The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Gumbo shows Skill with the Old English Weapon

Our young Virginian having won these sums of money from his cousin and the chaplain, was in duty bound to give them a chance of recovering their money, and I am afraid his mamma and other sound moralists would scarcely approve of his way of life. He plays at cards a great deal too much. Besides the daily whist or quadrille with the ladies, which set in soon after dinner at three o’clock, and lasted until supper-time, there occurred games involving the gain or loss of very considerable sums of money, in which all the gentlemen, my lord included, took part. Since their Sunday’s conversation, his lordship was more free and confidential with his kinsman than he had previously been, betted with him quite affably, and engaged him at backgammon and piquet. Mr. William and the pious chaplain liked a little hazard; though this diversion was enjoyed on the sly, and unknown to the ladies of the house, who had exacted repeated promises from cousin Will that he would not lead the Virginian into mischief, and that he would himself keep out of it. So Will promised as much as his aunt or his mother chose to demand from him, gave them his word that he would never play — no, never; and when the family retired to rest, Mr. Will would walk over with a dice-box and a rum-bottle to cousin Harry’s quarters, where he, and Hal, and his reverence would sit and play until daylight.

When Harry gave to Lord Castlewood those flourishing descriptions of the maternal estate in America, he had not wished to mislead his kinsman, or to boast, or to tell falsehoods, for the lad was of a very honest and truth-telling nature; but, in his life at home, it must be owned that the young fellow had had acquaintance with all sorts of queer company — horse-jockeys, tavern loungers, gambling and sporting men, of whom a great number were found in his native colony. A landed aristocracy, with a population of negroes to work their fields, and cultivate their tobacco and corn, had little other way of amusement than in the hunting-field, or over the cards and the punch-bowl. The hospitality of the province was unbounded: every man’s house was his neighbour’s; and the idle gentlefolks rode from one mansion to another, finding in each pretty much the same sport, welcome, and rough plenty. The Virginian squire had often a barefooted valet, and a cobbled saddle; but there was plenty of corn for the horses, and abundance of drink and venison for the master within the tumble-down fences, and behind the cracked windows of the hall. Harry had slept on many a straw mattress, and engaged in endless jolly night-bouts over claret and punch in cracked bowls till morning came, and it was time to follow the hounds. His poor brother was of a much more sober sort, as the lad owned with contrition. So it is that Nature makes folks; and some love books and tea, and some like Burgundy and a gallop across country. Our young fellow’s tastes were speedily made visible to his friends in England. None of them were partial to the Puritan discipline; nor did they like Harry the worse for not being the least of a milksop. Manners, you see, were looser a hundred years ago; tongues were vastly more free-and-easy; names were named, and things were done, which we should screech now to hear mentioned. Yes, madam, we are not as our ancestors were. Ought we not to thank the Fates that have improved our morals so prodigiously, and made us so eminently virtuous?

So, keeping a shrewd keen eye upon people round about him, and fancying, not incorrectly, that his cousins were disposed to pump him, Harry Warrington had thought fit to keep his own counsel regarding his own affairs, and in all games of chance or matters of sport was quite a match for the three gentlemen into whose company he had fallen. Even in the noble game of billiards he could hold his own after a few days’ play with his cousins and their revered pastor. His grandfather loved the game, and had over from Europe one of the very few tables which existed in his Majesty’s province of Virginia. Nor, though Mr. Will could beat him at the commencement, could he get undue odds out of the young gamester. After their first bet, Harry was on his guard with Mr. Will, and cousin William owned, not without respect, that the American was his match in most things, and his better in many. But though Harry played so well that he could beat the parson, and soon was the equal of Will, who of course could beat both the girls, how came it, that in the contests with these, especially with one of them, Mr. Warrington frequently came off second? He was profoundly courteous to every being who wore a petticoat; nor has that traditional politeness yet left his country. All the women of the Castlewood establishment loved the young gentleman. The grim housekeeper was mollified by him: the fat cook greeted him with blowsy smiles; the ladies’-maids, whether of the French or the English nation, smirked and giggled in his behalf; the pretty porter’s daughter at the lodge had always a kind word in reply to his. Madame de Bernstein took note of all these things, and, though she said nothing, watched carefully the boy’s disposition and behaviour.

Who can say how old Lady Maria Esmond was? Books of the Peerage were not so many in those days as they are in our blessed times, and I cannot tell to a few years, or even a lustre or two. When Will used to say she was five-and-thirty, he was abusive, and, besides, was always given to exaggeration. Maria was Will’s half-sister. She and my lord were children of the late Lord Castlewood’s first wife, a German lady, whom, ’tis known, my lord married in the time of Queen Anne’s wars. Baron Bernstein, who married Maria’s Aunt Beatrix, Bishop Tusher’s widow, was also a German, a Hanoverian nobleman, and relative of the first Lady Castlewood. If my Lady Maria was born under George I., and his Majesty George II. had been thirty years on the throne, how could she be seven-and-twenty, as she told Harry Warrington she was? “I am old, child,” she used to say. She used to call Harry “child” when they were alone. “I am a hundred years old. I am seven-and-twenty. I might be your mother almost.” To which Harry would reply, “Your ladyship might be the mother of all the cupids, I am sure. You don’t look twenty, on my word you do Dot!”

Lady Maria looked any age you liked. She was a fair beauty with a dazzling white and red complexion, an abundance of fair hair which flowed over her shoulders, and beautiful round arms which showed to uncommon advantage when she played at billiards with cousin Harry. When she had to stretch across the table to make a stroke, that youth caught glimpses of a little ankle, a little clocked stocking, and a little black satin slipper with a little red heel, which filled him with unutterable rapture, and made him swear that there never was such a foot, ankle, clocked stocking, satin slipper in the world. And yet, oh, you foolish Harry! your mother’s foot was ever so much more slender, and half an inch shorter, than Lady Maria’s. But, somehow, boys do not look at their mammas’ slippers and ankles with rapture.

No doubt Lady Maria was very kind to Harry when they were alone. Before her sister, aunt, stepmother, she made light of him, calling him a simpleton, a chit, and who knows what trivial names? Behind his back, and even before his face, she mimicked his accent, which smacked somewhat of his province. Harry blushed and corrected the faulty intonation, under his English monitresses. His aunt pronounced that they would soon make him a pretty fellow.

Lord Castlewood, we have said, became daily more familiar and friendly with his guest and relative. Till the crops were off the ground there was no sporting, except an occasional cock-match at Winchester, and a bull-baiting at Hexton Fair. Harry and Will rode off to many jolly fairs and races round about the young Virginian was presented to some of the county families — the Henleys of the Grange, the Crawleys of Queen’s Crawley, the Redmaynes of Lionsden, and so forth. The neighbours came in their great heavy coaches, and passed two or three days in country fashion. More of them would have come, but for the fear all the Castlewood family had of offending Madame de Bernstein. She did not like country company; the rustical society and conversation annoyed her. “We shall be merrier when my aunt leaves us,” the young folks owned. “We have cause, as you may imagine, for being very civil to her. You know what a favourite she was with our papa? And with reason. She got him his earldom, being very well indeed at Court at that time with the King and Queen. She commands here naturally, perhaps a little too much. We are all afraid of her: even my elder brother stands in awe of her, and my stepmother is much more obedient to her than she ever was to my papa, whom she ruled with a rod of iron. But Castlewood is merrier when our aunt is not here. At least we have much more company. You will come to us in our gay days, Harry, won’t you? Of course you will: this is your home, sir. I was so pleased — oh, so pleased — when my brother said he considered it was your home!”

A soft hand is held out after this pretty speech, a pair of very well preserved blue eyes look exceedingly friendly. Harry grasps his cousin’s hand with ardour. I do not know what privilege of cousinship he would not like to claim, only he is so timid. They call the English selfish and cold. He at first thought his relatives were so: but how mistaken he was! How kind and affectionate they are, especially the Earl — and dear, dear Maria! How he wishes he could recall that letter which he had written to Mrs. Mountain and his mother, in which he hinted that his welcome had been a cold one! The Earl his cousin was everything that was kind, had promised to introduce him to London society, and present him at Court, and at White’s. He was to consider Castlewood as his English home. He had been most hasty in his judgment regarding his relatives in Hampshire. All this, with many contrite expressions, he wrote in his second despatch to Virginia. And he added, for it hath been hinted that the young gentleman did not spell at this early time with especial accuracy, “My cousin, the Lady Maria, is a perfect Angle.”

“Ille praeter omnes angulus ridet,” muttered little Mr. Dempster, at home in Virginia.

“The child can’t be falling in love with his angle, as he calls her!” cries out Mountain.

“Pooh, pooh! my niece Maria is forty!” says Madam Esmond. “I perfectly well recollect her when I was at home — a great, gawky, carroty creature, with a foot like a pair of bellows.” Where is truth, forsooth, and who knoweth it? Is Beauty beautiful, or is it only our eyes that make it so? Does Venus squint? Has she got a splay-foot, red hair, and a crooked back? Anoint my eyes, good Fairy Puck, so that I may ever consider the Beloved Object a paragon! Above all, keep on anointing my mistress’s dainty peepers with the very strongest ointment, so that my noddle may ever appear lovely to her, and that she may continue to crown my honest ears with fresh roses!

Now, not only was Harry Warrington a favourite with some in the drawing-room, and all the ladies of the servants’-hall, but, like master like man, his valet Gumbo was very much admired and respected by very many of the domestic circle. Gumbo had a hundred accomplishments. He was famous as a fisherman, huntsman, blacksmith. He could dress hair beautifully, and improved himself in the art under my lord’s own Swiss gentleman. He was great at cooking many of his Virginian dishes, and learned many new culinary secrets from my lord’s French man. We have heard how exquisitely and melodiously he sang at church; and he sang not only sacred but secular music, often inventing airs and composing rude words after the habit of his people. He played the fiddle so charmingly, that he set all the girls dancing in Castlewood Hall, and was ever welcome to a gratis mug of ale at the Three Castles in the village, if he would but bring his fiddle with him. He was good-natured and loved to play for the village children: so that Mr. Warrington’s negro was a universal favourite in all the Castlewood domain.

Now it was not difficult for the servants’-hall folks to perceive that Mr. Gumbo was a liar, which fact was undoubted in spite of all his good qualities. For instance, that day at church, when he pretended to read out of Molly’s psalm-book, he sang quite other words than those which were down in the book, of which he could not decipher a syllable. And he pretended to understand music, whereupon the Swiss valet brought him some, and Master Gumbo turned the page upside down. These instances of long-bow practice daily occurred, and were patent to all the Castlewood household. They knew Gumbo was a liar, perhaps not thinking the worse of him for this weakness; but they did not know how great a liar he was, and believed him much more than they had any reason for doing, and because, I suppose, they liked to believe him.

Whatever might be his feelings of wonder and envy on first viewing the splendour and comforts of Castlewood, Mr. Gumbo kept his sentiments to himself, and examined the place, park, appointments, stables, very coolly. The horses, he said, were very well, what there were of them; but at Castlewood in Virginia they had six times as many, and let me see, fourteen eighteen grooms to look after them. Madam Esmond’s carriages were much finer than my lord’s — great deal more gold on the panels. As for her gardens, they covered acres, and they grew every kind of flower and fruit under the sun. Pineapples and peaches? Pineapples and peaches were so common, they were given to pigs in his country. They had twenty forty gardeners, not white gardeners, all black gentlemen, like hisself. In the house were twenty forty gentlemen in livery, besides women-servants — never could remember how many women-servants — dere were so many: tink dere were fifty women-servants — all Madam Esmond’s property, and worth ever so many hundred pieces of eight apiece. How much was a piece of eight? Bigger than a guinea, a piece of eight was. Tink, Madam Esmond have twenty thirty thousand guineas a year — have whole rooms full of gold and plate. Came to England in one of her ships; have ever so many ships, Gumbo can’t count how many ships; and estates, covered all over with tobacco and negroes, and reaching out for a week’s journey. Was Master Harry heir to all this property? Of course, now Master George was killed and scalped by the Indians. Gumbo had killed ever so many Indians, and tried to save Master George, but he was Master Harry’s boy — and Master Harry was as rich — oh, as rich as ever he like. He wore black now, because Master George was dead; but you should see his chests full of gold clothes, and lace, and jewels at Bristol. Of course, Master Harry was the richest man in all Virginia, and might have twenty sixty servants; only he liked travelling with one best, and that one, it need scarcely be said, was Gumbo.

This story was not invented at once, but gradually elicited from Mr. Gumbo, who might have uttered some trifling contradictions during the progress of the narrative, but by the time he had told his tale twice or thrice in the servants’-hall or the butler’s private apartment, he was pretty perfect and consistent in his part, and knew accurately the number of slaves Madam Esmond kept, and the amount of income which she enjoyed. The truth is, that as four or five blacks are required to do the work of one white man, the domestics in American establishments are much more numerous than in ours; and, like the houses of most other Virginian landed proprietors, Madam Esmond’s mansion and stables swarmed with negroes.

Mr. Gumbo’s account of his mistress’s wealth and splendour was carried to my lord by his lordship’s man, and to Madame de Bernstein and my ladies by their respective waiting-women, and, we may be sure, lost nothing in the telling. A young gentleman in England is not the less liked because he is reputed to be the heir to vast wealth and possessions; when Lady Castlewood came to hear of Harry’s prodigious expectations, she repented of her first cool reception of him, and of having pinched her daughter’s arm till it was black-and-blue for having been extended towards the youth in too friendly a manner. Was it too late to have him back into those fair arms? Lady Fanny was welcome to try, and resumed the dancing-lessons. The Countess would play the music with all her heart. But, how provoking! that odious, sentimental Maria would always insist upon being in the room; and, as sure as Fanny walked in the gardens or the park, so sure would her sister come trailing after her. As for Madame de Bernstein, she laughed, and was amused at the stories of the prodigious fortune of her Virginian relatives. She knew her half-sister’s man of business in London, and very likely was aware of the real state of Madame Esmond’s money matters; but she did not contradict the rumours which Gumbo and his fellow-servants had set afloat; and was not a little diverted by the effect which these reports had upon the behaviour of the Castlewood family towards their young kinsman.

“Hang him! Is he so rich, Molly?” said my lord to his elder sister. “Then good-bye to our chances with your aunt. The Baroness will be sure to leave him all her money to spite us, and because he doesn’t want it. Nevertheless, the lad is a good lad enough, and it is not his fault being rich, you know.”

“He is very simple and modest in his habits for one so wealthy,” remarks Maria.

“Rich people often are so,” says my lord. “If I were rich, I often think I would be the greatest miser, and live in rags and on a crust. Depend on it there is no pleasure so enduring as money-getting. It grows on you, and increases with old age. But because I am as poor as Lazarus, I dress in purple and fine linen, and fare sumptuously every day.”

Maria went to the book-room and got the History of Virginia, by R. B. Gent — and read therein what an admirable climate it was, and how all kinds of fruit and corn grew in that province, and what noble rivers were those of Potomac and Rappahannoc, abounding in all sorts of fish. And she wondered whether the climate would agree with her, and whether her aunt would like her? And Harry was sure his mother would adore her, so would Mountain. And when he was asked about the number of his mother’s servants, he said, they certainly had more servants than are seen in England — he did not know how many. But the negroes did not do near as much work as English servants did hence the necessity of keeping so great a number. As for some others of Gumbo’s details which were brought to him, he laughed and said the boy was wonderful as a romancer, and in telling such stories he supposed was trying to speak out for the honour of the family.

So Harry was modest as well as rich! His denials only served to confirm his relatives’ opinion regarding his splendid expectations. More and more the Countess and the ladies were friendly and affectionate with him. More and more Mr. Will betted with him, and wanted to sell him bargains. Harry’s simple dress and equipage only served to confirm his friends’ idea of his wealth. To see a young man of his rank and means with but one servant, and without horses or a carriage of his own — what modesty! When he went to London he would cut a better figure? Of course he would. Castlewood would introduce him to the best society in the capital, and he would appear as he ought to appear at St. James’s. No man could be more pleasant, wicked, lively, obsequious than the worthy chaplain, Mr. Sampson. How proud he would be if he could show his young friend a little of London life! — if he could warn rogues off him, and keep him out of the way of harm! Mr. Sampson was very kind: everybody was very kind. Harry liked quite well the respect that was paid to him. As Madam Esmond’s son he thought perhaps it was his due: and took for granted that he was the personage which his family imagined him to be. How should he know better, who had never as yet seen any place but his own province, and why should he not respect his own condition when other people respected it so? So all the little knot of people at Castlewood House, and from these the people in Castlewood village, and from thence the people in the whole county, chose to imagine that Mr. Harry Esmond Warrington was the heir of immense wealth, and a gentleman of very great importance, because his negro valet told lies about him in the servants’-hall.

Harry’s aunt, Madame de Bernstein, after a week or two, began to tire of Castlewood and the inhabitants of that mansion, and the neighbours who came to visit them. This clever woman tired of most things and people sooner or later. So she took to nodding and sleeping over the chaplain’s stories, and to doze at her whist and over her dinner, and to be very snappish and sarcastic in her conversation with her Esmond nephews and nieces, hitting out blows at my lord and his brother the jockey, and my ladies, widowed and unmarried, who winced under her scornful remarks, and bore them as they best might. The cook, whom she had so praised on first coming, now gave her no satisfaction; the wine was corked; the house was damp, dreary, and full of draughts; the doors would not shut, and the chimneys were smoky. She began to think the Tunbridge waters were very necessary for her, and ordered the doctor, who came to her from the neighbouring town of Hexton, to order those waters for her benefit.

“I wish to heaven she would go!” growled my lord, who was the most independent member of his family. “She may go to Tunbridge, or she may go to Bath, or she may go to Jericho, for me.”

“Shall Fanny and I come with you to Tunbridge, dear Baroness?” asked Lady Castlewood of her sister-inlaw.

“Not for worlds, my dear! The doctor orders me absolute quiet, and if you came I should have the knocker going all day, and Fanny’s lovers would never be out of the house,” answered the Baroness, who was quite weary of Lady Castlewood’s company.

“I wish I could be of any service to my aunt!” said the sentimental Lady Maria, demurely.

“My good child, what can you do for me? You cannot play piquet so well as my maid, and I have heard all your songs till I am perfectly tired of them! One of the gentlemen might go with me: at least make the journey, and see me safe from highwaymen.”

“I’m sure, ma’am, I shall be glad to ride with you,” said Mr. Will.

“Oh, not you! I don’t want you, William,” cried the young man’s aunt. “Why do not you offer, and where are your American manners, you ungracious Harry Warrington? Don’t swear, Will, Harry is much better company than you are, and much better ton too, sir.”

“Tong, indeed! Confound his tong,” growled envious Will to himself.

“I dare say I shall be tired of him, as I am of other folks,” continued the Baroness. “I have scarcely seen Harry at all in these last days. You shall ride with me to Tunbridge, Harry!”

At this direct appeal, and to no one’s wonder more than that of his aunt, Mr. Harry Warrington blushed, and hemmed and ha’d and at length said, “I have promised my cousin Castlewood to go over to Hexton Petty Sessions with him tomorrow. He thinks I should see how the Courts here are conducted — and — and — the partridge-shooting will soon begin, and I have promised to be here for that, ma’am.” Saying which words, Harry Warrington looked as red as a poppy, whilst Lady Maria held her meek face downwards, and nimbly plied her needle.

“You actually refuse to go with me to Tunbridge Wells?” called out Madame Bernstein, her eyes lightening, and her face flushing up with anger, too.

“Not to ride with you, ma’am; that I will do with all my heart; but to stay there — I have promised . . .”

“Enough, enough, sir! I can go alone, and don’t want your escort,” cried the irate old lady, and rustled out of the room.

The Castlewood family looked at each other with wonder. Will whistled. Lady Castlewood glanced at Fanny, as much as to say, His chance is over. Lady Maria never lifted up her eyes from her tambour-frame.

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