The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray



Lest any tender-hearted reader should be in alarm for Mr. Harry Warrington’s safety, and fancy that his broken-kneed horse had carried him altogether out of this life and history, let us set her mind easy at the beginning of this chapter by assuring her that nothing very serious has happened. How can we afford to kill off our heroes, when they are scarcely out of their teens, and we have not reached the age of manhood of the story? We are in mourning already for one of our Virginians, who has come to grief in America; surely we cannot kill off the other in England? No, no. Heroes are not despatched with such hurry and violence unless there is a cogent reason for making away with them. Were a gentleman to perish every time a horse came down with him, not only the hero, but the author of this chronicle would have gone under ground, whereas the former is but sprawling outside it, and will be brought to life again as soon as he has been carried into the house where Madame de Bernstein’s servants have rung the bell.

And to convince you that at least this youngest of the Virginians is still alive, here is an authentic copy of a letter from the lady into whose house he was taken after his fall from Mr. Will’s brute of a broken-kneed horse, and in whom he appears to have found a kind friend:


“At her House at Richmond, in Virginia

“If Mrs. Esmond Warrington of Virginia can call to mind twenty-three years ago, when Miss Rachel Esmond was at Kensington Boarding School, she may perhaps remember Miss Molly Benson, her class-mate, who has forgotten all the little quarrels which they used to have together (in which Miss Molly was very often in the wrong), and only remembers the generous, high-spirited, sprightly, Miss Esmond, the Princess Pocahontas, to whom so many of our school-fellows paid court.

“Dear madam! I cannot forget that you were dear Rachel once upon a time, as I was your dearest Molly. Though we parted not very good friends when you went home to Virginia, yet you know how fond we once were. I still, Rachel, have the gold etui your papa gave me when he came to our speech-day at Kensington, and we two performed the quarrel of Brutus and Cassius out of Shakspeare; and ’twas only yesterday morning I was dreaming that we were both called up to say our lesson before the awful Miss Hardwood, and that I did not know it, and that as usual Miss Rachel Esmond went above me. How well remembered those old days are! How young we grow as we think of them! I remember our walks and our exercises, our good King and Queen as they walked in Kensington Gardens, and their court following them, whilst we of Miss Hardwood’s school curtseyed in a row. I can tell still what we had for dinner on each day of the week, and point to the place where your garden was, which was always so much better kept than mine. So was Miss Esmond’s chest of drawers a model of neatness, whilst mine were in a sad condition. Do you remember how we used to tell stories in the dormitory, and Madame Hibou, the French governess, would come out of bed and interrupt us with her hooting? Have you forgot the poor dancing-master, who told us he had been waylaid by assassins, but who was beaten, it appears, by my lord your brother’s footmen? My dear, your cousin, the Lady Maria Esmond (her papa was, I think, but Viscount Castlewood in those times), has just been on a visit to this house, where you may be sure I did not recall those sad times to her remembrance, about which I am now chattering to Mrs. Esmond.

“Her ladyship has been staying here, and another relative of yours, the Baroness of Bernstein, and the two ladies are both gone on to Tunbridge Wells; but another and dearer relative still remains in my house, and is sound asleep, I trust, in the very next room, and the name of this gentleman is Mr. Henry Esmond Warrington. Now, do you understand how you come to hear from an old friend? Do not be alarmed, dear madam! I know you are thinking at this moment, ‘My boy is ill. That is why Miss Molly Benson writes to me.’ No, my dear; Mr. Warrington was ill yesterday, but today he is very comfortable; and our doctor, who is no less a person than my dear husband, Colonel Lambert, has blooded him, has set his shoulder, which was dislocated, and pronounces that in two days more Mr. Warrington will be quite ready to take the road.

“I fear I and my girls are sorry that he is so soon to be well. Yesterday evening, as we were at tea, there came a great ringing at our gate, which disturbed us all, as the bell very seldom sounds in this quiet place, unless a passing beggar pulls it for charity; and the servants, running out, returned with the news, that a young gentleman, who had a fall from his horse, was lying lifeless on the road, surrounded by the friends in whose company he was travelling. At this, my Colonel (who is sure the most Samaritan of men!) hastens away, to see how he can serve the fallen traveller, and presently, with the aid of the servants, and followed by two ladies, brings into the house such a pale, lifeless, beautiful, young man! Ah, my dear, how I rejoice to think that your child has found shelter and succour under my roof! that my husband has saved him from pain and fever, and has been the means of restoring him to you and health! We shall be friends again now, shall we not? I was very ill last year, and ’twas even thought I should die. Do you know, that I often thought of you then, and how you had parted from me in anger so many years ago? I began then a foolish note to you, which I was too sick to finish, to tell you that if I went the way appointed for us all, I should wish to leave the world in charity with every single being I had known in it.

“Your cousin, the Right Honourable Lady Maria Esmond, showed a great deal of maternal tenderness and concern for her young kinsman after his accident. I am sure she hath a kind heart. The Baroness de Bernstein, who is of an advanced age, could not be expected to feel so keenly as we young people; but was, nevertheless, very much moved and interested until Mr. Warrington was restored to consciousness, when she said she was anxious to get on towards Tunbridge, whither she was bound, and was afraid of all things to lie in a place where there was no doctor at hand. My Aesculapius laughingly said, he would not offer to attend upon a lady of quality, though he would answer for his young patient. Indeed, the Colonel, during his campaigns, has had plenty of practice in accidents of this nature, and I am certain, were we to call in all the faculty for twenty miles round, Mr. Warrington could get no better treatment. So, leaving the young gentleman to the care of me and my daughters, the Baroness and her ladyship took their leave of us, the latter very loth to go. When he is well enough, my Colonel will ride with him as far as Westerham, but on his own horses, where an old army-comrade of Mr. Lambert’s resides. And, as this letter will not take the post for Falmouth until, by God’s blessing, your son is well and perfectly restored, you need be under no sort of alarm for him whilst under the roof of, madam, your affectionate, humble servant, MARY LAMBERT.

“P.S. Thursday.

“I am glad to hear (Mr. Warrington’s coloured gentleman hath informed our people of the gratifying circumstance) that Providence hath blessed Mrs. Esmond with such vast wealth, and with an heir so likely to do credit to it. Our present means are amply sufficient, but will be small when divided amongst our survivors. Ah, dear madam! I have heard of your calamity of last year. Though the Colonel and I have reared many children (five), we have lost two, and a mother’s heart can feel for yours! I own to you, mine yearned to your boy today, when (in a manner inexpressibly affecting to me and Mr. Lambert) he mentioned his dear brother. ’Tis impossible to see your son, and not to love and regard him. I am thankful that it has been our lot to succour him in his trouble, and that in receiving the stranger within our gates we should be giving hospitality to the son of an old friend.”

Nature has written a letter of credit upon some men’s faces, which is honoured almost wherever presented. Harry Warrington’s countenance was so stamped in his youth. His eyes were so bright, his cheek so red and healthy, his look so frank and open, that almost all who beheld him, nay, even those who cheated him, trusted him. Nevertheless, as we have hinted, the lad was by no means the artless stripling he seemed to be. He was knowing enough with all his blushing cheeks; perhaps more wily and wary than he grew to be in after-age. Sure, a shrewd and generous man (who has led an honest life and has no secret blushes for his conscience) grows simpler as he grows older; arrives at his sum of right by more rapid processes of calculation; learns to eliminate false arguments more readily, and hits the mark of truth with less previous trouble of aiming, and disturbance of mind. Or is it only a senile delusion, that some of our vanities are cured with our growing years, and that we become more just in our perceptions of our own and our neighbour’s shortcomings? . . . I would humbly suggest that young people, though they look prettier, have larger eyes, and not near so many wrinkles about their eyelids, are often as artful as some of their elders. What little monsters of cunning your frank schoolboys are! How they cheat mamma! how they hoodwink papa! how they humbug the housekeeper! how they cringe to the big boy for whom they fag at school! what a long lie and five years’ hypocrisy and flattery is their conduct towards Dr. Birch! And the little boys’ sisters? Are they any better, and is it only after they come out in the world that the little darlings learn a trick or two?

You may see, by the above letter of Mrs. Lambert, that she, like all good women (and, indeed, almost all bad women), was a sentimental person; and, as she looked at Harry Warrington laid in her best bed, after the Colonel had bled him and clapped in his shoulder, as holding by her husband’s hand she beheld the lad in a sweet slumber, murmuring a faint inarticulate word or two in his sleep, a faint blush quivering on his cheek, she owned he was a pretty lad indeed, and confessed with a sort of compunction that neither of her two boys — Jack who was at Oxford, and Charles who was just gone back to school after the Bartlemytide holidays — was half so handsome as the Virginian. What a good figure the boy had! and when papa bled him, his arm was as white as any lady’s!

“Yes, as you say, Jack might have been as handsome but for the small-pox: and as for Charley ——” “Always took after his papa, my dear Molly,” said the Colonel, looking at his own honest face in a little looking-glass with a cut border and a japanned frame, by which the chief guests of the worthy gentleman and lady had surveyed their patches and powder, or shaved their hospitable beards.

“Did I say so, my love?” whispered Mrs. Lambert, looking rather scared.

“No; but you thought so, Mrs. Lambert.”

“How can you tell one’s thoughts so, Martin?” asks the lady.

“Because I am a conjurer, and because you tell them yourself, my dear,” answered her husband. “Don’t be frightened: he won’t wake after that draught I gave him. Because you never see a young fellow but you are comparing him with your own. Because you never hear of one but you are thinking which of our girls he shall fall in love with and marry.”

“Don’t be foolish, sir,” says the lady, putting a hand up to the Colonel’s lips. They have softly trodden out of their guest’s bedchamber by this time, and are in the adjoining dressing-closet, a snug little wainscoted room looking over gardens, with India curtains, more Japan chests and cabinets, a treasure of china, and a most refreshing odour of fresh lavender.

“You can’t deny it, Mrs. Lambert,” the Colonel resumes; “as you were looking at the young gentleman just now, you were thinking to yourself which of my girls will he marry? Shall it be Theo, or shall it be Hester? And then you thought of Lucy who was at boarding-school.”

“There is no keeping anything from you, Martin Lambert,” sighs the wife.

“There is no keeping it out of your eyes, my dear. What is this burning desire all you women have for selling and marrying your daughters? We men don’t wish to part with ’em. I am sure, for my part, I should not like yonder young fellow half as well if I thought he intended to carry one of my darlings away with him.”

“Sure, Martin, I have been so happy myself,” says the fond wife and mother, looking at her husband with her very best eyes, “that I must wish my girls to do as I have done, and be happy, too!”

“Then you think good husbands are common, Mrs. Lambert, and that you may walk any day into the road before the house and find one shot out at the gate like a sack of coals?”

“Wasn’t it providential, sir, that this young gentleman should be thrown over his horse’s head at our very gate, and that he should turn out to be the son of my old schoolfellow and friend?” asked the wife. “There is something more than accident in such cases, depend upon that, Mr. Lambert!”

“And this was the stranger you saw in the candle three nights running, I suppose?”

“And in the fire, too, sir; twice a coal jumped out close by Theo. You may sneer, sir, but these things are not to be despised. Did I not see you distinctly coming back from Minorca, and dream of you at the very day and hour when you were wounded in Scotland?”

“How many times have you seen me wounded, when I had not a scratch, my dear? How many times have you seen me ill when I had no sort of hurt? You are always prophesying, and ’twere very hard on you if you were not sometimes right. Come! Let us leave our guest asleep comfortably, and go down and give the girls their French lesson.”

So saying, the honest gentleman put his wife’s arm under his, and they descended together the broad oak staircase of the comfortable old hall, round which hung the effigies of many foregone Lamberts, worthy magistrates, soldiers, country gentlemen, as was the Colonel whose acquaintance we have just made. The Colonel was a gentleman of pleasant, waggish humour. The French lesson which he and his daughters conned together was a scene out of Monsieur Moliere’s comedy of “Tartuffe,” and papa was pleased to be very facetious with Miss Theo, by calling her Madam, and by treating her with a great deal of mock respect and ceremony. The girls read together with their father a scene or two of his favourite author (nor were they less modest in those days, though their tongues were a little more free), and papa was particularly arch and funny as he read from Orgon’s part in that celebrated play:

Or sus, nous voila bien. J’ai, Mariane, en vous
Reconnu de tout temps un esprit assez doux,
Et de tout temps aussi vous m’avez ete chere.

Je suis fort redevable a cet amour de pere.

Fort bien. Que dites-vous de Tartuffe notre hote?

Qui? Moi?

Vous. Voyez bien comme vous repondrez.

Helas! J’en dirai, moi, tout ce que vous voudrez!

(Mademoiselle Mariane laughs and blushes in spite of herself, whilst reading this line.)

C’est parler sagement. Dites-moi donc, ma fille,
Qu’en toute sa personne un haut merite brille,
Qu’il touche votre coeur, et qu’il vous seroit doux
De le voir par men choix devenir votre epoux!”

“Have we not read the scene prettily, Elmire?” says the Colonel, laughing, and turning round to his wife.

Elmira prodigiously admired Orgon’s reading, and so did his daughters, and almost everything besides which Mr. Lambert said or did. Canst thou, O friendly reader, count upon the fidelity of an artless and tender heart or two, and reckon among the blessings which Heaven hath bestowed on thee the love of faithful women! Purify thine own heart, and try to make it worthy theirs. On thy knees, on thy knees, give thanks for the blessing awarded thee! All the prizes of life are nothing compared to that one. All the rewards of ambition, wealth, pleasure, only vanity and disappointment — grasped at greedily and fought for fiercely, and, over and over again, found worthless by the weary winners. But love seems to survive life, and to reach beyond it. I think we take it with us past the grave. Do we not still give it to those who have left us? May we not hope that they feel it for us, and that we shall leave it here in one or two fond bosoms, when we also are gone?

And whence, or how, or why, pray, this sermon? You see I know more about this Lambert family than you do to whom I am just presenting them: as how should you who never heard of them before! You may not like my friends; very few people do like strangers to whom they are presented with an outrageous flourish of praises on the part of the introducer. You say (quite naturally), What? Is this all? Are these the people he is so fond of? Why, the girl’s not a beauty — the mother is good-natured, and may have been good-looking once, but she has no trace of it now — and, as for the father, he is quite an ordinary man. Granted but don’t you acknowledge that the sight of an honest man, with an honest, loving wife by his side, and surrounded by loving and obedient children, presents something very sweet and affecting to you? If you are made acquainted with such a person, and see the eager kindness of the fond faces round about him, and that pleasant confidence and affection which beams from his own, do you mean to say you are not touched and gratified? If you happen to stay in such a man’s house, and at morning or evening see him and his children and domestics gathered together in a certain name, do you not join humbly in the petitions of those servants, and close them with a reverent Amen? That first night of his stay at Oakhurst, Harry Warrington, who had had a sleeping potion, and was awake sometimes rather feverish, thought he heard the Evening Hymn, and that his dearest brother George was singing it at home, in which delusion the patient went off again to sleep.

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