The History of Henry Esmond

by William Makepeace Thackeray

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Chapter VI - The 29th December

here was scarce a score of persons in the Cathedral beside the Dean and some of his clergy, and the choristers, young and old, that performed the beautiful evening prayer. But Mr. Tusher was one of the officiants, and read from the eagle in an authoritative voice, and a great black periwig; and in the stalls, still in her black widow’s hood, sat Esmond’s dear mistress, her son by her side, very much grown, and indeed a noble-looking youth, with his mother’s eyes, and his father’s curling brown hair, that fell over his point de Venise—a pretty picture such as Van Dyck might have painted. Mons. Rigaud’s portrait of my Lord Viscount, done at Paris afterwards, gives but a French version of his manly, frank, English face. When he looked up there were two sapphire beams out of his eyes such as no painter’s palette has the color to match, I think. On this day there was not much chance of seeing that particular beauty of my young lord’s countenance; for the truth is, he kept his eyes shut for the most part, and, the anthem being rather long, was asleep.

But the music ceasing, my lord woke up, looking about him, and his eyes lighting on Mr. Esmond, who was sitting opposite him, gazing with no small tenderness and melancholy upon two persons who had so much of his heart for so many years, Lord Castlewood, with a start, pulled at his mother’s sleeve (her face had scarce been lifted from her book), and said, “Look, mother!” so loud, that Esmond could hear on the other side of the church, and the old Dean on his throned stall. Lady Castlewood looked for an instant as her son bade her, and held up a warning finger to Frank; Esmond felt his whole face flush, and his heart throbbing, as that dear lady beheld him once more. The rest of the prayers were speedily over; Mr. Esmond did not hear them; nor did his mistress, very likely, whose hood went more closely over her face, and who never lifted her head again until the service was over, the blessing given, and Mr. Dean, and his procession of ecclesiastics, out of the inner chapel.

Young Castlewood came clambering over the stalls before the clergy were fairly gone, and running up to Esmond, eagerly embraced him. “My dear, dearest old Harry!” he said, “are you come back? Have you been to the wars? You’ll take me with you when you go again? Why didn’t you write to us? Come to mother.”

Mr. Esmond could hardly say more than a “God bless you, my boy,” for his heart was very full and grateful at all this tenderness on the lad’s part; and he was as much moved at seeing Frank as he was fearful about that other interview which was now to take place: for he knew not if the widow would reject him as she had done so cruelly a year ago.

“It was kind of you to come back to us, Henry,” Lady Esmond said. “I thought you might come.”

“We read of the fleet coming to Portsmouth. Why did you not come from Portsmouth?” Frank asked, or my Lord Viscount, as he now must be called.

Esmond had thought of that too. He would have given one of his eyes so that he might see his dear friends again once more; but believing that his mistress had forbidden him her house, he had obeyed her, and remained at a distance.

“You had but to ask, and you know I would be here,” he said.

She gave him her hand, her little fair hand; there was only her marriage ring on it. The quarrel was all over. The year of grief and estrangement was passed. They never had been separated. His mistress had never been out of his mind all that time. No, not once. No, not in the prison; nor in the camp; nor on shore before the enemy; nor at sea under the stars of solemn midnight; nor as he watched the glorious rising of the dawn: not even at the table, where he sat carousing with friends, or at the theatre yonder, where he tried to fancy that other eyes were brighter than hers. Brighter eyes there might be, and faces more beautiful, but none so dear—no voice so sweet as that of his beloved mistress, who had been sister, mother, goddess to him during his youth—goddess now no more, for he knew of her weaknesses; and by thought, by suffering, and that experience it brings, was older now than she; but more fondly cherished as woman perhaps than ever she had been adored as divinity. What is it? Where lies it? the secret which makes one little hand the dearest of all? Whoever can unriddle that mystery? Here she was, her son by his side, his dear boy. Here she was, weeping and happy. She took his hand in both hers; he felt her tears. It was a rapture of reconciliation.

“Here comes Squaretoes,” says Frank. “Here’s Tusher.”

Tusher, indeed, now appeared, creaking on his great heels. Mr. Tom had divested himself of his alb or surplice, and came forward habited in his cassock and great black periwig. How had Esmond ever been for a moment jealous of this fellow?

“Give us thy hand, Tom Tusher,” he said. The chaplain made him a very low and stately bow. “I am charmed to see Captain Esmond,” says he. “My lord and I have read the Reddas incolumem precor, and applied it, I am sure, to you. You come back with Gaditanian laurels; when I heard you were bound thither, I wished, I am sure, I was another Septimius. My Lord Viscount, your lordship remembers Septimi, Gades aditure mecum?”

“There’s an angle of earth that I love better than Gades, Tusher,” says Mr. Esmond. “‘Tis that one where your reverence hath a parsonage, and where our youth was brought up.”

“A house that has so many sacred recollections to me,” says Mr. Tusher (and Harry remembered how Tom’s father used to flog him there)—“a house near to that of my respected patron, my most honored patroness, must ever be a dear abode to me. But, madam, the verger waits to close the gates on your ladyship.”

“And Harry’s coming home to supper. Huzzay! huzzay!” cries my lord. “Mother, I shall run home and bid Beatrix put her ribbons on. Beatrix is a maid of honor, Harry. Such a fine set-up minx!”

“Your heart was never in the Church, Harry,” the widow said, in her sweet low tone, as they walked away together. (Now, it seemed they never had been parted, and again, as if they had been ages asunder.) “I always thought you had no vocation that way; and that ‘twas a pity to shut you out from the world. You would but have pined and chafed at Castlewood: and ‘tis better you should make a name for yourself. I often said so to my dear lord. How he loved you! ‘Twas my lord that made you stay with us.”

“I asked no better than to stay near you always,” said Mr. Esmond.

“But to go was best, Harry. When the world cannot give peace, you will know where to find it; but one of your strong imagination and eager desires must try the world first before he tires of it. ‘Twas not to be thought of, or if it once was, it was only by my selfishness, that you should remain as chaplain to a country gentleman and tutor to a little boy. You are of the blood of the Esmonds, kinsman; and that was always wild in youth. Look at Francis. He is but fifteen, and I scarce can keep him in my nest. His talk is all of war and pleasure, and he longs to serve in the next campaign. Perhaps he and the young Lord Churchill shall go the next. Lord Marlborough has been good to us. You know how kind they were in my misfortune. And so was your—your father’s widow. No one knows how good the world is, till grief comes to try us. ‘Tis through my Lady Marlborough’s goodness that Beatrix hath her place at Court; and Frank is under my Lord Chamberlain. And the dowager lady, your father’s widow, has promised to provide for you—has she not?”

Esmond said, “Yes. As far as present favor went, Lady Castlewood was very good to him. And should her mind change,” he added gayly, “as ladies’ minds will, I am strong enough to bear my own burden, and make my way somehow. Not by the sword very likely. Thousands have a better genius for that than I, but there are many ways in which a young man of good parts and education can get on in the world; and I am pretty sure, one way or other, of promotion!” Indeed, he had found patrons already in the army, and amongst persons very able to serve him, too; and told his mistress of the flattering aspect of fortune. They walked as though they had never been parted, slowly, with the gray twilight closing round them.

“And now we are drawing near to home,” she continued, “I knew you would come, Harry, if—if it was but to forgive me for having spoken unjustly to you after that horrid—horrid misfortune. I was half frantic with grief then when I saw you. And I know now—they have told me. That wretch, whose name I can never mention, even has said it: how you tried to avert the quarrel, and would have taken it on yourself, my poor child: but it was God’s will that I should be punished, and that my dear lord should fall.”

“He gave me his blessing on his death-bed,” Esmond said. “Thank God for that legacy!”

“Amen, amen! dear Henry,” said the lady, pressing his arm. “I knew it. Mr. Atterbury, of St. Bride’s, who was called to him, told me so. And I thanked God, too, and in my prayers ever since remembered it.”

“You had spared me many a bitter night, had you told me sooner,” Mr. Esmond said.

“I know it, I know it,” she answered, in a tone of such sweet humility, as made Esmond repent that he should ever have dared to reproach her. “I know how wicked my heart has been; and I have suffered too, my dear. I confessed to Mr. Atterbury—I must not tell any more. He—I said I would not write to you or go to you—and it was better even that having parted, we should part. But I knew you would come back—I own that. That is no one’s fault. And to-day, Henry, in the anthem, when they sang it, ‘When the Lord turned the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream,’ I thought, yes, like them that dream—them that dream. And then it went, ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy; and he that goeth forth and weepeth, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him;’ I looked up from the book, and saw you. I was not surprised when I saw you. I knew you would come, my dear, and saw the gold sunshine round your head.”

She smiled an almost wild smile as she looked up at him. The moon was up by this time, glittering keen in the frosty sky. He could see, for the first time now clearly, her sweet careworn face.

“Do you know what day it is?” she continued. “It is the 29th of December—it is your birthday! But last year we did not drink it—no, no. My lord was cold, and my Harry was likely to die: and my brain was in a fever; and we had no wine. But now—now you are come again, bringing your sheaves with you, my dear.” She burst into a wild flood of weeping as she spoke; she laughed and sobbed on the young man’s heart, crying out wildly, “bringing your sheaves with you—your sheaves with you!”

As he had sometimes felt, gazing up from the deck at midnight into the boundless starlit depths overhead, in a rapture of devout wonder at that endless brightness and beauty—in some such a way now, the depth of this pure devotion (which was, for the first time, revealed to him) quite smote upon him, and filled his heart with thanksgiving. Gracious God, who was he, weak and friendless creature, that such a love should be poured out upon him? Not in vain—not in vain has he lived—hard and thankless should he be to think so—that has such a treasure given him. What is ambition compared to that, but selfish vanity? To be rich, to be famous? What do these profit a year hence, when other names sound louder than yours, when you lie hidden away under the ground, along with idle titles engraven on your coffin? But only true love lives after you—follows your memory with secret blessing—or precedes you, and intercedes for you. Non omnis moriar—if dying, I yet live in a tender heart or two; nor am lost and hopeless living, if a sainted departed soul still loves and prays for me.

“If—if ‘tis so, dear lady,” Mr. Esmond said, “why should I ever leave you? If God hath given me this great boon—and near or far from me, as I know now, the heart of my dearest mistress follows me, let me have that blessing near me, nor ever part with it till death separate us. Come away—leave this Europe, this place which has so many sad recollections for you. Begin a new life in a new world. My good lord often talked of visiting that land in Virginia which King Charles gave us—gave his ancestor. Frank will give us that. No man there will ask if there is a blot on my name, or inquire in the woods what my title is.”

“And my children—and my duty—and my good father, Henry?” she broke out. “He has none but me now! for soon my sister will leave him, and the old man will be alone. He has conformed since the new Queen’s reign; and here in Winchester, where they love him, they have found a church for him. When the children leave me, I will stay with him. I cannot follow them into the great world, where their way lies—it scares me. They will come and visit me; and you will, sometimes, Henry—yes, sometimes, as now, in the Holy Advent season, when I have seen and blessed you once more.”

“I would leave all to follow you,” said Mr. Esmond; “and can you not be as generous for me, dear lady?”

“Hush, boy!” she said, and it was with a mother’s sweet plaintive tone and look that she spoke. “The world is beginning for you. For me, I have been so weak and sinful that I must leave it, and pray out an expiation, dear Henry. Had we houses of religion as there were once, and many divines of our Church would have them again, I often think I would retire to one and pass my life in penance. But I would love you still—yes, there is no sin in such a love as mine now; and my dear lord in heaven may see my heart; and knows the tears that have washed my sin away—and now—now my duty is here, by my children whilst they need me, and by my poor old father, and—”

“And not by me?” Henry said.

“Hush!” she said again, and raised her hand up to his lip. “I have been your nurse. You could not see me, Harry, when you were in the small-pox, and I came and sat by you. Ah! I prayed that I might die, but it would have been in sin, Henry. Oh, it is horrid to look back to that time. It is over now and past, and it has been forgiven me. When you need me again, I will come ever so far. When your heart is wounded, then come to me, my dear. Be silent! let me say all. You never loved me, dear Henry—no, you do not now, and I thank heaven for it. I used to watch you, and knew by a thousand signs that it was so. Do you remember how glad you were to go away to college? ‘Twas I sent you. I told my papa that, and Mr. Atterbury too, when I spoke to him in London. And they both gave me absolution—both—and they are godly men, having authority to bind and to loose. And they forgave me, as my dear lord forgave me before he went to heaven.”

“I think the angels are not all in heaven,” Mr. Esmond said. And as a brother folds a sister to his heart; and as a mother cleaves to her son’s breast—so for a few moments Esmond’s beloved mistress came to him and blessed him.

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