The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


We keep Christmas at Castlewood. 1759

We know, my dear children, from our favourite fairy story-books, how at all christenings and marriages some one is invariably disappointed, and vows vengeance; and so need not wonder that good cousin Will should curse and rage energetically at the news of his brother’s engagement with the colonial heiress. At first, Will fled the house, in his wrath, swearing he would never return. But nobody, including the swearer, believed much in Master Will’s oaths; and this unrepentant prodigal, after a day or two, came back to the paternal house. The fumes of the marriage-feast allured him: he could not afford to resign his knife and fork at Castlewood table. He returned, and drank and ate there in token of revenge. He pledged the young bride in a bumper, and drank perdition to her under his breath. He made responses of smothered maledictions as her father gave her away in the chapel, and my lord vowed to love, honour and cherish her. He was not the only grumbler respecting that marriage, as Mr. Warrington knew: he heard, then and afterwards, no end of abuse of my lady and her grandfather. The old gentleman’s City friends, his legal adviser, the Dissenting clergyman at whose chapel they attended on their first arrival in England, and poor Jack Lambert, the orthodox young divine, whose eloquence he had fondly hoped had been exerted over her in private, were bitter against the little lady’s treachery, and each had a story to tell of his having been enslaved, encouraged, jilted, by the young American. The lawyer, who had had such an accurate list of all her properties, estates, moneys, slaves, ships, expectations, was ready to vow and swear that he believed the whole account was false; that there was no such place as New York or Virginia; or at any rate, that Mr. Van den Bosch had no land there; that there was no such thing as a Guinea trade, and that the negroes were so many black falsehoods invented by the wily old planter. The Dissenting pastor moaned over his stray lambling — if such a little, wily, mischievous monster could be called a lamb at all. Poor Jack Lambert ruefully acknowledged to his mamma the possession of a lock of black hair, which he bedewed with tears and apostrophised in quite unclerical language: and, as for Mr. William Esmond, he, with the shrieks and curses in which he always freely indulged, even at Castlewood, under his sister-inlaw’s own pretty little nose, when under any strong emotion, called Acheron to witness, that out of that region there did not exist such an artful young devil as Miss Lydia. He swore that she was an infernal female Cerberus, and called down all the wrath of this world and the next upon his swindling rascal of a brother, who had cajoled him with fair words, and filched his prize from him.

“Why,” says Mr. Warrington (when Will expatiated on these matters with him), “if the girl is such a she-devil as you describe her, you are all the better for losing her. If she intends to deceive her husband, and to give him a dose of poison, as you say, how lucky for you, you are not the man! You ought to thank the gods, Will, instead of cursing them, for robbing you of such a fury, and can’t be better revenged on Castlewood than by allowing him her sole possession.”

“All this was very well,” Will Esmond said; but — not unjustly, perhaps — remarked that his brother was not the less a scoundrel for having cheated him out of the fortune which he expected to get, and which he had risked his life to win, too.

George Warrington was at a loss to know how his cousin had been made so to risk his precious existence (for which, perhaps, a rope’s end had been a fitting termination), on which Will Esmond, with the utmost candour, told his kinsman how the little Cerbera had actually caused the meeting between them, which was interrupted somehow by Sir John Fielding’s men; how she was always saying that George Warrington was a coward for ever sneering at Mr. Will, and the latter doubly a poltroon for not taking notice of his kinsman’s taunts; how George had run away and nearly died of fright in Braddock’s expedition; and “Deuce take me,” says Will, “I never was more surprised, cousin, than when you stood to your ground so coolly in Tottenham Court Fields yonder, for me and my second offered to wager that you would never come!”

Mr. Warrington laughed, and thanked Mr. Will for this opinion of him.

“Though,” says he, “cousin, ’twas lucky for me the constables came up, or you would have whipped your sword through my body in another minute. Didn’t you see how clumsy I was as I stood before you? And you actually turned white and shook with anger!”

“Yes, curse me,” says Mr. Will (who turned very red this time), “that’s my way of showing my rage; and I was confoundedly angry with you, cousin! But now ’tis my brother I hate, and that little devil of a Countess — a countess! a pretty countess, indeed!” And with another rumbling cannonade of oaths, Will saluted the reigning member of his family.

“Well, cousin,” says George, looking him queerly in the face, “you let me off easily, and I dare say I owe my life to you, or at any rate a whole waistcoat, and I admire your forbearance and spirit. What a pity that a courage like yours should be wasted as a mere court usher! You are a loss to his Majesty’s army. You positively are!”

“I never know whether you are joking or serious, Mr. Warrington,” growls Will.

“I should think very few gentlemen would dare to joke with you, cousin, if they had a regard for their own lives or ears! cries Mr. Warrington, who loved this grave way of dealing with his noble kinsman, and used to watch, with a droll interest, the other choking his curses, grinding his teeth because afraid to bite, and smothering his cowardly anger.

“And you should moderate your expressions, cousin, regarding the dear Countess and my lord your brother,” Mr. Warrington resumed. “Of you they always speak most tenderly. Her ladyship has told me everything.”

“What everything?” cries Will, aghast.

“As much as women ever do tell, cousin. She owned that she thought you had been a little epris with her. What woman can help liking a man who has admired her?”

“Why, she hates you, and says you were wild about her, Mr. Warrington!” says Mr. Esmond.

“Spretae injuria formae, cousin!”

“For me — what’s for me?” asks the other.

“I never did care for her, and hence, perhaps, she does not love me. Don’t you remember that case of the wife of the Captain of the Guard?”

“Which Guard?” asks Will.

“My Lord Potiphar,” says Mr. Warrington.

“Lord Who? My Lord Falmouth is Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, and my Lord Berkeley of the Pensioners. My Lord Hobart had ’em before. Suppose you haven’t been long enough in England to know who’s who, cousin!” remarks Mr. William.

But Mr. Warrington explained that he was speaking of a Captain of the Guard of the King of Egypt, whose wife had persecuted one Joseph for not returning her affection for him. On which Will said that, as for Egypt, he believed it was a confounded long way off; and that if Lord What-d’ye-call’s wife told lies about him, it was like her sex, who he supposed were the same everywhere.

Now the truth is, that when he paid his marriage-visit to Castlewood, Mr. Warrington had heard from the little Countess her version of the story of differences between Will Esmond and herself. And this tale differed, in some respects, though he is far from saying it is more authentic than the ingenuous narrative of Mr. Will. The lady was grieved to think how she had been deceived in her brother-inlaw. She feared that his life about the court and town had injured those high principles which all the Esmonds are known to be born with; that Mr. Will’s words were not altogether to be trusted; that a loose life and pecuniary difficulties had made him mercenary, blunted his honour, perhaps even impaired the high chivalrous courage “which we Esmonds, cousin,” the little lady said, tossing her head, “which we Esmonds must always possess — leastways, you and me, and my lord, and my cousin Harry have it, I know!” says the Countess. “Oh, cousin George! and must I confess that I was led to doubt of yours, without which a man of ancient and noble family like ours isn’t worthy to be called a man! I shall try, George, as a Christian lady, and the head of one of the first families in this kingdom and the whole world, to forgive my brother William for having spoke ill of a member of our family, though a younger branch and by the female side, and made me for a moment doubt of you. He did so. Perhaps he told me ever so many bad things you had said of me.”

“I, my dear lady!” cries Mr. Warrington.

“Which he said you said of me, cousin, and I hope you didn’t, and heartily pray you didn’t; and I can afford to despise ’em. And he paid me his court, that’s a fact; and so have others, and that I’m used to; and he might have prospered better than he did perhaps (for I did not know my dear lord, nor come to vally his great and eminent qualities, as I do out of the fulness of this grateful heart now!), but, oh! I found William was deficient in courage, and no man as wants that can ever have the esteem of Lydia, Countess of Castlewood, no more he can! He said ’twas you that wanted for spirit, cousin, and angered me by telling me that you was always abusing of me. But I forgive you, George, that I do! And when I tell you that it was he was afraid — the mean skunk! — and actually sent for them constables to prevent the match between you and he, you won’t wonder I wouldn’t vally a feller like that — no, not that much!” and her ladyship snapped her little fingers. “I say, noblesse oblige, and a man of our family who hasn’t got courage, I don’t care not this pinch of snuff for him — there, now, I don’t! Look at our ancestors, George, round these walls! Haven’t the Esmonds always fought for their country and king? Is there one of us that, when the moment arrives, ain’t ready to show that he’s an Esmond and a nobleman? If my eldest son was to show the white feather, ‘My Lord Esmond!’ I would say to him (for that’s the second title in our family), ‘I disown your lordship!’” And so saying, the intrepid little woman looked round at her ancestors, whose effigies, depicted by Lely and Kneller, figured round the walls of her drawing-room at Castlewood.

Over that apartment, and the whole house, domain, and village, the new Countess speedily began to rule with an unlimited sway. It was surprising how quickly she learned the ways of command; and, if she did not adopt those methods of precedence usual in England among great ladies, invented regulations for herself, and promulgated them, and made others submit. Having been bred a Dissenter, and not being over-familiar with the Established Church service, Mr. Warrington remarked that she made a blunder or two during the office (not knowing, for example, when she was to turn her face towards the east, a custom not adopted, I believe, in other Reforming churches besides the English); but between Warrington’s first bridal visit to Castlewood and his second, my lady had got to be quite perfect in that part of her duty, and sailed into chapel on her cousin’s arm, her two footmen bearing her ladyship’s great Prayer-book behind her, as demurely as that delightful old devotee with her lackey, in Mr. Hogarth’s famous picture of “Morning,” and as if my Lady Lydia had been accustomed to have a chaplain all her life. She seemed to patronise not only the new chaplain, but the service and the church itself, as if she had never in her own country heard a Ranter in a barn. She made the oldest established families in the country — grave baronets and their wives — worthy squires of twenty descents, who rode over to Castlewood to pay the bride and bridegroom honour — know their distance, as the phrase is, and give her the pas. She got an old heraldry book; and a surprising old maiden lady from Winton, learned in politeness and genealogies, from whom she learned the court etiquette (as the old Winton lady had known it in Queen Anne’s time); and ere long she jabbered gules and sables, bends and saltires, not with correctness always, but with a wonderful volubility and perseverance. She made little progresses to the neighbouring towns in her gilt coach-and-six, or to the village in her chair, and asserted a quasi-regal right of homage from her tenants and other clodpoles. She lectured the parson on his divinity; the bailiff on his farming; instructed the astonished housekeeper how to preserve and pickle; would have taught the great London footmen to jump behind the carriage, only it was too high for her little ladyship to mount; gave the village gossips instructions how to nurse and take care of their children long before she had one herself; and as for physic, Madam Esmond in Virginia was not more resolute about her pills and draughts than Miss Lydia, the earl’s new bride. Do you remember the story of the Fisherman and the Genie, in the Arabian Nights? So one wondered with regard to this lady, how such a prodigious genius could have been corked down into such a little bottle as her body. When Mr. Warrington returned to London after his first nuptial visit, she brought him a little present for her young friends in Dean Street, as she called them (Theo being older, and Hetty scarce younger than herself), and sent a trinket to one and a book to the other — G. Warrington always vowing that Theo’s present was a doll, while Hetty’s share was a nursery-book with words of one syllable. As for Mr. Will, her younger brother-inlaw, she treated him with a maternal gravity and tenderness, and was in the habit of speaking of and to him with a protecting air, which was infinitely diverting to Warrington, although Will’s usual curses and blasphemies were sorely increased by her behaviour.

As for old age, my Lady Lydia had little respect for that accident in the life of some gentlemen and gentlewomen; and, once the settlements were made in her behalf, treated the ancient Van den Bosch and his large periwig with no more ceremony than Dinah her black attendant, whose great ears she would pinch, and whose woolly pate she would pull without scruple, upon offence given — so at least Dinah told Gumbo, who told his master. All the household trembled before my lady the Countess: the housekeeper, of whom even my lord and the dowager had been in awe; the pampered London footmen, who used to quarrel if they were disturbed at their cards, and grumbled as they swilled the endless beer, now stepped nimbly about their business when they heard her ladyship’s call; even old Lockwood, who had been gate-porter for half a century or more, tried to rally his poor old wandering wits when she came into his lodge to open his window, inspect his wood-closet, and turn his old dogs out of doors. Lockwood bared his old bald head before his new mistress, turned an appealing look towards his niece, and vaguely trembled before her little ladyship’s authority. Gumbo, dressing his master for dinner, talked about Elisha (of whom he had heard the chaplain read in the morning), “and his bald head and de boys who call um names, and de bars eat em up, and serve um right,” says Gumbo. But as for my lady, when discoursing with her cousin about the old porter, “Pooh, pooh! Stupid old man!” says she; “past his work, he and his dirty old dogs! They are as old and ugly as those old fish in the pond!” (Here she pointed to two old monsters of carp that had been in a pond in Castlewood gardens for centuries, according to tradition, and had their backs all covered with a hideous grey mould.) “Lockwood must pack off; the workhouse is the place for him; and I shall have a smart, good-looking, tall fellow in the lodge that will do credit to our livery.”

“He was my grandfather’s man, and served him in the wars of Queen Anne,” interposed Mr. Warrington. On which my lady cried, petulantly, “O Lord! Queen Anne’s dead, I suppose, and we ain’t a-going into mourning for her.”

This matter of Lockwood was discussed at the family dinner, when her ladyship announced her intention of getting rid of the old man.

“I am told,” demurely remarks Mr. Van den Bosch, “that, by the laws, poor servants and poor folks of all kinds are admirably provided in their old age here in England. I am sure I wish we had such an asylum for our folks at home, and that we were eased of the expense of keeping our old hands.”

“If a man can’t work he ought to go!” cries her ladyship.

“Yes, indeed, and that’s a fact!” says grandpapa.

“What! an old servant?” asks my lord.

“Mr. Van den Bosch possibly was independent of servants when he was young,” remarks Mr. Warrington.

“Greased my own boots, opened my own shutters, sanded and watered my own ——”

“Sugar, sir?” says my lord.

“No; floor, son-inlaw!” says the old man, with a laugh; “though there is such tricks, in grocery stores, saving your ladyship’s presence.”

“La, pa! what should I know about stores and groceries?” cries her ladyship.

“He! Remember stealing the sugar, and what came on it, my dear ladyship?” says grandpapa.

“At any rate, a handsome, well-grown man in our livery will look better than that shrivelled old porter creature!” cries my lady.

“No livery is so becoming as old age, madam, and no lace as handsome as silver hairs,” says Mr. Warrington. “What will the county say if you banish old Lockwood?”

“Oh! if you plead for him, sir, I suppose he must stay. Hadn’t I better order a couch for him out of my drawing-room, and send him some of the best wine from the cellar?”

“Indeed your ladyship couldn’t do better,” Mr. Warrington remarked, very gravely.

And my lord said, yawning, “Cousin George is perfectly right, my dear. To turn away such an old servant as Lockwood would have an ill look.”

“You see those mouldy old carps are, after all, a curiosity, and attract visitors,” continues Mr. Warrington, gravely. “Your ladyship must allow this old wretch to remain. It won’t be for long. And you may then engage the tall porter. It is very hard on us, Mr. Van den Bosch, that we are obliged to keep our old negroes when they are past work. I shall sell that rascal Gumbo in eight or ten years.”

“Don’t tink you will, master!” says Gumbo, grinning.

“Hold your tongue, sir! He doesn’t know English ways, you see, and perhaps thinks an old servant has a claim on his master’s kindness,” says Mr. Warrington.

The next day, to Warrington’s surprise, my lady absolutely did send a basket of good wine to Lockwood, and a cushion for his armchair.

“I thought of what you said, yesterday, at night when I went to bed; and guess you know the world better than I do, cousin; and that it’s best to keep the old man, as you say.”

And so this affair of the porter’s lodge ended, Mr. Warrington wondering within himself at this strange little character out of the West, with her naivete and simplicities, and a heartlessness would have done credit to the most battered old dowager who ever turned trumps in St. James’s.

“You tell me to respect old people. Why? I don’t see nothin’ to respect in the old people, I know,” she said to Warrington. “They ain’t so funny, and I’m sure they ain’t so handsome. Look at grandfather; look at Aunt Bernstein. They say she was a beauty once! That picture painted from her! I don’t believe it, nohow. No one shall tell me that I shall ever be as bad as that! When they come to that, people oughtn’t to live. No, that they oughtn’t.”

Now, at Christmas, Aunt Bernstein came to pay her nephew and niece a visit, in company with Mr. Warrington. They travelled at their leisure in the Baroness’s own landau; the old lady being in particular good health and spirits, the weather delightfully fresh and not too cold; and, as they approached her paternal home, Aunt Beatrice told her companion a hundred stories regarding it and old days. Though often lethargic, and not seldom, it must be confessed, out of temper, the old lady would light up at times, when her conversation became wonderfully lively, her wit and malice were brilliant, and her memory supplied her with a hundred anecdotes of a bygone age and society. Sure, ’tis hard with respect to Beauty, that its possessor should not have even a life-enjoyment of it, but be compelled to resign it after, at the most, some forty years’ lease. As the old woman prattled of her former lovers and admirers (her auditor having much more information regarding her past career than her ladyship knew of), I would look in her face, and, out of the ruins, try to build up in my fancy a notion of her beauty in its prime. What a homily I read there! How the courts were grown with grass, the towers broken, the doors ajar, the fine gilt saloons tarnished, and the tapestries cobwebbed and torn! Yonder dilapidated palace was all alive once with splendour and music, and those dim windows were dazzling and blazing with light! What balls and feasts were once here, what splendour and laughter! I could see lovers in waiting, crowds in admiration, rivals furious. I could imagine twilight assignations, and detect intrigues, though the curtains were close and drawn. I was often minded to say to the old woman as she talked, “Madam, I know the story was not as you tell it, but so and so”—(I had read at home the history of her life, as my dear old grandfather had wrote it): and my fancy wandered about in her, amused and solitary, as I had walked about our father’s house at Castlewood, meditating on departed glories, and imagining ancient times.

When Aunt Bernstein came to Castlewood, her relatives there, more, I think, on account of her own force of character, imperiousness, and sarcastic wit, than from their desire to possess her money, were accustomed to pay her a great deal of respect and deference, which she accepted as her due. She expected the same treatment from the new Countess, whom she was prepared to greet with special good-humour. The match had been of her making. “As you, you silly creature, would not have the heiress,” she said, “I was determined she should not go out of the family,” and she laughingly told of many little schemes for bringing the marriage about. She had given the girl a coronet and her nephew a hundred thousand pounds. Of course she should be welcome to both of them. She was delighted with the little Countess’s courage and spirit in routing the Dowager and Lady Fanny. Almost always pleased with pretty people on her first introduction to them, Madame Bernstein raffled of her niece Lydia’s bright eyes and lovely little figure. The marriage was altogether desirable. The old man was an obstacle, to be sure, and his talk and appearance somewhat too homely. But he will be got rid of. He is old and in delicate health. “He will want to go to America, or perhaps farther,” says the Baroness, with a shrug. “As for the child, she had great fire and liveliness, and a Cherokee manner which is not without its charm,” said the pleased old Baroness. “Your brother had it — so have you, Master George! Nous la formerons, cette petite. Eugene wants character and vigour, but he is a finished gentleman, and between us we shall make the little savage perfectly presentable.” In this way we discoursed on the second afternoon as we journeyed towards Castlewood. We lay at the King’s Arms at Bagshot the first night, where the Baroness was always received with profound respect, and thence drove post to Hexton, where she had written to have my lord’s horses in waiting for her; but these were not forthcoming at the inn, and after a couple of hours we were obliged to proceed with our Bagshot horses to Castlewood.

During this last stage of the journey, I am bound to say the old aunt’s testy humour returned, and she scarce spoke a single word for three hours. As for her companion; being prodigiously in love at the time, no doubt he did not press his aunt for conversation, but thought unceasingly about his Dulcinea, until the coach actually reached Castlewood Common, and rolled over the bridge before the house.

The housekeeper was ready to conduct her ladyship to her apartments. My lord and lady were both absent. She did not know what had kept them, the housekeeper said, heading the way.

“Not that door, my lady!” cries the woman, as Madame de Bernstein put her hand upon the door of the room which she had always occupied. “That’s her ladyship’s room now. This way,” and our aunt followed, by no means in increased good-humour. I do not envy her maids when their mistress was displeased. But she had cleared her brow before she joined the family, and appeared in the drawing-room before supper-time with a countenance of tolerable serenity.

“How d’ye do, aunt?” was the Countess’s salutation. “I declare now, I was taking a nap when your ladyship arrived! Hope you found your room fixed to your liking!”

Having addressed three brief sentences to the astonished old lady, the Countess now turned to her other guests, and directed her conversation to them. Mr. Warrington was not a little diverted by her behaviour, and by the appearance of surprise and wrath which began to gather over Madame Bernstein’s face. “La petite,” whom the Baroness proposed to “form,” was rather a rebellious subject, apparently, and proposed to take a form of her own. Looking once or twice rather anxiously towards his wife, my lord tried to atone for her pertness towards his aunt by profuse civility on his own part; indeed, when he so wished, no man could be more courteous or pleasing. He found a score of agreeable things to say to Madame Bernstein. He warmly congratulated Mr. Warrington on the glorious news which had come from America, and on his brother’s safety. He drank a toast at supper to Captain Warrington. “Our family is distinguishing itself, cousin,” he said; and added, looking with fond significance towards his Countess, “I hope the happiest days are in store for us all.”

“Yes, George!” says the little lady. “You’ll write and tell Harry that we are all very much pleased with him. This action at Quebec is a most glorious action; and now we have turned the French king out of the country, shouldn’t be at all surprised if we set up for ourselves in America.”

“My love, you are talking treason!” cries Lord Castlewood.

“I am talking reason, anyhow, my lord. I’ve no notion of folks being kept down, and treated as children for ever!”

George! Harry! I protest I was almost as much astonished as amused. “When my brother hears that your ladyship is satisfied with his conduct, his happiness will be complete,” I said gravely.

Next day, when talking beside her sofa, where she chose to lie in state, the little Countess no longer called her cousin “George,” but “Mr. George,” as before; on which Mr. George laughingly said she had changed her language since the previous day.

“Guess I did it to tease old Madam Buzwig,” says her ladyship. She wants to treat me as a child, and do the grandmother over me. I don’t want no grandmothers, I don’t. I’m the head of this house, and I intend to let her know it. And I’ve brought her all the way from London in order to tell it her, too! La! how she did look when I called you George! I might have called you George — only you had seen that little Theo first, and liked her best, I suppose.”

“Yes, I suppose I like her best,” says Mr. George.

“Well, I like you because you tell the truth. Because you was the only one of ’em in London who didn’t seem to care for my money, though I was downright mad and angry with you once, and with myself too, and with that little sweetheart of yours, who ain’t to be compared to me, I know she ain’t.”

“Don’t let us make the comparison, then!” I said, laughing.

“I suppose people must lie on their beds as they make ’em,” says she, with a little sigh. “Dare say Miss Theo is very good, and you’ll marry her and go to Virginia, and be as dull as we are here. We were talking of Miss Lambert, my lord, and I was wishing my cousin joy. How is old Goody today? What a supper she did eat last night, and drink! — drink like a dragoon! No wonder she has got a headache, and keeps her room. Guess it takes her ever so long to dress herself.”

“You, too, may be feeble when you are old, and require rest and wine to warm you!” says Mr. Warrington.

“Hope I shan’t be like her when I’m old, anyhow!” says the lady. “Can’t see why I am to respect an old woman, because she hobbles on a stick, and has shaky hands, and false teeth!” And the little heathen sank back on her couch, and showed twenty-four pearls of her own.

“Law!” she adds, after gazing at both her hearers through the curled lashes of her brilliant dark eyes. “How frightened you both look! My lord has already given me ever so many sermons about old Goody. You are both afraid of her: and I ain’t, that’s all. Don’t look so scared at one another! I ain’t a-going to bite her head off. We shall have a battle, and I intend to win. How did I serve the Dowager, if you please, and my Lady Fanny, with their high and mighty airs, when they tried to put down the Countess of Castlewood in her own house, and laugh at the poor American girl? We had a fight, and which got the best of it, pray? Me and Goody will have another, and when it is over, you will see that we shall both be perfect friends!”

When at this point of our conversation the door opened, and Madame Beatrix, elaborately dressed according to her wont, actually made her appearance, I, for my part, am not ashamed to own that I felt as great a panic as ever coward experienced. My lord, with his profoundest bows and blandest courtesies, greeted his aunt and led her to the fire, by which my lady (who was already hoping for an heir to Castlewood) lay reclining on her sofa. She did not attempt to rise, but smiled a greeting to her venerable guest. And then, after a brief talk, in which she showed a perfect self-possession, while the two gentlemen blundered and hesitated with the most dastardly tremor, my lord said:

“If we are to look for those pheasants, cousin, we had better go now.”

“And I and aunt will have a cosy afternoon. And you will tell me about Castlewood in the old times, won’t you, Baroness?” says the new mistress of the mansion.

O les laches que les hommes! I was so frightened, that I scarce saw anything, but vaguely felt that Lady Castlewood’s dark eyes were following me. My lord gripped my arm in the corridor, we quickened our paces till our retreat became a disgraceful run. We did not breathe freely till we were in the open air in the courtyard, where the keepers and the dogs were waiting.

And what happened? I protest, children, I don’t know. But this is certain: if your mother had been a woman of the least spirit, or had known how to scold for five minutes during as many consecutive days of her early married life, there would have been no more humble, henpecked wretch in Christendom than your father. When Parson Blake comes to dinner, don’t you see how at a glance from his little wife he puts his glass down and says, “No, thank you, Mr. Gumbo,” when old Gum brings him wine? Blake wore a red coat before he took to black, and walked up Breeds Hill with a thousand bullets whistling round his ears, before ever he saw our Bunker Hill in Suffolk. And the fire-eater of the 43rd now dare not face a glass of old port wine! ’Tis his wife has subdued his courage. The women can master us, and did they know their own strength, were invincible.

Well, then, what happened I know not on that disgraceful day of panic when your father fled the field, nor dared to see the heroines engage; but when we returned from our shooting, the battle was over. America had revolted, and conquered the mother country.

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