The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Family Jars

As Harry Warrington related to his new-found relative the simple story of his adventures at home, no doubt Madam Bernstein, who possessed a great sense of humour and a remarkable knowledge of the world, formed her judgment respecting the persons and events described; and if her opinion was not in all respects favourable, what can be said but that men and women are imperfect, and human life not entirely pleasant or profitable? The court and city-bred lady recoiled at the mere thought of her American sister’s countrified existence. Such a life would be rather wearisome to most city-bred ladies. But little Madam Warrington knew no better, and was satisfied with her life, as indeed she was with herself in general. Because you and I are epicures or dainty feeders, it does not follow that Hodge is miserable with his homely meal of bread and bacon. Madam Warrington had a life of duties and employments which might be humdrum, but at any rate were pleasant to her. She was a brisk little woman of business, and all the affairs of her large estate came under her cognisance. No pie was baked at Castlewood but her little finger was in it. She set the maids to their spinning, she saw the kitchen wenches at their work, she trotted afield on her pony, and oversaw the overseers and the negro hands as they worked in the tobacco-and corn-fields. If a slave was ill, she would go to his quarters in any weather, and doctor him with great resolution. She had a book full of receipts after the old fashion, and a closet where she distilled waters and compounded elixirs, and a medicine-chest which was the terror of her neighbours. They trembled to be ill, lest the little lady should be upon them with her decoctions and her pills.

A hundred years back there were scarce any towns in Virginia; the establishments of the gentry were little villages in which they and their vassals dwelt. Rachel Esmond ruled like a little queen in Castlewood; the princes, her neighbours, governed their estates round about. Many of these were rather needy potentates, living plentifully but in the roughest fashion, having numerous domestics whose liveries were often ragged; keeping open houses, and turning away no stranger from their gates; proud, idle, fond of all sorts of field sports as became gentlemen of good lineage. The widow of Castlewood was as hospitable as her neighbours, and a better economist than most of them. More than one, no doubt, would have had no objection to share her life-interest in the estate, and supply the place of papa to her boys. But where was the man good enough for a person of her ladyship’s exalted birth? There was a talk of making the Duke of Cumberland viceroy, or even king, over America. Madam Warrington’s gossips laughed, and said she was waiting for him. She remarked, with much gravity and dignity, that persons of as high birth as his Royal Highness had made offers of alliance to the Esmond family.

She had, as lieutenant under her, an officer’s widow who has been before named, and who had been Madam Esmond’s companion at school, as her late husband had been the regimental friend of the late Mr. Warrington. When the English girls at the Kensington Academy, where Rachel Esmond had her education, teased and tortured the little American stranger, and laughed at the princified airs which she gave herself from a very early age, Fanny Parker defended and befriended her. They both married ensigns in Kingsley’s. They became tenderly attached to each other. It was “my Fanny” and “my Rachel” in the letters of the young ladies. Then, my Fanny’s husband died in sad out-at-elbowed circumstances, leaving no provision for his widow and her infant; and, in one of his annual voyages, Captain Franks brought over Mrs. Mountain, in the Young Rachel, to Virginia.

There was plenty of room in Castlewood House, and Mrs. Mountain served to enliven the place. She played cards with the mistress: she had some knowledge of music, and could help the eldest boy in that way: she laughed and was pleased with the guests: she saw to the strangers’ chambers, and presided over the presses and the linen. She was a kind, brisk, jolly-looking widow, and more than one unmarried gentleman of the colony asked her to change her name for his own. But she chose to keep that of Mountain, though, and perhaps because, it had brought her no good fortune. One marriage was enough for her, she said. Mr. Mountain had amiably spent her little fortune and his own. Her last trinkets went to pay his funeral; and, as long as Madam Warrington would keep her at Castlewood, she preferred a home without a husband to any which as yet had been offered to her in Virginia. The two ladies quarrelled plentifully; but they loved each other: they made up their differences: they fell out again, to be reconciled presently. When either of the boys was ill, each lady vied with the other in maternal tenderness and care. In his last days and illness, Mrs. Mountain’s cheerfulness and kindness had been greatly appreciated by the Colonel, whose memory Madam Warrington regarded more than that of any living person. So that, year after year, when Captain Franks would ask Mrs. Mountain, in his pleasant way, whether she was going back with him that voyage? she would decline, and say that she proposed to stay a year more.

And when suitors came to Madam Warrington, as come they would, she would receive their compliments and attentions kindly enough, and asked more than one of these lovers whether it was Mrs. Mountain he came after? She would use her best offices with Mountain. Fanny was the best creature, was of a good English family, and would make any gentleman happy. Did the Squire declare it was to her and not her dependant that he paid his addresses; she would make him her gravest curtsey, say that she really had been utterly mistaken as to his views, and let him know that the daughter of the Marquis of Esmond lived for her people and her sons, and did not propose to change her condition. Have we not read how Queen Elizabeth was a perfectly sensible woman of business, and was pleased to inspire not only terror and awe, but love in the bosoms of her subjects? So the little Virginian princess had her favourites, and accepted their flatteries, and grew tired of them, and was cruel or kind to them as suited her wayward imperial humour. There was no amount of compliment which she would not graciously receive and take as her due. Her little foible was so well known that the wags used to practise upon it. Rattling Jack Firebrace of Henrico county had free quarters for months at Castlewood, and was a prime favourite with the lady there, because he addressed verses to her which he stole out of the pocket-books. Tom Humbold of Spotsylvania wagered fifty hogsheads against five that he would make her institute an order of knighthood, and won his wager.

The elder boy saw these freaks and oddities of his good mother’s disposition, and chafed and raged at them privately. From very early days he revolted when flatteries and compliments were paid to the little lady, and strove to expose them with his juvenile satire; so that his mother would say gravely, “The Esmonds were always of a jealous disposition, and my poor boy takes after my father and mother in this.” George hated Jack Firebrace and Tom Humbold, and all their like; whereas Harry went out sporting with them, and fowling, and fishing, and cock-fighting, and enjoyed all the fun of the country.

One winter, after their first tutor had been dismissed, Madam Esmond took them to Williamsburg, for such education as the schools and college there afforded, and there it was the fortune of the family to listen to the preaching of the famous Mr. Whitfield, who had come into Virginia, where the habits and preaching of the established clergy were not very edifying. Unlike many of the neighbouring provinces, Virginia was a Church of England colony: the clergymen were paid by the State and had glebes allotted to them; and, there being no Church of England bishop as yet in America, the colonists were obliged to import their divines from the mother-country. Such as came were not, naturally, of the very best or most eloquent kind of pastors. Noblemen’s hangers-on, insolvent parsons who had quarrelled with justice or the bailiff, brought their stained cassocks into the colony in the hopes of finding a living there. No wonder that Whitfield’s great voice stirred those whom harmless Mr. Broadbent, the Williamsburg chaplain, never could awaken. At first the boys were as much excited as their mother by Mr. Whitfield: they sang hymns, and listened to him with fervour, and, could he have remained long enough among them, Harry and George had both worn black coats probably instead of epaulettes. The simple boys communicated their experiences to one another, and were on the daily and nightly look-out for the sacred “call,” in the hope or the possession of which such a vast multitude of Protestant England was thrilling at the time.

But Mr. Whitfield could not stay always with the little congregation of Williamsburg. His mission was to enlighten the whole benighted people of the Church, and from the East to the West to trumpet the truth and bid slumbering sinners awaken. However, he comforted the widow with precious letters, and promised to send her a tutor for her sons who should be capable of teaching them not only profane learning, but of strengthening and confirming them in science much more precious.

In due course, a chosen vessel arrived from England. Young Mr. Ward had a voice as loud as Mr. Whitfield’s, and could talk almost as readily and for as long a time. Night and evening the hall sounded with his exhortations. The domestic negroes crept to the doors to listen to him. Other servants darkened the porch windows with their crisp heads to hear him discourse. It was over the black sheep of the Castlewood flock that Mr. Ward somehow had the most influence. These woolly lamblings were immensely affected by his exhortations, and, when he gave out the hymn, there was such a negro chorus about the house as might be heard across the Potomac — such a chorus as would never have been heard in the Colonel’s time — for that worthy gentleman had a suspicion of all cassocks, and said he would never have any controversy with a clergyman but upon backgammon. Where money was wanted for charitable purposes no man was more ready, and the good, easy Virginian clergyman, who loved backgammon heartily, too, said that the worthy Colonel’s charity must cover his other shortcomings.

Ward was a handsome young man. His preaching pleased Madam Esmond from the first, and, I daresay, satisfied her as much as Mr. Whitfield’s. Of course it cannot be the case at the present day when they are so finely educated, but women, a hundred years ago, were credulous, eager to admire and believe, and apt to imagine all sorts of excellences in the object of their admiration. For weeks, nay, months, Madam Esmond was never tired of hearing Mr. Ward’s great glib voice and voluble commonplaces: and, according to her wont, she insisted that her neighbours should come and listen to him, and ordered them to be converted. Her young favourite, Mr. Washington, she was especially anxious to influence; and again and again pressed him to come and stay at Castlewood and benefit by the spiritual advantages there to be obtained. But that young gentleman found he had particular business which called him home or away from home, and always ordered his horse of evenings when the time was coming for Mr. Ward’s exercises. And — what boys are just towards their pedagogue? — the twins grew speedily tired and even rebellious under their new teacher.

They found him a bad scholar, a dull fellow, and ill-bred to boot. George knew much more Latin and Greek than his master, and caught him in perpetual blunders and false quantities. Harry, who could take much greater liberties than were allowed to his elder brother, mimicked Ward’s manner of eating and talking, so that Mrs. Mountain and even Madam Esmond were forced to laugh, and little Fanny Mountain would crow with delight. Madam Esmond would have found the fellow out for a vulgar quack but for her sons’ opposition, which she, on her part, opposed with her own indomitable will. “What matters whether he has more or less of profane learning?” she asked; “in that which is most precious, Mr. W. is able to be a teacher to all of us. What if his manners are a little rough? Heaven does not choose its elect from among the great and wealthy. I wish you knew one book, children, as well as Mr. Ward does. It is your wicked pride — the pride of all the Esmonds — which prevents you from listening to him. Go down on your knees in your chamber and pray to be corrected of that dreadful fault.” Ward’s discourse that evening was about Naaman the Syrian, and the pride he had in his native rivers of Abana and Pharpar, which he vainly imagined to be superior to the healing waters of Jordan — the moral being, that he, Ward, was the keeper and guardian of the undoubted waters of Jordan, and that the unhappy, conceited boys must go to perdition unless they came to him.

George now began to give way to a wicked sarcastic method, which, perhaps, he had inherited from his grandfather, and with which, when a quiet, skilful young person chooses to employ it, he can make a whole family uncomfortable. He took up Ward’s pompous remarks and made jokes of them, so that that young divine chafed and almost choked over his great meals. He made Madam Esmond angry, and doubly so when he sent off Harry into fits of laughter. Her authority was defied, her officer scorned and insulted, her youngest child perverted, by the obstinate elder brother. She made a desperate and unhappy attempt to maintain her power.

The boys were fourteen years of age, Harry being taller and much more advanced than his brother, who was delicate, and as yet almost childlike in stature and appearance. The baculine method was a quite common mode of argument in those days. Sergeants, schoolmasters, slave-overseers, used the cane freely. Our little boys had been horsed many a day by Mr. Dempster, their Scotch tutor, in their grandfather’s time; and Harry, especially, had got to be quite accustomed to the practice, and made very light of it. But, in the interregnum after Colonel Esmond’s death, the cane had been laid aside, and the young gentlemen of Castlewood had been allowed to have their own way. Her own and her lieutenant’s authority being now spurned by the youthful rebels, the unfortunate mother thought of restoring it by means of coercion. She took counsel of Mr. Ward. That athletic young pedagogue could easily find chapter and verse to warrant the course which he wished to pursue — in fact, there was no doubt about the wholesomeness of the practice in those clays. He had begun by flattering the boys, finding a good berth and snug quarters at Castlewood, and hoping to remain there.

But they laughed at his flattery, they scorned his bad manners, they yawned soon at his sermons; the more their mother favoured him, the more they disliked him; and so the tutor and the pupils cordially hated each other. Mrs. Mountain, who was the boys’ friend, especially George’s friend, whom she thought unjustly treated by his mother, warned the lads to be prudent, and that some conspiracy was hatching against them. “Ward is more obsequious than ever to your mamma. It turns my stomach, it does, to hear him flatter, and to see him gobble — the odious wretch! You must be on your guard, my poor boys — you must learn your lessons, and not anger your tutor. A mischief will come, I know it will. Your mamma was talking about you to Mr. Washington the other day, when I came into the room. I don’t like that Major Washington, you know I don’t. Don’t say — O Mounty! Master Harry. You always stand up for your friends, you do. The Major is very handsome and tall, and he may be very good, but he is much too old a young man for me. Bless you, my dears, the quantity of wild oats your father sowed and my own poor Mountain when they were ensigns in Kingsley’s, would fill sacks full! Show me Mr. Washington’s wild oats, I say — not a grain! Well, I happened to step in last Tuesday, when he was here with your mamma; and I am sure they were talking about you, for he said, ‘Discipline is discipline, and must be preserved. There can be but one command in a house, ma’am, and you must be the mistress of yours.’”

“The very words he used to me,” cries Harry. “He told me that he did not like to meddle with other folks’ affairs, but that our mother was very angry, dangerously angry, he said, and he begged me to obey Mr. Ward, and specially to press George to do so.”

“Let him manage his own house, not mine,” says George, very haughtily. And the caution, far from benefiting him, only rendered the lad more supercilious and refractory.

On the next day the storm broke, and vengeance fell on the little rebel’s head. Words passed between George and Mr. Ward during the morning study. The boy was quite insubordinate and unjust: even his faithful brother cried out, and owned that he was in the wrong. Mr. Ward kept his temper — to compress, bottle up, cork down, and prevent your anger from present furious explosion, is called keeping your temper — and said he should speak upon this business to Madam Esmond. When the family met at dinner, Mr. Ward requested her ladyship to stay, and, temperately enough, laid the subject of dispute before her.

He asked Master Harry to confirm what he had said: and poor Harry was obliged to admit all the dominie’s statements.

George, standing under his grandfather’s portrait by the chimney, said haughtily that what Mr. Ward had said was perfectly correct.

“To be a tutor to such a pupil is absurd,” said Mr. Ward, making a long speech, interspersed with many of his usual Scripture phrases, at each of which, as they occurred, that wicked young George smiled, and pished scornfully, and at length Ward ended by asking her honour’s leave to retire.

“Not before you have punished this wicked and disobedient child,” said Madam Esmond, who had been gathering anger during Ward’s harangue, and especially at her son’s behaviour.

“Punish!” says George.

“Yes, sir, punish! If means of love and entreaty fail, as they have with your proud heart, other means must be found to bring you to obedience. I punish you now, rebellious boy, to guard you from greater punishment hereafter. The discipline of this family must be maintained. There can be but one command in a house, and I must be the mistress of mine. You will punish this refractory boy, Mr. Ward, as we have agreed that you should do, and if there is the least resistance on his part, my overseer and servants will lend you aid.”

In some such words the widow no doubt must have spoken, but with many vehement Scriptural allusions, which it does not become this chronicler to copy. To be for ever applying to the Sacred Oracles, and accommodating their sentences to your purpose — to be for ever taking Heaven into your confidence about your private affairs, and passionately calling for its interference in your family quarrels and difficulties — to be so familiar with its designs and schemes as to be able to threaten your neighbour with its thunders, and to know precisely its intentions regarding him and others who differ from your infallible opinion — this was the schooling which our simple widow had received from her impetuous young spiritual guide, and I doubt whether it brought her much comfort.

In the midst of his mother’s harangue, in spite of it, perhaps, George Esmond felt he had been wrong. “There can be but one command in the house, and you must be mistress — I know who said those words before you,” George said, slowly, and looking very white —“and — and I know, mother, that I have acted wrongly to Mr. Ward.”

“He owns it! He asks pardon!” cries Harry. “That’s right, George! That’s enough: isn’t it?”

“No, it is not enough!” cried the little woman. “The disobedient boy must pay the penalty of his disobedience. When I was headstrong, as I sometimes was as a child before my spirit was changed and humbled, my mamma punished me, and I submitted. So must George. I desire you will do your duty, Mr. Ward.”

“Stop, mother! — you don’t quite know what you are doing,” George said, exceedingly agitated.

“I know that he who spares the rod spoils the child, ungrateful boy!” says Madam Esmond, with more references of the same nature, which George heard, looking very pale and desperate.

Upon the mantelpiece, under the Colonel’s portrait, stood a china cup, by which the widow set great store, as her father had always been accustomed to drink from it. George suddenly took it, and a strange smile passed over his pale face.

“Stay one minute. Don’t go away yet,” he cried to his mother, who was leaving the room. “You — you are very fond of this cup, mother?”— and Harry looked at him, wondering. “If I broke it, it could never be mended, could it? All the tinkers’ rivets would not make it a whole cup again. My dear old grandpapa’s cup! I have been wrong. Mr. Ward, I ask pardon. I will try and amend.”

The widow looked at her son indignantly, almost scornfully. “I thought,” she said, “I thought an Esmond had been more of a man than to be afraid, and —” here she gave a little scream as Harry uttered an exclamation, and dashed forward with his hands stretched out towards his brother.

George, after looking at the cup, raised it, opened his hand, and let it fall on the marble slab below him. Harry had tried in vain to catch it.

“It is too late, Hal,” George said. “You will never mend that again — never. Now, mother, I am ready, as it is your wish. Will you come and see whether I am afraid? Mr. Ward, I am your servant. Your servant? Your slave! And the next time I meet Mr. Washington, madam, I will thank him for the advice which he gave you.”

“I say, do your duty, sir!” cried Mrs. Esmond, stamping her little foot. And George, making a low bow to Mr. Ward, begged him to go first out of the room to the study.

“Stop! For God’s sake, mother, stop!” cried poor Hal. But passion was boiling in the little woman’s heart, and she would not hear the boy’s petition. “You only abet him, sir!” she cried. —“If I had to do it myself, it should be done!” And Harry, with sadness and wrath in his countenance, left the room by the door through which Mr. Ward and his brother had just issued.

The widow sank down on a great chair near it, and sat a while vacantly looking at the fragments of the broken cup. Then she inclined her head towards the door — one of half a dozen of carved mahogany which the Colonel had brought from Europe. For a while there was silence: then a loud outcry, which made the poor mother start.

In another minute Mr. Ward came out bleeding, from a great wound on his head, and behind him Harry, with flaring eyes, and brandishing a little couteau-de-chasse of his grandfather, which hung, with others of the Colonel’s weapons, on the library wall.

“I don’t care. I did it,” says Harry. “I couldn’t see this fellow strike my brother; and, as he lifted his hand, I flung the great ruler at him. I couldn’t help it. I won’t bear it; and, if one lifts a hand to me or my brother, I’ll have his life,” shouts Harry, brandishing the hanger.

The widow gave a great gasp and a sigh as she looked at the young champion and his victim. She must have suffered terribly during the few minutes of the boys’ absence; and the stripes which she imagined had been inflicted on the elder had smitten her own heart. She longed to take both boys to it. She was not angry now. Very likely she was delighted with the thought of the younger’s prowess and generosity. “You are a very naughty disobedient child,” she said, in an exceedingly peaceable voice. “My poor Mr. Ward! What a rebel, to strike you! Papa’s great ebony ruler, was it? Lay down that hanger, child. ’Twas General Webb gave it to my papa after the siege of Lille. Let me bathe your wound, my good Mr. Ward, and thank Heaven it was no worse. Mountain! Go fetch me some court-plaster out of the middle drawer in the japan cabinet. Here comes George. Put on your coat and waistcoat, child! You were going to take your punishment, sir, and that is sufficient. Ask pardon, Harry, of good Mr. Ward, for your wicked rebellious spirit — I do, with all my heart, I am sure. And guard against your passionate nature, child — and pray to be forgiven. My son, O my son!” Here, with a burst of tears which she could no longer control, the little woman threw herself on the neck of her eldest-born; whilst Harry, laying the hanger down, went up very feebly to Mr. Ward, and said, “Indeed, I ask your pardon, sir. I couldn’t help it; on my honour I couldn’t; nor bear to see my brother struck.”

The widow was scared, as after her embrace she looked up at George’s pale face. In reply to her eager caresses, he coldly kissed her on the forehead, and separated from her. “You meant for the best, mother,” he said, “and I was in the wrong. But the cup is broken; and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot mend it. There — put the fair side outwards on the mantelpiece, and the wound will not show.”

Again Madam Esmond looked at the lad, as he placed the fragments of the poor cup on the ledge where it had always been used to stand. Her power over him was gone. He had dominated her. She was not sorry for the defeat; for women like not only to conquer, but to be conquered; and from that day the young gentleman was master at Castlewood. His mother admired him as he went up to Harry, graciously and condescendingly gave Hal his hand, and said, “Thank you, brother!” as if he were a prince, and Harry a general who had helped him in a great battle.

Then George went up to Mr. Ward, who was still piteously bathing his eye and forehead in the water. “I ask pardon for Hal’s violence, sir,” George said, in great state. “You see, though we are very young, we are gentlemen, and cannot brook an insult from strangers. I should have submitted, as it was mamma’s desire; but I am glad she no longer entertains it.”

“And pray, sir, who is to compensate me?” says Mr. Ward; “who is to repair the insult done to me?”

“We are very young,” says George, with another of his old-fashioned bows. “We shall be fifteen soon. Any compensation that is usual amongst gentlemen”

“This, sir, to a minister of the Word!” bawls out Ward, starting up, and who knew perfectly well the lads’ skill in fence, having a score of times been foiled by the pair of them.

“You are not a clergyman yet. We thought you might like to be considered as a gentleman. We did not know.”

“A gentleman! I am a Christian, sir!” says Ward, glaring furiously, and clenching his great fists.

“Well, well, if you won’t fight, why don’t you forgive?” says Harry. “If you don’t forgive, why don’t you fight? That’s what I call the horns of a dilemma;” and he laughed his frank, jolly laugh.

But this was nothing to the laugh a few days afterwards, when, the quarrel having been patched up, along with poor Mr. Ward’s eye, the unlucky tutor was holding forth according to his custom. He tried to preach the boys into respect for him, to reawaken the enthusiasm which the congregation had felt for him; he wrestled with their manifest indifference, he implored Heaven to warm their cold hearts again, and to lift up those who were falling back. All was in vain. The widow wept no more at his harangues, was no longer excited by his loudest tropes and similes, nor appeared to be much frightened by the very hottest menaces with which he peppered his discourse. Nay, she pleaded headache, and would absent herself of an evening, on which occasion the remainder of the little congregation was very cold indeed. One day, then, Ward, still making desperate efforts to get back his despised authority, was preaching on the beauty of subordination, the present lax spirit of the age, and the necessity of obeying our spiritual and temporal rulers. “For why, my dear friends,” he nobly asked (he was in the habit of asking immensely dull questions, and straightway answering them with corresponding platitudes), “why are governors appointed, but that we should be governed? Why are tutors engaged, but that children should be taught?” (here a look at the boys). “Why are rulers ——” Here he paused, looking with a sad, puzzled face at the young gentlemen. He saw in their countenances the double meaning of the unlucky word he had uttered, and stammered, and thumped the table with his fist. “Why, I say, are rulers ——”

“Rulers,” says George, looking at Harry.

“Rulers!” says Hal, putting his hand to his eye, where the poor tutor still bore marks of the late scuffle. Rulers, o-ho! It was too much. The boys burst out in an explosion of laughter. Mrs. Mountain, who was full of fun, could not help joining in the chorus; and little Fanny, who had always behaved very demurely and silently at these ceremonies, crowed again, and clapped her little hands at the others laughing, not in the least knowing the reason why.

This could not be borne. Ward shut down the book before him; in a few angry, but eloquent and manly words, said he would speak no more in that place; and left Castlewood not in the least regretted by Madam Esmond, who had doted on him three months before.

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