The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Where we remain at the Court End of the Town

George Warrington had related the same story, which we have just heard, to Madame de Bernstein on the previous evening — a portion, that is, of the history; for the old lady nodded off to sleep many times during the narration, only waking up when George paused, saying it was most interesting, and ordering him to continue. The young gentleman hem’d and ha’d, and stuttered, and blushed, and went on, much against his will, and did not speak half so well as he did to his friendly little auditory in Hill Street, where Hetty’s eyes of wonder and Theo’s sympathising looks, and mamma’s kind face, and papa’s funny looks, were applause sufficient to cheer any modest youth who required encouragement for his eloquence. As for mamma’s behaviour, the General said, ’twas as good as Mr. Addison’s trunk-maker, and she would make the fortune of any tragedy by simply being engaged to cry in the front boxes. That is why we chose my Lord Wrotham’s house as the theatre where George’s first piece should be performed, wishing that he should speak to advantage, and not as when he was heard by that sleepy, cynical old lady, to whom he had to narrate his adventures.

“Very good and most interesting, I am sure, my dear sir,” says Madame Bernstein, putting up three pretty little fingers covered with a lace mitten, to hide a convulsive movement of her mouth. “And your mother must have been delighted to see you.”

George shrugged his shoulders ever so little, and made a low bow, as his aunt looked up at him for a moment with her keen old eyes.

“Have been delighted to see you” she continued drily, “and killed the fatted calf, and — and that kind of thing. Though why I say calf, I don’t know, nephew George, for you never were the prodigal. I may say calf to thee, my poor Harry! Thou hast been amongst the swine sure enough. And evil companions have robbed the money out of thy pocket and the coat off thy back.

“He came to his family in England, madam,” says George, with some heat, “and his friends were your ladyship’s.”

“He could not have come to worse advisers, nephew Warrington, and so I should have told my sister earlier, had she condescended to write to me by him, as she has done by you,” said the old lady, tossing up her head. “Hey! hey!” she said, at night, as she arranged herself for the rout to which she was going, to her waiting-maid: “this young gentleman’s mother is half sorry that he has come to life again, I could see that in his face. She is half sorry, and I am perfectly furious! Why didn’t he lie still when he dropped there under the tree, and why did that young Florac carry him to the fort? I knew those Floracs when I was at Paris, in the time of Monsieur le Regent. They were of the Floracs of Ivry. No great house before Henri IV. His ancestor was the king’s favourite. His ancestor — he! he! — his ancestress! Brett! entendez-vous? Give me my card-purse. I don’t like the grand airs of this Monsieur George; and yet he resembles, very much, his grandfather — the same look and sometimes the same tones. You have heard of Colonel Esmond when I was young? This boy has his eyes. I suppose I liked the Colonel’s because he loved me.”

Being engaged, then, to a card-party — an amusement which she never missed, week-day or Sabbath, as long as she had strength to hold trumps or sit in a chair — very soon after George had ended his narration the old lady dismissed her two nephews, giving to the elder a couple of fingers and a very stately curtsey; but to Harry two hands and a kindly pat on the cheek.

“My poor child, now thou art disinherited, thou wilt see how differently the world will use thee!” she said. “There is only, in all London, a wicked, heartless old woman who will treat thee as before. Here is a pocket-book for you, child! Do not lose it at Ranelagh to-night. That suit of yours does not become your brother half so well as it sat upon you! You will present your brother to everybody, and walk up and down the room for two hours at least, child. Were I you, I would then go to the Chocolate-House, and play as if nothing had happened. Whilst you are there, your brother may come back to me and eat a bit of chicken with me. My Lady Flint gives wretched suppers, and I want to talk his mother’s letter over with him. Au revoir, gentlemen!” and she went away to her toilette. Her chairmen and flambeaux were already waiting at the door.

The gentlemen went to Ranelagh, where but a few of Mr. Harry’s acquaintances chanced to be present. They paced the round, and met Mr. Tom Claypool with some of his country friends; they heard the music; they drank tea in a box; Harry was master of ceremonies, and introduced his brother to the curiosities of the place; and George was even more excited than his brother had been on his first introduction to this palace of delight. George loved music much more than Harry ever did; he heard a full orchestra for the first time, and a piece of Mr. Handel satisfactorily performed; and a not unpleasing instance of Harry’s humility and regard for his elder brother was, that he could even hold George’s love of music in respect at a time when fiddling was voted effeminate and unmanly in England, and Britons were, every day, called upon by the patriotic prints to sneer at the frivolous accomplishments of your Squallinis, Monsieurs, and the like. Nobody in Britain is proud of his ignorance now. There is no conceit left among us. There is no such thing as dulness. Arrogance is entirely unknown . . . Well, at any rate, Art has obtained her letters of naturalisation, and lives here on terms of almost equality. If Mrs. Thrale chose to marry a music-master now, I don’t think her friends would shudder at the mention of her name. If she had a good fortune and kept a good cook, people would even go and dine with her in spite of the misalliance, and actually treat Mr. Piozzi with civility.

After Ranelagh, and pursuant to Madam Bernstein’s advice, George returned to her ladyship’s house, whilst Harry showed himself at the club, where gentlemen were accustomed to assemble at night to sup, and then to gamble. No one, of course, alluded to Mr. Warrington’s little temporary absence, and Mr. Ruff, his ex-landlord, waited upon him with the utmost gravity and civility, and as if there had never been any difference between them. Mr. Warrington had caused his trunks and habiliments to be conveyed away from Bond Street in the morning, and he and his brother were now established in apartments elsewhere.

But when the supper was done, and the gentlemen, as usual, were about to seek the macco-table upstairs, Harry said he was not going to play any more. He had burned his fingers already, and could afford no more extravagance.

“Why,” says Mr. Morris, in a rather flippant manner, “you must have won more than you have lost, Mr. Warrington, after all is said and done.”

“And of course I don’t know my own business as well as you do, Mr. Morris,” says Harry sternly, who had not forgotten the other’s behaviour on hearing of his arrest; “but I have another reason. A few months or days ago, I was heir to a great estate, and could afford to lose a little money. Now, thank God, I am heir to nothing.” And he looked round, blushing not a little, to the knot of gentlemen, his gaming associates, who were lounging at the tables or gathered round the fire.

“How do you mean, Mr. Warrington?” cries my Lord March, “Have you lost Virginia, too? Who has won it? I always had a fancy to play you myself for that stake.”

“And grow an improved breed of slaves in the colony,” says another.

“The right owner has won it. You have heard me tell of my twin elder brother?”

“Who was killed in that affair of Braddock’s two years ago! Yes. Gracious goodness, my dear sir, I hope in heaven he has not come to life again?”

“He arrived in London two days since. He has been a prisoner in a French fort for eighteen months; he only escaped a few months ago, and left our house in Virginia very soon after his release.”

“You haven’t had time to order mourning, I suppose, Mr. Warrington?” asks Mr. Selwyn very good-naturedly, and simple Harry hardly knew the meaning of his joke until his brother interpreted it to him.

“Hang me, if I don’t believe the fellow is absolutely glad of the reappearance of his confounded brother!” cries my Lord March, as they continued to talk of the matter when the young Virginian had taken his leave.

“These savages practise the simple virtues of affection — they are barely civilised in America yet,” yawns Selwyn.

“They love their kindred, and they scalp their enemies,” simpers Mr. Walpole. “It’s not Christian, but natural. Shouldn’t you like to be present at a scalping-match, George, and see a fellow skinned alive?”

“A man’s elder brother is his natural enemy,” says Mr. Selwyn, placidly ranging his money and counters before him.

“Torture is like broiled bones and pepper. You wouldn’t relish simple hanging afterwards, George!” continues Horry.

“I’m hanged if there’s any man in England who would like to see his elder brother alive,” says my lord.

“No, nor his father either, my lord!” cries Jack Morris.

“First time I ever knew you had one, Jack. Give me counters for five hundred.”

“I say, ’tis all mighty fine about dead brothers coming to life again,” continues Jack. “Who is to know that it wasn’t a scheme arranged between these two fellows? Here comes a young fellow who calls himself the Fortunate Youth, who says he is a Virginian Prince and the deuce knows what, and who gets into our society ——”

A great laugh ensues at Jack’s phrase of “our society.”

“Who is to know that it wasn’t a cross?” Jack continues. “The young one is to come first. He is to marry an heiress, and, when he has got her, up is to rise the elder brother! When did this elder brother show? Why, when the younger’s scheme was blown, and all was up with him! Who shall tell me that the fellow hasn’t been living in Seven Dials, or in a cellar dining off tripe and cow-heel until my younger gentleman was disposed of? Dammy, as gentlemen, I think we ought to take notice of it: and that this Mr. Warrington has been taking a most outrageous liberty with the whole club.”

“Who put him up? It was March, I think, put him up?” asks a bystander.

“Yes. But my lord thought he was putting up a very different person. Didn’t you, March?”

“Hold your confounded tongue, and mind your game!” says the nobleman addressed: but Jack Morris’s opinion found not a few supporters in the world. Many persons agreed that it was most indecorous of Mr. Harry Warrington to have ever believed in his brother’s death: that there was something suspicious about the young man’s first appearance and subsequent actions, and, in fine, that regarding these foreigners, adventurers, and the like, we ought to be especially cautious.

Though he was out of prison and difficulty; though he had his aunt’s liberal donation of money in his pocket; though his dearest brother was restored to him, whose return to life Harry never once thought of deploring, as his friends at White’s supposed he would do; though Maria had shown herself in such a favourable light by her behaviour during his misfortune: yet Harry, when alone, felt himself not particularly cheerful, and smoked his pipe of Virginia with a troubled mind. It was not that he was deposed from his principality; the loss of it never once vexed him; he knew that his brother would share with him as he would have done with his brother; but after all those struggles and doubts in his own mind, to find himself poor, and yet irrevocably bound to his elderly cousin! Yes, she was elderly, there was no doubt about it. When she came to that horrible den in Cursitor Street and the tears washed her rouge off, why, she looked as old as his mother! her face was all wrinkled and yellow, and as he thought of her he felt just such a qualm as he had when she was taken ill that day in the coach on their road to Tunbridge. What would his mother say when he brought her home, and, Lord, what battles there would be between them! He would go and live on one of the plantations — the farther from home the better — and have a few negroes, and farm as best he might, and hunt a good deal; but at Castlewood or in her own home, such as he could make it for her, what a life for poor Maria, who had been used to go to court and to cards and balls and assemblies every night! If he could be but the overseer of the estates — oh, he would be an honest factor, and try and make up for his useless life and extravagance in these past days! Five thousand pounds, all his patrimony and the accumulations of his long minority squandered in six months! He a beggar, except for dear George’s kindness, with nothing in life left to him but an old wife — a pretty beggar, dressed out in velvet and silver lace forsooth — the poor lad was arrayed in his best clothes — a pretty figure he had made in Europe, and a nice end he was come to! With all his fine friends at White’s and Newmarket, with all his extravagance, had he been happy a single day since he had been in Europe? Yes, three days, four days, yesterday evening, when he had been with dear dear Mrs. Lambert, and those affectionate kind girls, and that brave good Colonel. And the Colonel was right when he rebuked him for his spendthrift follies, and he had been a brute to be angry as he had been, and God bless them all for their generous exertions in his behalf! Such were the thoughts which Harry put into his pipe, and he smoked them whilst he waited his brother’s return from Madame Bernstein.

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