The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Sampson and the Philistines

My happy chance in early life led me to become intimate with a respectable person who was born in a certain island, which is pronounced to be the first gem of the ocean by, no doubt, impartial judges of maritime jewellery. The stories which that person imparted to me regarding his relatives who inhabited the gem above-mentioned, were such as used to make my young blood curdle with horror to think there should be so much wickedness in the world. Every crime which you can think of; the entire Ten Commandments broken in a general smash; such rogueries and knaveries as no storyteller could invent; such murders and robberies as Thurtell or Turpin scarce ever perpetrated; — were by my informant accurately remembered, and freely related, respecting his nearest kindred, to any one who chose to hear him. It was a wonder how any of the family still lived out of the hulks. Me brother Tim had brought his fawther’s gree hairs with sorrow to the greeve; me brother Mick had robbed the par’sh church repaytedly; me sisther Annamaroia had jilted the Captain and run off with the Ensign, forged her grandmother’s will, and stole the spoons, which Larry the knife-boy was hanged for. The family of Atreus was as nothing compared to the race of O’What-d’ye-call-’em, from which my friend sprung; but no power on earth would, of course, induce me to name the country whence he came.

How great then used to be my naif astonishment to find these murderers, rogues, parricides, habitual forgers of bills of exchange, and so forth, every now and then writing to each other as “my dearest brother,” “my dearest sister,” and for months at a time living on the most amicable terms! With hands reeking with the blood of his murdered parents, Tim would mix a screeching tumbler, and give Maria a glass from it. With lips black with the perjuries he had sworn in court respecting his grandmother’s abstracted testament, or the murder of his poor brother Thady’s helpless orphans, Mick would kiss his sister Julia’s bonny cheek, and they would have a jolly night, and cry as they talked about old times, and the dear old Castle What-d’ye-call-’em, where they were born, and the fighting Onetyoneth being quarthered there, and the Major proposing for Cyaroloine, and the tomb of their seented mother (who had chayted them out of the propertee). Heaven bless her soul! They used to weep and kiss so profusely at meeting and parting, that it was touching to behold them. At the sight of their embraces one forgot those painful little stories, and those repeated previous assurances that, did they tell all, they could hang each other all round.

What can there be finer than forgiveness? What more rational than, after calling a man by every bad name under the sun, to apologise, regret hasty expressions, and so forth, withdraw the decanter (say) which you have flung at your enemy’s head, and be friends as before? Some folks possess this admirable, this angellike gift of forgiveness. It was beautiful, for instance, to see our two ladies at Tunbridge Wells forgiving one another, smiling, joking, fondling almost in spite of the hard words of yesterday — yes, and forgetting bygones, though they couldn’t help remembering them perfectly well. I wonder, can you and I do as much? Let us strive, my friend, to acquire this pacable, Christian spirit. My belief is that you may learn to forgive bad language employed to you; but, then, you must have a deal of practice, and be accustomed to hear and use it. You embrace after a quarrel and mutual bad language. Heaven bless us! Bad words are nothing when one is accustomed to them, and scarce need ruffle the temper on either side.

So the aunt and niece played cards very amicably together, and drank to each other’s health, and each took a wing of the chicken, and pulled a bone of the merry-thought, and (in conversation) scratched their neighbours’, not each other’s, eyes out. Thus we have read how the Peninsular warriors, when the bugles sang truce, fraternised and exchanged tobacco-pouches and wine, ready to seize their firelocks and knock each other’s heads off when the truce was over; and thus our old soldiers, skilful in war, but knowing the charms of a quiet life, laid their weapons down for the nonce, and hob-and-nobbed gaily together. Of course, whilst drinking with Jack Frenchman, you have your piece handy to blow his brains out if he makes a hostile move: but, meanwhile, it is A votre sante, mon camarade! Here’s to you, mounseer! and everything is as pleasant as possible. Regarding Aunt Bernstein’s threatened gout? The twinges had gone off. Maria was so glad! Maria’s fainting fits? She had no return of them. A slight recurrence last night. The Baroness was so sorry! Her niece must see the best doctor, take everything to fortify her, continue to take the steel, even after she left Tunbridge. How kind of Aunt Bernstein to offer to send some of the bottled waters after her! Suppose Madame Bernstein says in confidence to her own woman, “Fainting fits! — pooh! — epilepsy! inherited from that horrible scrofulous German mother!” What means have we of knowing the private conversation of the old lady and her attendant? Suppose Lady Maria orders Mrs. Betty, her ladyship’s maid, to taste every glass of medicinal water, first declaring that her aunt is capable of poisoning her? Very likely such conversations take place. These are but precautions — these are the firelocks which our old soldiers have at their sides, loaded and cocked, but at present lying quiet on the grass.

Having Harry’s bond in her pocket, the veteran Maria did not choose to press for payment. She knew the world too well for that. He was bound to her, but she gave him plenty of day-rule, and leave of absence on parole. It was not her object needlessly to chafe and anger her young slave. She knew the difference of ages, and that Harry must have his pleasures and diversions. “Take your ease and amusement, cousin,” says Lady Maria. “Frisk about, pretty little mousekin,” says grey Grimalkin, purring in the corner, and keeping watch with her green eyes. About all that Harry was to see and do on his first visit to London, his female relatives had of course talked and joked. Both of the ladies knew perfectly what were a young gentleman’s ordinary amusements in those days, and spoke of them with the frankness which characterised those easy times.

Our wily Calypso consoled herself, then, perfectly, in the absence of her young wanderer, and took any diversion which came to hand. Mr. Jack Morris, the gentleman whom we have mentioned as rejoicing in the company of Lord March and Mr. Warrington, was one of these diversions. To live with titled personages was the delight of Jack Morris’s life; and to lose money at cards to an earl’s daughter was almost a pleasure to him. Now, the Lady Maria Esmond was an earl’s daughter who was very glad to win money. She obtained permission to take Mr. Morris to the Countess of Yarmouth’s assembly, and played cards with him — and so everybody was pleased.

Thus the first eight-and-forty hours after Mr. Warrington’s departure passed pretty cheerily at Tunbridge Wells, and Friday arrived, when the sermon was to be delivered which we have seen Mr. Sampson preparing. The company at the Wells were ready enough to listen to it. Sampson had a reputation for being a most amusing and eloquent preacher; and if there were no breakfast, conjurer, dancing bears, concert going on, the good Wells folk would put up with a sermon. He knew Lady Yarmouth was coming, and what a power she had in the giving of livings and the dispensing of bishoprics, the Defender of the Faith of that day having a remarkable confidence in her ladyship’s opinion upon these matters; — and so we may be sure that Mr. Sampson prepared his very best discourse for her hearing. When the Great Man is at home at the Castle, and walks over to the little country church, in the park, bringing the Duke, the Marquis, and a couple of Cabinet Ministers with him, has it ever been your lot to sit among the congregation, and watch Mr. Trotter the curate and his sermon? He looks anxiously at the Great Pew; he falters as he gives out his text, and thinks, “Ah! perhaps his lordship may give me a living!” Mrs. Trotter and the girls look anxiously at the Great Pew too, and watch the effects of papa’s discourse — the well-known favourite discourse — upon the big-wigs assembled. Papa’s first nervousness is over: his noble voice clears, warms to his sermon: he kindles: he takes his pocket-handkerchief out: he is coming to that exquisite passage which has made them all cry at the parsonage: he has begun it! Ah! What is that humming noise, which fills the edifice, and causes hob-nailed Melibaeus to grin at smock-frocked Tityrus? It is the Right Honourable Lord Naseby snoring in the pew by the fire! And poor Trotter’s visionary mitre disappears with the music.

Sampson was the domestic chaplain of Madame Bernstein’s nephew. The two ladies of the Esmond family patronised the preacher. On the day of the sermon, the Baroness had a little breakfast in his honour, at which Sampson made his appearance, rosy and handsome, with a fresh-flowered wig, and a smart, rustling, new cassock, which he had on credit from some church-admiring mercer at the Wells. By the side of his patronesses, their ladyships’ lacqueys walking behind them with their great gilt prayer-books, Mr. Sampson marched from breakfast to church. Every one remarked how well the Baroness Bernstein looked; she laughed, and was particularly friendly with her niece; she had a bow and a stately smile for all, as she moved on, with her tortoiseshell cane. At the door there was a dazzling conflux of rank and fashion — all the fine company of the Wells trooping in; and her ladyship of Yarmouth, conspicuous with vermilion cheeks, and a robe of flame-coloured taffeta. There were shabby people present, besides the fine company, though these latter were by far the most numerous. What an odd-looking pair, for instance, were those in ragged coats, one of them with his carroty hair appearing under his scratch-wig, and who entered the church just as the organ stopped! Nay, he could not have been a Protestant, for he mechanically crossed himself as he entered the place, saying to his comrade, “Bedad, Tim, I forgawt!” by which I conclude that the individual came from an island which has been mentioned at the commencement of this chapter. Wherever they go a rich fragrance of whisky spreads itself. A man may be a heretic, but possess genius: these Catholic gentlemen have come to pay homage to Mr. Sampson.

Nay, there are not only members of the old religion present, but disciples of a creed still older. Who are those two individuals with hooked noses and sallow countenances, who worked into the church in spite of some little opposition on the part of the beadle? Seeing the greasy appearance of these Hebrew strangers, Mr. Beadle was for denying them admission. But one whispered into his ear, “We wants to be conwerted, gov’nor!” another slips money into his hand — Mr. Beadle lifts up the mace with which he was barring the doorway, and the Hebrew gentlemen enter. There goes the organ! the doors have closed. Shall we go in, and listen to Mr. Sampson’s sermon, or lie on the grass without?

Preceded by that beadle in gold lace, Sampson walked up to the pulpit, as rosy and jolly a man as you could wish to see. Presently, when he surged up out of his plump pulpit cushion, why did his Reverence turn as pale as death? He looked to the western church-door — there, on each side of it, were those horrible Hebrew caryatides. He then looked to the vestry-door, which was hard by the rector’s pew, in which Sampson had been sitting during the service, alongside of their ladyships his patronesses. Suddenly a couple of perfumed Hibernian gentlemen slipped out of an adjacent seat, and placed themselves on a bench close by that vestry-door and rector’s pew, and so sate till the conclusion of the sermon, with eyes meekly cast down to the ground. How can we describe that sermon, if the preacher himself never knew how it came to an end?

Nevertheless, it was considered an excellent sermon. When it was over, the fine ladies buzzed into one another’s ears over their pews, and uttered their praise and comments. Madame Walmoden, who was in the next pew to our friends, said it was bewdiful, and made her dremble all over. Madame Bernstein said it was excellent. Lady Maria was pleased to think that the family chaplain should so distinguish himself. She looked up at him, and strove to catch his reverence’s eye, as he still sate in his pulpit; she greeted him with a little wave of the hand and flutter of her handkerchief. He scarcely seemed to note the compliment; his face was pale, his eyes were looking yonder, towards the font, where those Hebrews still remained. The stream of people passed by them — in a rush, when they were lost to sight — in a throng — in a march of twos and threes — in a dribble of one at a time. Everybody was gone. The two Hebrews were still there by the door.

The Baroness de Bernstein and her niece still lingered in the rector’s pew, where the old lady was deep in conversation with that gentleman.

“Who are those horrible men at the door? and what a smell of spirits there is!” cries Lady Maria, to Mrs. Brett, her aunt’s woman, who had attended the two ladies.

“Farewell, doctor; you have a darling little boy: is he to be a clergyman, too?” asks Madame de Bernstein. “Are you ready, my dear?” And the pew is thrown open, and Madame Bernstein, whose father was only a viscount, insists that her niece, Lady Maria, who was an earl’s daughter, should go first out of the pew.

As she steps forward, those individuals whom her ladyship designated as two horrible men, advance. One of them pulls a long strip of paper out of his pocket, and her ladyship starts and turns pale. She makes for the vestry, in a vague hope that she can clear the door and close it behind her. The two whiskified gentlemen are up with her, however; one of them actually lays his hand on her shoulder, and says:

“At the shuit of Misthress Pincott, of Kinsington, mercer, I have the honour of arresting your leedyship. Me neem is Costigan, madam, a poor gentleman of Oireland, binding to circumstances and forced to follow a disagrayable profession. Will your leedyship walk, or shall me man go fetch a cheer?”

For reply Lady Maria Esmond gives three shrieks, and falls swooning to the ground. “Keep the door, Mick!” shouts Mr. Costigan. “Best let in no one else, madam,” he says, very politely, to Madame de Bernstein. “Her ladyship has fallen in a feenting fit, and will recover here, at her aise.”

“Unlace her, Brett!” cries the old lady, whose eyes twinkle oddly; and as soon as that operation is performed, Madame Bernstein seizes a little bag suspended by a hair chain, which Lady Maria wears round her neck, and snips the necklace in twain. “Dash some cold water over her face, it always recovers her!” says the Baroness. “You stay with her, Brett. How much is your suit gentlemen?”

Mr. Costigan says, “The deem we have against her leedyship for one hundred and thirty-two pounds, in which she is indebted to Misthress Eliza Pincott”

Meanwhile, where is the Reverend Mr. Sampson? Like the fabled opossum we have read of, who, when he spied the unerring gunner from his gum-tree, said: “It’s no use Major, I will come down,” so Sampson gave himself up to his pursuers. “At whose suit, Simons?” he sadly asked. Sampson knew Simons: they had met many a time before.

“Buckleby Cordwainer,” says Mr. Simons.

“Forty-eight pound and charges, I know,” says Mr. Sampson, with a sigh. “I haven’t got the money. What officer is there here?” Mr. Simons’s companion, Mr. Lyons, here stepped forward, and said his house was most convenient, and often used by gentlemen, and he should be most happy and proud to accommodate his reverence.

Two chairs happened to be in waiting outside the chapel. In those two chairs my Lady Maria Esmond and Mr. Sampson placed themselves, and went to Mr. Lyons’s residence, escorted by the gentlemen to whom we have just been introduced.

Very soon after the capture the Baroness Bernstein sent Mr. Case, her confidential servant, with a note to her niece, full of expressions of the most ardent affection: but regretting that her heavy losses at cards rendered the payment of such a sum as that in which Lady Maria stood indebted quite impossible. She had written off to Mrs. Pincott, by that very post, however, to entreat her to grant time, and as soon as ever she had an answer, would not fail to acquaint her dear unhappy niece.

Mrs. Betty came over to console her mistress: and the two poor women cast about for money enough to provide a horse and chaise for Mrs. Betty, who had very nearly come to misfortune, too. Both my Lady Maria and her maid had been unlucky at cards, and could not muster more than eighteen shillings between them: so it was agreed that Betty should sell a gold chain belonging to her lady, and with the money travel to London. Now, Betty took the chain to the very toy-shop man who had sold it to Mr. Warrington, who had given it to his cousin; and the toy-shop man, supposing that she had stolen the chain, was for bringing in a constable to Betty. Hence, she had to make explanations, and to say how her mistress was in durance; and, ere the night closed, all Tunbridge Wells knew that my Lady Maria Esmond was in the hands of bailiffs. Meanwhile, however, the money was found, and Mrs. Betty whisked up to London in search of the champion in whom the poor prisoner confided.

“Don’t say anything about that paper being gone! Oh, the wretch, the wretch! She shall pay it me!” I presume that Lady Maria meant her aunt by the word “wretch.” Mr. Sampson read a sermon to her ladyship, and they passed the evening over revenge and backgammon; with well-grounded hopes that Harry Warrington would rush to their rescue as soon as ever he heard of their mishap.

Though, ere the evening was over, every soul at the Wells knew what had happened to Lady Maria, and a great deal more; though they knew she was taken in execution, the house where she lay, the amount — nay, ten times the amount — for which she was captured, and that she was obliged to pawn her trinkets to get a little money to keep her in jail; though everybody said that old fiend of a Bernstein was at the bottom of the business, of course they were all civil and bland in society; and, at my Lady Trumpington’s cards that night, where Madame Bernstein appeared, and as long as she was within hearing, not a word was said regarding the morning’s transactions. Lady Yarmouth asked the Baroness news of her breddy nephew, and heard Mr. Warrington was in London. My Lady Maria was not coming to Lady Trumpington’s that evening? My Lady Maria was indisposed, had fainted at church that morning, and was obliged to keep her room. The cards were dealt, the fiddles sang, the wine went round, the gentlefolks talked, laughed, yawned, chattered, the footmen waylaid the supper, the chairmen drank and swore, the stars climbed the sky, just as though no Lady Maria was imprisoned, and no poor Sampson arrested. ’Tis certain, dearly beloved brethren, that the little griefs, stings, annoyances, which you and I feel acutely in our own persons, don’t prevent our neighbours from sleeping; and that when we slip out of the world the world does not miss us. Is this humiliating to our vanity? So much the better. But, on the other hand, is it not a comfortable and consoling truth? And mayn’t we be thankful for our humble condition? If we were not selfish — passez-moi le mot, s.v.p. — and if we had to care for other people’s griefs as much as our own, how intolerable human life would be! If my neighbour’s tight boot pinched my corn; if the calumny uttered against Jones set Brown into fury; if Mrs. A’s death plunged Messrs. B, C, D, E, F, into distraction, would there be any bearing of the world’s burthen? Do not let us be in the least angry or surprised if all the company played on, and were happy, although Lady Maria had come to grief. Countess, the deal is with you! Are you going to Stubblefield to shoot as usual, Sir John? Captain, we shall have you running off to the Bath after the widow! So the clatter goes on; the lights burns; the beaux and the ladies flirt, laugh, ogle; the prisoner rages in his cell; the sick man tosses on his bed.

Perhaps Madame de Bernstein stayed at the assembly until the very last, not willing to allow the company the chance of speaking of her as soon as her back should be turned. Ah, what a comfort it is, I say again, that we have backs, and that our ears don’t grow on them! He that has ears to hear, let him stuff them with cotton. Madame Bernstein might have heard folks say it was heartless of her to come abroad, and play at cards, and make merry when her niece was in trouble. As if she could help Maria by staying at home, indeed! At her age, it is dangerous to disturb an old lady’s tranquillity. “Don’t tell me!” says Lady Yarmouth. “The Bernstein would play at cards over her niece’s coffin. Talk about her heart! who ever said she had one? That old spy lost it to the Chevalier a thousand years ago, and has lived ever since perfectly well without one. For how much is the Maria put in prison? If it were only a small sum we would pay it, it would vex her aunt so. Find out, Fuchs, in the morning, for how much Lady Maria Esmond is put in prison.” And the faithful Fuchs bowed, and promised to do her Excellency’s will.

Meanwhile, about midnight, Madame de Bernstein went home, and presently fell into a sound sleep, from which she did not wake up until a late hour of the morning, when she summoned her usual attendant, who arrived with her ladyship’s morning dish of tea. If I told you she took a dram with it, you would be shocked. Some of our great-grandmothers used to have cordials in their “closets.” Have you not read of the fine lady in Walpole, who said, “If I drink more, I shall be ‘muckibus!’?” As surely as Mr. Gough is alive now, our ancestresses were accustomed to partake pretty freely of strong waters.

So, having tipped off the cordial, Madame Bernstein rouses and asks Mrs. Brett the news.

“He can give it you,” says the waiting-woman, sulkily.

“He? Who?”

Mrs. Brett names Harry, and says Mr. Warrington arrived about midnight yesterday — and Betty, my Lady Maria’s maid, was with him. “And my Lady Maria sends your ladyship her love and duty, and hopes you slept well,” says Brett.

“Excellently, poor thing! Is Betty gone to her?”

“No; she is here,” says Mrs. Brett.

“Let me see her directly,” cries the old lady.

“I’ll tell her,” replies the obsequious Brett, and goes away upon her mistress’s errand, leaving the old lady placidly reposing on her pillows. Presently, two pairs of high-heeled shoes are heard pattering over the deal floor of the bedchamber. Carpets were luxuries scarcely known in bedrooms of those days.

“So, Mrs. Betty, you were in London yesterday?” calls Bernstein from her curtains.

“It is not Betty — it is I! Good morning, dear aunt! I hope you slept well?” cries a voice which made old Bernstein start on her pillow. It was the voice of Lady Maria, who drew the curtains aside, and dropped her aunt a low curtsey. Lady Maria looked very pretty, rosy, and happy. And with the little surprise incident at her appearance through Madame Bernstein’s curtains, I think we may bring this chapter to a close.

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