The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Conticuere Omnes

Across the way, if the gracious reader will please to step over with us, he will find our young gentlemen at Lord Wrotham’s house, which his lordship has lent to his friend the General, and that little family party assembled, with which we made acquaintance at Oakhurst and Tunbridge Wells. James Wolfe has promised to come to dinner; but James is dancing attendance upon Miss Lowther, and would rather have a glance from her eyes than the finest kickshaws dressed by Lord Wrotham’s cook, or the dessert which is promised for the entertainment at which you are just going to sit down. You will make the sixth. You may take Mr. Wolfe’s place. You may be sure he won’t come. As for me, I will stand at the sideboard and report the conversation.

Note first, how happy the women look! When Harry Warrington was taken by those bailiffs, I had intended to tell you how the good Mrs. Lambert, hearing of the boy’s mishap, had flown to her husband, and had begged, implored, insisted, that her Martin should help him. “Never mind his rebeldom of the other day; never mind about his being angry that his presents were returned — of course anybody would be angry, much more such a high-spirited lad as Harry! Never mind about our being so poor, and wanting all our spare money for the boys at college; there must be some way of getting him out of the scrape. Did you not get Charles Watkins out of the scrape two years ago; and did he not pay you back every halfpenny? Yes; and you made a whole family happy, blessed be God! and Mrs. Watkins prays for you and blesses you to this very day, and I think everything has prospered with us since. And I have no doubt it has made you a major-general — no earthly doubt,” says the fond wife.

Now, as Martin Lambert requires very little persuasion to do a kind action, he in this instance lets himself be persuaded easily enough, and having made up his mind to seek for friend James Wolfe, and give bail for Harry, he takes his leave and his hat, and squeezes Theo’s hand, who seems to divine his errand (or perhaps that silly mamma has blabbed it), and kisses little Hetty’s flushed cheek, and away he goes out of the apartment where the girls and their mother are sitting, though he is followed out of the room by the latter.

When she is alone with him, that enthusiastic matron cannot control her feelings any longer. She flings her arms round her husband’s neck, kisses him a hundred and twenty-five times in an instant — calls God to bless him — cries plentifully on his shoulder; and in this sentimental attitude is discovered by old Mrs. Quiggett, my lord’s housekeeper, who is bustling about the house, and, I suppose, is quite astounded at the conjugal phenomenon.

“We have had a tiff, and we are making it up! Don’t tell tales out of school, Mrs. Quiggett!” says the gentleman, walking off.

“Well, I never!” says Mrs. Quiggett, with a shrill, strident laugh, like a venerable old cockatoo — which white, hook-nosed, long-lived bird Mrs. Quiggett strongly resembles. “Well, I never!” says Quiggett, laughing and shaking her old sides till all her keys, and, as one may fancy, her old ribs clatter and jingle.

“Oh, Quiggett!” sobs out Mrs. Lambert, “what a man that is!”

“You’ve been a-quarrelling, have you, mum, and making it up? That’s right.”

“Quarrel with him? He never told a greater story. My General is an angel, Quiggett. I should like to worship him. I should like to fall down at his boots and kiss ’em, I should! There never was a man so good as my General. What have I done to have such a man? How dare I have such a good husband?”

“My dear, I think there’s a pair of you,” says the old cockatoo; “and what would you like for your supper?”

When Lambert comes back very late to that meal, and tells what has happened, how Harry is free, and how his brother has come to life, and rescued him, you may fancy what a commotion the whole of those people are in! If Mrs. Lambert’s General was an angel before, what is he now! If she wanted to embrace his boots in the morning, pray what further office of wallowing degradation would she prefer in the evening? Little Hetty comes and nestles up to her father quite silent, and drinks a little drop out of his glass. Theo’s and mamma’s faces beam with happiness, like two moons of brightness. . . . After supper, those four at a certain signal fall down on their knees — glad homage paying in awful mirth-rejoicing, and with such pure joy as angels do, we read, for the sinner that repents. There comes a great knocking at the door whilst they are so gathered together. Who can be there? My lord is in the country miles off. It is past midnight now; so late have they been, so long have they been talking! I think Mrs. Lambert guesses who is there.

“This is George,” says a young gentleman, leading in another. “We have been to Aunt Bernstein. We couldn’t go to bed, Aunt Lambert, without coming to thank you too. You dear, dear, good ——” There is no more speech audible. Aunt Lambert is kissing Harry, Theo has snatched up Hetty who is as pale as death, and is hugging her into life again. George Warrington stands with his hat off, and then (when Harry’s transaction is concluded) goes up and kisses Mrs. Lambert’s hand: the General passes his across his eyes. I protest they are all in a very tender and happy state. Generous hearts sometimes feel it, when Wrong is forgiven, when Peace is restored, when Love returns that had been thought lost.

“We came from Aunt Bernstein’s; we saw lights here, you see; we couldn’t go to sleep without saying good-night to you all,” says Harry. “Could we, George?”

“’Tis certainly a famous nightcap you have brought us, boys,” says the General. “When are you to come and dine with us? To-morrow?” No, they must go to Madame Bernstein’s tomorrow.

The next day, then? Yes, they would come the next day — and that is the very day we are writing about: and this is the very dinner, at which, in the room of Lieutenant-Colonel James Wolfe, absent on private affairs, my gracious reader has just been invited to sit down.

To sit down, and why, if you please? Not to a mere Barmecide dinner — no, no — but to hear MR. GEORGE ESMOND WARRINGTON’S STATEMENT, which of course he is going to make. Here they all sit — not in my lord’s grand dining-room, you know, but in the snug study or parlour in front. The cloth has been withdrawn, the General has given the King’s health, the servants have left the room, the guests sit conticent, and so, after a little hemming and blushing, Mr. George proceeds:—

“I remember, at the table of our General, how the little Philadelphia agent, whose wit and shrewdness we had remarked at home, made the very objections to the conduct of the campaign of which its disastrous issue showed the justice. ‘Of course,’ says he, ‘your Excellency’s troops once before Fort Duquesne, such a weak little place will never be able to resist such a general, such an army, such artillery, as will there be found attacking it. But do you calculate, sir, on the difficulty of reaching the place? Your Excellency’s march will be through woods almost untrodden, over roads which you will have to make yourself, and your line will be some four miles long. This slender line, having to make its way through the forest, will be subject to endless attacks in front, in rear, in flank, by enemies whom you will never see, and whose constant practice in war is the dexterous laying of ambuscades.’—‘Psha, sir!’ says the General, ‘the savages may frighten your raw American militia’ (Thank your Excellency for the compliment, Mr. Washington seems to say, who is sitting at the table), ‘but the Indians will never make any impression on his Majesty’s regular troops.’—‘I heartily hope not, sir,’ says Mr. Franklin, with a sigh; and of course the gentlemen of the General’s family sneered at the postmaster, as at a pert civilian who had no call to be giving his opinion on matters entirely beyond his comprehension.

“We despised the Indians on our own side, and our commander made light of them and their service. Our officers disgusted the chiefs who were with us by outrageous behaviour to their women. There were not above seven or eight who remained with our force. Had we had a couple of hundred in our front on that fatal 9th of July, the event of the day must have been very different. They would have flung off the attack of the French Indians; they would have prevented the surprise and panic which ensued. ’Tis known now that the French had even got ready to give up their fort, never dreaming of the possibility of a defence, and that the French Indians themselves remonstrated against the audacity of attacking such an overwhelming force as ours.

“I was with our General with the main body of the troops when the firing began in front of us, and one aide-de-camp after another was sent forwards. At first the enemy’s attack was answered briskly by our own advanced people, and our men huzzaed and cheered with good heart. But very soon our fire grew slacker, whilst from behind every tree and bush round about us came single shots, which laid man after man low. We were marching in orderly line, the skirmishers in front, the colours and two of our small guns in the centre, the baggage well guarded bringing up the rear, and were moving over a ground which was open and clear for a mile or two, and for some half mile in breadth, a thick tangled covert of brushwood and trees on either side of us. After the firing had continued for some brief time in front, it opened from both sides of the environing wood on our advancing column. The men dropped rapidly, the officers in greater number than the men. At first, as I said, these cheered and answered the enemy’s fire, our guns even opening on the wood, and seeming to silence the French in ambuscade there. But the hidden rifle-firing began again. Our men halted, huddled up together, in spite of the shouts and orders of the General and officers to advance, and fired wildly into the brushwood — of course making no impression. Those in advance came running back on the main body frightened, and many of them wounded. They reported there were five thousand Frenchmen and a legion of yelling Indian devils in front, who were scalping our people as they fell. We could hear their cries from the wood around as our men dropped under their rifles. There was no inducing the people to go forward now. One aide-de-camp after another was sent forward, and never returned. At last it came to be my turn, and I was sent with a message to Captain Fraser of Halkett’s in front, which he was never to receive nor I to deliver.

“I had not gone thirty yards in advance when a rifle-ball struck my leg, and I fell straightway to the ground. I recollect a rush forward of Indians and Frenchmen after that, the former crying their fiendish war-cries, the latter as fierce as their savage allies. I was amazed and mortified to see how few of the whitecoats there were. Not above a score passed me; indeed there were not fifty in the accursed action in which two of the bravest regiments of the British army were put to rout.

“One of them, who was half Indian half Frenchman, with mocassins and a white uniform coat and cockade, seeing me prostrate on the ground, turned back and ran towards me, his musket clubbed over his head to dash my brains out and plunder me as I lay. I had my little fusil which my Harry gave me when I went on the campaign; it had fallen by me and within my reach, luckily: I seized it, and down fell the Frenchman dead at six yards before me. I was saved for that time, but bleeding from my wound and very faint. I swooned almost in trying to load my piece, and it dropped from my hand, and the hand itself sank lifeless to the ground.

“I was scarcely in my senses, the yells and shots ringing dimly in my ears, when I saw an Indian before me, busied over the body of the Frenchman I had just shot, but glancing towards me as I lay on the ground bleeding. He first rifled the Frenchman, tearing open his coat, and feeling in his pockets: he then scalped him, and with his bleeding knife in his mouth advanced towards me. I saw him coming as through a film, as in a dream — I was powerless to move, or to resist him.

“He put his knee upon my chest: with one bloody hand he seized my long hair and lifted my head from the ground, and as he lifted it, he enabled me to see a French officer rapidly advancing behind him.

“Good God! It was young Florac, who was my second in the duel at Quebec. ‘A moi, Florac!’ I cried out. ‘C’est Georges! aide moi!’

“He started; ran up to me at the cry, laid his hand on the Indian’s shoulder, and called him to hold. But the savage did not understand French, or choose to understand it. He clutched my hair firmer, and waving his dripping knife round it, motioned to the French lad to leave him to his prey. I could only cry out again and piteously, ‘A moi!’

“‘Ah, canaille, tu veux du sang? Prends!’ said Florac, with a curse; and the next moment, and with an ugh, the Indian fell over my chest dead, with Florac’s sword through his body.

“My friend looked round him. ‘Eh!’ says he, ‘la belle affaire! Where art thou wounded? in the leg?’ He bound my leg tight round with his sash. ‘The others will kill thee if they find thee here. Ah, tiens! Put me on this coat, and this hat with the white cockade. Call out in French if any of our people pass. They will take thee for one of us. Thou art Brunet of the Quebec Volunteers. God guard thee, Brunet! I must go forward. ’Tis a general debacle, and the whole of your redcoats are on the run, my poor boy.’ Ah, what a rout it was! What a day of disgrace for England!

“Florac’s rough application stopped the bleeding of my leg, and the kind creature helped me to rest against a tree, and to load my fusil, which he placed within reach of me, to protect me in case any other marauder should have a mind to attack me. And he gave me the gourd of that unlucky French soldier, who had lost his own life in the deadly game which he had just played against me, and the drink the gourd contained served greatly to refresh and invigorate me. Taking a mark of the tree against which I lay, and noting the various bearings of the country, so as to be able again to find me, the young lad hastened on to the front. ‘Thou seest how much I love thee, George,’ he said, ‘that I stay behind in a moment like this.’ I forget whether I told thee Harry, that Florac was under some obligation to me. I had won money of him at cards, at Quebec — only playing at his repeated entreaty — and there was a difficulty about paying, and I remitted his debt to me, and lighted my pipe with his note-of-hand. You see, sir, that you are not the only gambler in the family.

“At evening, when the dismal pursuit was over, the faithful fellow came back to me, with a couple of Indians, who had each reeking scalps at their belts, and whom he informed that I was a Frenchman, his brother, who had been wounded early in the day, and must be carried back to the fort. They laid me in one of their blankets, and carried me, groaning, with the trusty Florac by my side. Had he left me, they would assuredly have laid me down, plundered me, and added my hair to that of the wretches whose bleeding spoils hung at their girdles. He promised them brandy at the fort, if they brought me safely there: I have but a dim recollection of the journey: the anguish of my wound was extreme: I fainted more than once. We came to the end of our march at last. I was taken into the fort, and carried to the officer’s log-house, and laid upon Florac’s own bed.

“Happy for me was my insensibility. I had been brought into the fort as a wounded French soldier of the garrison. I heard afterwards, that during my delirium the few prisoners who had been made on the day of our disaster, had been brought under the walls of Duquesne by their savage captors, and there horribly burned, tortured, and butchered by the Indians, under the eyes of the garrison.”

As George speaks, one may fancy a thrill of horror running through his sympathising audience. Theo takes Hetty’s hand, and looks at George in a very alarmed manner. Harry strikes his fist upon the table, and cries, “The bloody, murderous, red-skinned villains! There will never be peace for us until they are all hunted down!”

“They were offering a hundred and thirty dollars apiece for Indian scalps in Pennsylvania, when I left home,” says George, demurely, “and fifty for women.”

“Fifty for women, my love! Do you hear that, Mrs. Lambert?” cries the Colonel, lifting up his wife’s hair.

“The murderous villains!” says Harry, again. “Hunt ’em down, sir! Hunt ’em down!”

“I know not how long I lay in my fever,” George resumed. “When I awoke to my senses, my dear Florac was gone. He and his company had been despatched on an enterprise against an English fort on the Pennsylvanian territory, which the French claimed, too. In Duquesne, when I came to be able to ask and understand what was said to me, there were not above thirty Europeans left. The place might have been taken over and over again, had any of our people had the courage to return after their disaster.

“My old enemy the ague-fever set in again upon me as I lay here by the river-side. ’Tis a wonder how I ever survived. But for the goodness of a half-breed woman in the fort, who took pity on me, and tended me, I never should have recovered, and my poor Harry would be what he fancied himself yesterday, our grandfather’s heir, our mother’s only son.

“I remembered how, when Florac laid me in his bed, he put under my pillow my money, my watch, and a trinket or two which I had. When I woke to myself these were all gone; and a surly old sergeant, the only officer left in the quarter, told me, with a curse, that I was lucky enough to be left with my life at all; that it was only my white cockade and coat had saved me from the fate which the other canaille of Rosbifs had deservedly met with.

“At the time of my recovery the fort was almost emptied of the garrison. The Indians had retired enriched with British plunder, and the chief part of the French regulars were gone upon expeditions northward. My good Florac had left me upon his service, consigning me to the care of an invalided sergeant. Monsieur de Contrecoeur had accompanied one of these expeditions, leaving an old lieutenant, Museau by name, in command at Duquesne.

“This man had long been out of France, and serving in the colonies. His character, doubtless, had been indifferent at home; and he knew that, according to the system pursued in France, where almost all promotion is given to the noblesse, he never would advance in rank. And he had made free with my guineas, I suppose, as he had with my watch, for I saw it one day on his chest when I was sitting with him in his quarter.

“Monsieur Museau and I managed to be pretty good friends. If I could be exchanged, or sent home, I told him that my mother would pay liberally for my ransom; and I suppose this idea excited the cupidity of the commandant, for a trapper coming in the winter, whilst I still lay very ill with fever, Museau consented that I should write home to my mother, but that the letter should be in French, that he should see it, and that I should say I was in the hands of the Indians, and should not be ransomed under ten thousand livres.

“In vain I said I was a prisoner to the troops of his Most Christian Majesty, that I expected the treatment of a gentleman and an officer. Museau swore that letter should go, and no other; that if I hesitated, he would fling me out of the fort, or hand me over to the tender mercies of his ruffian Indian allies. He would not let the trapper communicate with me except in his presence. Life and liberty are sweet. I resisted for a while, but I was pulled down with weakness, and shuddering with fever; I wrote such a letter as the rascal consented to let pass, and the trapper went away with my missive, which he promised, in three weeks, to deliver to my mother in Virginia.

“Three weeks, six, twelve, passed. The messenger never returned. The winter came and went, and all our little plantations round the fort, where the French soldiers had cleared corn-ground and planted gardens and peach — and apple-trees down to the Monongahela, were in full blossom. Heaven knows how I crept through the weary time! When I was pretty well, I made drawings of the soldiers of the garrison, and of the half-breed and her child (Museau’s child), and of Museau himself, whom, I am ashamed to say, I flattered outrageously; and there was an old guitar left in the fort, and I sang to it, and played on it some French airs which I knew, and ingratiated myself as best I could with my gaolers; and so the weary months passed, but the messenger never returned.

“At last news arrived that he had been shot by some British Indians in Maryland: so there was an end of my hope of ransom for some months more. This made Museau very savage and surly towards me; the more so as his sergeant inflamed his rage by telling him that the Indian woman was partial to me — as I believe, poor thing, she was. I was always gentle with her, and grateful to her. My small accomplishments seemed wonders in her eyes; I was ill and unhappy, too, and these are always claims to a woman’s affection.

“A captive pulled down by malady, a ferocious gaoler, and a young woman touched by the prisoner’s misfortunes — sure you expect that, with these three prime characters in a piece, some pathetic tragedy is going to be enacted? You, Miss Hetty, are about to guess that the woman saved me?”

“Why, of course she did!” cries mamma.

“What else is she good for?” says Hetty.

“You, Miss Theo, have painted her already as a dark beauty — is it not so? A swift huntress —”

“Diana with a baby,” says the Colonel.

“— Who scours the plain with her nymphs, who brings down the game with her unerring bow, who is queen of the forest — and I see by your looks that you think I am madly in love with her?”

“Well, I suppose she is an interesting creature, Mr. George?” says Theo, with a blush.

“What think you of a dark beauty, the colour of new mahogany with long straight black hair, which was usually dressed with a hair-oil or pomade by no means pleasant to approach, with little eyes, with high cheek-bones, with a flat nose, sometimes ornamented with a ring, with rows of glass beads round her tawny throat, her cheeks and forehead gracefully tattooed, a great love of finery, and inordinate passion for — oh! must I own it?”

“For coquetry. I know you are going to say that!” says Miss Hetty.

“For whisky, my dear Miss Hester — in which appetite my gaoler partook; so that I have often sate by, on the nights when I was in favour with Monsieur Museau, and seen him and his poor companion hob-and-nobbing together until they could scarce hold the noggin out of which they drank. In these evening entertainments, they would sing, they would dance, they would fondle, they would quarrel, and knock the cans and furniture about; and, when I was in favour, I was admitted to share their society, for Museau, jealous of his dignity, or not willing that his men should witness his behaviour, would allow none of them to be familiar with him.

“Whilst the result of the trapper’s mission to my home was yet uncertain, and Museau and I myself expected the payment of my ransom, I was treated kindly enough, allowed to crawl about the fort, and even to go into the adjoining fields and gardens, always keeping my parole, and duly returning before gun-fire. And I exercised a piece of hypocrisy, for which, I hope, you will hold me excused. When my leg was sound (the ball came out in the winter, after some pain and inflammation, and the wound healed up presently), I yet chose to walk as if I was disabled and a cripple; I hobbled on two sticks, and cried Ah! and Oh! at every minute, hoping that a day might come when I might treat my limbs to a run.

“Museau was very savage when he began to give up all hopes of the first messenger. He fancied that the man might have got the ransom-money and fled with it himself. Of course he was prepared to disown any part in the transaction, should my letter be discovered. His treatment of me varied according to his hopes or fears, or even his mood for the time being. He would have me consigned to my quarters for several days at a time; then invite me to his tipsy supper-table, quarrel with me there, and abuse my nation; or again break out into maudlin sentimentalities about his native country of Normandy, where he longed to spend his old age, to buy a field or two, and to die happy.

“‘Eh, Monsieur Museau!’ says I, ‘ten thousand livres of your money would buy a pretty field or two in your native country? You can have it for the ransom of me, if you will but let me go. In a few months you must be superseded in your command here, and then adieu the crowns and the fields in Normandy! You had better trust a gentleman and a man of honour. Let me go home, and I give you my word the ten thousand livres shall be paid to any agent you may appoint in France or in Quebec.’

“‘Ah, young traitor!’ roars he, ‘do you wish to tamper with my honour? Do you believe an officer of France will take a bribe? I have a mind to consign thee to my black-hole, and to have thee shot in the morning.’

“‘My poor body will never fetch ten thousand livres,’ says I; ‘and a pretty field in Normandy with a cottage . . .’

“‘And an orchard. Ah, sacre bleu!’ says Museau, whimpering, ‘and a dish of tripe a la mode du pays! . . .”

“This talk happened between us again and again, and Museau would order me to my quarters, and then ask me to supper the next night, and return to the subject of Normandy, and cider, and trippes a la mode de Caen. My friend is dead now —”

“He was hung, I trust?” breaks in Colonel Lambert.

“— And I need keep no secret about him. Ladies, I wish I had to offer you the account of a dreadful and tragical escape; how I slew all the sentinels of the fort; filed through the prison windows, destroyed a score or so of watchful dragons, overcame a million of dangers, and finally effected my freedom. But, in regard of that matter, I have no heroic deeds to tell of, and own that, by bribery and no other means, I am where I am.”

“But you would have fought, Georgy, if need were,” says Harry; “and you couldn’t conquer a whole garrison, you know!” And herewith Mr. Harry blushed very much.

“See the women, how disappointed they are!” says Lambert. “Mrs. Lambert, you bloodthirsty woman, own that you are balked of a battle; and look at Hetty, quite angry because Mr. George did not shoot the commandant.”

“You wished he was hung yourself, papa!” cries Miss Hetty, “and I am sure I wish anything my papa wishes.”

“Nay, ladies,” says George, turning a little red, “to wink at a prisoner’s escape was not a very monstrous crime; and to take money? Sure other folks besides Frenchmen have condescended to a bribe before now. Although Monsieur Museau set me free, I am inclined, for my part, to forgive him. Will it please you to hear how that business was done? You see, Miss Hetty, I cannot help being alive to tell it.”

“Oh, George! — that is, I mean, Mr. Warrington! — that is, I mean, I beg your pardon!” cries Hester.

“No pardon, my dear! I never was angry yet or surprised that any one should like my Harry better than me. He deserves all the liking that any man or woman can give him. See, it is his turn to blush now,” says George.

“Go on, Georgy, and tell them about the escape out of Duquesne!” cries Harry, and he said to Mrs. Lambert afterwards in confidence, “You know he is always going on saying that he ought never to have come to life again, and declaring that I am better than he is. The idea of my being better than George, Mrs. Lambert! a poor, extravagant fellow like me! It’s absurd!”

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