The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Harry goes westward

Our tender hearts are averse to all ideas and descriptions of parting; and I shall therefore say nothing of Harry Warrington’s feelings at taking leave of his brother and friends. Were not thousands of men in the same plight? Had not Mr. Wolfe his mother to kiss (his brave father had quitted life during his son’s absence on the glorious Louisbourg campaign), and his sweetheart to clasp in a farewell embrace? Had not stout Admiral Holmes, before sailing westward with his squadron, The Somerset, The Terrible, The Northumberland, The Royal William, The Trident, The Diana, The Seahorse — his own flag being hoisted on board The Dublin — to take leave of Mrs. and the Misses Holmes? Was Admiral Saunders, who sailed the day after him, exempt from human feeling? Away go William and his crew of jovial sailors, ploughing through the tumbling waves, and poor Black-eyed Susan on shore watches the ship as it dwindles in the sunset.

It dwindles in the West. The night falls darkling over the ocean. They are gone: but their hearts are at home yet a while. In silence, with a heart inexpressibly soft and tender, how each man thinks of those he has left! What a chorus of pitiful prayer rises up to the Father, at sea and on shore, on that parting night at home by the vacant bedside, where the wife kneels in tears; round the fire, where the mother and children together pour out their supplications: or on deck, where the seafarer looks up to the stars of heaven, as the ship cleaves through the roaring midnight waters! To-morrow the sun rises upon our common life again, and we commence our daily task of toil and duty.

George accompanies his brother, and stays a while with him at Portsmouth whilst they are waiting for a wind. He shakes Mr. Wolfe’s hand, looks at his pale face for the last time, and sees the vessels depart amid the clangour of bells, and the thunder of cannon from the shore. Next day he is back at his home, and at that business which is sure one of the most selfish and absorbing of the world’s occupations, to which almost every man who is thirty years old has served ere this his apprenticeship. He has a pang of sadness, as he looks in at the lodgings to the little room which Harry used to occupy, and sees his half-burned papers still in the grate. In a few minutes he is on his way to Dean Street again, and whispering by the fitful firelight in the ear of the clinging sweetheart. She is very happy — oh, so happy! at his return. She is ashamed of being so. Is it not heartless to be so, when poor Hetty is so melancholy? Poor little Hetty! Indeed, it is selfish to be glad when she is in such a sad way. It makes one quite wretched to see her. “Don’t, sir! Well, I ought to be wretched, and it’s very, very wicked of me if I’m not,” says Theo; and one can understand her soft-hearted repentance. What she means by “Don’t” who can tell? I have said the room was dark, and the fire burned fitfully — and “Don’t” is no doubt uttered in one of the dark fits. Enter servants with supper and lights. The family arrives; the conversation becomes general. The destination of the fleet is known everywhere now. The force on board is sufficient to beat all the French in Canada; and, under such an officer as Wolfe, to repair the blunders and disasters of previous campaigns. He looked dreadfully ill, indeed. But he has a great soul in a feeble body. The ministers, the country hope the utmost from him. After supper, according to custom, Mr. Lambert assembles his modest household, of whom George Warrington may be said quite to form a part; and as he prays for all travellers by land and water, Theo and her sister are kneeling together. And so, as the ship speeds farther and farther into the West, the fond thoughts pursue it; and the night passes, and the sun rises.

A day or two more, and everybody is at his books or his usual work. As for George Warrington, that celebrated dramatist is busy about another composition. When the tragedy of Carpezan had run some thirty or twoscore nights, other persons of genius took possession of the theatre.

There may have been persons who wondered how the town could be so fickle as ever to tire of such a masterpiece as the Tragedy — who could not bear to see the actors dressed in other habits, reciting other men’s verses; but George, of a sceptical turn of mind, took the fate of his Tragedy very philosophically, and pocketed the proceeds with much quiet satisfaction. From Mr. Dodsley, the bookseller, he had the usual complement of a hundred pounds; from the manager of the theatre two hundred or more; and such praises from the critics and his friends, that he set to work to prepare another piece, with which he hoped to achieve even greater successes than by his first performance.

Over these studies, and the other charming business which occupies him, months pass away. Happy business! Happiest time of youth and life, when love is first spoken and returned; when the dearest eyes are daily shining welcome, and the fondest lips never tire of whispering their sweet secrets; when the parting look that accompanies “Good night!” gives delightful warning of tomorrow; when the heart is so overflowing with love and happiness, that it has to spare for all the world; when the day closes with glad prayers, and opens with joyful hopes; when doubt seems cowardice, misfortune impossible, poverty only a sweet trial of constancy! Theo’s elders, thankfully remembering their own prime, sit softly by and witness this pretty comedy performed by their young people. And in one of his later letters, dutifully written to his wife during a temporary absence from home, George Warrington records how he had been to look up at the windows of the dear old house in Dean Street, and wondered who was sitting in the chamber where he and Theo had been so happy.

Meanwhile we can learn how the time passes, and our friends are engaged, by some extracts from George’s letters to his brother.

“From the old window opposite Bedford Gardens, this 20th August 1759.

“Why are you gone back to rugged rocks, bleak shores, burning summers, nipping winters, at home, when you might have been cropping ever so many laurels in Germany? Kingsley’s are coming back as covered with ’em as Jack-a-Green on May-day. Our six regiments did wonders; and our horse would have done if my Lord George Sackville only had let them. But when Prince Ferdinand said ‘Charge!’ his lordship could not hear, or could not translate the German word for ‘Forward;’ and so we only beat the French, without utterly annihilating them, as we might, had Lord Granby or Mr. Warrington had the command. My lord is come back to town, and is shouting for a Court-Martial. He held his head high enough in prosperity: in misfortune he shows such a constancy of arrogance that one almost admires him. He looks as if he rather envied poor Mr. Byng, and the not shooting him were a manque d’egards towards him.

“The Duke has had notice to get himself in readiness for departing from this world of grandeurs and victories, and downfalls and disappointments. An attack of palsy has visited his Royal Highness; and pallida mors has just peeped in at his door, as it were, and said, ‘I will call again.’ Tyrant as he was, this prince has been noble in disgrace; and no king has ever had a truer servant than ours has found in his son. Why do I like the losing side always, and am I disposed to revolt against the winners? Your famous Mr. P— — your chief’s patron and discoverer, I have been to hear in the House of Commons twice or thrice. I revolt against his magniloquence. I wish some little David would topple over that swelling giant. His thoughts and his language are always attitudinising. I like Barry’s manner best, though the other is the more awful actor.

“Pocahontas gets on apace. Barry likes his part of Captain Smith; and, though he will have him wear a red coat and blue facings and an epaulet, I have a fancy to dress him exactly like one of the pictures of Queen Elizabeth’s gentlemen at Hampton Court: with a ruff and a square beard and square shoes. ‘And Pocahontas — would you like her to be tattooed?’ asks Uncle Lambert. Hagan’s part as the warrior who is in love with her, and, seeing her partiality for the captain, nobly rescues him from death, I trust will prove a hit. A strange fish is this Hagan: his mouth full of stage-plays and rant, but good, honest, and brave, if I don’t err. He is angry at having been cast lately for Sir O’Brallaghan, in Mr. Macklin’s new farce of Love A-la-mode. He says that he does not keer to disgreece his tongue with imiteetions of that rascal brogue. As if there was any call for imiteetions, when he has such an admirable twang of his own!

“Shall I tell you? Shall I hide the circumstance? Shall I hurt your feelings? Shall I set you in a rage of jealousy, and cause you to ask for leave to return to Europe? Know, then, that though Carpezan is long since dead, cousin Maria is for ever coming to the playhouse. Tom Spencer has spied her out night after night in the gallery, and she comes on the nights when Hagan performs. Quick, Burroughs, Mr. Warrington’s boots and portmanteau! Order a chaise and four for Portsmouth immediately! The letter which I burned one morning when we were at breakfast (I may let the cat out of the bag, now puss has such a prodigious way to run) was from cousin M., hinting that she wished me to tell no tales about her: but I can’t help just whispering to you that Maria at this moment is busy consoling herself as fast as possible. Shall I spoil sport? Shall I tell her brother? Is the affair any business of mine? What have the Esmonds done for you and me but win our money at cards? Yet I like our noble cousin. It seems to me that he would be good if he could — or rather, he would have been once. He has been set on a wrong way of life, from which ’tis now probably too late to rescue him. O beati agricolae! Our Virginia was dull, but let us thank Heaven we were bred there. We were made little slaves, but not slaves to wickedness, gambling, bad male and female company. It was not until my poor Harry left home that he fell among thieves. I mean thieves en grand, such as waylaid him and stripped him on English highroads. I consider you none the worse because you were the unlucky one, and had to deliver your purse up. And now you are going to retrieve, and make a good name for yourself; and kill more ‘French dragons,’ and become a great commander. And our mother will talk of her son the Captain, the Colonel, the General, and have his picture painted with all his stars and epaulets, when poor I shall be but a dawdling poetaster, or, if we may hope for the best, a snug placeman, with a little box at Richmond or Kew, and a half-score of little picaninnies, that will come and bob curtseys at the garden-gate when their uncle the General rides up on his great charger, with his aide-de-camp’s pockets filled with gingerbread for the nephews and nieces. ’Tis for you to brandish the sword of Mars. As for me, I look forward to a quiet life: a quiet little home, a quiet little library full of books, and a little Some one dulce ridentem, dulce loquentem, on t’other side of the fire, as I scribble away at my papers. I am so pleased with this prospect, so utterly contented and happy, that I feel afraid as I think of it, lest it should escape me; and, even to my dearest Hal, am shy of speaking of my happiness. What is ambition to me, with this certainty? What do I care for wars, with this beatific peace smiling near?

“Our mother’s friend, Mynheer Van den Bosch, has been away on a tour to discover his family in Holland, and, strange to say, has found one. Miss (who was intended by maternal solicitude to be a wife for your worship) has had six months at Kensington School, and is coming out with a hundred pretty accomplishments, which are to complete her a perfect fine lady. Her papa brought her to make a curtsey in Dean Street, and a mighty elegant curtsey she made. Though she is scarce seventeen, no dowager of sixty can be more at her ease. She conversed with Aunt Lambert on an equal footing; she treated the girls as chits — to Hetty’s wrath and Theo’s amusement. She talked politics with the General, and the last routs, dresses, operas, fashions, scandal, with such perfect ease that, but for a blunder or two, you might have fancied Miss Lydia was born in Mayfair. At the Court end of the town she will live, she says; and has no patience with her father, who has a lodging in Monument Yard. For those who love a brown beauty, a prettier little mignonne creature cannot be seen. But my taste, you know, dearest brother, and . . .”

Here follows a page of raptures and quotations of verse, which, out of a regard for the reader, and the writer’s memory, the editor of the present pages declines to reprint. Gentlemen and ladies of a certain age may remember the time when they indulged in these rapturous follies on their own accounts; when the praises of the charmer were for ever warbling from their lips or trickling from their pens; when the flowers of life were in full bloom, and all the birds of spring were singing. The twigs are now bare, perhaps, and the leaves have fallen; but, for all that, shall we not — remember the vernal time? As for you, young people, whose May (or April, is it?) has not commenced yet, you need not be detained over other folks’ love-rhapsodies; depend on it, when your spring-season arrives, kindly Nature will warm all your flowers into bloom, and rouse your glad bosoms to pour out their full song.

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