The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Containing both Comedy and Tragedy

We, who had been active in the guilty scene of the morning, felt trebly guilty when we saw the effect which our conduct had produced upon him, who, of all others, we loved and respected. The shock to the good man was strange, and pitiful to us to witness who had administered it. The child of his heart had deceived and disobeyed him — I declare I think, my dear, now, we would not or could not do it over again; his whole family had entered into a league against him. Dear, kind friend and father! We know thou hast pardoned our wrong — in the Heaven where thou dwellest amongst purified spirits who learned on earth how to love and pardon! To love and forgive were easy duties with that man. Beneficence was natural to him, and a sweet, smiling humility; and to wound either was to be savage and brutal, as to torture a child, or strike blows at a nursing woman. The deed done, all we guilty ones grovelled in the earth, before the man we had injured. I pass over the scenes of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of common worship together, of final separation when the good man departed to his government, and the ship sailed away before us, leaving me and Theo on the shore. We stood there hand in hand, horribly abashed, silent, and guilty. My wife did not come to me till her father went: in the interval between the ceremony of our marriage and his departure, she had remained at home, occupying her old place by her father, and bed by her sister’s side: he as kind as ever, but the women almost speechless among themselves; Aunt Lambert, for once, unkind and fretful in her temper; and little Hetty feverish and strange, and saying, “I wish we were gone. I wish we were gone.” Though admitted to the house, and forgiven, I slunk away during those last days, and only saw my wife for a minute or two in the street, or with her family. She was not mine till they were gone. We went to Winchester and Hampton for what may be called our wedding. It was but a dismal business. For a while we felt utterly lonely: and of our dear father as if we had buried him, or drove him to the grave by our undutifulness.

I made Sampson announce our marriage in the papers. (My wife used to hang down her head before the poor fellow afterwards.) I took Mrs. Warrington back to my old lodgings in Bloomsbury, where there was plenty of room for us, and our modest married life began. I wrote home a letter to my mother in Virginia, informing her of no particulars, but only that Mr. Lambert being about to depart for his government, I considered myself bound in honour to fulfil my promise towards his dearest daughter; and stated that I intended to carry out my intention of completing my studies for the Bar, and qualifying myself for employment at home, or in our own or any other colony. My good Mrs. Mountain answered this letter, by desire of Madam Esmond, she said, who thought that for the sake of peace my communications had best be conducted that way. I found my relatives in a fury which was perfectly amusing to witness. The butler’s face, as he said, “Not at home,” at my uncle’s house in Hill Street, was a blank tragedy that might have been studied by Garrick when he sees Banque. My poor little wife was on my arm, and we were tripping away, laughing at the fellow’s accueil, when we came upon my lady in a street stoppage in her chair. I took off my hat and made her the lowest possible bow. I affectionately asked after my dear cousins. “I— I wonder you dare look me in the face!” Lady Warrington gasped out. “Nay, don’t deprive me of that precious privilege!” says I. “Move on, Peter,” she screams to her chairman. “Your ladyship would not impale your own husband’s flesh and blood!” says I. She rattles up the glass of her chair in a fury. I kiss my hand, take off my hat, and perform another of my very finest bows.

Walking shortly afterwards in Hyde Park with my dearest companion, I met my little cousin exercising on horseback with a groom behind him. As soon as he sees us, he gallops up to us, the groom powdering afterwards and bawling out, “Stop, Master Miles, stop!”

“I am not to speak to my cousin,” says Miles, “but telling you to send my love to Harry is not speaking to you, is it? Is that my new cousin? I’m not told not to speak to her. I’m Miles, cousin, Sir Miles Warrington Baronet’s son, and you are very pretty!” “Now, duee now, Master Miles,” says the groom, touching his hat to us; and the boy trots away laughing and looking at us over his shoulder. “You see how my relations have determined to treat me,” I say to my partner. “As if I married you for your relations!” says Theo, her eyes beaming joy and love into mine. Ah, how happy we were! how brisk and pleasant the winter! How snug the kettle by the fire (where the abashed Sampson sometimes came and made the punch); how delightful the night at the theatre, for which our friends brought us tickets of admission, and where we daily expected our new play of Pocahontas would rival the successes of all former tragedies.

The fickle old aunt of Clarges Street, who received me, on my first coming to London with my wife, with a burst of scorn, mollified presently, and as soon as she came to know Theo (who she had pronounced to be an insignificant little country-faced chit), fell utterly in love with her, and would have her to tea and supper every day when there was no other company. “As for company, my dears,” she would say, “I don’t ask you. You are no longer du monde. Your marriage has put that entirely out of the question.” So she would have had us come to amuse her, and go in and out by the back-stairs. My wife was fine lady enough to feel only amused at this reception; and, I must do the Baroness’s domestics the justice to say that, had we been duke and duchess, we could not have been received with more respect. Madame de Bernstein was very much tickled and amused with my story of Lady Warrington and the chair. I acted it for her, and gave her anecdotes of the pious Baronet’s lady and her daughters, which pleased the mischievous, lively old woman.

The Dowager Countess of Castlewood, now established in her house at Kensington, gave us that kind of welcome which genteel ladies extend to their poorer relatives. We went once or twice to her ladyship’s drums at Kensington; but, losing more money at cards, and spending more money in coach-hire than I liked to afford, we speedily gave up those entertainments, and, I dare say, were no more missed or regretted than other people in the fashionable world, who are carried by death, debt, or other accident out of the polite sphere. My Theo did not in the least regret this exclusion. She had made her appearance at one of these drums, attired in some little ornaments which her mother left behind her, and by which the good lady set some store; but I thought her own white neck was a great deal prettier than these poor twinkling stones; and there were dowagers, whose wrinkled old bones blazed with rubies and diamonds, which, I am sure, they would gladly have exchanged for her modest parure of beauty and freshness. Not a soul spoke to her — except, to be sure, Beau Lothair, a friend of Mr. Will’s, who prowled about Bloomsbury afterwards, and even sent my wife a billet. I met him in Covent Garden shortly after, and promised to break his ugly face if ever I saw it in the neighbourhood of my lodgings, and Madam Theo was molested no further.

The only one of our relatives who came to see us (Madame de Bernstein never came; she sent her coach for us sometimes, or made inquiries regarding us by her woman or her major-domo) was our poor Maria, who, with her husband, Mr. Hagan, often took a share of our homely dinner. Then we had friend Spencer from the Temple, who admired our Arcadian felicity, and gently asked our sympathy for his less fortunate loves; and twice or thrice the famous Doctor Johnson came in for a dish of Theo’s tea. A dish? a pailful! “And a pail the best thing to feed him, sar!” says Mr. Gumbo, indignantly: for the Doctor’s appearance was not pleasant, nor his linen particularly white. He snorted, he grew red, and sputtered in feeding; he flung his meat about, and bawled out in contradicting people: and annoyed my Theo, whom he professed to admire greatly, by saying, every time he saw her, “Madam, you do not love me; I see by your manner you do not love me; though I admire you, and come here for your sake. Here is my friend Mr. Reynolds that shall paint you: he has no ceruse in his paint-box that is as brilliant as your complexion.” And so Mr. Reynolds, a most perfect and agreeable gentleman, would have painted my wife; but I knew what his price was, and did not choose to incur that expense. I wish I had now, for the sake of the children, that they might see what yonder face was like some five-and-thirty years ago. To me, madam, ’tis the same now as ever; and your ladyship is always young!

What annoyed Mrs. Warrington with Dr. Johnson more than his contradictions, his sputterings, and his dirty nails, was, I think, an unfavourable opinion which he formed of my new tragedy. Hagan once proposed that he should read some scenes from it after tea.

“Nay, sir, conversation is better,” says the Doctor. “I can read for myself, or hear you at the theatre. I had rather hear Mrs. Warrington’s artless prattle than your declamation of Mr. Warrington’s decasyllables. Tell us about your household affairs, madam, and whether his Excellency your father is well, and whether you made the pudden and the butter sauce. The butter sauce was delicious!” (He loved it so well that he had kept a large quantity in the bosom of a very dingy shirt.) “You made it as though you loved me. You helped me as though you loved me, though you don’t.”

“Faith, sir, you are taking some of the present away with you in your waistcoat,” says Hagan, with much spirit.

“Sir, you are rude!” bawls the Doctor. “You are unacquainted with the first principles of politeness, which is courtesy before ladies. Having received an university education, I am surprised that you have not learned the rudiments of politeness. I respect Mrs. Warrington. I should never think of making personal remarks about her guests before her!”

“Then, sir,” says Hagan, fiercely, “why did you speak of my theatre?”

“Sir, you are saucy!” roars the Doctor.

“De te fabula,” says the actor. “I think it is your waistcoat that is saucy. Madam, shall I make some punch in the way we make it in Ireland?”

The Doctor, puffing, and purple in the face, was wiping the dingy shirt with a still more dubious pocket-handkerchief, which he then applied to his forehead. After this exercise, he blew a hyperborean whistle, as if to blow his wrath away. “It is de me, sir — though, as a young man, perhaps you need not have told me so.”

“I drop my point, sir! If you have been wrong, I am sure I am bound to ask your pardon for setting you so!” says Mr. Hagan, with a fine bow.

“Doesn’t he look like a god?” says Maria, clutching my wife’s hand: and indeed Mr. Hagan did look like a handsome young gentleman. His colour had risen; he had put his hand to his breast with a noble air: Chamont or Castalio could not present himself better.

“Let me make you some lemonade, sir; my papa has sent us a box of fresh limes. May we send you some to the Temple?”

“Madam, if they stay in your house, they will lose their quality and turn sweet,” says the Doctor. “Mr. Hagan, you are a young sauce-box, that’s what you are! Ho! ho! It is I have been wrong.”

“Oh, my lord, my Polidore!” bleats Lady Maria, when she was alone in my wife’s drawing-room:

“‘Oh, I could hear thee talk for ever thus,
Eternally admiring — fix and gaze
On those dear eyes, for every glance they send
Darts through my soul, and fills my heart with rapture!’

“Thou knowest not, my Theo, what a pearl and paragon of a man my Castalio is; my Chamont, my — oh, dear me, child, what a pity it is that in your husband’s tragedy he should have to take the horrid name of Captain Smith!”

Upon this tragedy not only my literary hopes, but much of my financial prospects were founded. My brother’s debts discharged, my mother’s drafts from home duly honoured, my own expenses paid, which, though moderate, were not inconsiderable — pretty nearly the whole of my patrimony had been spent, and this auspicious moment I must choose for my marriage! I could raise money on my inheritance: that was not impossible, though certainly costly. My mother could not leave her eldest son without a maintenance, whatever our quarrels might be. I had health, strength, good wits, some friends, and reputation — above all, my famous tragedy, which the manager had promised to perform, and upon the proceeds of this I counted for my present support. What becomes of the arithmetic of youth? How do we then calculate that a hundred pounds is a maintenance, and a thousand a fortune? How did I dare play against Fortune with such odds? I succeeded, I remember, in convincing my dear General, and he left home convinced that his son-inlaw had for the present necessity at least a score of hundred pounds at his command. He and his dear Molly had begun life with less, and the ravens had somehow always fed them. As for the women, the question of poverty was one of pleasure to those sentimental souls, and Aunt Lambert, for her part, declared it would be wicked and irreligious to doubt of a provision being made for her children. Was the righteous ever forsaken? Did the just man ever have to beg his bread? She knew better than that! “No, no, my dears! I am not going to be afraid on that account, I warrant you! Look at me and my General!”

Theo believed all I said and wished to believe myself. So we actually began life upon a capital of Five Acts, and about three hundred pounds of ready money in hand!

Well, the time of the appearance of the famous tragedy drew near, and my friends canvassed the town to get a body of supporters for the opening night. I am ill at asking favours from the great; but when my Lord Wrotham came to London, I went, with Theo in my hand, to wait on his lordship, who received us kindly, out of regard for his old friend, her father — though he good-naturedly shook a finger at me (at which my little wife hung down her head), for having stole a march on the good General. However, he would do his best for her father’s daughter; hoped for a success; said he had heard great things of the piece; and engaged a number of places for himself and his friends. But this patron secured, I had no other. “Mon cher, at my age,” says the Baroness, “I should bore myself to death at a tragedy: but I will do my best; and I will certainly send my people to the boxes. Yes! Case in his best black looks like a nobleman; and Brett in one of my gowns has a faux air de moi which is quite distinguished. Put down my name for two in the front boxes. Good-bye, my dear. Bonne chance!” The Dowager Countess presented compliments (on the back of the nine of clubs), had a card-party that night, and was quite sorry she and Fanny could not go to my tragedy. As for my uncle and Lady Warrington, they were out of the question. After the affair of the sedan-chair I might as well have asked Queen Elizabeth to go to Drury Lane. These were all my friends — that host of aristocratic connexions about whom poor Sampson had bragged; and on the strength of whom, the manager, as he said, had given Mr. Hagan his engagement! “Where was my Lord Bute? Had I not promised his lordship should come?” he asks, snappishly, taking snuff (how different from the brisk, and engaging, and obsequious little manager of six months ago!)—“I promised Lord Bute should come?”

“Yes,” says Mr. Garrick, “and her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and his Majesty too.”

Poor Sampson owned that he, buoyed up by vain hopes, had promised the appearance of these august personages.

The next day, at rehearsal, matters were worse still, and the manager in a fury.

“Great heavens, sir!” says he, “into what a pretty guet-a-pens have you led me! Look at that letter, sir! — read that letter!” And he hands me one:

“MY DEAR SIR” (said the letter)—“I have seen his lordship, and conveyed to him Mr. Warrington’s request that he would honour the tragedy of Pocahontas by his presence. His lordship is a patron of the drama, and a magnificent friend of all the liberal arts; but he desires me to say that he cannot think of attending himself, much less of asking his Gracious Master to witness the performance of a play, a principal part in which is given to an actor who has made a clandestine marriage with a daughter of one of his Majesty’s nobility. — Your well-wisher, SAUNDERS MCDUFF.”

“Mr. D. Garrick, at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.”

My poor Theo had a nice dinner waiting for me after the rehearsal. I pleaded fatigue as the reason for looking so pale: I did not dare to convey to her this dreadful news.

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