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Memoirs of a Coxcomb
John Cleland (1751) Country of origin: UK
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So delicate is the pleasure, so superior to defending is the dignity of confessing one's follies, that the wonder is to see so few capable of it. Yet, what does such a confession cost, but the sacrifice of a paltry, miserable, false self-love, which is for ever misleading and betraying us? And of all its illusions there is not perhaps a more dangerous or a more silly one, than that which hinders us from discerning that there is scarce a less merit in acknowledging candidly one's faults, than in not having been guilty of them. For my own part, I speak experimentally. I never felt so pleasing, so sensible a consolation for the misfortune of having been a coxcomb, and an eminent one, too, as this proof of the sincerity of my conversion, in the courage of coming to a fair and open confession of the follies I drove into, in the course of that character. And though nothing is truer than that the desire of pleasing the ladies first engaged me to take it up, and seek with uncommon pain to shine in it, it is but justice to subjoin that, if I owed to that amiable and unaccountable sex my having been a coxcomb, I owe to a select one of it, too, the being one no longer. But let the following history of my errors and return to reason, which I now go into without further preamble, substitute facts to reflections. These ever follow with a better grace than they lead.
My father and mother died long before I knew all that I lost, in losing them. I was their only child, and under that title heir to two of the best estates in two of our richest counties in England, besides a sum that did not want many thousand pounds of making what is called, in the language of Change-Alley, a plumb: and which was secured to me much more effectually, as it happened, than a good education. For to say that I had not a bad one was barely all that I dare venture, and keep any measures with truth. Being left as I was, under" the care and tuition of an old, rich aunt, who was a widow, and past the possibility of having any children herself; her declared and real intention to leave me all her fortune, which was very considerable, though most certainly I could not want it, engaged my guardians to acquiesce in my education being trusted without the least interposition or control, on their part, to her management and direction. There was the less reason, too, for this choice, for that a woman who had from her infancy constantly lived, in the country, and of course had been but little acquainted with the world, could not be the fittest person in it, to superintend the bringing up of a young gentleman of my pretensions to make a figure in it, both from my birth and my fortune. But such is the power of interest. My aunt insisted, and the expectation of that distant, superfluous addition to my fortune formed in the eyes of my guardians a sufficient excuse for giving way to my aunt's fondness.
I lived with her then till the age of eighteen at her own seat in Warwickshire, where she had spared to the best of her knowledge no pains or expense to have me taught all the accomplishments, indispensably necessary to one of my rank and condition. But she would have most certainly disappointed her own good intentions by her extreme fondness and over-tenderness of me, if my tutor Mr. Selden, whose name I shall ever mention with the greatest gratitude, had not found out my weak side, and with that the secret of engaging me to make what progress he pleased, by properly piquing my pride. All correction or severity were forbidden him: and I do not know whether, after all, he did not succeed as well, by the emulation and value for myself, he inspired me with, as he would have done by those harsh and, indeed, disingenuous methods, too often used to youth, and which breed in it such a fund of aversion to learning, that they do not afterwards easily get rid of its impressions.
This flattering of my pride had, however, one bad effect, in that it laid too much the foundation of that insolence and presumption, which I carried into life with me, and made me, by thinking more highly of myself than I deserved, lose a great deal even of that little merit, I might otherwise, and perhaps not unjustly, have pretended to.
However, very unluckily, just as the heat and impetuosity of my age, barely turned of seventeen, most required the guidance and direction of a governor, mine was taken from me by the circumstance of a very advantageous preferment, which required his attendance on the spot, and which my aunt had procured him, in recompense for the care he had taken of my education, and which she, more partially than wisely, considered as wanting nothing of being complete.
Mr. Selden then left me, and, I confess, I saw him set out with a regret, soon dissipated by the pleasure of thinking that I should have a greater swing of liberty, for though not much, he was still some check on me, and that it would the sooner bring on my going to London, which I languished for, and had indeed no hopes of; till on his departure, my aunt, whom nothing could have dragged out of her country-retirement but a resolution not to part with me, declared she would go there in the winter season, purely upon my account: and now the spring was little more than set in.
As soon then as my tutor was fairly gone, my first fling out was into the pleasures of the chase. My aunt who had, through him, been mistress enough of my conduct, to keep that passion within some bounds, for fear of the dangers which attend it, was no longer able to control me, in that, or indeed anything else. I knew her weakness, and turned a little tyrant upon it. A few weeks, however, of an unbounded pursuit of hunting put an end to the violence of my passion for it. My blood, now boiling in my veins, began to make me feel the ferment of desire for objects far more interesting than horses and dogs. And a robust, healthy constitution, manifest in the glow of a fresh complexion, and vigorous well-proportioned limbs, gave me those warnings of my ripening manhood, and its favourite destination, by which nature prevents all instruction, and suggests the use of those things that most engage our attention, without putting us to the blush of asking silly questions. I had not indeed waited till then for the dawn of certain desires, and wishes: but besides their being only imperfect ones and crudities of over tender youth, my hours and opportunities had been all so confined either to my studies, exercises, boyish amusements, or my aunt's fondness for my being as little out of her sight as possible, that I had not the least room to encourage such ideas, or give them hope enough to live upon. Accordingly, they generally died away of themselves, like a faint breeze that had just blown enough to ruffle the surface of my imagination for a few instants, and flattened into a calm again. But now, those transient desires, inspired by this rising passion, began to take a more settled hold of my imagination, and to grow into such tender pantings, such an eagerness of wishes, as quite overcame and engrossed me entirely.
Woman it was, that I may say, I instinctively knew, was wanting to my happiness. But I had as yet no determined object in that sex, but yearned and looked out for one everywhere. This was not, however, a point very easy, especially for me, in the house and way I lived in; where strictness of decency, and above all my aunt's constant assiduities, planted such a guard upon me, that few virgins could have found it a harder matter, to get rid of their burthen, than I had to do of mine, which was indeed become an intolerable one.
Yet this passion had a contrary effect on me to all others. For, in place of that impatience of check or control, that wilfulness, with which I rather commanded, than obtained, a compliance with them, I was really mastered by this. A kind of native modesty made me shy and reserved of letting any one know the cause of my inward disorder. From fierce and insolent, I was now, I may say, transnatured to somewhat a more civilized savage. Gentleness and softness are almost ever the character of that passion in its infancy, perhaps from its feeling that it must depend on the will of another for its gratification. I was now then in prey to that tender melancholy which is generally a state of meditation on the means of accomplishing our desires, and which makes us find a solitude everywhere, and an empty void in every thing, that has not a relation to the cure of this disorder, for which, however, there is no great fear, in these times, of dying for want of physicians. Yet, strong as this youthful passion ever is, it was fated for some time at least to give way to a stronger and a nobler one, even love itself.
About a mile from our seat, on the skirts of a wood, stood a lonely house, thatched, and scarce too large for a cottage, but more defended from any danger of thieves, by its appearances of poverty, than by a few palisades, which formed a kind of fore-yard to it, for the convenience of a small stock of poultry.
Here I had often called, as it lay in the track of my diversion of shooting. The tenant of it, an old woman, who farmed it of my aunt, had by her care and officiousness to offer me any refreshment her house afforded, when I used to stop there, dry or fatigued with my sporting, so much won upon me, that I easily prevailed upon my aunt to let her have her house and spot of gardening rent-free.
She had nobody to live with her but a young lad, a grandchild of hers about eleven years old, whose sprightly answers, and affectionate readiness to go with, shew me the game, and carry my gun, took with me so much, that I begged him of his grandmother, with an intention to do better for him than what there was any appearance of from her.
The poor old woman let me have him away with no other reluctance than what her natural fondness, and being left entirely alone gave her. As for his part, he was in rapture at the proposal, and a fine livery which I ordered him, joined to the appointment of him to wait entirely upon me, soon drove all mother-sickness out of his head.
Taking him then out, as usual, to carry my gun, I often called at the old woman's: and but a few days after this being regularly fixed in my service, being more than ordinarily fatigued, I stopped there, purely to drink some cyder, of which I had ordered a provision for that purpose from our house. But my surprise will not be easily imagined, when slipping familiarly into a little room, always appropriated to my reception, and which was indeed the room of state, though before no better set out than with an old crazy table, a few sorry prints, a funeral escutcheon and the widowed frame of a departed glass, I found it now very neatly furnished, and two women, whom I had never yet seen, with a tea-equipage before them. A tea-equipage too! no, never had there before been such a circumstance of luxury heard of, much less seen, under that thatch.
As I entered the room, somewhat abruptly too, the old woman who was waiting on them, not having had notice enough of my coming, to stop me, the two strangers got up, and making me a curtsey, seemed a little confused and disconcerted by my intrusion, though they had even been prepared for it, by the old woman's telling them that the young baronet often called at her house.
I was, however, out of all figure to inspire much respect. A sportsman's frock, and the rest of my dress in that style: my face reasonably covered with dust, mixed with the perspiration of pores opened by heat and fatigue, all together composed me an air of rusticity, which the beginning of the most quick-sighted of all passions, made me on the instant sensible of. The first character of love is a diffidence of pleasing.
My eye hardly glanced over the elder of the two strangers, who was, however, a very agreeable figure. She might be about forty, dressed plainly but with an air of decency and deportment, far above the rank of life such a lodging supposed her.
But then the youngest! With what a command of beauty did she not attract my eyes, and engross my attention? Fifteen was her utmost; but to the charms of fifteen, nature had joined her whole sum of treasures. The shape of a nymph, an air of the Graces, features such as Venus, but Venus in her state of innocence, when new-born of the sea: a complexion in which the tints of red and white, delicately blended, formed that more than roseate colour, which is at once the painter's admiration and despair. Then there was such an over-all of sweetness and gentle simplicity, diffused through her every look and gesture, as might disarm the most determined votary to vice, and turn him protector of her virtue. I say nothing of her dress; her personal charms hardly gave me leave to observe it; and indeed what blaze of jewels could have tempted away my gaze from that of her eyes?
At my age then, and with my desires, when every woman began to appear a goddess to me, in virtue of the power I attributed to that sex, of bestowing on me the mighty, unknown happiness I languished by conjecture, no wonder that a form, to which exaggeration could not lend a perfection that she had not, should make so strong an impression, where I was already so predisposed to receive it.
I stood then, like a true country-Corydon, a few minutes, motionless with surprise, in a stupid gaze of admiration. At length, I articulated, in awkward breaks, and with bows that certainly did no great honour to my dancing-master, my apology for the rudeness of breaking in upon them, offering immediately to quit the room, and trembling for fear they should take me at my word.
The eldest, whose name I afterwards learned, Mrs. Bernard, observed to me, with great politeness that I seemed very much fatigued, and that she should take it for an honour if I would accept of a dish of tea. The youngest still stood with looks modestly declined, and unconcerned, as if not warranted to join in the invitation.
I sat down then: and the conversation presently from generals grew to particulars, in favour of the curiosity I could not escape expressing, at the oddity of seeing persons of their fashion and figure in such a mean habitation.
Mrs. Bernard, who doubtless chose I should learn whatever she wished me to think concerning them rather from herself than from the old woman, acquainted me, that having been charged with the education of that young lady who was with her from an infant, certain family disagreements (which she very falsely took for granted were insignificant to me), had reduced them to seek the shelter of the greatest privacy, till the storm should be overblown. That she was not unacquainted with the danger of a retreat so far removed from the defence of neighbourhood, but that the reasons of it were above even that consideration. She added, too, but with a very sensible shyness, that she hoped the accident of my seeing them there, would neither interfere with the continuation of their obscurity, nor the plan of retirement, which she begged at once my discretion and protection in.
Whilst she was giving me this account, I sat mute, and absorbed in feelings utterly new to me. What wretch is there so unhappy, so disinherited by nature, as not to have been sometime of his life in love! Those indeed alone, who have paid the tribute of humanity to this passion, can conceive to what a point I was struck by all I now heard. I was, however, only affected relatively to this new object of another set of sensations, than those merely instinctive ones, which nature furnishes in the rough, and which love alone can give a polish and lustre to.
The answers I made to Mrs. Bernard, however unfit to give any great idea of my breeding or understanding, were perhaps the more pathetic for the vivacity and confusion which reigned in them, and which are so sensibly the eloquence of the heart. What I felt then rather disordered than weakened my expressions. My tongue, too, directed my discourse to Mrs. Bernard; but my eyes addressed it to Miss, who did not so much as look up at me, whatever pains I took to catch her if but glancing towards me.
I stayed then as long as was consistent with the advance of the evening, and the measures of respect, which the little I knew of the world, and the fear of displeasing, suggested to me the propriety of. But in all that time, Lydia, or Miss Liddy, which was the name of the youngest, had scarce opened her mouth, and that only in monosyllables; but with such a grace of modesty, such a sweetness of sound, as made every string of my heart vibrate again with the most delicious impression. I could not easily decide within myself which I wished for most ardently, to be all eye, to see her beauty, or all ear, to hear the music of her voice.
Forced then to take my leave, I did myself that violence, but not before I had obtained the permission Mrs. Bernard could not very politely refuse me, and which I protested I should not abuse, to visit them during their stay in that part. But as I had observed that there was not a soul in the house except the poor, old woman, I could, without any affectation or obtrusion, order the boy, her grandchild, to stay behind, to be at hand for any service they might want; in which, too, I had a second view, of knowing from him all that should pass in my absence: an employ he was admirably fitted for by nature, who had bestowed upon him one of those simple, harmless, unmeaning faces which are invaluable, when joined to wit enough to make the most of the little guard one is on against them.
I was scarce got half way down the little sort of lane, which led to the cottage, before the wishful regret of what I left behind me, made me stop and look back. Then, then I perceived all the magic of love. I saw now everything with other eyes. That little rustic mansion had assumed a palace-air. Turrets, colonnades, jet-d'eau, gates, gardens, temples: no magnificence, no delicacy of architecture was wanting to my imagination, in virtue of its fairy-power of transforming real objects into whatever most flatters or exalts that passion. I should now have looked on every earthly paradise with indifference or contempt, that was not dignified and embellished with the presence of this new sovereign of all the world to me.
Nor was the transformation I experienced within myself one jot less miraculous. All the desires I had hitherto felt the pungency of, were perfectly constitutional: the suggestions of nature beginning to feel itself. But the desire I was now given up to, had something so distinct, so chaste, and so correct, that its impressions carried too much of virtue in it, for my reason to refuse it possession of me. All my native fierceness was now utterly melted away into diffidence and gentleness. A voluptuous languor stole its softness into me. And for the first time in my life I found I had a heart, and that heart susceptible of a tenderness, which endeared and ennobled me to myself, and made me place my "whole happiness in the hopes of inspiring a return of it to the sweet authoress of this revolution.
I naturally hate reflections. They are generally placed as fescues to a reader, to point out to him, what it would be more respectful to suppose would not escape him. Besides, they often disagreeably interrupt him, in his impatience of coming to the conclusion, which facts alone lead to. Yet, I cannot here refrain from observing, that, not without reason, are the romance and novel writers in general despised by persons of sense and taste, for their unnatural and unaffecting descriptions of the love-passion. In vain do they endeavour to warm the head, with what never came from the heart. Those who have really been in love, who have themselves experienced the emotions and symptoms of that passion, indignantly remark that, so far from exaggerating its power and effects, those triflers do not even do it justice. A forced cookery of imaginary beauties, a series of mighty marvellous facts, which, spreading an air of fiction through the whole, all in course weaken that interest and regard never paid but to truth, or the appearances of truth; and are only fit to give a false and adulterated taste of passion, in which a simple sentiment is superior to all their forced productions of artificial flowers. Their works in short give one the idea of a frigid, withered eunuch, representing an Alexander making love to Statira.
Let me not lengthen this digression by asking pardon for it. It may be more agreeable to promise as few more of them as possible. I resume then the thread of my narrative.
Returned to my aunt's: it was easy for me to give what colour I pleased to the having left the boy at his grandmother's; but it was not so easy, for one of my age and inexperience, to conceal the change of my temper and manners, which betrayed itself in every look and gesture. My aunt was surprised at the gentleness and softness which now breathed in all I said or did. Unacquainted with what had happened, she could not account for a novelty that so much delighted her. At supper, too, I forced a gaiety, very inconsistent with the state of my heart, which was not without those fears and alarms inseparable from the beginnings of so violent a passion; but I made the pains of it, as much as I could, give way, at least in appearance, to the pleasure of my recent adventure.
The day had hardly broken before I was up, and disposing everything for the renewal of my visits. And as I well knew it would be impossible for me to pay them so often as I fully proposed to myself, without the motives being presently known and published, I resolved, so far at least wisely, to disappoint the discovery, by determinately braving it. I ordered then, without any air of mystery or reserve, my servants to carry to the old woman's everything I could think of, such as tea, chocolate, coffee, fruits, and whatever might not probably be come at in such a country-habitation, in that delicacy and perfection, as we abounded in at this seat of my aunt's. The worst of which conduct was, and here is the place to set it down, that my aunt was soon informed that I had a little mistress there, that I kept to divert myself with. And though the falsity of it shocked the delicacy of my sentiments, I preferred it, however, as a less dangerous disturbance, than if my aunt had been alarmed so as to view my resort there in a more serious light. She once, however, ventured to touch upon it to me, in a taste of remonstrance, but I gave it such a reception, and she was so thoroughly subdued by the superiority I had managed myself with her, that she was not tempted to renew in haste the attack. Perhaps, too, she comforted herself with thinking it was the less of two evils, that I should carry the war abroad, rather than make it at home amongst her maids; one of whom, by the bye, in spite of all the caution used to prevent it, I was on the point of consummating an impure treaty with, when chance threw this new passion in my way, which erased every thought of any but the object of it out of my head and heart.
At ten in the morning then, the hour I guessed might be my charmer's breakfast time, I set out in my chariot, dressed in the richest suit I was master of, with my hair trimmed and curled in all the perfection it was capable of; in all which my intense wish to please had even a greater share than my vanity. Thus equipped for conquest, I landed at the bottom of the lane, and walked up to the house, where I was immediately admitted to the ladies, who were just set down to their tea.
The eldest had not in the least changed her clothes; but Lydia was, if possible, yet more modestly and undersigned dressed than the day before. A white frock and a glimpse of a cap, lost in the hair that curled everywhere over it, and eclipsed it, whilst a plain cambric handkerchief covered a bosom easily imagined to be of the whiteness of snow, from what it did not hide of her neck, and which in the gentlest rise and fall seemed to repeat to me the palpitations of my heart Such was her morning dishabille, in which simplicity and neatness clearly triumphed over all the powers of dress and parade.
After the first compliments were over, Mrs. Bernard thanked me for my regard, the excess of which she obligingly complained of, remarking to me at the same time that they were of themselves abundantly supplied with all necessaries towards making their retreat agreeable, and concluded with a civil but firm request, that I should not put her to the necessity of sending back what was superfluous to them, and which they had, for fear of offending me, accepted for the first time and given to the landlady in my name.
This stiffness in persons I supposed under some misfortune surprised me a little: but not, however, so much, as their perfect and unaffected indifference to the change of my figure, in point of dress. I had then doubtless in me those seeds of coxcombry, which afterwards ran up to such a height as for a while over-shadowed the other good qualities I might be indebted to nature for. The suit I had on was entirely new, and had but the Sunday before given the stares to a whole congregation; but I could not, unpiqued, remark that they glanced over the glitter of it, with that inattention which persons of true taste, and true distinction, have especially for dress, when they perceive it made a point of.
These mortifications, however, contributed doubtless to throw more modesty and humility into my answers. I made proper apologies for the liberty I had taken, and which I had grounded on the situation of their retreat. I added, too, that I was so perfectly convinced of the respect owing them, as well as so interested to serve them, that I conjured them by the regard they had even for their own safety, if not for their convenience, to accept of an accommodation at Lady Bellinger's, my aunt's, where I was sure they would be treated with all the highest honour and regard; and at the same time without the least impertinence of curiosity to penetrate any secret they should be pleased to reserve.
"Though," answered Mrs. Bernard, "nothing can prove more demonstrably the purity of your intentions and the nature of your sentiments in our favour than such an invitation, you will forgive us if we cannot accept it. We depend on persons to whom, for many reasons too immaterial to trouble you with, such a step would be highly unacceptable."
"The greatest privacy is at present all our object. We could not expect it so entirely in a house crowded with servants and visitants; besides that the incognito we are forced to keep, gives us an air of adventurers, that not all our consciousness to the contrary could reconcile us to the enduring."
"All then, Sir, that we have now to fear, and wish you to avoid, is the giving, by your resort here any uneasiness to your family, or room for scandal to fasten its malice upon."
During this harangue, I had kept my eyes entirely fixed upon Lydia, who kept hers fixed upon Mrs. Bernard, but with such a calm of countenance, that I could not perceive whether she approved, or not, these her conclusions. Finding, however, that my steadiness of gaze began to embarrass and give her pain, I forced away my eyes, and had only power to say all that I thought necessary to soften Mrs. Bernard into a toleration, or rather renewal, of my leave to visit them, which, as she soon saw it was a point I would not easily give up, she seemed to acquiesce in, under such restrictions and precautions, as were decent for her to prescribe, and which indeed I meant too well, not even cheerfully to accept of the compromise.
As soon as these preliminaries were adjusted, so greatly to my heart's ease, I presently grew more cheerful, more frank, and especially more particular to Lydia, who received everything I addressed to her, with the most shy timidity, or the most complete unconcern. Nor did she ever recover herself into any show of gaiety, but as I desisted from particularities to herself. I was not long at making this remark, nor at being heartily chagrined at it. I pouted a little, I discovered my uneasiness at the reception she gave these preludes of my passion, but equally in vain. She behaved towards me as if she rather wished me to continue the coolness of a pique, as a disposition less irksome to her than my fondness. But whatever changes of countenance she shifted to, coyness, unconcern or mirth, she pleased in all too much for me to obtain even an interval of freedom. I loved, and I did not despair. I gave, however, this second visit the less length, for the impatience I had to enquire of Goody Gibson, the old woman, by what means these ladies had fished out and planted their habitation in so uninviting and out-of-the-way a corner.--...
After then taking my leave, I easily managed an interview with the landlady, who gave me the following account. That a little, oldish man had been directed, as he pretended at least to her house and had bargained at the first word for all the apartments she had to spare; and that the very next day he had sent in a wagon load of furniture, and would have sent more, if her house could have held it. And that a few hours after Mrs. Bernard and the young gentlewoman, accompanied by this little, old man, came and took possession of their new lodging, since which she had not seen him, but believed he would come soon to them, as he promised that he would. That they seemed in the meantime to regard no cost; for they had sent Tom, her grandson, last night to Warwick market for partridges and the costliest fish: and that Mrs. Bernard had put her in the way, as well as helped, to dress them. That she paid vast respect to Miss, who now and then wept bitterly.
This was the sum of the information I drew out of the good, old woman; which, by the way, very little enlightened me as to their real character and condition in life. I easily conceived, however, that this little, old man, she spoke of, had the key of the whole mystery. And accordingly I gave Tom strict charge, to be alert and watch all he could, that I might take my measures on his report.
I was in the meantime so prejudiced in favour of these incognitas, that whatever unstately aspect or derogation there appeared in their present circumstances, I could readily have taken at least the youngest, for one of your princesses, such as romances paint them, when forced to wander in distress, only she had clean linen, and no jewels, at least that she thought proper to make a show of.
One provision, however, for their safety I could not refuse my own ardent concern for it the satisfaction of procuring. Our park wall had a gate, which had been long condemned as useless, and which opened within a few yards of this house. Here, in a lodge, that had been, of course, long uninhabited, contiguous to the gates which I new ordered to be set open, I planted a guard of two of the park-keepers or tenants, who kept constant watch at nights, to prevent even the rear of any insult in that remote place. The fellows, too, did their duty the more cheerfully, as I was obliged to give them double pay, both on my own account and on that of the ladies, who had offered to satisfy them, and from whom I charged them not to receive anything, in a tone that convinced them I was not to be trifled with. By this step in favour of their security, I found I had made my court very effectually to Mrs. Bernard, who thanked me cordially; Miss only in a short perfunctory way made me a cool compliment, upon the occasion. But even that overpaid me. Surely, what one does for the person one really loves, is ever a more delicious pleasure than doing it for oneself.
I had not, in the meantime, been so pressing for leave to wait on them at their hours of convenience, not to make use of it. My assiduities were alert and incessant. I had found that they neither wanted, nor would accept presents of any sort. But as flowers, fruits, birds, and the like, are never included under that denomination, and carry with them that character of simplicity, so peculiar to the country, I exhausted every invention, to gratify Lydia with these marks of my passion. She received them, but received them with that air of dignity and reserve, which shewed I owed her acceptance more to her politeness, than to any attention she had to the motives of the presenter.
One day that I had received from London a very curious and neatly bound edition of Telemachus in French, a book I knew she was very fond of, and was actually, under the instruction of Mrs. Bernard, translating little extracts of it, for her improvement both in that and her own language, I was in hopes, from the nature of the present, that I should not risk a refusal of it. Accordingly, I carried it myself, and offered it her in the presence of Mrs. Bernard; but she declined receiving it, under the civil pretence of her having one already. I was, I looked, mortified. Upon which, Mrs. Bernard very good-naturedly observed to her, that though receiving presents from men was an encouragement she never should recommend to her; yet there were certain bagatelles, which by the courtesy of custom were always excepted, especially in certain circumstances. And that there was really a greater dignity and indeed a justice owing to one's assured superiority, in accepting things of so little importance, than treating them as matters of consequence by rejecting them.
Miss, on this remonstrance, with a smile of ineffable sweetness, as if by way of reparation, almost snatched the book, which I held extended in my hand, and making me a low curtsey, said, "Sir, I thank you not only for the favour itself, but for the lesson it has procured me, which, I am satisfied, 'tis perfectly just."
I was, however, so transported with carrying my point, that I could have hugged Airs. Bernard for the vexation she had spared me, and for the pleasure she had procured me. And indeed, whatever cruel chagrin her fidelity to her charge afterwards occasioned me, I must do her the justice to own, that never woman more deserved to be entrusted with the care and education of a pupil. Without one weakness of her sex, she had all the essential virtues, all the good qualities of a man of honour. Her real personal history was as follows.
Young, she had been married to the son of her lady's steward. Brought up entirely as her lady's companion, she had shared in common with her all the advantages of the most polite education, and seen the best company on a footing of apparent equality. Her husband, by whom she had several children, none of whom lived, died, and left her with a middling provision for life, which did not hinder her from re-attaching herself to her lady, to whose family she now devoted all her care and tenderness, and became deservedly her humble confidant and friend. The little, old man, whom I have before mentioned, was no other than her husband's father, to whom, too, she endeavoured, as far as was in her power, to make up, in duty and affection, all he had lost, in losing his son. And it was in virtue of these relations, and of her tried discretion and trustworthiness, that she became the guardian, or rather preserver of Lydia, in the most critical conjuncture, when all the happiness of her life was at stake; all the particulars of which, it was not till long after, that I came at the nature and truth of. So much, however, was precisely here necessary to premise, concerning her character and connexions with Lydia. Let me add, too, that next to that great master love itself, I owed to the conversation I had with her more true, more essential knowledge of the world I was preparing to launch into, than to all the lessons or instructions I had received either from my tutor or Lady Bellinger. Nothing, I found by experience, forms a raw young man so effectually, as the conserving with an agreeable, well-bred woman. I though to say the truth, I could not with impunity have, at my age, and with my warmth of constitution, seen so familiarly one of Mrs. Bernard's sex, with her qualifications, and even remaining personal merit, had not Lydia's victorious superiority drove all thoughts of that sort out of my head.
Mrs. Bernard had, in the meantime, perfectly penetrated the nature of my sentiments towards her amiable charge. But sure of herself, sure of Lydia, she seemed, at least, entirely unalarmed. Content to watch my every motion and attempt to engage her to a private conversation, but naturally, and without the appearance of watching it. The impossibility then of coming to such an explanation with Lydia as I languished for, whilst they stayed at that house, where my visits were under too severe restriction of time and place, suggested me the renewal of my invitation to them, to remove to my aunt's, upon a motive I thought Mrs. Bernard would, with difficulty, parry.
I broke to her then, not without trembling and with the utmost delicacy, the reports which my assiduities had occasioned, and which in country places are unavoidable, reports unsavourable to that footing of respect and innocence, on which they had permitted me to see them, and which I could now part with my life sooner than renounce the pleasure of. But I had to do with one prepared and determined. She observed to me that I neither surprised, nor discomposed her with an intimation of a suspicion attending my assiduities, which she had bespoke, from the nature of their situation, and which they deserved too little, not to despise. That she owned it a duty in general to guard against the appearances of wrong, but that their particular case absolved her insensibility in otherwise so delicate a point; and ended with desiring me not to press them any more to a removal they were averse to, unless I would drive them to the inconvenience of seeking once more a covert, that should protect them from such persecution.
I shuddered so much at this last menace, that I took special care from thenceforward not even to drop a hint that might dispose them to put it into execution. Nor could I help redoubling my admiration at the well-supported air of dignity and state, which breathed in all their conduct and expressions, and increased my ardent curiosity to find out their real character and rank in life. This last I had soon reason to imagine myself in a fair way of satisfying. Tom came one day, just as I had dined, to acquaint me that the little, old man was certainly to be with the ladies that evening having sent a message to that purpose from Warwick.
I easily knew that it would be in vain, and indeed improper for me to give them the interruption of my visit at that juncture, and consequently stayed away that evening, at the hazard of their conjecturing, as they doubtless did, the true reason of this novelty.
Thus far was right, but I took a measure, on the other hand, full as foolish, as the event did not fail to prove it.
I ordered my horses, and immediately set out for Warwick, which was at a small distance from our seat. There I presently found out by the description the very inn, where this old man had put up, and where his horse still stood, for he was himself gone, as I expected, to the habitation of the ladies.
In a room then, which I had taken up, and where I was very well known, I waited patiently enough for his return. As soon as he came in, I ordered the landlord to acquaint him that a gentleman would be glad of his company for a few minutes.
On this he complied without any hesitation, and came in, with an air of modest freedom that shewed he knew the world, and would alone have disposed me to treat him with respect, even had not his connexion with the idol of my heart inspired me with that regard for him, which extends to no person so powerfully, as those whose service our passions stand in need of.
He was very lean, low stature, and had something of an acuteness and sagacity in his countenance, that his real character was far from giving the lie in, to the rules of physiognomy.
The preface, leading to the favour I had to ask of him, was in substance, that it was from no motive of impertinent curiosity, much less from any design himself would not approve of, that an acquaintance which chance had given birth to, had created in me the warmest, the tenderest interest in the welfare of two persons, who, I was not ignorant of, were dear to him, and in some sort under his protection, and, telling nun withal my name (which he knew as well as myself), assured him that no confidence he could favour me with in respect to them, should ever be abused by me; that the greatest good might indeed result both to the ladies and myself from my being let into their secret, but that in all events, there could no harm come of it, since I gave him my honour, I would religiously conceal it from all the world, and even my knowledge of it from themselves, if he required it. That I would also inviolably adhere to the strictest rules of honour, with regard to them, and in short, not take one step, in consequence of his discovery, without his previous avowal and approbation.
He heard me out, with the greatest patience and attention: when, master as he was of his face, I saw it overspread with such an air of ingenuity and candour, as gave me the greatest hopes, and might have duped one of more experience and knowledge of the world than myself.
"Lord, Sir!" says he, "are you the gentleman to whom my daughter, and the young lady have such great obligations? Well! I protest, I am highly pleased with this opportunity to return you my thanks. Poor souls! indeed they stand greatly in need of your goodness. But, as to what you desire to know, I cannot say but Mrs. Bernard had it strictly in charge not to discover the occasion of their retreat to anyone; but you seem such a worthy gentleman, that I think there need be no reserve to you, whatever there may be to others. So, Sir!--but hold! Now I think of it, I would not have them know neither that I have acquainted you with the mystery: for, it may make them less on their guard to find their secret in a third hand. Upon that condition then-"
Here I renewed the most solemn protestations that I would never directly, nor indirectly, drop a hint, or give them the least overture of my discovery: that I approved even his caution, and would do honour to his confidence, by my conduct on it.
"Well then," says he, "you have doubtless heard of Mr. "Webber, the great banker in Wellington-street?" "I cannot "say that I have," said I:
"Good lack! Good lack! that is "much" replies the old gentleman. "Why he was one of such extensive dealings, that I thought everybody knew
Mr. Webber in Wellington-street. But indeed, poor gentleman, his case is very bad at present. He has lately had such a run upon him, that though he is a bottomed man, and when his affairs are made up, is able to pay twenty shillings in the pound, he has been obliged to step aside for a little time, till he can turn himself, and see clearer into his affairs.
In the meantime, as it was inconvenient for him to have his daughter with him,--and he is a vast proud man, that to be sure he is,--he has sent Miss Lydia out of the way, under the tuition of Mrs. Bernard, who has lived a long while in the family, with a strict injunction to live as private and out of the world as possible. It may be, too, he may have other reasons, but I do not know them. I am but his agent in the case, and should be ruined for ever with him, if he comes to the knowledge of my having revealed so much without his consent. Oh! he is very scrupulous, a very scrupulous man."
All this he circumstantiated so gravely, so naturally, too, though in a low language occasionally affected, that I swallowed every syllable of it, for truth. For my part, who was more romantically in love than all the Celadons that ever owed their existence to fiction, I was so deeply affected at this Mr. Webber's misfortunes, on the account of his amiable daughter, that the tears were ready to start into my eyes. After an instant's pause then, granted to the vehemence of my emotions and my reflections on the occasion, I broke silence, and told him that his confidence had penetrated me with the deepest concern: that I did not, however, confine myself to a barren protestation of it: that though I was under age, and could not dispose of my own fortune, I was so much the master with my aunt, that I could assure him, and myself, of raising immediately a sum from ten to twenty thousand pounds, or even more, if that would extricate or make Mr. Webber easy. And to leave him no doubt of the nature and innocence of my designs, I promised him that, whatever violence I did myself, I would not even see Miss again, but at her father's house under his express sanction and consent. That, for the rest, his acceptance of this aid would be the greatest favour he could possibly do me.
I saw my gentleman's face at this, in spite of all his command over it, covered with so much surprise and confusion, that I was very near not being the dupe of his story. He was so moved, so staggered, as he afterwards told me, by the frankness and generosity of my offer, and the candour I backed it with, that it was not without some pain and compunction that he continued a deception, which he could only answer to the innocence of his motives, and to diffidence of the discretion of my age.
Continuing then on the foot of the false confidence he had begun, he told me that he believed there would be no occasion for his employer's being driven to any extraordinary resource for assistance: that he would however acquaint him with what I had so generously tendered, intimating withal that he was withdrawn out of England: that it would of course take up some time to receive his answer, and that he advised, nay begged of me, by no means to make any further enquiries: that time would shew the reasons of this caution. And concluded with assuring me, in all events, that I should not lose the merit of what I had so obligingly offered to do for persons who had really not deserved their distress. And in this he was sincere, and kept his word with me.
On these terms, we parted. I returned that evening to our seat. And now, in the first opportunities of being in private with myself, I found the solution of all my doubts and difficulties, with regard to my passion for Lydia. I had never before expressly told myself, or indeed knew my intentions towards her. Nothing was truer than that I had never once harboured a thought about her inconsistent with the most rigid honour and the purest virtue. But I had, also, never once dreamt of my passion driving, me the lengths of a serious engagement with her, especially in the uncertainty I laboured under of her condition. My birth and fortune gave me a title indeed to pretend to the daughter of the first duke in Britain. But then, a banker's daughter was neither according to the maxims of the world, or my own notion of things, an alliance anyways dishonourable. As to his misfortunes, whether temporary or not, I never once hesitated about treating them, but as a reason the more for confirming myself in my resolution, to sacrifice every consideration to my love. I was not of age, my family might exclaim: these and every other objection I held cheap in comparison with the possession of a heart, it became the highest plan of happiness I could form to triumph over. Besides that, wilful as I was, fiercely impatient of control, especially in so tender a point, I was very capable of plunging into that sort of mad ingratitude, with which often fools, at their own expense, so cruelly repay the tender concern of their best friends.
After thanking myself then for a firmness, on which I conceived all the future joys of my life to depend, and clear, that since I was fated to play all for love or the world well lost, I could never meet with an object so fit to justify me, I resigned myself up to the blandishments of sleep, which became the more welcome to me, from the agitations of the day.
Waking pretty early, my little spy, Tom, was at the bedside with his yesterday's gazette. He brought me then the no-news of the little old man's having been there in the afternoon; but added, that pretty late in the evening, there had come' from Warwick, a small band-box directly to Mrs. Bernard, the contents of which he knew nothing of.
Now, had I had at that time, but the thousandth part of brains that I had of love, I might easily have conjectured that this band-box was no other than a cover to a letter of advice, concerning the attack I had made, the preceding evening, on their agent's secrecy. But prepossessed as I was, that he had made me a sacrifice, which he was as much concerned at least as me, to keep from their knowledge, I thought no deeper of it, than its being some commission he had complied with, of procuring some ribbons, head-dress, or the like.
At my usual hour then in the morning, I repaired to my darling haunt, where I had the pleasure of being received by the ladies with even an air of welcome. I had not, it seems, been ill served by the step I had taken, and which I little suspected their having been acquainted with. Nay, such was the delicacy of my sentiments, that I looked on myself, as half a criminal towards them for having dared to penetrate into their condition, without their leave, and of which, I promised myself, not to give them the least glimpse of suspicion, nor did I, unless in what escaped me, by a redoublement of respect, and attentions.
I could not, however, help observing that Lydia's behaviour to me marked some alteration, but whether in my favour or not, I had too much fear, and too little experience to determine. My intrepidity, more founded on the consciousness of the innocence of my intentions, than on my natural vanity, had deserted me, at the sight of her. I trembled, because I truly loved. Lydia, it is true, had never from the first once departed from that shyness and reserve, with which she had begun to treat me. But now a certain confusion, an air of tender timidity mixed with her reception of me, that I had too little knowledge of the sex to account for. No! never before had I seen her so amiable, and so sweetly austere. She blushed as I spoke to her, and hardly brought herself to answer me. Ignorant as I was, and ingenious to torment myself, I began to fancy she had taken some strange aversion to me, and saw me with uneasiness. Coxcombry is certainly not the vice of a lover. That passion never produces, and generally cures, where it finds it. My propensity to it was then in its infancy. I was as yet only a coxcomb in bud. And at that time all my pride stood in such thorough subjection to the imperious power of love, that I was far from presuming myself dangerous enough for Lydia to take alarm at, or feel a flutter in my favour at the approaches of an enemy generally more feared than heartily hated.
Her confusion, however, bred mine; and it was awkwardly enough I brought in the mention of my having been obliged to repair to Warwick the day before, on a business of the utmost importance. For I durst not give my reason for staying away the air of an apology. Lydia blushed, said nothing, and smothered a smile. But even that did not open my eyes on her being acquainted with my errand.
Mrs. Bernard, who had seen the enemy, and knew his marches, observed our painful situation, and came in to our rescue. With an address familiar to her, she soon brought the conversation into a flow of more ease and freedom. Lydia by gentle degrees resumed that cheerfulness which never left her, but when any thing particular from me to her, whether in looks or words, turned her grave and reserved. I often, indeed, endeavoured to bring the discourse to land upon love, a subject from its nature inexhaustible and eternally new, and which I was far from master of; since it was actually the master of me. But still I was sensible I should not talk impertinently upon it, since whatever I would say, would come immediately from my heart, the only true source of eloquence and persuasion. But all my eagerness, for art I had none, to engage or lead them into a topic introductory to an overture of my sentiments, produced me only the pain to observe that the subject was highly disagreeable to both Mrs. Bernard and Lydia. Mrs. Bernard, indeed, eluded it, in the style of an ambassador, when he is sounded upon untreatable matters. Lydia, like one who was entirely a stranger to it, and desired to continue so.
These rigours which my whole tenor of thinking toward them, told me I so little deserved, had half awakened my pride. I endeavoured at least to act indifference, but I put on my airs of contumacy so awkwardly, that I perhaps never betrayed more love, than when I aimed at appearing to have the least. One look of Lydia disarmed and deprived me of even a wish to rebel; nay redoubled my submission. I thought myself but too criminal for having dared to form one.
Youth is an age, love a passion, not overburdened with judgment. Had I been capable of any, I might easily have considered that Lydia's modesty, honour and the fears natural to her tender age, to say nothing of the persecution she was under, (for I did not then know the nature of it), very rationally accounted for all the coyness I had to complain of.
As for Mrs. Bernard, who was too well experienced and too penetrating not to remark my passion, and to do justice to the respect, it was evident that the purity of it inspired me: she was not without her anxieties and fears, that the consequences might prematurely take too serious a turn, for her check or control. If there was then nothing in my rank or condition, nothing in the nature of my sentiments that could reasonably alarm her; the nicety of her trust, the peculiarity of the conjuncture and the tenderness of both our ages sufficed, however, to determine her to keep off all explanations that might carry us too great lengths, before a proper foundation should be laid by a discovery, which discovery could not well take place, 'till the motives which forced them to resort to this romantic refuge should cease.
Possibly, she carried her caution too far, from her not conceiving me so independent as I really was; and she never gave my approaches on that point encouragement enough for me to set her right, by a proper representation of this circumstance.
After then staying as long as I durst that morning, I returned home, more in love, and more in despair than ever.
Several days passed in this manner, without my being in the least more advanced than the first instant. Mrs. Bernard's polite but firm vigilance and Lydia's frozen reserve supported, no doubt, by all the remonstrances of this her Mentor in petticoats, were an overmatch for all my attempts to soften them, and indeed for all my patience.
I had besides no confidants that I could well seek advice from. My companions were chiefly of my own age, as young, as inexperienced, and as thoughtless as myself. Besides that, a passion, so violent as mine, never goes without a spice of jealousy. I looked on Lydia as a hidden treasure which I could have wished, for security's sake, to have been kept buried from all eyes, but my own. I conceived, by myself, what impressions such a form must make on every beholder, and imagined no age proof against them. Love alone inspired me these ideas of caution. I had not been taught them: and they were far from unjust, or even unwise.
My aunt, Lady Bellinger, whose tenderness for me was pushed even to a weakness, and who deserved from me other returns, than those made her by my native character, by a pride rendered yet more intractable from her indulgence, at an age when I could not do the justice I have since done to it. I had then yielded to the torrent; but I soon saw the pain and uneasiness I had occasioned her by my conduct, the seeming indecency of which scandalized and afflicted her. But what she did not say to me had more effect on my stubbornness of temper than all she could have said.
Urged then by the double motive of doing justice to the ladies, whose fame and honour were as dear to me as my own, and of giving a satisfaction which I judged indispensably due to her, from the moment she did not require it, I seized the first convenient opportunity, of acquainting her with the perfect innocence or those assiduities, which had borne so base and undeserved a construction: in short I let her sincerely into all that I thought myself at liberty to reveal, or blameless for suppressing, under the uncertainty I myself was in, of the issue or my wishes and pretensions.
Truth is irresistible. The vivacity of its colouring has quite a different effect from the daub of falsity or invention. My good aunt, who loved me too fondly for me not to have easily deceived her, was surely less capable of rejecting the force of reality; besides that, transported as she was to find me at once innocent of the grossness's imputed to me, she was possibly more so, to find me recovered into respect and duty enough to give her an account of my conduct. I saw the moment then, that she would have ordered her coach, and by way of reparation, have drove directly to the house where the ladies were, and have invited them to all the accommodations and protection of her own. But this good-natured impetuosity I was obliged to restrain, from my knowledge of their sentiments on that point, though I wished for nothing so ardently, for many obvious reasons; especially, too, as such a step would have effectually stifled the scandal which so great an affectation of privacy, and my resort, had given birth to, and which, however, soon died away of itself under their cool contempt of it.
One circumstance, however, on my explanation with my aunt, somewhat surprised and alarmed me. As the ice was now broke, for her to say what she pleased to me, she told me that even the family of the young lady was no secret in the neighbourhood: that her father was a merchant, whose affairs were in some disorder, and that his name was Webber. That she, Lady Bellinger, had been the more hurt by the supposed irregularity of my conduct, in that it was insinuated that I had taken the advantage of their family distress, and employed it in aid of my seduction. I blushed with rage and indignation at such a hint, and was but the more won and softened by my aunt's silence to me, on so tender a point, as I knew the pangs it must have cost her heart to suppress hitherto her sentiments upon my procedure.
That haughtiness of spirit, which is not owing to meanness, as haughtiness generally is, is not always the worst part of a character. No art could have suggested to Lady Bellinger, so efficacious a method of reducing me to her point, as the measures she kept with my pride, by not shocking it with remonstrances, which it would certainly, at all events, have rejected. But now instead of growing insolent or obstinate, on the indulgence she shewed my errors, real or supposed, that indulgence quite disarmed and overcame me. I loved, I adored Lydia, and would have renounced my life sooner than my passion for her, yet I resolved nothing so firmly as not to take one decisive step without my aunt's previous participation or consent. This last I knew neither humour, pride, nor interest, would overbalance her inclination to satisfy me in, on her being herself satisfied that it was necessary to my happiness. But my advances were not yet in forwardness enough, for me to enter upon a confidence of that sort with her.
To return then to Lydia. I was not without my perplexity to find her story divulged. Nor did my innocence quite tranquillize me upon it. I sometimes imagined that chance alone had occasioned the discovery. It served, too, to confirm to me, the old agent's information. The truth, however, was that he had with the greatest air of mystery recommended this sob-secret to two or three persons in Warwick, whom he judged the properest to give it a quick circulation. And as to me, he had shewn me so little mercy, that independent of the other particulars, he had even overstretched his fiction to the name of the street, which was no more existing than the imaginary Mr. Webber himself. He thought, it seems, nothing too much to quiet my curiosity, and to put me off the right scent, as he judged me the most likely to exert myself in tracking out the truth. And to clench my deception, there were not wanting some of those male-gossips, who pretend to know every thing, and whom, to be sure, Mr. Webber could not escape. Who knew him better than they? They had often smoked how things would go with him: often had they been afraid of his over-living his abilities: then his wife was such an extravagant woman! It was no wonder matters were as they were. Now, when the truth came out, in sequence of time, that no such person ever had existed, they were, to be sure, confused and ashamed? Not at all: they were only mistaken: it was Mr. such an one they took him for, and for whom they found some name, as much of invention as the other.
In the meantime I still continued my visits to the thatched-house, or rather the enchanted palace, where still I found I Mrs. Bernard inaccessibly entrenched, behind the utmost civility, against all my attempts to come to the point. Great f expressions of acknowledgment and gratitude, but not a syllable tending to encourage any overtures whatever concerning her charge, from whom she was inseparable even for an instant. I had tried, in vain, several innocent stratagems, to come at a private audience from Lydia; but all my art and invention were in default against her superior skill and management. Argus was indeed lulled asleep with all his hundred eyes. But Argus was a man, and a simple couple in a woman well on the watch, is worth a thousand of them. Whence are eunuchs so vigilant, but from their resemblance, in some sort, to women?
As to Lydia, there was no circumstance of regard or attention, to prove my passion for her, omitted by me. I exhausted then the whole chapter of such presents, as were consistent with her delicacy to receive, without forgetting any thing that might be agreeable to Mrs. Bernard, whom I saw the necessity of keeping measure with. The choice of all the gardens round me in fruit or flowers; every rarity that the country afforded, as well as the town, the newest patterns, the newest music, every thing in short that could contribute to their pleasure or amusement in that wearisome solitude, I made it the delight of my life to procure them. Books, pamphlets, newspapers were especially Mrs. Bernard's share in my provision.
So much importunity, to give these marks or my passion the harshest name, could not fail of making some impression on Lydia's gratitude, if they did not even touch her heart. I began then at length to flatter myself that I perceived less and less rigour and reserve, every day, in her countenance and behaviour to me. She seemed now more familiarized to all the passion I threw into my looks, or into what I said to her. I thought I read in her eyes expressions of softness and languor, which did not threaten me with a declaration of hatred, if I could but have got an opportunity to make her one of love, out of Mrs. Bernard's hearing. But that was impossible, so that I was forced to content myself with these constructions, too favourable indeed to my wishes, not to give my hopes leave to live on them.
All my assiduities, too, only served to rivet my chains. The more I studied Lydia, the more I was forced to admire her. Possessed of all the power of perfect beauty, without the insolence of its consciousness, or the impertinences it serves so often for a privilege to, she gave all she said or did the sweetest of graces, that of pure nature, unadulterated with affectation, that bane of barely not the whole sex, which so many of ours are either the dupes of, or coxcombs enough to catch the contagion of from them. Her native modesty suffered her to say but little, and that only on subjects proper for her age. But that little, how elegant without pretensions, how correct without stiffness! One could have indeed wished she had spoke more; yet there was no reason to complain that she had not said enough.
One day, that I found her embroidering a rose on a white satin, and that I took it for my text to place some silly, common-place compliment, on its being an humble type of that freshness, and superiorly beautiful colour of her complexion, she observed to me, (blushing the original she was copying from, out of countenance) that this flower much better represented the fate of maidens' hearts in that the instant it unlocks its bosom, it betrays its approaching ruin.
This was giving me a fair opening to have gone essentially into the merits of my cause; but Mrs. Bernard's perpetual presence interposed, and barred me the reply. Sensible of the advantage given me by this comparison, which I was preparing to improve, under the favour of due distinctions, she started an abrupt transition, which I thought I saw Lydia, by her colouring, construe into an admonition, which she respected more than she was pleased with. In short, at every turn or avenue, paved for me by chance or my own unwearied industry, to come at a declaration of my sentiments, I found Mrs. Bernard irremovably in my way.
I was now almost at the end or my patience, when I was to undergo yet an infinitely severer trial of it. I was then fully determined, by the uneasiness of my situation, to come to an explanation at all adventures with Mrs. Bernard herself, and waited only such a space of time as I assigned within myself, for some answer to the proposals I had made, and supposed to have been conveyed by their agent, to Mr. Webber, which time was now on the point of expiration.
Already did I hug myself on the joy I anticipated, with transports, on being delivered from the torture of restraint, and pouring out my whole heart to Lydia, under sanction of its purity. I was not indeed vain enough to hold myself sure of hers, but I had not withal reason to despair of its declaring in my favour.--
My rank and fortune I had most assuredly counted for nothing, in respect to my pretensions to Lydia herself, though I did not doubt of their weight and influence on Mrs. Bernard. I was at that time indeed, and ever, too proud to appeal from my personal merit to that of my possessions. This worthless and ignoble meanness I constantly left, with the contempt it deserves, to our lords of the new creation, or the greasy money-grubs of the city.
Having then fixed within myself a short day for the fair and open disclosure of my views and designs to Mrs. Bernard, I waited for it with the anxieties of one who is to throw the dice for his life on a drum-head. One evening then, that I had been preinformed of then-having received a packet from Warwick, I visited them in course, as usual. In Mrs. Bernard's looks I could indeed perceive little or no alteration, except a certain air of increased kindness, and forced obligingness, in which her design to throw dust in my eyes had perhaps less share, than the consciousness of the cruel stab she was meditating to all my hopes, and the sort of reparation she intended me, for the part her duty constrained her to act in it. But as to Lydia, less mistress of her emotions, less capable of art and dissimulation, the change of her countenance was considerable and manifest. Her face was paler than usual, her accents faltering, and her reception of me rather tenderer and more engaging than ever I had found it. Industrious to deceive myself, I immediately imagined that they had received some disagreeable accounts of Mr. Webber's affairs. I was not even scarce sorry for it, from the hopes of such a circumstances adding to the merit of my disinterestedness, in the proposals I was on the point of breaking to them, and even flattered myself, I should now, instantly, receive a privilege for, in the advices I expected from their agent.
With all the warmth then of the most passionate concern, I ventured to ask Lydia if she was well, or had received any news to discompose her; but she had her instructions, and pleaded an indisposition, which she had not, and which Mrs. Bernard seconded the excuse of, in order to shorten my visit. I did not then make it so long as usual, but I had full time to observe that Lydia was exceedingly disquieted. I caught her eyes often fixed on me; they brimmed with tears, which she endeavoured to keep in, and she immediately, but with reluctance, averted or declined them to the ground, on their encounter with mine. I thought them uncommonly softened towards me. At that instant I hoped it was love: but, soon after retracted that opinion for another, less flattering. I attributed then afterwards these appearances to the reproaches she might think she owed herself for the cruel returns she was preparing to make me, for the most delicate, though the most violent passion, I had betrayed for her, by symptoms that could not escape her; amongst which even my silence was not the least, and added to the merit of my sentiments towards her, that of a timid respect, which however ridiculous to the women of the world, could not but find favour in the eye of her unaffected innocence and modesty. Perhaps too, the thoughts of a removal from a place, where she was habituated, as it were, and which I had endeavoured to render as pleasing to her as possible, might give her part of the uneasiness she expressed: but however, I had not so much as conceived the shadow of a. suspicion of their intentions at that time.
I took my leave of them with an ominous heaviness of heart. The next morning I was waked very early by my valet de chambre, who acquainted me that the boy Tom was at the door, and pressed hard for admittance. I instantly ordered him to my bedside, not without a secret presentiment, which made me shudder. He came, and with tears in his eyes delivered me a letter, trembling, and scarce able to bring out "they are gone, they are gone!"
"Who is gone, you "block-head?" said I, in a tone of madness which shewed at least my apprehensions.
"The ladies, Sir," answered the boy, with an increased fright, at the rage I expressed.
"How? when? with whom?" I demanded in one breath, holding the letter still in my hand, without the courage or heart to open it. The boy, in substance, gave the following account.
That I had not been gone a minute before they retired to their apartment, in which they locked themselves up, without coming out, 'till one in the morning; when the little old gentleman knocked at the door violently, and alarmed the grandmother and him. They were afraid of thieves. But looking out of the window, they saw that the two watchmen from the park-lodge were talking with the gentleman: and the ladies themselves came and told them it was their friend, and came for no harm. They opened the door, and the ladies met the old gentleman, and Mrs. Bernard told him they were ready; and so they were, with their bundles of clothes and linen, and a small casket. These the old gentleman gave the watchmen to carry, and the ladies gave them five guineas for their trouble. They walked down the lane, at the bottom of which was a coach and six, with only one person in it, and that a lady, who on Miss's stepping into the coach, threw her arms about her neck and kept her embraced for above a minute. They told them they believed they should come again next day, but if they did not, that what they left was a free gift to the landlady. They gave the boy, too, a purse with some guineas in it, and bid him be a good boy. Miss wept both before and after she got into the coach, and delivered him with her own hands the letter, which she bid him be sure to give to nobody but myself. The lad ran after the coach 'till he tired himself, to see which road it took, 'till he lost sight of it, and was bewildered so that he could not easily find his way back again. And by all that he could make out they did not take the road to London or Warwick, but rather towards the sea-side.
All the time he was giving me this account, I remained motionless, petrified with surprise, vexation and anger. Surprised at the suddenness of my misfortune, vexed at the loss of the whole treasure of my heart, and angry at the unkind-ness of their usage. In the injustice of my passion I was near (riving orders for turning the park keepers away, for not stopping them, as if I had had given it in part of their charge to them; when, on the contrary the poor fellows thought they were serving me, in serving them, and obeying their orders.
Recovering then, a little, my spirits. I sent every body out of the room, that I might read this fatal scroll with less disturbance. I broke open the seal, still trembling with complicated emotions. The letter was Mrs. Bernard's, and these were the contents.
SIR WILLIAM DELAMOR.
In our present procedure towards you, there is only the appearance of ingratitude. We leave this place with the justest sense of your politeness and civilities. Irresistible conjunctures force us away, in this manner: you will, perhaps, one day acknowledge, and do justice to the violence of them.
In the meantime, if any entreaties of ours can have weight with you, we conjure you to suspend any enquiries about us. You have been with our privacy, but so innocently, misled about our name and condition, through the extreme precaution of our agent, that you will, if not thank, at least not condemn either him, or us, for it. I once again beg you will not think more about us, till time and circumstances shall give us leave to explain the whole mystery to you. Above all, it is of importance to Miss Lydia's safety that you do not undeceive the country, of the notion they have of our rank, such as is already diffused of it. In the hopes of this your compliance, we shall always remember you with gratitude and esteem. I quit the pen to miss, who insists on it, and am,
Your most obliged, and obedient, humble servant,
The following was added at the bottom of this letter, in Lydia's hand, in form of postscript.
"I confirm what Mrs. Bernard has said to you, and I add from myself, that I should be sorry you did not think I leave this retreat with regret.
As shocked, as thunder-struck, as I was at this unexpected revolution, which awakened me out of my dream of the completest happiness I could form an idea of; the sight of Lydia's hand, and the glimpse of tenderness I thought I perceived in her postscript, gave me a sensible consolation, a consolation even necessary to keep me from sinking under the blow. I read it over and over, I bathed it with my tears rather of rage than of love. Yet I devoured it with my kisses. Her name broke from me in exclamations of grief and rants of despair. I expostulated with her, as if she was present, on the cruelty of her treatment. What had I done? How had I deserved to be deserted in this manner? Then what reproaches did I not make to myself for having postponed the proposals I had intended? Might not they have changed their plan and softened the rigour of their procedure towards me?
I sent for the boy in again. I asked him a thousand questions, and made him as often repeat every particular of their departure: how they looked: what they had said: but nothing he had to tell me, could give me the light or satisfaction I wanted.
Harassed, at length, even to faintness, with all the vexation and grief of disappointed love, I got up, and my first and early care was to repair to the cottage, though I was sure of meeting there with nothing but subjects that would refresh my pain and regret.
Arrived there, so far from the paradise my raptured ideas had once erected it into, it now wore to me the aspect of a cold, dreary, disconsolate desert. I seemed like a poor traveller, who, cheated by his imagination, has at a distance formed to himself the appearance of superb palaces, towers and delightful gardens, but, on advancing near, discovers the illusion of the perspective, and finds with horror nothing but shapeless rocks, stunted yews, and an uninhabitable wild. Such was the discount that habitation was now at in my present sense of things.
The poor, old landlady came to me, and very innocently sharpened my affliction by her praises of her lodgers. They had been, as she said, a blessing to her house, and she hoped in the lord they were not gone for good. Her grief in short was so sincere, that she seemed to have forgot their leaving her in goods and money about fifty times the amount of their agreement.
All this liberality plainly, however, denoted their being persons of fortune and condition, as indeed the whole uniform tenor of their carriage and air had left me no doubt of. But still, I exhausted every conjecture that could lead me to a discovery of who they really were. Yet I naturally enough imagined, that if any young lady of quality had been missing, or on any account had left her family it must have made noise enough to have reached our notice, and we had not heard an accident of that sort even whispered.
Concluding then, that there must be some very extraordinary occasion for such exquisite privacy, and powerfully restrained by the intimation of Lydia's safety being annexed to my silence and discretion, I determined to obey implicitly their orders of desistence from any enquiry, or mention of their half-confidence to me. I hoped, too, that such a submission would the sooner produce me the understanding they had left me the hopes of; hopes, which alone hindered me from setting out that instant, and acting the part of a true knight-errant, in pursuit of a wandering princess. And indeed, there was something so singular, and out of the ordinary road of things, in my meeting, falling in love with, and losing of Lydia, that did not make the less impression on me, for carrying a spice of the romantic through the whole adventure. I found, it seems, something nattering in the idea, that such a peculiarity was reserved for me.
Returned to my aunt's, I told her, according to my plan of secrecy, no more than that the ladies were gone, which indeed she might have read plain enough in the change of my air and countenance. Seeing then how seriously I was effected, she openly said every thing she could think of to lessen my affliction, and hugged herself, no doubt, at what an escape I had had.
My sense of Lydia's absence was not, however, soon, nor indeed ever, thoroughly got over. For some time, I remained melancholy, stupefied, and feeling severely the want of something essential to the enjoyment of my life. It had been, during her stay, deliciously indeed filled, and taken up with the pleasures of seeing and attending on her. But her desertion of me had made such a sensible gap, so irreparable a void, that I had no longer a relish for my existence. All the women I saw, and who had once inspired my desires, were now nothing to me. I looked just enough at them, to satisfy myself they were not Lydia, and I sought no more. Hunting, country sports, conversation, studies, all grew insipid to me; every thing put me in mind of Lydia, but nothing could supply her place with me.
By degrees, however, the violence of my grief subsided and softened into a certain languor and melancholy, which was not even without its pleasure. Lydia, present to my memory, always engrossed my heart: but time, that great comforter in ordinary, introduced intervals of insensibility, which other objects, other passions seized the advantage of. I still did not love Lydia less, but now I did not think of her so often, or with that continuity as at first. The number of things that made impression on me, augmented in proportion as that of my grief grew fainter and fainter. I was of a constitution, too, which began to interfere powerfully with that system of constancy and Platonics, which a world rather spoilt than refined has agreed to banish into the corner of those old musty romances, that went out of fashion with ruffs and high-crowned hats, and which is most certainly exploded out of the present practice: perhaps with less profit to true pleasure than is generally imagined.
I pined now for the term fixed for our going to London; still in the hopes of hearing from, or tracing Lydia out. But in the meantime I felt more than ever the insipidity and wearisomeness of a country life, in which, generally, one day is the dull duplicate of another. What, in short, I now found most wanting to me, was amusement: whilst the promptership of nature, and the solicitations of a curiosity which began to resume its rights, left me no room to doubt about the sort of it. I had, besides, soon an opportunity to ascertain, and indeed realize, all my wants and desires.
Mrs. Rivers, a relation of our family, distant enough to annihilate any scruple about our nearer approaches, and widow of a gentleman of a very good estate in M--, whose constitution she had broke by overdrawing upon it, was the instrument, it seems, allotted me, to make my first experiments upon. She had accepted of an invitation to our house, for a few weeks of the summer season, where she accordingly came down, preceded by such a character of virtue, and devotion to the memory of the poor dear deceased as, joined to the narrow notions I had imbibed by a country education, assorted me no more prospect of an affair of gallantry, than if I had been told my grandmother was coming.
Well! down she came, powdering in a coach and six, and arrived about noon in our house, where I was then with my aunt: who, after the usual ceremonies of reception, presented me to her, and desired I would do the honours of the house, as became me. Most certainly I then imagined as little as my poor aunt herself, how completely I was destined to do them, and to teach her the true English of celebrity entire, in return for the lessons I was to receive from her.
I was just then returned from hunting, in the dress for that diversion, and had not amiss the air of a young, sturdy fox-hunter, breathing all the florid freshness of the country, and all the vigour of that character. This appearance of mine, she was too knowing to be displeased with, for she received my hearty salute and compliments, with a certain warmth and encouragement, which her first glance over my person had not, it seems, indisposed her to, and which as great a novice as I then was, I could perfectly distinguish from the reception my caresses were used to meet with from women, in the days of my incapacity for any thing but innocence towards them. This, however, did not give me the least glimpse of hope. I construed it no other than a mark of superior civility, or good nature, being too much prepossessed with bug-bears and invincible obstacles in the character of this lady, to think of any designs upon her: me I say, to whom, once more, every dairy-maid, in virtue of her sex, was now as good as a duchess, and the woman the easiest to be come at, the woman for me, at that time.
Mrs. Rivers had, however, in her person, wherewith to justify the liking of any, even more delicate than the nature of my wants suffered me to be. She was about twenty-three, and had not been married above eight months to a husband who had done her more justice than himself; and to whom she had probably been more sparing of lectures of moderation, than of her readiness to oblige him at his own expense. He had been at Bath for the recovery of his shattered health, but in vain, through the ignorance or neglect of his physicians, who had omitted the most material prescription, that of leaving his wife behind him. It was even whispered, with how much justice I do not pretend to decide, amongst the dealers in secret anecdotes, that a fit of the jaundice he took at a young officer's assiduities, which she had not enough discouraged, had given him the finishing blow. Be that as it may, he died quietly, out of the way, and Mrs. Rivers, whether out of gratitude for so much kindness, or from a persuasion that her grief and her weeds became her, had very ostentatiously prolonged the usual term of both.
As to her person, she preserved yet all the graces, all the bloom of the first spring of youth. Her complexion was of that delicate, smooth, glossy brown, which one is not only satisfied with seeing. Her eyes, amidst all their languor, betrayed certain sparkles of fire, of no bad omen to those whom it should concern. Then she joined to all the dispositions I could have wished, and was then far from presuming, all the experience necessary to bring things to their true and natural conclusion, without spinning them out impertinent lengths.
After a short retreat, she came down, dressed, and recovered from the fatigue of her journey. Dinner was served in, at which her eyes pleased me more than her tongue, for she talked away unmercifully of the good man Hector, but her looks, (and what looks!) were pretty constantly levelled at me: I did not then know that woman rarely or ever speak of the dead, but with an eye to the living. I was not, however, long imposed upon. The expression she threw into her eyes, her attention to consider me, a number of little distinctions, easily seized by an inclination so warm as mine now was towards the whole sex, gave me hints, and those hints created hopes, readily embraced by my desires, and cherished by my native vanity and presumption.
Compelled, however, by decency, as well as policy, to conceal my new-born pretensions from the observation of the company, it was not, however, without difficulty that I at once constrained myself, and yet kept up the dialogue of our eyes, just enough to prove to her that her advances were not entirely thrown away upon me. And here I still style them advances, less out of coxcombry than justice, for I had certainly then not the courage to have made any, both on account of my inexperience and my high prepossession of her prudery.
After dinner, I very zealously took charge and exercised the functions of my aunt's master of ceremonies, with respect to our new guest. It is easy then to imagine how affectionately I acquitted myself of it, considering the sentiments she had inspired me with, and which her conduct towards me in private, gave me no room to think her over displeased with, whilst her carriage to me in public set me lessons of discretion and reserve, which I concluded were necessary, and conformed accordingly. It was but natural that I should suppose she had most experience. She must have seen service, and I was modest enough to take her for my leader in my first engagement.
All vanity apart, I was at that time certainly not without pretensions to please. I had, at least, the merit of a fair, ruddy complexion, shapely stature, promising strength of limbs, and all the native attendants of a healthy, untainted youth. I was at that nice point, in short, when imminent manhood brings on essential maturity for action, without abating any thing of the smooth of youth, or of those tender, bloomy graces, which endear that age to those women especially who have rather delicate than craving appetites.
Mrs. Rivers, who was far from insensible, had been, at least as she afterwards told me, determined in my favour at first sight: but she had still great measures to keep, and appearances to respect: and she was reasonably afraid of the indiscretion of my age. But where are the objections that love, or a passion like love, cannot triumph over?
The few days after her first arrival, which had been taken up with the insipid ceremonial of neighbours' visits, had the more harassed my patience, from my having conceived the liveliest hopes of success, from her behaviour to me, in those intervals of private audience I could snatch from the hurry and importunity of company. It was then that her countenance, which had worn the air of the greatest austerity and reserve, visibly relaxed and softened towards me sufficiently to encourage my attacks. Her looks of parade and her looks of nature were at least as different as her dress and undress; but their shift was quicker.
My aunt, who had been alarmed at my particularities to her, which I was not yet master of art enough, to conceal entirely, thought herself obliged to represent to me the impropriety of my entertaining any thoughts of a serious engagement with my cousin, as she called her; and though her reasons turned chiefly upon her fortune being unequal to mine--reasons I should have spurned, had I been really in love--they had the more weight with me, as all the desires I had, violent as they were, still had nothing of that passion in them. And when love is out of the question, the head, uninfluenced by the heart, is generally pretty cool and numerical. I easily then tranquillized my aunt, on the strength, which truth impressed on my assurances, of my having no such thought or intention: but she was not of a character for me to venture any thing more than a half-confidence to, upon this occasion. As she herself certainly never had the least turn to gallantry, an idea of that sort probably did not present itself to her, and it was not my place to start it.
At ease then from that quarter, was determined to push my fortune with the widow, who, on her side, very happily did not do me the honour to throw any thing further into her designs upon me, than taking me into the service of her pleasure. This was a sympathy of sentiments with mine, extremely fit to abridge matters, and bring us post to that grand conclusion, which neither of us were of a humour to languish long for.
My progress then was so rapid, that after a few preliminary objections, in which decency and an air of resistance, for the honour of having resisted, had a greater share than sincerity, I obtained an assignation, but an assignation in form. And where? In her very bedchamber: where I was not to suppose, she would admit me merely for the sake of displaying her virtue: a bedchamber is rarely the theatre of it.
To form then any idea of the raptures I swam in, at having brought her to this point, one must conceive all the enchantment, all the power of novelty, in the first gratification of the senses in their highest and perhaps their noblest pleasure. Even my vanity added to the raptures I prefigured to myself, in satisfying a curiosity so natural at my age. Having too little delicacy then in my sentiments towards this new object, the reflection that I owed my conquest as much at least to her desires, as to any merit of mine, never once occurred to me; and such was at that time the intoxication of my senses, that I was near mistaking, for a true passion, that coarser homage I was about paying to the whole sex, in the person of Mrs. Rivers.
Luckily, too, for my purpose, I had none of those difficulties to encounter with, in coming at an interview, which some authors in the serenity of their closets, or by a good fireside, embarrass their heroes or heroines with, at a great expense of invention, and to the no small discomfort of those readers who love the last page of a romance better than the first. There were no eternal duenas, no under-ground sweats, no escalade of walls, no ambush of bloody rivals, of the glitter of sabres in a critical instant, to perplex or romancify my schemes of delight.
Our plan then was laid with the utmost simplicity and ease. The window of a closet to Mrs. River's bedchamber corresponded with a gallery, separated only from that which a door from my apartment opened into, by a balustrade, easily overleaped; after which I had nothing to do, but to lift up the sash and step in, under favour of the secret of midnight, which is the hour at least as much consecrated to assignations as apparitions.
Panting then with the anticipation of all the bliss in view, and dressed like a bridegroom for this expedition, I repaired to my appointed place at the appointed time. I found the window faithfully disposed for my opening, and every thing prepared both for my reception and the privacy of it.
I was soon then on the right side of it, when, after fastening the shutter, I went a tiptoe to Mrs. Rivers's bedchamber, with unequal paces, between the trepidation of fear and the urgency of desire. Here I found her, still up, leaning in an indolent attitude on a table, with a book in her hand, which she threw down, at seeing me.
She was in that sweet dishabille so much more engaging than the most declared dress, the studied negligence of which costs art so much, in its imitation of nature. A blush of surprise and confusion flushed into her face, whilst her eyes now sought, now declined the encounter of mine, and movingly expressed that tender diffidence with which women seem to beg good quarter, when on the point of surrendering at discretion.
I threw myself at her feet, and kissing one of her hands, which she abandoned to my pressure, I had not words to express the force of what I felt.--So much the better. Women do us admirable justice, on a silence owing to a disorder that moves them at least as much as it flatters them. It is not eloquence that on such occasions makes its court most successfully to them.
It was very happy for me then, that the ceremonial of an assignation at that hour and place, must naturally be an enemy to the flourishing of harangues and protestations. I was so confounded, and unequal to this rapturous scene of a virgin pleasure, that I should have said a thousand impertinences. And I was now more impatient to prove, than profess the force of my desires. Yet finely disposed as I was, my youth and inexperience threw into my words and actions such an awkward bashfulness, such a timid disorder, as soon made Mrs. Rivers sensible of my being at the first act of my novitiate. But this was only a recommendation the more to her.
My observation was indeed too much lost in the tumult of my imagination, and the riotous crowd of my ideas, for me to give an account of her looks and deportment towards me, in these critical instants. I do not doubt but my embarrassment, (though pleasingly, in regard to the cause of it) still, however, somewhat embarrassed her too. Nature is, nevertheless, of itself a wonderful instructress. One has but to abandon oneself to its impulses, and there is no fear of making any very wide mistakes.
It is generally said of women, that the pleasure procured them by their first engagements is the most lively, and the most delicious: that it makes, too, the most lasting impression. Thence their fidelity and grateful kindness to the first author of its acquisition to them. Not so with men, and the young especially. Their first introduction is commonly effectuated in such a hurry, and disorder of the senses, that it robs them of the attention necessary to dwell upon the joys of their present fruition. Overwhelmed and bewildered they enjoy indeed, but it is in a confusion of sensations which resembles the delirious dozing induced by opium, in which the soul is out of itself, and awakens when the agency is over, as from a dream, which the memory scarce preserves the traces of. A just maturity is the only true age of consistence, and delight. Impetuous youth worries its pleasures too voraciously, and impotent age mumbles them, even to palling.
This night, however, fully initiated me. And surely no woman was ever more qualified by nature, and a reasonable experience, than Mrs. Rivers, to form a young novice, even with less apt dispositions than myself to this great branch of natural philosophy. No one ever better understood the art of dalliances, or of keeping longer the desires up to their edge.
Herself then agreeably flattered with the notions I doubtless gave her reasons for, of being the first collectress of my tribute of manhood, she spared me no marks of her satisfaction. All the most engaging caresses, all the sweet successions of toying, and of more solid essentials, brought on the break of day upon the spur, before we were aware of having worn out the night. It was now a necessity for us to separate. Full then of gratitude, full of a passion, which resembled love enough to be mistaken for it, I took the most tender leave, and returned to my own bed, on which I threw myself, and was soon composed to a rest not unnecessary to me; and I resigned myself up to it with the delicious calm of a conqueror sleeping over his laurels.
Pretty late in the morning, I waked, and my imagination, now less inflamed, I reviewed coolly enough the operations of the night, and was not yet so ungrateful to the pleasures I had reaped, as to think of them with regret. Yet methought, they had lost much of their vivacity: the recurrence of Lydia to my memory, of Lydia still perfectly adored, and only sacrificed for the moment to the power and pressure of present objects, dashed my exultation, and vitiated my triumph: but I became too soon reconciled to myself, by a distinction the more dangerous, in that it was a real one. I was now clearly sensible that love entered for nothing into my sentiments towards Mrs. Rivers, and that my heart still reserved a sanctuary sacred to Lydia alone, on the altar of which burned the purest incense. Under favour then of this stale, but commodious sophistry, I grew more quiet, and more hardened to the reproaches I could not help, at intervals, making myself, whenever the flame of love, ill-smothered under a heap of rubbish, flashed in my face.
Our passions are but loose casuists, and what is worse, our reason is often too bribed over to their side; in which case we fall like a client sold by his attorney, or a prince murdered by his guards. Thus it was pleasant enough that the more virtuous, the more respectful light I placed my passion in to Lydia, the less I conceived myself guilty towards her, from my not confounding it with those sentiments of a coarser nature, which composed the foundation of my commerce with Mrs. Rivers, whom I considered merely as a woman; but Lydia, purely as a superior being, with whose worship it would have been a profanation to mix ideas of flesh and blood. And it was on this plan of latitude and distinction that, now the fence was broke, my heart soon became a thoroughfare for the whole sex.
As nothing is more exactly true than that satisfied desires are easier kept secret, than the endeavours to bring them to that issue generally suffer them to be; my discretion, now well seconded by Mrs. Rivers's perfect talent of dissimulation, had no hard task of laying even suspicion asleep. But then her fondness, with which she in private made herself amends for her constraint in company, produced an effect unfavourable to the wishes she pretended, and perhaps was sincere in. Mrs. Rivers was, it is true, as amiable, as handsome, as any reasonable person could desire: but, what with that excessive fondness of hers, joined to the facility of access to her, even in night-gown and suppers, what with my own turn to inconstancy, I soon abated of my first ardours: and grew every day to wait for the return of the night with less impatience. Her charms, in short, had-not power enough to keep off that languor of satiety, which generally steals upon uninterrupted enjoyments, especially when the heart has nothing to say to them.
Women, on these occasions, have a quickness of sense and resentment, that is neither to be lulled, nor imposed upon: and, to say the truth, there are certain test-acts, in the number and mark of which there is no trifling with their penetration. At the first alarm of this change, and before I was well satisfied in it myself, Mrs. Rivers, with an impolicy too natural to violent passions, first cleared up the situation of my sentiments to myself, and afterwards lessened to me my compunction at it, by the repetition of complaints more just than wise to give vent to. It is only for love to subsist after enjoyment: but here my desires had died of their natural distemper, a surfeit: and the querulous tone of expostulation is certainly not the secret to recall, or revive them. I pushed even my injustice so far as to find new matter of disgust, in all the passionate endeavours, which her taste, if not her love for me, engaged her to employ towards bringing me back again, to the point we had set out from. Her tenderness grew at length so burthensome to me, that I now resorted to my appointments with reluctance, sure as I was of hearing nothing but a love-sick jargon upon constancy eternal, and eternal constancy. Most women are in this point like impertinent singers, whom the trouble a not so much to persuade them to sing, as when they have once begun, to get them to have done with it.
Yet it was not with impunity, neither, I was thus to play fast and loose with this engagement. A conquest of the importance I had affixed to that of so fine a woman as Mrs. Rivers indisputably was, had inspired me with a vanity, which was not lessened by all the apprehensions and regret she shewed for losing me. They made me, to say the truth, more vain but not one jot more disposed to dissipate them. Her revenge then, without her designing it, was sufficiently taken care of, by her laying the foundations for my commencing the coxcomb, the character I afterwards so splendidly consummated. Could I have at that season made that reflection, when it would have been of service to my correction, or cure, I perhaps had not thought her punished enough for the follies I was indebted to her for, by all the pain my infidelity, or rather coolness could put her to. But I became yet more unjust, even from a sense of my injustice, which having been' riveted by her remonstrances, appeared so criminal, and cruel even in my own eyes, that I was half angry with Mrs. Rivers for being the cause, however passive and innocent, of my making so bad a figure to myself: for I was not yet quite so fine a gentleman, as, in affairs of gallantry, to make a jest of ingratitude, or of not using a woman well, who has put it in one's power to use her ill.
Happily, however, for my quiet, the term was at length at hand for Mrs. Rivers to return home upon indispensable obligations. She had protracted it as long as possible, but now her going was a point decided. The sense of this would have alone revived my tenderness; but I was besides influenced by the desire of repairing the wrongs my indifference had done her, of soothing at least her resentment, and of expressing so much gratitude for her favours, as might make her forgive my being nothing more than grateful. With these dispositions, it was no great matter of violence to me, to restore to my commerce with her the warmth which I had been some time wanting in to it, and which, if I did not feel myself in the same degree as before, I gave proofs enough of, to reingratiate me, especially where pride and self-love were sure to welcome the deception.
In the instants of our separation, persisting still in the same plan, I took special care, not to let her perceive, how little expense it was to put me to, in regrets. Whether or no she was the dupe of it, I will not venture to say. I had reason to believe not; for soon after we heard that she had not been a fortnight in town, before she made the fortune of a young fellow, whose personal merit was his greatest recommendation. I was then embarked in another pursuit, so that I received the news with a most meritorious tranquillity, and had almost a mind to insult her with a letter of congratulation, which she escaped more through my indolence than my good nature. This, however, did not raise the women in my opinion, nor sink me in my own. But I became the more hardened in my designs to deal with them henceforward, as if nature had only made them for my pleasure. In which general degradation I was, however, still far from including my still-worshipped Lydia. My sentiments for her, though they defended me so ill against the irruptions of my constitutional warmth, still subsisted, as they had nothing in common with those I felt for the rest of her sex. And I place here this illusive abstraction rather as a mark, than a vindication, of my errors: 'but I was, it seems, predestined not to arrive at wisdom but through a course of follies.
My descent, too, from that elevation of sentiments, only known to true love, was a truantry the more culpable, in that I had fully tasted the difference. How could I then renounce, or exchange its incomparably greater charms, for the worthless ones of male coquetry; or prefer the dissipations, the heartless joys of even conquests or this sort, to constancy in a passion, of which even the pains carry with them their peculiar pleasure, and are never without dignity and self-esteem. But he has little knowledge of the human heart, little acquaintance with its prodigious inconsistence, who does not at least admit, if he cannot account for these transitions from one extreme to the other.
Mrs. Rivers then was hardly out of my sight, before I began to think of filling up the vacancy she had left, with another amusement of the same sort; for I now had no relish for any other, and thought it neither no great compliment to the sex to prefer the chase of that game, to any other, however out or all taste this may sound to a staunch fox-hunter.
My next pursuit was rather a frolic begun and ended in a few days, than a serious affair. Chance threw it in my way, just in the nick of my loss of Mrs. Rivers, and very opportunely to fill up the tedious interval left 'till we should set out for London. And here I am heartily sorry that the laws of history, which are the laws of truth, do not permit me to ennoble the subject of my adventure, for the sake of those whose delicacy will be wounded, and their curiosity struck dead, when they shall know she was no more than one of the prettiest nymphs, or minor-goddesses of the household, in the whole country. I cannot find in my heart to call her by her true title of chambermaid, I have been so sick and suffered with the old story of masters falling in love with mamma's maid, and heroically making a match between pure love and naked virtue.
For me, however, to whom at least in those days of simplicity and before what is so impudently and falsely called high-life had debauched my better natural sense, I readily preferred the title of right-handsome, to that of right-honourable, and any girl with beauty was to me a rank above that of a royal highness without it. I was not then fool enough, however, since a coxcomb, to let my pride set the dice on my pleasure; nor am I clear to this day, that the herald's office can issue out charms as it does bearings, or that a sallow, sickly countess's visage can so naturally provoke desire, as satisfy a paltry vanity. So much for those who may snuff at the dignity of my conquest.
I promise them, however, that if they pity my taste, I shall hardly envy them theirs.
This girl, whose name was Diana, had been but a few days come to her place; and had already turned all the heads of our menservants, insomuch that there was some difficulty in keeping any of them sober, they were so taken up with celebrating her charms, in horns of October to her dear, dear health, for short, she was the general toast, from the butler down to the stable-helper.
One of my footmen, Will, whom I had been twenty times on the point of turning away for his slovenliness, by the sudden transformation of it into all the finical spruceness and nicety his condition, was capable of, gave me occasion to enquire into the motive of it, and finding it was owing entirely to his being smitten with this fair disturber of our domestic peace, I became curious to examine her more particularly: for I had just cast my eyes on her, seen she was handsome, and thought no more of her.
She was about nineteen, and lately came from a place in a country boarding school, where, by her waiting on the misses, she had just picked up crumbs of education enough to bridle upon, and give her an air of superiority to the common run of servants in the country. Half a dozen French words, which she had learned like a parrot; two or three tunes, as Blow Winter's wind, and Come Rosalind, Oh! come and see, which she sang passably, and played lamentably on a cracked spinnet, that was a piece of garret lumber, some tags of tragedy, out of the Earl of Essex, and the whining characters in Cato, and her deep reading at stolen snatches, in the Virtuous Orphan, and Fortunate Country-maid, and the like; all these composed her, amongst the subalterns of our family, such a transcendent merit, as provoked their indignation, that such an accomplished creature should be in service. And indeed her own little head was so giddied with this wonderful elevation, she was so spoilt with the affectation and value they inspired her with for herself, that had she not really been one of the prettiest figures that can be imagined, she would have been insufferable. Her dress, too, was always neat and clean, unless when, on extraordinary occasions, she mistook her interest so much, as to take a little tawdry finery for an addition, and which only served to prove that no dress could entirely destroy the impression of her person. Then her hands had happily escaped the havoc which hard work generally makes with them. Probably she had never been put to any.
The minx's behaviour, however, amongst her fellow-servants, whom she kept at a distance, with a scorn awkward enough, and fitter to create ridicule than respect, had so effectually awed them, that there was no talk in the house, but of the fools she made, and the proposals she would not stoop to. This reputation, then, of reserve piqued my curiosity, and I was soon determined, by an attention to her person, and the liking I took to it, to divert away a little time with her.
Upon this resolution I began to take a little more notice of her, and to drop occasionally some marks of my distinction and of my good intentions towards her, which completely finished her self-conceit. The simple girl, it seems, imagined that the same airs of prodigious virtue might be played with the same success on me, as she passed them on those of her own rank. I had opened my attack by some little presents, which she returned me with great dignity and spirit.
She wondered, that she did, what I meant by it.--She hoped nothing in her conduct had given me any encouragement for bad designs.--She knew she was indeed too mean for me to think of her for a wife, and she was sure she was too good to be a mistress to the highest lord in the land. If she was poor, she was virtuous.--With all this cant stuff that has so often ruefully taken in many a country booby of more fortune than intellects. As for me, who was out of all danger of being led greater lengths than were proper by a passion that I had not, could with great coolness project my plan of operations: master of myself, I was the more likely to become hers on my own terms. I had, it is true, thrown my handkerchief to her, a little in the sultan-style, and her refusal to pick up at my nod, had hurt my pride, but I was determined that hers should give me my revenge. Convinced then that all her dread virtue lay in her vanity, I happily hit on the expedient of making that subservient to my designs on her pretty person.
In this view then, I for a while redoubled my importunity, and seemed to keep less measures with myself than before, as if hurried away by the force of my passion. All which only served to feed her insolence, and proportionally increase a resistance, which I could never think of the impudence of her aim in, without applauding and confirming myself in my designs to punish it, to my heart's content.
My good aunt, who very gravely took umbrage at the show I made of my designs upon her, was on the point of sending her out of the house, but I interposed my authority with her so effectually, that she submitted to let her stay, with a reluctance I could scarce forgive her, so much I thought myself dishonoured by the motive of her apprehensions for me.
My declared intentions had now driven all competition out of the field, and I saw nobody in the house who durst dispute my Dulcinea with me. And I did not give myself amiss the comedy to see all the airs she swelled into, at the ardour I expressed with all the humiliation of a true lover, which I the better supported in the double view of pleasure and revenge. The more flame and impatience I threw into my solicitations, the more miss stiffened and stood upon her virtue, 'till, infinitely more deceived by her wishes than by any reason I had given her, her vanity had screwed her hopes up to the ridiculous pitch of forming serious designs upon me. No wonder then that a virtue no better guarded than by a vice, should not be a match for an attack on so corrupt a sentinel. And to say the truth, the ruin of women is often begun at homeland their fierce exclamations against the men, for want of justice to them, often proceed from their not having done it first to themselves, and that in more than one sense.
Diana, in the course of those parleys, which she indulged me in by way of drawing me in with the most theatrical protestations of a most inviolable virtue, had perhaps, under the notion of having inspired me with a great deal of love, taken a little herself: and that little might not ill second the effect of the mine I had laid the train to blow up her pride with.
And here I cannot with any degree of candour, omit remarking, that in that eternal warfare which nature seems to have established between the two sexes, and which, in one shape or another, subsists in every period of life, the men are not guilty of a little injustice, in imputing as a crime to the women that very dissimulation which they force them to in their own defence. If they love, and are sincere enough to confess it, we hold them cheap for their easiness: if they, in favour even of our pleasure (ever made more poignant by resistance) gratify that weakness in us, then we abuse them for their dissimulation: we who, in general, scarcely ever triumph over them but by employing it, with this excuse indeed, that sincerity is never more successful than when more praised than practised on either side.
Bent then, on playing all the game upon Diana, and satisfied I had at length brought her to the point I wanted her at, by proper progressions and that every thing was finely predisposed, I made the grand move, which soon decided the fate of the match, in my favour.
In one of those meetings which I had, not without affectation of great earnestness, humoured her belief of my attributing to chance, when I owed to her own art the giving me the opportunity of it; and when she was wound up, to expect the disclosure of some solemn, important resolution, in the style of my not being able to live without her, I gave her to understand, in the terms of the most cool and deliberate respect, that I was at length a convert to her virtue,--that I entered perfectly into the reasons of her reserve to me--that such exalted, pure innocence should never be the object of my loose desires,--and that I would always be the friend and admirer of a modesty I had no longer any designs upon, and of course should not pester her with any more of them. Poor Diana, with all her chastity at her tail, and totally unprepared for this most reverential declaration of desistence, appeared now more disconcerted than pleased. She was not, in short, equal to her surprise at it. Probably she had not read, or at least remembered any circumstance like it, in the novels by which she had formed her scheme of cruelty. I would not, however, give her time to falter out a most false approbation of my new sentiments; but left her to chew the cud upon them with an air of the most triumphant indifference. And in this I was not entirely a comedian, or perhaps I had not given so good an account of my undertaking.
I waited then a few days to see the effect of my stratagem, with a patience very fit to ensure the success of it, and soon found that neglecting is not always the worst way of courting Diana, thus deserted by me, and unprovided with admirers of comparative weight enough, to think of playing the stale game of alarming my jealousy with, had no consolation, no resource, left for it, but her conscious virtue, which began to be inwardly the less dear to her, in proportion of its being the less in danger from without. The enemy was now within, and her pride treacherously taking side with it, made pretty quick work with that violent chastity of hers. Nor was it hard for me to perceive the gradual change, my still civil, but cool behaviour had brought on: the more she had acted her rigour, the more fiercely she had displayed it in the eyes of the whole house, now a witness of my most decent desertion, the more she was fretted to have laid out so much in high heroics to a neat loss. A woman piqued is a woman subdued, if a man discerns but his advantage, and properly improves it. And I now stood upon master-ground enough for both.
That I may not then expand this achievement of subaltern gallantry to an unconscionable length, I shall pass over all the little arts and doublings she employed to decoy me back, and which only confirmed me in the policy of keeping aloof till they entangled her in such advances, as put it past her power to make an honourable retreat. I nicked the exact instant then, when a gentle extension of my hand served to pull her in out of her depth, and drowned in the joys of re-engaging me, at any rate, all the cries of that maiden modesty she had made such a fine fuss about.
This pride of hers, however, had had such a fall from the height she had stuck herself up at, that it could not miss breaking its neck so effectually, as never to get up again, at least to give me any trouble with it. My triumph was complete, and the pleasures which attended it, so great as to keep down for some time at least, my rising remorse at the guilt and disorder of it.
Diana, had indeed dropped to me in a manner that, without increasing my esteem for her, had disarmed my resentment for a resistance which my pride had taken offence at. I began now to think her too severely punished. My senses had been too exquisitely gratified, for my heart not to take charge of their gratitude, since it could not be touched with love. I thought then I could not do enough for a young creature, who, having done so much for me, had put it into my power to do nothing but what I pleased for her.
Even libertinism has its laws of honour at least. And to reason only upon human respects, the seduction of maidens in a point so capital to them as their chastity, is a breach of order and decency always criminal, and always better avoided than excused by the force of temptation: but it becomes the lowest of mean villainy, when the unhappy object is sacrificed to satiety, and neglected and thrown to the ground, like a squeezed orange. Cruel return, to expose a young creature to all the consequences of the world's contempt, which with great injustice falls less on the author of the injury than on the more innocent and the weaker party, which has been the victim of it.
I was then coxcomb enough in all conscience, but not villain enough not to think of repairing, as far as superior considerations would allow me, the mischief I had done.
Time pressed. Our preparations were already in forwardness to set out for London, and I knew I could not ask of my aunt a favour she would sooner grant me, than not to take Diana along with her. The truth was, the girl's fondness and indiscretion had, without my having any share in the blame, revealed the nature of our intimacy to the whole family: so that I risked nothing in making a confidence to Lady Bellinger, of what she knew already, had groaned over, and was the readier to forgive, from her joy that it was no worse, at least in the world's sense of things. This was a confidence, too, which before would have been little less than an insult, and which, in the turn I took care to give it, appeared in the eyes of her partial tenderness, a sort of reparation for my want of respect to her, in this irregularity, committed, as it were, under her nose.
I did not then consult her in vain. Charmed as she was that I had consulted her at all, she indulgently entered into my designs and motives; and, accordingly, took a pretext for discharging Diana, so very remote from the real cause, and accompanied with so much kindness and liberality, that she could neither see the drift of her dismissing, nor object to it. Probably too, she had flattered herself with an invitation apart from me to go up to London. But this I eluded, by desiring her to go to her friends first, where I would signify my intentions to her, and most assuredly take care of her fortune- of which last I was very sincere both in the assurances and execution. But a day or two, then, before we went for London, she repaired to her friends, tranquillized, if not satisfied, about our separation, which I easily afterwards managed, so as to cure her of any hopes of shortening; at the same time that I provided effectually and, I may venture to say, generously, for her future support, in a way that could leave her no room to reproach me for her ruin, so far as that word implies worldly want or distress. My aunt, too, had enabled me to make her a very handsome present at parting.
Thus I saw myself disencumbered, at the expense of no more than a mere trifle to such a fortune as mine, of some little remorse, and of a few moral lessons from my aunt, which I was too much obliged by her goodness not to receive with a docility and respect which made her almost not sorry that I had deserved them. Her affection for me was in truth her weakness: but mine for her was a virtue, since it was a just gratitude I must have been a monster, not to have repaid that parental fondness of hers with, which it was not at least for me to find fault with the excess of.
And now the long-wished-for day arrived for our set-out for London, where I had never before been, but for such short spaces of time, and at such an age, as could afford me no insight into what is called the town, and which I was now determined to launch into, and get into the heart of life.
I took leave then of our mansion without one single regret, and from my whole heart left the country to the cattle it may be good for, and to those serene individuals, who withdraw from society to indulge themselves in its innocent joys. I took no poetical adieu of all the verdant woods, flowery lawns, mossy fountains, purling streams, gliding in sweet meanders through the enamel'd plains they are loth to leave; grottos glooming with a tender shade, natural cascades, and the whole train of rural beauties, which make such a figure in soft pastorals and lyric description, and are so often sighed for through affectation, or by those who have not experienced them, as I had, whom they had tired a thousand times. Nor could they make me but consider the country as one of the last place in which I should choose to wait the coming of old age upon me, or to which I should ever sacrifice, unless the air of it was medicinally prescribed me, that venerable season when the tumult of the passions is over, and experience has the most qualified one for society, the choice of which, never to be come at in a country retreat, is so much the charm and essence of life, at a time it stands most in need of the refined and gentle dissipations of intellectual pleasures.