The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Plenus Opus Aleae

“Let me hear about those children, child, whom I saw running about at the house where they took you in, poor dear boy, after your dreadful fall?” says Maria, as they paced the common. “Oh, that fall, Harry! I thought I should have died when I saw it! You needn’t squeeze one’s arm so. You know you don’t care for me?”

“The people are the very best, kindest, dearest people I have ever met in the world,” cries Mr. Warrington. “Mrs. Lambert was a friend of my mother when she was in Europe for her education. Colonel Lambert is a most accomplished gentleman, and has seen service everywhere. He was in Scotland with his Royal Highness, in Flanders, at Minorca. No natural parents could be kinder than they were to me. How can I show my gratitude to them? I want to make them a present: I must make them a present,” says Harry, clapping his hand into his pocket, which was filled with the crisp spoils of Morris and March.

“We can go to the toy-shop, my dear, and buy a couple of dolls for the children,” says Lady Maria. “You would offend the parents by offering anything like payment for their kindness.”

“Dolls for Hester and Theo! Why, do you think a woman is not woman till she is forty, Maria?” (The arm under Harry’s here gave a wince perhaps — ever so slight a wince.) “I can tell you Miss Hester by no means considers herself a child, and Miss Theo is older than her sister. They know ever so many languages. They have read books — oh! piles and piles of books! They play on the harpsichord and sing together admirable; and Theo composes, and sings songs of her own.”

“Indeed! I scarcely saw them. I thought they were children. They looked quite childish. I had no idea they had all these perfections, and were such wonders of the world.”

“That’s just the way with you women! At home, if me or George praised a woman, Mrs. Esmond. and Mountain, too, would be sure to find fault with her!” cries Harry.

“I am sure I would find fault with no one who is kind to you, Mr. Warrington,” sighed Maria, “though you are not angry with me for envying them because they had to take care of you when you were wounded and ill — whilst I— I had to leave you?”

“You dear good Maria!”

“No, Harry! I am not dear and good. There, sir, you needn’t be so pressing in your attentions. Look! There is your black man walking with a score of other wretches in livery. The horrid creatures are going to fuddle at the tea-garden, and get tipsy like their masters. That dreadful Mr. Morris was perfectly tipsy when I came to you, and frightened you so.”

“I had just won great bets from both of them. What shall I buy for you, my dear cousin?” And Harry narrated the triumphs which he had just achieved. He was in high spirits: he laughed, he bragged a little. “For the honour of Virginia I was determined to show them what jumping was,” he said. “With a little practice I think I could leap two foot farther.”

Maria was pleased with the victories of her young champion. “But you must beware about play, child,” she said. “You know it hath been the ruin of our family. My brother Castlewood, Will, our poor father, our aunt, Lady Castlewood herself, they have all been victims to it: as for my Lord March, he is the most dreadful gambler and the most successful of all the nobility.”

“I don’t intend to be afraid of him, nor of his friend Mr. Jack Morris neither,” says Harry, again fingering the delightful notes. “What do you play at Aunt Bernstein’s? Cribbage, all-fours, brag, whist, commerce, piquet, quadrille? I’m ready at any of ’em. What o’clock is that striking — sure ’tis seven!”

“And you want to begin now,” said the plaintive Maria. “You don’t care about walking with your poor cousin. Not long ago you did.”

“Hey! Youth is youth, cousin!” cried Mr. Harry, tossing up his head, “and a young fellow must have his fling!” and he strutted by his partner’s side, confident, happy, and eager for pleasure. Not long ago he did like to walk with her. Only yesterday, he liked to be with Theo and Hester, and good Mrs. Lambert; but pleasure, life, gaiety, the desire to shine and to conquer, had also their temptations for the lad, who seized the cup like other lads, and did not care to calculate on the headache in store for the morning. Whilst he and his cousin were talking, the fiddles from the open orchestra on the Parade made a great tuning and squeaking, preparatory to their usual evening concert. Maria knew her aunt was awake again, and that she must go back to her slavery. Harry never asked about that slavery, though he must have known it, had he taken the trouble to think. He never pitied his cousin. He was not thinking about her at all. Yet when his mishap befell him, she had been wounded far more cruelly than he was. He had scarce ever been out of her thoughts, which of course she had had to bury under smiling hypocrisies, as is the way with her sex. I know, my dear Mrs. Grundy, you think she was an old fool? Ah! do you suppose fools’ caps do not cover grey hair, as well as jet or auburn? Bear gently with our elderly fredaines, O you Minerva of a woman! Or perhaps you are so good and wise that you don’t read novels at all. This I know, that there are late crops of wild oats, as well as early harvests of them; and (from observation of self and neighbour) I have an idea that the avena fatua grows up to the very last days of the year.

Like worldly parents anxious to get rid of a troublesome child, and go out to their evening party, Madame Bernstein and her attendants had put the sun to bed, whilst it was as yet light, and had drawn the curtains over it, and were busy about their cards and their candles, and their tea and negus, and other refreshments. One chair after another landed ladies at the Baroness’s door, more or less painted, patched, brocaded. To these came gentlemen in gala raiment. Mr. Poellnitz’s star was the largest, and his coat the most embroidered of all present. My Lord of March and Ruglen, when he made his appearance, was quite changed from the individual with whom Harry had made acquaintance at the White Horse. His tight brown scratch was exchanged for a neatly curled feather top, with a bag and grey powder, his jockey-dress and leather breeches replaced by a rich and elegant French suit. Mr. Jack Morris had just such another wig and a suit of stuff as closely as possible resembling his lordship’s. Mr. Wolfe came in attendance upon his beautiful mistress, Miss Lowther, and her aunt who loved cards, as all the world did. When my Lady Maria Esmond made her appearance, ’tis certain that her looks belied Madame Bernstein’s account of her. Her shape was very fine, and her dress showed a great deal of it. Her complexion was by nature exceeding fair, and a dark frilled ribbon, clasped by a jewel, round her neck, enhanced its. snowy whiteness. Her cheeks were not redder than those of other ladies present, and the roses were pretty openly purchased by everybody at the perfumery-shops. An artful patch or two, it was supposed, added to the lustre of her charms. Her hoop was not larger than the iron contrivances which ladies of the present day hang round their persons; and we may pronounce that the costume, if absurd in some points, was pleasing altogether. Suppose our ladies took to wearing of bangles and nose-rings? I dare say we should laugh at the ornaments, and not dislike them, and lovers would make no difficulty about lifting up the ring to be able to approach the rosy lips underneath.

As for the Baroness de Bernstein, when that lady took the pains of making a grand toilette, she appeared as an object, handsome still, and magnificent, but melancholy, and even somewhat terrifying to behold. You read the past in some old faces, while some others lapse into mere meekness and content. The fires go quite out of some eyes, as the crow’s-feet pucker round them; they flash no longer with scorn, or with anger, or love; they gaze, and no one is melted by their sapphire glances; they look, and no one is dazzled. My fair young reader, if you are not so perfect a beauty as the peerless Lindamira, Queen of the Ball; if, at the end of it, as you retire to bed, you meekly own that you have had but two or three partners, whilst Lindamira has had a crowd round her all night — console yourself with thinking that, at fifty, you will look as kind and pleasant as you appear now at eighteen. You will not have to lay down your coach-and-six of beauty and see another step into it, and walk yourself through the rest of life. You will have to forgo no long-accustomed homage; you will not witness and own the depreciation of your smiles. You will not see fashion forsake your quarter; and remain all dust, gloom, cobwebs within your once splendid saloons, and placards in your sad windows, gaunt, lonely, and to let! You may not have known any grandeur, but you won’t feel any desertion. You will not have enjoyed millions, but you will have escaped bankruptcy. “Our hostess,” said my Lord Chesterfield to his friend in a confidential whisper, of which the utterer did not in the least know the loudness, “puts me in mind of Covent Garden in my youth. Then it was the court end of the town, and inhabited by the highest fashion. Now, a nobleman’s house is a gaming-house, or you may go in with a friend and call for a bottle.”

“Hey! a bottle and a tavern are good things in their way,” says my Lord March, with a shrug of his shoulders. “I was not born before the Georges came in, though I intend to live to a hundred. I never knew the Bernstein but as an old woman; and if she ever had beauty, hang me if I know how she spent it.”

“No, hang me, how did she spend it?” laughs out Jack Morris.

“Here’s a table! Shall we sit down and have a game? — Don’t let the Frenchman come in. He won’t pay. Mr. Warrington, will you take a card?” Mr. Warrington and my Lord Chesterfield found themselves partners against Mr. Morris and the Earl of March. “You have come too late, Baron,” says the elder nobleman to the other nobleman who was advancing. “We have made our game. What, have you forgotten Mr. Warrington of Virginia — the young gentleman whom you met in London?”

“The young gentleman whom I met at Arthur’s Chocolate House had black hair, a little cocked nose, and was by no means so fortunate in his personal appearance as Mr. Warrington,” said the Baron, with much presence of mind. “Warrington, Dorrington, Harrington? We of the continent cannot retain your insular names. I certify that this gentleman is not the individual of whom I spoke at dinner.” And, glancing kindly upon him, the old beau sidled away to a farther end of the room, where Mr. Wolfe and Miss Lowther were engaged in deep conversation in the embrasure of a window. Here the Baron thought fit to engage the Lieutenant-Colonel upon the Prussian manual exercise, which had lately been introduced into King George II.‘s army — a subject with which Mr. Wolfe was thoroughly familiar, and which no doubt would have interested him at any other moment but that. Nevertheless the old gentleman uttered his criticisms and opinions, and thought he perfectly charmed the two persons to whom he communicated them.

At the commencement of the evening the Baroness received her guests personally, and as they arrived engaged them in talk and introductory courtesies. But as the rooms and tables filled, and the parties were made up, Madame de Bernstein became more and more restless, and finally retreated with three friends to her own corner, where a table specially reserved for her was occupied by her major-domo. And here the old lady sate down resolutely, never changing her place or quitting her game till cock-crow. The charge of receiving the company devolved now upon my Lady Maria, who did not care for cards, but dutifully did the honours of the house to her aunt’s guests, and often rustled by the table where her young cousin was engaged with his three friends.

“Come and cut the cards for us,” said my Lord March to her ladyship as she passed on one of her wistful visits. “Cut the cards and bring us luck, Lady Maria! We have had none to-night, and Mr. Warrington is winning everything.”

“I hope you are not playing high, Harry?” said the lady, timidly.

“Oh no, only sixpences,” cried my lord, dealing.

“Only sixpences,” echoed Mr. Morris, who was Lord March’s partner. But Mr. Morris must have been very keenly alive to the value of sixpence, if the loss of a few such coins could make his round face look so dismal. My Lord Chesterfield sate opposite Mr. Warrington, sorting his cards. No one could say, by inspecting that calm physiognomy, whether good or ill fortune was attending his lordship.

Some word, not altogether indicative of delight, slipped out of Mr. Morris’s lips, on which his partner cried out, “Hang it, Morris, play your cards, and hold your tongue!” Considering they were only playing for sixpences, his lordship, too, was strangely affected.

Maria, still fondly lingering by Harry’s chair, with her hand at the back of it, could see his cards, and that a whole covey of trumps was ranged in one corner. She had not taken away his luck. She was pleased to think she had cut that pack which had dealt him all those pretty trumps. As Lord March was dealing, he had said in a quiet voice to Mr. Warrington, “The bet as before, Mr. Warrington, or shall we double it?”

“Anything you like, my lord,” said Mr. Warrington, very quietly.

“We will say, then — shillings.”

“Yes, shillings,” says Mr. Warrington, and the game proceeded.

The end of the day’s, and some succeeding days’ sport may be gathered from the following letter, which was never delivered to the person to whom it was addressed, but found its way to America in the papers of Mr. Henry Warrington:

“TUNBRIDGE WELLS, August 10, 1756.

“DEAR GEORGE— As White’s two bottles of Burgundy and a pack of cards constitute all the joys of your life, I take for granted that you are in London at this moment, preferring smoke and faro to fresh air and fresh haystacks. This will be delivered to you by a young gentleman with whom I have lately made acquaintance, and whom you will be charmed to know. He will play with you at any game for any stake, up to any hour of the night, and drink any reasonable number of bottles during the play. Mr. Warrington is no other than the Fortunate Youth about whom so many stories have been told in the Public Advertiser and other prints. He has an estate in Virginia as big as Yorkshire, with the incumbrance of a mother, the reigning Sovereign; but, as the country is unwholesome, and fevers plentiful, let us hope that Mrs. Esmond will die soon, and leave this virtuous lad in undisturbed possession. She is aunt of that polisson of a Castlewood, who never pays his play-debts, unless he is more honourable in his dealings with you than he has been with me. Mr. W. is de bonne race. We must have him of our society, if it be only that I may win my money back from him.

“He has had the devil’s luck here, and has been winning everything, whilst his old card-playing beldam of an aunt has been losing. A few nights ago, when I first had the ill-luck to make his acquaintance, he beat me in jumping (having practised the art amongst the savages, and running away from bears in his native woods); he won bets off me and Jack Morris about my weight; and at night, when we sat down to play, at old Bernstein’s, he won from us all round. If you can settle our last Epsom account please hand over to Mr. Warrington 350 pounds, which I still owe him, after pretty well emptying my pocket-book. Chesterfield has dropped six hundred to him, too; but his lordship does not wish to have it known, having sworn to give up play and live cleanly. Jack Morris, who has not been hit as hard as either of us, and can afford it quite as well, for the fat chuff has no houses nor train to keep up, and all his misbegotten father’s money in hand, roars like a bull of Bashan about his losses. We had a second night’s play, en petit comite, and Barbeau served us a fair dinner in a private room. Mr. Warrington holds his tongue like a gentleman, and none of us have talked about our losses; but the whole place does, for us. Yesterday the Cattarina looked as sulky as thunder, because I would not give her a diamond necklace, and says I refuse her because I have lost five thousand to the Virginian. My old Duchess of Q. has the very same story, besides knowing to a fraction what Chesterfield and Jack have lost.

“Warrington treated the company to breakfast and music at the rooms; and you should have seen how the women tore him to pieces. That fiend of a Cattarina ogled him out of my vis-a-vis, and under my very nose, yesterday, as we were driving to Penshurst, and I have no doubt has sent him a billet-doux ere this. He shot Jack Morris all to pieces at a mark: we shall try him with partridges when the season comes.

“He is a fortunate fellow, certainly. He has youth (which is not deboshed by evil courses in Virginia, as ours is in England); he has good health, good looks, and good luck.

“In a word, Mr. Warrington has won our money in a very gentlemanlike manner; and, as I like him, and wish to win some of it back again, I put him under your worship’s saintly guardianship. Adieu! I am going to the North, and shall be back for Doncaster. — Yours ever, dear George,

M. et R.”

“To George Augustus Selwyn, Esq., at White’s Chocolate House, St. James’s Street.”

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