The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Mr. Harry’s Nose continues to be put out of joint

Madame de Bernstein was scarcely less pleased than her Virginian nephews at the result of Harry’s final interview with Lady Maria. George informed the Baroness of what had passed, in a billet which he sent to her the same evening; and shortly afterwards her nephew Castlewood, whose visits to his aunt were very rare, came to pay his respects to her, and frankly spoke about the circumstances which had taken place; for no man knew better than my Lord Castlewood how to be frank upon occasion, and now that the business between Maria and Harry was ended what need was there of reticence or hypocrisy? The game had been played, and was over: he had no objection now to speak of its various moves, stratagems, finesses. “She is my own sister,” said my lord, affectionately; “she won’t have many more chances — many more such chances of marrying and establishing herself. I might not approve of the match in all respects, and I might pity your ladyship’s young Virginian favourite: but of course such a piece of good fortune was not to be thrown away, and I was bound to stand by my own flesh and blood.”

“Your candour does your lordship honour,” says Madame de Bernstein, “and your love for your sister is quite edifying!”

“Nay, we have lost the game, and I am speaking sans rancune. It is not for you, who have won, to bear malice,” says my lord, with a bow.

Madame de Bernstein protested she was never in her life in better humour. “Confess, now, Eugene, that visit of Maria to Harry at the spunging-house — that touching giving up of all his presents to her, was a stroke of thy invention?”

“Pity for the young man, and a sense of what was due from Maria to her friend — her affianced lover — in misfortune, sure these were motives sufficient to make her act as she did,” replies Lord Castlewood, demurely.

“But ’twas you advised her, my good nephew?”

Castlewood, with a shrug of his shoulders, owned that he did advise his sister to see Mr. Henry Warrington. “But we should have won, in spite of your ladyship,” he continued, “had not the elder brother made his appearance. And I have been trying to console my poor Maria by showing her what a piece of good fortune it is after all, that we lost.”

“Suppose she had married Harry, and then cousin George had made his appearance?” remarks the Baroness.

“Effectivement,” cries Eugene, taking snuff. “As the grave was to give up its dead, let us be thankful to the grave for disgorging in time! I am bound to say, that Mr. George Warrington seems to be a man of sense, and not more selfish than other elder sons and men of the world. My poor Molly fancied that he might be a — what shall I say? — a greenhorn perhaps is the term — like his younger brother. She fondly hoped that he might be inclined to go share and share alike with Twin junior; in which case, so infatuated was she about the young fellow, that I believe she would have taken him. ‘Harry Warrington, with half a loaf, might do very well,’ says I, ‘but Harry Warrington with no bread, my dear!’”

“How no bread?” asks the Baroness.

“Well, no bread except at his brother’s side-table. The elder said as much.”

“What a hard-hearted wretch!” cries Madame de Bernstein.

“Ah, bah! I play with you, aunt, cartes sur table! Mr. George only did what everybody else would do; and we have no right to be angry with him, really we haven’t. Molly herself acknowledged as much, after her first burst of grief was over, and I brought her to listen to reason. The silly old creature! to be so wild about a young lad at her time of life!”

“’Twas a real passion, I almost do believe,” said Madame de Bernstein.

“You should have heard her take leave of him. C’etait touchant, ma parole d’honneur! I cried. Before George, I could not help myself. The young fellow with muddy stockings, and his hair about his eyes, flings himself amongst us when we were at dinner; makes his offer to Molly in a very frank and noble manner, and in good language too; and she replies. Begad, it put me in mind of Mrs. Woffington in the new Scotch play, that Lord Bute’s man has wrote — Douglas — what d’ye call it? She clings round the lad: she bids him adieu in heartrending accents. She steps out of the room in a stately despair — no more chocolate, thank you. If she had made a mauvais pas no one could retire from it with more dignity. ’Twas a masterly retreat after a defeat. We were starved out of our position, but we retired with all the honours of war.”

“Molly won’t die of the disappointment!” said my lord’s aunt, sipping her cup.

My lord snarled a grin, and showed his yellow teeth. “He, he!” he said, “she hath once or twice before had the malady very severely, and recovered perfectly. It don’t kill, as your ladyship knows, at Molly’s age.”

How should her ladyship know? She did not marry Doctor Tusher until she was advanced in life. She did not become Madame de Bernstein until still later. Old Dido, a poet remarks, was not ignorant of misfortune, and hence learned to have compassion on the wretched.

People in the little world, as I have been told, quarrel and fight, and go on abusing each other, and are not reconciled for ever so long. But people in the great world are surely wiser in their generation. They have differences; they cease seeing each other. They make it up and come together again, and no questions are asked. A stray prodigal, or a stray puppy-dog, is thus brought in under the benefit of an amnesty, though you know he has been away in ugly company. For six months past, ever since the Castlewoods and Madame de Bernstein had been battling for possession of poor Harry Warrington, these two branches of the Esmond family had remained apart. Now, the question being settled, they were free to meet again, as though no difference ever had separated them: and Madame de Bernstein drove in her great coach to Lady Castlewood’s rout, and the Esmond ladies appeared smiling at Madame de Bernstein’s drums, and loved each other just as much as they previously had done.

“So, sir, I hear you have acted like a hard-hearted monster about your poor brother Harry!” says the Baroness, delighted, and menacing George with her stick.

“I acted but upon your ladyship’s hint, and desired to see whether it was for himself or his reputed money that his kinsfolk wanted to have him,” replies George, turning rather red.

“Nay, Maria could not marry a poor fellow who was utterly penniless, and whose elder brother said he would give him nothing!”

“I did it for the best, madam,” says George, still blushing.

“And so thou didst, O thou hypocrite!” cries the old lady.

“Hypocrite, madam! and why?” asks Mr. Warrington, drawing himself up in much state.

“I know all, my infant!” says the Baroness in French. “Thou art very like thy grandfather. Come, that I embrace thee! Harry has told me all, and that thou hast divided thy little patrimony with him!”

“It was but natural, madam. We have had common hearts and purses since we were born. I but feigned hard-heartedness in order to try those people yonder,” says George, with filling eyes.

“And thou wilt divide Virginia with him too?” asks the Bernstein.

“I don’t say so. It were not just,” replied Mr. Warrington. “The land must go to the eldest born, and Harry would not have it otherwise: and it may be I shall die, or my mother outlive the pair of us. But half of what is mine is his: and he, it must be remembered, only was extravagant because he was mistaken as to his position.”

“But it is a knight of old, it is a Bayard, it is the grandfather come to life!” cried Madame de Bernstein to her attendant, as she was retiring for the night. And that evening, when the lads left her, it was to poor Harry she gave the two fingers, and to George the rouged cheek, who blushed, for his part, almost as deep as that often-dyed rose, at such a mark of his old kinswoman’s favour.

Although Harry Warrington was the least envious of men, and did honour to his brother as in all respects his chief, guide, and superior, yet no wonder a certain feeling of humiliation and disappointment oppressed the young man after his deposition from his eminence as Fortunate Youth and heir to boundless Virginian territories. Our friends at Kensington might promise and vow that they would love him all the better after his fall; Harry made a low bow and professed himself very thankful; but he could not help perceiving, when he went with his brother to the state entertainment with which my Lord Castlewood regaled his new-found kinsman, that George was all in all to his cousins: had all the talk, compliments, and petits soins for himself, whilst of Harry no one took any notice save poor Maria, who followed him with wistful looks, pursued him with eyes conveying dismal reproaches, and, as it were, blamed him because she had left him. “Ah!” the eyes seemed to say, “’tis mighty well of you, Harry, to have accepted the freedom which I gave you; but I had no intention, sir, that you should be so pleased at being let off.” She gave him up, but yet she did not quite forgive him for taking her at her word. She would not have him, and yet she would. Oh, my young friends, how delightful is the beginning of a love-business, and how undignified, sometimes, the end! What a romantic vista is before young Damon and young Phillis (or middle-aged ditto ditto) when, their artless loves made known to each other, they twine their arms round each other’s waists and survey that charming pays du tendre which lies at their feet! Into that country, so linked together, they will wander from now until extreme old age. There may be rocks and roaring rivers, but will not Damon’s strong true love enable him to carry Sweetheart over them? There may be dragons and dangers in the path, but shall not his courageous sword cut them down? Then at eve, how they will rest cuddled together, like two pretty babes in the wood, the moss their couch, the stars their canopy, their arms their mutual pillows! This is the wise plan young folks make when they set out on the love journey; and — O me! — they have not got a mile when they come to a great wall and find they must walk back again. They are squabbling with the post-boy at Barnet (the first stage on the Gretna Road, I mean), and, behold, perhaps Strephon has not got any money, or here is papa with a whacking horsewhip, who takes Miss back again, and locks her up crying in the schoolroom. The parting is heart-breaking; but, when she has married the banker and had eight children, and he has become, it may be, a prosperous barrister — it may be, a seedy raff who has gone twice or thrice into the Gazette; when, I say, in after years Strephon and Delia meet again, is not the meeting ridiculous? Nevertheless, I hope no young man will fall in love, having any doubt in his mind as to the eternity of his passion. ’Tis when a man has had a second or third amorous attack that he begins to grow doubtful; but some women are romantic to the end, and from eighteen to eight-and-fifty (for what I know) are always expecting their hearts to break. In fine, when you have been in love and are so no more, when the King of France, with twenty thousand men, with colours flying, music playing, and all the pomp of war, having marched up the hill, then proceeds to march down again, he and you are in an absurd position.

This is what Harry Warrington, no doubt, felt when he went to Kensington and encountered the melancholy, reproachful eyes of his cousin. Yes! it is a foolish position to be in; but it is also melancholy to look into a house you have once lived in, and see black casements and emptiness where once shone the fires of welcome. Melancholy? Yes; but, ha! how bitter, how melancholy, how absurd to look up as you pass sentimentally by No. 13, and see somebody else grinning out of window, and evidently on the best terms with the landlady. I always feel hurt, even at an inn which I frequent, if I see other folks’ trunks and boots at the doors of the rooms which were once mine. Have those boots lolled on the sofa which once I reclined on? I kick you from before me, you muddy, vulgar highlows!

So considering that his period of occupation was over, and Maria’s rooms, if not given up to a new tenant, were, at any rate, to let, Harry did not feel very easy in his cousin’s company, nor she possibly in his. He found either that he had nothing to say to her, or that what she had to say to him was rather dull and commonplace, and that the red lip of a white-necked pipe of Virginia was decidedly more agreeable to him now than Maria’s softest accents and most melancholy moue. When George went to Kensington, then, Harry did not care much about going, and pleaded other engagements.

At his uncle’s house in Hill Street the poor lad was no better amused, and, indeed, was treated by the virtuous people there with scarce any attention at all. The ladies did not scruple to deny themselves when he came; he could scarce have believed in such insincerity after their caresses, their welcome, their repeated vows of affection; but happening to sit with the Lamberts for an hour after he had called upon his aunt, he saw her ladyship’s chairmen arrive with an empty chair, and his aunt step out and enter the vehicle, and not even blush when he made her a bow from the opposite window. To be denied by his own relations — to have that door which had opened to him so kindly, slammed in his face! He would not have believed such a thing possible, poor simple Harry said. Perhaps he thought the door-knocker had a tender heart, and was not made of brass; not more changed than the head of that knocker was my Lady Warrington’s virtuous face when she passed her nephew.

“My father’s own brother’s wife! What have I done to offend her? Oh, Aunt Lambert, Aunt Lambert, did you ever see such cold-heartedness?” cries out Harry, with his usual impetuosity.

“Do we make any difference to you, my dear Harry?” says Aunt Lambert, with a side look at her youngest daughter. “The world may look coldly at you, but we don’t belong to it: so you may come to us in safety.”

“In this house you are different from other people,” replies Harry. “I don’t know how, but I always feel quiet and happy somehow when I come to you.”

“Quis me uno vivit felicior? aut magis hac est
Optandum vita dicere quis potuit?”

calls out General Lambert. “Do you know where I got these verses, Mr. Gownsman?” and he addresses his son from college, who is come to pass an Easter holiday with his parents. “You got them out of Catullus, sir,” says the scholar.

“I got them out of no such thing, sir. I got them out of my favourite Democritus Junior — out of old Burton, who has provided many indifferent scholars with learning;” and who and Montaigne, were favourite authors with the good General.

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