The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray



His Excellency the Commander-inChief set forth to pay his visit to Madam Esmond in such a state and splendour as became the first personage in all his Majesty’s colonies, plantations, and possessions of North America. His guard of dragoons preceded him out of Williamsburg in the midst of an immense shouting and yelling of a loyal, and principally negro, population. The General rode in his own coach. Captain Talmadge, his Excellency’s Master of the Horse, attended him at the door of the ponderous emblazoned vehicle, and riding by the side of the carriage during the journey from Williamsburg to Madam Esmond’s house. Major Danvers, aide-de-camp, sate in the front of the carriage with the little postmaster from Philadelphia, Mr. Franklin, who, printer’s boy as he had been, was a wonderful shrewd person, as his Excellency and the gentlemen of his family were fain to acknowledge, having a quantity of the most curious information respecting the colony, and regarding England too, where Mr. Franklin had been more than once. “’Twas extraordinary how a person of such humble origin should have acquired such a variety of learning and such a politeness of breeding too, Mr. Franklin!” his Excellency was pleased to observe, touching his hat graciously to the postmaster.

The postmaster bowed, said it had been his occasional good fortune to fall into the company of gentlemen like his Excellency, and that he had taken advantage of his opportunity to study their honours’ manners, and adapt himself to them as far as he might. As for education, he could not boast much of that — his father being but in straitened circumstances, and the advantages small in his native country of New England: but he had done to the utmost of his power, and gathered what he could — he knew nothing like what they had in England.

Mr. Braddock burst out laughing, and said, “As for education, there were gentlemen of the army, by George, who didn’t know whether they should spell bull with two b’s or one. He had heard the Duke of Marlborough was no special good penman. He had not the honour of serving under that noble commander — his Grace was before his time — but he thrashed the French soundly, although he was no scholar.”

Mr. Franklin said he was aware of both those facts.

“Nor is my Duke a scholar,” went on Mr. Braddock —“aha, Mr. Postmaster, you have heard that, too — I see by the wink in your eye.”

Mr. Franklin instantly withdrew the obnoxious or satirical wink in his eye, and looked in the General’s jolly round face with a pair of orbs as innocent as a baby’s. “He’s no scholar, but he is a match for any French general that ever swallowed the English for fricassee de crapaud. He saved the crown for the best of kings, his royal father, his Most Gracious Majesty King George.”

Off went Mr. Franklin’s hat, and from his large buckled wig escaped a great halo of powder.

“He is the soldier’s best friend, and has been the uncompromising enemy of all beggarly red-shanked Scotch rebels and intriguing Romish Jesuits who would take our liberty from us, and our religion, by George. His Royal Highness, my gracious master, is not a scholar neither, but he is one of the finest gentlemen in the world.”

“I have seen his Royal Highness on horseback, at a review of the Guards, in Hyde Park,” says Mr. Franklin. “The Duke is indeed a very fine gentleman on horseback.”

“You shall drink his health today, Postmaster. He is the best of masters, the best of friends, the best of sons to his royal old father; the best of gentlemen that ever wore an epaulet.”

“Epaulets are quite out of my way, sir,” says Mr. Franklin, laughing. “You know I live in a Quaker City.”

“Of course they are out of your way, my good friend. Every man to his business. You, and gentlemen of your class, to your books, and welcome. We don’t forbid you; we encourage you. We, to fight the enemy and govern the country. Hey, gentlemen? Lord! what roads you have in this colony, and how this confounded coach plunges! Who have we here, with the two negro boys in livery? He rides a good gelding.”

“It is Mr. Washington,” says the aide-de-camp.

“I would like him for a corporal of the Horse Grenadiers,” said the General. “He has a good figure on a horse. He knows the country too, Mr. Franklin.”

“Yes, indeed.”

“And is a monstrous genteel young man, considering the opportunities he has had. I should have thought he had the polish of Europe, by George I should.”

“He does his best,” says Mr. Franklin, looking innocently at the stout chief, the exemplar of English elegance, who sat swagging from one side to the other of the carriage, his face as scarlet as his coat — swearing at every other word; ignorant on every point off parade, except the merits of a bottle and the looks of a woman; not of high birth, yet absurdly proud of his no-ancestry; brave as a bulldog; savage, lustful, prodigal, generous; gentle in soft moods; easy of love and laughter; dull of wit; utterly unread; believing his country the first in the world, and he as good a gentleman as any in it. “Yes, he is mighty well for a provincial, upon my word. He was beat at Fort What-d’ye-call-um last year, down by the Thingamy river. What’s the name on’t, Talmadge?”

“The Lord knows, sir,” says Talmadge; “and I dare say the Postmaster, too, who is laughing at us both.”

“Oh, Captain!”

“Was caught in a regular trap. He had only militia and Indians with him. Good day, Mr. Washington. A pretty nag, sir. That was your first affair, last year?”

“That at Fort Necessity? Yes, sir,” said the gentleman, gravely saluting, as he rode up, followed by a couple of natty negro grooms, in smart livery-coats and velvet hunting-caps. “I began ill, sir, never having been in action until that unlucky day.”

“You were all raw levies, my good fellow. You should have seen our militia run from the Scotch, and be cursed to them. You should have had some troops with you.”

“Your Excellency knows ’tis my passionate desire to see and serve with them,” said Mr. Washington.

“By George, we shall try and gratify you, sir,” said the General, with one of his usual huge oaths; and on the heavy carriage rolled towards Castlewood; Mr. Washington asking leave to gallop on ahead, in order to announce his Excellency’s speedy arrival to the lady there.

The progress of the Commander-inChief was so slow, that several humbler persons who were invited to meet his Excellency came up with his carriage, and, not liking to pass the great man on the road, formed quite a procession in the dusty wake of his chariot-wheels. First came Mr. Dinwiddie, the Lieutenant-Governor of his Majesty’s province, attended by his negro servants, and in company of Parson Broadbent, the jolly Williamsburg chaplain. These were presently joined by little Mr. Dempster, the young gentlemen’s schoolmaster, in his great Ramillies wig, which he kept for occasions of state. Anon appeared Mr. Laws, the judge of the court, with Madam Laws on a pillion behind him, and their negro man carrying a box containing her ladyship’s cap, and bestriding a mule. The procession looked so ludicrous, that Major Danvers and Mr. Franklin espying it, laughed outright, though not so loud as to disturb his Excellency, who was asleep by this time, bade the whole of this queer rearguard move on, and leave the Commander-inChief and his escort of dragoons to follow at their leisure. There was room for all at Castlewood when they came. There was meat, drink, and the best tobacco for his Majesty’s soldiers; and laughing and jollity for the negroes; and a plenteous welcome for their masters.

The honest General required to be helped to most dishes at the table, and more than once, and was for ever holding out his glass for drink; Nathan’s sangaree he pronounced to be excellent, and had drunk largely of it on arriving before dinner. There was cider, ale, brandy, and plenty of good Bordeaux wine, some which Colonel Esmond himself had brought home with him to the colony, and which was fit for ponteeficis coenis, said little Mr. Dempster, with a wink to Mr. Broadbent, the clergyman of the adjoining parish. Mr. Broadbent returned the wink and nod, and drank the wine without caring about the Latin, as why should he, never having hitherto troubled himself about the language? Mr. Broadbent was a gambling, guzzling, cock-fighting divine, who had passed much time in the Fleet Prison, at Newmarket, at Hockley-inthe-Hole; and having gone of all sorts of errands for his friend, Lord Cingbars, Lord Ringwood’s son (my Lady Cingbars’s waiting-woman being Mr. B.‘s mother — I dare say the modern reader had best not be too particular regarding Mr. Broadbent’s father’s pedigree), had been of late sent out to a church-living in Virginia. He and young George had fought many a match of cocks together, taken many a roe in company, hauled in countless quantities of shad and salmon, slain wild geese and wild swans, pigeons and plovers, and destroyed myriads of canvas-backed ducks. It was said by the envious that Broadbent was the midnight poacher on whom Mr. Washington set his dogs, and whom he caned by the river-side at Mount Vernon. The fellow got away from his captor’s grip, and scrambled to his boat in the dark; but Broadbent was laid up for two Sundays afterwards, and when he came abroad again had the evident remains of a black eye and a new collar to his coat. All the games at the cards had George Esmond and Parson Broadbent played together, besides hunting all the birds in the air, the beasts in the forest, and the fish of the sea. Indeed, when the boys rode together to get their reading with Mr. Dempster, I suspect that Harry stayed behind and took lessons from the other professor of European learning and accomplishments — George going his own way, reading his own books, and, of course, telling no tales of his younger brother.

All the birds of the Virginia air, and all the fish of the sea in season were here laid on Madam Esmond’s board to feed his Excellency and the rest of the English and American gentlemen. The gumbo was declared to be perfection (young Mr. George’s black servant was named after this dish, being discovered behind the door with his head in a bowl of this delicious hotch-potch, by the late Colonel, and grimly christened on the spot), the shad were rich and fresh, the stewed terrapins were worthy of London aldermen (before George, he would like the Duke himself to taste them, his Excellency deigned to say), and indeed, stewed terrapins are worthy of any duke or even emperor. The negro-women have a genius for cookery, and in Castlewood kitchens there were adepts in the art brought up under the keen eye of the late and the present Madam Esmond. Certain of the dishes, especially the sweets and flan, Madam Esmond prepared herself with great neatness and dexterity; carving several of the principal pieces, as the kindly cumbrous fashion of the day was, putting up the laced lappets of her sleeves, and showing the prettiest round arms and small hands and wrists as she performed this ancient rite of a hospitality not so languid as ours. The old law of the table was that the mistress was to press her guests with a decent eagerness, to watch and see whom she could encourage to further enjoyment, to know culinary anatomic secrets, and execute carving operations upon fowls, fish, game, joints of meat, and so forth; to cheer her guests to fresh efforts, to whisper her neighbour, Mr. Braddock “I have kept for your Excellency the jowl of this salmon. — I will take no denial! Mr. Franklin, you drink only water, sir, though our cellar has wholesome wine which gives no headaches. — Mr. Justice, you love woodcock pie?”

“Because I know who makes the pastry,” says Mr. Laws, the judge, with a profound bow. “I wish, madam, we had such a happy knack of pastry at home as you have at Castlewood. I often say to my wife, ‘My dear, I wish you had Madam Esmond’s hand.’”

“It is a very pretty hand; I am sure others would like it too,” says Mr. Postmaster of Boston, at which remark Mr. Esmond looks but half-pleased at the little gentleman.

“Such a hand for a light pie-crust,” continues the Judge, “and my service to you, madam.” And he thinks the widow cannot but be propitiated by this compliment. She says simply that she had lessons when she was at home in England for her education, and that there were certain dishes which her mother taught her to make, and which her father and sons both liked. She was very glad if they pleased her company. More such remarks follow: more dishes; ten times as much meat as is needful for the company. Mr. Washington does not embark in the general conversation much, but he and Mr. Talmadge, and Major Danvers, and the Postmaster, are deep in talk about roads, rivers, conveyances, sumpter-horses and artillery train; and the provincial militia Colonel has bits of bread laid at intervals on the table before him, and stations marked out, on which he has his finger, and regarding which he is talking to his brother aides-de-camp, till a negro servant, changing the courses, brushes off the Potomac with a napkin, and sweeps up the Ohio in a spoon.

At the end of dinner, Mr. Broadbent leaves his place and walks up behind the Lieutenant-Governor’s chair, where he says grace, returning to his seat and resuming his knife and fork when this work of devotion is over. And now the sweets and puddings are come, of which I can give you a list, if you like; but what young lady cares for the puddings of today, much more for those which were eaten a hundred years ago, and which Madam Esmond had prepared for her guests with so much neatness and skill? Then, the table being cleared, Nathan, her chief manager, lays a glass to every person, and fills his mistress’s. Bowing to the company, she says she drinks but one toast, but knows how heartily all the gentlemen present will join her. Then she calls, “His Majesty,” bowing to Mr. Braddock, who with his aides-de-camp and the colonial gentlemen all loyally repeat the name of their beloved and gracious Sovereign. And hereupon, having drunk her glass of wine and saluted all the company, the widow retires between a row of negro servants, performing one of her very handsomest curtsies at the door.

The kind Mistress of Castlewood bore her part in the entertainment with admirable spirit, and looked so gay and handsome, and spoke with such cheerfulness and courage to all her company, that the few ladies who were present at the dinner could not but congratulate Madam Esmond upon the elegance of the feast, and especially upon her manner of presiding at it. But they were scarcely got to her drawing-room when her artificial courage failed her, and she burst into tears on the sofa by Mrs. Laws’ side, just in the midst of a compliment from that lady. “Ah, madam!” she said, “it may be an honour, as you say, to have the King’s representative in my house, and our family has received greater personages than Mr. Braddock. But he comes to take one of my sons away from me. Who knows whether my boy will return, or how? I dreamed of him last night as wounded, and quite white, with blood streaming from his side. I would not be so ill-mannered as to let my grief be visible before the gentlemen; but, my good Mrs. Justice, who has parted with children, and who has a mother’s heart of her own, would like me none the better, if mine were very easy this evening.”

The ladies administered such consolations as seemed proper or palatable to their hostess, who tried not to give way further to her melancholy, and remembered that she had other duties to perform, before yielding to her own sad mood. “It will be time enough, madam, to be sorry when they are gone,” she said to the Justice’s wife, her good neighbour. “My boy must not see me following him with a wistful face, and have our parting made more dismal by my weakness. It is good that gentlemen of his rank and station should show themselves where their country calls them. That has always been the way of the Esmonds, and the same Power which graciously preserved my dear father through twenty great battles in the Queen’s time, I trust and pray, will watch over my son now his turn is come to do his duty.” And, now, instead of lamenting her fate, or further alluding to it, I dare say the resolute lady sate down with her female friends to a pool of cards and a dish of coffee, whilst the gentlemen remained in the neighbouring parlour, still calling their toasts and drinking their wine. When one lady objected that these latter were sitting rather long, Madam Esmond said: “It would improve and amuse the boys to be with the English gentlemen. Such society was very rarely to be had in their distant province, and though their conversation sometimes was free, she was sure that gentleman and men of fashion would have regard to the youth of her sons, and say nothing before them which young people should not hear.”

It was evident that the English gentlemen relished the good cheer provided for them. Whilst the ladies were yet at their cards, Nathan came in and whispered Mrs. Mountain, who at first cried out —“No! she would give no more — the common Bordeaux they might have, and welcome, if they still wanted more — but she would not give any more of the Colonel’s.” It appeared that the dozen bottles of particular claret had been already drunk up by the gentlemen, “besides ale, cider, Burgundy, Lisbon, and Madeira,” says Mrs. Mountain, enumerating the supplies.

But Madam Esmond was for having no stint in the hospitality of the night. Mrs. Mountain was fain to bustle away with her keys to the sacred vault where the Colonel’s particular Bordeaux lay, surviving its master, who, too, had long passed underground. As they went on their journey, Mrs. Mountain asked whether any of the gentlemen had had too much? Nathan thought Mister Broadbent was tipsy — he always tipsy; be then thought the General gentleman was tipsy; and he thought Master George was a lilly drunk.

“Master George!” cries Mrs. Mountain: “why, he will sit for days without touching a drop.”

Nevertheless, Nathan persisted in his notion that Master George was a lilly drunk. He was always filling his glass, he had talked, he had sung, he had cut jokes, especially against Mr. Washington, which made Mr. Washington quite red and angry, Nathan said. “Well, well!” Mrs. Mountain cried eagerly; “it was right a gentleman should make himself merry in good company, and pass the bottle along with his friends.” And she trotted to the particular Bordeaux cellar with only the more alacrity.

The tone of freedom and almost impertinence which young George Esmond had adopted of late days towards Mr. Washington had very deeply vexed and annoyed that gentleman. There was scarce half a dozen years’ difference of age between him and the Castlewood twins; — but Mr. Washington had always been remarked for a discretion and sobriety much beyond his time of life, whilst the boys of Castlewood seemed younger than theirs. They had always been till now under their mother’s anxious tutelage, and had looked up to their neighbour of Mount Vernon as their guide, director, friend — as, indeed, almost everybody seemed to do who came in contact with the simple and upright young man. Himself of the most scrupulous gravity and good breeding, in his communication with other folks he appeared to exact, or, at any rate, to occasion, the same behaviour. His nature was above levity and jokes: they seemed out of place when addressed to him. He was slow of comprehending them: and they slunk as it were abashed out of his society. “He always seemed great to me,” says Harry Warrington, in one of his letters many years after the date of which we are writing; “and I never thought of him otherwise than of a hero. When he came over to Castlewood and taught us boys surveying, to see him riding to hounds was as if he was charging an army. If he fired a shot, I thought the bird must come down, and if be flung a net, the largest fish in the river were sure to be in it. His words were always few, but they were always wise; they were not idle, as our words are, they were grave, sober, and strong, and ready on occasion to do their duty. In spite of his antipathy to him, my brother respected and admired the General as much as I did — that is to say, more than any mortal man.”

Mr. Washington was the first to leave the jovial party which were doing so much honour to Madam Esmond’s hospitality. Young George Esmond, who had taken his mother’s place when she left it, had been free with the glass and with the tongue. He had said a score of things to his guest which wounded and chafed the latter, and to which Mr. Washington could give no reply. Angry beyond all endurance, he left the table at length, and walked away through the open windows into the broad verandah or porch which belonged to Castlewood as to all Virginian houses.

Here Madam Esmond caught sight of her friend’s tall frame as it strode up and down before the windows; and, the evening being warm, or her game over, she gave up her cards to one of the other ladies, and joined her good neighbour out of doors. He tried to compose his countenance as well as he could: it was impossible that he should explain to his hostess why and with whom he was angry.

“The gentlemen are long over their wine,” she said; “gentlemen of the army are always fond of it.”

“If drinking makes good soldiers, some yonder are distinguishing themselves greatly, madam,” said Mr. Washington.

“And I dare say the General is at the head of his troops?”

“No doubt, no doubt,” answered the Colonel, who always received this lady’s remarks, playful or serious, with a peculiar softness and kindness. “But the General is the General, and it is not for me to make remarks on his Excellency’s doings at table or elsewhere. I think very likely that military gentlemen born and bred at home are different from us of the colonies. We have such a hot sun, that we need not wine to fire our blood as they do. And drinking toasts seems a point of honour with them. Talmadge hiccupped to me — I should say, whispered to me just now, that an officer could no more refuse a toast than a challenge, and he said that it was after the greatest difficulty and dislike at first that he learned to drink. He has certainly overcome his difficulty with uncommon resolution.”

“What, I wonder, can you talk of for so many hours?” asked the lady.

“I don’t think I can tell you all we talk of, madam, and I must not tell tales out of school. We talked about the war, and of the force Mr. Contrecoeur has, and how we are to get at him. The General is for making the campaign in his coach, and makes light of it and the enemy. That we shall beat them, if we meet them, I trust there is no doubt.”

“How can there be?” says the lady, whose father had served under Marlborough.

“Mr. Franklin, though he is only from New England,” continued the gentleman, “spoke great good sense, and would have spoken more if the English gentlemen would let him; but they reply invariably that we are only raw provincials, and don’t know what disciplined British troops can do. Had they not best hasten forwards and make turnpike roads and have comfortable inns ready for his Excellency at the end of the day’s march? —‘There’s some sort of inns, I suppose,’ says Mr. Danvers, ‘not so comfortable as we have in England: we can’t expect that.’—‘No, you can’t expect that,’ says Mr. Franklin, who seems a very shrewd and facetious person. He drinks his water, and seems to laugh at the Englishmen, though I doubt whether it is fair for a water-drinker to sit by and spy out the weaknesses of gentlemen over their wine.”

“And my boys? I hope they are prudent?” said the widow, laying her hand on her guest’s arm. “Harry promised me, and when he gives his word, I can trust him for anything. George is always moderate. Why do you look so grave?”

“Indeed, to be frank with you, I do not know what has come over George in these last days,” says Mr. Washington. “He has some grievance against me which I do not understand, and of which I don’t care to ask the reason. He spoke to me before the gentlemen in a way which scarcely became him. We are going the campaign together, and ’tis a pity we begin such ill friends.”

“He has been ill. He is always wild and wayward, and hard to understand. But he has the most affectionate heart in the world. You will bear with him, you will protect him — promise me you will.”

“Dear lady, I will do so with my life,” Mr. Washington said with great fervour. “You know I would lay it down cheerfully for you or any you love.”

“And my father’s blessing and mine go with you, dear friend!” cried the widow, full of thanks and affection.

As they pursued their conversation, they had quitted the porch under which they had first began to talk, and where they could hear the laughter and toasts of the gentlemen over their wine, and were pacing a walk on the rough lawn before the house. Young George Warrington, from his place at the head of the table in the dining-room, could see the pair as they passed to and fro, and had listened for some time past, and replied in a very distracted manner to the remarks of the gentlemen round about him, who were too much engaged with their own talk and jokes, and drinking, to pay much attention to their young host’s behaviour. Mr. Braddock loved a song after dinner, and Mr. Danvers, his aide-de-camp, who had a fine tenor voice, was delighting his General with the latest ditty from Marybone Gardens, when George Warrington, jumping up, ran towards the window, and then returned and pulled his brother Harry by the sleeve, who sate with his back towards the window.

“What is it?” says Harry, who, for his part, was charmed, too, with the song and chorus.

“Come,” cried George, with a stamp of his foot, and the younger followed obediently.

“What is it?” continued George, with a bitter oath. “Don’t you see what it is? They were billing and cooing this morning; they are billing and cooing now before going to roost. Had we not better both go into the garden, and pay our duty to our mamma and papa?” and he pointed to Mr. Washington, who was taking the widow’s hand very tenderly in his.

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