The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Where we do what Cats may do

We have said how our Virginians, with a wisdom not uncommon in youth, had chosen to adopt strong Jacobite opinions, and to profess a prodigious affection for the exiled royal family. The banished prince had recognised Madam Esmond’s father as Marquis of Esmond, and she did not choose to be very angry with an unfortunate race, that, after all, was so willing to acknowledge the merits of her family. As for any little scandal about her sister, Madame de Bernstein, and the Old Chevalier, she tossed away from her with scorn the recollection of that odious circumstance, asserting, with perfect truth, that the two first monarchs of the House of Hanover were quite as bad as any Stuarts in regard to their domestic morality. But the king de facto was the king, as well as his Majesty de jure. De Facto had been solemnly crowned and anointed at church, and had likewise utterly discomfited De Jure, when they came to battle for the kingdom together. Madam’s clear opinion was, then, that her sons owed it to themselves as well as the sovereign to appear at his royal court. And if his Majesty should have been minded to confer a lucrative post, or a blue or red ribbon upon either of them, she, for her part, would not have been in the least surprised. She made no doubt but that the King knew the Virginian Esmonds as well as any other members of his nobility. The lads were specially commanded, then, to present themselves at court, and, I dare say, their mother would have been very angry had she known that George took Harry’s laced coat on the day when he went to make his bow at Kensington.

A hundred years ago the King’s drawing-room was open almost every day to his nobility and gentry; and loyalty — especially since the war had begun — could gratify itself a score of times in a month with the august sight of the sovereign. A wise avoidance of the enemy’s ships of war, a gracious acknowledgment of the inestimable loss the British Isles would suffer by the seizure of the royal person at sea, caused the monarch to forgo those visits to his native Hanover which were so dear to his royal heart, and compelled him to remain, it must be owned, unwillingly amongst his loving Britons. A Hanoverian lady, however, whose virtues had endeared her to the prince, strove to console him for his enforced absence from Herrenhausen. And from the lips of the Countess of Walmoden (on whom the imperial beneficence had gracefully conferred a high title of British honour) the revered Defender of the Faith could hear the accents of his native home.

To this beloved Sovereign, Mr. Warrington requested his uncle, an assiduous courtier, to present him; and as Mr. Lambert had to go to court likewise, and thank his Majesty for his promotion, the two gentlemen made the journey to Kensington together, engaging a hackney-coach for the purpose, as my Lord Wrotham’s carriage was now wanted by its rightful owner, who had returned to his house in town. They alighted at Kensington Palace Gate, where the sentries on duty knew and saluted the good General, and hence modestly made their way on foot to the summer residence of the sovereign. Walking under the portico of the Palace, they entered the gallery which leads to the great black marble staircase (which hath been so richly decorated and painted by Mr. Kent), and then passed through several rooms, richly hung with tapestry and adorned with pictures and bustos, until they came to the King’s great drawing-room, where that famous “Venus” by Titian is, and, amongst other masterpieces, the picture of “St. Francis adoring the infant Saviour,” performed by Sir Peter Paul Rubens; and here, with the rest of the visitors to the court, the gentlemen waited until his Majesty issued from his private apartments, where he was in conference with certain personages who were called in the newspaper language of that day his M-j-ty’s M-n-st-rs.

George Warrington, who had never been in a palace before, had leisure to admire the place, and regard the people round him. He saw fine pictures for the first time too, and I dare say delighted in that charming piece of Sir Athony Vandyck, representing King Charles the First, his Queen and Family, and the noble picture of “Esther before Ahasuerus,” painted by Tintoret, and in which all the figures are dressed in the magnificent Venetian habit. With the contemplation of these works he was so enraptured, that he scarce heard all the remarks of his good friend the General, who was whispering into his young companion’s almost heedless ear the names of some of the personages round about them.

“Yonder,” says Mr. Lambert, “are two of my Lords of the Admiralty, Mr. Gilbert Elliot and Admiral Boscawen: your Boscawen, whose fleet fired the first gun in your waters two years ago. That stout gentleman all belated with gold is Mr. Fox, that was Minister, and is now content to be Paymaster with a great salary.

“He carries the auri fames on his person. Why, his waistcoat is a perfect Potosi!” says George.

“Aliena appetens — how goes the text? He loves to get money and to spend it,” continues General Lambert. “Yon is my Lord Chief Justice Willes, talking to my Lord of Salisbury, Doctor Headley, who, if he serve his God as he serves his King, will be translated to some very high promotion in Heaven. He belongs to your grandfather’s time, and was loved by Dick Steele and hated by the Dean. With them is my Lord of London, the learned Doctor Sherlock. My lords of the lawn sleeves have lost half their honours now. I remember when I was a boy in my mother’s hand, she made me go down on my knees to the Bishop of Rochester; him who went over the water, and became Minister to somebody who shall be nameless — Perkin’s Bishop. That handsome fair man is Admiral Smith. He was president of poor Byng’s court-martial, and strove in vain to get him off his penalty; Tom of Ten Thousand they call him in the fleet. The French Ambassador had him broke, when he was a lieutenant, for making a French man-of-war lower topsails to him, and the King made Tom a captain the next day. That tall, haughty-looking man is my Lord George Sackville, who, now I am a Major-General myself, will treat me somewhat better than a footman. I wish my stout old Blakeney were here; he is the soldier’s darling, and as kind and brave as yonder poker of a nobleman is brave and — I am your lordship’s very humble servant. This is a young gentleman who is just from America, and was in Braddock’s sad business two years ago.”

“Oh, indeed!” says the poker of a nobleman. “I have the honour of speaking to Mr. ——?”

“To Major-General Lambert, at your lordship’s service, and who was in his Majesty’s some time before you entered it. That, Mr. Warrington, is the first commoner in England, Mr. Speaker Onslow. Where is your uncle? I shall have to present you myself to his Majesty if Sir Miles delays much longer.” As he spoke, the worthy General addressed himself entirely to his young friend, making no sort of account of his colleague, who stalked away with a scared look as if amazed at the other’s audacity. A hundred years ago, a nobleman was a nobleman, and expected to be admired as such.

Sir Miles’s red waistcoat appeared in sight presently, and many cordial greetings passed between him, his nephew, and General Lambert: for we have described how Sir Miles was the most affectionate of men. So the General had quitted my Lord Wrotham’s house? It was time, as his lordship himself wished to occupy it? Very good; but consider what a loss for the neighbours!

“We miss you, we positively miss you, my dear General,” cries Sir Miles. “My daughters were in love with those lovely young ladies — upon my word, they were; and my Lady Warrington and my girls were debating over and over again how they should find an opportunity of making the acquaintance of your charming family. We feel as if we were old friends already; indeed we do, General, if you will permit me the liberty of saying so; and we love you, if I may be allowed to speak frankly, on account of your friendship and kindness to our dear nephews: though we were a little jealous, I own a little jealous of them, because they went so often to see you. Often and often have I said to my Lady Warrington, ‘My dear, why don’t we make acquaintance with the General? Why don’t we ask him and his ladies to come over in a family way and dine with some other plain country gentlefolks?’ Carry my most sincere respects to Mrs. Lambert, I pray, sir; and thank her for her goodness to these young gentlemen. My own flesh and blood, sir; my dear, dear brother’s boys!” He passed his hand across his manly eyes: he was choking almost with generous and affectionate emotion.

Whilst they were discoursing — George Warrington the while restraining his laughter with admirable gravity — the door of the King’s apartments opened, and the pages entered, preceding his Majesty. He was followed by his burly son, his Royal Highness the Duke, a very corpulent Prince, with a coat and face of blazing scarlet: behind them came various gentlemen and officers of state; among whom George at once recognised the famous Mr. Secretary Pitt, by his tall stature, his eagle eye and beak, his grave and majestic presence. As I see that solemn figure passing, even a hundred years off, I protest I feel a present awe, and a desire to take my hat off. I am not frightened at George the Second; nor are my eyes dazzled by the portentous appearance of his Royal Highness the Duke of Culloden and Fontenoy; but the Great Commoner, the terrible Cornet of Horse! His figure bestrides our narrow isle of a century back like a Colossus; and I hush as he passes in his gouty shoes, his thunderbolt hand wrapped in flannel. Perhaps as we see him now, issuing with dark looks from the royal closet, angry scenes have been passing between him and his august master. He has been boring that old monarch for hours with prodigious long speeches, full of eloquence, voluble with the noblest phrases upon the commonest topics; but, it must be confessed, utterly repulsive to the little shrewd old gentleman, “at whose feet he lays himself,” as the phrase is, and who has the most thorough dislike for fine boedry and for fine brose too! The sublime Minister passes solemnly through the crowd; the company ranges itself respectfully round the wall; and his Majesty walks round the circle, his royal son lagging a little behind, and engaging select individuals in conversation for his own part.

The monarch is a little, keen, fresh-coloured old man, with very protruding eyes, attired in plain, old-fashioned, snuff-coloured clothes and brown stockings, his only ornament the blue ribbon of his Order of the Garter. He speaks in a German accent, but with ease, shrewdness, and simplicity, addressing those individuals whom he has a mind to notice, or passing on with a bow. He knew Mr. Lambert well, who had served under his Majesty at Dettingen, and with his royal son in Scotland, and he congratulated him good-humouredly on his promotion.

“It is not always,” his Majesty was pleased to say, “that we can do as we like; but I was glad when, for once, I could give myself that pleasure in your case, General; for my army contains no better officer as you.”

The veteran blushed and bowed, deeply gratified at this speech. Meanwhile, the Best of Monarchs was looking at Sir Miles Warrington (whom his Majesty knew perfectly, as the eager recipient of all favours from all Ministers), and at the young gentleman by his side.

“Who is this?” the Defender of the Faith condescended to ask, pointing towards George Warrington, who stood before his sovereign in a respectful attitude, clad in poor Harry’s best embroidered suit.

With the deepest reverence Sir Miles informed his King, that the young gentleman was his nephew, Mr. George Warrington, of Virginia, who asked leave to pay his humble duty.

“This, then, is the other brother?” the Venerated Prince deigned to observe. “He came in time, else the other brother would have spent all the money. My Lord Bishop of Salisbury, why do you come out in this bitter weather? You had much better stay at home!” and with this, the revered wielder of Britannia’s sceptre passed on to other lords and gentlemen of his court. Sir Miles Warrington was deeply affected at the royal condescension. He clapped his nephew’s hands. “God bless you, my boy,” he cried; “I told you that you would see the greatest monarch and the finest gentleman in the world. Is he not so, my Lord Bishop?”

“That, that he is!” cried his lordship, clasping his ruffled hands, and turning his fine eyes up to the sky, “the best of princes and of men.”

“That is Master Louis, my Lady Yarmouth’s favourite nephew,” says Lambert, pointing to a young gentleman who stood with a crowd round him; and presently the stout Duke of Cumberland came up to our little group.

His Royal Highness held out his hand to his old companion-inarms. “Congratulate you on your promotion, Lambert,” he said good-naturedly. Sir Miles Warrington’s eyes were ready to burst out of his head with rapture.

“I owe it, sir, to your Royal Highness’s good offices,” said the grateful General.

“Not at all; not at all: ought to have had it a long time before. Always been a good officer; perhaps there’ll be some employment for you soon. This is the gentleman whom James Wolfe introduced to me?”

“His brother, sir.”

“Oh, the real Fortunate Youth! You were with poor Ned Braddock in America — a prisoner, and lucky enough to escape. Come and see me, sir, in Pall Mall. Bring him to my levee, Lambert.” And the broad back of the Royal Prince was turned to our friends.

“It is raining! You came on foot, General Lambert? You and George must come home in my coach. You must and shall come home with me, I say. By George, you must! I’ll have no denial,” cried the enthusiastic Baronet; and he drove George and the General back to Hill Street, and presented the latter to my Lady Warrington and his darlings, Flora and Dora, and insisted upon their partaking of a collation, as they must be hungry after their ride. “What, there is only cold mutton? Well, an old soldier can eat cold mutton. And a good glass of my Lady Warrington’s own cordial, prepared with her own hands, will keep the cold wind out. Delicious cordial! Capital mutton! Our own, my dear General,” says the hospitable Baronet, “our own from the country, six years old if a day. We keep a plain table; but all the Warringtons since the Conqueror have been remarkable for their love of mutton; and our meal may look a little scanty, and is, for we are plain people, and I am obliged to keep my rascals of servants on board-wages. Can’t give them seven-year-old mutton, you know.”

Sir Miles, in his nephew’s presence and hearing, described to his wife and daughters George’s reception at court in such flattering terms that George hardly knew himself, or the scene at which he had been present, or how to look his uncle in the face, or how to contradict him before his family in the midst of the astonishing narrative he was relating. Lambert sat by for a while with open eyes. He, too, had been at Kensington. He had seen none of the wonders which Sir Miles described.

“We are proud of you, dear George. We love you, my dear nephew — we all love you, we are all proud of you —”

“Yes; but I like Harry best,” says a little voice.

“— not because you are wealthy! Screwby, take Master Miles to his governor. Go, dear child. Not because you are blest with great estates and an ancient name; but because, George, you have put to good use the talents with which Heaven has adorned you; because you have fought and bled in your country’s cause, in your monarch’s cause, and as such are indeed worthy of the favour of the best of sovereigns. General Lambert, you have kindly condescended to look in on a country family, and partake of our unpretending meal. I hope we may see you some day when our hospitality is a little less homely. Yes, by George, General, you must and shall name a day when you and Mrs. Lambert, and your dear girls, will dine with us. I’ll take no refusal now, by George I won’t,” bawls the knight.

“You will accompany us, I trust, to my drawing-room?” says my lady, rising.

Mr. Lambert pleaded to be excused; but the ladies on no account would let dear George go away. No, positively, he should not go. They wanted to make acquaintance with their cousin. They must hear about that dreadful battle and escape from the Indians. Tom Claypool came in and heard some of the story. Flora was listening to it with her handkerchief to her eyes, and little Miles had just said —

“Why do you take your handkerchief, Flora? You’re not crying a bit.”

Being a man of great humour, Martin Lambert, when he went home, could not help entertaining his wife with an account of the new family with which he had made acquaintance. A certain cant word called humbug had lately come into vogue. Will it be believed that the General used it to designate the family of this virtuous country gentleman? He described the eager hospitalities of the father, the pompous flatteries of the mother, and the daughters’ looks of admiration; the toughness and security of the mutton, and the abominable taste and odour of the cordial; and we may be sure Mrs. Lambert contrasted Lady Warrington’s recent behaviour to poor Harry with her present conduct to George.

“Is this Miss Warrington really handsome?” asks Mrs Lambent.

“Yes; she is very handsome indeed, and the most astounding flirt I have ever set eyes on,” replies the General.

“The hypocrite! I have no patience with such people!” cries the lady.

To which the General, strange to say, only replied by the monosyllable “Bo!”

“Why do you say ‘Bo!’ Martin?” asks the lady.

“I say ‘Bo!’ to a goose, my dear,” answers the General.

And his wife vows she does not know what he means, or of what he is thinking, and the General says —

“Of course not.”

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