Henry Esmond's Boyhood


Preface from The Literary World Seventh Reader, edited by John Calvin Metcalf: Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray, is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of historical novels. It describes life in England during the first years of the eighteenth century, dealing chiefly with people of wealth and high position. Harry Esmond’s Boyhood narrates the early career of the hero, who was a poor orphan and an inmate of the family of his kinsman, the Viscount of Castlewood.

The History of Henry Esmond, John Hoppner, Unknown British Officer, 1800Harry Esmond had lived to be past fourteen years old; had never possessed but two friends, and had a fond and affectionate heart that would fain attach itself to somebody, and did not seem at rest until it had found a friend who would take charge of it.

At last he found such a friend in his new mistress, the lady of Castlewood. The instinct which led Harry Esmond to admire and love the gracious person, the fair apparition whose beauty and kindness had so moved him when he first beheld her, became soon a devoted affection and passion of gratitude, which entirely filled his young heart that as yet had had very little kindness for which to be thankful.

There seemed, as the boy thought, in every look or gesture of this fair creature, an angelical softness and bright pity—in motion or repose she seemed gracious alike; the tone of her voice, though she uttered words ever so trivial, gave him a pleasure that amounted almost to anguish. It cannot be called love, that a lad of fourteen years of age felt for an exalted lady, his mistress, but it was worship. To catch her glance; to divine her errand, and run on it before she had spoken it; to watch, follow, adore her, became the business of his life. Meanwhile, as is the way often, his idol had idols of her own, and never thought of or suspected the admiration of her little adorer.

My Lady had on her side three idols: first and foremost, Jove and supreme ruler, was her lord, Harry’s patron, the good Viscount of Castlewood. All wishes of his were laws with her. If he had a headache, she was ill. If he frowned, she trembled. If he joked, she smiled and was charmed. If he went a-hunting, she was always at the window to see him ride away. She made dishes for his dinner; spiced his wine for him; hushed the house when he slept in his chair, and watched for a look when he woke. Her eyes were never tired of looking at his face and wondering at its perfection. Her little son was his son, and had his father’s look and curly brown hair. Her daughter Beatrix was his daughter, and had his eyes—were there ever such beautiful eyes in the world? All the house was arranged so as to bring him ease and give him pleasure.

Harry Esmond was happy in this pleasant home. The happiest period of all his life was this; and the young mother, with her daughter and son, and the orphan lad whom she protected, read and worked and played, and were children together. If the lady looked forward—as what fond woman does not?—toward the future, she had no plans from which Harry Esmond was left out; and a thousand and a thousand times, in his passionate and impetuous way, he vowed that no power should separate him from his mistress; and only asked for some chance to happen by which he might show his fidelity to her.

The second fight which Harry Esmond had was at fourteen years of age, with Bryan Hawkshaw, Sir John Hawkshaw’s son, who, advancing the opinion that Lady Castlewood henpecked my Lord, put Harry in so great a fury that Harry fell on him and with such rage that the other boy, who was two years older and far bigger than he, had by far the worst of the assault. It was interrupted by Doctor Tusher, the clergyman, who was just walking out of the dinner-room.

Bryan Hawkshaw got up bleeding at the nose, having indeed been surprised, as many a stronger man might have been, by the fury of the attack on him.

“You little beggar,” he said, “I’ll murder you for this.”

And indeed he was big enough.

“Beggar or not,” said Harry, grinding his teeth, “I have a couple of swords, and if you like to meet me, as man to man, on the terrace to-night—”

And here, the doctor coming up, the colloquy of the young champions ended. Very likely, big as he was, Hawkshaw did not care to continue a fight with such a ferocious opponent as this had been.

One day, some time later, Doctor Tusher ran into Castlewood House, with a face of consternation, saying that smallpox had made its appearance at the blacksmith’s house in the village, which was also an alehouse, and that one of the maids there was down with it.

Now, there was a pretty girl at this inn, 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. Somehow it often happened that Harry Esmond fell in with Nance Sievewright’s bonny face. When Doctor Tusher brought the news that the smallpox was at the blacksmith’s, Harry 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 crying in a chair by the corner of the fire or in Nancy’s lap.

Little Beatrix screamed at the news; and my Lord cried out, “God bless me!” He was a brave man, and not afraid of death in any shape but this. “We will take the children and ride away to Walcote,” he said.

To love children and be gentle with them was an instinct rather than merit in Harry Esmond; so much so that he thought almost with a feeling of shame of his liking for them and of the softness into which it betrayed him. 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 was never tired of Harry’s tales and of 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, on Harry’s knee. For Beatrix, from the earliest time, was jealous of every caress which was given her little brother Frank. She would fling away even from the vmaternal 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 presence of the little girl, and embrace one or the other alone. Beatrix 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 would utter vinfantile sarcasms about the favor shown her brother.

So it chanced upon this very day, when poor Harry Esmond had had the blacksmith’s son and the vpeer’s son, alike upon his knee, little Beatrix, who would come to him willingly enough with her book and writing, had refused him, seeing the place occupied by her brother. Luckily for her, she had sat at the farther end of the room, away from him, playing with a spaniel dog which she had, and talking to 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 blacksmith’s was ill with the smallpox, 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, her little brother being now gone to bed, was for taking her place on Esmond’s knee. But as she advanced toward him, 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, “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 on my lap.”

“Where you took my son afterward,” 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 Harry Esmond. Come away, child; come to your room. And you, sir, had you not better go back to the alehouse?”

Her eyes, ordinarily so kind, darted flashes of anger as she spoke; and she tossed up her head (which hung down commonly) with the vmien of a princess.

“Heyday!” said my Lord, who was standing by the fireplace, “Rachel, what are you in a passion about? Though it does you good to get in a passion—you look very handsome!”

“It is, my Lord, because Mr. Harry Esmond, having nothing to do with his time here, and not having a taste for our company, has been to the blacksmith’s alehouse, where he has some friends.”

My Lord burst out with a laugh.

“Take Mistress Beatrix to bed,” my Lady cried at this moment to 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 face and waited even to burst out crying until she got upstairs.

For once, her mother took little heed of her. “My Lord,” she said, “this young man—your relative—told me just now in French—he was ashamed to speak in his own language—that he had been at the blacksmith’s all day, where he has had that little wretch who is now ill of the smallpox 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. 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, and vpollute the place no more!”

She had never before 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 before.

“If my coming nigh your boy pollutes him,” he said, “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.”

“He wants to go to the alehouse—let him go!” cried my Lady.

“I’ll be hanged if he shall,” said my Lord. “I didn’t think you could be so cruel, 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 put his broad hand on Harry’s shoulder.

In a little while my Lady came back, looking very pale, with a handkerchief in her hand. Instantly advancing to Harry Esmond, she took his hand. “I beg your pardon, Harry,” she said. “I spoke very unkindly.”

My Lord broke out: “There may be no harm done. Leave the boy alone.” She looked a little red, and 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 Harry to me. The evil is done, if any.”

“Not with me,” cried my Lord. “I’ve been smoking.” And he lighted his pipe again with a coal. “As the disease is in the village—plague take it!—I would have you leave it. We’ll go to-morrow to Walcote.”

“I have no fear,” said my Lady. “I may have had it as an infant.”

“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.”

My Lord, calling away Doctor Tusher, bade him come in the oak parlor and have a pipe.

When the lady and the boy were alone, there was a silence of some moments, during which he stood looking at the fire whilst her Ladyship busied herself with the vtambour frame and needles.

“I am sorry,” she said, after a pause, in a hard, dry voice—“I repeat I am sorry that I said what I said. It was not at all my wish that you should leave us, I am sure, unless you found pleasure elsewhere. But you must see 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 college, and I think ’tis quite as well that you should be sent thither. I did not press the matter, thinking you a child, as you are indeed in years—quite a child. But now 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. And—and I wish you a good night, Harry.”

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 forever 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, but could not get to sleep until daylight, and woke with a violent headache.

He had brought the contagion with him from the alehouse, sure enough, and was presently laid up with the smallpox, which spared the hall no more than it did the cottage.

When Harry Esmond had passed through the vcrisis of the vmalady and returned to health again, he found that little Frank Esmond had also suffered and rallied from the disease, and that his mother was down with it. Nor could young Esmond agree in Doctor Tusher’s vvehement protestations to my Lady, when he visited her during her vconvalescence, that the malady had not in the least impaired her charms; whereas, in spite of these fine speeches, Harry thought that her Ladyship’s beauty was very much injured by the smallpox. The delicacy of her rosy complexion was gone; her eyes had lost their brilliancy, her hair fell, and she looked older. When Tusher in his courtly way vowed and protested that my Lady’s face was none the worse, the lad broke out and said, “It is worse, and my mistress is not near so handsome as she was.” On this poor Lady Castlewood gave a vrueful smile and a look into a little mirror she had, which showed her, I suppose, that what the stupid boy said was only too true, for she turned away from the glass and her eyes filled with tears.

The sight of these always created a sort of rage of pity in Esmond’s heart, and seeing them on the face of the lady whom he loved best, the young blunderer sank down on his knees and besought her to pardon him, saying that he was a fool and an idiot. Doctor Tusher told him that he was a bear, and a bear he would remain, at which speech poor Harry was so dumb-stricken that he did not even growl.

“He is my bear, and I will not have him baited, doctor,” said my Lady, putting her hand kindly on the boy’s head, as he was still kneeling at her feet. “How your hair has come off! And mine, too!” she added with another sigh.

“It is not for myself that I care,” my Lady said to Harry, when the parson had taken his leave; “but am I very much changed! Alas! I fear ’tis too true.”

“Madam, you have the dearest, and kindest, and sweetest face in the world, I think,” the lad said; and indeed he thought so.

For Harry Esmond his benefactress’ sweet face had lost none of its charms. It had always the kindest of looks and smiles for him—and beauty of every sort. She would call him “Mr. Tutor,” and she herself, as well as the two children, went to school to him. Of the pupils the two young people were but lazy scholars, and my Lord’s son only learned what he liked, which was but little. Mistress Beatrix chattered French prettily, and sang sweetly, but this from her mother’s teaching, not Harry Esmond’s. But if the children were careless, ’twas a wonder how eagerly the mother learned from her young tutor—and taught him, too. She saw the vlatent beauties and hidden graces in books; and the happiest hours of young Esmond’s life were those passed in the company of this kind mistress and her children.

These happy days were to end soon, however; and it was by Lady Castlewood’s own decree that they were brought to a conclusion. It happened about Christmas-tide, Harry Esmond being now past sixteen years of age. A messenger came from Winchester one day, bearer of the news that my Lady’s aunt was dead and had left her fortune of £2,000 among her six nieces. Many a time afterward Harry Esmond recalled the flushed face and eager look wherewith, after this intelligence, his kind lady regarded him. When my Lord heard of the news, he did not make any long face. “The money will come very handy to furnish the music-room and the vcellar,” he said, “which is getting low, and buy your Ladyship a coach and a couple of horses. Beatrix, you shall have a vspinet; and Frank, you shall have a little horse from Hexton fair; and Harry, you shall have five pounds to buy some books.” So spoke my Lord, who was generous with his own, and indeed with other folks’ money. “I wish your aunt would die once a year, Rachel; we could spend your money, and all your sisters’, too.”

“I have but one aunt—and—and I have another use for the money,” said my Lady, turning red.

“Another use, my dear; and what do you know about money?” cried my Lord.

“I intend it for Harry Esmond to go to college. Cousin Harry,” said my Lady, “you mustn’t stay any longer in this dull place, but make a name for yourself.”

“Is Harry going away? You don’t mean to say you will go away?” cried out Beatrix and Frank at one breath.

“But he will come back, and this will always be his home,” replied my Lady, with blue eyes looking a celestial kindness; “and his scholars will always love him, won’t they?”

“Rachel, you’re a good woman,” said my Lord. “I wish you joy, my kinsman,” he continued, giving Harry Esmond a hearty slap on the shoulder, “I won’t balk your luck. Go to Cambridge, boy.”

When Harry Esmond went away for Cambridge, little Frank ran alongside his horse as far as the bridge, and there Harry stopped for a moment and looked back at the house where the best part of his life had been passed. And Harry remembered, all his life after, how he saw his mistress at the window looking out on him, the little Beatrix’s chestnut curls resting at her mother’s side. Both waved a farewell to him, and little Frank sobbed to leave him.

The village people had good-bye to say to him, too. All knew that Master Harry was going to college, and most of them had a kind word and a look of farewell. And with these things in mind, he rode out into the world.

Enjoy reading the entirety of Thackeray's historic novel, Henry Esmond.


facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest

Add Henry Esmond's Boyhood to your library.

Return to the William Makepeace Thackeray library , or . . . Read the next short story; John Leech's Pictures of Life and Character

© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com