The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


The Course of True Love

Had your father, young folks, possessed the commonest share of prudence, not only would this chapter of his history never have been written, but you yourselves would never have appeared in the world to plague him in a hundred ways to shout and laugh in the passages when he wants to be quiet at his books; to wake him when he is dozing after dinner, as a healthy country gentleman should: to mislay his spectacles for him, and steal away his newspaper when he wants to read it; to ruin him with tailors’ bills, mantua-makers’ bills, tutors’ bills, as you all of you do: to break his rest of nights when you have the impudence to fall ill, and when he would sleep undisturbed but that your silly mother will never be quiet for half an hour; and when Joan can’t sleep, what use, pray, is there in Darby putting on his nightcap? Every trifling ailment that any one of you has had, has scared her so that I protest I have never been tranquil; and, were I not the most long-suffering creature in the world, would have liked to be rid of the whole pack of you. And now, forsooth, that you have grown out of childhood, long petticoats, chicken-pox, small-pox, whooping-cough, scarlet fever, and the other delectable accidents of puerile life, what must that unconscionable woman propose but to arrange the south rooms as a nursery for possible grandchildren, and set up the Captain with a wife, and make him marry early because we did! He is too fond, she says, of Brookes’s and Goosetree’s when he is in London. She has the perversity to hint that, though an entree to Carlton House may be very pleasant, ’tis very dangerous for a young gentleman: and she would have Miles live away from temptation, and sow his wild oats, and marry, as we did. Marry! my dear creature, we had no business to marry at all! By the laws of common prudence and duty, I ought to have backed out of my little engagement with Miss Theo (who would have married somebody else), and taken a rich wife. Your Uncle John was a parson and couldn’t fight, poor Charley was a boy at school, and your grandfather was too old a man to call me to account with sword and pistol. I repeat there never was a more foolish match in the world than ours, and our relations were perfectly right in being angry with us. What are relations made for, indeed, but to be angry and find fault? When Hester marries, do you mind, Master George, to quarrel with her if she does not take a husband of your selecting. When George has got his living, after being senior wrangler and fellow of his college, Miss Hester, do you toss up your little nose at the young lady he shall fancy. As for you, my little Theo, I can’t part with your. You must not quit your old father; for he likes you to play Haydn to him, and peel his walnuts after dinner.

[On the blank leaf opposite this paragraph is written, in a large, girlish hand:

“I never intend to go. — THEODOSIA.”

“Nor I. — HESTER.”

They both married, as I see by the note in the family Bible — Miss Theodosia Warrington to Joseph Clinton, son of the Rev. Joseph Blake, and himself subsequently Master of Rodwell Regis Grammar School; and Miss Hester Mary, in 1804, to Captain F. Handyman, R.N. — ED.]

Whilst they had the blessing (forsooth!) of meeting, and billing and cooing every day, the two young people, your parents, went on in a fool’s paradise, little heeding the world round about them, and all its tattling and meddling. Rinaldo was as brave a warrior as ever slew Turk, but you know he loved dangling in Armida’s garden. Pray, my Lady Armida, what did you mean by flinging your spells over me in youth, so that not glory, not fashion, not gaming-tables, not the society of men of wit in whose way I fell, could keep me long from your apron-strings, or out of reach of your dear simple prattle? Pray, my dear, what used we to say to each other during those endless hours of meeting? I never went to sleep after dinner then. Which of us was so witty? Was it I or you? And how came it our conversations were so delightful? I remember that year I did not even care to go and see my Lord Ferrers tried and hung, when all the world was running after his lordship. The King of Prussia’s capital was taken; had the Austrians and Russians been encamped round the Tower there could scarce have been more stir in London: yet Miss Theo and her young gentleman felt no inordinate emotion of pity or indignation. What to us was the fate of Leipzig or Berlin? The truth is, that dear old house in Dean Street was an enchanted garden of delights. I have been as idle since, but never as happy. Shall we order the postchaise, my dear, leave the children to keep house; and drive up to London and see if the old lodgings are still to be let? And you shall sit at your old place in the window, and wave a little handkerchief as I walk up the street. Say what we did was imprudent. Would we not do it over again? My good folks, if Venus had walked into the room and challenged the apple, I was so infatuated, I would have given it your mother. And had she had the choice, she would have preferred her humble servant in a threadbare coat to my Lord Clive with all his diamonds.

Once, to be sure, and for a brief time in that year, I had a notion of going on the highway in order to be caught and hung as my Lord Ferrers: or of joining the King of Prussia, and requesting some of his Majesty’s enemies to knock my brains out; or of enlisting for the India service, and performing some desperate exploit which should end in my bodily destruction. Ah me! that was indeed a dreadful time! Your mother scarce dares speak of it now, save in a whisper of terror; or think of it — it was such cruel pain. She was unhappy years after on the anniversary of the day, until one of you was born on it. Suppose we had been parted: what had come to us? What had my lot been without her? As I think of that possibility, the whole world is a blank. I do not say were we parted now. It has pleased God to give us thirty years of union. We have reached the autumn season. Our successors are appointed and ready; and that one of us who is first called away, knows the survivor will follow ere long. But we were actually parted in our youth; and I tremble to think what might have been, had not a dearest friend brought us together.

Unknown to myself, and very likely meaning only my advantage, my relatives in England had chosen to write to Madam Esmond in Virginia, and represent what they were pleased to call the folly of the engagement I had contracted. Every one of them sang the same song: and I saw the letters, and burned the whole cursed pack of them years afterwards when my mother showed them to me at home in Virginia. Aunt Bernstein was forward with her advice. A young person, with no wonderful good looks, of no family, with no money; — was ever such an imprudent connexion, and ought it not for dear George’s sake to be broken off? She had several eligible matches in view for me. With my name and prospects, ’twas a shame I should throw myself away on this young lady; her sister ought to interpose — and so forth.

My Lady Warrington must write, too, and in her peculiar manner. Her ladyship’s letter was garnished with scripture texts.

She dressed her worldliness out in phylacteries. She pointed out how I was living in an unworthy society of player-folks, and the like people, who she could not say were absolutely without religion (Heaven forbid!), but who were deplorably worldly. She would not say an artful woman had inveigled me for her daughter, having in vain tried to captivate my younger brother. She was far from saying any harm of the young woman I had selected; but at least this was certain, Miss L. had no fortune or expectations, and her parents might naturally be anxious to compromise me. She had taken counsel, etc. etc. She had sought for guidance where it was, etc. Feeling what her duty was, she had determined to speak. Sir Miles, a man of excellent judgment in the affairs of this world (though he knew and sought a better), fully agreed with her in opinion, nay, desired her to write, and entreat her sister to interfere, that the ill-advised match should not take place.

And who besides must put a little finger into the pie but the new Countess of Castlewood? She wrote a majestic letter to Madam Esmond, and stated, that having been placed by Providence at the head of the Esmond family, it was her duty to communicate with her kinswoman and warn her to break off this marriage. I believe the three women laid their heads together previously; and, packet after packet, sent off their warnings to the Virginian lady.

One raw April morning, as Corydon goes to pay his usual duty to Phillis, he finds, not his charmer with her dear smile as usual ready to welcome him, but Mrs. Lambert, with very red eyes, and the General as pale as death. “Read this, George Warrington!” says he, as his wife’s head drops between her hands; and he puts a letter before me, of which I recognised the handwriting. I can hear now the sobs of the good Aunt Lambert, and to this day the noise of fire-irons stirring a fire in a room overhead gives me a tremor. I heard such a noise that day in the girls’ room where the sisters were together. Poor, gentle child! Poor Theo!

“What can I do after this, George, my poor boy?” asks the General, pacing the room with desperation in his face.

I did not quite read the whole of Madam Esmond’s letter, for a kind of sickness and faintness came over me; but I fear I could say some of it now by heart. Its style was good, and its actual words temperate enough, though they only implied that Mr. and Mrs. Lambert had inveigled me into the marriage; that they knew such an union was unworthy of me; that (as Madam E. understood) they had desired a similar union for her younger son, which project, not unluckily for him, perhaps, was given up when it was found that Mr. Henry Warrington was not the inheritor of the Virginian property. If Mr. Lambert was a man of spirit and honour, as he was represented to be, Madam Esmond scarcely supposed that, after her representations, he would persist in desiring this match. She would not lay commands upon her son, whose temper she knew; but for the sake of Miss Lambert’s own reputation and comfort, she urged that the dissolution of the engagement should come from her family, and not from the just unwillingness of Rachel Esmond Warrington of Virginia.

“God help us, George!” the General said, “and give us all strength to bear this grief, and these charges which it has pleased your mother to bring! They are hard, but they don’t matter now. What is of most importance, is to spare as much sorrow as we can to my poor girl. I know you love her so well, that you will help me and her mother to make the blow as tolerable as we may to that poor gentle heart. Since she was born she has never given pain to a soul alive, and ’tis cruel that she should be made to suffer.” And as he spoke he passed his hand across his dry eyes.

“It was my fault, Martin! It was my fault!” weeps the poor mother.

“Your mother spoke us fair, and gave her promise,” said the father.

“And do you think I will withdraw mine?” cried I; and protested, with a thousand frantic vows, what they knew full well, that I was bound to Theo before Heaven, and that nothing should part me from her.”

“She herself will demand the parting. She is a good girl, God help me! and a dutiful. She will not have her father and mother called schemers, and treated with scorn. Your mother knew not, very likely, what she was doing, but ’tis done. You may see the child, and she will tell you as much. Is Theo dressed, Molly? I brought the letter home from my office last evening after you were gone. The women have had a bad night. She knew at once by my face that there was bad news from America. She read the letter quite firmly. She said she would like to see you and say good-bye. Of course, George, you will give me your word of honour not to try and see her afterwards. As soon as my business will let me we will get away from this, but mother and I think we are best all together. ’Tis you, perhaps, had best go. But give me your word, at any rate, that you will not try and see her. We must spare her pain, sir! We must spare her pain!” And the good man sate down in such deep anguish himself that I, who was not yet under the full pressure of my own grief, actually felt his, and pitied it. It could not be that the dear lips I had kissed yesterday were to speak to me only once more. We were all here together; loving each other, sitting in the room where we met every day; my drawing on the table by her little workbox; she was in the chamber upstairs; she must come down presently.

Who is this opens the door? I see her sweet face. It was like our little Mary’s when we thought she would die of the fever. There was even a smile upon her lips. She comes up and kisses me. “Good-bye, dear George!” she says. Great Heaven! An old man sitting in this room — with my wife’s workbox opposite, and she but five minutes away, my eyes grow so dim and full that I can’t see the book before me. I am three-and-twenty years old again. I go through every stage of that agony. I once had it sitting in my own postchaise, with my wife actually by my side. Who dared to sully her sweet love with suspicion? Who had a right to stab such a soft bosom? Don’t you see my ladies getting their knives ready, and the poor child baring it? My wife comes in. She has been serving out tea or tobacco to some of her pensioners. “What is it makes you look so angry, papa?” she says. “My love!” I say, “it is the thirteenth of April.” A pang of pain shoots across her face, followed by a tender smile. She has undergone the martyrdom, and in the midst of the pang comes a halo of forgiveness. I can’t forgive; not until my days of dotage come, and I cease remembering anything. “Hal will be home for Easter; he will bring two or three of his friends with him from Cambridge,” she says. And straightway she falls to devising schemes for amusing the boys. When is she ever occupied, but with plans for making others happy?

A gentleman sitting in spectacles before an old ledger, and writing down pitiful remembrances of his own condition, is a quaint and ridiculous object. My corns hurt me, I know, but I suspect my neighbour’s shoes pinch him too. I am not going to howl much over my own grief, or enlarge at any great length on this one. Many another man, I dare say, has had the light of his day suddenly put out, the joy of his life extinguished, and has been left to darkness and vague torture. I have a book I tried to read at this time of grief — Howel’s Letters — and when I come to the part about Prince Charles in Spain, up starts the whole tragedy alive again. I went to Brighthelmstone, and there, at the inn, had a room facing the east, and saw the sun get up ever so many mornings, after blank nights of wakefulness, and smoked my pipe of Virginia in his face. When I am in that place by chance, and see the sun rising now, I shake my fist at him, thinking, O orient Phoebus, what horrible grief and savage wrath have you not seen me suffer! Though my wife is mine ever so long, I say I am angry just the same. Who dared, I want to know, to make us suffer so? I was forbidden to see her. I kept my promise, and remained away from the house: that is, after that horrible meeting and parting. But at night I would go and look at her window, and watch the lamp burning there; I would go to the Chartreux (where I knew another boy), and call for her brother, and gorge him with cakes and half-crowns. I would meanly have her elder brother to dine, and almost kiss him when he went away. I used to breakfast at a coffee-house in Whitehall, in order to see Lambert go to his office; and we would salute each other sadly, and pass on without speaking. Why did not the women come out? They never did. They were practising on her, and persuading her to try and forget me. Oh, the weary, weary days! Oh, the maddening time! At last a doctor’s chariot used to draw up before the General’s house every day. Was she ill? I fear I was rather glad she was ill. My own suffering was so infernal, that I greedily wanted her to share my pain. And would she not? What grief of mine has it not felt, that gentlest and most compassionate of hearts? What pain would it not suffer to spare mine a pang?

I sought that doctor out. I had an interview with him. I told my story, and laid bare my heart to him, with an outburst of passionate sincerity, which won his sympathy. My confession enabled him to understand his young patient’s malady; for which his drugs had no remedy or anodyne. I had promised not to see her, or to go to her: I had kept my promise. I had promised to leave London: I had gone away. Twice, thrice I went back and told my sufferings to him. He would take my fee now and again, and always receive me kindly, and let me speak. Ah, how I clung to him! I suspect he must have been unhappy once in his own life, he knew so well and gently how to succour the miserable.

He did not tell me how dangerously, though he did not disguise from me how gravely and seriously, my dearest girl had been ill. I told him everything — that I would marry her and brave every chance and danger; that, without her, I was a man utterly wrecked and ruined, and cared not what became of me. My mother had once consented, and had now chosen to withdraw her consent, when the tie between us had been, as I held, drawn so closely together, as to be paramount to all filial duty.

“I think, sir, if your mother heard you, and saw Miss Lambert, she would relent,” said the doctor. Who was my mother to hold me in bondage; to claim a right of misery over me; and to take this angel out of my arms?

“He could not,” he said, “be a message-carrier between young ladies who were pining and young lovers on whom the sweethearts’ gates were shut: but so much he would venture to say, that he had seen me, and was prescribing for me, too.” Yes, he must have been unhappy once, himself. I saw him, you may be sure, on the very day when he had kept his promise to me. He said she seemed to be comforted by hearing news of me.

“She bears her suffering with an angelical sweetness. I prescribe Jesuit’s bark, which she takes; but I am not sure the hearing of you has not done more good than the medicine.” The women owned afterwards that they had never told the General of the doctor’s new patient.

I know not what wild expressions of gratitude I poured out to the good doctor for the comfort he brought me. His treatment was curing two unhappy sick persons. ’Twas but a drop of water, to be sure; but then a drop of water to a man raging in torment. I loved the ground he trod upon, blessed the hand that took mine, and had felt her pulse. I had a ring with a pretty cameo head of a Hercules on it. ’Twas too small for his finger, nor did the good old man wear such ornaments. I made him hang it to his watch-chain, in hopes that she might see it, and recognise that the token came from me. How I fastened upon Spencer at this time (my friend of the Temple who also had an unfortunate love-match), and walked with him from my apartments to the Temple, and he back with me to Bedford Gardens, and our talk was for ever about our women! I dare say I told everybody my grief. My good landlady and Betty the housemaid pitied me. My son Miles, who, for a wonder, has been reading in my MS., says, “By Jove, sir, I didn’t know you and my mother were took in this kind of way. The year I joined, I was hit very bad myself. An infernal little jilt that threw me over for Sir Craven Oaks of our regiment. I thought I should have gone crazy.” And he gives a melancholy whistle, and walks away.

The General had to leave London presently on one of his military inspections, as the doctor casually told me; but, having given my word that I would not seek to present myself at his house, I kept it, availing myself, however, as you may be sure, of the good physician’s leave to visit him, and have news of his dear patient. His accounts of her were, far from encouraging. “She does not rally,” he said. “We must get her back to Kent again, or to the sea.” I did not know then that the poor child had begged and prayed so piteously not to be moved, that her parents, divining, perhaps, the reason of her desire to linger in London, and feeling that it might be dangerous not to humour her, had yielded to her entreaty, and consented to remain in town.

At last one morning I came, pretty much as usual, and took my place in my doctor’s front parlour, whence his patients were called in their turn to his consulting-room. Here I remained, looking heedlessly over the books on the table and taking no notice of any person in the room, which speedily emptied itself of all, save me and one lady who sate with her veil down. I used to stay till the last, for Osborn, the doctor’s man, knew my business, and that it was not my own illness I came for.

When the room was empty of all save me and the lady, she puts out two little hands, cries in a voice which made me start “Don’t you know me, George?” And the next minute I have my arms round her, and kissed her as heartily as ever I kissed in my life, and gave way to a passionate outgush of emotion the most refreshing, for my parched soul had been in rage and torture for six weeks past, and this was a glimpse of Heaven.

Who was it, children? You think it was your mother whom the doctor had brought to me? No. It was Hetty.

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