The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Preparations for War

Surely no man can have better claims to sympathy than bravery, youth, good looks, and misfortune. Madam Esmond might have had twenty sons, and yet had a right to admire her young soldier. Mr. Washington’s room was more than ever Mr. Washington’s room now. She raved about him and praised him in all companies. She more than ever pointed out his excellences to her sons, contrasting his sterling qualities with Harry’s love of pleasure (the wild boy!) and George’s listless musings over his books. George was not disposed to like Mr. Washington any better for his mother’s extravagant praises. He coaxed the jealous demon within him until he must have become a perfect pest to himself and all the friends round about him. He uttered jokes so deep that his simple mother did not know their meaning, but sate bewildered at his sarcasms, and powerless what to think of his moody, saturnine humour.

Meanwhile, public events were occurring which were to influence the fortunes of all our homely family. The quarrel between the French and English North Americans, from being a provincial, had grown to be a national, quarrel. Reinforcements from France had already arrived in Canada; and English troops were expected in Virginia. “Alas! my dear friend!” wrote Madame la Presidente de Mouchy, from Quebec, to her young friend George Warrington. “How contrary is the destiny to us! I see you quitting the embrace of an adored mother to precipitate yourself in the arms of Bellona. I see you pass wounded after combats. I hesitate almost to wish victory to our lilies when I behold you ranged under the banners of the Leopard. There are enmities which the heart does not recognise — ours assuredly are at peace among the tumults. All here love and salute you, as well as Monsieur the Bear-hunter, your brother (that cold Hippolyte who preferred the chase to the soft conversation of our ladies!) Your friend, your enemy, the Chevalier de la Jabotiere, burns to meet on the field of Mars his generous rival. M. Du Quesne spoke of you last night at supper. M. Du Quesne, my husband, send affectuous remembrances to their young friend, with which are ever joined those of your sincere Presidente de Mouchy.”

“The banner of the Leopard,” of which George’s fair correspondent wrote, was, indeed, flung out to the winds, and a number of the king’s soldiers were rallied round it. It was resolved to wrest from the French all the conquests they had made upon British dominion. A couple of regiments were raised and paid by the king in America, and a fleet with a couple more was despatched from home under an experienced commander. In February, 1755, Commodore Keppel, in the famous ship Centurion, in which Anson had made his voyage round the world, anchored in Hampton Roads with two ships of war under his command, and having on board General Braddock, his staff, and a part of his troops. Mr. Braddock was appointed by the Duke. A hundred years ago the Duke of Cumberland was called The Duke par excellence in England — as another famous warrior has since been called. Not so great a Duke certainly was that first-named Prince as his party esteemed him, and surely not so bad a one as his enemies have painted him. A fleet of transports speedily followed Prince William’s general, bringing stores, and men, and money in plenty.

The great man landed his troops at Alexandria on the Potomac river, and repaired to Annapolis in Maryland, where he ordered the governors of the different colonies to meet him in council, urging them each to call upon their respective provinces to help the common cause in this strait.

The arrival of the General and his little army caused a mighty excitement all through the provinces, and nowhere greater than at Castlewood. Harry was off forthwith to see the troops under canvas at Alexandria. The sight of their lines delighted him, and the inspiring music of their fifes and drums. He speedily made acquaintance with the officers of both regiments; he longed to join in the expedition upon which they were bound, and was a welcome guest at their mess.

Madam Esmond was pleased that her sons should have an opportunity of enjoying the society of gentlemen of good fashion from England. She had no doubt their company was improving, that the English gentlemen were very different from the horse-racing, cock-fighting Virginian squires, with whom Master Harry would associate, and the lawyers, and pettifoggers, and toad-eaters at the lieutenant-governor’s table. Madam Esmond had a very keen eye for detecting flatterers in other folks’ houses. Against the little knot of official people at Williamsburg she was especially satirical, and had no patience with their etiquettes and squabbles for precedence.

As for the company of the king’s officers, Mr. Harry and his elder brother both smiled at their mamma’s compliments to the elegance and propriety of the gentlemen of the camp. If the good lady had but known all, if she could but have heard their jokes and the songs which they sang over their wine and punch, if she could have seen the condition of many of them as they were carried away to their lodgings, she would scarce have been so ready to recommend their company to her sons. Men and officers swaggered the country round, and frightened the peaceful farm and village folk with their riot: the General raved and stormed against his troops for their disorder; against the provincials for their traitorous niggardliness; the soldiers took possession almost as of a conquered country, they scorned the provincials, they insulted the wives even of their Indian allies, who had come to join the English warriors, upon their arrival in America, and to march with them against the French. The General was compelled to forbid the Indian women his camp. Amazed and outraged their husbands retired, and but a few months afterwards their services were lost to him, when their aid would have been most precious.

Some stories against the gentlemen of the camp, Madam Esmond might have heard, but she would have none of them. Soldiers would be soldiers, that everybody knew; those officers who came over to Castlewood on her son’s invitation were most polite gentlemen, and such indeed was the case. The widow received them most graciously, and gave them the best sport the country afforded. Presently, the General himself sent polite messages to the mistress of Castlewood. His father had served with hers under the glorious Marlborough, and Colonel Esmond’s name was still known and respected in England. With her ladyship’s permission, General Braddock would have the honour of waiting upon her at Castlewood, and paying his respects to the daughter of so meritorious an officer.

If she had known the cause of Mr. Braddock’s politeness, perhaps his compliments would not have charmed Madam Esmond so much. The Commander-inChief held levees at Alexandria, and among the gentry of the country, who paid him their respects, were our twins of Castlewood, who mounted their best nags, took with them their last London suits, and, with their two negro-boys, in smart liveries behind them, rode in state to wait upon the great man. He was sulky and angry with the provincial gentry, and scarce took any notice of the young gentlemen, only asking, casually, of his aide-de-camp at dinner, who the young Squire Gawkeys were in blue and gold and red waistcoats?

Mr. Dinwiddie, the Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, the Agent from Pennsylvania, and a few more gentlemen, happened to be dining with his Excellency. “Oh!” says Mr. Dinwiddie, “those are the sons of the Princess Pocahontas;” on which, with a tremendous oath, the General asked, “Who the deuce was she?”

Dinwiddie, who did not love her, having indeed undergone a hundred pertnesses from the imperious little lady, now gave a disrespectful and ridiculous account of Madam Esmond, made merry with her pomposity and immense pretensions, and entertained General Braddock with anecdotes regarding her, until his Excellency fell asleep.

When he awoke, Dinwiddie was gone, but the Philadelphia gentleman was still at table, deep in conversation with the officers there present. The General took up the talk where it had been left when he fell asleep, and spoke of Madam Esmond in curt, disrespectful terms, such as soldiers were in the habit of using in those days, and asking, again, what was the name of the old fool about whom Dinwiddie had been talking? He then broke into expressions of contempt and wrath against the gentry, and the country in general.

Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia repeated the widow’s name, took quite a different view of her character from that Mr. Dinwiddie had given, seemed to know a good deal about her, her father, and her estate; as, indeed, he did about every man or subject which came under discussion; explained to the General that Madam Esmond had beeves, and horses, and stores in plenty, which might be very useful at the present juncture, and recommended him to conciliate her by all means. The General had already made up his mind that Mr. Franklin was a very shrewd, intelligent person, and graciously ordered an aide-de-camp to invite the two young men to the next day’s dinner. When they appeared he was very pleasant and good-natured; the gentlemen of the General’s family made much of them. They behaved, as became persons of their name, with modesty and good-breeding; they returned home delighted with their entertainment, nor was their mother less pleased at the civilities which his Excellency had shown to her boys. In reply to Braddock’s message, Madam Esmond penned a billet in her best style, acknowledging his politeness, and begging his Excellency to fix the time when she might have the honour to receive him at Castlewood.

We may be sure that the arrival of the army and the approaching campaign formed the subject of continued conversation in the Castlewood family. To make the campaign was the dearest wish of Harry’s life. He dreamed only of war and battle; he was for ever with the officers at Williamsburg; he scoured and cleaned and polished all the guns and swords in the house; he renewed the amusements of his childhood, and had the negroes under arms. His mother, who had a gallant spirit, knew that the time was come when one of her boys must leave her and serve the king. She scarce dared to think on whom the lot should fall. She admired and respected the elder, but she felt that she loved the younger boy with all the passion of her heart.

Eager as Harry was to be a soldier, and with all his thoughts bent on that glorious scheme, he too scarcely dared to touch on the subject nearest his heart. Once or twice when he ventured on it with George, the latter’s countenance wore an ominous look. Harry had a feudal attachment for his elder brother, worshipped him with an extravagant regard, and in all things gave way to him as the chief. So Harry saw, to his infinite terror, how George, too, in his grave way, was occupied with military matters. George had the wars of Eugene and Marlborough down from his bookshelves, all the military books of his grandfather, and the most warlike of Plutarch’s lives. He and Dempster were practising with the foils again. The old Scotchman was an adept in the military art, though somewhat shy of saying where he learned it.

Madam Esmond made her two boys the bearers of the letter in reply to his Excellency’s message, accompanying her note with such large and handsome presents for the General’s staff and the officers of the two Royal Regiments, as caused the General more than once to thank Mr. Franklin for having been the means of bringing this welcome ally into the camp. “Would not one of the young gentlemen like to see the campaign?” the General asked. “A friend of theirs, who often spoke of them — Mr. Washington, who had been unlucky in the affair of last year — had already promised to join him as aide-de-camp, and his Excellency would gladly take another young Virginian gentleman into his family.” Harry’s eyes brightened and his face flushed at this offer. “He would like with all his heart to go!” he cried out. George said, looking hard at his younger brother, that one of them would be proud to attend his Excellency, whilst it would be the other’s duty to take care of their mother at home. Harry allowed his senior to speak. His will was even still obedient to George’s. However much he desired to go, he would not pronounce until George had declared himself. He longed so for the campaign, that the actual wish made him timid. He dared not speak on the matter as he went home with George. They rode for miles in silence, or strove to talk upon indifferent subjects; each knowing what was passing in the other’s mind, and afraid to bring the awful question to an issue.

On their arrival at home the boys told their mother of General Braddock’s offer. “I knew it must happen,” she said; “at such a crisis in the country our family must come forward. Have you — have you settled yet which of you is to leave me?” and she looked anxiously from one to another, dreading to hear either name.

“The youngest ought to go, mother; of course I ought to go!” cries Harry, turning very red.

“Of course he ought,” said Mrs. Mountain, who was present at their talk.

“There! Mountain says so! I told you so!” again cries Harry, with a sidelong look at George.

“The head of the family ought to go, mother,” says George, sadly.

“No! no! you are ill, and have never recovered your fever. Ought he to go, Mountain?”

“You would make the best soldier, I know that, dearest Hal. You and George Washington are great friends, and could travel well together, and he does not care for me, nor I for him, however much he is admired in the family. But, you see, ’tis the law of Honour, my Harry.” (He here spoke to his brother with a voice of extraordinary kindness and tenderness.) “The grief I have had in this matter has been that I must refuse thee. I must go. Had Fate given you the benefit of that extra half-hour of life which I have had before you, it would have been your lot, and you would have claimed your right to go first, you know you would.”

“Yes, George,” said poor Harry, “I own I should.”

“You will stay at home, and take care of Castlewood and our mother. If anything happens to me, you are here to fill my place. I would like to give way, my dear, as you, I know, would lay down your life to serve me. But each of us must do his duty. What would our grandfather say if he were here?”

The mother looked proudly at her two sons. “My papa would say that his boys were gentlemen,” faltered Madam Esmond, and left the young men, not choosing, perhaps, to show the emotion which was filling her heart. It was speedily known amongst the servants that Mr. George was going on the campaign. Dinah, George’s foster-mother, was loud in her lamentations at losing him; Phillis, Harry’s old nurse, was as noisy because Master George, as usual, was preferred over Master Harry. Sady, George’s servant, made preparations to follow his master, bragging incessantly of the deeds which he would do, while Gumbo, Harry’s boy, pretended to whimper at being left behind, though, at home, Gumbo was anything but a fire-eater.

But, of all in the house, Mrs. Mountain was the most angry at George’s determination to go on the campaign. She had no patience with him. He did not know what he was doing by leaving home. She begged, implored, insisted that he should alter his determination; and vowed that nothing but mischief would come from his departure.

George was surprised at the pertinacity of the good lady’s opposition. “I know, Mountain,” said he, “that Harry would be the better soldier; but, after all, to go is my duty.”

“To stay is your duty!” says Mountain, with a stamp of her foot.

“Why did not my mother own it when we talked of the matter just now?”

“Your mother!” says Mrs. Mountain, with a most gloomy, sardonic laugh; “your mother, my poor child!”

“What is the meaning of that mournful countenance, Mountain?”

“It may be that your mother wishes you away, George!” Mrs. Mountain continued, wagging her head. “It may be, my poor deluded boy, that you will find a father-inlaw when you come back.”

“What in heaven do you mean?” cried George, the blood rushing into his face.

“Do you suppose I have no eyes, and cannot see what is going on? I tell you, child, that Colonel Washington wants a rich wife. When you are gone, he will ask your mother to marry him, and you will find him master here when you come back. That is why you ought not to go away, you poor, unhappy, simple boy! Don’t you see how fond she is of him? how much she makes of him? how she is always holding him up to you, to Harry, to everybody who comes here?”

“But he is going on the campaign, too,” cried George.

“He is going on the marrying campaign, child!” insisted the widow.

“Nay; General Braddock himself told me that Mr. Washington had accepted the appointment of aide-de-camp.”

“An artifice! an artifice to blind you, my poor child!” cries Mountain. “He will be wounded and come back — you will see if he does not. I have proofs of what I say to you — proofs under his own hand — look here!” And she took from her pocket a piece of paper in Mr. Washington’s well-known handwriting.

“How came you by this paper?” asked George, turning ghastly pale.

“I— I found it in the Major’s chamber!” says Mrs. Mountain, with a shamefaced look.

“You read the private letters of a guest staying in our house?” cried George. “For shame! I will not look at the paper!” And he flung it from him on to the fire before him.

“I could not help it, George; ’twas by chance, I give you my word, by the merest chance. You know Governor Dinwiddie is to have the Major’s room, and the state-room is got ready for Mr. Braddock, and we are expecting ever so much company, and I had to take the things which the Major leaves here — he treats the house just as if it was his own already — into his new room, and this half-sheet of paper fell out of his writing-book, and I just gave one look at it by the merest chance, and when I saw what it was it was my duty to read it.”

“Oh, you are a martyr to duty, Mountain!” George said grimly. “I dare say Mrs. Bluebeard thought it was her duty to look through the keyhole.”

“I never did look through the keyhole, George. It’s a shame you should say so! I, who have watched, and tended, and nursed you, like a mother; who have sate up whole weeks with you in fevers, and carried you from your bed to the sofa in these arms. There, sir, I don’t want you there now. My dear Mountain, indeed! Don’t tell me! You fly into a passion, and, call names, and wound my feelings, who have loved you like your mother — like your mother? — I only hope she may love you half as well. I say you are all ungrateful. My Mr. Mountain was a wretch, and every one of you is as bad.”

There was but a smouldering log or two in the fireplace, and no doubt Mountain saw that the paper was in no danger as it lay amongst the ashes, or she would have seized it at the risk of burning her own fingers, and ere she uttered the above passionate defence of her conduct. Perhaps George was absorbed in his dismal thoughts; perhaps his jealousy overpowered him, for he did not resist any further when she stooped down and picked up the paper.

“You should thank your stars, child, that I saved the letter,” cried she. “See! here are his own words, in his great big handwriting like a clerk. It was not my fault that he wrote them, or that I found them. Read for yourself, I say, George Warrington, and be thankful that your poor dear old Mounty is watching over you!”

Every word and letter upon the unlucky paper was perfectly clear. George’s eyes could not help taking in the contents of the document before him. “Not a word of this, Mountain,” he said, giving her a frightful look. “I— I will return this paper to Mr. Washington.”

Mountain was scared at his face, at the idea of what she had done, and what might ensue. When his mother, with alarm in her countenance, asked him at dinner what ailed him that he looked so pale? “Do you suppose, madam,” says he, filling himself a great bumper of wine, “that to leave such a tender mother as you does not cause me cruel grief?”

The good lady could not understand his words, his strange, fierce looks, and stranger laughter. He bantered all at the table; called to the servants and laughed at them, and drank more and more. Each time the door was opened, he turned towards it; and so did Mountain, with a guilty notion that Mr. Washington would step in.

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