The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


The Way of the World

Our young Virginian found himself, after two or three days at Tunbridge Wells, by far the most important personage in that merry little watering-place. No nobleman in the place inspired so much curiosity. My Lord Bishop of Salisbury himself was scarce treated with more respect. People turned round to look after Harry as he passed, and country-folks stared at him as they came into market. At the rooms, matrons encouraged him to come round to them, and found means to leave him alone with their daughters, most of whom smiled upon him. Everybody knew, to an acre and a shilling, the extent of his Virginian property, and the amount of his income. At every tea-table in the Wells, his winnings at play were told and calculated. Wonderful is the knowledge which our neighbours have of our affairs! So great was the interest and curiosity which Harry inspired, that people even smiled upon his servant, and took Gumbo aside and treated him with ale and cold meat, in order to get news of the young Virginian. Mr. Gumbo fattened under the diet, became a leading member of the Society of Valets in the place, and lied more enormously than ever. No party was complete unless Mr. Warrington attended it. The lad was not a little amused and astonished by this prosperity, and bore his new honours pretty well. He had been bred at home to think too well of himself, and his present good fortune no doubt tended to confirm his self-satisfaction. But he was not too much elated. He did not brag about his victories or give himself any particular airs. In engaging in play with the gentlemen who challenged him, he had acted up to his queer code of honour. He felt as if he was bound to meet them when they summoned him, and that if they invited him to a horse-race, or a drinking-bout, or a match at cards, for the sake of Old Virginia he must not draw back. Mr. Harry found his new acquaintances ready to try him at all these sports and contests. He had a strong head, a skilful hand, a firm seat, an unflinching nerve. The representative of Old Virginia came off very well in his friendly rivalry with the mother-country.

Madame de Bernstein, who got her fill of cards every night, and, no doubt, repaired the ill-fortune of which we heard in the last chapter, was delighted with her nephew’s victories and reputation. He had shot with Jack Morris and beat him; he had ridden a match with Mr. Scamper and won it. He played tennis with Captain Batts, and, though the boy had never tried the game before, in a few days he held his own uncommonly well. He had engaged in play with those celebrated gamesters, my Lords of Chesterfield and March; and they both bore testimony to his coolness, gallantry, and good breeding. At his books Harry was not brilliant certainly; but he could write as well as a great number of men of fashion; and the naivete of his ignorance amused the old lady. She had read books in her time, and could talk very well about them with bookish people: she had a relish for humour and delighted in Moliere and Mr. Fielding, but she loved the world far better than the library, and was never so interested in any novel but that she would leave it for a game of cards. She superintended with fond pleasure the improvements of Harry’s toilette: rummaged out fine laces for his ruffles and shirt, and found a pretty diamond-brooch for his frill. He attained the post of prime favourite of all her nephews and kinsfolk. I fear Lady Maria was only too well pleased at the lad’s successes, and did not grudge him his superiority over her brothers; but those gentlemen must have quaked with fear and envy when they heard of Mr. Warrington’s prodigious successes, and the advance which he had made in their wealthy aunt’s favour.

After a fortnight of Tunbridge, Mr. Harry had become quite a personage. He knew all the good company in the place. Was it his fault if he became acquainted with the bad likewise? Was he very wrong in taking the world as he found it, and drinking from that sweet sparkling pleasure-cup, which was filled for him to the brim? The old aunt enjoyed his triumphs, and for her part only bade him pursue his enjoyments. She was not a rigorous old moralist, nor, perhaps, a very wholesome preceptress for youth. If the Cattarina wrote him billets-doux, I fear Aunt Bernstein would have bade him accept the invitations: but the lad had brought with him from his colonial home a stock of modesty which he still wore along with the honest homespun linen. Libertinism was rare in those thinly-peopled regions from which he came. The vices of great cities were scarce known or practised in the rough towns of the American continent. Harry Warrington blushed like a girl at the daring talk of his new European associates: even Aunt Bernstein’s conversation and jokes astounded the young Virginian, so that the worldly old woman would call him Joseph, or simpleton.

But, however innocent he was, the world gave him credit for being as bad as other folks. How was he to know that he was not to associate with that saucy Cattarina? He had seen my Lord March driving her about in his lordship’s phaeton. Harry thought there was no harm in giving her his arm, and parading openly with her in the public walks. She took a fancy to a trinket at the toy-shop; and, as his pockets were full of money, he was delighted to make her a present of the locket, which she coveted. The next day it was a piece of lace: again Harry gratified her. The next day it was something else: there was no end to Madame Cattarina’s fancies: but here the young gentleman stopped, turning off her request with a joke and a laugh. He was shrewd enough, and not reckless or prodigal, though generous. He had no idea of purchasing diamond drops for the petulant little lady’s pretty ears.

But who was to give him credit for his Modesty? Old Bernstein insisted upon believing that her nephew was playing Don Juan’s part, and supplanting my Lord March. She insisted the more when poor Maria was by; loving to stab the tender heart of that spinster, and enjoying her niece’s piteous silence and discomfiture.

“Why, my dear,” says the Baroness, “boys will be boys, and I don’t want Harry to be the first milksop in his family!” The bread which Maria ate at her aunt’s expense choked her sometimes. O me, how hard and indigestible some women know how to make it!

Mr. Wolfe was for ever coming over from Westerham to pay court to the lady of his love; and, knowing that the Colonel was entirely engaged in that pursuit, Mr. Warrington scarcely expected to see much of him, however much he liked that officer’s conversation and society. It was different from the talk of the ribald people round about Harry. Mr. Wolfe never spoke of cards, or horses’ pedigrees; or bragged of his performances in the hunting-field; or boasted of the favours of women; or retailed any of the innumerable scandals of the time. It was not a good time. That old world was more dissolute than ours. There was an old king with mistresses openly in his train, to whom the great folks of the land did honour. There was a nobility, many of whom were mad and reckless in the pursuit of pleasure; there was a looseness of words and acts which we must note, as faithful historians, without going into particulars, and needlessly shocking honest readers. Our young gentleman had lighted upon some of the wildest of these wild people, and had found an old relative who lived in the very midst of the rout.

Harry then did not remark how Colonel Wolfe avoided him, or when they casually met, at first, notice the Colonel’s cold and altered demeanour. He did not know the stories that were told of him. Who does know the stories that are told of him? Who makes them? Who are the fathers of those wondrous lies? Poor Harry did not know the reputation he was getting; and that, whilst he was riding his horse and playing his game and taking his frolic, he was passing amongst many respectable persons for being the most abandoned and profligate and godless of young men.

Alas, and alas! to think that the lad whom we liked so, and who was so gentle and quiet when with us, so simple and so easily pleased, should be a hardened profligate, a spendthrift, a confirmed gamester, a frequenter of abandoned women! These stories came to honest Colonel Lambert at Oakhurst: first one bad story, then another, then crowds of them, till the good man’s kind heart was quite filled with grief and care, so that his family saw that something annoyed him. At first he would not speak on the matter at all, and put aside the wife’s fond queries. Mrs. Lambert thought a great misfortune had happened; that her husband had been ruined; that he had been ordered on a dangerous service; that one of the boys was ill, disgraced, dead; who can resist an anxious woman, or escape the cross-examination of the conjugal pillow? Lambert was obliged to tell a part of what he knew about Harry Warrington. The wife was as much grieved and amazed as her husband had been. From papa’s and mamma’s bedroom the grief, after being stifled for a while under the bed-pillows there, came downstairs. Theo and Hester took the complaint after their parents, and had it very bad. O kind, little, wounded hearts! At first Hester turned red, flew into a great passion, clenched her little fists, and vowed she would not believe a word of the wicked stories; but she ended by believing them. Scandal almost always does master people; especially good and innocent people. Oh, the serpent they had nursed by their fire! Oh, the wretched, wretched boy! To think of his walking about with that horrible painted Frenchwoman, and giving her diamond necklaces, and parading his shame before all the society at the Wells! The three ladies having cried over the story, and the father being deeply moved by it, took the parson into their confidence. In vain he preached at church next Sunday his favourite sermon about scandal, and inveighed against our propensity to think evil. We repent we promise to do so no more; but when the next bad story comes about our neighbour we believe it. So did those kind, wretched Oakhurst folks believe what they heard about poor Harry Warrington.

Harry Warrington meanwhile was a great deal too well pleased with himself to know how ill his friends were thinking of him, and was pursuing a very idle and pleasant, if unprofitable, life, without having the least notion of the hubbub he was creating, and the dreadful repute in which he was held by many good men. Coming out from a match at tennis with Mr. Batts, and pleased with his play and all the world, Harry overtook Colonel Wolfe, who had been on one of his visits to the lady of his heart. Harry held out his hand, which the Colonel took, but the latter’s salutation was so cold, that the young man could not help remarking it, and especially noting how Mr. Wolfe, in return for a fine bow from Mr. Batts’s hat, scarcely touched his own with his forefinger. The tennis Captain walked away looking somewhat disconcerted, Harry remaining behind to talk with his friend of Westerham. Mr. Wolfe walked by him for a while, very erect, silent, and cold.

“I have not seen you these many days,” says Harry.

“You have had other companions,” remarks Mr. Wolfe, curtly.

“But I had rather be with you than any of them,” cries the young man.

“Indeed I might be better company for you than some of them,” says the other.

“Is it Captain Batts you mean?” asked Harry.

“He is no favourite of mine, I own; he bore a rascally reputation when he was in the army, and I doubt has not mended it since he was turned out. You certainly might find a better friend than Captain Batts. Pardon the freedom which I take in saying so,” says Mr. Wolfe, grimly.

“Friend! he is no friend: he only teaches me to play tennis: he is hand-inglove with my lord, and all the people of fashion here who play.”

“I am not a man of fashion,” says Mr. Wolfe.

“My dear Colonel, what is the matter? Have I angered you in any way? You speak almost as if I had, and I am not conscious of having done anything to forfeit your regard,” said Mr. Warrington.

“I will be free with you, Mr. Warrington,” said the Colonel, gravely, “and tell you with frankness that I don’t like some of your friends!”

“Why, sure, they are men of the first rank and fashion in England,” cries Harry, not choosing to be offended with his companion’s bluntness.

“Exactly, they are men of too high rank and too great fashion for a hard-working poor soldier like me; and if you continue to live with such, believe me, you will find numbers of us humdrum people can’t afford to keep such company. I am here, Mr. Warrington, paying my addresses to an honourable lady. I met you yesterday openly walking with a French ballet-dancer, and you took off your hat. I must frankly tell you, that I had rather you would not take off your hat when you go out in such company.”

“Sir,” said Mr. Warrington, growing very red, “do you mean that I am to forgo the honour of Colonel Wolfe’s acquaintance altogether?”

“I certainly shall request you to do so when you are in company with that person,” said Colonel Wolfe, angrily; but he used a word not to be written at present, though Shakespeare puts it in the mouth of Othello.

“Great heavens! what a shame it is to speak so of any woman!” cries Mr. Warrington. “How dare any man say that that poor creature is not honest?”

“You ought to know best, sir,” says the other, looking at Harry with some surprise, “or the world belies you very much.”

“What ought I to know best? I see a poor little French dancer who is come hither with her mother, and is ordered by the doctors to drink the waters. I know that a person of my rank in life does not ordinarily keep company with people of hers; but really, Colonel Wolfe, are you so squeamish? Have I not heard you say that you did not value birth, and that all honest people ought to be equal? Why should I not give this little unprotected woman my arm? there are scarce half a dozen people here who can speak a word of her language. I can talk a little French, and she is welcome to it; and if Colonel Wolfe does not choose to touch his hat to me, when I am walking with her, by George he may leave it alone,” cried Harry, flushing up.

“You don’t mean to say,” says Mr. Wolfe, eyeing him, “that you don’t know the woman’s character?”

“Of course, sir, she is a dancer, and, I suppose, no better or worse than her neighbours. But I mean to say that, had she been a duchess, or your grandmother, I couldn’t have respected her more.”

“You don’t mean to say that you did not win her at dice, from Lord March?”

“At what?”

“At dice, from Lord March. Everybody knows the story. Not a person at the Wells is ignorant of it. I heard it but now, in the company of that good old Mr. Richardson, and the ladies were saying that you would be a character for a colonial Lovelace.”

“What on earth else have they said about me?” asked Harry Warrington; and such stories as he knew the Colonel told. The most alarming accounts of his own wickedness and profligacy were laid before him. He was a corrupter of virtue, an habitual drunkard and gamester, a notorious blasphemer and freethinker, a fitting companion for my Lord March, finally, and the company into whose society he had fallen. “I tell you these things,” said Mr. Wolfe, “because it is fair that you should know what is said of you, and because I do heartily believe, from your manner of meeting the last charge brought against you, that you are innocent of most of the other counts. I feel, Mr. Warrington, that I, for one, have been doing you a wrong; and sincerely ask you to pardon me.”

Of course, Harry was eager to accept his friend’s apology, and they shook hands with sincere cordiality this time. In respect of most of the charges brought against him, Harry rebutted them easily enough: as for the play, he owned to it. He thought that a gentleman should not refuse a fair challenge from other gentlemen, if his means allowed him: and he never would play beyond his means. After winning considerably at first, he could afford to play large stakes, for he was playing with other people’s money. Play, he thought, was fair — it certainly was pleasant. Why, did not all England, except the Methodists, play? Had he not seen the best company at the Wells over the cards — his aunt amongst them?

Mr. Wolfe made no immediate comment upon Harry’s opinion as to the persons who formed the best company at the Wells, but he frankly talked with the young man, whose own frankness had won him, and warned him that the life he was leading might be the pleasantest, but surely was not the most profitable of lives. “It can’t be, sir,” said the Colonel, “that a man is to pass his days at horse-racing and tennis, and his nights carousing or at cards. Sure, every man was made to do some work: and a gentleman, if he has none, must make some. Do you know the laws of your country, Mr. Warrington? Being a great proprietor, you will doubtless one day be a magistrate at home. Have you travelled over the country, and made yourself acquainted with its trades and manufactures? These are fit things for a gentleman to study, and may occupy him as well as a cock-fight or a cricket-match. Do you know anything of our profession? That, at least, you will allow, is a noble one; and, believe me, there is plenty in it to learn, and suited, I should think, to you. I speak of it rather than of books and the learned professions, because, as far as I can judge, your genius does not lie that way. But honour is the aim of life,” cried Mr. Wolfe, “and every man can serve his country one way or the other. Be sure, sir, that idle bread is the most dangerous of all that is eaten; that cards and pleasure may be taken by way of pastime after work, but not instead of work, and all day. And do you know, Mr. Warrington, instead of being the Fortunate Youth, as all the world calls you, I think you are rather Warrington the Unlucky, for you are followed by daily idleness, daily flattery, daily temptation, and the Lord, I say, send you a good, deliverance out of your good fortune.”

But Harry did not like to tell his aunt that afternoon why it was he looked so grave. He thought he would not drink, but there were some jolly fellows at the ordinary who passed the bottle round; and he meant not to play in the evening, but a fourth was wanted at his aunt’s table, and how could he resist? He was the old lady’s partner several times during the night, and he had Somebody’s own luck to be sure; and once more he saw the dawn, and feasted on chickens and champagne at sunrise.

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