The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Cupid plays a Considerable Part

We must now, however, and before we proceed with the history of Miss Lydia and her doings, perform the duty of explaining that sentence in Mr. Warrington’s letter to his brother which refers to Lady Maria Esmond, and which, to some simple readers, may be still mysterious. For how, indeed, could well-regulated persons divine such a secret? How could innocent and respectable young people suppose that a woman of noble birth, of ancient family, of mature experience — a woman whom we have seen exceedingly in love only a score of months ago — should so far forget herself as (oh, my very finger-tips blush as I write the sentence!)— as not only to fall in love with a person of low origin, and very many years her junior, but actually to marry him in the face of the world? That is, not exactly in the face, but behind the back of the world, so to speak; for Parson Sampson privily tied the indissoluble knot for the pair at his chapel in Mayfair.

Now stop before you condemn her utterly. Because Lady Maria had had, and overcome, a foolish partiality for her young cousin, was that any reason why she should never fall in love with anybody else? Are men to have the sole privilege of change, and are women to be rebuked for availing themselves now and again of their little chance of consolation? No invectives can be more rude, gross, and unphilosophical than, for instance, Hamlet’s to his mother about her second marriage. The truth, very likely, is, that that tender, parasitic creature wanted a something to cling to, and, Hamlet senior out of the way, twined herself round Claudius. Nay, we have known females so bent on attaching themselves, that they can twine round two gentlemen at once. Why, forsooth, shall there not be marriage-tables after funeral baked-meats? If you said grace for your feast yesterday, is that any reason why you shall not be hungry today? Your natural fine appetite and relish for this evening’s feast, shows that tomorrow evening at eight o’clock you will most probably be in want of your dinner. I, for my part, when Flirtilla or Jiltissa were partial to me (the kind reader will please to fancy that I am alluding here to persons of the most ravishing beauty and lofty rank), always used to bear in mind that a time would come when they would be fond of somebody else. We are served a la Russe, and gobbled up a dish at a time, like the folks in Polyphemus’s cave. ’Tis hodie mihi, cras tibi: there are some Anthropophagi who devour dozens of us, the old, the young, the tender, the tough, the plump, the lean, the ugly, the beautiful: there’s no escape, and one after another, as our fate is, we disappear down their omnivorous maws. Look at Lady Ogresham! We all remember, last year, how she served poor Tom Kydd: seized upon him, devoured him, picked his bones, and flung them away. Now it is Ned Suckling she has got into her den. He lies under her great eyes, quivering and fascinated. Look at the poor little trepid creature, panting and helpless under the great eyes! She trails towards him nearer and nearer; he draws to her, closer and closer. Presently there will be one or two feeble squeaks for pity, and — hobblegobble — he will disappear! Ah me! it is pity, too. I knew, for instance, that Maria Esmond had lost her heart ever so many times before Harry Warrington found it; but I like to fancy that he was going to keep it; that, bewailing mischance and times out of joint, she would yet have preserved her love, and fondled it in decorous celibacy. If, in some paroxysm of senile folly, I should fall in love tomorrow, I shall still try and think I have acquired the fee-simple of my charmer’s heart; — not that I am only a tenant, on a short lease, of an old battered furnished apartment, where the dingy old wine-glasses have been clouded by scores of pairs of lips, and the tumbled old sofas are muddy with the last lodger’s boots. Dear, dear nymph! Being beloved and beautiful! Suppose I had a little passing passion for Glycera (and her complexion really was as pure as splendent Parian marble); suppose you had a fancy for Telephus, and his low collars and absurd neck; — those follies are all over now, aren’t they? We love each other for good now, don’t we? Yes, for ever; and Glycera may go to Bath, and Telephus take his cervicem roseam to Jack Ketch, n’est-ce pas?

No. We never think of changing, my dear. However winds blow, or time flies, or spoons stir, our potage, which is now so piping hot, will never get cold. Passing fancies we may have allowed ourselves in former days; and really your infatuation for Telephus (don’t frown so, my darling creature! and make the wrinkles in your forehead worse)— I say, really it was the talk of the whole town; and as for Glycera, she behaved confoundedly ill to me. Well, well, now that we understand each other, it is for ever that our hearts are united, and we can look at Sir Cresswell Cresswell, and snap our fingers at his wig. But this Maria of the last century was a woman of an ill-regulated mind. You, my love, who know the world, know that in the course of this lady’s career a great deal must have passed that would not bear the light, or edify in the telling. You know (not, my dear creature, that I mean you have any experience; but you have heard people say — you have heard your mother say) that an old flirt, when she has done playing the fool with one passion, will play the fool with another; that flirting is like drinking; and the brandy being drunk up, you — no, not you — Glycera — the brandy being drunk up, Glycera, who has taken to drinking, will fall upon the gin. So, if Maria Esmond has found a successor for Harry Warrington, and set up a new sultan in the precious empire of her heart, what, after all, could you expect from her? That territory was like the Low Countries, accustomed to being conquered, and for ever open to invasion.

And Maria’s present enslaver was no other than Mr. Geoghegan or Hagan, the young actor who had performed in George’s tragedy. His tones were so thrilling, his eye so bright, his mien so noble, he looked so beautiful in his gilt leather armour and large buckled periwig, giving utterance to the poet’s glowing verses, that the lady’s heart was yielded up to him, even as Ariadne’s to Bacchus when her affair with Theseus was over. The young Irishman was not a little touched and elated by the highborn damsel’s partiality for him. He might have preferred a Lady Maria Hagan more tender in years, but one more tender in disposition it were difficult to discover. She clung to him closely, indeed. She retired to his humble lodgings in Westminster with him, when it became necessary to disclose their marriage, and when her furious relatives disowned her.

General Lambert brought the news home from his office in Whitehall one day, and made merry over it with his family. In those homely times a joke was none the worse for being a little broad; and a fine lady would laugh at a jolly page of Fielding, and weep over a letter of Clarissa, which would make your present ladyship’s eyes start out of your head with horror. He uttered all sorts of waggeries, did the merry General, upon the subject of this marriage; upon George’s share in bringing it about; upon Barry’s jealousy when he should hear of it, He vowed it was cruel that cousin Hagan had not selected George as groomsman; that the first child should be called Carpezan or Sybilla, after the tragedy, and so forth. They would not quite be able to keep a coach, but they might get a chariot and pasteboard dragons from Mr. Rich’s theatre. The baby might be christened in Macbeth’s caldron; and Harry and harlequin ought certainly to be godfathers.

“Why shouldn’t she marry him if she likes him?” asked little Hetty. “Why should he not love her because she is a little old? Mamma is a little old, and you love her none the worse. When you married my mamma, sir, I have heard you say you were very poor; and yet you were very happy, and nobody laughed at you!” Thus this impudent little person spoke by reason of her tender age, not being aware of Lady Maria Esmond’s previous follies.

So her family has deserted her? George described what wrath they were in; how Lady Castlewood had gone into mourning; how Mr. Will swore he would have the rascal’s ears; how furious Madame de Bernstein was, the most angry of all. “It is an insult to the family,” says haughty little Miss Hett; “and I can fancy how ladies of that rank must be indignant at their relative’s marriage with a person of Mr. Hagan’s condition; but to desert her is a very different matter.”

“Indeed, my dear child,” cries mamma, “you are talking of what you don’t understand. After my Lady Maria’s conduct, no respectable person can go to see her.”

“What conduct, mamma?”

“Never mind,” cries mamma. “Little girls can’t be expected to know, and ought not to be too curious to inquire, what Lady Maria’s conduct has been! Suffice it, miss, that I am shocked her ladyship should ever have been here; and I say again, no honest person should associate with her!”

“Then, Aunt Lambert, I must be whipped and sent to bed,” says George, with mock gravity. “I own to you (though I did not confess sooner, seeing that the affair was not mine) that I have been to see my cousin the player, and her ladyship his wife. I found them in very dirty lodgings in Westminster, where the wretch has the shabbiness to keep not only his wife, but his old mother, and a little brother, whom he puts to school. I found Mr. Hagan, and came away with a liking, and almost a respect for him, although I own he has made a very improvident marriage. But how improvident some folks are about marriage, aren’t they, Theo?”

“Improvident, if they marry such spendthrifts as you,” says the General. “Master George found his relations, and I’ll be bound to say he left his purse behind him.”

“No, not the purse, sir,” says George, smiling very tenderly. “Theo made that. But I am bound to own it came empty away. Mr. Rich is in great dudgeon. He says he hardly dares have Hagan on his stage, and is afraid of a riot, such as Mr. Garrick had about the foreign dancers. This is to be a fine gentleman’s riot. The macaronis are furious, and vow they will pelt Mr. Hagan, and have him cudgelled afterwards. My cousin Will, at Arthur’s, has taken his oath he will have the actor’s ears. Meanwhile, as the poor man does not play, they have cut off his salary; and without his salary, this luckless pair of lovers have no means to buy bread and cheese.”

“And you took it to them, sir? It was like you, George!” says Theo, worshipping him with her eyes.

“It was your purse took it, dear Theo!” replies George.

“Mamma, I hope you will go and see them tomorrow!” prays Theo.

“If she doesn’t, I shall get a divorce, my dear!” cries papa. “Come and kiss me, you little wench — that is, avec la bonne permission de monsieur mon beau-fils.”

“Monsieur mon beau fiddlestick, papa!” says Miss Lambert, and I have no doubt complies with the paternal orders. And this was the first time George Esmond Warrington, Esquire, was ever called a fiddlestick.

Any man, even in our time, who makes an imprudent marriage, knows how he has to run the gauntlet of the family, and undergo the abuse, the scorn, the wrath, the pity of his relations. If your respectable family cry out because you marry the curate’s daughter, one in ten, let us say, of his charming children; or because you engage yourself to the young barrister whose only present pecuniary resources come from the court which he reports, and who will have to pay his Oxford bills out of your slender little fortune; — if your friends cry out for making such engagements as these, fancy the feelings of Lady Maria Hagan’s friends, and even those of Mr. Hagan’s, on the announcement of this marriage.

There is old Mrs. Hagan, in the first instance. Her son has kept her dutifully and in tolerable comfort, ever since he left Trinity College at his father’s death, and appeared as Romeo at Crow Street Theatre. His salary has sufficed of late years to keep the brother at school, to help the sister who has gone out as companion, and to provide fire, clothing, tea, dinner, and comfort for the old clergyman’s widow. And now, forsooth, a fine lady, with all sorts of extravagant habits, must come and take possession of the humble home, and share the scanty loaf and mutton! Were Hagan not a high-spirited fellow, and the old mother very much afraid of him, I doubt whether my lady’s life at the Westminster lodgings would be very comfortable. It was very selfish perhaps to take a place at that small table, and in poor Hagan’s narrow bed. But Love in some passionate and romantic dispositions never regards consequences, or measures accommodation. Who has not experienced that frame of mind; what thrifty wife has not seen and lamented her husband in that condition; when, with rather a heightened colour and a deuce-may-care smile on his face, he comes home and announces that he has asked twenty people to dinner next Saturday? He doesn’t know whom exactly; and he does know the dining-room will only hold sixteen. Never mind! Two of the prettiest girls can sit upon young gentlemen’s knees: others won’t come: there’s sure to be plenty! In the intoxication of love people venture upon this dangerous sort of housekeeping; they don’t calculate the resources of their dining-table, or those inevitable butchers’ and fishmongers’ bills which will be brought to the ghastly housekeeper at the beginning of the month.

Yes: it was rather selfish of my Lady Maria to seat herself at Hagan’s table and take the cream off the milk, and the wings of the chickens, and the best half of everything where there was only enough before; and no wonder the poor old mamma-inlaw was disposed to grumble. But what was her outcry compared to the clamour at Kensington among Lady Maria’s noble family? Think of the talk and scandal all over the town! Think of the titters and whispers of the ladies in attendance at the Princess’s court, where Lady Fanny had a place; of the jokes of Mr. Will’s brother-officers at the usher’s table; of the waggeries in the daily prints and magazines; of the comments of outraged prudes; of the laughter of the clubs and the sneers of the ungodly! At the receipt of the news Madame Bernstein had fits and ran off to the solitude of her dear rocks at Tunbridge Wells, where she did not see above forty people of a night at cards. My lord refused to see his sister; and the Countess in mourning, as we have said, waited upon one of her patronesses, a gracious Princess, who was pleased to condole with her upon the disgrace and calamity which had befallen her house. For one, two, three whole days the town was excited and amused by the scandal; then there came other news — a victory in Germany; doubtful accounts from America; a general officer coming home to take his trial; an exquisite new soprano singer from Italy; and the public forgot Lady Maria in her garret, eating the hard-earned meal of the actor’s family.

This is an extract from Mr. George Warrington’s letter to his brother, in which he describes other personal matters, as well as a visit he had paid to the newly married pair:—

“My dearest little Theo,” he writes, “was eager to accompany her mamma upon this errand of charity; but I thought Aunt Lambert’s visit would be best under the circumstances, and without the attendance of her little spinster aide-de-camp. Cousin Hagan was out when we called; we found her ladyship in a loose undress, and with her hair in not the neatest papers, playing at cribbage with a neighbour from the second floor, while good Mrs. Hagan sate on the other side of the fire with a glass of punch, and the Whole Duty of Man.

“Maria, your Maria once, cried a little when she saw us; and Aunt Lambert, you may be sure, was ready with her sympathy. While she bestowed it on Lady Maria, I paid the best compliments I could invent to the old lady. When the conversation between Aunt L. and the bride began to flag, I turned to the latter, and between us we did our best to make a dreary interview pleasant. Our talk was about you, about Wolfe, about war; you must be engaged face to face with the Frenchmen by this time, and God send my dearest brother safe and victorious out of the battle! Be sure we follow your steps anxiously — we fancy you at Cape Breton. We have plans of Quebec, and charts of the St. Lawrence. Shall I ever forget your face of joy that day when you saw me return safe and sound from the little combat with the little Frenchman? So will my Harry, I know, return from his battle. I feel quite assured of it; elated somehow with the prospect of your certain success and safety. And I have made all here share my cheerfulness. We talk of the campaign as over, and Captain Warrington’s promotion as secure. Pray Heaven, all our hopes may be fulfilled one day ere long.

“How strange it is that you who are the mettlesome fellow (you know you are) should escape quarrels hitherto, and I, who am a peaceful youth, wishing no harm to anybody, should have battles thrust upon me! What do you think actually of my having had another affair upon my wicked hands, and with whom, think you? With no less a personage than your old enemy, our kinsman, Mr. Will.

“What or who set him to quarrel with me, I cannot think. Spencer (who acted as second for me, for matters actually have gone this length; — don’t be frightened; it is all over, and nobody is a scratch the worse) thinks some one set Will on me, but who, I say? His conduct has been most singular; his behaviour quite unbearable. We have met pretty frequently lately at the house of good Mr. Van den Bosch, whose pretty granddaughter was consigned to both of us by our good mother. Oh, dear mother! did you know that the little thing was to be such a causa belli, and to cause swords to be drawn, and precious lives to be menaced? But so it has been. To show his own spirit, I suppose, or having some reasonable doubt about mine, whenever Will and I have met at Mynheer’s house — and he is for ever going there — he has shown such downright rudeness to me, that I have required more than ordinary patience to keep my temper. He has contradicted me once, twice, thrice in the presence of the family, and out of sheer spite and rage, as it appeared to me. Is he paying his addresses to Miss Lydia, and her father’s ships, negroes, and forty thousand pounds? I should guess so. The old gentleman is for ever talking about his money, and adores his granddaughter, and as she is a beautiful little creature, numbers of folk here are ready to adore her too. Was Will rascal enough to fancy that I would give up my Theo for a million of guineas, and negroes, and Venus to boot? Could the thought of such baseness enter into the man’s mind? I don’t know that he has accused me of stealing Van den Bosch’s spoons and tankards when we dine there, or of robbing on the highway. But for one reason or the other he has chosen to be jealous of me, and as I have parried his impertinences with little sarcastic speeches (though perfectly civil before company), perhaps I have once or twice made him angry. Our little Miss Lydia has unwittingly added fuel to the fire on more than one occasion, especially yesterday, when there was talk about your worship.

“‘Ah!’ says the heedless little thing, as we sat over our dessert, ‘’tis lucky for you, Mr. Esmond, that Captain Harry is not here.’

“‘Why, miss?’ asks he, with one of his usual conversational ornaments. He must have offended some fairy in his youth, who has caused him to drop curses for ever out of his mouth, as she did the girl to spit out toads and serpents. (I know some one from whose gentle lips there only fall pure pearls and diamonds.) ‘Why?’ says Will, with a cannonade of oaths.

“‘O fie!’ says she, putting up the prettiest little fingers to the prettiest little rosy ears in the world. ‘O fie, sir! to use such naughty words. ’Tis lucky the Captain is not here, because he might quarrel with you; and Mr. George is so peaceable and quiet, that he won’t. Have you heard from the Captain, Mr. George?’

“‘From Cape Breton,’ says I. ‘He is very well, thank you; that is ——’ I couldn’t finish the sentence, for I was in such a rage that I scarce could contain myself.

“‘From the Captain, as you call him, Miss Lyddy,’ says Will. ‘He’ll distinguish himself as he did at Saint Cas! Ho, ho!’

“‘So I apprehend he did, sir,’ says Will’s brother.

“‘Did he?’ says our dear cousin; ‘always thought he ran away; took to his legs; got a ducking, and ran away as if a bailiff was after him.’

“‘La!’ says Miss, ‘did the Captain ever have a bailiff after him?’

“‘Didn’t he? Ho, ho!’ laughs Mr. Will.

“I suppose I must have looked very savage, for Spencer, who was dining with us, trod on my foot under the table. ‘Don’t laugh so loud, cousin,’ I said, very gently; ‘you may wake good old Mr. Van den Bosch.’ The good old gentleman was asleep in his arm-chair, to which he commonly retires for a nap after dinner.

“‘Oh, indeed, cousin,’ says Will, and he turns and winks at a friend of his, Captain Deuceace, whose own and whose wife’s reputation I dare say you heard of when you frequented the clubs, and whom Will has introduced into this simple family as a man of the highest fashion. ‘Don’t be afraid, miss,’ says Mr. Will, ‘nor my cousin needn’t be.’

“‘Oh, what a comfort!’ cries Miss Lyddy. ‘Keep quite quiet, gentlemen, and don’t quarrel, and come up to me when I send to say the tea is ready.’ And with this she makes a sweet little curtsey, and disappears.

“‘Hang it, Jack, pass the bottle, and don’t wake the old gentleman!’ continues Mr. Will. ‘Won’t you help yourself, cousin?’ he continues; being particularly facetious in the tone of that word cousin.

“‘I am going to help myself,’ I said; ‘but I am not going to drink the glass; and I’ll tell you what I am going to do with it, if you will be quite quiet, cousin.’ (Desperate kicks from Spencer all this time.)

“‘And what the deuce do I care what you are going to do with it?’ asks Will, looking rather white.

“‘I am going to fling it into your face, cousin,’ says I, very rapidly performing that feat.

“‘By Jove, and no mistake!’ cries Mr. Deuceace; and as he and William roared out an oath together, good old Van den Bosch woke up, and, taking the pocket-handkerchief off his face, asked what was the matter.

“I remarked it was only a glass of wine gone the wrong way and the old man said; ‘Well, well, there is more where that came from! Let the butler bring you what you please, young gentlemen!’ and he sank back in his great chair, and began to sleep again.

“‘From the back of Montagu House Gardens there is a beautiful view of Hampstead at six o’clock in the morning; and the statue of the King on St. George’s Church is reckoned elegant, cousin!’ says I, resuming the conversation.

“‘D—— the statue!’ begins Will; but I said, ‘Don’t, cousin! or you will wake up the old gentleman. Had we not best go upstairs to Miss Lyddy’s tea-table?’

“We arranged a little meeting for the next morning; and a coroner might have been sitting upon one or other, or both, of our bodies this afternoon; but, would you believe it? just as our engagement was about to take place, we were interrupted by three of Sir John Fielding’s men, and carried to Bow Street, and ignominiously bound over to keep the peace.

“Who gave the information? Not I, or Spencer, I can vow. Though I own I was pleased when the constables came running to us; bludgeon in hand: for I had no wish to take Will’s blood, or sacrifice my own to such a rascal. Now, sir, have you such a battle as this to describe to me? — a battle of powder and no shot? — a battle of swords as bloody as any on the stage? I have filled my paper, without finishing the story of Maria and her Hagan. You must have it by the next ship. You see, the quarrel with Will took place yesterday, very soon after I had written the first sentence or two of my letter. I had been dawdling till dinner-time (I looked at the paper last night, when I was grimly making certain little accounts up, and wondered shall I ever finish this letter?), and now the quarrel has been so much more interesting to me than poor Molly’s love-adventures, that behold my paper is full to the brim! Wherever my dearest Harry reads it, I know that there will be a heart full of love for — His loving brother,

G. E. W.”

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