The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Which treats of Macbeth, a Supper, and a Pretty Kettle of Fish

When the performances were concluded, our friends took coach for Mr. Warrington’s lodging, where the Virginians had provided an elegant supper. Mr. Warrington was eager to treat them in the handsomest manner, and the General and his wife accepted the invitation of the two bachelors, pleased to think that they could give their young friends pleasure. General and Mrs. Lambert, their son from college, their two blooming daughters, and Mr. Spencer of the Temple, a new friend whom George had met at the coffee-house, formed the party, and partook with cheerfulness of the landlady’s fare. The order of their sitting I have not been able exactly to ascertain; but, somehow, Miss Theo had a place next to the chickens and Mr. George Warrington, whilst Miss Hetty and a ham divided the attentions of Mr. Harry. Mrs. Lambert must have been on George’s right hand, so that we have but to settle the three places of the General, his son, and the Templar.

Mr. Spencer had been at the other theatre, where, on a former day, he had actually introduced George to the greenroom. The conversation about the play was resumed, and some of the party persisted in being delighted with it.

“As for what our gentlemen say, sir,” cries Mrs. Lambert to Mr. Spencer, “you must not believe a word of it. ’Tis a delightful piece, and my husband and Mr. George behaved as ill as possible.”

“We laughed in the wrong place, and when we ought to have cried,” the General owned, “that’s the truth.”

“You caused all the people in the boxes about us to look round and cry ‘Hush!’ You made the pit folks say, ‘Silence in the boxes, yonder!’ Such behaviour I never knew, and quite blushed for you, Mr. Lambert!”

“Mamma thought it was a tragedy, and we thought it was a piece of fun,” says the General. “George and I behaved perfectly well, didn’t we, Theo?”

“Not when I was looking your way, papa!” Theo replies. At which the General asks, “Was there ever such a saucy baggage seen?”

“You know, sir, I didn’t speak till I was bid,” Theo continues, modestly. “I own I was very much moved by the play, and the beauty and acting of Mrs. Woffington. I was sorry that the poor mother should find her child, and lose him. I am sorry, too, papa, if I oughtn’t to have been sorry!” adds the young lady, with a smile.

“Women are not so clever as men, you know, Theo,” cries Hetty from her end of the table, with a sly look at Harry. “The next time we go to the play, please, brother Jack, pinch us when we ought to cry, or give us a nudge when it is right to laugh.”

“I wish we could have had the fight,” said General Lambert, “the fight between little Norval and the gigantic Norwegian — that would have been rare sport: and you should write, Jack, and suggest it to Mr. Rich, the manager.”

“I have not seen that: but I saw Slack and Broughton at Marybone Gardens!” says Harry, gravely; and wondered if he had said something witty, as all the company laughed so? “It would require no giant,” he added, “to knock over yonder little fellow in the red boots. I, for one, could throw him over my shoulder.”

“Mr. Garrick is a little man. But there are times when he looks a giant,” says Mr. Spencer. “How grand he was in Macbeth, Mr. Warrington! How awful that dagger-scene was! You should have seen our host, ladies! I presented Mr. Warrington, in the greenroom, to Mr. Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard, and Lady Macbeth did him the honour to take a pinch out of his box.”

“Did the wife of the Thane of Cawdor sneeze?” asked the General, in an awful voice.

“She thanked Mr. Warrington, in tones so hollow and tragic, that he started back, and must have upset some of his rappee, for Macbeth sneezed thrice.”

“Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth!” cries the General.

“And the great philosopher who was standing by Mr. Johnson, says, ‘You must mind, Davy, lest thy sneeze should awaken Duncan!’ who, by the way, was talking with the three witches as they sat against the wall.”

“What! Have you been behind the scenes at the play? Oh, I would give worlds to go behind the scenes!” cries Theo.

“And see the ropes pulled, and smell the tallow-candles, and look at the pasteboard gold, and the tinsel jewels, and the painted old women, Theo? No. Do not look too close,” says the sceptical young host, demurely drinking a glass of hock. “You were angry with your papa and me.”

“Nay, George!” cries the girl.

“Nay? I say, yes! You were angry with us because we laughed when you were disposed to be crying. If I may speak for you, sir, as well as myself,” says George (with a bow to his guest, General Lambert), “I think we were not inclined to weep, like the ladies, because we stood behind the author’s scenes of the play, as it were. Looking close up to the young hero, we saw how much of him was rant and tinsel; and as for the pale, tragical mother, that her pallor was white chalk, and her grief her pocket-handkerchief. Own now, Theo, you thought me very unfeeling?”

“If you find it out, sir, without my owning it — what is the good of my confessing?” says Theo.

“Suppose I were to die?” goes on George, “and you saw Harry in grief, you would be seeing a genuine affliction, a real tragedy; you would grieve too. But you wouldn’t be affected if you saw the undertaker in weepers and a black cloak!”

“Indeed, but I should, sir!” says Mrs. Lambert; “and so, I promise you, would any daughter of mine.”

“Perhaps we might find weepers of our own, Mr. Warrington,” says Theo, “in such a case.”

“Would you?” cries George, and his cheeks and Theo’s simultaneously flushed up with red; I suppose because they both saw Hetty’s bright young eyes watching them.

“The elder writers understood but little of the pathetic,” remarked Mr. Spencer, the Temple wit.

“What do you think of Sophocles and Antigone?” calls out Mr. John Lambert.

“Faith, our wits trouble themselves little about him, unless an Oxford gentleman comes to remind us of him! I did not mean to go back farther than Mr. Shakspeare, who, as you will all agree, does not understand the elegant and pathetic as well as the moderns. Has he ever approached Belvidera, or Monimia, or Jane Shore; or can you find in his comic female characters the elegance of Congreve?” and the Templar offered snuff to the right and left.

“I think Mr. Spencer himself must have tried his hand?” asks some one.

“Many gentlemen of leisure have. Mr. Garrick, I own, has had a piece of mine and returned it.”

“And I confess that I have four acts of a play in one of my boxes,” says George.

“I’ll be bound to say it’s as good as any of ’em,” whispers Harry to his neighbour.

“Is it a tragedy or a comedy?” asks Mrs. Lambert.

“Oh, a tragedy, and two or three dreadful murders at least!” George replies.

“Let us play it, and let the audience look to their eyes! Yet my chief humour is for a tyrant,” says the General.

“The tragedy, the tragedy! Go and fetch the tragedy this moment, Gumbo!” calls Mrs. Lambert to the black. Gumbo makes a low bow and says, “Tragedy? yes, madam.”

“In the great cowskin trunk, Gumbo,” George says, gravely.

Gumbo bows and says, “Yes, sir,” with still superior gravity.

“But my tragedy is at the bottom of I don’t know how much linen, packages, books, and boots, Hetty.”

“Never mind, let us have it, and fling the linen out of window!” cries Miss Hetty.

“And the great cowskin trunk is at our agent’s at Bristol: so Gumbo must get post-horses, and we can keep it up till he returns the day after tomorrow,” says George.

The ladies groaned a comical “Oh!” and papa, perhaps more seriously, said, “Let us be thankful for the escape. Let us be thinking of going home too. Our young gentlemen have treated us nobly, and we will all drink a parting bumper to Madam Esmond Warrington of Castlewood, in Virginia. Suppose, boys, you were to find a tall, handsome stepfather when you got home? Ladies as old as she have been known to marry before now.”

“To Madam Esmond Warrington, my old schoolfellow!” cries Mrs. Lambert. “I shall write and tell her what a pretty supper her sons have given us: and, Mr. George, I won’t say how ill you behaved at the play!” And, with this last toast, the company took leave; the General’s coach and servant, with a flambeau, being in waiting to carry his family home.

After such an entertainment as that which Mr. Warrington had given, what could be more natural or proper than a visit from him to his guests, to inquire how they had reached home and rested? Why, their coach might have taken the open country behind Montague House, in the direction of Oxford Road, and been waylaid by footpads in the fields. The ladies might have caught cold or slept ill after the excitement of the tragedy. In a word, there was no reason why he should make any excuse at all to himself or them for visiting his kind friends; and he shut his books early at the Sloane Museum, and perhaps thought, as he walked away thence, that he remembered very little about what he had been reading.

Pray what is the meaning of this eagerness, this hesitation, this pshaing and shilly-shallying, these doubts, this tremor as he knocks at the door of Mr. Lambert’s lodgings in Dean Street, and survey the footman who comes to his summons? Does any young man read? does any old one remember? does any wearied, worn, disappointed pulseless heart recall the time of its full beat and early throbbing? It is ever so many hundred years since some of us were young; and we forget, but do not all forget. No, madam, we remember with advantages, as Shakspeare’s Harry promised his soldiers they should do if they survived Agincourt and that day of St. Crispin. Worn old chargers turned out to grass, if the trumpet sounds over the hedge, may we not kick up our old heels, and gallop a minute or so about the paddock, till we are brought up roaring? I do not care for clown and pantaloon now, and think the fairy ugly, and her verses insufferable: but I like to see children at a pantomime. I do not dance, or eat supper any more; but I like to watch Eugenio and Flirtilla twirling round in a pretty waltz, or Lucinda and Ardentio pulling a cracker. Burn your little fingers, children! Blaze out little kindly flames from each other’s eyes! And then draw close together and read the motto (that old namby-pamby motto, so stale and so new!)— I say, let her lips read it, and his construe it; and so divide the sweetmeat, young people, and crunch it between you. I have no teeth. Bitter almonds and sugar disagree with me, I tell you; but, for all that, shall not bonbons melt in the mouth?

We follow John upstairs to the General’s apartments, and enter with Mr. George Esmond Warrington, who makes a prodigious fine bow. There is only one lady in the room, seated near a window: there is not often much sunshine in Dean Street: the young lady in the window is no especial beauty: but it is spring-time, and she is blooming vernally. A bunch of fresh roses is flushing in her honest cheek. I suppose her eyes are violets. If we lived a hundred years ago, and wrote in the Gentleman’s or the London Magazine, we should tell Mr. Sylvanus Urban that her neck was the lily, and her shape the nymph’s: we should write an acrostic about her, and celebrate our Lambertella in an elegant poem, still to be read between a neat new engraved plan of the city of Prague and the King of Prussia’s camp, and a map of Maryland and the Delaware counties.

Here is Miss Theo blushing like a rose. What could mamma have meant an hour since by insisting that she was very pale and tired, and had best not come out today with the rest of the party? They were gone to pay their compliments to my Lord Wrotham’s ladies, and thank them for the house in their absence; and papa was at the Horse Guards. He is in great spirits. I believe he expects some command, though mamma is in a sad tremor lest he should again be ordered abroad.

“Your brother and mine are gone to see our little brother at his school at the Chartreux. My brothers are both to be clergymen, I think,” Miss Theo continues. She is assiduously hemming at some article of boyish wearing apparel as she talks. A hundred years ago, young ladies were not afraid either to make shirts, or to name them. Mind, I don’t say they were the worse or the better for that plain stitching or plain speaking: and have not the least desire, my dear young lady, that you should make puddings or I should black boots.

So Harry has been with them? “He often comes, almost every day,” Theo says, looking up in George’s face. “Poor fellow! He likes us better than the fine folks, who don’t care for him now — now he is no longer a fine folk himself,” adds the girl, smiling. “Why have you not set up for the fashion, and frequented the chocolate-houses and the racecourses, Mr. Warrington?”

“Has my brother got so much good out of his gay haunts or his grand friends, that I should imitate him?”

“You might at least go to Sir Miles Warrington; sure his arms are open to receive you. Her ladyship was here this morning in her chair, and to hear her praises of you! She declares you are in a certain way to preferment. She says his Royal Highness the Duke made much of you at court. When you are a great man will you forget us, Mr. Warrington?”

“Yes, when I am a great man I will, Miss Lambert.”

“Well! Mr. George, then ——”

“— Mr. George!”

“When papa and mamma are here, I suppose there need be no mistering,” says Theo, looking out of the window, ever so little frightened. “And what have you been doing, sir? Reading books, or writing more of your tragedy? Is it going to be a tragedy to make us cry, as we like them, or only to frighten us, as you like them?”

“There is plenty of killing, but, I fear, not much crying. I have not met many women. I have not been very intimate with those. I daresay what I have written is only taken out of books or parodied from poems which I have read and imitated like other young men. Women do not speak to me, generally; I am said to have a sarcastic way which displeases them.”

“Perhaps you never cared to please them?” inquires Miss Theo, with a blush.

“I displeased you last night; you know I did?”

“Yes; only it can’t be called displeasure, and afterwards thought I was wrong.”

“Did you think about me at all when I was away, Theo?”

“Yes, George — that is, Mr. — well, George! I thought you and papa were right about the play; and, as you said, that it was no real sorrow, only affectation, which was moving us. I wonder whether it is good or ill fortune to see so clearly? Hetty and I agreed that we would be very careful, for the future, how we allowed ourselves to enjoy a tragedy. So, be careful when yours comes! What is the name of it?”

“He is not christened. Will you be the godmother? The name of the chief character is ——” But at this very moment mamma and Miss Hetty arrived from their walk; and mamma straightway began protesting that she never expected to see Mr. Warrington at all that day — that is, she thought he might come — that is, it was very good of him to come, and the play and the supper of yesterday were all charming, except that Theo had a little headache this morning.

“I dare say it is better now, mamma,” says Miss Hetty.

“Indeed, my dear, it never was of any consequence; and I told mamma so,” says Miss Theo, with a toss of her head.

Then they fell to talking about Harry. He was very low. He must have something to do. He was always going to the Military Coffee-House, and perpetually poring over the King of Prussia’s campaigns. It was not fair upon him, to bid him remain in London, after his deposition, as it were. He said nothing, but you could see how he regretted his previous useless life, and felt his present dependence, by the manner in which he avoided his former haunts and associates. Passing by the guard at St. James’s, with John Lambert, he had said to brother Jack, “Why mayn’t I be a soldier too? I am as tall as yonder fellow, and can kill with a fowling-piece as well as any man I know. But I can’t earn so much as sixpence a day. I have squandered my own bread, and now I am eating half my brother’s. He is the best of brothers, but so much the more shame that I should live upon him. Don’t tell my brother, Jack Lambert.” “And my boy promised he wouldn’t tell,” says Mrs. Lambert. No doubt. The girls were both out of the room when their mother made this speech to George Warrington. He, for his part, said he had written home to his mother — that half his little patrimony, the other half likewise, if wanted, were at Harry’s disposal, for purchasing a commission, or for any other project which might bring him occupation or advancement.

“He has got a good brother, that is sure. Let us hope for good times for him,” sighs the lady.

“The Danes always come pour qui scait attendre,” George said, in a low voice.

“What, you heard that? Ah, George! my Theo is an —— Ah! never mind what she is, George Warrington,” cried the pleased mother, with brimful eyes. “Bah! I am going to make a gaby of myself, as I did at the tragedy.”

Now Mr. George had been revolving a fine private scheme, which he thought might turn to his brother’s advantage. After George’s presentation to his Royal Highness at Kensington, more persons than one, his friend General Lambert included, had told him that the Duke had inquired regarding him, and had asked why the young man did not come to his levee. Importunity so august could not but be satisfied. A day was appointed between Mr. Lambert and his young friend, and they went to pay their duty to his Royal Highness at his house in Pall Mall.

When it came to George’s turn to make a bow, the Prince was especially gracious; he spoke to Mr. Warrington at some length about Braddock and the war, and was apparently pleased with the modesty and intelligence of the young gentleman’s answers. George ascribed the failure of the expedition to the panic and surprise certainly, but more especially to the delays occasioned by the rapacity, selfishness, and unfair dealing of the people of the colonies towards the King’s troops who were come to defend them. “Could we have moved, sir, a month sooner, the fort was certainly ours, and the little army had never been defeated,” Mr. Warrington said; in which observation his Royal Highness entirely concurred.

“I am told you saved yourself, sir, mainly by your knowledge of the French language,” the Royal Duke then affably observed. Mr. Warrington modestly mentioned how he had been in the French colonies in his youth, and had opportunities of acquiring that tongue.

The Prince (who had a great urbanity when well pleased, and the finest sense of humour) condescended to ask who had taught Mr. Warrington the language; and to express his opinion, that, for the pronunciation, the French ladies were by far the best teachers.

The young Virginian gentleman made a low bow, and said it was not for him to gainsay his Royal Highness; upon which the Duke was good enough to say (in a jocose manner) that Mr. Warrington was a sly dog.

Mr. W. remaining respectfully silent, the Prince continued, most kindly: “I take the field immediately against the French, who, as you know, are threatening his Majesty’s Electoral dominions, If you have a mind to make the campaign with me, your skill in the language may be useful, and I hope we shall be more fortunate than poor Braddock!” Every eye was fixed on a young man to whom so great a Prince offered so signal a favour.

And now it was that Mr. George thought he would make his very cleverest speech. “Sir,” he said, “your Royal Highness’s most kind proposal does me infinite honour, but ——”

“But what, sir?” says the Prince, staring at him.

“But I have entered myself of the Temple, to study our laws, and to fit myself for my duties at home. If my having been wounded in the service of my country be any claim on your kindness, I would humbly ask that my brother, who knows the French language as well as myself, and has far more strength, courage, and military genius, might be allowed to serve your Royal Highness; in the place of ——”

“Enough, enough, sir!” cried out the justly irritated son of the monarch. “What? I offer you a favour, and you hand it over to your brother? Wait, sir, till I offer you another!” And with this the Prince turned his back upon Mr. Warrington, just as abruptly as he turned it on the French a few months afterwards.

“Oh, George! oh, George! Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!” groaned General Lambert, as he and his young friend walked home together.

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