The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Res Angusta Domi

I have already described my present feelings as an elderly gentleman, regarding that rash jump into matrimony, which I persuaded my dear partner to take with me when we were both scarce out of our teens. As a man and a father — with a due sense of the necessity of mutton chops, and the importance of paying the baker — with a pack of rash children round about us who might be running off to Scotland tomorrow, and pleading papa’s and mamma’s example for their impertinence — I know that I ought to be very cautious in narrating this early part of the married life of George Warrington, Esquire, and Theodosia his wife — to call out mea culpa, and put on a demure air, and, sitting in my comfortable easy-chair here, profess to be in a white sheet and on the stool of repentance, offering myself up as a warning to imprudent and hot-headed youth.

But, truth to say, that married life, regarding which my dear relatives prophesied so gloomily, has disappointed all those prudent and respectable people. It has had its trials; but I can remember them without bitterness — its passionate griefs, of which time, by God’s kind ordinance, has been the benign consoler — its days of poverty, which we bore, who endured it, to the wonder of our sympathising relatives looking on — its precious rewards and blessings, so great that I scarce dare to whisper them to this page; to speak of them, save with awful respect and to One Ear, to which are offered up the prayers and thanks of all men. To marry without a competence is wrong and dangerous, no doubt, and a crime against our social codes; but do not scores of thousands of our fellow-beings commit the crime every year with no other trust but in, Heaven, health, and their labour? Are young people entering into the married life not to take hope into account, nor dare to begin their housekeeping until the cottage is completely furnished, the cellar and larder stocked, the cupboard full of plate, and the strong-box of money? The increase and multiplication of the world would stop, were the laws which regulate the genteel part of it to be made universal. Our gentlefolks tremble at the brink in their silk stockings and pumps, and wait for whole years, until they find a bridge or a gilt barge to carry them across; our poor do not fear to wet their bare feet, plant them in the brook, and trust to fate and strength to bear them over. Who would like to consign his daughter to poverty? Who would counsel his son to undergo the countless risks of poor married life, to remove the beloved girl from comfort and competence, and subject her to debt, misery, privation, friendlessness, sickness, and the hundred gloomy consequences of the res angusta domi? I look at my own wife and ask her pardon for having imposed a task so fraught with pain and danger upon one so gentle. I think of the trials she endured, and am thankful for them and for that unfailing love and constancy with which God blessed her and strengthened her to bear them all. On this question of marriage, I am not a fair judge: my own was so imprudent — and has been so happy, that I must not dare to give young people counsel. I have endured poverty, but scarcely ever found it otherwise than tolerable: had I not undergone it, I never could have known the kindness of friends, the delight of gratitude, the surprising joys and consolations which sometimes accompany the scanty meal and narrow fire, and cheer the long day’s labour. This at least is certain, in respect of the lot of the decent poor, that a great deal of superfluous pity is often thrown away upon it. Good-natured fine folks, who sometimes stepped out of the sunshine of their riches into a narrow obscurity, were blinded as it were, whilst we could see quite cheerfully and clearly: they stumbled over obstacles which were none to us: they were surprised at the resignation with which we drank small beer, and that we could heartily say grace over such very cold mutton.

The good General, my father-inlaw, had married his Molly, when he was a subaltern of a foot regiment, and had a purse scarce better filled than my own. They had had their ups and downs of fortune. I think (though my wife will never confess to this point) they had married, as people could do in their young time, without previously asking papa’s and mamma’s leave. [The Editor has looked through Burn’s Registers of Fleet Marriages without finding the names of Martin Lambert and Mary Benson.] At all events, they were so well pleased with their own good luck in matrimony, that they did not grudge their children’s, and were by no means frightened at the idea of any little hardships which we in the course of our married life might be called upon to undergo. And I suppose when I made my own pecuniary statements to Mr. Lambert, I was anxious to deceive both of us. Believing me to be master of a couple of thousand pounds, he went to Jamaica quite easy in his mind as to his darling daughter’s comfort and maintenance, at least for some years to come. After paying the expenses of his family’s outfit, the worthy man went away not much richer than his son-inlaw; and a few trinkets, and some lace of Aunt Lambert’s, with twenty new guineas in a purse which her mother and sisters made for her, were my Theo’s marriage portion. But in valuing my stock, I chose to count as a good debt a sum which my honoured mother never could be got to acknowledge up to the day when the resolute old lady was called to pay the last debt of all. The sums I had disbursed for her, she argued, were spent for the improvement and maintenance of the estate which was to be mine at her decease. What money she could spare was to be for my poor brother, who had nothing, who would never have spent his own means had he not imagined himself to be sole heir of the Virginian property, as he would have been — the good lady took care to emphasise this point in many of her letters — but for a half-hour’s accident of birth. He was now distinguishing himself in the service of his king and country. To purchase his promotion was his mother’s, she should suppose his brother’s duty! When I had finished my bar-studies and my dramatic amusements, Madam Esmond informed me that I was welcome to return home and take that place in our colony to which my birth entitled me. This statement she communicated to me more than once through Mountain, and before the news of my marriage had reached her.

There is no need to recall her expressions of maternal indignation when she was informed of the step I had taken. On the pacification of Canada, my dear Harry asked for leave of absence, and dutifully paid a visit to Virginia. He wrote, describing his reception at home, and the splendid entertainments which my mother made in honour of her son. Castlewood, which she had not inhabited since our departure for Europe, was thrown open again to our friends of the colony; and the friend of Wolfe, and the soldier of Quebec, was received by all our acquaintance with every becoming honour. Some dismal quarrels, to be sure, ensued, because my brother persisted in maintaining his friendship with Colonel Washington, of Mount Vernon, whose praises Harry never was tired of singing. Indeed I allow the gentleman every virtue; and in the struggles which terminated so fatally for England a few years since, I can admire as well as his warmest friends, General Washington’s glorious constancy and success.

If these battles between Harry and our mother were frequent, as, in his letters, he described them to be, I wondered, for my part, why he should continue at home? One reason naturally suggested itself to my mind, which I scarcely liked to communicate to Mrs. Warrington; for we had both talked over our dear little Hetty’s romantic attachment for my brother, and wondered that he had never discovered it. I need not say, I suppose, that my gentleman had found some young lady at home more to his taste than our dear Hester, and hence accounted for his prolonged stay in Virginia.

Presently there came, in a letter from him, not a full confession but an admission of this interesting fact. A person was described, not named — a Being all beauty and perfection, like other young ladies under similar circumstances. My wife asked to see the letter: I could not help showing it, and handed it to her, with a very sad face. To my surprise she read it, without exhibiting any corresponding sorrow of her own.

“I have thought of this before, my love,” I said. “I feel with you for your disappointment regarding poor Hetty.”

“Ah! poor Hetty,” says Theo, looking down at the carpet.

“It would never have done,” says I.

“No — they would not have been happy,” sighs Theo.

“How strange he never should have found out her secret!” I continued.

She looked me full in the face with an odd expression. “Pray, what does that look mean?” I asked.

“Nothing, my dear — nothing! only I am not surprised!” says Theo, blushing.

“What,” I ask, “can there be another?”

“I am sure I never said so, George,” says the lady, hurriedly. “But if Hetty has overcome her childish folly, ought we not all to be glad? Do you gentlemen suppose that you only are to fall in love and grow tired, indeed?”

“What!” I say, with a strange commotion of my mind. “Do you mean to tell me, Theo, that you ever cared for any one but me?”

“Oh, George,” she whimpers, “when I was at school, there was — there was one of the boys of Doctor Backhouse’s school, who sate in the loft next to us; and I thought he had lovely eyes, and I was so shocked when I recognised him behind the counter at Mr. Grigg’s the mercer’s, when I went to buy a cloak for baby, and I wanted to tell you, my dear, and I didn’t know how!”

I went to see this creature with the lovely eyes, having made my wife describe the fellow’s dress to me, and I saw a little bandy-legged wretch in a blue camlet coat, with his red hair tied with a dirty ribbon, about whom I forbore generously even to reproach my wife; nor will she ever know that I have looked at the fellow, until she reads the confession in this page. If our wives saw us as we are, I thought, would they love us as they do? Are we as much mistaken in them, as they in us? I look into one candid face at least, and think it never has deceived me.

Lest I should encourage my young people to an imitation of my own imprudence, I will not tell them with how small a capital Mrs. Theo and I commenced life. The unfortunate tragedy brought us nothing; though the reviewers, since its publication of late, have spoken not unfavourably as to its merits, and Mr. Kemble himself has done me the honour to commend it. Our kind friend Lord Wrotham was for having the piece published by subscription, and sent me a bank-note, with a request that I would let him have a hundred copies for his friends; but I was always averse to that method of levying money, and, preferring my poverty sine dote, locked up my manuscript, with my poor girl’s verses inserted at the first page. I know not why the piece should have given such offence at court, except for the fact that an actor who had run off with an earl’s daughter, performed a principal part in the play; but I was told that sentiments which I had put into the mouths of some of the Indian characters (who were made to declaim against ambition, the British desire of rule, and so forth), were pronounced dangerous and unconstitutional; so that the little hope of royal favour, which I might have had, was quite taken away from me.

What was to be done? A few months after the failure of the tragedy, as I counted up the remains of my fortune (the calculation was not long or difficult), I came to the conclusion that I must beat a retreat out of my pretty apartments in Bloomsbury, and so gave warning to our good landlady, informing her that my wife’s health required that we should have lodgings in the country. But we went no farther than Lambeth, our faithful Gumbo and Molly following us; and here, though as poor as might be, we were waited on by a maid and a lackey in livery, like any folks of condition. You may be sure kind relatives cried out against our extravagance; indeed, are they not the people who find our faults out for us, and proclaim them to the rest of the world?

Returning home from London one day, whither I had been on a visit to some booksellers, I recognised the family arms and livery on a grand gilt chariot which stood before a public-house near to our lodgings. A few loitering inhabitants were gathered round the splendid vehicle, and looking with awe at the footmen, resplendent in the sun, and quaffing blazing pots of beer. I found my Lady Castlewood seated opposite to my wife in our little apartment (whence we had a very bright, pleasant prospect of the river, covered with barges and wherries, and the ancient towers and trees of the Archbishop’s palace and gardens), and Mrs. Theo, who has a very droll way of describing persons and scenes, narrated to me all the particulars of her ladyship’s conversation, when she took her leave.

“I have been here this ever-so-long,” says the Countess, “gossiping with cousin Theo, while you have been away at the coffee-house, I dare say, making merry with your friends, and drinking your punch and coffee. Guess she must find it rather lonely here, with nothing to do but work them little caps and hem them frocks. Never mind, dear; reckon you’ll soon have a companion who will amuse you when cousin George is away at his coffee-house! What a nice lodging you have got here, I do declare! Our new house which we have took is twenty times as big, and covered with gold from top to bottom; but I like this quite as well. Bless you being rich is no better than being poor. When we lived to Albany, and I did most all the work myself, scoured the rooms, biled the kettle, helped the wash, and all, I was just as happy as I am now. We only had one old negro to keep the store. Why don’t you sell Gumbo, cousin George? He ain’t no use here idling and dawdling about, and making love to the servant-girl. Fogh! guess they ain’t particular, these English people!” So she talked, rattling on with perfect good-humour, until her hour for departure came; when she produced a fine repeating watch, and said it was time for her to pay a call upon her Majesty at Buckingham House. “And mind you come to us, George,” says her ladyship, waving a little parting hand out of the gilt coach. “Theo and I have settled all about it.”

“Here, at least,” said I, when the laced footmen had clambered up behind the carriage, and our magnificent little patroness had left us; —“here is one who is not afraid of our poverty, nor ashamed to remember her own.”

“Ashamed!” said Theo, resuming her lilliputian needlework. “To do her justice, she would make herself at home in any kitchen or palace in the world. She has given me and Molly twenty lessons in housekeeping. She says, when she was at home to Albany, she roasted, baked, swept the house, and milked the cow.” (Madam Theo pronounced the word cow archly in our American way, and imitated her ladyship’s accent very divertingly.)

“And she has no pride,” I added. “It was good-natured of her to ask us to dine with her and my lord. When will Uncle Warrington ever think of offering us a crust again, or a glass of his famous beer?”

“Yes, it was not ill-natured to invite us,” says Theo, slily. “But, my dear, you don’t know all the conditions!” And then my wife, still imitating the Countess’s manner, laughingly informed me what these conditions were. “She took out her pocket-book, and told me,” says Theo, “what days she was engaged abroad and at home. On Monday she received a Duke and a Duchess, with several other members of my lord’s house, and their ladies. On Tuesday came more earls, two bishops, and an ambassador. ‘Of course you won’t come on them days?’ says the Countess. ‘Now you are so poor, you know, that fine company ain’t no good for you. Lord bless you! father never dines on our company days! he don’t like it; he takes a bit of cold meat anyways.’ On which,” says Theo, laughing, “I told her that Mr. Warrington did not care for any but the best of company, and proposed that she should ask us on some day when the Archbishop of Canterbury dined with her, and his Grace must give us a lift home in his coach to Lambeth. And she is an economical little person, too,” continues Theo. “‘I thought of bringing with me some of my baby’s caps and things, which his lordship has outgrown ’em, but they may be wanted again, you know, my dear.’ And so we lose that addition to our wardrobe,” says Theo, smiling, “and Molly and I must do our best without her ladyship’s charity. ‘When people are poor, they are poor,’ the Countess said, with her usual outspokenness, ‘and must get on the best they can. What we shall do for that poor Maria, goodness only knows! we can’t ask her to see us as we can you, though you are so poor: but an earl’s daughter to marry a play-actor! La, my dear, it’s dreadful: his Majesty and the Princess have both spoken of it! Every other noble family in this kingdom as has ever heard of it pities us; though I have a plan for helping those poor unhappy people, and have sent down Simons, my groom of the chambers, to tell them on it.’ This plan was, that Hagan, who had kept almost all his terms at Dublin College, should return thither and take his degree, and enter into holy orders, ‘when we will provide him with a chaplaincy at home, you know,’ Lady Castlewood added.” And I may mention here, that this benevolent plan was executed a score of months later; when I was enabled myself to be of service to Mr. Hagan, who was one of the kindest and best of our friends during our own time of want and distress. Castlewood then executed his promise loyally enough, got orders and a colonial appointment for Hagan, who distinguished himself both as soldier and preacher, as we shall presently hear; but not a guinea did his lordship spare to aid either his sister or his kinsman in their trouble. I never asked him, thank Heaven, to assist me in my own; though, to do him justice, no man could express himself more amiably, and with a joy which I believe was quite genuine, when my days of poverty were ended.

As for my Uncle Warrington, and his virtuous wife and daughters, let me do them justice likewise, and declare that throughout my period of trial, their sorrow at my poverty was consistent and unvarying. I still had a few acquaintances who saw them, and of course (as friends will) brought me a report of their opinions and conversation; and I never could hear that my relatives had uttered one single good word about me or my wife. They spoke even of my tragedy as a crime — I was accustomed to hear that sufficiently maligned — of the author as a miserable reprobate, for ever reeling about Grub Street, in rags and squalor. They held me out no hand of help. My poor wife might cry in her pain, but they had no twopence to bestow upon her. They went to church a half-dozen times in the week. They subscribed to many public charities. Their tribe was known eighteen hundred years ago, and will flourish as long as men endure. They will still thank Heaven that they are not as other folks are; and leave the wounded and miserable to other succour.

I don’t care to recall the dreadful doubts and anxieties which began to beset me; the plan after plan which I tried, and in which I failed, for procuring work and adding to our dwindling stock of money. I bethought me of my friend Mr. Johnson, and when I think of the eager kindness with which he received me, am ashamed of some pert speeches which I own to have made regarding his manners and behaviour. I told my story and difficulties to him, the circumstance of my marriage, and the prospects before me. He would not for a moment admit they were gloomy, or, si male nunc, that they would continue to be so. I had before me the chances, certainly very slender, of a place in England; the inheritance which must be mine in the course of nature, or at any rate would fall to the heir I was expecting. I had a small stock of money for present actual necessity — a possibility, “though, to be free with you, sir” (says he), “after the performance of your tragedy, I doubt whether nature has endowed you with those peculiar qualities which are necessary for achieving a remarkable literary success”— and finally a submission to the maternal rule, and a return to Virginia, where plenty and a home were always ready for me. “Why, sir!” he cried, “such a sum as you mention would have been a fortune to me when I began the world, and my friend Mr. Goldsmith would set up a coach-and-six on it. With youth, hope, today, and a couple of hundred pounds in cash — no young fellow need despair. Think, sir, you have a year at least before you, and who knows what may chance between now and then. Why, sir, your relatives here may provide for you, or you may succeed to your Virginian property, or you may come into a fortune!” I did not in the course of that year, but he did. My Lord Bute gave Mr. Johnson a pension, which set all Grub Street in a fury against the recipient, who, to be sure, had published his own not very flattering opinion upon pensions and pensioners.

Nevertheless, he did not altogether discourage my literary projects, promised to procure me work from the booksellers, and faithfully performed that kind promise. “But,” says he, “sir, you must not appear amongst them in forma pauperis. — Have you never a friend’s coach, in which we can ride to see them? You must put on your best laced hat and waistcoat; and we must appear, sir, as if we were doing them a favour.” This stratagem answered, and procured me respect enough at the first visit or two; but when the booksellers knew that I wanted to be paid for my work, their backs refused to bend any more, and they treated me with a familiarity which I could ill stomach. I overheard one of them, who had been a footman, say, “Oh, it’s Pocahontas, is it? let him wait.” And he told his boy to say as much to me. “Wait, sir?” says I, fuming with rage and putting my head into his parlour, “I’m not accustomed to waiting, but I have heard you are.” And I strode out of the shop into Pall Mall in a mighty fluster.

And yet Mr. D. was in the right. I came to him, if not to ask a favour, at any rate to propose a bargain, and surely it was my business to wait his time and convenience. In more fortunate days I asked the gentleman’s pardon, and the kind author of the Muse in Livery was instantly appeased.

I was more prudent, or Mr. Johnson more fortunate, in an application elsewhere, and Mr. Johnson procured me a little work from the booksellers in translating from foreign languages, of which I happen to know two or three. By a hard day’s labour I could earn a few shillings; so few that a week’s work would hardly bring me a guinea: and that was flung to me with insolent patronage by the low hucksters who employed me. I can put my finger upon two or three magazine articles written at this period, and paid for with a few wretched shillings, which papers as I read them awaken in me the keenest pangs of bitter remembrance. [Mr. George Warrington, of the Upper Temple, says he remembers a book, containing his grandfather’s book-plate, in which were pasted various extracts from reviews and newspapers in an old type, and lettered outside Les Chains de l’Esclavage. These were no doubt the contributions above mentioned; but the volume has not been found, either in the town-house or in the library at Warrington Manor. The Editor, by the way, is not answerable for a certain inconsistency, which may be remarked in the narrative. The writer says earlier, that he speaks without bitterness of past times, and presently falls into a fury with them. The same manner of forgiving our enemies is not uncommon in the present century.] I recall the doubts and fears which agitated me, see the dear wife nursing her infant and looking up into my face with hypocritical smiles that vainly try to mask her alarm: the struggles of pride are fought over again: the wounds under which I smarted re-open. There are some acts of injustice committed against me which I don’t know how to forgive; and which, whenever I think of them, awaken in me the same feelings of revolt and indignation. The gloom and darkness gather over me — till they are relieved by a reminiscence of that love and tenderness which through all gloom and darkness have been my light and consolation.

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