The History of Henry Esmond

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIII - I Meet an Old Acquaintance in Flanders


Being one day in the Church of St. Gudule, at Brussels, admiring the antique splendor of the architecture (and always entertaining a great tenderness and reverence for the Mother Church, that hath been as wickedly persecuted in England as ever she herself persecuted in the days of her prosperity), Esmond saw kneeling at a side altar an officer in a green uniform coat, very deeply engaged in devotion. Something familiar in the figure and posture of the kneeling man struck Captain Esmond, even before he saw the officer’s face. As he rose up, putting away into his pocket a little black breviary, such as priests use, Esmond beheld a countenance so like that of his friend and tutor of early days, Father Holt, that he broke out into an exclamation of astonishment and advanced a step towards the gentleman, who was making his way out of church. The German officer too looked surprised when he saw Esmond, and his face from being pale grew suddenly red. By this mark of recognition, the Englishman knew that he could not be mistaken; and though the other did not stop, but on the contrary rather hastily walked away towards the door, Esmond pursued him and faced him once more, as the officer, helping himself to holy water, turned mechanically towards the altar, to bow to it ere he quitted the sacred edifice.

“My Father!” says Esmond in English.

“Silence! I do not understand. I do not speak English,” says the other in Latin.

Esmond smiled at this sign of confusion, and replied in the same language—“I should know my Father in any garment, black or white, shaven or bearded;” for the Austrian officer was habited quite in the military manner, and had as warlike a mustachio as any Pandour.

He laughed—we were on the church steps by this time, passing through the crowd of beggars that usually is there holding up little trinkets for sale and whining for alms. “You speak Latin,” says he, “in the English way, Harry Esmond; you have forsaken the old true Roman tongue you once knew.” His tone was very frank, and friendly quite; the kind voice of fifteen years back; he gave Esmond his hand as he spoke.

“Others have changed their coats too, my Father,” says Esmond, glancing at his friend’s military decoration.

“Hush! I am Mr. or Captain von Holtz, in the Bavarian Elector’s service, and on a mission to his Highness the Prince of Savoy. You can keep a secret I know from old times.”

“Captain von Holtz,” says Esmond, “I am your very humble servant.”

“And you, too, have changed your coat,” continues the other in his laughing way; “I have heard of you at Cambridge and afterwards: we have friends everywhere; and I am told that Mr. Esmond at Cambridge was as good a fencer as he was a bad theologian.” (So, thinks Esmond, my old maitre d’armes was a Jesuit, as they said.)

“Perhaps you are right,” says the other, reading his thoughts quite as he used to do in old days; “you were all but killed at Hochstedt of a wound in the left side. You were before that at Vigo, aide-de-camp to the Duke of Ormonde. You got your company the other day after Ramillies; your general and the Prince-Duke are not friends; he is of the Webbs of Lydiard Tregoze, in the county of York, a relation of my Lord St. John. Your cousin, M. de Castlewood, served his first campaign this year in the Guard; yes, I do know a few things, as you see.”

Captain Esmond laughed in his turn. “You have indeed a curious knowledge,” he says. A foible of Mr. Holt’s, who did know more about books and men than, perhaps, almost any person Esmond had ever met, was omniscience; thus in every point he here professed to know, he was nearly right, but not quite. Esmond’s wound was in the right side, not the left; his first general was General Lumley; Mr. Webb came out of Wiltshire, not out of Yorkshire; and so forth. Esmond did not think fit to correct his old master in these trifling blunders, but they served to give him a knowledge of the other’s character, and he smiled to think that this was his oracle of early days; only now no longer infallible or divine.

“Yes,” continues Father Holt, or Captain von Holtz, “for a man who has not been in England these eight years, I know what goes on in London very well. The old Dean is dead, my Lady Castlewood’s father. Do you know that your recusant bishops wanted to consecrate him Bishop of Southampton, and that Collier is Bishop of Thetford by the same imposition? The Princess Anne has the gout and eats too much; when the King returns, Collier will be an archbishop.”

“Amen!” says Esmond, laughing; “and I hope to see your Eminence no longer in jack-boots, but red stockings, at Whitehall.”

“You are always with us—I know that—I heard of that when you were at Cambridge; so was the late lord; so is the young viscount.”

“And so was my father before me,” said Mr. Esmond, looking calmly at the other, who did not, however, show the least sign of intelligence in his impenetrable gray eyes—how well Harry remembered them and their look! only crows’ feet were wrinkled round them—marks of black old Time had settled there.

Esmond’s face chose to show no more sign of meaning than the Father’s. There may have been on the one side and the other just the faintest glitter of recognition, as you see a bayonet shining out of an ambush; but each party fell back, when everything was again dark.

“And you, mon capitaine, where have you been?” says Esmond, turning away the conversation from this dangerous ground, where neither chose to engage.

“I may have been in Pekin,” says he, “or I may have been in Paraguay—who knows where? I am now Captain von Holtz, in the service of his Electoral Highness, come to negotiate exchange of prisoners with his Highness of Savoy.”

‘Twas well known that very many officers in our army were well-affected towards the young king at St. Germains, whose right to the throne was undeniable, and whose accession to it, at the death of his sister, by far the greater part of the English people would have preferred, to the having a petty German prince for a sovereign, about whose cruelty, rapacity, boorish manners, and odious foreign ways, a thousand stories were current. It wounded our English pride to think that a shabby High-Dutch duke, whose revenues were not a tithe as great as those of many of the princes of our ancient English nobility, who could not speak a word of our language, and whom we chose to represent as a sort of German boor, feeding on train-oil and sour-crout, with a bevy of mistresses in a barn, should come to reign over the proudest and most polished people in the world. Were we, the conquerors of the Grand Monarch, to submit to that ignoble domination? What did the Hanoverian’s Protestantism matter to us? Was it not notorious (we were told and led to believe so) that one of the daughters of this Protestant hero was being bred up with no religion at all, as yet, and ready to be made Lutheran or Roman, according as the husband might be whom her parents should find for her? This talk, very idle and abusive much of it was, went on at a hundred mess-tables in the army; there was scarce an ensign that did not hear it, or join in it, and everybody knew, or affected to know, that the Commander-in-Chief himself had relations with his nephew, the Duke of Berwick (‘twas by an Englishman, thank God, that we were beaten at Almanza), and that his Grace was most anxious to restore the royal race of his benefactors, and to repair his former treason.

This is certain, that for a considerable period no officer in the Duke’s army lost favor with the Commander-in-Chief for entertaining or proclaiming his loyalty towards the exiled family. When the Chevalier de St. George, as the King of England called himself, came with the dukes of the French blood royal, to join the French army under Vendosme, hundreds of ours saw him and cheered him, and we all said he was like his father in this, who, seeing the action of La Hogue fought between the French ships and ours, was on the side of his native country during the battle. But this, at least the Chevalier knew, and every one knew, that, however well our troops and their general might be inclined towards the prince personally, in the face of the enemy there was no question at all. Wherever my Lord Duke found a French army, he would fight and beat it, as he did at Oudenarde, two years after Ramillies, where his Grace achieved another of his transcendent victories; and the noble young prince, who charged gallantly along with the magnificent Maison-du-Roy, sent to compliment his conquerors after the action.

In this battle, where the young Electoral Prince of Hanover behaved himself very gallantly, fighting on our side, Esmond’s dear General Webb distinguished himself prodigiously, exhibiting consummate skill and coolness as a general, and fighting with the personal bravery of a common soldier. Esmond’s good-luck again attended him; he escaped without a hurt, although more than a third of his regiment was killed, had again the honor to be favorably mentioned in his commander’s report, and was advanced to the rank of major. But of this action there is little need to speak, as it hath been related in every Gazette, and talked of in every hamlet in this country. To return from it to the writer’s private affairs, which here, in his old age, and at a distance, he narrates for his children who come after him. Before Oudenarde, after that chance rencontre with Captain von Holtz at Brussels, a space of more than a year elapsed, during which the captain of Jesuits and the captain of Webb’s Fusileers were thrown very much together. Esmond had no difficulty in finding out (indeed, the other made no secret of it to him, being assured from old times of his pupil’s fidelity), that the negotiator of prisoners was an agent from St. Germains, and that he carried intelligence between great personages in our camp and that of the French. “My business,” said he—“and I tell you, both because I can trust you and your keen eyes have already discovered it—is between the King of England and his subjects here engaged in fighting the French king. As between you and them, all the Jesuits in the world will not prevent your quarrelling: fight it out, gentlemen. St. George for England, I say—and you know who says so, wherever he may be.”

I think Holt loved to make a parade of mystery, as it were, and would appear and disappear at our quarters as suddenly as he used to return and vanish in the old days at Castlewood. He had passes between both armies, and seemed to know (but with that inaccuracy which belonged to the good Father’s omniscience) equally well what passed in the French camp and in ours. One day he would give Esmond news of a great feste that took place in the French quarters, of a supper of Monsieur de Rohan’s, where there was play and violins, and then dancing and masques; the King drove thither in Marshal Villars’ own guinguette. Another day he had the news of his Majesty’s ague: the King had not had a fit these ten days, and might be said to be well. Captain Holtz made a visit to England during this time, so eager was he about negotiating prisoners; and ‘twas on returning from this voyage that he began to open himself more to Esmond, and to make him, as occasion served, at their various meetings, several of those confidences which are here set down all together.

The reason of his increased confidence was this: upon going to London, the old director of Esmond’s aunt, the dowager, paid her ladyship a visit at Chelsey, and there learnt from her that Captain Esmond was acquainted with the secret of his family, and was determined never to divulge it. The knowledge of this fact raised Esmond in his old tutor’s eyes, so Holt was pleased to say, and he admired Harry very much for his abnegation.

“The family at Castlewood have done far more for me than my own ever did,” Esmond said. “I would give my life for them. Why should I grudge the only benefit that ‘tis in my power to confer on them?” The good Father’s eyes filled with tears at this speech, which to the other seemed very simple: he embraced Esmond, and broke out into many admiring expressions; he said he was a noble coeur, that he was proud of him, and fond of him as his pupil and friend—regretted more than ever that he had lost him, and been forced to leave him in those early times, when he might have had an influence over him, have brought him into that only true church to which the Father belonged, and enlisted him in the noblest army in which a man ever engaged—meaning his own society of Jesus, which numbers (says he) in its troops the greatest heroes the world ever knew;—warriors brave enough to dare or endure anything, to encounter any odds, to die any death—soldiers that have won triumphs a thousand times more brilliant than those of the greatest general; that have brought nations on their knees to their sacred banner, the Cross; that have achieved glories and palms incomparably brighter than those awarded to the most splendid earthly conquerors—crowns of immortal light, and seats in the high places of heaven.

Esmond was thankful for his old friend’s good opinion, however little he might share the Jesuit-father’s enthusiasm. “I have thought of that question, too,” says he, “dear Father,” and he took the other’s hand—“thought it out for myself, as all men must, and contrive to do the right, and trust to heaven as devoutly in my way as you in yours. Another six months of you as a child, and I had desired no better. I used to weep upon my pillow at Castlewood as I thought of you, and I might have been a brother of your order; and who knows,” Esmond added, with a smile, “a priest in full orders, and with a pair of mustachios, and a Bavarian uniform?”

“My son,” says Father Holt, turning red, “in the cause of religion and loyalty all disguises are fair.”

“Yes,” broke in Esmond, “all disguises are fair, you say; and all uniforms, say I, black or red,—a black cockade or a white one—or a laced hat, or a sombrero, with a tonsure under it. I cannot believe that St. Francis Xavier sailed over the sea in a cloak, or raised the dead—I tried, and very nearly did once, but cannot. Suffer me to do the right, and to hope for the best in my own way.”

Esmond wished to cut short the good Father’s theology, and succeeded; and the other, sighing over his pupil’s invincible ignorance, did not withdraw his affection from him, but gave him his utmost confidence—as much, that is to say, as a priest can give: more than most do; for he was naturally garrulous, and too eager to speak.

Holt’s friendship encouraged Captain Esmond to ask, what he long wished to know, and none could tell him, some history of the poor mother whom he had often imagined in his dreams, and whom he never knew. He described to Holt those circumstances which are already put down in the first part of this story—the promise he had made to his dear lord, and that dying friend’s confession; and he besought Mr. Holt to tell him what he knew regarding the poor woman from whom he had been taken.

“She was of this very town,” Holt said, and took Esmond to see the street where her father lived, and where, as he believed, she was born. “In 1676, when your father came hither in the retinue of the late king, then Duke of York, and banished hither in disgrace, Captain Thomas Esmond became acquainted with your mother, pursued her, and made a victim of her; he hath told me in many subsequent conversations, which I felt bound to keep private then, that she was a woman of great virtue and tenderness, and in all respects a most fond, faithful creature. He called himself Captain Thomas, having good reason to be ashamed of his conduct towards her, and hath spoken to me many times with sincere remorse for that, as with fond love for her many amiable qualities, he owned to having treated her very ill: and that at this time his life was one of profligacy, gambling, and poverty. She became with child of you; was cursed by her own parents at that discovery; though she never upbraided, except by her involuntary tears, and the misery depicted on her countenance, the author of her wretchedness and ruin.

“Thomas Esmond—Captain Thomas, as he was called—became engaged in a gaming-house brawl, of which the consequence was a duel, and a wound so severe that he never—his surgeon said—could outlive it. Thinking his death certain, and touched with remorse, he sent for a priest of the very Church of St. Gudule where I met you; and on the same day, after his making submission to our Church, was married to your mother a few weeks before you were born. My Lord Viscount Castlewood, Marquis of Esmond, by King James’s patent, which I myself took to your father, your lordship was christened at St. Gudule by the same cure who married your parents, and by the name of Henry Thomas, son of E. Thomas, officier Anglois, and Gertrude Maes. You see you belong to us from your birth, and why I did not christen you when you became my dear little pupil at Castlewood.

“Your father’s wound took a favorable turn—perhaps his conscience was eased by the right he had done—and to the surprise of the doctors he recovered. But as his health came back, his wicked nature, too, returned. He was tired of the poor girl, whom he had ruined; and receiving some remittance from his uncle, my lord the old viscount, then in England, he pretended business, promised return, and never saw your poor mother more.

“He owned to me, in confession first, but afterwards in talk before your aunt, his wife, else I never could have disclosed what I now tell you, that on coming to London he writ a pretended confession to poor Gertrude Maes—Gertrude Esmond—of his having been married in England previously, before uniting himself with her; said that his name was not Thomas; that he was about to quit Europe for the Virginian plantations, where, indeed, your family had a grant of land from King Charles the First; sent her a supply of money, the half of the last hundred guineas he had, entreated her pardon, and bade her farewell.

“Poor Gertrude never thought that the news in this letter might be untrue as the rest of your father’s conduct to her. But though a young man of her own degree, who knew her history, and whom she liked before she saw the English gentleman who was the cause of all her misery, offered to marry her, and to adopt you as his own child, and give you his name, she refused him. This refusal only angered her father, who had taken her home; she never held up her head there, being the subject of constant unkindness after her fall; and some devout ladies of her acquaintance offering to pay a little pension for her, she went into a convent, and you were put out to nurse.

“A sister of the young fellow who would have adopted you as his son was the person who took charge of you. Your mother and this person were cousins. She had just lost a child of her own, which you replaced, your own mother being too sick and feeble to feed you; and presently your nurse grew so fond of you, that she even grudged letting you visit the convent where your mother was, and where the nuns petted the little infant, as they pitied and loved its unhappy parent. Her vocation became stronger every day, and at the end of two years she was received as a sister of the house.

“Your nurse’s family were silk-weavers out of France, whither they returned to Arras in French Flanders, shortly before your mother took her vows, carrying you with them, then a child of three years old. ‘Twas a town, before the late vigorous measures of the French king, full of Protestants, and here your nurse’s father, old Pastoureau, he with whom you afterwards lived at Ealing, adopted the reformed doctrines, perverting all his house with him. They were expelled thence by the edict of his most Christian Majesty, and came to London, and set up their looms in Spittlefields. The old man brought a little money with him, and carried on his trade, but in a poor way. He was a widower; by this time his daughter, a widow too, kept house for him, and his son and he labored together at their vocation. Meanwhile your father had publicly owned his conversion just before King Charles’s death (in whom our Church had much such another convert), was reconciled to my Lord Viscount Castlewood, and married, as you know, to his daughter.

“It chanced that the younger Pastoureau, going with a piece of brocade to the mercer who employed him, on Ludgate Hill, met his old rival coming out of an ordinary there. Pastoureau knew your father at once, seized him by the collar, and upbraided him as a villain, who had seduced his mistress, and afterwards deserted her and her son. Mr. Thomas Esmond also recognized Pastoureau at once, besought him to calm his indignation, and not to bring a crowd round about them; and bade him to enter into the tavern, out of which he had just stepped, when he would give him any explanation. Pastoureau entered, and heard the landlord order the drawer to show Captain Thomas to a room; it was by his Christian name that your father was familiarly called at his tavern haunts, which, to say the truth, were none of the most reputable.

“I must tell you that Captain Thomas, or my Lord Viscount afterwards, was never at a loss for a story, and could cajole a woman or a dun with a volubility, and an air of simplicity at the same time, of which many a creditor of his has been the dupe. His tales used to gather verisimilitude as he went on with them. He strung together fact after fact with a wonderful rapidity and coherence. It required, saving your presence, a very long habit of acquaintance with your father to know when his lordship was l——,—telling the truth or no.

“He told me with rueful remorse when he was ill—for the fear of death set him instantly repenting, and with shrieks of laughter when he was well, his lordship having a very great sense of humor—how in a half an hour’s time, and before a bottle was drunk, he had completely succeeded in biting poor Pastoureau. The seduction he owned to: that he could not help: he was quite ready with tears at a moment’s warning, and shed them profusely to melt his credulous listener. He wept for your mother even more than Pastoureau did, who cried very heartily, poor fellow, as my lord informed me; he swore upon his honor that he had twice sent money to Brussels, and mentioned the name of the merchant with whom it was lying for poor Gertrude’s use. He did not even know whether she had a child or no, or whether she was alive or dead; but got these facts easily out of honest Pastoureau’s answers to him. When he heard that she was in a convent, he said he hoped to end his days in one himself, should he survive his wife, whom he hated, and had been forced by a cruel father to marry; and when he was told that Gertrude’s son was alive, and actually in London, ‘I started,’ says he; ‘for then, damme, my wife was expecting to lie in, and I thought should this old Put, my father-in-law, run rusty, here would be a good chance to frighten him.’

“He expressed the deepest gratitude to the Pastoureau family for the care of the infant: you were now near six years old; and on Pastoureau bluntly telling him, when he proposed to go that instant and see the darling child, that they never wished to see his ill-omened face again within their doors; that he might have the boy, though they should all be very sorry to lose him; and that they would take his money, they being poor, if he gave it; or bring him up, by God’s help, as they had hitherto done, without: he acquiesced in this at once, with a sigh, said, ‘Well, ‘twas better that the dear child should remain with friends who had been so admirably kind to him;’ and in his talk to me afterwards, honestly praised and admired the weaver’s conduct and spirit; owned that the Frenchman was a right fellow, and he, the Lord have mercy upon him, a sad villain.

“Your father,” Mr. Holt went on to say, “was good-natured with his money when he had it; and having that day received a supply from his uncle, gave the weaver ten pieces with perfect freedom, and promised him further remittances. He took down eagerly Pastoureau’s name and place of abode in his table-book, and when the other asked him for his own, gave, with the utmost readiness, his name as Captain Thomas, New Lodge, Penzance, Cornwall; he said he was in London for a few days only on business connected with his wife’s property; described her as a shrew, though a woman of kind disposition; and depicted his father as a Cornish squire, in an infirm state of health, at whose death he hoped for something handsome, when he promised richly to reward the admirable protector of his child, and to provide for the boy. ‘And by Gad, sir,’ he said to me in his strange laughing way, ‘I ordered a piece of brocade of the very same pattern as that which the fellow was carrying, and presented it to my wife for a morning wrapper, to receive company after she lay in of our little boy.’

“Your little pension was paid regularly enough; and when your father became Viscount Castlewood on his uncle’s demise, I was employed to keep a watch over you, and ‘twas at my instance that you were brought home. Your foster-mother was dead; her father made acquaintance with a woman whom he married, who quarrelled with his son. The faithful creature came back to Brussels to be near the woman he loved, and died, too, a few months before her. Will you see her cross in the convent cemetery? The Superior is an old penitent of mine, and remembers Soeur Marie Madeleine fondly still.”

Esmond came to this spot in one sunny evening of spring, and saw, amidst a thousand black crosses, casting their shadows across the grassy mounds, that particular one which marked his mother’s resting-place. Many more of those poor creatures that lay there had adopted that same name, with which sorrow had rebaptized her, and which fondly seemed to hint their individual story of love and grief. He fancied her in tears and darkness, kneeling at the foot of her cross, under which her cares were buried. Surely he knelt down, and said his own prayer there, not in sorrow so much as in awe (for even his memory had no recollection of her), and in pity for the pangs which the gentle soul in life had been made to suffer. To this cross she brought them; for this heavenly bridegroom she exchanged the husband who had wooed her, the traitor who had left her. A thousand such hillocks lay round about, the gentle daisies springing out of the grass over them, and each bearing its cross and requiescat. A nun, veiled in black, was kneeling hard by, at a sleeping sister’s bedside (so fresh made, that the spring had scarce had time to spin a coverlid for it); beyond the cemetery walls you had glimpses of life and the world, and the spires and gables of the city. A bird came down from a roof opposite, and lit first on a cross, and then on the grass below it, whence it flew away presently with a leaf in its mouth: then came a sound as of chanting, from the chapel of the sisters hard by; others had long since filled the place which poor Mary Magdeleine once had there, were kneeling at the same stall, and hearing the same hymns and prayers in which her stricken heart had found consolation. Might she sleep in peace—might she sleep in peace; and we, too, when our struggles and pains are over! But the earth is the Lord’s as the heaven is; we are alike his creatures here and yonder. I took a little flower off the hillock and kissed it, and went my way, like the bird that had just lighted on the cross by me, back into the world again. Silent receptacle of death; tranquil depth of calm, out of reach of tempest and trouble! I felt as one who had been walking below the sea, and treading amidst the bones of shipwrecks.

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