The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Harry has to pay for his Supper

Colonel Esmond’s grandson rang for a while at his ancestors’ house of Castlewood, before any one within seemed inclined to notice his summons. The servant, who at length issued from the door, seemed to be very little affected by the announcement that the visitor was a relation of the family. The family was away, and in their absence John cared very little for their relatives, but was eager to get back to his game at cards with Thomas in the window-seat. The housekeeper was busy getting ready for my lord and my lady, who were expected that evening. Only by strong entreaties could Harry gain leave to see my lady’s sitting-room and the picture-room, where, sure enough, was a portrait of his grandfather in periwig and breastplate, the counterpart of their picture in Virginia, and a likeness of his grandmother, as Lady Castlewood, in a yet earlier habit of Charles II.‘s time; her neck bare, her fair golden hair waving over her shoulders in ringlets which he remembered to have seen snowy white. From the contemplation of these sights the sulky housekeeper drove him. Her family was about to arrive. There was my lady the Countess, and my lord and his brother, and the young ladies, and the Baroness, who was to have the state bedroom. Who was the Baroness? The Baroness Bernstein, the young ladies’ aunt. Harry wrote down his name on a paper from his own pocket-book, and laid it on a table in the hall. “Henry Esmond Warrington, of Castlewood, in Virginia, arrived in England yesterday — staying at the Three Castles in the village.” The lackeys rose up from their cards to open the door to him, in order to get their “wails,” and Gumbo quitted the bench at the gate, where he had been talking with old Lockwood, the porter, who took Harry’s guinea, hardly knowing the meaning of the gift. During the visit to the home of his fathers, Harry had only seen little Polly’s countenance that was the least unselfish or kindly: he walked away, not caring to own how disappointed he was, and what a damp had been struck upon him by the aspect of the place. They ought to have known him. Had any of them ridden up to his house in Virginia, whether the master were present or absent, the guests would have been made welcome, and, in sight of his ancestors’ hall, he had to go and ask for a dish of bacon and eggs at a country alehouse!

After his dinner, he went to the bridge and sate on it, looking towards the old house, behind which the sun was descending as the rooks came cawing home to their nests in the elms. His young fancy pictured to itself many of the ancestors of whom his mother and grandsire had told him. He fancied knights and huntsmen crossing the ford; — cavaliers of King Charles’s days; my Lord Castlewood, his grandmother’s first husband, riding out with hawk and hound. The recollection of his dearest lost brother came back to him as he indulged in these reveries, and smote him with a pang of exceeding tenderness and longing, insomuch that the young man hung his head and felt his sorrow renewed for the dear friend and companion with whom, until of late, all his pleasures and griefs had been shared. As he sate plunged in his own thoughts, which were mingled up with the mechanical clinking of the blacksmith’s forge hard by, the noises of the evening, the talk of the rooks, and the calling of the birds round about — a couple of young men on horseback dashed over the bridge. One of them, with an oath, called him a fool, and told him to keep out of the way — the other, who fancied he might have jostled the foot-passenger, and possibly might have sent him over the parapet, pushed on more quickly when he reached the other side of the water, calling likewise to Tom to come on; and the pair of young gentlemen were up the hill on their way to the house before Harry had recovered himself from his surprise at their appearance, and wrath at their behaviour. In a minute or two, this advanced guard was followed by two livery servants on horseback, who scowled at the young traveller on the bridge a true British welcome of Curse you, who are you? After these, in a minute or two, came a coach-and-six, a ponderous vehicle having need of the horses which drew it, and containing three ladies, a couple of maids, and an armed man on a seat behind the carriage. Three handsome pale faces looked out at Harry Warrington as the carriage passed over the bridge, and did not return the salute which, recognising the family arms, he gave it. The gentleman behind the carriage glared at him haughtily. Harry felt terribly alone. He thought he would go back to Captain Franks. The Rachel and her little tossing cabin seemed a cheery spot in comparison to that on which he stood. The inn-folks did not know his name of Warrington. They told him that was my lady in the coach, with her stepdaughter, my Lady Maria, and her daughter, my Lady Fanny; and the young gentleman in the grey frock was Mr. William, and he with powder on the chestnut was my lord. It was the latter had sworn the loudest, and called him a fool; and it was the grey frock which had nearly galloped Harry into the ditch.

The landlord of the Three Castles had shown Harry a bedchamber, but he had refused to have his portmanteaux unpacked, thinking that, for a certainty, the folks of the great house would invite him to theirs. One, two, three hours passed, and there came no invitation. Harry was fain to have his trunks open at last, and to call for his slippers and gown. Just before dark, about two hours after the arrival of the first carriage, a second chariot with four horses had passed over the bridge, and a stout, high-coloured lady, with a very dark pair of eyes, had looked hard at Mr. Warrington. That was the Baroness Bernstein, the landlady said, my lord’s aunt, and Harry remembered the first Lady Castlewood had come of a German family. Earl, and Countess, and Baroness, and postillions, and gentlemen, and horses, had all disappeared behind the castle gate, and Harry was fain to go to bed at last, in the most melancholy mood and with a cruel sense of neglect and loneliness in his young heart. He could not sleep, and, besides, ere long, heard a prodigious noise, and cursing, and giggling, and screaming from my landlady’s bar, which would have served to keep him awake.

Then Gumbo’s voice was heard without, remonstrating, “You cannot go in, sar — my master asleep, sar!” but a shrill voice, with many oaths, which Harry Warrington recognised, cursed Gumbo for a stupid, negro woolly-pate, and he was pushed aside, giving entrance to a flood of oaths into the room, and a young gentleman behind them.

“Beg your pardon, Cousin Warrington,” cried the young blasphemer, “are you asleep? Beg your pardon for riding you over on the bridge. Didn’t know you — course shouldn’t have done it — thought it was a lawyer with a writ — dressed in black, you know. Gad! thought it was Nathan come to nab me.” And Mr. William laughed incoherently. It was evident that he was excited with liquor.

“You did me great honour to mistake me for a sheriff’s-officer, cousin,” says Harry, with great gravity, sitting up in his tall nightcap.

“Gad! I thought it was Nathan, and was going to send you souse into the river. But I ask your pardon. You see I had been drinking at the Bell at Hexton, and the punch is good at the Bell at Hexton. Hullo! you, Davis! a bowl of punch; d’you hear?”

“I have had my share for to-night, cousin, and I should think you have,” Harry continues, always in the dignified style.

“You want me to go, Cousin What’s-your-name, I see,” Mr. William said, with gravity. “You want me to go, and they want me to come, and I didn’t want to come. I said, I’d see him hanged first — that’s what I said. Why should I trouble myself to come down all alone of an evening, and look after a fellow I don’t care a pin for? Zackly what I said. Zackly what Castlewood said. Why the devil should he go down? Castlewood says, and so said my lady, but the Baroness would have you. It’s all the Baroness’s doing, and if she says a thing, it must be done; so you must just get up and come.” Mr. Esmond delivered these words with the most amiable rapidity and indistinctness, running them into one another, and tacking about the room as he spoke. But the young Virginian was in great wrath. “I tell you what, cousin,” he cried, “I won’t move for the Countess, or for the Baroness, or for all the cousins in Castlewood.” And when the landlord entered the chamber with the bowl of punch, which Mr. Esmond had ordered, the young gentleman in bed called out fiercely to the host, to turn that sot out of the room.

“Sot, you little tobacconist! Sot, you Cherokee!” screams out Mr. William. “Jump out of bed, and I’ll drive my sword through your body. Why didn’t I do it today when I took you for a bailiff — a confounded pettifogging bum-bailiff!” And he went on screeching more oaths and incoherencies, until the landlord, the drawer, the hostler, and all the folks of the kitchen were brought to lead him away. After which Harry Warrington closed his tent round him in sulky wrath, and, no doubt, finally went fast to sleep.

My landlord was very much more obsequious on the next morning when he met his young guest, having now fully learned his name and quality. Other messengers had come from the castle on the previous night to bring both the young gentlemen home, and poor Mr. William, it appeared, had returned in a wheelbarrow, being not altogether unaccustomed to that mode of conveyance. “He never remembers nothin’ about it the next day. He is of a real kind nature, Mr. William,” the landlord vowed, “and the men get crowns and half-crowns from him by saying that he beat them overnight when he was in liquor. He’s the devil when he’s tipsy, Mr. William, but when he is sober he is the very kindest of young gentlemen.”

As nothing is unknown to writers of biographies of the present kind, it may be as well to state what had occurred within the walls of Castlewood House, whilst Harry Warrington was without, awaiting some token of recognition from his kinsmen. On their arrival at home the family had found the paper on which the lad’s name was inscribed, and his appearance occasioned a little domestic council. My Lord Castlewood supposed that must have been the young gentleman whom they had seen on the bridge, and as they had not drowned him they must invite him. Let a man go down with the proper messages, let a servant carry a note. Lady Fanny thought it would be more civil if one of the brothers would go to their kinsman, especially considering the original greeting which they had given. Lord Castlewood had not the slightest objection to his brother William going — yes, William should go. Upon this Mr. William said (with a yet stronger expression) that he would be hanged if he would go. Lady Maria thought the young gentleman whom they had remarked at the bridge was a pretty fellow enough. Castlewood is dreadfully dull, I am sure neither of my brothers do anything to make it amusing. He may be vulgar — no doubt, he is vulgar — but let us see the American. Such was Lady Maria’s opinion. Lady Castlewood was neither for inviting nor for refusing him, but for delaying. “Wait till your aunt comes, children; perhaps the Baroness won’t like to see the young man; at least, let us consult her before we ask him.” And so the hospitality to be offered by his nearest kinsfolk to poor Harry Warrington remained yet in abeyance.

At length the equipage of the Baroness Bernstein made its appearance, and whatever doubt there might be as to the reception of the Virginian stranger, there was no lack of enthusiasm in this generous family regarding their wealthy and powerful kinswoman. The state-chamber had already been prepared for her. The cook had arrived the previous day with instructions to get ready a supper for her such as her ladyship liked. The table sparkled with old plate, and was set in the oak dining-room with the pictures of the family round the walls. There was the late Viscount, his father, his mother, his sister — these two lovely pictures. There was his predecessor by Vandyck, and his Viscountess. There was Colonel Esmond, their relative in Virginia, about whose grandson the ladies and gentlemen of the Esmond family showed such a very moderate degree of sympathy.

The feast set before their aunt, the Baroness, was a very good one, and her ladyship enjoyed it. The supper occupied an hour or two, during which the whole Castlewood family were most attentive to their guest. The Countess pressed all the good dishes upon her, of which she freely partook: the butler no sooner saw her glass empty than he filled it with champagne: the young folks and their mother kept up the conversation, not so much by talking, as by listening appropriately to their friend. She was full of spirits and humour. She seemed to know everybody in Europe, and about those everybodies the wickedest stories. The Countess of Castlewood, ordinarily a very demure, severe woman, and a stickler for the proprieties, smiled at the very worst of these anecdotes; the girls looked at one another and laughed at the maternal signal; the boys giggled and roared with especial delight at their sisters’ confusion. They also partook freely of the wine which the butler handed round, nor did they, or their guest, disdain the bowl of smoking punch, which was laid on the table after the supper. Many and many a night, the Baroness said, she had drunk at that table by her father’s side. “That was his place,” she pointed to the place where the Countess now sat. She saw none of the old plate. That was all melted to pay his gambling debts. She hoped, “Young gentlemen, that you don’t play.”

“Never, on my word,” says Castlewood.

“Never, ‘pon honour,” says Will — winking at his brother.

The Baroness was very glad to hear they were such good boys. Her face grew redder with the punch; and she became voluble, might have been thought coarse, but that times were different, and those critics were inclined to be especially favourable.

She talked to the boys about their father, their grandfather — other men and women of the house. “The only man of the family was that,” she said, pointing (with an arm that was yet beautifully round and white) towards the picture of the military gentleman in the red coat and cuirass, and great black periwig.

“The Virginian? What is he good for? I always thought he was good for nothing but to cultivate tobacco and my grandmother,” says my lord, laughing.

She struck her hand upon the table with an energy that made the glasses dance. “I say he was the best of you all. There never was one of the male Esmonds that had more brains than a goose, except him. He was not fit for this wicked, selfish old world of ours, and he was right to go and live out of it. Where would your father have been, young people, but for him?”

“Was he particularly kind to our papa?” says Lady Maria.

“Old stories, my dear Maria!” cries the Countess. “I am sure my dear Earl was very kind to him in giving him that great estate in Virginia.”

“Since his brother’s death, the lad who has been here today is heir to that. Mr. Draper told me so! Peste! I don’t know why my father gave up such a property.”

“Who has been here today?” asked the Baroness, highly excited.

“Harry Esmond Warrington, of Virginia,” my lord answered: “a lad whom Will nearly pitched into the river, and whom I pressed my lady the Countess to invite to stay here.”

“You mean that one of the Virginian boys has been to Castlewood, and has not been asked to stay here?”

“There is but one of them, my dear creature,” interposes the Earl. “The other, you know, has just been ——”

“For shame, for shame!”

“Oh! it ain’t pleasant, I confess, to be se ——”

“Do you mean that a grandson of Henry Esmond, the master of this house, has been here, and none of you have offered him hospitality?”

“Since we didn’t know it, and he is staying at the Castles?” interposes Will.

“That he is staying at the Inn, and you are sitting there!” cries the old lady. “This is too bad — call somebody to me. Get me my hood — I’ll go to the boy myself. Come with me this instant, my Lord Castlewood.”

The young man rose up, evidently in wrath. “Madame the Baroness of Bernstein,” he said, “your ladyship is welcome to go; but as for me, I don’t choose to have such words as ‘shameful’ applied to my conduct. I won’t go and fetch the young gentleman from Virginia, and I propose to sit here and finish this bowl of punch. Eugene! Don’t Eugene me, madam. I know her ladyship has a great deal of money, which you are desirous should remain in our amiable family. You want it more than I do. Cringe for it — I won’t.” And he sank back in his chair.

The Baroness looked at the family, who held their heads down, and then at my lord, but this time without any dislike. She leaned over to him and said rapidly in German, “I had unright when I said the Colonel was the only man of the family. Thou canst, if thou willest, Eugene.” To which remark my lord only bowed.

“If you do not wish an old woman to go out at this hour of the night, let William, at least, go and fetch his cousin,” said the Baroness.

“The very thing I proposed to him.”

“And so did we — and so did we!” cried the daughters in a breath.

“I am sure, I only wanted the dear Baroness’s consent!” said their mother, “and shall be charmed for my part to welcome our young relative.”

“Will! Put on thy pattens and get a lantern, and go fetch the Virginian,” said my lord.

“And we will have another bowl of punch when he comes,” says William, who by this time had already had too much. And he went forth — how we have seen; and how he had more punch; and how ill he succeeded in his embassy.

The worthy lady of Castlewood, as she caught sight of young Harry Warrington by the river-side, must have seen a very handsome and interesting youth, and very likely had reasons of her own for not desiring his presence in her family. All mothers are not eager to encourage the visits of interesting youths of nineteen in families where there are virgins of twenty. If Harry’s acres had been in Norfolk or Devon, in place of Virginia, no doubt the good Countess would have been rather more eager in her welcome. Had she wanted him she would have given him her hand readily enough. If our people of ton are selfish, at any rate they show they are selfish; and, being cold-hearted, at least have no hypocrisy of affection.

Why should Lady Castlewood put herself out of the way to welcome the young stranger? Because he was friendless? Only a simpleton could ever imagine such a reason as that. People of fashion, like her ladyship, are friendly to those who have plenty of friends. A poor lad, alone, from a distant country, with only very moderate means, and those not as yet in his own power, with uncouth manners very likely, and coarse provincial habits; was a great lady called upon to put herself out of the way for such a youth? Allons donc! He was quite as well at the alehouse as at the castle.

This, no doubt, was her ladyship’s opinion, which her kinswoman, the Baroness Bernstein, who knew her perfectly well, entirely understood. The Baroness, too, was a woman of the world, and, possibly, on occasion, could be as selfish as any other person of fashion. She fully understood the cause of the deference which all the Castlewood family showed to her — mother, and daughter, and sons — and being a woman of great humour, played upon the dispositions of the various members of this family, amused herself with their greedinesses, their humiliations, their artless respect for her money-box, and clinging attachment to her purse. They were not very rich; Lady Castlewood’s own money was settled on her children. The two elder had inherited nothing but flaxen heads from their German mother, and a pedigree of prodigious distinction. But those who had money, and those who had none, were alike eager for the Baroness’s; in this matter the rich are surely quite as greedy as the poor.

So if Madam Bernstein struck her hand on the table, and caused the glasses and the persons round it to tremble at her wrath, it was because she was excited with plenty of punch and champagne, which her ladyship was in the habit of taking freely, and because she may have had a generous impulse when generous wine warmed her blood, and felt indignant as she thought of the poor lad yonder, sitting friendless and lonely on the outside of his ancestors’ door; not because she was specially angry with her relatives, who she knew would act precisely as they had done.

The exhibition of their selfishness and humiliation alike amused her, as did Castlewood’s act of revolt. He was as selfish as the rest of the family, but not so mean; and, as he candidly stated, he could afford the luxury of a little independence, having tolerable estate to fall back upon.

Madam Bernstein was an early woman, restless, resolute, extraordinarily active for her age. She was up long before the languid Castlewood ladies (just home from their London routs and balls) had quitted their feather-beds, or jolly Will had slept off his various potations of punch. She was up, and pacing the green terraces that sparkled with the sweet morning dew, which lay twinkling, also, on a flowery wilderness of trim parterres, and on the crisp walls of the dark box hedges, under which marble fauns and dryads were cooling themselves, whilst a thousand birds sang, the fountains plashed and glittered in the rosy morning sunshine, and the rooks cawed from the great wood.

Had the well-remembered scene (for she had visited it often in childhood) a freshness and charm for her? Did it recall days of innocence and happiness, and did its calm beauty soothe or please, or awaken remorse in her heart? Her manner was more than ordinarily affectionate and gentle, when, presently, after pacing the walks for a half-hour, the person for whom she was waiting came to her. This was our young Virginian, to whom she had despatched an early billet by one of the Lockwoods. The note was signed B. Bernstein, and informed Mr. Esmond Warrington that his relatives at Castlewood, and among them a dear friend of his grandfather, were most anxious that he should come to “Colonel Esmond’s house in England.” And now, accordingly, the lad made his appearance, passing under the old Gothic doorway, tripping down the steps from one garden terrace to another, hat in hand, his fair hair blowing from his flushed cheeks, his slim figure clad in mourning. The handsome and modest looks, the comely face and person, of the young lad pleased the lady. He made her a low bow which would have done credit to Versailles. She held out a little hand to him, and, as his own palm closed over it, she laid the other hand softly on his ruffle. She looked very kindly and affectionately in the honest blushing face.

“I knew your grandfather very well, Harry,” she said. “So you came yesterday to see his picture, and they turned you away, though you know the house was his of right?”

Harry blushed very red. “The servants did not know me. A young gentleman came to me last night,” he said, “when I was peevish, and he, I fear, was tipsy. I spoke rudely to my cousin, and would ask his pardon. Your ladyship knows that in Virginia our manners towards strangers are different. I own I had expected another kind of welcome. Was it you, madam, who sent my cousin to me last night?”

“I sent him; but you will find your cousins most friendly to you today. You must stay here. Lord Castlewood would have been with you this morning, only I was so eager to see you. There will be breakfast in an hour; and meantime you must talk to me. We will send to the Three Castles for your servant and your baggage. Give me your arm. Stop, I dropped my cane when you came. You shall be my cane.”

“My grandfather used to call us his crutches,” said Harry.

“You are like him, though you are fair.”

“You should have seen — you should have seen George,” said the boy, and his honest eyes welled with tears. The recollection of his brother, the bitter pain of yesterday’s humiliation, the affectionateness of the present greeting — all, perhaps, contributed to soften the lad’s heart. He felt very tenderly and gratefully towards the lady who had received him so warmly. He was utterly alone and miserable a minute since, and here was a home and a kind hand held out to him. No wonder he clung to it. In the hour during which they talked together, the young fellow had poured out a great deal of his honest heart to the kind new-found friend; when the dial told breakfast-time, he wondered to think how much he had told her. She took him to the breakfast-room; she presented him to his aunt, the Countess, and bade him embrace his cousins. Lord Castlewood was frank and gracious enough. Honest Will had a headache, but was utterly unconscious of the proceedings of the past night. The ladies were very pleasant and polite, as ladies of their fashion know how to be. How should Harry Warrington, a simple truth-telling lad from a distant colony, who had only yesterday put his foot upon English shore, know that my ladies, so smiling and easy in demeanour, were furious against him, and aghast at the favour with which Madam Bernstein seemed to regard him?

She was folle of him, talked of no one else, scarce noticed the Castlewood young people, trotted with him over the house, and told him all its story, showed him the little room in the courtyard where his grandfather used to sleep, and a cunning cupboard over the fireplace which had been made in the time of the Catholic persecutions; drove out with him in the neighbouring country, and pointed out to him the most remarkable sites and houses, and had in return the whole of the young man’s story.

This brief biography the kind reader will please to accept, not in the precise words in which Mr. Harry Warrington delivered it to Madam Bernstein, but in the form in which it has been cast in the Chapters next ensuing.

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