The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray



The English public not being so well acquainted with the history of Pocahontas as we of Virginia, who still love the memory of that simple and kindly creature, Mr. Warrington, at the suggestion of his friends, made a little ballad about this Indian princess, which was printed in the magazines a few days before the appearance of the tragedy. This proceeding Sampson and I considered to be very artful and ingenious. “It is like ground-bait, sir,” says the enthusiastic parson, “and you will see the fish rise in multitudes, on the great day!” He and Spencer declared that the poem was discussed and admired at several coffee-houses in their hearing, and that it had been attributed to Mr. Mason, Mr. Cowper of the Temple, and even to the famous Mr. Gray. I believe poor Sam had himself set abroad these reports; and, if Shakspeare had been named as the author of the tragedy, would have declared Pocahontas to be one of the poet’s best performances. I made acquaintance with brave Captain Smith, as a boy in my grandfather’s library at home, where I remember how I would sit at the good old man’s knees, with my favourite volume on my own, spelling out the exploits of our Virginian hero. I loved to read of Smith’s travels, sufferings, captivities, escapes, not only in America but Europe. I become a child again almost as I take from the shelf before me in England the familiar volume, and all sorts of recollections of my early home come crowding over my mind. The old grandfather would make pictures for me of Smith doing battle with the Turks on the Danube, or led out by our Indian savages to death. Ah, what a terrific fight was that in which he was engaged with the three Turkish champions, and how I used to delight over the story of his combat with Bonny Molgro, the last and most dreadful of the three! What a name Bonny Molgro was, and with what a prodigious turban, scimitar, and whiskers we represented him! Having slain and taken off the heads of his first two enemies, Smith and Bonny Molgro met, falling to (says my favourite old book) “with their battle-axes, whose piercing bills made sometimes the one, sometimes the other, to have scarce sense to keep their saddles: especially the Christian received such a wound that he lost his battle-axe, whereat the supposed conquering Turke had a great shout from the rampires. Yet, by the readinesse of his horse, and his great judgment and dexteritie, he not only avoided the Turke’s blows, but, having drawn his falchion, so pierced the Turke under the cutlets, through back and body, that though hee alighted from his horse, he stood not long ere hee lost his head as the rest had done. In reward for which deed, Duke Segismundus gave him 3 Turke’s head in a shield for armes and 300 Duckats yeerely for a pension.” Disdaining time and place (with that daring which is the privilege of poets) in my tragedy, Smith is made to perform similar exploits on the banks of our Potomac and James’s river. Our “ground-bait” verses, ran thus:—


“Wearied arm and broken sword
Wage in vain the desperate fight
Round him press the countless horde,
He is but a single knight.
Hark! a cry of triumph shrill
Through the wilderness resounds,
As, with twenty bleeding wounds,
Sinks the warrior, fighting still.

“Now they heap the fatal pyre,
And the torch of death they light
Ah! ’tis hard to die of fire!
Who will shield the captive knight?
Round the stake with fiendish cry
Wheel and dance the savage crowd,
Cold the victim’s mien and proud,
And his breast is bared to die.

“Who will shield the fearless heart?
Who avert the murderous blade?
From the throng, with sudden start,
See, there springs an Indian maid.
Quick she stands before the knight,
‘Loose the chain, unbind the ring,
I am daughter of the king,
And I claim the Indian right!’

“Dauntlessly aside she flings
Lifted axe and thirsty knife;
Fondly to his heart she clings,
And her bosom guards his life!
In the woods of Powhattan,
Still ’tis told, by Indian fires,
How a daughter of their sires
Saved the captive Englishman.”

I need not describe at length the plot of my tragedy, as my children can take it down from the shelves any day and peruse it for themselves. Nor shall I, let me add, be in a hurry to offer to read it again to my young folks, since Captain Miles and the parson both chose to fall asleep last Christmas, when, at mamma’s request, I read aloud a couple of acts. But any person having a moderate acquaintance with plays and novels can soon, out of the above sketch, fill out a picture to his liking. An Indian king; a loving princess, and her attendant, in love with the British captain’s servant; a traitor in the English fort; a brave Indian warrior, himself entertaining an unhappy passion for Pocahontas; a medicine-man and priest of the Indians (very well played by Palmer), capable of every treason, stratagem, and crime, and bent upon the torture and death of the English prisoner; — these, with the accidents of the wilderness, the war-dances and cries (which Gumbo had learned to mimic very accurately from the red people at home), and the arrival of the English fleet, with allusions to the late glorious victories in Canada, and the determination of Britons ever to rule and conquer in America, some of us not unnaturally thought might contribute to the success of our tragedy.

But I have mentioned the ill omens which preceded the day: the difficulties which a peevish, and jealous, and timid management threw in the way of the piece, and the violent prejudice which was felt against it in certain high quarters. What wonder then, I ask, that Pocahontas should have turned out not to be a victory? I laugh to scorn the malignity of the critics who found fault with the performance. Pretty critics, forsooth, who said that Carpezan was a masterpiece, whilst a far superior and more elaborate work received only their sneers! I insist on it that Hagan acted his part so admirably that a certain actor and manager of the theatre might well be jealous of him; and that, but for the cabal made outside, the piece would have succeeded. The order had been given that the play should not succeed; so at least Sampson declared to me. “The house swarmed with Macs, by George, and they should have the galleries washed with brimstone,” the honest fellow swore, and always vowed that Mr. Garrick himself would not have had the piece succeed for the world; and was never in such a rage as during that grand scene in the second act, where Smith (poor Hagan) being bound to the stake, Pocahontas comes and saves him, and when the whole house was thrilling with applause and sympathy.

Anybody who has curiosity sufficient, may refer to the published tragedy (in the octavo form, or in the subsequent splendid quarto edition of my Collected Works, and Poems Original and Translated), and say whether the scene is without merit, whether the verses are not elegant, the language rich and noble? One of the causes of the failure was my actual fidelity to history. I had copied myself at the Museum, and tinted neatly, a figure of Sir Walter Raleigh in a frill and beard; and (my dear Theo giving some of her mother’s best lace for the ruff) we dressed Hagan accurately after this drawing, and no man could look better. Miss Pritchard as Pocahontas, I dressed too as a Red Indian, having seen enough of that costume in my own experience at home. Will it be believed the house tittered when she first appeared? They got used to her, however, but just at the moment when she rushes into the prisoner’s arms, and a number of people were actually in tears, a fellow in the pit bawls out, “Bedad! here’s the Belle Savage kissing the Saracen’s Head;” on which an impertinent roar of laughter sprang up in the pit, breaking out with fitful explosions during the remainder of the performance. As the wag in Mr. Sheridan’s amusing Critic admirably says about the morning guns, the playwrights were not content with one of them, but must fire two or three; so with this wretched pothouse joke of the Belle Savage (the ignorant people not knowing that Pocahontas herself was the very Belle Sauvage from whom the tavern took its name!). My friend of the pit repeated it ad nauseam during the performance, and as each new character appeared, saluted him by the name of some tavern — for instance, the English governor (with a long beard) he called the Goat and Boots; his lieutenant (Barker), whose face certainly was broad, the Bull and Mouth, and so on! And the curtain descended amidst a shrill storm of whistles and hisses, which especially assailed poor Hagan every time he opened his lips. Sampson saw Master Will in the green boxes, with some pretty acquaintances of his, and has no doubt that the treacherous scoundrel was one of the ringleaders in the conspiracy. “I would have flung him over into the pit,” the faithful fellow said (and Sampson was man enough to execute his threat), “but I saw a couple of Mr. Nadab’s followers prowling about the lobby, and was obliged to sheer off.” And so the eggs we had counted on selling at market were broken, and our poor hopes lay shattered before us!

I looked in at the house from the stage before the curtain was lifted, and saw it pretty well filled, especially remarking Mr. Johnson in the front boxes, in a laced waistcoat, having his friend Mr. Reynolds by his side; the latter could not hear, and the former could not see, and so they came good-naturedly A deux to form an opinion of my poor tragedy. I could see Lady Maria (I knew the hood she wore) in the lower gallery, where she once more had the opportunity of sitting and looking at her beloved actor performing a principal character in a piece. As for Theo, she fairly owned that, unless I ordered her, she had rather not be present, nor had I any such command to give, for, if things went wrong, I knew that to see her suffer would be intolerable pain to myself, and so acquiesced in her desire to keep away.

Being of a pretty equanimous disposition, and, as I flatter myself, able to bear good or evil fortune without disturbance, I myself, after taking a light dinner at the Bedford, went to the theatre a short while before the commencement of the play, and proposed to remain there, until the defeat or victory was decided. I own now, I could not help seeing which way the fate of the day was likely to turn. There was something gloomy and disastrous in the general aspect of all things around. Miss Pritchard had the headache: the barber who brought home Hagan’s wig had powdered it like a wretch: amongst the gentlemen and ladies in the greenroom, I saw none but doubtful faces: and the manager (a very flippant, not to say impertinent gentleman, in my opinion, and who himself on that night looked as dismal as a mute at a funeral) had the insolence to say to me, “For Heaven’s sake, Mr. Warrington, go and get a glass of punch at the Bedford, and don’t frighten us all here by your dismal countenance!”

“Sir,” says I, “I have a right, for five shillings, to comment upon your face, but I never gave you any authority to make remarks upon mine.” “Sir,” says he in a pet, “I most heartily wish I had never seen your face at all!” “Yours, sir!” said I, “has often amused me greatly; and when painted for Abel Drugger is exceedingly comic”— and indeed I have always done Mr. G. the justice to think that in low comedy he was unrivalled. I made him a bow, and walked off to the coffee-house, and for five years after never spoke a word to the gentleman, when he apologised to me, at a nobleman’s house where we chanced to meet. I said I had utterly forgotten the circumstance to which he alluded, and that, on the first night of a play, no doubt author and manager were flurried alike. And added, “After all, there is no shame in not being made for the theatre. Mr. Garrick — you were.” A compliment with which he appeared to be as well pleased as I intended he should.

Fidus Achates ran over to me at the end of the first act to say that all things were going pretty well; though he confessed to the titter in the house upon Miss Pritchard’s first appearance, dressed exactly like an Indian princess.

“I cannot help it, Sampson,” said I (filling him a bumper of good punch), “if Indians are dressed so.”

“Why,” says he, “would you have had Caractacus painted blue like an ancient Briton, or Bonduca with nothing but a cow-skin?” And indeed it may be that the fidelity to history was the cause of the ridicule cast on my tragedy, in which case I, for one, am not ashamed of its defeat.

After the second act, my aide-de-camp came from the field with dismal news indeed. I don’t know how it is that, nervous before action, in disaster I become pretty cool and cheerful. [The writer seems to contradict himself here, having just boasted of possessing a pretty equanimous disposition. He was probably mistaken in his own estimate of himself, as other folks have been besides.-ED.] “Are things going ill?” says I. I call for my reckoning, put on my hat, and march to the theatre as calmly as if I was going to dine at the Temple; fidus Achates walking by my side, pressing my elbow, kicking the link-boys out of the way, and crying, “By George, Mr. Warrington, you are a man of spirit — a Trojan, sir!” So, there were men of spirit in Troy; but alas! fate was too strong for them.

At any rate, no man can say that I did not bear my misfortune with calmness: I could no more help the clamour and noise of the audience than a captain can help the howling and hissing of the storm in which his ship goes down. But I was determined that the rushing waves and broken masts should impavidum ferient, and flatter myself that I bore my calamity without flinching. “Not Regulus, my dear madam, could step into his barrel more coolly,” Sampson said to my wife. ’Tis unjust to say of men of the parasitic nature that they are unfaithful in misfortune. Whether I was prosperous or poor, the wild parson was equally true and friendly, and shared our crust as eagerly as ever he had partaken of our better fortune.

I took my place on the stage, whence I could see the actors of my poor piece, and a portion of the audience who condemned me. I suppose the performers gave me a wide berth out of pity for me. I must say that I think I was as little moved as any spectator; and that no one would have judged from my mien that I was the unlucky hero of the night.

But my dearest Theo, when I went home, looked so pale and white, that I saw from the dear creature’s countenance that the knowledge of my disaster had preceded my return. Spencer, Sampson, cousin Hagan, and Lady Maria were to come after the play, and congratulate the author, God wot! (Poor Miss Pritchard was engaged to us likewise, but sent word that I must understand that she was a great deal too unwell to sup that night.) My friend the gardener of Bedford House had given my wife his best flowers to decorate her little table. There they were; the poor little painted standards — and the battle lost! I had borne the defeat well enough, but as I looked at the sweet pale face of the wife across the table, and those artless trophies of welcome which she had set up for her hero, I confess my courage gave way, and my heart felt a pang almost as keen as any that ever has smitten it.

Our meal, it may be imagined, was dismal enough, nor was it rendered much gayer by the talk we strove to carry on. Old Mrs. Hagan was, luckily, very ill at this time; and her disease, and the incidents connected with it, a great blessing to us. Then we had his Majesty’s approaching marriage, about which there was a talk. (How well I remember the most futile incidents of the day down to a tune which a carpenter was whistling by my side at the playhouse, just before the dreary curtain fell!) Then we talked about the death of good Mr. Richardson, the author of Pamela and Clarissa, whose works we all admired exceedingly. And as we talked about Clarissa, my wife took on herself to wipe her eyes once or twice, and say, faintly, “You know, my love, mamma and I could never help crying over that dear book. Oh, my dearest, dearest mother” (she adds), “how I wish she could be with me now!” This was an occasion for more open tears, for of course a young lady may naturally weep for her absent mother. And then we mixed a gloomy bowl with Jamaica limes, and drank to the health of his Excellency the Governor: and then, for a second toast, I filled a bumper, and, with a smiling face, drank to “our better fortune!”

This was too much. The two women flung themselves into each other’s arms, and irrigated each other’s neck-handkerchiefs with tears. “Oh, Maria! Is not — is not my George good and kind?” sobs Theo. “Look at my Hagan — how great, how godlike he was in his part!” gasps Maria. “It was a beastly cabal which threw him over — and I could plunge this knife into Mr. Garrick’s black heart — the odious little wretch!” and she grasps a weapon at her side. But throwing it presently down, the enthusiastic creature rushes up to her lord and master, flings her arms round him, and embraces him in the presence of the little company.

I am not sure whether some one else did not do likewise. We were all in a state of extreme excitement and enthusiasm. In the midst of grief, Love the consoler appears amongst us, and soothes us with such fond blandishments and tender caresses, that one scarce wishes the calamity away. Two or three days afterwards, on our birthday, a letter was brought me in my study, which contained the following lines:—


“Returning from the cruel fight
How pale and faint appears my knight!
He sees me anxious at his side;
‘Why seek, my love, your wounds to hide?
Or deem your English girl afraid
To emulate the Indian maid?’

“Be mine my husband’s grief to cheer,
In peril to be ever near;
Whate’er of ill or woe betide,
To bear it clinging at his side;
The poisoned stroke of fate to ward,
His bosom with my own to guard;
Ah! could it spare a pang to his,
It could not know a purer bliss!
‘Twould gladden as it felt the smart,
And thank the hand that flung the dart!”

I do not say the verses are very good, but that I like them as well as if they were — and that the face of the writer (whose sweet young voice I fancy I can hear as I hum the lines), when I went into her drawing-room after getting the letter, and when I saw her blushing and blessing me — seemed to me more beautiful than any I can fancy out of Heaven.

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