The History of Henry Esmond

by William Makepeace Thackeray

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Chapter X - An Old Story About a Fool and a Woman

Any taste for pleasure which Esmond had (and he liked to desipere in loco, neither more nor less than most young men of his age) he could now gratify to the utmost extent, and in the best company which the town afforded. When the army went into winter quarters abroad, those of the officers who had interest or money easily got leave of absence, and found it much pleasanter to spend their time in Pall Mall and Hyde Park, than to pass the winter away behind the fortifications of the dreary old Flanders towns, where the English troops were gathered. Yachts and packets passed daily between the Dutch and Flemish ports and Harwich; the roads thence to London and the great inns were crowded with army gentlemen; the taverns and ordinaries of the town swarmed with red-coats; and our great Duke’s levees at St. James’s were as thronged as they had been at Ghent and Brussels, where we treated him, and he us, with the grandeur and ceremony of a sovereign. Though Esmond had been appointed to a lieutenancy in the Fusileer regiment, of which that celebrated officer, Brigadier John Richmond Webb, was colonel, he had never joined the regiment, nor been introduced to its excellent commander, though they had made the same campaign together, and been engaged in the same battle. But being aide-de-camp to General Lumley, who commanded the division of horse, and the army marching to its point of destination on the Danube by different routes, Esmond had not fallen in, as yet, with his commander and future comrades of the fort; and it was in London, in Golden Square, where Major-General Webb lodged, that Captain Esmond had the honor of first paying his respects to his friend, patron, and commander of after days.

Those who remember this brilliant and accomplished gentleman may recollect his character, upon which he prided himself, I think, not a little, of being the handsomest man in the army; a poet who writ a dull copy of verses upon the battle of Oudenarde three years after, describing Webb, says:—

“To noble danger Webb conducts the way,
His great example all his troops obey;
Before the front the general sternly rides,
With such an air as Mars to battle strides:
Propitious heaven must sure a hero save,
Like Paris handsome, and like Hector brave.”

Mr. Webb thought these verses quite as fine as Mr. Addison’s on the Blenheim Campaign, and, indeed, to be Hector a la mode de Paris, was part of this gallant gentleman’s ambition. It would have been difficult to find an officer in the whole army, or amongst the splendid courtiers and cavaliers of the Maison du Roy, that fought under Vendosme and Villeroy in the army opposed to ours, who was a more accomplished soldier and perfect gentleman, and either braver or better-looking. And if Mr. Webb believed of himself what the world said of him, and was deeply convinced of his own indisputable genius, beauty, and valor, who has a right to quarrel with him very much? This self-content of his kept him in general good-humor, of which his friends and dependants got the benefit.

He came of a very ancient Wiltshire family, which he respected above all families in the world: he could prove a lineal descent from King Edward the First, and his first ancestor, Roaldus de Richmond, rode by William the Conqueror’s side on Hastings field. “We were gentlemen, Esmond,” he used to say, “when the Churchills were horse-boys.” He was a very tall man, standing in his pumps six feet three inches (in his great jack-boots, with his tall fair periwig, and hat and feather, he could not have been less than eight feet high). “I am taller than Churchill,” he would say, surveying himself in the glass, “and I am a better made man; and if the women won’t like a man that hasn’t a wart on his nose, faith, I can’t help myself, and Churchill has the better of me there.” Indeed, he was always measuring himself with the Duke, and always asking his friends to measure them. And talking in this frank way, as he would do, over his cups, wags would laugh and encourage him; friends would be sorry for him; schemers and flatterers would egg him on, and tale-bearers carry the stories to headquarters, and widen the difference which already existed there, between the great captain and one of the ablest and bravest lieutenants he ever had.

His rancor against the Duke was so apparent, that one saw it in the first half-hour’s conversation with General Webb; and his lady, who adored her General, and thought him a hundred times taller, handsomer, and braver than a prodigal nature had made him, hated the great Duke with such an intensity as it becomes faithful wives to feel against their husbands’ enemies. Not that my Lord Duke was so yet; Mr. Webb had said a thousand things against him, which his superior had pardoned; and his Grace, whose spies were everywhere, had heard a thousand things more that Webb had never said. But it cost this great man no pains to pardon; and he passed over an injury or a benefit alike easily.

Should any child of mine take the pains to read these his ancestor’s memoirs, I would not have him judge of the great Duke* by what a contemporary has written of him. No man hath been so immensely lauded and decried as this great statesman and warrior; as, indeed, no man ever deserved better the very greatest praise and the strongest censure. If the present writer joins with the latter faction, very likely a private pique of his own may be the cause of his ill-feeling.

* This passage in the Memoirs of Esmond is written on a leaf
inserted into the MS. book, and dated 1744, probably after
he had heard of the Duchess’s death.

On presenting himself at the Commander-in-Chief’s levee, his Grace had not the least remembrance of General Lumley’s aide-de-camp, and though he knew Esmond’s family perfectly well, having served with both lords (my Lord Francis and the Viscount Esmond’s father) in Flanders, and in the Duke of York’s Guard, the Duke of Marlborough, who was friendly and serviceable to the (so-styled) legitimate representatives of the Viscount Castlewood, took no sort of notice of the poor lieutenant who bore their name. A word of kindness or acknowledgment, or a single glance of approbation, might have changed Esmond’s opinion of the great man; and instead of a satire, which his pen cannot help writing, who knows but that the humble historian might have taken the other side of panegyric? We have but to change the point of view, and the greatest action looks mean; as we turn the perspective-glass, and a giant appears a pigmy. You may describe, but who can tell whether your sight is clear or not, or your means of information accurate? Had the great man said but a word of kindness to the small one (as he would have stepped out of his gilt chariot to shake hands with Lazarus in rags and sores, if he thought Lazarus could have been of any service to him), no doubt Esmond would have fought for him with pen and sword to the utmost of his might; but my lord the lion did not want master mouse at this moment, and so Muscipulus went off and nibbled in opposition.

So it was, however, that a young gentleman, who, in the eyes of his family, and in his own, doubtless, was looked upon as a consummate hero, found that the great hero of the day took no more notice of him than of the smallest drummer in his Grace’s army. The Dowager at Chelsey was furious against this neglect of her family, and had a great battle with Lady Marlborough (as Lady Castlewood insisted on calling the Duchess). Her Grace was now Mistress of the Robes to her Majesty, and one of the greatest personages in this kingdom, as her husband was in all Europe, and the battle between the two ladies took place in the Queen’s drawing-room.

The Duchess, in reply to my aunt’s eager clamor, said haughtily, that she had done her best for the legitimate branch of the Esmonds, and could not be expected to provide for the bastard brats of the family.

“Bastards!” says the Viscountess, in a fury. “There are bastards among the Churchills, as your Grace knows, and the Duke of Berwick is provided for well enough.”

“Madam,” says the Duchess, “you know whose fault it is that there are no such dukes in the Esmond family too, and how that little scheme of a certain lady miscarried.”

Esmond’s friend, Dick Steele, who was in waiting on the Prince, heard the controversy between the ladies at court. “And faith,” says Dick, “I think, Harry, thy kinswoman had the worst of it.”

He could not keep the story quiet; ‘twas all over the coffee-houses ere night; it was printed in a News Letter before a month was over, and “The reply of her Grace the Duchess of M-rlb-r-gh to a Popish Lady of the Court, once a favorite of the late K—- J-m-s,” was printed in half a dozen places, with a note stating that “this duchess, when the head of this lady’s family came by his death lately in a fatal duel, never rested until she got a pension for the orphan heir, and widow, from her Majesty’s bounty.” The squabble did not advance poor Esmond’s promotion much, and indeed made him so ashamed of himself that he dared not show his face at the Commander-in-Chief’s levees again.

During those eighteen months which had passed since Esmond saw his dear mistress, her good father, the old Dean, quitted this life, firm in his principles to the very last, and enjoining his family always to remember that the Queen’s brother, King James the Third, was their rightful sovereign. He made a very edifying end, as his daughter told Esmond, and not a little to her surprise, after his death (for he had lived always very poorly) my lady found that her father had left no less a sum than 3,000L. behind him, which he bequeathed to her.

With this little fortune Lady Castlewood was enabled, when her daughter’s turn at Court came, to come to London, where she took a small genteel house at Kensington, in the neighborhood of the Court, bringing her children with her, and here it was that Esmond found his friends.

As for the young lord, his university career had ended rather abruptly. Honest Tusher, his governor, had found my young gentleman quite ungovernable. My lord worried his life away with tricks; and broke out, as home-bred lads will, into a hundred youthful extravagances, so that Dr. Bentley, the new master of Trinity, thought fit to write to the Viscountess Castlewood, my lord’s mother, and beg her to remove the young nobleman from a college where he declined to learn, and where he only did harm by his riotous example. Indeed, I believe he nearly set fire to Nevil’s Court, that beautiful new quadrangle of our college, which Sir Christopher Wren had lately built. He knocked down a proctor’s man that wanted to arrest him in a midnight prank; he gave a dinner-party on the Prince of Wales’s birthday, which was within a fortnight of his own, and the twenty young gentlemen then present sallied out after their wine, having toasted King James’s health with open windows, and sung cavalier songs, and shouted “God save the King!” in the great court, so that the master came out of his lodge at midnight, and dissipated the riotous assembly.

This was my lord’s crowning freak, and the Rev. Thomas Tusher, domestic chaplain to the Right Honorable the Lord Viscount Castlewood, finding his prayers and sermons of no earthly avail to his lordship, gave up his duties of governor; went and married his brewer’s widow at Southampton, and took her and her money to his parsonage house at Castlewood.

My lady could not be angry with her son for drinking King James’s health, being herself a loyal Tory, as all the Castlewood family were, and acquiesced with a sigh, knowing, perhaps, that her refusal would be of no avail to the young lord’s desire for a military life. She would have liked him to be in Mr. Esmond’s regiment, hoping that Harry might act as a guardian and adviser to his wayward young kinsman; but my young lord would hear of nothing but the Guards, and a commission was got for him in the Duke of Ormond’s regiment; so Esmond found my lord, ensign and lieutenant, when he returned from Germany after the Blenheim campaign.

The effect produced by both Lady Castlewood’s children when they appeared in public was extraordinary, and the whole town speedily rang with their fame: such a beautiful couple, it was declared, never had been seen; the young maid of honor was toasted at every table and tavern, and as for my young lord, his good looks were even more admired than his sister’s. A hundred songs were written about the pair, and as the fashion of that day was, my young lord was praised in these Anacreontics as warmly as Bathyllus. You may be sure that he accepted very complacently the town’s opinion of him, and acquiesced with that frankness and charming good-humor he always showed in the idea that he was the prettiest fellow in all London.

The old Dowager at Chelsey, though she could never be got to acknowledge that Mistress Beatrix was any beauty at all, (in which opinion, as it may be imagined, a vast number of the ladies agreed with her), yet, on the very first sight of young Castlewood, she owned she fell in love with him: and Henry Esmond, on his return to Chelsey, found himself quite superseded in her favor by her younger kinsman. The feat of drinking the King’s health at Cambridge would have won her heart, she said, if nothing else did. “How had the dear young fellow got such beauty?” she asked. “Not from his father—certainly not from his mother. How had he come by such noble manners, and the perfect bel air? That countrified Walcote widow could never have taught him.” Esmond had his own opinion about the countrified Walcote widow, who had a quiet grace and serene kindness, that had always seemed to him the perfection of good breeding, though he did not try to argue this point with his aunt. But he could agree in most of the praises which the enraptured old dowager bestowed on my Lord Viscount, than whom he never beheld a more fascinating and charming gentleman. Castlewood had not wit so much as enjoyment. “The lad looks good things,” Mr. Steele used to say; “and his laugh lights up a conversation as much as ten repartees from Mr. Congreve. I would as soon sit over a bottle with him as with Mr. Addison; and rather listen to his talk than hear Nicolini. Was ever man so gracefully drunk as my Lord Castlewood? I would give anything to carry my wine” (though, indeed, Dick bore his very kindly, and plenty of it, too), “like this incomparable young man. When he is sober he is delightful; and when tipsy, perfectly irresistible.” And referring to his favorite, Shakspeare (who was quite out of fashion until Steele brought him back into the mode), Dick compared Lord Castlewood to Prince Hal, and was pleased to dub Esmond as ancient Pistol.

The Mistress of the Robes, the greatest lady in England after the Queen, or even before her Majesty, as the world said, though she never could be got to say a civil word to Beatrix, whom she had promoted to her place as maid of honor, took her brother into instant favor. When young Castlewood, in his new uniform, and looking like a prince out of a fairy tale, went to pay his duty to her Grace, she looked at him for a minute in silence, the young man blushing and in confusion before her, then fairly burst out a-crying, and kissed him before her daughters and company. “He was my boy’s friend,” she said, through her sobs. “My Blandford might have been like him.” And everybody saw, after this mark of the Duchess’s favor, that my young lord’s promotion was secure, and people crowded round the favorite’s favorite, who became vainer and gayer, and more good-humored than ever.

Meanwhile Madam Beatrix was making her conquests on her own side, and amongst them was one poor gentleman, who had been shot by her young eyes two years before, and had never been quite cured of that wound; he knew, to be sure, how hopeless any passion might be, directed in that quarter, and had taken that best, though ignoble, remedium amoris, a speedy retreat from before the charmer, and a long absence from her; and not being dangerously smitten in the first instance, Esmond pretty soon got the better of his complaint, and if he had it still, did not know he had it, and bore it easily. But when he returned after Blenheim, the young lady of sixteen, who had appeared the most beautiful object his eyes had ever looked on two years back, was now advanced to a perfect ripeness and perfection of beauty, such as instantly enthralled the poor devil, who had already been a fugitive from her charms. Then he had seen her but for two days, and fled; now he beheld her day after day, and when she was at Court watched after her; when she was at home, made one of the family party; when she went abroad, rode after her mother’s chariot; when she appeared in public places, was in the box near her, or in the pit looking at her; when she went to church was sure to be there, though he might not listen to the sermon, and be ready to hand her to her chair if she deigned to accept of his services, and select him from a score of young men who were always hanging round about her. When she went away, accompanying her Majesty to Hampton Court, a darkness fell over London. Gods, what nights has Esmond passed, thinking of her, rhyming about her, talking about her! His friend Dick Steele was at this time courting the young lady, Mrs. Scurlock, whom he married; she had a lodging in Kensington Square, hard by my Lady Castlewood’s house there. Dick and Harry, being on the same errand, used to meet constantly at Kensington. They were always prowling about that place, or dismally walking thence, or eagerly running thither. They emptied scores of bottles at the “King’s Arms,” each man prating of his love, and allowing the other to talk on condition that he might have his own turn as a listener. Hence arose an intimacy between them, though to all the rest of their friends they must have been insufferable. Esmond’s verses to “Gloriana at the Harpsichord,” to “Gloriana’s Nosegay,” to “Gloriana at Court,” appeared this year in the Observator.—Have you never read them? They were thought pretty poems, and attributed by some to Mr. Prior.

This passion did not escape—how should it?—the clear eyes of Esmond’s mistress: he told her all; what will a man not do when frantic with love? To what baseness will he not demean himself? What pangs will he not make others suffer, so that he may ease his selfish heart of a part of its own pain? Day after day he would seek his dear mistress, pour insane hopes, supplications, rhapsodies, raptures, into her ear. She listened, smiled, consoled, with untiring pity and sweetness. Esmond was the eldest of her children, so she was pleased to say; and as for her kindness, who ever had or would look for aught else from one who was an angel of goodness and pity? After what has been said, ‘tis needless almost to add that poor Esmond’s suit was unsuccessful. What was a nameless, penniless lieutenant to do, when some of the greatest in the land were in the field? Esmond never so much as thought of asking permission to hope so far above his reach as he knew this prize was and passed his foolish, useless life in mere abject sighs and impotent longing. What nights of rage, what days of torment, of passionate unfulfilled desire, of sickening jealousy can he recall! Beatrix thought no more of him than of the lackey that followed her chair. His complaints did not touch her in the least; his raptures rather fatigued her; she cared for his verses no more than for Dan Chaucer’s, who’s dead these ever so many hundred years; she did not hate him; she rather despised him, and just suffered him.

One day, after talking to Beatrix’s mother, his dear, fond, constant mistress—for hours—for all day long—pouring out his flame and his passion, his despair and rage, returning again and again to the theme, pacing the room, tearing up the flowers on the table, twisting and breaking into bits the wax out of the stand-dish, and performing a hundred mad freaks of passionate folly; seeing his mistress at last quite pale and tired out with sheer weariness of compassion, and watching over his fever for the hundredth time, Esmond seized up his hat, and took his leave. As he got into Kensington Square, a sense of remorse came over him for the wearisome pain he had been inflicting upon the dearest and kindest friend ever man had. He went back to the house, where the servant still stood at the open door, ran up the stairs, and found his mistress where he had left her in the embrasure of the window, looking over the fields towards Chelsey. She laughed, wiping away at the same time the tears which were in her kind eyes; he flung himself down on his knees, and buried his head in her lap. She had in her hand the stalk of one of the flowers, a pink, that he had torn to pieces. “Oh, pardon me, pardon me, my dearest and kindest,” he said; “I am in hell, and you are the angel that brings me a drop of water.”

“I am your mother, you are my son, and I love you always,” she said, holding her hands over him: and he went away comforted and humbled in mind, as he thought of that amazing and constant love and tenderness with which this sweet lady ever blessed and pursued him.

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