The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Harry finds two Uncles

We have all of us, no doubt, had a fine experience of the world, and a vast variety of characters have passed under our eyes; but there is one sort of men not an uncommon object of satire in novels and plays — of whom I confess to have met with scarce any specimens at all in my intercourse with this sinful mankind. I mean, mere religious hypocrites, preaching for ever, and not believing a word of their own sermons; infidels in broad brims and sables, expounding, exhorting, comminating, blessing, without any faith in their own paradise, or fear about their pandemonium. Look at those candid troops of hobnails clumping to church on a Sunday evening; those rustling maid-servants in their ribbons whom the young apprentices follow; those little regiments of schoolboys; those trim young maidens and staid matrons, marching with their glistening prayer-books, as the chapel bell chinks yonder (passing Ebenezer, very likely, where the congregation of umbrellas, great bonnets, and pattens, is by this time assembled under the flaring gas-lamps). Look at those! How many of them are hypocrites, think you? Very likely the maid-servant is thinking of her sweetheart: the grocer is casting about how he can buy that parcel of sugar, and whether the County Bank will take any more of his paper: the head-schoolboy is conning Latin verses for Monday’s exercise: the young scapegrace remembers that after his service and sermon, there will be papa’s exposition at home, but that there will be pie for supper: the clerk who calls out the psalm has his daughter in trouble, and drones through his responses scarcely aware of their meaning: the very moment the parson hides his face on his cushion, he may be thinking of that bill which is coming due on Monday. These people are not heavenly-minded; they are of the world, worldly, and have not yet got their feet off of it; but they are not hypocrites, look you. Folks have their religion in some handy mental lock-up, as it were — a valuable medicine, to be taken in ill health; and a man administers his nostrum to his neighbour, and recommends his private cure for the other’s complaint. “My dear madam, you have spasms? You will find these drops infallible!” “You have been taking too much wine, my good sir? By this pill you may defy any evil consequences from too much wine, and take your bottle of port daily.” Of spiritual and bodily physic, who are more fond and eager dispensers than women? And we know that, especially a hundred years ago, every lady in the country had her still-room, and her medicine chest, her pills, powders, potions, for all the village round.

My Lady Warrington took charge of the consciences and the digestions of her husband’s tenants and family. She had the faith and health of the servants’-hall in keeping. Heaven can tell whether she knew how to doctor them rightly: but, was it pill or doctrine, she administered one or the other with equal belief in her own authority, and her disciples swallowed both obediently. She believed herself to be one of the most virtuous, self-denying, wise, learned women in the world; and, dinning this opinion perpetually into the ears of all round about her, succeeded in bringing not few persons to join in her persuasion.

At Sir Miles’s dinner there was so fine a sideboard of plate, and such a number of men in livery, that it required some presenter: of mind to perceive that the beer was of the smallest which the butler brought round in the splendid tankard, and that there was but one joint of mutton on the grand silver dish. When Sir Miles called the King’s health, and smacked his jolly lips over his wine, he eyed it and the company as if the liquor was ambrosia. He asked Harry Warrington whether they had port like that in Virginia? He said that was nothing to the wine Harry should taste in Norfolk. He praised the wine so, that Harry almost believed that it was good, and winked into his own glass, trying to see some of the merits which his uncle perceived in the ruby nectar.

Just as we see in many a well-regulated family of this present century, the Warringtons had their two paragons. Of the two grown daughters, the one was the greatest beauty, the other the greatest genius and angel of any young lady then alive, as Lady Warrington told Harry. The eldest, the Beauty, was engaged to dear Tom Claypool, the fond mother informed her cousin Harry in confidence. But the second daughter, the Genius and Angel, was for ever set upon our young friend to improve his wits and morals. She sang to him at the harpsichord — rather out of tune for an angel, Harry thought; she was ready with advice, instruction, conversation — with almost too much instruction and advice, thought Harry, who would have far preferred the society of the little cousin who reminded him of Fanny Mountain at home. But the last-mentioned young maiden after dinner retired to her nursery commonly. Beauty went off on her own avocations; mamma had to attend to her poor or write her voluminous letters; papa dozed in his arm-chair; and the Genius remained to keep her young cousin company.

The calm of the house somehow pleased the young man, and he liked to take refuge there away from the riot and dissipation in which he ordinarily lived. Certainly no welcome could be kinder than that which he got. The doors were opened to him at all hours. If Flora was not at home, Dora was ready to receive him. Ere many days’ acquaintance, he and his little cousin Miles had been to have a galloping-match in the Park, and Harry, who was kind and generous to every man alive who came near him, had in view the purchase of a little horse for his cousin, far better than that which the boy rode, when the circumstances occurred which brought all our poor Harry’s coaches and horses to a sudden breakdown.

Though Sir Miles Warrington had imagined Virginia to be an island, the ladies were much better instructed in geography, and anxious to hear from Harry all about his home and his native country. He, on his part, was not averse to talk about it. He described to them the length and breadth of his estate; the rivers which it coasted; the produce which it bore. He had had with a friend a little practice of surveying in his boyhood. He made a map of his county, with some fine towns here and there, which, in truth, were but log-huts (but, for the honour of his country, he was desirous that they should wear as handsome a look as possible). Here was Potomac; here was James river; here were the wharves whence his mother’s ships and tobacco were brought to the sea. In truth, the estate was as large as a county. He did not brag about the place overmuch. To see the handsome young fellow, in a fine suit of velvet and silver lace, making his draught, pointing out this hill and that forest or town, you might have imagined him a travelling prince describing the realms of the queen his mother. He almost fancied himself to be so at times. He had miles where gentlemen in England had acres. Not only Dora listened but the beauteous Flora bowed her fair head and heard him with attention. Why, what was young Tom Claypool, their brother baronet’s son in Norfolk with his great boots, his great voice, and his heirdom to a poor five thousand acres, compared to this young American prince and charming stranger? Angel as she was, Dora began to lose her angelic temper, and to twit Flora for a flirt. Claypool in his red waistcoat, would sit dumb before the splendid Harry in his ruffles and laces, talking of March and Chesterfield, Selwyn and Bolingbroke, and the whole company of macaronis. Mamma began to love Harry more and more as a son. She was anxious about the spiritual welfare of those poor Indians, of those poor negroes in Virginia. What could she do to help dear Madam Esmond (a precious woman, she knew!) in the good work? She had a serious butler and housekeeper: they were delighted with the spiritual behaviour and sweet musical gifts of Gumbo.

“Ah! Harry, Harry! you have been a sad wild boy! Why did you not come sooner to us, sir, and not lose your time amongst the spendthrifts and the vain world? But ’tis not yet too late. We must reclaim thee, dear Harry! Mustn’t we, Sir Miles? Mustn’t we Dora? Mustn’t we, Flora?”

The three ladies all look up to the ceiling. They will reclaim the dear prodigal. It is which shall reclaim him most. Dora sits by and watches Flora. As for mamma when the girls are away, she talks to him more and more seriously, more and more tenderly. She will be a mother to him in the absence of his own admirable parent. She gives him a hymn-book. She kisses him on the forehead. She is actuated by the purest love, tenderness, religious regard, towards her dear, wayward, wild, amiable nephew.

Whilst these sentimentalities were going on, it is to be presumed that Mr. Warrington kept his own counsel about his affairs out-of-doors, which we have seen were in the very worst condition. He who had been favoured by fortune for so many weeks was suddenly deserted by her, and a few days had served to kick down all his heap of winnings. Do we say that my Lord Castlewood, his own kinsman, had dealt unfairly by the young Virginian, and in the course of a couple of afternoons’ closet practice had robbed him? We would insinuate nothing so disrespectful to his lordship’s character; but he had won from Harry every shilling which properly belonged to him, and would have played him for his reversions, but that the young man flung up his hands when he saw himself so far beaten, and declared that he must continue the battle no more. Remembering that there still remained a spar out of the wreck, as it were — that portion which he had set aside for poor Sampson — Harry ventured it at the gaming-table; but that last resource went down along with the rest of Harry’s possessions, and Fortune fluttered off in the storm, leaving the luckless adventurer almost naked on the shore.

When a man is young and generous and hearty the loss of money scarce afflicts him. Harry would sell his horses and carriages, and diminish his train of life. If he wanted immediate supplies of money, would not his Aunt Bernstein be his banker, or his kinsman who had won so much from him, or his kind Uncle Warrington and Lady Warrington who were always talking virtue and benevolence, and declaring that they loved him as a son? He would call upon these, or any one of them whom he might choose to favour, at his leisure; meanwhile, Sampson’s story of his landlord’s distress touched the young gentleman, and, in order to raise a hasty supply for the clergyman, he carried off all his trinkets to a certain pawnbroker’s shop in St. Martin’s Lane.

Now this broker was a relative or partner of that very Mr. Sparks of Tavistock Street, from whom Harry had purchased — purchased did we say? — no; taken the trinkets which he had intended to present to his Oakhurst friends; and it chanced that Mr. Sparks came to visit his brother-tradesman very soon after Mr. Warrington had disposed of his goods. Recognising immediately the little enamelled diamond-handled repeater which he had sold to the Fortunate Youth, the jeweller broke out into expressions regarding Harry which I will not mention here, being already accused of speaking much too plainly. A gentleman who is acquainted with a pawnbroker, we may be sure has a bailiff or two amongst his acquaintances; and those bailiffs have followers who, at the bidding of the impartial Law, will touch with equal hand the fiercest captain’s epaulet or the finest macaroni’s shoulder. The very gentlemen who had seized upon Lady Maria at Tunbridge were set upon her cousin in London. They easily learned from the garrulous Gumbo that his honour was at Sir Miles Warrington’s house in Hill Street, and whilst the black was courting Mrs. Lambert’s maid at the adjoining mansion, Mr. Costigan and his assistant lay in wait for poor Harry, who was enjoying the delights of intercourse with a virtuous family circle assembled round his aunt’s table. Never had Uncle Miles been more cordial, never had Aunt Warrington been more gracious, gentle, and affectionate; Flora looked unusually lovely, Dora had been more than ordinarily amiable. At parting, my lady gave him both her hands, and called benedictions from the ceiling down upon him. Papa had said in his most jovial manner, “Hang it, nephew! when I was thy age I should have kissed two such fine girls as Do and Flo ere this, and my own flesh and blood too! Don’t tell me! I should, my Lady Warrington! Odds-fish! ’tis the boy blushes, and not the girls! I think — I suppose they are used to it. He, he!”

“Papa!” cry the virgins.

“Sir Miles!” says the august mother at the same instant.

“There, there!” says papa. “A kiss won’t do no harm, and won’t tell no tales: will it, nephew Harry?” I suppose, during the utterance of the above three brief phrases, the harmless little osculatory operation has taken place, and blushing cousin Harry has touched the damask cheek of cousin Flora and cousin Dora.

As he goes downstairs with his uncle, mamma makes a speech to the girls, looking, as usual, up to the ceiling, and saying, “What precious qualities your poor dear cousin has! What shrewdness mingled with his simplicity, and what a fine genteel manner, though upon mere worldly elegance I set little store. What a dreadful pity to think that such a vessel should ever be lost! We must rescue him, my loves. We must take him away from those wicked companions, and those horrible Castlewoods — not that I would speak ill of my neighbours. But I shall hope, I shall pray, that he may be rescued from his evil courses!” And again Lady Warrington eyes the cornice in a most determined manner, as the girls wistfully look towards the door behind which their interesting cousin has just vanished.

His uncle will go downstairs with him. He calls “God bless you, my boy!” most affectionately: he presses Harry’s hand, and repeats his valuable benediction at the door. As it closes, the light from the hall within having sufficiently illuminated Mr. Warrington’s face and figure, two gentlemen, who have been standing on the opposite side of the way, advance rapidly, and one of them takes a strip of paper out of his pocket, and putting his hand upon Mr. Warrington’s shoulder, declares him his prisoner. A hackney-coach is in attendance, and poor Harry goes to sleep in Chancery Lane.

Oh, to think that a Virginian prince’s back should be slapped by a ragged bailiffs follower! — that Madam Esmond’s son should be in a spunging-house in Cursitor Street! I do not envy our young prodigal his rest on that dismal night. Let us hit him now he is down, my beloved young friends. Let us imagine the stings of remorse keeping him wakeful on his dingy pillow; the horrid jollifications of other hardened inmates of the place ringing in his ears from the room hard by, where they sit boozing; the rage and shame and discomfiture. No pity on him, I say, my honest young gentlemen, for you, of course, have never indulged in extravagance or folly, or paid the reckoning of remorse.

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