As they came up to the house at Walcote, the windows from within were lighted up with friendly welcome; the supper-table was spread in the oak-parlor; it seemed as if forgiveness and love were awaiting the returning prodigal. Two or three familiar faces of domestics were on the look-out at the porch—the old housekeeper was there, and young Lockwood from Castlewood in my lord’s livery of tawny and blue. His dear mistress pressed his arm as they passed into the hall. Her eyes beamed out on him with affection indescribable. “Welcome,” was all she said, as she looked up, putting back her fair curls and black hood. A sweet rosy smile blushed on her face; Harry thought he had never seen her look so charming. Her face was lighted with a joy that was brighter than beauty—she took a hand of her son who was in the hall waiting his mother—she did not quit Esmond’s arm.
“Welcome, Harry!” my young lord echoed after her. “Here, we are all come to say so. Here’s old Pincot, hasn’t she grown handsome?” and Pincot, who was older, and no handsomer than usual, made a curtsy to the Captain, as she called Esmond, and told my lord to “Have done, now.”
“And here’s Jack Lockwood. He’ll make a famous grenadier, Jack; and so shall I; we’ll both ‘list under you, Cousin. As soon as I’m seventeen, I go to the army—every gentleman goes to the army. Look! who comes here—ho, ho!” he burst into a laugh. “‘Tis Mistress Trix, with a new ribbon; I knew she would put one on as soon as she heard a captain was coming to supper.”
This laughing colloquy took place in the hall of Walcote House: in the midst of which is a staircase that leads from an open gallery, where are the doors of the sleeping chambers: and from one of these, a wax candle in her hand, and illuminating her, came Mistress Beatrix—the light falling indeed upon the scarlet ribbon which she wore, and upon the most brilliant white neck in the world.
Esmond had left a child and found a woman, grown beyond the common height; and arrived at such a dazzling completeness of beauty, that his eyes might well show surprise and delight at beholding her. In hers there was a brightness so lustrous and melting, that I have seen a whole assembly follow her as if by an attraction irresistible: and that night the great Duke was at the playhouse after Ramillies, every soul turned and looked (she chanced to enter at the opposite side of the theatre at the same moment) at her, and not at him. She was a brown beauty: that is, her eyes, hair, and eyebrows and eyelashes were dark: her hair curling with rich undulations, and waving over her shoulders; but her complexion was as dazzling white as snow in sunshine; except her cheeks, which were a bright red, and her lips, which were of a still deeper crimson. Her mouth and chin, they said, were too large and full, and so they might be for a goddess in marble, but not for a woman whose eyes were fire, whose look was love, whose voice was the sweetest low song, whose shape was perfect symmetry, health, decision, activity, whose foot as it planted itself on the ground was firm but flexible, and whose motion, whether rapid or slow, was always perfect grace—agile as a nymph, lofty as a queen,—now melting, now imperious, now sarcastic—there was no single movement of hers but was beautiful. As he thinks of her, he who writes feels young again, and remembers a paragon.
So she came holding her dress with one fair rounded arm, and her taper before her, tripping down the stair to greet Esmond.
“She hath put on her scarlet stockings and white shoes,” says my lord, still laughing. “Oh, my fine mistress! is this the way you set your cap at the Captain?” She approached, shining smiles upon Esmond, who could look at nothing but her eyes. She advanced holding forward her head, as if she would have him kiss her as he used to do when she was a child.
“Stop,” she said, “I am grown too big! Welcome, cousin Harry,” and she made him an arch curtsy, sweeping down to the ground almost, with the most gracious bend, looking up the while with the brightest eyes and sweetest smile. Love seemed to radiate from her. Harry eyed her with such a rapture as the first lover is described as having by Milton.
“N’est-ce pas?” says my lady, in a low, sweet voice, still hanging on his arm.
Esmond turned round with a start and a blush, as he met his mistress’s clear eyes. He had forgotten her, rapt in admiration of the filia pulcrior.
“Right foot forward, toe turned out, so: now drop the curtsy, and show the red stockings, Trix. They’ve silver clocks, Harry. The Dowager sent ‘em. She went to put ‘em on,” cries my lord.
“Hush, you stupid child!” says Miss, smothering her brother with kisses; and then she must come and kiss her mamma, looking all the while at Harry, over his mistress’s shoulder. And if she did not kiss him, she gave him both her hands, and then took one of his in both hands, and said, “Oh, Harry, we’re so, SO glad you’re come!”
“There are woodcocks for supper,” says my lord. “Huzzay! It was such a hungry sermon.”
“And it is the 29th of December; and our Harry has come home.”
“Huzzay, old Pincot!” again says my lord; and my dear lady’s lips looked as if they were trembling with a prayer. She would have Harry lead in Beatrix to the supper-room, going herself with my young Lord Viscount; and to this party came Tom Tusher directly, whom four at least out of the company of five wished away. Away he went, however, as soon as the sweetmeats were put down, and then, by the great crackling fire, his mistress or Beatrix, with her blushing graces, filling his glass for him, Harry told the story of his campaign, and passed the most delightful night his life had ever known. The sun was up long ere he was, so deep, sweet, and refreshing was his slumber. He woke as if angels had been watching at his bed all night. I dare say one that was as pure and loving as an angel had blessed his sleep with her prayers.
Next morning the chaplain read prayers to the little household at Walcote, as the custom was; Esmond thought Mistress Beatrix did not listen to Tusher’s exhortation much: her eyes were wandering everywhere during the service, at least whenever he looked up he met them. Perhaps he also was not very attentive to his Reverence the Chaplain. “This might have been my life,” he was thinking; “this might have been my duty from now till old age. Well, were it not a pleasant one to be with these dear friends and part from ‘em no more? Until—until the destined lover comes and takes away pretty Beatrix”—and the best part of Tom Tusher’s exposition, which may have been very learned and eloquent, was quite lost to poor Harry by this vision of the destined lover, who put the preacher out.
All the while of the prayers, Beatrix knelt a little way before Harry Esmond. The red stockings were changed for a pair of gray, and black shoes, in which her feet looked to the full as pretty. All the roses of spring could not vie with the brightness of her complexion; Esmond thought he had never seen anything like the sunny lustre of her eyes. My Lady Viscountess looked fatigued, as if with watching, and her face was pale.
Miss Beatrix remarked these signs of indisposition in her mother and deplored them. “I am an old woman,” says my lady, with a kind smile; “I cannot hope to look as young as you do, my dear.”
“She’ll never look as good as you do if she lives till she’s a hundred,” says my lord, taking his mother by the waist, and kissing her hand.
“Do I look very wicked, cousin?” says Beatrix, turning full round on Esmond, with her pretty face so close under his chin, that the soft perfumed hair touched it. She laid her finger-tips on his sleeve as she spoke; and he put his other hand over hers.
“I’m like your looking-glass,” says he, “and that can’t flatter you.”
“He means that you are always looking at him, my dear,” says her mother, archly. Beatrix ran away from Esmond at this, and flew to her mamma, whom she kissed, stopping my lady’s mouth with her pretty hand.
“And Harry is very good to look at,” says my lady, with her fond eyes regarding the young man.
“If ‘tis good to see a happy face,” says he, “you see that.” My lady said, “Amen,” with a sigh; and Harry thought the memory of her dear lord rose up and rebuked her back again into sadness; for her face lost the smile, and resumed its look of melancholy.
“Why, Harry, how fine we look in our scarlet and silver, and our black periwig,” cries my lord. “Mother, I am tired of my own hair. When shall I have a peruke? Where did you get your steenkirk, Harry?”
“It’s some of my Lady Dowager’s lace,” says Harry; “she gave me this and a number of other fine things.”
“My Lady Dowager isn’t such a bad woman,” my lord continued.
“She’s not so—so red as she’s painted,” says Miss Beatrix.
Her brother broke into a laugh. “I’ll tell her you said so; by the Lord, Trix, I will,” he cries out.
“She’ll know that you hadn’t the wit to say it, my lord,” says Miss Beatrix.
“We won’t quarrel the first day Harry’s here, will we, mother?” said the young lord. “We’ll see if we can get on to the new year without a fight. Have some of this Christmas pie. And here comes the tankard; no, it’s Pincot with the tea.”
“Will the Captain choose a dish?” asked Mistress Beatrix.
“I say, Harry,” my lord goes on, “I’ll show thee my horses after breakfast; and we’ll go a bird-netting to-night, and on Monday there’s a cock-match at Winchester—do you love cock-fighting, Harry?—between the gentlemen of Sussex and the gentlemen of Hampshire, at ten pound the battle, and fifty pound the odd battle to show one-and-twenty cocks.”
“And what will you do, Beatrix, to amuse our kinsman?” asks my lady.
“I’ll listen to him,” says Beatrix. “I am sure he has a hundred things to tell us. And I’m jealous already of the Spanish ladies. Was that a beautiful nun at Cadiz that you rescued from the soldiers? Your man talked of it last night in the kitchen, and Mrs. Betty told me this morning as she combed my hair. And he says you must be in love, for you sat on deck all night, and scribbled verses all day in your tablebook.” Harry thought if he had wanted a subject for verses yesterday, to-day he had found one: and not all the Lindamiras and Ardelias of the poets were half so beautiful as this young creature; but he did not say so, though some one did for him.
This was his dear lady, who, after the meal was over, and the young people were gone, began talking of her children with Mr. Esmond, and of the characters of one and the other, and of her hopes and fears for both of them. “‘Tis not while they are at home,” she said, “and in their mother’s nest, I fear for them—‘tis when they are gone into the world, whither I shall not be able to follow them. Beatrix will begin her service next year. You may have heard a rumor about—about my Lord Blandford. They were both children; and it is but idle talk. I know my kinswoman would never let him make such a poor marriage as our Beatrix would be. There’s scarce a princess in Europe that she thinks is good enough for him or for her ambition.”
“There’s not a princess in Europe to compare with her,” says Esmond.
“In beauty? No, perhaps not,” answered my lady. “She is most beautiful, isn’t she? ‘Tis not a mother’s partiality that deceives me. I marked you yesterday when she came down the stair: and read it in your face. We look when you don’t fancy us looking, and see better than you think, dear Harry: and just now when they spoke about your poems—you writ pretty lines when you were but a boy—you thought Beatrix was a pretty subject for verse, did not you, Harry?” (The gentleman could only blush for a reply.) “And so she is—nor are you the first her pretty face has captivated. ‘Tis quickly done. Such a pair of bright eyes as hers learn their power very soon, and use it very early.” And, looking at him keenly with hers, the fair widow left him.
And so it is—a pair of bright eyes with a dozen glances suffice to subdue a man; to enslave him, and inflame him; to make him even forget; they dazzle him so that the past becomes straightway dim to him; and he so prizes them that he would give all his life to possess ‘em. What is the fond love of dearest friends compared to this treasure? Is memory as strong as expectancy? fruition, as hunger? gratitude, as desire? I have looked at royal diamonds in the jewel-rooms in Europe, and thought how wars have been made about ‘em; Mogul sovereigns deposed and strangled for them, or ransomed with them; millions expended to buy them; and daring lives lost in digging out the little shining toys that I value no more than the button in my hat. And so there are other glittering baubles (of rare water too) for which men have been set to kill and quarrel ever since mankind began; and which last but for a score of years, when their sparkle is over. Where are those jewels now that beamed under Cleopatra’s forehead, or shone in the sockets of Helen?
The second day after Esmond’s coming to Walcote, Tom Tusher had leave to take a holiday, and went off in his very best gown and bands to court the young woman whom his Reverence desired to marry, and who was not a viscount’s widow, as it turned out, but a brewer’s relict at Southampton, with a couple of thousand pounds to her fortune: for honest Tom’s heart was under such excellent control, that Venus herself without a portion would never have caused it to flutter. So he rode away on his heavy-paced gelding to pursue his jog-trot loves, leaving Esmond to the society of his dear mistress and her daughter, and with his young lord for a companion, who was charmed, not only to see an old friend, but to have the tutor and his Latin books put out of the way.
The boy talked of things and people, and not a little about himself, in his frank artless way. ‘Twas easy to see that he and his sister had the better of their fond mother, for the first place in whose affections, though they fought constantly, and though the kind lady persisted that she loved both equally, ‘twas not difficult to understand that Frank was his mother’s darling and favorite. He ruled the whole household (always excepting rebellious Beatrix) not less now than when he was a child marshalling the village boys in playing at soldiers, and caning them lustily too, like the sturdiest corporal. As for Tom Tusher, his Reverence treated the young lord with that politeness and deference which he always showed for a great man, whatever his age or his stature was. Indeed, with respect to this young one, it was impossible not to love him, so frank and winning were his manners, his beauty, his gayety, the ring of his laughter, and the delightful tone of his voice. Wherever he went, he charmed and domineered. I think his old grandfather the Dean, and the grim old housekeeper, Mrs. Pincot, were as much his slaves as his mother was: and as for Esmond, he found himself presently submitting to a certain fascination the boy had, and slaving it like the rest of the family. The pleasure which he had in Frank’s mere company and converse exceeded that which he ever enjoyed in the society of any other man, however delightful in talk, or famous for wit. His presence brought sunshine into a room, his laugh, his prattle, his noble beauty and brightness of look cheered and charmed indescribably. At the least tale of sorrow, his hands were in his purse, and he was eager with sympathy and bounty. The way in which women loved and petted him, when, a year or two afterwards, he came upon the world, yet a mere boy, and the follies which they did for him (as indeed he for them), recalled the career of Rochester, and outdid the successes of Grammont. His very creditors loved him; and the hardest usurers, and some of the rigid prudes of the other sex too, could deny him nothing. He was no more witty than another man, but what he said, he said and looked as no man else could say or look it. I have seen the women at the comedy at Bruxelles crowd round him in the lobby: and as he sat on the stage more people looked at him than at the actors, and watched him; and I remember at Ramillies, when he was hit and fell, a great big red-haired Scotch sergeant flung his halbert down, burst out a-crying like a woman, seizing him up as if he had been an infant, and carrying him out of the fire. This brother and sister were the most beautiful couple ever seen; though after he winged away from the maternal nest this pair were seldom together.
Sitting at dinner two days after Esmond’s arrival (it was the last day of the year), and so happy a one to Harry Esmond, that to enjoy it was quite worth all the previous pain which he had endured and forgot, my young lord, filling a bumper, and bidding Harry take another, drank to his sister, saluting her under the title of “Marchioness.”
“Marchioness!” says Harry, not without a pang of wonder, for he was curious and jealous already.
“Nonsense, my lord,” says Beatrix, with a toss of her head. My Lady Viscountess looked up for a moment at Esmond, and cast her eyes down.
“The Marchioness of Blandford,” says Frank. “Don’t you know—hath not Rouge Dragon told you?” (My lord used to call the Dowager of Chelsey by this and other names.) “Blandford has a lock of her hair: the Duchess found him on his knees to Mistress Trix, and boxed his ears, and said Dr. Hare should whip him.”
“I wish Mr. Tusher would whip you too,” says Beatrix.
My lady only said: “I hope you will tell none of these silly stories elsewhere than at home, Francis.”
“‘Tis true, on my word,” continues Frank: “look at Harry scowling, mother, and see how Beatrix blushes as red as the silver-clocked stockings.”
“I think we had best leave the gentlemen to their wine and their talk,” says Mistress Beatrix, rising up with the air of a young queen, tossing her rustling flowing draperies about her, and quitting the room, followed by her mother.
Lady Castlewood again looked at Esmond, as she stooped down and kissed Frank. “Do not tell those silly stories, child,” she said: “do not drink much wine, sir; Harry never loved to drink wine.” And she went away, too, in her black robes, looking back on the young man with her fair, fond face.
“Egad! it’s true,” says Frank, sipping his wine with the air of a lord. “What think you of this Lisbon—real Collares? ‘Tis better than your heady port: we got it out of one of the Spanish ships that came from Vigo last year: my mother bought it at Southampton, as the ship was lying there—the ‘Rose,’ Captain Hawkins.”
“Why, I came home in that ship,” says Harry.
“And it brought home a good fellow and good wine,” says my lord. “I say, Harry, I wish thou hadst not that cursed bar sinister.”
“And why not the bar sinister?” asks the other.
“Suppose I go to the army and am killed—every gentleman goes to the army—who is to take care of the women? Trix will never stop at home; mother’s in love with you,—yes, I think mother’s in love with you. She was always praising you, and always talking about you; and when she went to Southampton, to see the ship, I found her out. But you see it is impossible: we are of the oldest blood in England; we came in with the Conqueror; we were only baronets,—but what then? we were forced into that. James the First forced our great grandfather. We are above titles; we old English gentry don’t want ‘em; the Queen can make a duke any day. Look at Blandford’s father, Duke Churchill, and Duchess Jennings, what were they, Harry? Damn it, sir, what are they, to turn up their noses at us? Where were they when our ancestor rode with King Henry at Agincourt, and filled up the French King’s cup after Poictiers? ‘Fore George, sir, why shouldn’t Blandford marry Beatrix? By G—! he SHALL marry Beatrix, or tell me the reason why. We’ll marry with the best blood of England, and none but the best blood of England. You are an Esmond, and you can’t help your birth, my boy. Let’s have another bottle. What! no more? I’ve drunk three parts of this myself. I had many a night with my father; you stood to him like a man, Harry. You backed your blood; you can’t help your misfortune, you know,—no man can help that.”
The elder said he would go in to his mistress’s tea-table. The young lad, with a heightened color and voice, began singing a snatch of a song, and marched out of the room. Esmond heard him presently calling his dogs about him, and cheering and talking to them; and by a hundred of his looks and gestures, tricks of voice and gait, was reminded of the dead lord, Frank’s father.
And so, the sylvester night passed away; the family parted long before midnight, Lady Castlewood remembering, no doubt, former New Years’ Eves, when healths were drunk, and laughter went round in the company of him, to whom years, past, and present, and future, were to be as one; and so cared not to sit with her children and hear the Cathedral bells ringing the birth of the year 1703. Esmond heard the chimes as he sat in his own chamber, ruminating by the blazing fire there, and listened to the last notes of them, looking out from his window towards the city, and the great gray towers of the Cathedral lying under the frosty sky, with the keen stars shining above.
The sight of these brilliant orbs no doubt made him think of other luminaries. “And so her eyes have already done execution,” thought Esmond—“on whom?—who can tell me?” Luckily his kinsman was by, and Esmond knew he would have no difficulty in finding out Mistress Beatrix’s history from the simple talk of the boy.