Since my Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought home the custom of inoculation from Turkey (a perilous practice many deem it, and only a useless rushing into the jaws of danger), I think the severity of the small-pox, that dreadful scourge of the world, has somewhat been abated in our part of it; and remember in my time hundreds of the young and beautiful who have been carried to the grave, or have only risen from their pillows frightfully scarred and disfigured by this malady. Many a sweet face hath left its roses on the bed on which this dreadful and withering blight has laid them. In my early days, this pestilence would enter a village and destroy half its inhabitants: at its approach, it may well be imagined, not only the beautiful but the strongest were alarmed, and those fled who could. One day in the year 1694 (I have good reason to remember it), Doctor Tusher ran into Castlewood House, with a face of consternation, saying that the malady had made its appearance at the blacksmith’s house in the village, and that one of the maids there was down in the small-pox.
The blacksmith, besides his forge and irons for horses, had an ale-house for men, which his wife kept, and his company sat on benches before the inn-door, looking at the smithy while they drank their beer. Now, there was a pretty girl at this inn, the landlord’s men called Nancy Sievewright, a bouncing, fresh-looking lass, whose face was as red as the hollyhocks over the pales of the garden behind the inn. At this time Harry Esmond was a lad of sixteen, and somehow in his walks and rambles it often happened that he fell in with Nancy Sievewright’s bonny face; if he did not want something done at the blacksmith’s he would go and drink ale at the “Three Castles,” or find some pretext for seeing this poor Nancy. Poor thing, Harry meant or imagined no harm; and she, no doubt, as little, but the truth is they were always meeting—in the lanes, or by the brook, or at the garden-palings, or about Castlewood: it was, “Lord, Mr. Henry!” and “how do you do, Nancy?” many and many a time in the week. ‘Tis surprising the magnetic attraction which draws people together from ever so far. I blush as I think of poor Nancy now, in a red bodice and buxom purple cheeks and a canvas petticoat; and that I devised schemes, and set traps, and made speeches in my heart, which I seldom had courage to say when in presence of that humble enchantress, who knew nothing beyond milking a cow, and opened her black eyes with wonder when I made one of my fine speeches out of Waller or Ovid. Poor Nancy! from the midst of far-off years thine honest country face beams out; and I remember thy kind voice as if I had heard it yesterday.
When Doctor Tusher brought the news that the small-pox was at the “Three Castles,” whither a tramper, it was said, had brought the malady, Henry Esmond’s first thought was of alarm for poor Nancy, and then of shame and disquiet for the Castlewood family, lest he might have brought this infection; for the truth is that Mr. Harry had been sitting in a back room for an hour that day, where Nancy Sievewright was with a little brother who complained of headache, and was lying stupefied and crying, either in a chair by the corner of the fire, or in Nancy’s lap, or on mine.
Little Lady Beatrix screamed out at Dr. Tusher’s news; and my lord cried out, “God bless me!” He was a brave man, and not afraid of death in any shape but this. He was very proud of his pink complexion and fair hair—but the idea of death by small-pox scared him beyond all other ends. “We will take the children and ride away to-morrow to Walcote:” this was my lord’s small house, inherited from his mother, near to Winchester.
“That is the best refuge in case the disease spreads,” said Dr. Tusher. “‘Tis awful to think of it beginning at the ale-house; half the people of the village have visited that to-day, or the blacksmith’s, which is the same thing. My clerk Nahum lodges with them—I can never go into my reading-desk and have that fellow so near me. I WON’T have that man near me.”
“If a parishioner dying in the small-pox sent to you, would you not go?” asked my lady, looking up from her frame of work, with her calm blue eyes.
“By the Lord, I wouldn’t,” said my lord.
“We are not in a popish country; and a sick man doth not absolutely need absolution and confession,” said the Doctor. “‘Tis true they are a comfort and a help to him when attainable, and to be administered with hope of good. But in a case where the life of a parish priest in the midst of his flock is highly valuable to them, he is not called upon to risk it (and therewith the lives, future prospects, and temporal, even spiritual welfare of his own family) for the sake of a single person, who is not very likely in a condition even to understand the religious message whereof the priest is the bringer—being uneducated, and likewise stupefied or delirious by disease. If your ladyship or his lordship, my excellent good friend and patron, were to take it . . .”
“God forbid!” cried my lord.
“Amen,” continued Dr. Tusher. “Amen to that prayer, my very good lord! for your sake I would lay my life down”—and, to judge from the alarmed look of the Doctor’s purple face, you would have thought that that sacrifice was about to be called for instantly.
To love children, and be gentle with them, was an instinct, rather than a merit, in Henry Esmond; so much so, that he thought almost with a sort of shame of his liking for them, and of the softness into which it betrayed him; and on this day the poor fellow had not only had his young friend, the milkmaid’s brother, on his knee, but had been drawing pictures and telling stories to the little Frank Castlewood, who had occupied the same place for an hour after dinner, and was never tired of Henry’s tales, and his pictures of soldiers and horses. As luck would have it, Beatrix had not on that evening taken her usual place, which generally she was glad enough to have, upon her tutor’s lap. For Beatrix, from the earliest time, was jealous of every caress which was given to her little brother Frank. She would fling away even from the maternal arms, if she saw Frank had been there before her; insomuch that Lady Esmond was obliged not to show her love for her son in the presence of the little girl, and embraced one or the other alone. She would turn pale and red with rage if she caught signs of intelligence or affection between Frank and his mother: would sit apart, and not speak for a whole night, if she thought the boy had a better fruit or a larger cake than hers; would fling away a ribbon if he had one; and from the earliest age, sitting up in her little chair by the great fireplace opposite to the corner where Lady Castlewood commonly sat at her embroidery, would utter infantine sarcasms about the favor shown to her brother. These, if spoken in the presence of Lord Castlewood, tickled and amused his humor; he would pretend to love Frank best, and dandle and kiss him, and roar with laughter at Beatrix’s jealousy. But the truth is, my lord did not often witness these scenes, nor very much trouble the quiet fireside at which his lady passed many long evenings. My lord was hunting all day when the season admitted; he frequented all the cock-fights and fairs in the country, and would ride twenty miles to see a main fought, or two clowns break their heads at a cudgelling-match; and he liked better to sit in his parlor drinking ale and punch with Jack and Tom, than in his wife’s drawing-room: whither, if he came, he brought only too often bloodshot eyes, a hiccupping voice, and a reeling gait. The management of the house, and the property, the care of the few tenants and the village poor, and the accounts of the estate, were in the hands of his lady and her young secretary, Harry Esmond. My lord took charge of the stables, the kennel, and the cellar—and he filled this and emptied it too.
So it chanced that upon this very day, when poor Harry Esmond had had the blacksmith’s son, and the peer’s son, alike upon his knee, little Beatrix, who would come to her tutor willingly enough with her book and her writing, had refused him, seeing the place occupied by her brother, and, luckily for her, had sat at the further end of the room, away from him, playing with a spaniel dog which she had, (and for which, by fits and starts, she would take a great affection,) and talking at Harry Esmond over her shoulder, as she pretended to caress the dog, saying that Fido would love her, and she would love Fido, and nothing but Fido all her life.
When, then, the news was brought that the little boy at the “Three Castles” was ill with the small-pox, poor Harry Esmond felt a shock of alarm, not so much for himself as for his mistress’s son, whom he might have brought into peril. Beatrix, who had pouted sufficiently, (and who, whenever a stranger appeared, began, from infancy almost, to play off little graces to catch his attention,) her brother being now gone to bed, was for taking her place upon Esmond’s knee: for, though the Doctor was very obsequious to her, she did not like him, because he had thick boots and dirty hands (the pert young miss said), and because she hated learning the catechism.
But as she advanced towards Esmond from the corner where she had been sulking, he started back and placed the great chair on which he was sitting between him and her—saying in the French language to Lady Castlewood, with whom the young lad had read much, and whom he had perfected in this tongue—“Madam, the child must not approach me; I must tell you that I was at the blacksmith’s to-day, and had his little boy upon my lap.”
“Where you took my son afterwards,” Lady Castlewood said, very angry, and turning red. “I thank you, sir, for giving him such company. Beatrix,” she said in English, “I forbid you to touch Mr. Esmond. Come away, child—come to your room. Come to your room—I wish your Reverence good-night—and you, sir, had you not better go back to your friends at the ale-house?” her eyes, ordinarily so kind, darted flashes of anger as she spoke; and she tossed up her head (which hung down commonly) with the mien of a princess.
“Hey-day!” says my lord, who was standing by the fireplace—indeed he was in the position to which he generally came by that hour of the evening—“Hey-day! Rachel, what are you in a passion about? Ladies ought never to be in a passion. Ought they, Doctor Tusher? though it does good to see Rachel in a passion—Damme, Lady Castlewood, you look dev’lish handsome in a passion.”
“It is, my lord, because Mr. Henry Esmond, having nothing to do with his time here, and not having a taste for our company, has been to the ale-house, where he has SOME FRIENDS.”
My lord burst out, with a laugh and an oath—“You young slyboots, you’ve been at Nancy Sievewright. D—- the young hypocrite, who’d have thought it in him? I say, Tusher, he’s been after—”
“Enough, my lord,” said my lady, “don’t insult me with this talk.”
“Upon my word,” said poor Harry, ready to cry with shame and mortification, “the honor of that young person is perfectly unstained for me.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” says my lord, more and more laughing and tipsy. “Upon his HONOR, Doctor—Nancy Sieve— . . .”
“Take Mistress Beatrix to bed,” my lady cried at this moment to Mrs. Tucker her woman, who came in with her ladyship’s tea. “Put her into my room—no, into yours,” she added quickly. “Go, my child: go, I say: not a word!” And Beatrix, quite surprised at so sudden a tone of authority from one who was seldom accustomed to raise her voice, went out of the room with a scared countenance, and waited even to burst out a-crying until she got to the door with Mrs. Tucker.
For once her mother took little heed of her sobbing, and continued to speak eagerly—“My lord,” she said, “this young man—your dependant—told me just now in French—he was ashamed to speak in his own language—that he had been at the ale-house all day, where he has had that little wretch who is now ill of the small-pox on his knee. And he comes home reeking from that place—yes, reeking from it—and takes my boy into his lap without shame, and sits down by me, yes, by ME. He may have killed Frank for what I know—killed our child. Why was he brought in to disgrace our house? Why is he here? Let him go—let him go, I say, to-night, and pollute the place no more.”
She had never once uttered a syllable of unkindness to Harry Esmond; and her cruel words smote the poor boy, so that he stood for some moments bewildered with grief and rage at the injustice of such a stab from such a hand. He turned quite white from red, which he had been.
“I cannot help my birth, madam,” he said, “nor my other misfortune. And as for your boy, if—if my coming nigh to him pollutes him now, it was not so always. Good-night, my lord. Heaven bless you and yours for your goodness to me. I have tired her ladyship’s kindness out, and I will go;” and, sinking down on his knee, Harry Esmond took the rough hand of his benefactor and kissed it.
“He wants to go to the ale-house—let him go,” cried my lady.
“I’m d—d if he shall,” said my lord. “I didn’t think you could be so d—d ungrateful, Rachel.”
Her reply was to burst into a flood of tears, and to quit the room with a rapid glance at Harry Esmond,—as my lord, not heeding them, and still in great good-humor, raised up his young client from his kneeling posture (for a thousand kindnesses had caused the lad to revere my lord as a father), and put his broad hand on Harry Esmond’s shoulder.
“She was always so,” my lord said; “the very notion of a woman drives her mad. I took to liquor on that very account, by Jove, for no other reason than that; for she can’t be jealous of a beer-barrel or a bottle of rum, can she, Doctor? D—- it, look at the maids—just look at the maids in the house” (my lord pronounced all the words together—just-look-at-the-maze-in-the-house: jever-see-such-maze?) “You wouldn’t take a wife out of Castlewood now, would you, Doctor?” and my lord burst out laughing.
The Doctor, who had been looking at my Lord Castlewood from under his eyelids, said, “But joking apart, and, my lord, as a divine, I cannot treat the subject in a jocular light, nor, as a pastor of this congregation, look with anything but sorrow at the idea of so very young a sheep going astray.”
“Sir,” said young Esmond, bursting out indignantly, “she told me that you yourself were a horrid old man, and had offered to kiss her in the dairy.”
“For shame, Henry,” cried Doctor Tusher, turning as red as a turkey-cock, while my lord continued to roar with laughter. “If you listen to the falsehoods of an abandoned girl—”
“She is as honest as any woman in England, and as pure for me,” cried out Henry, “and, as kind, and as good. For shame on you to malign her!”
“Far be it from me to do so,” cried the Doctor. “Heaven grant I may be mistaken in the girl, and in you, sir, who have a truly PRECOCIOUS genius; but that is not the point at issue at present. It appears that the small-pox broke out in the little boy at the ‘Three Castles;’ that it was on him when you visited the ale-house, for your OWN reasons; and that you sat with the child for some time, and immediately afterwards with my young lord.” The Doctor raised his voice as he spoke, and looked towards my lady, who had now come back, looking very pale, with a handkerchief in her hand.
“This is all very true, sir,” said Lady Esmond, looking at the young man.
“‘Tis to be feared that he may have brought the infection with him.”
“From the ale-house—yes,” said my lady.
“D—- it, I forgot when I collared you, boy,” cried my lord, stepping back. “Keep off, Harry my boy; there’s no good in running into the wolf’s jaws, you know.”
My lady looked at him with some surprise, and instantly advancing to Henry Esmond, took his hand. “I beg your pardon, Henry,” she said; “I spoke very unkindly. I have no right to interfere with you—with your—”
My lord broke out into an oath. “Can’t you leave the boy alone, my lady?” She looked a little red, and faintly pressed the lad’s hand as she dropped it.
“There is no use, my lord,” she said; “Frank was on his knee as he was making pictures, and was running constantly from Henry to me. The evil is done, if any.”
“Not with me, damme,” cried my lord. “I’ve been smoking,”—and he lighted his pipe again with a coal—“and it keeps off infection; and as the disease is in the village—plague take it—I would have you leave it. We’ll go to-morrow to Walcote, my lady.”
“I have no fear,” said my lady; “I may have had it as an infant: it broke out in our house then; and when four of my sisters had it at home, two years before our marriage, I escaped it, and two of my dear sisters died.”
“I won’t run the risk,” said my lord; “I’m as bold as any man, but I’ll not bear that.”
“Take Beatrix with you and go,” said my lady. “For us the mischief is done; and Tucker can wait upon us, who has had the disease.”
“You take care to choose ‘em ugly enough,” said my lord, at which her ladyship hung down her head and looked foolish: and my lord, calling away Tusher, bade him come to the oak parlor and have a pipe. The Doctor made a low bow to her ladyship (of which salaams he was profuse), and walked off on his creaking square-toes after his patron.
When the lady and the young man were alone, there was a silence of some moments, during which he stood at the fire, looking rather vacantly at the dying embers, whilst her ladyship busied herself with the tambour-frame and needles.
“I am sorry,” she said, after a pause, in a hard, dry voice,—“I REPEAT I am sorry that I showed myself so ungrateful for the safety of my son. It was not at all my wish that you should leave us, I am sure, unless you found pleasure elsewhere. But you must perceive, Mr. Esmond, that at your age, and with your tastes, it is impossible that you can continue to stay upon the intimate footing in which you have been in this family. You have wished to go to the University, and I think ‘tis quite as well that you should be sent thither. I did not press this matter, thinking you a child, as you are, indeed, in years—quite a child; and I should never have thought of treating you otherwise until—until these CIRCUMSTANCES came to light. And I shall beg my lord to despatch you as quick as possible: and will go on with Frank’s learning as well as I can, (I owe my father thanks for a little grounding, and you, I’m sure, for much that you have taught me,)—and—and I wish you a good-night, Mr. Esmond.”
And with this she dropped a stately curtsy, and, taking her candle, went away through the tapestry door, which led to her apartments. Esmond stood by the fireplace, blankly staring after her. Indeed, he scarce seemed to see until she was gone; and then her image was impressed upon him, and remained for ever fixed upon his memory. He saw her retreating, the taper lighting up her marble face, her scarlet lip quivering, and her shining golden hair. He went to his own room, and to bed, where he tried to read, as his custom was; but he never knew what he was reading until afterwards he remembered the appearance of the letters of the book (it was in Montaigne’s Essays), and the events of the day passed before him—that is, of the last hour of the day; for as for the morning, and the poor milkmaid yonder, he never so much as once thought. And he could not get to sleep until daylight, and woke with a violent headache, and quite unrefreshed.
He had brought the contagion with him from the “Three Castles” sure enough, and was presently laid up with the smallpox, which spared the hall no more than it did the cottage.