The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Fortunatus Nimium

Though Harry Warrington persisted in his determination to keep that dismal promise which his cousin had extracted from him, we trust no benevolent reader will think so ill of him as to suppose that the engagement was to the young fellow’s taste, and that he would not be heartily glad to be rid of it. Very likely the beating administered to poor Will was to this end; and Harry may have thought, “A boxing-match between us is sure to bring on a quarrel with the family; in the quarrel with the family, Maria may take her brother’s side. I, of course, will make no retraction or apology. Will, in that case, may call me to account, when I know which is the better man. In the midst of the feud, the agreement may come to an end, and I may be a free man once more.”

So honest Harry laid his train, and fired it: but, the explosion over, no harm was found to be done, except that William Esmond’s nose was swollen, and his eye black for a week. He did not send a challenge to his cousin, Harry Warrington; and, in consequence, neither killed Harry, nor was killed by him. Will was knocked down, and he got up again. How many men of sense would do the same, could they get their little account settled in a private place, with nobody to tell how the score was paid! Maria by no means took her family’s side in the quarrel, but declared for her cousin, as did my lord, when advised of the disturbance. Will had struck the first blow, Lord Castlewood said, by the chaplain’s showing. It was not the first or the tenth time he had been found quarrelling in his cups. Mr. Warrington only showed a proper spirit in resenting the injury, and it was for Will, not for Harry, to ask pardon.

Harry said he would accept no apology as long as his horse was not returned or his bet paid. The chronicler has not been able to find out, from any of the papers which have come under his view, how that affair of the bet was finally arranged; but ’tis certain the cousins presently met in the houses of various friends, and without mauling each other.

Maria’s elder brother had been at first quite willing that his sister, who had remained unmarried for so many years, and on the train of whose robe, in her long course over the path of life, so many briars, so much mud, so many rents and stains had naturally gathered, should marry with any bridegroom who presented himself, and if with a gentleman from Virginia, so much the better. She would retire to his wigwam in the forest, and there be disposed of. In the natural course of things, Harry would survive his elderly bride, and might console himself or not, as he preferred, after her departure.

But, after an interview with Aunt Bernstein, which his lordship had on his coming to London, he changed his opinion: and even went so far as to try and dissuade Maria from the match; and to profess a pity for the young fellow who was made to undergo a life of misery on account of a silly promise given at one-and-twenty!

Misery, indeed! Maria was at a loss to know why he was to be miserable. Pity, forsooth! My lord at Castlewood had thought it was no pity at all. Maria knew what pity meant. Her brother had been with Aunt Bernstein: Aunt Bernstein had offered money to break this match off. She understood what my lord meant, but Mr. Warrington was a man of honour, and she could trust him. Away, upon this, walks my lord to White’s, or to whatever haunts he frequented. It is probable that his sister had guessed too accurately what the nature of his conversation wit Madame Bernstein had been.

“And so,” thinks he, “the end of my virtue is likely to be that the Mohock will fall a prey to others, and that there is no earthly use in my sparing him. ‘Quem deus vult’— what was that schoolmaster’s adage? If I don’t have him, somebody else will, that is clear. My brother has had a slice; my dear sister wants to swallow the whole of him bodily. Here have I been at home respecting his youth and innocence forsooth, declining to play beyond the value of a sixpence, and acting guardian and Mentor to him. Why, I am but a fool to fatten a goose for other people to feed off! Not many a good action have I done in this life, and here is this one, that serves to benefit whom? — other folks. Talk of remorse! By all the fires and furies, the remorse I have is for things I haven’t done and might have done! Why did I spare Lucretia? She hated me ever after, and her husband went the way for which he was predestined. Why have I let this lad off? — that March and the rest, who don’t want him, may pluck him! And I have a bad repute; and I am the man people point at, and call the wicked lord, and against whom women warn their sons! Pardi, I am not a penny worse, only a great deal more unlucky than my neighbours, and ’tis only my cursed weakness that has been my greatest enemy!” Here, manifestly, in setting down a speech which a gentleman only thought, a chronicler overdraws his account with the patient reader, who has a right not to accept this draft on his credulity. But have not Livy, and Thucydides, and a score more of historians, made speeches for their heroes, which we know the latter never thought of delivering? How much more may we then, knowing my Lord Castlewood’s character so intimately as we do, declare what was passing in his mind, and transcribe his thoughts on this paper? What? a whole pack of the wolves are on the hunt after this lamb, and will make a meal of him presently, and one hungry old hunter is to stand by, and not have a single cutlet? Who has not admired that noble speech of my Lord Clive, when reproached on his return from India with making rather too free with jaghires, lakhs, gold mohurs, diamonds, pearls, and what not? “Upon my life,” said the hero of Plassy, “when I think of my opportunities, I am surprised I took so little!”

To tell disagreeable stories of a gentleman, until one is in a manner forced to impart them, is always painful to a feeling mind. Hence, though I have known, before the very first page of this history was written, what sort of a person my Lord Castlewood was, and in what esteem he was held by his contemporaries, I have kept back much that was unpleasant about him, only allowing the candid reader to perceive that he was a nobleman who ought not to be at all of our liking. It is true that my Lord March, and other gentlemen of whom he complained, would have thought no more of betting with Mr. Warrington for his last shilling, and taking their winnings, than they would scruple to pick the bones of a chicken; that they would take any advantage of the game, or their superior skill in it, of the race, and their private knowledge of the horses engaged; in so far, they followed the practice of all gentlemen: but when they played, they played fair; and when they lost, they paid.

Now Madame Bernstein was loth to tell her Virginian nephew all she knew to his family’s discredit; she was even touched by my lord’s forbearance in regard to Harry on his first arrival in Europe; and pleased with his lordship’s compliance with her wishes in this particular. But in the conversation which she had with her nephew Castlewood regarding Maria’s designs on Harry, he had spoken his mind out with his usual cynicism, voted himself a fool for having spared a lad whom no sparing would eventually keep from ruin; pointed out Mr. Harry’s undeniable extravagances and spendthrift associates, his nights at faro and hazard, and his rides to Newmarket, and asked why he alone should keep his hands from the young fellow? In vain Madame Bernstein pleaded that Harry was poor. Bah! he was heir to a principality which ought to have been his, Castlewood’s, and might have set up their ruined family. (Indeed Madame Bernstein thought Mr. Warrington’s Virginian property much greater than it was.) Were there not money-lenders in the town who would give him money on postobits in plenty? Castlewood knew as much to his cost: he had applied to them in his father’s lifetime, and the cursed crew had eaten up two-thirds of his miserable income. He spoke with such desperate candour and ill-humour, that Madame Bernstein began to be alarmed for her favourite, and determined to caution him at the first opportunity.

That evening she began to pen a billet to Mr. Warrington: but all her life long she was slow with her pen, and disliked using it. “I never knew any good come of writing more than bon jour or business,” she used to say. “What is the use of writing ill, when there are so many clever people who can do it well? and even then it were best left alone.” So she sent one of her men to Mr. Harry’s lodgings, bidding him come and drink a dish of tea with her next day, when she proposed to warn him.

But the next morning she was indisposed, and could not receive Mr. Harry when he came: and she kept her chamber for a couple of days, and the next day there was a great engagement, and the next day Mr. Harry was off on some expedition of his own. In the whirl of London life, what man sees his neighbour, what brother his sister, what schoolfellow his old friend? Ever so many days passed before Mr. Warrington and his aunt had that confidential conversation which the latter desired.

She began by scolding him mildly about his extravagance and madcap frolics (though, in truth, she was charmed with him for both)— he replied that young men will be young men, and that it was in dutifully waiting in attendance on his aunt, he had made the acquaintance with whom he mostly lived at present. She then with some prelude, began to warn him regarding his cousin, Lord Castlewood; on which he broke into a bitter laugh, and said the good-natured world had told him plenty about Lord Castlewood already. “To say of a man of his lordship’s rank, or of any gentleman, ‘Don’t play with him,’ is more than I like to do,” continued the lady; “but . . .”

“Oh, you may say on, aunt!” said Harry, with something like an imprecation on his lips.

“And have you played with your cousin already?” asked the young man’s worldly old monitress.

“And lost and won, madam!” answers Harry, gallantly. “It don’t become me to say which. If we have a bout with a neighbour in Virginia, a bottle, or a pack of cards, or a quarrel, we don’t go home and tell our mothers. I mean no offence, aunt!” And, blushing, the handsome young fellow went up and kissed the old lady. He looked very brave and brilliant, with his rich lace, his fair face and hair, his fine new suit of velvet and gold. On taking leave of his aunt he gave his usual sumptuous benefaction to her servants, who crowded round him. It was a rainy wintry day, and my gentleman, to save his fine silk stockings, must come in a chair. “To White’s!” he called out to the chairmen, and away they carried him to the place where he passed a great deal of his time.

Our Virginian’s friends might have wished that he had been a less sedulous frequenter of that house of entertainment; but so much may be said in favour of Mr. Warrington that, having engaged in play, he fought his battle like a hero. He was not flustered by good luck, and perfectly calm when the chances went against him. If Fortune is proverbially fickle to men at play, how many men are fickle to Fortune, run away frightened from her advances; and desert her, who, perhaps, had never thought of leaving them but for their cowardice. “By George, Mr. Warrington,” said Mr. Selwyn, waking up in a rare fit of enthusiasm, “you deserve to win! You treat your luck as a gentleman should, and as long as she remains with you, behave to her with the most perfect politeness. Si celeres quatit pennas — you know the rest — no? Well, you are not much the worse off — you will call her ladyship’s coach, and make her a bow at the step. Look at Lord Castlewood yonder, passing the box. Did you ever hear a fellow curse and swear so at losing five or six pieces? She must be a jade indeed, if she long give her favours to such a niggardly canaille as that!”

“We don’t consider our family canaille, sir,” says Mr. Warrington, “and my Lord Castlewood is one of them.”

“I forgot. I forgot, and ask your pardon! And I make you my compliment upon my lord, and Mr. Will Esmond, his brother,” says Harry’s neighbour at the hazard-table. “The box is with me. Five’s the main! Deuce Ace! my usual luck. Virtute mea me involvo!” and he sinks back in his chair.

Whether it was upon this occasion of taking the box, that Mr. Harry threw the fifteen mains mentioned in one of those other letters of Mr. Walpole’s, which have not come into his present learned editor’s hands, I know not; but certain it is, that on his first appearance at White’s, Harry had five or six evenings of prodigious good luck, and seemed more than ever the Fortunate Youth. The five hundred pounds withdrawn from his patrimonial inheritance had multiplied into thousands. He bought fine clothes, purchased fine horses, gave grand entertainments, made handsome presents, lived as if he had been as rich as Sir James Lowther, or his Grace of Bedford, and yet the five thousand pounds never seemed to diminish. No wonder that he gave where giving was so easy; no wonder that he was generous with Fortunatus’s purse in his pocket. I say no wonder that he gave, for such was his nature. Other Fortunati tie up the endless purse, drink small beer, and go to bed with a tallow candle.

During this vein of his luck, what must Mr. Harry do, but find out from Lady Maria what her ladyship’s debts were, and pay them off to the last shilling. Her stepmother and half-sister, who did not love her, he treated to all sorts of magnificent presents. “Had you not better get yourself arrested, Will?” my lord sardonically said to his brother. “Although you bit him in that affair of the horse, the Mohock will certainly take you out of pawn.” It was then that Mr. William felt a true remorse, although not of that humble kind which sent the repentant Prodigal to his knees. “Confound it,” he groaned, “to think that I have let this fellow slip for such a little matter as forty pound! Why, he was good for a thousand at least.”

As for Maria, that generous creature accepted the good fortune sent her with a grateful heart; and was ready to accept as much more as you pleased. Having paid off her debts to her various milliners, tradesmen, and purveyors, she forthwith proceeded to contract new ones. Mrs. Betty, her ladyship’s maid, went round informing the tradespeople that her mistress was about to contract a matrimonial alliance with a young gentleman of immense fortune; so that they might give my lady credit to any amount. Having heard the same story twice or thrice before, the tradesfolk might not give it entire credit, but their bills were paid: even to Mrs. Pincott, of Kensington, my lady showed no rancour, and affably ordered fresh supplies from her: and when she drove about from the mercer to the toy-shop, and from the toy-shop to the jeweller in a coach, with her maid and Mr. Warrington inside, they thought her a fortunate woman indeed, to have secured the Fortunate Youth, though they might wonder at the taste of this latter in having selected so elderly a beauty. Mr. Sparks, of Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, took the liberty of waiting upon Mr. Warrington at his lodgings in Bond Street, with the pearl necklace and the gold etwee which he had bought in Lady Maria’s company the day before; and asking whether he, Sparks, should leave them at his honour’s lodging, or send them to her ladyship with his honour’s compliments? Harry added a ring out of the stock which the jeweller happened to bring with him, to the necklace and the etwee; and sumptuously bidding that individual to send him in the bill, took a majestic leave of Mr. Sparks, who retired, bowing even to Gumbo, as he quitted his honour’s presence.

Nor did his bounties end here. Ere many days the pleased young fellow drove up in his phaeton to Mr. Sparks’ shop, and took a couple of trinkets for two young ladies, whose parents had been kind to him, and for whom he entertained a sincere regard. “Ah!” thought he, “how I wish I had my poor George’s wit, and genius for poetry! I would send these presents with pretty verses to Hetty and Theo. I am sure, if goodwill and real regard could make a poet of me, I should have no difficulty in finding rhymes.” And so he called in Parson Sampson, and they concocted a billet together.

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