The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In Hospital

Sinking into a sweet slumber, and lulled by those harmonious sounds, our young patient passed a night of pleasant unconsciousness, and awoke in the morning to find a summer sun streaming in at the window, and his kind host and hostess smiling at his bed-curtains. He was ravenously hungry, and his doctor permitted him straightway to partake of a mess of chicken, which the doctor’s wife told him had been prepared by the hands of one of her daughters.

One of her daughters? A faint image of a young person — of two young persons — with red cheeks and black waving locks, smiling round his couch, and suddenly departing thence, soon after he had come to himself, arose in the young man’s mind. Then, then, there returned the remembrance of a female — lovely, it is true, but more elderly — certainly considerably older — and with f ——. Oh, horror and remorse! He writhed with anguish, as a certain recollection crossed him. An immense gulf of time gaped between him and the past. How long was it since he had heard that those pearls were artificial — that those golden locks were only pinchbeck? A long, long time ago, when he was a boy, an innocent boy. Now he was a man — quite an old man. He had been bled copiously; he had a little fever; he had had nothing to eat for very many hours; he had a sleeping-draught, and a long, deep slumber after.

“What is it, my dear child?” cries kind Mrs. Lambert, as he started.

“Nothing, madam; a twinge in my shoulder,” said the lad. “I speak to my host and hostess? Sure you have been very kind to me.”

“We are old friends, Mr. Warrington. My husband, Colonel Lambert, knew your father, and I and your mamma were schoolgirls together at Kensington. You were no stranger to us when your aunt and cousin told us who you were.”

“Are they here?” asked Harry, looking a little blank.

“They must have lain at Tunbridge Wells last night. They sent a horseman from Reigate yesterday for news of you.”

“Ah! I remember,” says Harry, looking at his bandaged arm.

“I have made a good cure of you, Mr. Warrington. And now Mrs. Lambert and the cook must take charge of you.”

“Nay; Theo prepared the chicken and rice, Mr. Lambert,” said the lady. “Will Mr. Warrington get up after he has had his breakfast? We will send your valet to you.”

“If howling proves fidelity, your man must be a most fond, attached creature,” says Mr. Lambert.

“He let your baggage travel off after all in your aunt’s carriage,” said Mrs. Lambert. “You must wear my husband’s linen, which, I dare say, is not so fine as yours.”

“Pish, my dear! my shirts are good shirts enough for any Christian,” cries the Colonel.

“They are Theo’s and Hester’s work,” says mamma. At which her husband arches his eyebrows and looks at her. “And Theo hath ripped and sewed your sleeve to make it quite comfortable for your shoulder,” the lady added.

“What beautiful roses!” cries Harry, looking at a fine China vase full of them that stood on the toilet-table, under the japan-framed glass.

“My daughter Theo cut them this morning. Well, Mr. Lambert? She did cut them!”

I suppose the Colonel was thinking that his wife introduced Theo too much into the conversation, and trod on Mrs. Lambert’s slipper, or pulled her robe, or otherwise nudged her into a sense of propriety.

“And I fancied I heard some one singing the Evening Hymn very sweetly last night — or was it only a dream?” asked the young patient.

“Theo again, Mr. Warrington!” said the Colonel, laughing. “My servants said your negro man began to sing it in the kitchen as if he was a church organ.”

“Our people sing it at home, sir. My grandpapa used to love it very much. His wife’s father was a great friend of good Bishop Ken, who wrote it; and — and my dear brother used to love it too;” said the boy, his voice dropping.

It was then, I suppose, that Mrs. Lambert felt inclined to give the boy a kiss. His little accident, illness and recovery, the kindness of the people round about him, had softened Harry Warrington’s heart, and opened it to better influences than those which had been brought to bear on it for some six weeks past. He was breathing a purer air than that tainted atmosphere of selfishness, and worldliness, and corruption, into which he had been plunged since his arrival in England. Sometimes the young man’s fate, or choice, or weakness, leads him into the fellowship of the giddy and vain; happy he, whose lot makes him acquainted with the wiser company, whose lamps are trimmed, and whose pure hearts keep modest watch.

The pleased matron left her young patient devouring Miss Theo’s mess of rice and chicken, and the Colonel seated by the lad’s bedside. Gratitude to his hospitable entertainers, and contentment after a comfortable meal, caused in Mr. Warrington a very pleasant condition of mind and body. He was ready to talk now more freely than usually was his custom; for, unless excited by a strong interest or emotion, the young man was commonly taciturn and cautious in his converse with his fellows, and was by no means of an imaginative turn. Of books our youth had been but a very remiss student, nor were his remarks on such simple works as he had read, very profound or valuable; but regarding dogs, horses, and the ordinary business of life, he was a far better critic; and, with any person interested in such subjects, conversed on them freely enough.

Harry’s host, who had considerable shrewdness, and experience of books, and cattle, and men, was pretty soon able to take the measure of his young guest in the talk which they now had together. It was now, for the first time, the Virginian learned that Mrs. Lambert had been an early friend of his mother’s, and that the Colonel’s own father had served with Harry’s grandfather, Colonel Esmond, in the famous wars of Queen Anne. He found himself in a friend’s country. He was soon at ease with his honest host, whose manners were quite simple and cordial, and who looked and seemed perfectly a gentleman, though he wore a plain fustian coat, and a waistcoat without a particle of lace.

“My boys are both away,” said Harry’s host, “or they would have shown you the country when you got up, Mr. Warrington. Now you can only have the company of my wife and her daughters. Mrs. Lambert hath told you already about one of them, Theo, our eldest, who made your broth, who cut your roses, and who mended your coat. She is not such a wonder as her mother imagines her to be: but little Theo is a smart little housekeeper, and a very good and cheerful lass, though her father says it.”

“It is very kind of Miss Lambert to take so much care for me,” says the young patient.

“She is no kinder to you than to any other mortal, and doth but her duty.” Here the Colonel smiled. “I laugh at their mother for praising our children,” he said, “and I think I am as foolish about them myself. The truth is, God hath given us very good and dutiful children, and I see no reason why I should disguise my thankfulness for such a blessing. You have never a sister, I think?”

“No, sir, I am alone now,” Mr. Warrington said.

“Ay, truly, I ask your pardon for my thoughtlessness. Your man hath told our people what befell last year. I served with Braddock in Scotland; and hope he mended before he died. A wild fellow, sir, but there was a fund of truth about the man, and no little kindness under his rough swaggering manner. Your black fellow talks very freely about his master and his affairs. I suppose you permit him these freedoms as he rescued you ——”

“Rescued me?” cries Mr. Warrington.

“From ever so many Indians on that very expedition. My Molly and I did not know we were going to entertain so prodigiously wealthy a gentleman. He saith that half Virginia belongs to you; but if the whole of North America were yours, we could but give you our best.”

“Those negro boys, sir, lie like the father of all lies. They think it is for our honour to represent us as ten times as rich as we are. My mother has what would be a vast estate in England, and is a very good one at home. We are as well off as most of our neighbours, sir, but no better; and all our splendour is in Mr. Gumbo’s foolish imagination. He never rescued me from an Indian in his life, and would run away at the sight of one, as my poor brother’s boy did on that fatal day when he fell.”

“The bravest man will do so at unlucky times,” said the Colonel. “I myself saw the best troops in the world run at Preston, before a ragged mob of Highland savages.”

“That was because the Highlanders fought for a good cause, sir.”

“Do you think,” asks Harry’s host, “that the French Indians had the good cause in the fight of last year?”

“The scoundrels! I would have the scalp of every murderous redskin among ’em!” cried Harry, clenching his fist. “They were robbing and invading the British territories, too. But the Highlanders were fighting for their king.”

“We, on our side, were fighting for our king; and we ended by winning the battle,” said the Colonel, laughing.

“Ah!” cried Harry; “if his Royal Highness the Prince had not turned back at Derby, your king and mine, now, would be his Majesty King James the Third!”

“Who made such a Tory of you, Mr. Warrington?” asked Lambert.

“Nay, sir, the Esmonds were always loyal!” answered the youth. “Had we lived at home, and twenty years sooner, brother and I often and often agreed that our heads would have been in danger. We certainly would have staked them for the king’s cause.”

“Yours is better on your shoulders than on a pole at Temple Bar. I have seen them there, and they don’t look very pleasant, Mr. Warrington.”

“I shall take off my hat, and salute them, whenever I pass the gate,” cried the young man, “if the king and the whole court are standing by!”

“I doubt whether your relative, my Lord Castlewood, is as staunch a supporter of the king over the water,” said Colonel Lambert, smiling: “or your aunt, the Baroness of Bernstein, who left you in our charge. Whatever her old partialities may have been, she has repented of them; she has rallied to our side, landed her nephews in the Household, and looks to find a suitable match for her nieces. If you have Tory opinions, Mr. Warrington, take an old soldier’s advice, and keep them to yourself.”

“Why, sir, I do not think that you will betray me!” said the boy.

“Not I, but others might. You did not talk in this way at Castlewood? I mean the old Castlewood which you have just come from.”

“I might be safe amongst my own kinsmen, surely, sir!” cried Harry.

“Doubtless. I would not say no. But a man’s own kinsmen can play him slippery tricks at times, and he finds himself none the better for trusting them. I mean no offence to you or any of your family; but lacqueys have ears as well as their masters, and they carry about all sorts of stories. For instance, your black fellow is ready to tell all he knows about you, and a great deal more besides, as it would appear.”

“Hath he told about the broken-kneed horse?” cried out Harry, turning very red.

“To say truth, my groom seemed to know something of the story, and said it was a shame a gentleman should sell another such a brute; let alone a cousin. I am not here to play the Mentor to you, or to carry about servants’ tittle-tattle. When you have seen more of your cousins, you will form your own opinion of them; meanwhile, take an old soldier’s advice, I say again, and be cautious with whom you deal, and what you say.”

Very soon after this little colloquy, Mr. Lambert’s guest rose, with the assistance of Gumbo, his valet, to whom he, for the hundredth time at least, promised a sound caning if ever he should hear that Gumbo had ventured to talk about his affairs again in the servants’-hall — which prohibition Gumbo solemnly vowed and declared he would for ever obey; but I dare say he was chattering the whole of the Castlewood secrets to his new friends of Colonel Lambert’s kitchen; for Harry’s hostess certainly heard a number of stories concerning him which she could not prevent her housekeeper from telling; though of course I would not accuse that worthy lady, or any of her sex or ours, of undue curiosity regarding their neighbours’ affairs. But how can you prevent servants talking, or listening when the faithful attached creatures talk to you?

Mr. Lambert’s house stood on the outskirts of the little town of Oakhurst, which, if he but travels in the right direction, the patient reader will find on the road between Farnham and Reigate — and Madame Bernstein’s servants naturally pulled at the first bell at hand, when the young Virginian met with his mishap. A few hundred yards farther, was the long street of the little old town, where hospitality might have been found under the great swinging ensigns of a couple of tuns, and medical relief was to be had, as a blazing gilt pestle and mortar indicated. But what surgeon could have ministered more cleverly to a patient than Harry’s host, who tended him without a fee, or what Boniface could make him more comfortably welcome?

Two tall gates, each surmounted by a couple of heraldic monsters, led from the highroad up to a neat, broad stone terrace, whereon stood Oakhurst House; a square brick building, with windows faced with stone, and many high chimneys, and a tall roof surmounted by a fair balustrade. Behind the house stretched a large garden, where there was plenty of room for cabbages as well as roses to grow; and before the mansion, separated from it by the highroad, was a field of many acres, where the Colonel’s cows and horses were at grass. Over the centre window was a carved shield supported by the same monsters who pranced or ramped upon the entrance-gates; and a coronet over the shield. The fact is, that the house had been originally the jointure-house of Oakhurst Castle, which stood hard by — its chimneys and turrets appearing over the surrounding woods, now bronzed with the darkest foliage of summer. Mr. Lambert’s was the greatest house in Oakhurst town; but the Castle was of more importance than all the town put together. The Castle and the jointure-house had been friends of many years’ date. Their fathers had fought side by side in Queen Anne’s wars. There were two small pieces of ordnance on the terrace of the jointure-house, and six before the Castle, which had been taken out of the same privateer, which Mr. Lambert and his kinsman and commander, Lord Wrotham, had brought into Harwich in one of their voyages home from Flanders with despatches from the great Duke.

His toilet completed with Mr. Gumbo’s aid, his fair hair neatly dressed by that artist, and his open ribboned sleeve and wounded shoulder supported by a handkerchief which hung from his neck, Harry Warrington made his way out of the sick-chamber, preceded by his kind host, who led him first down a broad oak stair, round which hung many pikes and muskets of ancient shape, and so into a square marble-paved room, from which the living-rooms of the house branched off. There were more arms in this hall-pikes and halberts of ancient date, pistols and jack-boots of more than a century old, that had done service in Cromwell’s wars, a tattered French guidon which had been borne by a French gendarme at Malplaquet, and a pair of cumbrous Highland broadswords, which, having been carried as far as Derby, had been flung away on the fatal field of Culloden. Here were breastplates and black morions of Oliver’s troopers, and portraits of stern warriors in buff jerkins and plain bands and short hair. “They fought against your grandfathers and King Charles, Mr. Warrington,” said Harry’s host. “I don’t hide that. They rode to join the Prince of Orange at Exeter. We were Whigs, young gentleman, and something more. John Lambert, the Major-General, was a kinsman of our house, and we were all more or less partial to short hair and long sermons. You do not seem to like either?” Indeed, Harry’s face manifested signs of anything but pleasure whilst he examined the portraits of the Parliamentary heroes. “Be not alarmed, we are very good Churchmen now. My eldest son will be in orders ere long. He is now travelling as governor to my Lord Wrotham’s son in Italy, and as for our women, they are all for the Church, and carry me with ’em. Every woman is a Tory at heart. Mr. Pope says a rake, but I think t’other is the more charitable word. Come, let us go see them,” and, flinging open the dark oak door, Colonel Lambert led his young guest into the parlour where the ladies were assembled.

“Here is Miss Hester,” said the Colonel, “and this is Miss Theo, the soup-maker, the tailoress, the harpsichord-player, and the songstress, who set you to sleep last night. Make a curtsey to the gentleman, young ladies! Oh, I forgot, and Theo is the mistress of the roses which you admired a short while since in your bedroom. I think she has kept some of them in her cheeks.”

In fact, Miss Theo was making a profound curtsey and blushing most modestly as her papa spoke. I am not going to describe her person — though we shall see a great deal of her in the course of this history. She was not a particular beauty. Harry Warrington was not over head and ears in love with her at an instant’s warning, and faithless to — to that other individual with whom, as we have seen, the youth had lately been smitten. Miss Theo had kind eyes and a sweet voice; a ruddy freckled cheek and a round white neck, on which, out of a little cap such as misses wore in those times, fell rich curling clusters of dark brown hair. She was not a delicate or sentimental-looking person. Her arms, which were worn bare from the elbow like other ladies’ arms in those days, were very jolly and red. Her feet were not so miraculously small but that you could see them without a telescope. There was nothing waspish about her waist. This young person was sixteen years of age, and looked older. I don’t know what call she had to blush so when she made her curtsey to the stranger. It was such a deep ceremonial curtsey as you never see at present. She and her sister both made these “cheeses” in compliment to the new comer, and with much stately agility.

As Miss Theo rose up out of this salute, her papa tapped her under the chin (which was of the double sort of chins), and laughingly hummed out the line which he had read the day. “Eh bien! que dites-vous, ma fille, de notre hote?”

“Nonsense, Mr. Lambert!” cries mamma.

“Nonsense is sometimes the best kind of sense in the world,” said Colonel Lambert. His guest looked puzzled.

“Are you fond of nonsense?” the Colonel continued to Harry, seeing by the boy’s face that the latter had no great love or comprehension of his favourite humour. “We consume a vast deal of it in this house. Rabelais is my favourite reading. My wife is all for Mr. Fielding and Theophrastus. I think Theo prefers Tom Brown, and Mrs. Hetty here loves Dean Swift.”

“Our papa is talking what he loves,” says Miss Hetty.

“And what is that, miss?” asks the father of his second daughter.

“Sure, sir, you said yourself it was nonsense,” answers the young lady, with a saucy toss of her head.

“Which of them do you like best, Mr. Warrington?” asked the honest Colonel.

“Which of whom, sir?”

“The Curate of Meudon, or the Dean of St. Patrick’s, or honest Tom, or Mr. Fielding?”

“And what were they, sir?”

“They! Why, they wrote books.”

“Indeed, sir. I never heard of either one of ’em,” said Harry, hanging down his head. “I fear my book-learning was neglected at home, sir. My brother had read every book that ever was wrote, I think. He could have talked to you about ’em for hours together.”

With this little speech Mrs. Lambert’s eyes turned to her daughter, and Miss Theo cast hers down and blushed.

“Never mind, honesty is better than books any day, Mr. Warrington!” cried the jolly Colonel. “You may go through the world very honourably without reading any of the books I have been talking of, and some of them might give you more pleasure than profit.”

“I know more about horses and dogs than Greek and Latin, sir. We most of us do in Virginia,” said Mr. Warrington.

“You are like the Persians; you can ride and speak the truth.”

“Are the Prussians very good on horseback, sir? I hope I shall see their king and a campaign or two, either with ’em or against ’em,” remarked Colonel Lambert’s guest. Why did Miss Theo look at her mother, and why did that good woman’s face assume a sad expression?

Why? Because young lasses are bred in humdrum country towns, do you suppose they never indulge in romances? Because they are modest and have never quitted mother’s apron, do you suppose they have no thoughts of their own? What happens in spite of all those precautions which the King and Queen take for their darling princess, those dragons, and that impenetrable forest, and that castle of steel? The fairy prince penetrates the impenetrable forest, finds the weak point in the dragon’s scale armour, and gets the better of all the ogres who guard the castle of steel. Away goes the princess to him. She knew him at once. Her bandboxes and portmanteaux are filled with her best clothes and all her jewels. She has been ready ever so long.

That is in fairy tales, you understand — where the blessed hour and youth always arrive, the ivory horn is blown at the castle gate; and far off in her beauteous bower the princess hears it, and starts up, and knows that there is the right champion. He is always ready. Look! how the giants’ heads tumble off as, falchion in hand, he gallops over the bridge on his white charger! How should that virgin, locked up in that inaccessible fortress, where she has never seen any man that was not eighty, or humpbacked, or her father, know that there were such beings in the world as young men? I suppose there’s an instinct. I suppose there’s a season. I never spoke for my part to a fairy princess, or heard as much from any unenchanted or enchanting maiden. Ne’er a one of them has ever whispered her pretty little secrets to me, or perhaps confessed them to herself, her mamma, or her nearest and dearest confidante. But they will fall in love. Their little hearts are constantly throbbing at the window of expectancy on the lookout for the champion. They are always hearing his horn. They are for ever on the tower looking out for the hero. Sister Ann, Sister Ann, do you see him? Surely ’tis a knight with curling mustachios, a flashing scimitar, and a suit of silver armour. Oh no! it is only a costermonger with his donkey and a pannier of cabbage! Sister Ann, Sister Ann, what is that cloud of dust? Oh, it is only a farmer’s man driving a flock of pigs from market. Sister Ann, Sister Ann, who is that splendid warrior advancing in scarlet and gold? He nears the castle, he clears the drawbridge, he lifts the ponderous hammer at the gate. Ah me, he knocks twice! ’Tis only the postman with a double letter from Northamptonshire! So it is we make false starts in life. I don’t believe there is any such thing known as first love — not within man’s or woman’s memory. No male or female remembers his or her first inclination any more than his or her own christening. What? You fancy that your sweet mistress, your spotless spinster, your blank maiden just out of the schoolroom, never cared for any but you? And she tells you so? Oh, you idiot! When she was four years old she had a tender feeling towards the Buttons who brought the coals up to the nursery, or the little sweep at the crossing, or the music-master, or never mind whom. She had a secret longing towards her brother’s schoolfellow, or the third charity boy at church, and if occasion had served, the comedy enacted with you had been performed along with another. I do not mean to say that she confessed this amatory sentiment, but that she had it. Lay down this page, and think how many and many and many a time you were in love before you selected the present Mrs. Jones as the partner of your name and affections!

So, from the way in which Theo held her head down, and exchanged looks with her mother, when poor unconscious Harry called the Persians the Prussians, and talked of serving a campaign with them, I make no doubt she was feeling ashamed, and thinking within herself, “Is this the hero with whom my mamma and I have been in love for these twenty-four hours, and whom we have endowed with every perfection? How beautiful, pale, and graceful he looked yesterday as he lay on the ground! How his curls fell over his face! How sad it was to see his poor white arm, and the blood trickling from it when papa bled him! And now he is well and amongst us, he is handsome certainly, but oh, is it possible he is — he is stupid?” When she lighted the lamp and looked at him, did Psyche find Cupid out; and is that the meaning of the old allegory? The wings of love drop off at this discovery. The fancy can no more soar and disport in skyey regions, the beloved object ceases at once to be celestial, and remains plodding on earth, entirely unromantic and substantial.

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