The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


In which Harry submits to the Common Lot

Hard times were now over with me, and I had to battle with poverty no more. My little kinsman’s death made a vast difference in my worldly prospects. I became next heir to a good estate. My uncle and his wife were not likely to have more children. “The woman is capable of committing any crime to disappoint you,” Sampson vowed; but, in truth, my Lady Warrington was guilty of no such treachery. Cruelly smitten by the stroke which fell upon them, Lady Warrington was taught by her religious advisers to consider it as a chastisement of Heaven, and submit to the Divine Will. “Whilst your son lived, your heart was turned away from the better world” (her clergyman told her), “and your ladyship thought too much of this. For your son’s advantage you desired rank and title. You asked and might have obtained an earthly coronet. Of what avail is it now, to one who has but a few years to pass upon earth — of what importance compared to the heavenly crown, for which you are an assured candidate?” The accident caused no little sensation. In the chapels of that enthusiastic sect, towards which, after her son’s death, she now more than ever inclined, many sermons were preached bearing reference to the event. Far be it from me to question the course which the bereaved mother pursued, or to regard with other than respect and sympathy any unhappy soul seeking that refuge whither sin and grief and disappointment fly for consolation. Lady Warrington even tried a reconciliation with myself. A year after her loss, being in London, she signified that she would see me, and I waited on her; and she gave me, in her usual didactic way, a homily upon my position and her own. She marvelled at the decree of Heaven, which had permitted, and how dreadfully punished! her poor child’s disobedience to her — a disobedience by which I was to profit. (It appeared my poor little man had disobeyed orders, and gone out with his gun, unknown to his mother.) She hoped that, should I ever succeed to the property, though the Warringtons were, thank Heaven, a long-lived family, except in my own father’s case, whose life had been curtailed by the excesses of a very ill-regulated youth — but should I ever succeed to the family estate and honours, she hoped, she prayed, that my present course of life might be altered; that I should part from my unworthy associates; that I should discontinue all connexion with the horrid theatre and its licentious frequenters; that I should turn to that quarter where only peace was to be had; and to those sacred duties which she feared — she very much feared that I had neglected. She filled her exhortation with Scripture language, which I do not care to imitate. When I took my leave she gave me a packet of sermons for Mrs. Warrington, and a little book of hymns by Miss Dora, who has been eminent in that society of which she and her mother became avowed professors subsequently, and who, after the dowager’s death, at Bath, three years since, married young Mr. Juffles, a celebrated preacher. The poor lady forgave me then, but she could not bear the sight of our boy. We lost our second child, and then my aunt and her daughter came eagerly enough to the poor suffering mother, and even invited us hither. But my uncle was now almost every day in our house. He would sit for hours looking at our boy. He brought him endless toys and sweetmeats. He begged that the child might call him Godpapa. When we felt our own grief (which at times still, and after the lapse of five-and-twenty years, strikes me as keenly as on the day when we first lost our little one)— when I felt my own grief, I knew how to commiserate his. But my wife could pity him before she knew what it was to lose a child of her own. The mother’s anxious heart had already divined the pang which was felt by the sorrow-stricken father; mine, more selfish, has only learned pity from experience, and I was reconciled to my uncle by my little baby’s coffin.

The poor man sent his coach to follow the humble funeral, and afterwards took out little Miles, who prattled to him unceasingly, and forgot any grief he might have felt in the delights of his new black clothes, and the pleasures of the airing. How the innocent talk of the child stabbed the mother’s heart! Would we ever wish that it should heal of that wound? I know her face so well that, to this day, I can tell when, sometimes, she is thinking of the loss of that little one. It is not a grief for a parting so long ago; it is a communion with a soul we love in Heaven.

We came back to our bright lodgings in Bloomsbury soon afterwards, and my young bear, whom I could no longer lead, and who had taken a prodigious friendship for Charley, went to the Chartreux School, where his friend took care that he had no more beating than was good for him, and where (in consequence of the excellence of his private tutor, no doubt) he took and kept a good place. And he liked the school so much, that he says, if ever he has a son, he shall be sent to that seminary.

Now, I could no longer lead my bear, for this reason, that I had other business to follow. Being fully reconciled to us, I do believe, for Mr. Miles’s sake, my uncle (who was such an obsequious supporter of Government, that I wonder the Minister ever gave him anything, being perfectly sure of his vote) used his influence in behalf of his nephew and heir; and I had the honour to be gazetted as one of his Majesty’s Commissioners for licensing hackney-coaches, a post I filled, I trust, with credit, until a quarrel with the Minister (to be mentioned in its proper place) deprived me of that one. I took my degree also at the Temple, and appeared in Westminster Hall in my gown and wig. And, this year, my good friend, Mr. Foker, having business at Paris, I had the pleasure of accompanying him thither, where I was received a bras ouverts by my dear American preserver, Monsieur de Florac, who introduced me to his noble family, and to even more of the polite society of the capital than I had leisure to frequent; for I had too much spirit to desert my kind patron Foker, whose acquaintance lay chiefly amongst the bourgeoisie, especially with Monsieur Santerre, a great brewer of Paris, a scoundrel who hath since distinguished himself in blood and not beer. Mr. F. had need of my services as interpreter, and I was too glad that he should command them, and to be able to pay back some of the kindness which he had rendered to me. Our ladies, meanwhile, were residing at Mr. Foker’s new villa at Wimbledon, and were pleased to say that they were amused with the “Parisian letters” which I sent to them, through my distinguished friend Mr. Hume, then of the Embassy, and which subsequently have been published in a neat volume.

Whilst I was tranquilly discharging my small official duties in London, those troubles were commencing which were to end in the great separation between our colonies and the mother country. When Mr. Grenville proposed his stamp-duties, I said to my wife that the bill would create a mighty discontent at home, for we were ever anxious to get as much as we could from England, and pay back as little; but assuredly I never anticipated the prodigious anger which the scheme created. It was with us as with families or individuals. A pretext is given for a quarrel: the real cause lies in long bickerings and previous animosities. Many foolish exactions and petty tyrannies, the habitual insolence of Englishmen towards all foreigners, all colonists, all folk who dare to think their rivers as good as our Abana and Pharpar, the natural spirit of men outraged by our imperious domineering spirit, set Britain and her colonies to quarrel; and the astonishing blunders of the system adopted in England brought the quarrel to an issue, which I, for one, am not going to deplore. Had I been in Virginia instead of London, ’tis very possible I should have taken the provincial side, if out of mere opposition to that resolute mistress of Castlewood, who might have driven me into revolt, as England did the colonies. Was the Stamp Act the cause of the revolution? — a tax no greater than that cheerfully paid in England. Ten years earlier, when the French were within our territory, and we were imploring succour from home, would the colonies have rebelled at the payment of this tax? Do not most people consider the tax-gatherer the natural enemy? Against the British in America there were arrayed thousands and thousands of the high-spirited and brave, but there were thousands more who found their profit in the quarrel, or had their private reasons for engaging in it. I protest I don’t know now whether mine were selfish or patriotic, or which side was in the right, or whether both were not. I am sure we in England had nothing to do but to fight the battle out; and, having lost the game, I do vow and believe that, after the first natural soreness, the loser felt no rancour.

What made brother Hal write home from Virginia, which he seemed exceedingly loth to quit, such flaming patriotic letters? My kind, best brother was always led by somebody; by me when we were together (he had such an idea of my wit and wisdom, that if I said the day was fine, he would ponder over the observation as though it was one of the sayings of the Seven Sages), by some other wiseacre when I was away. Who inspired these flaming letters, this boisterous patriotism, which he sent to us in London? “He is rebelling against Madam Esmond,” said I. “He is led by some colonial person — by that lady, perhaps,” hinted my wife. Who “that lady” was Hal never had told us; and, indeed, besought me never to allude to the delicate subject in my letters to him; “for Madam wishes to see ’em all, and I wish to say nothing about you know what until the proper moment,” he wrote. No affection could be greater than that which his letters showed. When he heard (from the informant whom I have mentioned) that in the midst of my own extreme straits I had retained no more than a hundred pounds out of his aunt’s legacy, he was for mortgaging the estate which he had just bought; and had more than one quarrel with his mother in my behalf, and spoke his mind with a great deal more frankness than I should ever have ventured to show. Until her angry recriminations (when she charged him with ingratitude, after having toiled and saved so much and so long for him), the poor fellow did not know that our mother had cut off my supplies to advance his interests; and by the time this news came to him his bargains were made, and I was fortunately quite out of want.

Every scrap of paper which we ever wrote, our thrifty parent at Castlewood taped and docketed and put away. We boys were more careless about our letters to one another: I especially, who perhaps chose rather to look down upon my younger brother’s literary performances; but my wife is not so supercilious, and hath kept no small number of Harry’s letters, as well as those of the angelic being whom we were presently to call sister.

“To think whom he has chosen, and whom he might have had! Oh, ’tis cruel!” cries my wife, when we got that notable letter in which Harry first made us acquainted with the name of his charmer.

“She was a very pretty little maid when I left home, she may be a perfect beauty now,” I remarked, as I read over the longest letter Harry ever wrote on private affairs.

“But is she to compare to my Hetty?” says Mrs. Warrington.

“We agreed that Hetty and Harry were not to be happy together, my love,” say I.

Theo gives her husband a kiss. “My dear, I wish they had tried,” she says with a sigh. “I was afraid lest — lest Hetty should have led him, you see; and I think she hath the better head. But, from reading this, it appears that the new lady has taken command of poor Harry,” and she hands me the letter:—

“My dearest George hath been prepared by previous letters to understand how a certain lady has made a conquest of my heart, which I have given away in exchange for something infinitely more valuable, namely, her own. She is at my side as I write this letter, and if there is no bad spelling, such as you often used to laugh at, ’tis because I have my pretty dictionary at hand, which makes no faults in the longest word, nor in anything else I know of: being of opinion that she is perfection.

“As Madam Esmond saw all your letters, I writ you not to give any hint of a certain delicate matter — but now ’tis no secret, and is known to all the country. Mr. George is not the only one of our family who has made a secret marriage, and been scolded by his mother. As a dutiful younger brother I have followed his example; and now I may tell you how this mighty event came about.

“I had not been at home long before I saw my fate was accomplisht. I will not tell you how beautiful Miss Fanny Mountain had grown since I had been away in Europe. She saith, ‘You never will think so,’ and I am glad, as she is the only thing in life I would grudge to my dearest brother.

“That neither Madam Esmond nor my other mother (as Mountain is now) should have seen our mutual attachment, is a wonder — only to be accounted for by supposing that love makes other folks blind. Mine for my Fanny was increased by seeing what the treatment was she had from Madam Esmond, who indeed was very rough and haughty with her, which my love bore with a sweetness perfectly angelic (this I will say, though she will order me not to write any such nonsense). She was scarce better treated than a servant of the house — indeed our negroes can talk much more free before Madam Esmond than ever my Fanny could.

“And yet my Fanny says she doth not regret Madam’s unkindness, as without it I possibly never should have been what I am to her. Oh, dear brother! when I remember how great your goodness hath been, how, in my own want, you paid my debts, and rescued me out of prison; how you have been living in poverty which never need have occurred but for my fault; how you might have paid yourself back my just debt to you and would not, preferring my advantage to your own comfort, indeed I am lost at the thought of such goodness; and ought I not to be thankful to Heaven that hath given me such a wife and such a brother?

“When I writ to you requesting you to send me my aunt’s legacy money, for which indeed I had the most profitable and urgent occasion, I had no idea that you were yourself suffering poverty. That you, the head of our family, should condescend to be governor to a brewer’s son! — that you should have to write for booksellers (except in so far as your own genius might prompt you), never once entered my mind, until Mr. Foker’s letter came to us, and this would never have been shown — for Madam kept it secret — had it not been for the difference which sprang up between us.

“Poor Tom Diggle’s estate and negroes being for sale, owing to Tom’s losses and extravagance at play, and his father’s debts before him — Madam Esmond saw here was a great opportunity of making a provision for me, and that with six thousand pounds for the farm and stock, I should be put in possession of as pretty a property as falls to most younger sons in this country. It lies handy enough to Richmond, between Kent and Hanover Court House — the mansion nothing for elegance compared to ours at Castlewood, but the land excellent and the people extraordinary healthy.

“Here was a second opportunity, Madam Esmond said, such as never might again befall. By the sale of my commissions and her own savings I might pay more than half of the price of the property, and get the rest of the money on mortgage; though here, where money is scarce to procure, it would have been difficult and dear. At this juncture, with our new relative, Mr. Van den Bosch, bidding against us (his agent is wild that we should have bought the property over him), my aunt’s legacy most opportunely fell in. And now I am owner of a good house and negroes in my native country, shall be called, no doubt, to our House of Burgesses, and hope to see my dearest brother and family under my own roof-tree. To sit at my own fireside, to ride my own horses to my own hounds, is better than going a-soldiering, now war is over, and there are no French. to fight. Indeed, Madam Esmond made a condition that I should leave the army, and live at home, when she brought me her 1750 pounds of savings. She had lost one son, she said, who chose to write play-books, and live in England — let the other stay with her at home.

“But, after the purchase of the estate was made, and my papers for selling out were sent home, my mother would have had me marry a person of her choosing, but by no means of mine. You remember Miss Betsy Pitts at Williamsburgh? She is in no wise improved by having had her face dreadfully scarred with small-pock, and though Madam Esmond saith the young lady hath every virtue, I own her virtues did not suit me. Her eyes do not look straight; she hath one leg shorter than another; and oh, brother! didst thou never remark Fanny’s ankles when we were boys? Neater I never saw at the Opera.

“Now, when ’twas agreed that I should leave the army, a certain dear girl (canst thou guess her name?) one day, when we were private, burst into tears of such happiness, that I could not but feel immensely touched by her sympathy.

“‘Ah!’ says she, ‘do you think, sir, that the idea of the son of my revered benefactress going to battle doth not inspire me with terror? Ah, Mr. Henry! do you imagine I have no heart? When Mr. George was with Braddock, do you fancy we did not pray for him? And when you were with Mr. Wolfe — oh!’

“Here the dear creature hid her eyes in her handkerchief, and had hard work to prevent her mama, who came in, from seeing that she was crying. But my dear Mountain declares that, though she might have fancied, might have prayed in secret for such a thing (she owns to that now), she never imagined it for one moment. Nor, indeed, did my good mother, who supposed that Sam Lintot, the apothecary’s lad at Richmond, was Fanny’s flame — an absurd fellow that I near kicked into James River.

“But when the commission was sold, and the estate bought, what does Fanny do but fall into a deep melancholy? I found her crying one day, in her mother’s room, where the two ladies had been at work trimming hats for my negroes.

“‘What! crying, miss?’ says I. ‘Has my mother been scolding you?’

“‘No,’ says the dear creature. ‘Madam Esmond has been kind today.’

“And her tears drop down on a cockade which she is sewing on to a hat for Sady, who is to be head-groom.

“‘Then, why, miss, are those dear eyes so red?’ say I.

“‘Because I have the toothache,’ she says, ‘or because — because I am a fool.’ Here she fairly bursts out. ‘Oh, Mr. Harry! oh, Mr. Warrington! You are going to leave us, and ’tis as well. You will take your place in your country, as becomes you. You will leave us poor women in our solitude and dependence. You will come to visit us from time to time. And when you are happy and honoured, and among your gay companions, you will remember your ——’

“Here she could say no more, and hid her face with one hand as I, I confess, seized the other.

“‘Dearest, sweetest Miss Mountain!’ says I. ‘Oh, could I think that the parting from me has brought tears to those lovely eyes! Indeed, I fear, I should be almost happy! Let them look upon your ——’

“‘Oh, sir!’ cries my charmer. ‘Oh, Mr. Warrington! consider who I am, sir, and who you are! Remember the difference between us! Release my hand, sir! What would Madam Esmond say if — if ——’

“If what, I don’t know, for here our mother was in the room.

“‘What would Madam Esmond say?’ she cries out. ‘She would say that you are an ungrateful, artful, false, little ——’

“‘Madam!’ says I.

“‘Yes, an ungrateful, artful, false, little wretch!’ cries out my mother. ‘For shame, miss! What would Mr. Lintot say if he saw you making eyes at the Captain? And for you, Harry, I will have you bring none of your garrison manners hither. This is a Christian family, sir, and you will please to know that my house is not intended for captains and their misses!’

“‘Misses, mother!’ says I. ‘Gracious powers, do you ever venture for to call Miss Mountain by such a name? Miss Mountain, the purest of her sex!’

“‘The purest of her sex! Can I trust my own ears?’ asks Madam, turning very pale.

“‘I mean that if a man would question her honour, I would fling him out of window,’ says I.

“‘You mean that you — your mother’s son — are actually paying honourable attention to this young person?’

“‘He would never dare to offer any other,’ cries my Fanny; ‘nor any woman but you, madam, to think so!’

“‘Oh, I didn’t know, miss!’ says mother, dropping her a fine curtsey, ‘I didn’t know the honour you were doing our family! You propose to marry with us, do you? Do I understand Captain Warrington aright, that he intends to offer me Miss Mountain as a daughter-inlaw?’

“’’Tis to be seen, madam, that I have no protector, or you would not insult me so!’ cries my poor victim.

“‘I should think the apothecary protection sufficient!’ says our mother.

“‘I don’t, mother!’ I bawl out, for I was very angry; ‘and if Lintot offers her any liberty, I’ll brain him with his own pestle!’

“‘Oh! if Lintot has withdrawn, sir, I suppose I must be silent. But I did not know of the circumstance. He came hither, as I supposed, to pay court to Miss: and we all thought the match equal, and I encouraged it.’

“‘He came because I had the toothache!’ cries my darling (and indeed she had a dreadful bad tooth. And he took it out for her, and there is no end to the suspicions and calumnies of women).

“‘What more natural than that he should marry my housekeeper’s daughter — ’twas a very suitable match!’ continues Madam, taking snuff. ‘But I confess,’ she adds, going on, ‘I was not aware that you intended to jilt the apothecary for my son!’

“‘Peace, for Heaven’s sake, peace, Mr. Warrington!’ cries my angel.

“‘Pray, sir, before you fully make up your mind, had you not better look round the rest of my family?’ says Madam. ‘Dinah is a fine tall girl, and not very black; Cleopatra is promised to Ajax the blacksmith, to be sure; but then we could break the marriage, you know. If with an apothecary, why not with a blacksmith? Martha’s husband has run away, and ——’

“Here, dear brother, I own I broke out a-swearing. I can’t help it; but at times, when a man is angry, it do relieve him immensely. I’m blest, but I should have gone wild, if it hadn’t been for them oaths.

“‘Curses, blasphemy, ingratitude, disobedience,’ says mother, leaning now on her tortoiseshell stick, and then waving it — something like a queen in a play. ‘These are my rewards!’ says she. ‘O Heaven, what have I done, that I should merit this awful punishment? and does it please you to visit the sins of my fathers upon me? Where do my children inherit their pride? When I was young, had I any? When my papa bade me marry, did I refuse? Did I ever think of disobeying? No, sir. My fault hath been, and I own it, that my love was centred upon you, perhaps to the neglect of your elder brother.’ (Indeed, brother, there was some truth in what Madam said.) ‘I turned from Esau, and I clung to Jacob. And now I have my reward, I have my reward! I fixed my vain thoughts on this world, and its distinctions. To see my son advanced in worldly rank was my ambition. I toiled, and spared, that I might bring him worldly wealth. I took unjustly from my eldest son’s portion, that my younger might profit. And oh! that I should see him seducing the daughter of my own housekeeper under my own roof, and replying to my just anger with oaths and blasphemies!’

“‘I try to seduce no one, madam,’ I cried out. ‘If I utter oaths and blasphemies, I beg your pardon; but you are enough to provoke a saint to speak ’em. I won’t have this young lady’s character assailed — no, not by own mother nor any mortal alive. No, dear Miss Mountain! If Madam Esmond chooses to say that my designs on you are dishonourable — let this undeceive her!’ And, as I spoke, I went down on my knees, seizing my adorable Fanny’s hand. ‘And if you will accept this heart and hand, miss,’ says I, ‘they are yours for ever.’

“‘You, at least, I knew, sir,’ says Fanny, with a noble curtsey, ‘never said a word that was disrespectful to me, or entertained any doubt of my honour. And I trust it is only Madam Esmond, in the world, who can have such an opinion of me. After what your ladyship hath said of me, of course I can stay no longer in your house.’

“‘Of course, madam, I never intended you should; and the sooner you leave it the better,’ cries our mother.

“‘If you are driven from my mother’s house, mine, miss, is at your service,’ says I, making her a low bow. ‘It is nearly ready now. If you will take it and stay in it for ever, it is yours! And as Madam Esmond insulted your honour, at least let me do all in my power to make a reparation!’ I don’t know what more I exactly said, for you may fancy I was not a little flustered and excited by the scene. But here Mountain came in, and my dearest Fanny, flinging herself into her mother’s arms, wept upon her shoulder; whilst Madam Esmond, sitting down in her chair, looked at us as pale as a stone. Whilst I was telling my story to Mountain (who, poor thing, had not the least idea, not she, that Miss Fanny and I had the slightest inclination for one another), I could hear our mother once or twice still saying, ‘I am punished for my crime!’

“Now, what our mother meant by her crime I did not know at first, or indeed take much heed of what she said; for you know her way, and how, when she is angry, she always talks sermons. But Mountain told me afterwards, when we had some talk together, as we did at the tavern, whither the ladies presently removed with their bag and baggage — for not only would they not stay at Madam’s house after the language she used, but my mother determined to go away likewise. She called her servants together, and announced her intention of going home instantly to Castlewood; and I own to you ’twas with a horrible pain I saw the family coach roll by, with six horses, and ever so many of the servants on mules and on horseback, as I and Fanny looked through the blinds of the Tavern.

“After the words Madam used to my spotless Fanny, ’twas impossible that the poor child or her mother should remain in our house: and indeed M. said that she would go back to her relations in England: and a ship bound homewards lying in James River, she went and bargained with the captain about a passage, so bent was she upon quitting the country, and so little did she think of making a match between me and my angel. But the cabin was mercifully engaged by a North Carolina gentleman and his family, and before the next ship sailed (which bears this letter to my dearest George) they have agreed to stop with me. Almost all the ladies in this neighbourhood have waited on them. When the marriage takes place, I hope Madam Esmond will be reconciled. My Fanny’s father was a British officer; and sure, ours was no more. Some day, please Heaven, we shall visit Europe, and the places where my wild oats were sown, and where I committed so many extravagances from which my dear brother rescued me.

“The ladies send you their affection and duty, and to my sister. We hear his Excellency General Lambert is much beloved in Jamaica: and I shall write to our dear friends there announcing my happiness. My dearest brother will participate in it, and I am ever his grateful and affectionate H. E. W.

“P.S. — Till Mountain told me, I had no more notion than the ded that Madam E. had actially stopt your allowances; besides making you pay for ever so much — near upon 1000 pounds Mountain says — for goods, etc., provided for the Virginian proparty. Then there was all the charges of me out of prison, which I. O. U. with all my hart. Draw upon me, please, dearest brother — to any amount — adressing me to care of Messrs. Horn and Sandon, Williamsburg, privit; who remitt by present occasion a bill for 225 pounds, payable by their London agents on demand. Please don’t acknolledge this in answering; as there’s no good in bothering women with accounts — and with the extra 5 pounds by a capp or what she likes for my dear sister, and a toy for my nephew from Uncle Hal.”

The conclusion to which we came on the perusal of this document was, that the ladies had superintended the style and spelling of my poor Hal’s letter, but that the postscript was added without their knowledge. And I am afraid we argued that the Virginian Squire was under female domination — as Hercules, Samson, and fortes multi had been before him.

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