had taken to drinking, card-playing, horse-racing, cock-fighting, the vices of the age; against which the young clergyman was generously indignant. Then he had got to poaching and to horse-stealing, for which he suffered. The divine rapidly drew striking and fearful pictures of these rustic crimes. He startled his hearers by showing that the Eye of the Law was watching the poacher at midnight, and setting traps to catch the criminal. He galloped the stolen horse over highway and common, and from one county into another, but showed Retribution ever galloping after, seizing the malefactor in the country fair, carrying him before the justice, and never unlocking his manacles till he dropped them at the gallows-foot. Heaven be pitiful to the sinner! The clergyman acted the scene. He whispered in the criminal’s ear at the cart. He dropped his handkerchief on the clerk’s head. Harry started back as that handkerchief dropped. The clergyman had been talking for more than twenty minutes. Harry could have heard him for an hour more, and thought he had not been five minutes in the pulpit. The gentlefolks in the great pew were very much enlivened by the discourse. Once or twice, Harry, who could see the pew where the house servants sate, remarked these very attentive; and especially Gumbo, his own man, in an attitude of intense consternation. But the smockfrocks did not seem to heed, and clamped out of church quite unconcerned. Gaffer Brown and Gammer Jones took the matter as it came, and the rosy-cheeked, red-cloaked village lasses sate under their broad hats entirely unmoved. My lord, from his pew, nodded slightly to the clergyman in the pulpit, when that divine’s head and wig surged up from the cushion.

“Sampson has been strong today,” said his lordship. “He has assaulted the Philistines in great force.”

“Beautiful, beautiful!” says Harry.

“Bet five to four it was his Assize sermon. He has been over to Winton to preach, and to see those dogs,” cries William.

The organist had played the little congregation out into the sunshine. Only Sir Francis Esmond, temp. Jac. I., still knelt on his marble hassock, before his prayer-book of stone. Mr. Sampson came out of his vestry in his cassock, and nodded to the gentlemen still lingering in the great pew.

“Come up, and tell us about those dogs,” says Mr. William, and the divine nodded a laughing assent.

The gentlemen passed out of the church into the gallery of their house, which connected them with that sacred building. Mr. Sampson made his way through the court, and presently joined them. He was presented by my lord to the Virginian cousin of the family, Mr. Warrington: the chaplain bowed very profoundly, and hoped Mr. Warrington would benefit by the virtuous example of his European kinsmen. Was he related to Sir Miles Warrington of Norfolk? Sir Miles was Mr. Warrington’s father’s elder brother. What a pity he had a son! ’Twas a pretty estate, and Mr. Warrington looked as if he would become a baronetcy, and a fine estate in Norfolk.

“Tell me about my uncle,” cried Virginian Harry.

“Tell us about those dogs!” said English Will, in a breath.

“Two more jolly dogs, two more drunken dogs, saving your presence, Mr. Warrington, than Sir Miles and his son, I never saw. Sir Miles was a staunch friend and neighbour of Sir Robert’s. He can drink down any man in the county, except his son and a few more. The other dogs about which Mr. William is anxious, for Heaven hath made him a prey to dogs and all kinds of birds, like the Greeks in the Iliad ——”

“I know that line in the Iliad,” says Harry, blushing. “I only know five more, but I know that one.” And his head fell. He was thinking, “Ah, my dear brother George knew all the Iliad and all the Odyssey, and almost every book that was ever written besides!”

“What on earth” (only he mentioned a place under the earth) “are you talking about now?” asked Will of his reverence.

The chaplain reverted to the dogs and their performance. He thought Mr. William’s dogs were more than a match for them. From dogs they went off to horses. Mr. William was very eager about the Six Year Old Plate at Huntingdon. “Have you brought any news of it, Parson?”

“The odds are five to four on Brilliant against the field,” says the parson, gravely, “but, mind you, Jason is a good horse.”

“Whose horse?” asks my lord.

“Duke of Ancaster’s. By Cartouche out of Miss Langley,” says the divine. “Have you horse-races in Virginia, Mr. Warrington?”

“Haven’t we!” cries Harry; “but oh! I long to see a good English race!”

“Do you — do you — bet a little?” continues his reverence.

“I have done such a thing,” replies Harry with a smile.

“I’ll take Brilliant even against the field, for ponies with you, cousin!” shouts out Mr. William.

“I’ll give or take three to one against Jason!” says the clergyman.

“I don’t bet on horses I don’t know,” said Harry, wondering to hear the chaplain now, and remembering his sermon half an hour before.

“Hadn’t you better write home, and ask your mother?” says Mr. William, with a sneer.

“Will, Will!” calls out my lord, “our cousin Warrington is free to bet, or not, as he likes. Have a care how you venture on either of them, Harry Warrington. Will is an old file, in spite of his smooth face, and as for Parson Sampson, I defy our ghostly enemy to get the better of him.”

“Him and all his works, my lord!” said Mr. Sampson, with a bow.

Harry was highly indignant at this allusion to his mother. “I’ll tell you what, cousin Will,” he said, “I am in the habit of managing my own affairs in my own way, without asking any lady to arrange them for me. And I’m used to make my own bets upon my own judgment, and don’t need any relations to select them for me, thank you. But as I am your guest, and, no doubt, you want to show me hospitality, I’ll take your bet — there. And so Done and Done.”

“Done,” says Will, looking askance.

“Of course it is the regular odds that’s in the paper which you give me, cousin?”

“Well, no, it isn’t,” growled Will. “The odds are five to four, that’s the fact, and you may have ’em, if you like.”

“Nay, cousin, a bet is a bet; and I take you, too, Mr. Sampson.”

“Three to one against Jason. I lay it. Very good,” says Mr. Sampson.

“Is it to be ponies too, Mr. Chaplain?” asks Harry with a superb air, as if he had Lombard Street in his pocket.

“No, no. Thirty to ten. It is enough for a poor priest to win.”

“Here goes a great slice out of my quarter’s hundred,” thinks Harry. “Well, I shan’t let these Englishmen fancy that I am afraid of them. I didn’t begin, but for the honour of Old Virginia I won’t go back.”

These pecuniary transactions arranged, William Esmond went away scowling towards the stables, where he loved to take his pipe with the grooms; the brisk parson went off to pay his court to the ladies, and partake of the Sunday dinner which would presently be served. Lord Castlewood and Harry remained for a while together. Since the Virginian’s arrival my lord had scarcely spoken with him. In his manners he was perfectly friendly, but so silent that he would often sit at the head of his table, and leave it without uttering a word.

“I suppose yonder property of yours is a fine one by this time?” said my lord to Harry.

“I reckon it’s almost as big as an English county,” answered Harry, “and the land’s as good, too, for many things.” Harry would not have the Old Dominion, nor his share in it, underrated.

“Indeed!” said my lord, with a look of surprise. “When it belonged to my father it did not yield much.”

“Pardon me, my lord. You know how it belonged to your father,” cried the youth, with some spirit. “It was because my grandfather did not choose to claim his right.” [This matter is discussed in the Author’s previous work, The Memoirs of Colonel Esmond.]

“Of course, of course,” says my lord, hastily.

“I mean, cousin, that we of the Virginian house owe you nothing but our own,” continued Harry Warrington; “but our own, and the hospitality which you are now showing me.”

“You are heartily welcome to both. You were hurt by the betting just now?”

“Well,” replied the lad, “I am sort o’ hurt. Your welcome, you see, is different to our welcome, and that’s the fact. At home we are glad to see a man, hold out a hand to him, and give him of our best. Here you take us in, give us beef and claret enough, to be sure, and don’t seem to care when we come, or when we go. That’s the remark which I have been making since I have been in your lordship’s house; I can’t help telling it out, you see, now ’tis on my mind; and I think I am a little easier now I have said it.” And with this, the excited young fellow knocked a billiard-ball across the table, and then laughed, and looked at his elder kinsman.

“A la bonne heure! We are cold to the stranger within and without our gates. We don’t take Mr. Harry Warrington into our arms, and cry when we see our cousin. We don’t cry when he goes away — but do we pretend?”

“No, you don’t. But you try to get the better of him in a bet,” says Harry, indignantly.

“Is there no such practice in Virginia, and don’t sporting men there try to overreach one another? What was that story I heard you telling our aunt, of the British officers and Tom somebody of Spotsylvania!”

“That’s fair!” cries Harry. “That is, it’s usual practice, and a stranger must look out. I don’t mind the parson; if he wins, he may have, and welcome. But a relation! To think that my own blood cousin wants money out of me!”

“A Newmarket man would get the better of his father. My brother has been on the turf since he rode over to it from Cambridge. If you play at cards with him — and he will if you will let him — he will beat you if he can.”

“Well, I’m ready!” cries Harry. “I’ll play any game with him that I know, or I’ll jump with him, or I’ll ride with him, or I’ll row with him, or I’ll wrestle with him, or I’ll shoot with him — there — now.”

The senior was greatly entertained, and held out his hand to the boy. “Anything, but don’t fight with him,” said my lord.

“If I do, I’ll whip him! hanged if I don’t!” cried the lad. But a look of surprise and displeasure on the nobleman’s part recalled him to better sentiments. “A hundred pardons, my lord!” he said, blushing very red, and seizing his cousin’s hand. “I talked of ill manners, being angry and hurt just now; but ’tis doubly ill-mannered of me to show my anger, and boast about my prowess to my own host and kinsman. It’s not the practice with us Americans to boast, believe me, it’s not.”

“You are the first I ever met,” says my lord, with a smile, “and I take you at your word. And I give you fair warning about the cards, and the betting, that is all, my boy.”

“Leave a Virginian alone! We are a match for most men, we are,” resumed the boy.

Lord Castlewood did not laugh. His eyebrows only arched for a moment, and his grey eyes turned towards the ground. “So you can bet fifty guineas, and afford to lose them? So much the better for you, cousin. Those great Virginian estates yield a great revenue, do they?”

“More than sufficient for all of us — for ten times as many as we are now,” replied Harry. (“What, he is pumping me,” thought the lad.)

“And your mother makes her son and heir a handsome allowance?”

“As much as ever I choose to draw, my lord!” cried Harry.

“Peste! I wish I had such a mother!” cried my lord. “But I have only the advantage of a stepmother, and she draws me. There is the dinner-bell. Shall we go into the eating-room?” And taking his young friend’s arm, my lord led him to the apartment where that meal was waiting.

Parson Sampson formed the delight of the entertainment, and amused the ladies with a hundred agreeable stories. Besides being chaplain to his lordship, he was a preacher in London, at the new chapel in Mayfair, for which my Lady Whittlesea (so well known in the reign of George I.) had left an endowment. He had the choicest stories of all the clubs and coteries — the very latest news of who had run away with whom — the last bon-mot of Mr. Selwyn — the last wild bet of March and Rockingham. He knew how the old king had quarrelled with Madame Walmoden, and the Duke was suspected of having a new love; who was in favour at Carlton House with the Princess of Wales, and who was hung last Monday, and how well he behaved in the cart. My lord’s chaplain poured out all this intelligence to the amused ladies and the delighted young provincial, seasoning his conversation with such plain terms and lively jokes as made Harry stare, who was newly arrived from the colonies, and unused to the elegances of London life. The ladies, old and young, laughed quite cheerfully at the lively jokes. Do not be frightened, ye fair readers of the present day! We are not going to outrage your sweet modesties, or call blushes on your maiden cheeks. But ’tis certain that their ladyships at Castlewood never once thought of being shocked, but sate listening to the parson’s funny tales, until the chapel bell, clinking for afternoon service, summoned his reverence away for half an hour. There was no sermon. He would be back in the drinking of a bottle of Burgundy. Mr. Will called a fresh one, and the chaplain tossed off a glass ere he ran out.

Ere the half-hour was over, Mr. Chaplain was back again bawling for another bottle. This discussed, they joined the ladies, and a couple of card-tables were set out, as, indeed, they were for many hours every day, at which the whole of the family party engaged. Madame de Bernstein could beat any one of her kinsfolk at piquet, and there was only Mr. Chaplain in the whole circle who was at all a match for her ladyship.

In this easy manner the Sabbath-day passed. The evening was beautiful, and there was talk of adjourning to a cool tankard and a game of whist in a summer-house; but the company voted to sit indoors, the ladies declaring they thought the aspect of three honours in their hand, and some good court-cards, more beautiful than the loveliest scene of nature; and so the sun went behind the elms, and still they were at their cards; and the rooks came home cawing their evensong, and they never stirred except to change partners; and the chapel clock tolled hour after hour unheeded, so delightfully were they spent over the pasteboard; and the moon and stars came out; and it was nine o’clock, and the groom of the chambers announced that supper was ready.

Whilst they sate at that meal, the postboy’s twanging horn was heard, as he trotted into the village with his letter-bag. My lord’s bag was brought in presently from the village, and his letters, which he put aside, and his newspaper which he read. He smiled as he came to a paragraph, looked at his Virginian cousin, and handed the paper over to his brother Will, who by this time was very comfortable, having had pretty good luck all the evening, and a great deal of liquor.

“Read that, Will,” says my lord.

Mr. William took the paper, and, reading the sentence pointed out by his brother, uttered an exclamation which caused all the ladies to cry out.

“Gracious heavens, William! What has happened?” cries one or the other fond sister.

“Mercy, child, why do you swear so dreadfully?” asks the young man’s fond mamma.

“What’s the matter?” inquires Madame de Bernstein, who has fallen into a doze after her usual modicum of punch and beer.

“Read it, Parson!” says Mr. William, thrusting the paper over to the chaplain, and looking as fierce as a Turk.

“Bit, by the Lord!” roars the chaplain, dashing down the paper.

“Cousin Harry, you are in luck,” said my lord, taking up the sheet, and reading from it. “The Six Year Old Plate at Huntingdon was won by Jason, beating Brilliant, Pytho, and Ginger. The odds were five to four on Brilliant against the field, three to one against Jason, seven to two against Pytho, and twenty to one against Ginger.”

“I owe you a half-year’s income of my poor living, Mr. Warrington,” groaned the parson. “I will pay when my noble patron settles with me.”

“A curse upon the luck!” growls Mr. William; “that comes of betting on a Sunday,”— and he sought consolation in another great bumper.

“Nay, cousin Will. It was but in jest,” cried Harry. “I can’t think of taking my cousin’s money.”

“Curse me, sir, do you suppose, if I lose, I can’t pay?” asks Mr. William; “and that I want to be beholden to any man alive? That is a good joke. Isn’t it, Parson?”

“I think I have heard better,” said the clergyman; to which William replied, “Hang it, let us have another bowl.”

Let us hope the ladies did not wait for this last replenishment of liquor, for it is certain they had had plenty already during the evening.

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