The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which we go a-courting

Some of my amiable readers no doubt are in the custom of visiting that famous garden in the Regent’s Park, in which so many of our finned, feathered, four-footed fellow-creatures are accommodated with board and lodging, in return for which they exhibit themselves for our instruction and amusement: and there, as a man’s business and private thoughts follow him everywhere, and mix themselves with all life and nature round about him, I found myself, whilst looking at some fish in the aquarium, still actually thinking of our friends the Virginians.

One of the most beautiful motion-masters I ever beheld, sweeping through his green bath in harmonious curves, now turning his black glistening back to me, now exhibiting his fair white chest, in every movement active and graceful, turned out to be our old homely friend the flounder, whom we have all gobbled up out of his bath of water souchy at Greenwich, without having the slightest idea that he was a beauty.

As is the race of man, so is the race of flounders. If you can but see the latter in his right element, you may view him agile, healthy, and comely: put him out of his place, and behold his beauty is gone, his motions are disgraceful: he flaps the unfeeling ground ridiculously with his tail, and will presently gasp his feeble life out. Take him up tenderly, ere it be too late, and cast him into his native Thames again —— But stop: I believe there is a certain proverb about fish out of water, and that other profound naturalists have remarked on them before me. Now Harry Warrington had been floundering for ever so long a time past, and out of his proper element. As soon as he found it, health, strength, spirits, energy, returned to him, and with the tap of the epaulet on his shoulder he sprang up an altered being. He delighted in his new profession; he engaged in all its details, and mastered them with eager quickness. Had I the skill of my friend Lorrequer, I would follow the other Harry into camp, and see him on the march, at the mess, on the parade-ground; I would have many a carouse with him and his companions; I would cheerfully live with him under the tents; I would knowingly explain all the manoeuvres of war, and all the details of the life military. As it is, the reader must please, out of his experience and imagination, to fill in the colours of the picture of which I can give but meagre hints and outlines, and, above all, fancy Mr. Harry Warrington in his new red coat and yellow facings, very happy to bear the King’s colours, and pleased to learn and perform all the duties of his new profession.

As each young man delighted in the excellence of the other, and cordially recognised his brother’s superior qualities, George, we may be sure, was proud of Harry’s success, and rejoiced in his returning good fortune. He wrote an affectionate letter to his mother in Virginia, recounting all the praises which he had heard of Harry, and which his brother’s modesty, George knew, would never allow him to repeat. He described how Harry had won his own first step in the army, and how he, George, would ask his mother leave to share with her the expense of purchasing a higher rank for him.

Nothing, said George, would give him a greater delight, than to be able to help his brother, and the more so, as, by his sudden return into life, as it were, he had deprived Harry of an inheritance which he had legitimately considered as his own. Labouring under that misconception, Harry had indulged in greater expenses than he ever would have thought of incurring as a younger brother; and George thought it was but fair, and as it were, as a thank-offering for his own deliverance, that he should contribute liberally to any scheme for his brother’s advantage.

And now, having concluded his statement respecting Harry’s affairs, George took occasion to speak of his own, and addressed his honoured mother on a point which very deeply concerned himself. She was aware that the best friends he and his brother had found in England were the good Mr. and Mrs. Lambert, the latter Madam Esmond’s schoolfellow of earlier years. Where their own blood relations had been worldly and unfeeling, these true friends had ever been generous and kind. The General was respected by the whole army, and beloved by all who knew him. No mother’s affection could have been more touching than Mrs. Lambert’s for both Madam Esmond’s children; and now, wrote Mr. George, he himself had formed an attachment for the elder Miss Lambert, on which he thought the happiness of his life depended, and which he besought his honoured mother to approve. He had made no precise offers to the young lady or her parents; but he was bound to say that he had made little disguise of his sentiments, and that the young lady, as well as her parents, seemed favourable to him. She had been so admirable and exemplary a daughter to her own mother, that he felt sure she would do her duty by his. In a word, Mr. Warrington described the young lady as a model of perfection, and expressed his firm belief that the happiness or misery of his own future life depended upon possessing or losing her. Why do you not produce this letter? haply asks some sentimental reader, of the present Editor, who has said how he has the whole Warrington correspondence in his hands. Why not? Because ’tis cruel to babble the secrets of a young man’s love; to overhear his incoherent vows and wild raptures, and to note, in cold blood, the secrets — it may be, the follies — of his passion. Shall we play eavesdropper at twilight embrasures, count sighs and hand-shakes, bottle hot tears: lay our stethoscope on delicate young breasts, and feel their heart-throbs? I protest, for one, love is sacred. Wherever I see it (as one sometimes may in this world) shooting suddenly out of two pair of eyes; or glancing sadly even from one pair; or looking down from the mother to the baby in her lap; or from papa at his girl’s happiness as she is whirling round the room with the captain; or from John Anderson, as his old wife comes into the room — the bonne vieille, the ever peerless among women; wherever we see that signal, I say, let us salute it. It is not only wrong to kiss and tell, but to tell about kisses. Everybody who has been admitted to the mystery — hush about it. Down with him qui Deae sacrum vulgarit arcanae. Beware how you dine with him, he will print your private talk: as sure as you sail with him, he will throw you over.

Whilst Harry’s love of battle has led him to smell powder — to rush upon reluctantes dracones, and to carry wounded comrades out of fire, George has been pursuing an amusement much more peaceful and delightful to him; penning sonnets to his mistress’s eyebrow, mayhap; pacing in the darkness under her window, and watching the little lamp which shone upon her in her chamber; finding all sorts of pretexts for sending little notes which don’t seem to require little answers, but get them; culling bits out of his favourite poets, and flowers out of Covent Garden for somebody’s special adornment and pleasure; walking to St. James’s Church, singing very likely out of the same Prayer-book, and never hearing one word of the sermon, so much do other thoughts engross him; being prodigiously affectionate to all Miss Theo’s relations — to her little brother and sister at school; to the elder at college; to Miss Hetty, with whom he engages in gay passages of wit; and to mamma, who is half in love with him herself, Martin Lambert says; for if fathers are sometimes sulky at the appearance of the destined son-inlaw, is it not a fact that mothers become sentimental and, as it were, love their own loves over again?

Gumbo and Sady are for ever on the trot between Southampton Row and Dean Street. In the summer months all sorts of junketings and pleasure-parties are devised; and there are countless proposals to go to Ranelagh, to Hampstead, to Vauxhall, to Marylebone Gardens, and what not. George wants the famous tragedy copied out fair for the stage, and who can write such a beautiful Italian hand as Miss Theo? As the sheets pass to and fro they are accompanied by little notes of thanks, of interrogation, of admiration, always. See, here is the packet, marked in Warrington’s neat hand, “T’s letters, 1758-9.” Shall we open them and reveal their tender secrets to the public gaze? Those virgin words were whispered for one ear alone. Years after they were written, the husband read, no doubt, with sweet pangs of remembrance, the fond lines addressed to the lover. It were a sacrilege to show the pair to public eyes: only let kind readers be pleased to take our word that the young lady’s letters are modest and pure, the gentleman’s most respectful and tender. In fine, you see, we have said very little about it; but, in these few last months, Mr. George Warrington has made up his mind that he has found the woman of women. She mayn’t be the most beautiful. Why, there is Cousin Flora, there is Coelia, and Ardelia, and a hundred more, who are ever so much more handsome: but her sweet face pleases him better than any other in the world. She mayn’t be the most clever, but her voice is the dearest and pleasantest to hear; and in her company he is so clever himself; he has such fine thoughts; he uses such eloquent words; he is so generous, noble, witty, that no wonder he delights in it. And, in regard to the young lady — as thank Heaven I never thought so ill of women as to suppose them to be just, we may be sure that there is no amount of wit, of wisdom, of beauty, of valour, of virtue with which she does not endow her young hero.

When George’s letter reached home, we may fancy that it created no small excitement in the little circle round Madam Esmond’s fireside. So he was in love, and wished to marry! It was but natural, and would keep him out of harm’s way. If he proposed to unite himself with a well-bred Christian young woman, Madam saw no harm.

“I knew they would be setting their caps at him,” says Mountain. “They fancy that his wealth is as great as his estate. He does not say whether the young lady has money. I fear otherwise.”

“People would set their caps at him here, I dare say,” says Madam Esmond, grimly looking at her dependant, “and try and catch Mr. Esmond Warrington for their own daughters, who are no richer than Miss Lambert may be.”

“I suppose your ladyship means me!” says Mountain. “My Fanny is poor, as you say; and ’tis kind of you to remind me of her poverty!”

“I said people would set their caps at him. If the cap fits you, tant pis! as my papa used to say.”

“You think, madam, I am scheming to keep George for my daughter? I thank you, on my word! A good opinion you seem to have of us after the years we have lived together!”

“My dear Mountain, I know you much better than to suppose you could ever fancy your daughter would be a suitable match for a gentleman of Mr. Esmond’s rank and station,” says Madam, with much dignity.

“Fanny Parker was as good as Molly Benson at school, and Mr. Mountain’s daughter is as good as Mr. Lambert’s!” Mrs. Mountain cries out.

“Then you did think of marrying her to my son! I shall write to Mr. Esmond Warrington, and say how sorry I am that you should be disappointed!” says the mistress of Castlewood. And we, for our parts, may suppose that Mrs. Mountain was disappointed, and had some ambitious views respecting her daughter — else, why should she have been so angry at the notion of Mr. Warrington’s marriage?

In reply to her son, Madam Esmond wrote back that she was pleased with the fraternal love George exhibited; that it was indeed but right in some measure to compensate Harry, whose expectations had led him to adopt a more costly mode of life than he would have entered on had he known he was only a younger son. And with respect to purchasing his promotion, she would gladly halve the expense with Harry’s elder brother, being thankful to think his own gallantry had won him his first step. This bestowal of George’s money, Madam Esmond added, was at least much more satisfactory than some other extravagances to which she would not advert.

The other extravagance to which Madam alluded was the payment of the ransom to the French captain’s family, to which tax George’s mother never would choose to submit. She had a determined spirit of her own, which her son inherited. His persistence she called pride and obstinacy. What she thought of her own pertinacity, her biographer, who lives so far from her time, does not pretend to say. Only I dare say people a hundred years ago pretty much resembled their grandchildren of the present date, and loved to have their own way, and to make others follow it.

Now, after paying his own ransom, his brother’s debts, and half the price for his promotion, George calculated that no inconsiderable portion of his private patrimony would be swallowed up: nevertheless he made the sacrifice with a perfect good heart. His good mother always enjoined him in her letters to remember who his grandfather was, and to support the dignity of his family accordingly. She gave him various commissions to purchase goods in England, and though she as yet had sent him very trifling remittances, she alluded so constantly to the exalted rank of the Esmonds, to her desire that he should do nothing unworthy of that illustrious family; she advised him so peremptorily and frequently to appear in the first society of the country, to frequent the court where his ancestors had been accustomed to move, and to appear always in the world in a manner worthy of his name, that George made no doubt his mother’s money would be forthcoming when his own ran short, and generously obeyed her injunctions as to his style of life. I find in the Esmond papers of this period, bills for genteel entertainments, tailors’ bills for court suits supplied, and liveries for his honour’s negro servants and chairmen, horse-dealers’ receipts, and so forth; and am thus led to believe that the elder of our Virginians was also after a while living at a considerable expense.

He was not wild or extravagant like his brother. There was no talk of gambling or racehorses against Mr. George; his table was liberal, his equipages handsome, his purse always full, the estate to which he was heir was known to be immense. I mention these circumstances because they may probably have influenced the conduct both of George and his friends in that very matter concerning which, as I have said, he and his mother had been just corresponding. The young heir of Virginia was travelling for his pleasure and improvement in foreign kingdoms. The queen, his mother, was in daily correspondence with his Highness, and constantly enjoined him to act as became his lofty station. There could be no doubt from her letters that she desired he should live liberally and magnificently. He was perpetually making purchases at his parent’s order. She had not settled as yet; on the contrary, she had wrote out by the last mail for twelve new sets of waggon harness, and an organ that should play fourteen specified psalm-tunes: which articles George dutifully ordered. She had not paid as yet, and might not today or tomorrow, but eventually, of course, she would: and Mr. Warrington never thought of troubling his friends about these calculations, or discussing with them his mother’s domestic affairs. They, on their side, took for granted that he was in a state of competence and ease, and, without being mercenary folks, Mr. and Mrs. Lambert were no doubt pleased to see an attachment growing up between their daughter and a young gentleman of such good principles, talents, family, and expectations. There was honesty in all Mr. Esmond Warrington’s words and actions, and in his behaviour to the world a certain grandeur and simplicity, which showed him to be a true gentleman. Somewhat cold and haughty in his demeanour to strangers, especially towards the great, he was not in the least supercilious: he was perfectly courteous towards women, and with those people whom he loved, especially kind, amiable, lively, and tender.

No wonder that one young woman we know of got to think him the best man in all the world — alas! not even excepting papa. A great love felt by a man towards a woman makes him better, as regards her, than all other men. We have said that George used to wonder himself when he found how witty, how eloquent, how wise he was, when he talked with the fair young creature whose heart had become all his. . . . I say we will not again listen to their love whispers. Those soft words do not bear being written down. If you please — good sir, or madam, who are sentimentally inclined — lay down the book and think over certain things for yourself. You may be ever so old now; but you remember. It may be all dead and buried; but in a moment, up it springs out of its grave, and looks, and smiles, and whispers as of yore when it clung to your arm, and dropped fresh tears on your heart. It is here, and alive, did I say? O far, far away! O lonely hearth and cold ashes! Here is the vase, but the roses are gone; here is the shore, and yonder the ship was moored; but the anchors are up, and it has sailed away for ever.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This, however, is mere sentimentality; and as regards George and Theo, is neither here nor there. What I mean to say is, that the young lady’s family were perfectly satisfied with the state of affairs between her and Mr. Warrington; and though he had not as yet asked the decisive question, everybody else knew what the answer would be when it came.

Mamma perhaps thought the question was a long time coming.

“Psha! my dear!” says the General. “There is time enough in all conscience. Theo is not much more than seventeen; George, if I mistake not, is under forty; and, besides, he must have time to write to Virginia, and ask mamma.”

“But suppose she refuses?”

“That will be a bad day for old and young,” says the General, “Let us rather say, suppose she consents, my love? — I can’t fancy anybody in the world refusing Theo anything she has set her heart on,” adds the father: “and I am sure ’tis bent upon this match.”

So they all waited with the utmost anxiety until an answer from Madam Esmond should arrive; and trembled lest the French privateers should take the packet-ship by which the precious letter was conveyed.

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