The History of Henry Esmond

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter I - An Account of the Family of Esmond of Castlewood Hall

When Francis, fourth Viscount Castlewood, came to his title, and presently after to take possession of his house of Castlewood, county Hants, in the year 1691, almost the only tenant of the place besides the domestics was a lad of twelve years of age, of whom no one seemed to take any note until my Lady Viscountess lighted upon him, going over the house with the housekeeper on the day of her arrival. The boy was in the room known as the Book-room, or Yellow Gallery, where the portraits of the family used to hang, that fine piece among others of Sir Antonio Van Dyck of George, second Viscount, and that by Mr. Dobson of my lord the third Viscount, just deceased, which it seems his lady and widow did not think fit to carry away, when she sent for and carried off to her house at Chelsey, near to London, the picture of herself by Sir Peter Lely, in which her ladyship was represented as a huntress of Diana’s court.

The new and fair lady of Castlewood found the sad, lonely, little occupant of this gallery busy over his great book, which he laid down when he was aware that a stranger was at hand. And, knowing who that person must be, the lad stood up and bowed before her, performing a shy obeisance to the mistress of his house.

She stretched out her hand—indeed when was it that that hand would not stretch out to do an act of kindness, or to protect grief and ill-fortune? “And this is our kinsman,” she said “and what is your name, kinsman?”

“My name is Henry Esmond,” said the lad, looking up at her in a sort of delight and wonder, for she had come upon him as a Dea certe, and appeared the most charming object he had ever looked on. Her golden hair was shining in the gold of the sun; her complexion was of a dazzling bloom; her lips smiling, and her eyes beaming with a kindness which made Harry Esmond’s heart to beat with surprise.

“His name is Henry Esmond, sure enough, my lady,” says Mrs. Worksop, the housekeeper (an old tyrant whom Henry Esmond plagued more than he hated), and the old gentlewoman looked significantly towards the late lord’s picture, as it now is in the family, noble and severe-looking, with his hand on his sword, and his order on his cloak, which he had from the Emperor during the war on the Danube against the Turk.

Seeing the great and undeniable likeness between this portrait and the lad, the new Viscountess, who had still hold of the boy’s hand as she looked at the picture, blushed and dropped the hand quickly, and walked down the gallery, followed by Mrs. Worksop.

When the lady came back, Harry Esmond stood exactly in the same spot, and with his hand as it had fallen when he dropped it on his black coat.

Her heart melted, I suppose (indeed she hath since owned as much), at the notion that she should do anything unkind to any mortal, great or small; for, when she returned, she had sent away the housekeeper upon an errand by the door at the farther end of the gallery; and, coming back to the lad, with a look of infinite pity and tenderness in her eyes, she took his hand again, placing her other fair hand on his head, and saying some words to him, which were so kind, and said in a voice so sweet, that the boy, who had never looked upon so much beauty before, felt as if the touch of a superior being or angel smote him down to the ground, and kissed the fair protecting hand as he knelt on one knee. To the very last hour of his life, Esmond remembered the lady as she then spoke and looked, the rings on her fair hands, the very scent of her robe, the beam of her eyes lighting up with surprise and kindness, her lips blooming in a smile, the sun making a golden halo round her hair.

As the boy was yet in this attitude of humility, enters behind him a portly gentleman, with a little girl of four years old in his hand. The gentleman burst into a great laugh at the lady and her adorer, with his little queer figure, his sallow face, and long black hair. The lady blushed, and seemed to deprecate his ridicule by a look of appeal to her husband, for it was my Lord Viscount who now arrived, and whom the lad knew, having once before seen him in the late lord’s lifetime.

“So this is the little priest” says my lord, looking down at the lad; “welcome, kinsman.”

“He is saying his prayers to mamma,” says the little girl, who came up to her papa’s knees; and my lord burst out into another great laugh at this, and kinsman Henry looked very silly. He invented a half-dozen of speeches in reply, but ‘twas months afterwards when he thought of this adventure: as it was, he had never a word in answer.

“Le pauvre enfant, il n’a que nous,” says the lady, looking to her lord; and the boy, who understood her, though doubtless she thought otherwise, thanked her with all his heart for her kind speech.

“And he shan’t want for friends here,” says my lord in a kind voice, “shall he, little Trix?”

The little girl, whose name was Beatrix, and whom her papa called by this diminutive, looked at Henry Esmond solemnly, with a pair of large eyes, and then a smile shone over her face, which was as beautiful as that of a cherub, and she came up and put out a little hand to him. A keen and delightful pang of gratitude, happiness, affection, filled the orphan child’s heart, as he received from the protectors, whom heaven had sent to him, these touching words and tokens of friendliness and kindness. But an hour since, he had felt quite alone in the world: when he heard the great peal of bells from Castlewood church ringing that morning to welcome the arrival of the new lord and lady, it had rung only terror and anxiety to him, for he knew not how the new owner would deal with him; and those to whom he formerly looked for protection were forgotten or dead. Pride and doubt too had kept him within-doors, when the Vicar and the people of the village, and the servants of the house, had gone out to welcome my Lord Castlewood—for Henry Esmond was no servant, though a dependant; no relative, though he bore the name and inherited the blood of the house; and in the midst of the noise and acclamations attending the arrival of the new lord (for whom, you may be sure, a feast was got ready, and guns were fired, and tenants and domestics huzzahed when his carriage approached and rolled into the court-yard of the hall), no one ever took any notice of young Henry Esmond, who sat unobserved and alone in the Book-room, until the afternoon of that day, when his new friends found him.

When my lord and lady were going away thence, the little girl, still holding her kinsman by the hand, bade him to come too. “Thou wilt always forsake an old friend for a new one, Trix,” says her father to her good-naturedly; and went into the gallery, giving an arm to his lady. They passed thence through the music-gallery, long since dismantled, and Queen Elizabeth’s Rooms, in the clock-tower, and out into the terrace, where was a fine prospect of sunset and the great darkling woods with a cloud of rooks returning; and the plain and river with Castlewood village beyond, and purple hills beautiful to look at—and the little heir of Castlewood, a child of two years old, was already here on the terrace in his nurse’s arms, from whom he ran across the grass instantly he perceived his mother, and came to her.

“If thou canst not be happy here,” says my lord, looking round at the scene, “thou art hard to please, Rachel.”

“I am happy where you are,” she said, “but we were happiest of all at Walcote Forest.” Then my lord began to describe what was before them to his wife, and what indeed little Harry knew better than he—viz., the history of the house: how by yonder gate the page ran away with the heiress of Castlewood, by which the estate came into the present family; how the Roundheads attacked the clock-tower, which my lord’s father was slain in defending. “I was but two years old then,” says he, “but take forty-six from ninety, and how old shall I be, kinsman Harry?”

“Thirty,” says his wife, with a laugh.

“A great deal too old for you, Rachel,” answers my lord, looking fondly down at her. Indeed she seemed to be a girl, and was at that time scarce twenty years old.

“You know, Frank, I will do anything to please you,” says she, “and I promise you I will grow older every day.”

“You mustn’t call papa, Frank; you must call papa my lord now,” says Miss Beatrix, with a toss of her little head; at which the mother smiled, and the good-natured father laughed, and the little trotting boy laughed, not knowing why—but because he was happy, no doubt—as every one seemed to be there. How those trivial incidents and words, the landscape and sunshine, and the group of people smiling and talking, remain fixed on the memory!

As the sun was setting, the little heir was sent in the arms of his nurse to bed, whither he went howling; but little Trix was promised to sit to supper that night—“and you will come too, kinsman, won’t you?” she said.

Harry Esmond blushed: “I—I have supper with Mrs. Worksop,” says he.

“D—n it,” says my lord, “thou shalt sup with us, Harry, to-night! Shan’t refuse a lady, shall he, Trix?”—and they all wondered at Harry’s performance as a trencher-man, in which character the poor boy acquitted himself very remarkably; for the truth is he had had no dinner, nobody thinking of him in the bustle which the house was in, during the preparations antecedent to the new lord’s arrival.

“No dinner! poor dear child!” says my lady, heaping up his plate with meat, and my lord, filling a bumper for him, bade him call a health; on which Master Harry, crying “The King,” tossed off the wine. My lord was ready to drink that, and most other toasts: indeed only too ready. He would not hear of Doctor Tusher (the Vicar of Castlewood, who came to supper) going away when the sweetmeats were brought: he had not had a chaplain long enough, he said, to be tired of him: so his reverence kept my lord company for some hours over a pipe and a punch-bowl; and went away home with rather a reeling gait, and declaring a dozen of times, that his lordship’s affability surpassed every kindness he had ever had from his lordship’s gracious family.

As for young Esmond, when he got to his little chamber, it was with a heart full of surprise and gratitude towards the new friends whom this happy day had brought him. He was up and watching long before the house was astir, longing to see that fair lady and her children—that kind protector and patron: and only fearful lest their welcome of the past night should in any way be withdrawn or altered. But presently little Beatrix came out into the garden, and her mother followed, who greeted Harry as kindly as before. He told her at greater length the histories of the house (which he had been taught in the old lord’s time), and to which she listened with great interest; and then he told her, with respect to the night before, that he understood French, and thanked her for her protection.

“Do you?” says she, with a blush; “then, sir, you shall teach me and Beatrix.” And she asked him many more questions regarding himself, which had best be told more fully and explicitly than in those brief replies which the lad made to his mistress’s questions.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson