The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray


Inveni Portum

When my mother heard of my acceptance of a place at home, I think she was scarcely well pleased. She may have withdrawn her supplies, in order to starve me into a surrender, and force me to return with my family to Virginia, and to dependence under her. We never, up to her dying day, had any explanation on the pecuniary dispute between us. She cut off my allowances: I uttered not a word; but managed to live without her aid. I never heard that she repented of her injustice, or acknowledged it, except from Harry’s private communication to me. In after days, when we met, by a great gentleness in her behaviour, and an uncommon respect and affection shown to my wife, Madam Esmond may have intended I should understand her tacit admission that she had been wrong; but she made no apology, nor did I ask one. Harry being provided for (whose welfare I could not grudge), all my mother’s savings and economical schemes went to my advantage, who was her heir. Time was when a few guineas would have been more useful to me than hundreds which might come to me when I had no need; but when Madam Esmond and I met, the period of necessity was long passed away; I had no need to scheme ignoble savings, or to grudge the doctor his fee: I had plenty, and she could but bring me more. No doubt she suffered in her own mind to think that my children had been hungry, and she had offered them no food; and that strangers had relieved the necessity from which her proud heart had caused her to turn aside. Proud? Was she prouder than I? A soft word of explanation between us might have brought about a reconciliation years before it came but I would never speak, nor did she. When I commit a wrong, and know it subsequently, I love to ask pardon; but ’tis as a satisfaction to my own pride, and to myself I am apologising for having been wanting to myself. And hence, I think (out of regard to that personage of ego), I scarce ever could degrade myself to do a meanness. How do men feel whose whole lives (and many men’s lives are) are lies, schemes, and subterfuges? What sort of company do they keep when they are alone? Daily in life I watch men whose every smile is an artifice, and every wink is an hypocrisy. Doth such a fellow wear a mask in his own privacy, and to his own conscience? If I choose to pass over an injury, I fear ’tis not from a Christian and forgiving spirit: ’tis because I can afford to remit the debt, and disdain to ask a settlement of it. One or two sweet souls I have known in my life (and perhaps tried) to whom forgiveness is no trouble — a plant that grows naturally, as it were, in the soil. I know how to remit, I say, not forgive. I wonder are we proud men proud of being proud?

So I showed not the least sign of submission towards my parent in Virginia yonder, and we continued for years to live in estrangement, with occasionally a brief word or two (such as the announcement of the birth of a child, or what not) passing between my wife and her. After our first troubles in America about the Stamp Act, troubles fell on me in London likewise. Though I have been on the Tory side in our quarrel (as indeed upon the losing side in most controversies), having no doubt that the Imperial Government had a full right to levy taxes in the colonies, yet at the time of the dispute I must publish a pert letter to a member of the House of Burgesses in Virginia, in which the question of the habitual insolence of the mother country to the colonies was so freely handled, and sentiments were uttered so disagreeable to persons in power, that I was deprived of my place as hackney-coach licenser, to the terror and horror of my uncle, who never could be brought to love people in disgrace. He had grown to have an extreme affection for my wife as well as my little boy; but towards myself, personally, entertained a kind of pitying contempt which always infinitely amused me. He had a natural scorn and dislike for poverty, and a corresponding love for success and good fortune. Any opinion departing at all from the regular track shocked and frightened him, and all truth-telling made him turn pale. He must have had originally some warmth of heart and genuine love of kindred: for, spite of the dreadful shocks I gave him, he continued to see Theo and the child (and me too, giving me a mournful recognition when we met); and though broken-hearted by my free-spokenness, he did not refuse to speak to me as he had done at the time of our first differences, but looked upon me as a melancholy lost creature, who was past all worldly help or hope. Never mind, I must cast about for some new scheme of life; and the repayment of Harry’s debt to me at this juncture enabled me to live at least for some months even, or years to come. O strange fatuity of youth! I often say. How was it that we dared to be so poor and so little cast down?

At this time his Majesty’s royal uncle of Cumberland fell down and perished in a fit; and, strange to say, his death occasioned a remarkable change in my fortune. My poor Sir Miles Warrington never missed any court ceremony to which he could introduce himself. He was at all the drawing-rooms, christenings, balls, funerals of the court. If ever a prince or princess was ailing, his coach was at their door: Leicester Fields, Carlton House, Gunnersbury, were all the same to him, and nothing must satisfy him now but going to the stout duke’s funeral. He caught a great cold and an inflammation of the throat from standing bareheaded at this funeral in the rain; and one morning, before almost I had heard of his illness, a lawyer waits upon me at my lodgings in Bloomsbury, and salutes me by the name of Sir George Warrington.

Party and fear of the future were over now. We laid the poor gentleman by the side of his little son, in the family churchyard where so many of his race repose. Little Miles and I were the chief mourners. An obsequious tenantry bowed and curtseyed before us, and did their utmost to conciliate my honour and my worship. The dowager and her daughter withdrew to Bath presently; and I and my family took possession of the house, of which I have been master for thirty years. Be not too eager, O my son! Have but a little patience, and I too shall sleep under yonder yew-trees, and the people will be tossing up their caps for Sir Miles.

The records of a prosperous country life are easily and briefly told. The steward’s books show what rents were paid and forgiven, what crops were raised, and in what rotation. What visitors came to us, and how long they stayed: what pensioners my wife had, and how they were doctored and relieved, and how they died: what year I was sheriff, and how often the hounds met near us; all these are narrated in our house journals, which any of my heirs may read who choose to take the trouble. We could not afford the fine mansion in Hill Street, which my predecessor had occupied; but we took a smaller house, in which, however, we spent more money. We made not half the show (with liveries, equipages, and plate) for which my uncle had been famous; but our beer was stronger, and my wife’s charities were perhaps more costly than those of the Dowager Lady Warrington. No doubt she thought there was no harm in spoiling the Philistines; for she made us pay unconscionably for the goods she left behind her in our country-house, and I submitted to most of her extortions with unutterable good-humour. What a value she imagined the potted plants in her greenhouses bore! What a price she set upon that horrible old spinet she left in her drawing-room! and the framed pieces of worsted-work, performed by the accomplished Dora and the lovely Flora, had they been masterpieces of Titian or Vandyck, to be sure my lady dowager could hardly have valued them at a higher price. But though we paid so generously, though we were, I may say without boast, far kinder to our poor than ever she had been, for a while we had the very worst reputation in the county, where all sorts of stories had been told to my discredit. I thought I might perhaps succeed to my uncle’s seat in Parliament, as well as to his landed property; but I found, I knew not how, that I was voted to be a person of very dangerous opinions. I would not bribe: I would not coerce my own tenants to vote for me in the election of ‘68. A gentleman came down from Whitehall with a pocket-book full of bank-notes; and I found that I had no chance against my competitor.

Bon Dieu! Now that we were at ease in respect of worldly means — now that obedient tenants bowed and curtseyed as we went to church; that we drove to visit our friends, or to the neighbouring towns, in the great family coach with the four fat horses; did we not often regret poverty, and the dear little cottage at Lambeth, where Want was ever prowling at the door? Did I not long to be bear-leading again, and vow that translating for booksellers was not such very hard drudgery? When we went to London, we made sentimental pilgrimages to all our old haunts. I dare say my wife embraced all her landladies. You may be sure we asked all the friends of those old times to share the comforts of our new home with us. The Reverend Mr. Hagan and his lady visited us more than once. His appearance in the pulpit at B———(where he preached very finely, as we thought) caused an awful scandal there. Sampson came too, another unlucky Levite, and was welcome as long as he would stay among us. Mr. Johnson talked of coming, but he put us off once or twice. I suppose our house was dull. I know that I myself would be silent for days, and fear that my moodiness must often have tried the sweetest-tempered woman in the world who lived with me. I did not care for field sports. The killing one partridge was so like killing another, that I wondered how men could pass days after days in the pursuit of that kind of slaughter. Their fox-hunting stories would begin at four o’clock, when the tablecloth was removed, and last till supper-time. I sate silent, and listened: day after day I fell asleep: no wonder I was not popular with my company.

What admission is this I am making? Here was the storm over, the rocks avoided, the ship in port and the sailor not overcontented? Was Susan I had been sighing for during the voyage, not the beauty I expected to find her? In the first place, Susan and all the family can look in her William’s logbook, and so, madam, I am not going to put my secrets down there. No, Susan, I never had secrets from thee. I never cared for another woman. I have seen more beautiful, but none that suited me as well as your ladyship. I have met Mrs. Carter and Miss Mulso, and Mrs. Thrale and Madam Kaufmann, and the angelical Gunnings, and her Grace of Devonshire, and a host of beauties who were not angelic, by any means: and I was not dazzled by them. Nay, young folks, I may have led your mother a weary life, and been a very Bluebeard over her, but then I had no other heads in the closet. Only, the first pleasure of taking possession of our kingdom over, I own I began to be quickly tired of the crown. When the captain wears it his Majesty will be a very different Prince. He can ride a-hunting five days in the week, and find the sport amusing. I believe he would hear the same sermon at church fifty times, and not yawn more than I do at the first delivery. But sweet Joan, beloved Baucis! being thy faithful husband and true lover always, thy Darby is rather ashamed of having been testy so often! and, being arrived at the consummation of happiness, Philemon asks pardon for falling asleep so frequently after dinner. There came a period of my life, when having reached the summit of felicity I was quite tired of the prospect I had there: I yawned in Eden, and said, “Is this all? What, no lions to bite? no rain to fall? no thorns to prick you in the rose-bush when you sit down? — only Eve, for ever sweet and tender, and figs for breakfast, dinner, supper, from week’s end to week’s end!” Shall I make my confessions? Hearken! Well, then, if I must make a clean breast of it.

* * * * * *

Here three pages are torn out of Sir George Warrington’s MS. book, for which the editor is sincerely sorry.

I know the theory and practice of the Roman Church; but, being bred of another persuasion (and sceptical and heterodox regarding that), I can’t help doubting the other, too, and wondering whether Catholics, in their confessions, confess all? Do we Protestants ever do so; and has education rendered those other fellow-men so different from us? At least, amongst us, we are not accustomed to suppose Catholic priests or laymen more frank and open than ourselves. Which brings me back to my question — does any man confess all? Does yonder dear creature know all my life, who has been the partner of it for thirty years; who, whenever I have told her a sorrow, has been ready with the best of her gentle power to soothe it; who has watched when I did not speak, and when I was silent has been silent herself, or with the charming hypocrisy of woman has worn smiles and an easy appearance so as to make me imagine she felt no care, or would not even ask to disturb her lord’s secret when he seemed to indicate a desire to keep it private? Oh, the dear hypocrite! Have I not watched her hiding the boys’ peccadilloes from papa’s anger? Have I not known her cheat out of her housekeeping to pay off their little extravagances; and talk to me with an artless face, as if she did not know that our revered captain had had dealings with the gentlemen of Duke’s Place, and our learned collegian, at the end of his terms, had very pressing reasons for sporting his oak (as the phrase is) against some of the University tradesmen? Why, from the very earliest days, thou wise woman, thou wert for ever concealing something from me — this one stealing jam from the cupboard; that one getting into disgrace at school; that naughty rebel (put on the caps, young folks, according to the fit) flinging an inkstand at mamma in a rage, whilst I was told the gown and the carpet were spoiled by accident. We all hide from one another. We have all secrets. We are all alone. We sin by ourselves, and, let us trust, repent too. Yonder dear woman would give her foot to spare mine a twinge of the gout; but, when I have the fit, the pain is in my slipper. At the end of the novel or the play, the hero and heroine marry or die, and so there is an end of them as far as the poet is concerned, who huzzas for his young couple till the postchaise turns the corner; or fetches the hearse and plumes, and shovels them underground. But when Mr. Random and Mr. Thomas Jones are married, is all over? Are there no quarrels at home? Are there no Lady Bellastons abroad? are there no constables to be outrun? no temptations to conquer us, or be conquered by us? The Sirens sang after Ulysses long after his marriage, and the suitors whispered in Penelope’s ear, and he and she had many a weary day of doubt and care, and so have we all. As regards money I was put out of trouble by the inheritance I made: but does not Atra Cura sit behind baronets as well as equites? My friends in London used to congratulate me on my happiness. Who would not like to be master of a good house and a good estate? But can Gumbo shut the hall-door upon blue devils, or lay them always in a red sea of claret? Does a man sleep the better who has four-and-twenty hours to doze in? Do his intellects brighten after a sermon from the dull old vicar; a ten minutes’ cackle and flattery from the village apothecary; or the conversation of Sir John and Sir Thomas with their ladies, who come ten moonlight muddy miles to eat a haunch, and play a rubber? ’Tis all very well to have tradesmen bowing to your carriage-door, room made for you at quarter-sessions, and my lady wife taken down the second or the third to dinner: but these pleasures fade — nay, have their inconveniences. In our part of the country, for seven years after we came to Warrington Manor, our two what they called best neighbours were my Lord Tutbury and Sir John Mudbrook. We are of an older date than the Mudbrooks; consequently, my Lady Tutbury always fell to my lot, when we dined together, who was deaf and fell asleep after dinner; or if I had Lady Mudbrook, she chattered with a folly so incessant and intense, that even my wife could hardly keep her complacency (consummate hypocrite as her ladyship is), knowing the rage with which I was fuming at the other’s clatter. I come to London. I show my tongue to Dr. Heberden. I pour out my catalogue of complaints. “Psha, my dear Sir George!” says the unfeeling physician. “Headaches, languor, bad sleep, bad temper —” (“Not bad temper: Sir George has the sweetest temper in the world, only he is sometimes a little melancholy,” says my wife.) “— Bad sleep, bad temper,” continues the implacable doctor. “My dear lady, his inheritance has been his ruin, and a little poverty and a great deal of occupation would do him all the good in life.”

No, my brother Harry ought to have been the squire, with remainder to my son Miles, of course. Harry’s letters were full of gaiety and good spirits. His estate prospered: his negroes multiplied; his crops were large; he was a member of our House of Burgesses; he adored his wife; could he but have a child his happiness would be complete. Had Hal been master of Warrington Manor-house, in my place, he would have been beloved through the whole country; he would have been steward at all the races, the gayest of all the jolly huntsmen, the bien venu at all the mansions round about, where people scarce cared to perform the ceremony of welcome at sight of my glum face. As for my wife, all the world liked her, and agreed in pitying her. I don’t know how the report got abroad, but ’twas generally agreed that I treated her with awful cruelty, and that for jealousy I was a perfect Bluebeard. Ah me! And so it is true that I have had many dark hours; that I pass days in long silence; that the conversation of fools and whipper-snappers makes me rebellious and peevish, and that, when I feel contempt, I sometimes don’t know how to conceal it, or I should say did not. I hope as I grow older I grow more charitable. Because I do not love bawling and galloping after a fox, like the captain yonder, I am not his superior; but, in this respect, humbly own that he is mine. He has perceptions which are denied me; enjoyments which I cannot understand. Because I am blind the world is not dark. I try now and listen with respect when Squire Codgers talks of the day’s run. I do my best to laugh when Captain Rattleton tells his garrison stories. I step up to the harpsichord with old Miss Humby (our neighbour from Beccles) and try and listen as she warbles her ancient ditties. I play whist laboriously. Am I not trying to do the duties of life? and I have a right to be garrulous and egotistical, because I have been reading Montaigne all the morning.

I was not surprised, knowing by what influences my brother was led, to find his name in the list of Virginia burgesses who declared that the sole right of imposing taxes on the inhabitants of this colony is now, and ever hath been, legally and constitutionally vested in the House of Burgesses, and called upon the other colonies to pray for the Royal interposition in favour of the violated rights of America. And it was now, after we had been some three years settled in our English home, that a correspondence between us and Madam Esmond began to take place. It was my wife who (upon some pretext such as women always know how to find) re-established the relations between us. Mr. Miles must need have the small-pox, from which he miraculously recovered without losing any portion of his beauty; and on his recovery the mother writes her prettiest little wheedling letter to the grandmother of the fortunate babe. She coaxes her with all sorts of modest phrases and humble offerings of respect and goodwill. She narrates anecdotes of the precocious genius of the lad (what hath subsequently happened, I wonder, to stop the growth of that gallant young officer’s brains?), and she must have sent over to his grandmother a lock of the darling boy’s hair, for the old lady, in her reply, acknowledged the receipt of some such present. I wonder, as it came from England, they allowed it to pass our custom-house at Williamsburg. In return for these peace-offerings and smuggled tokens of submission, comes a tolerably gracious letter from my Lady of Castlewood. She inveighs against the dangerous spirit pervading the colony: she laments to think that her unhappy son is consorting with people who, she fears, will be no better than rebels and traitors. She does not wonder, considering who his friends and advisers are. How can a wife taken from an almost menial situation be expected to sympathise with persons of rank and dignity who have the honour of the Crown at heart? If evil times were coming for the monarchy (for the folks in America appeared to be disinclined to pay taxes, and required that everything should be done for them without cost), she remembered how to monarchs in misfortune, the Esmonds — her father the Marquis especially — had ever been faithful. She knew not what opinions (though she might judge from my newfangled Lord Chatham) were in fashion in England. She prayed, at least, she might hear that one of her sons was not on the side of rebellion. When we came, in after days, to look over old family papers in Virginia, we found “Letters from my daughter Lady Warrington,” neatly tied up with a ribbon. My Lady Theo insisted I should not open them; and the truth, I believe, is, that they were so full of praises of her husband that she thought my vanity would suffer from reading them.

When Madam began to write, she gave us brief notices of Harry and his wife. “The two women,” she wrote, “still govern everything with my poor boy at Fannystown (as he chooses to call his house). They must save money there, for I hear but a shabby account of their manner of entertaining. The Mount Vernon gentleman continues to be his great friend, and he votes in the House of Burgesses very much as his guide advises him. Why he should be so sparing of his money I cannot understand: I heard, of five negroes who went with his equipages to my Lord Bottetourt’s, only two had shoes to their feet. I had reasons to save, having sons for whom I wished to provide, but he hath no children, wherein he certainly is spared from much grief, though, no doubt, Heaven in its wisdom means our good by the trials which, through our children, it causes us to endure. His mother-inlaw,” she added in one of her letters, “has been ailing. Ever since his marriage, my poor Henry has been the creature of these two artful women, and they rule him entirely. Nothing, my dear daughter, is more contrary to common sense and to Holy Scripture than this. Are we not told, Wives, be obedient to your husbands? Had Mr. Warrington lived, I should have endeavoured to follow up that sacred precept, holding that nothing so becomes a woman as humility and obedience.”

Presently we had a letter sealed with black, and announcing the death of our dear good Mountain, for whom I had a hearty regret and affection, remembering her sincere love for us as children. Harry deplored the event in his honest way, and with tears which actually blotted his paper. And Madam Esmond, alluding to the circumstance, said: “My late housekeeper, Mrs. Mountain, as soon as she found her illness was fatal, sent to me requesting a last interview on her deathbed, intending, doubtless, to pray my forgiveness for her treachery towards me. I sent her word that I could forgive her as a Christian, and heartily hope (though I confess I doubt it) that she had a due sense of her crime towards me. But our meeting, I considered, was of no use, and could only occasion unpleasantness between us. If she repented, though at the eleventh hour, it was not too late, and I sincerely trusted that she was now doing so. And, would you believe her lamentable and hardened condition? she sent me word through Dinah, my woman, whom I dispatched to her with medicines for her soul’s and her body’s health, that she had nothing to repent of as far as regarded her conduct to me, and she wanted to be left alone! Poor Dinah distributed the medicine to my negroes, and our people took it eagerly — whilst Mrs. Mountain, left to herself, succumbed to the fever. Oh, the perversity of human kind! This poor creature was too proud to take my remedies, and is now beyond the reach of cure and physicians. You tell me your little Miles is subject to fits of cholic. My remedy, and I will beg you to let me know if effectual, is,” etc. etc. — and here followed the prescription, which thou didst not take, O my son, my heir, and my pride! because thy fond mother had her mother’s favourite powder, on which in his infantine troubles our firstborn was dutifully nurtured. Did words not exactly consonant with truth pass between the ladies in their correspondence? I fear my Lady Theo was not altogether candid: else how to account for a phrase in one of Madam Esmond’s letters, who said: “I am glad to hear the powders have done the dear child good. They are, if not on a first, on a second or third application, almost infallible, and have been the blessed means of relieving many persons round me, both infants and adults, white and coloured. I send my grandson an Indian bow and arrows. Shall these old eyes never behold him at Castlewood, I wonder, and is Sir George so busy with his books and his politics that he can’t afford a few months to his mother in Virginia? I am much alone now. My son’s chamber is just as he left it: the same books are in the presses: his little hanger and fowling-piece over the bed, and my father’s picture over the mantelpiece. I never allow anything to be altered in his room or his brother’s. I fancy the children playing near me sometimes, and that I can see my dear father’s head as he dozes in his chair. Mine is growing almost as white as my father’s. Am I never to behold my children ere I go hence? The Lord’s will be done.”

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