WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Memoirs of a Coxcomb
John Cleland (1751) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
About the middle of autumn I made my joyful entry into the great metropolis of our British dominions, the season when that company flocks to town out of inclination, which had mobbed out of it, in compliance with the fashion of going periodically to tire oneself heartily in the country, or to watch one another upon party-motives.
My first care on my arrival was consecrated to the memory of Lydia: my requisitions after whom ended only in new matter of vexation at my not being able to trace out, either who, or where, she was, and of admiration at the singularity of the adventure. The sentiments of melancholy which this disappointment gave fresh force to, suggested to me the idea of alleviating it by all the dissipations of a town-life, and in pursuance thereof, I plunged over head and ears into all the amusements and pleasures which presented themselves in crowds to one of my age, rank and fortune. Lydia then still reigned at the bottom of my heart, but the surface of my imagination, played upon by numberless objects of splendour and gaiety, passively took the shallow, volatile impressions; whilst my youthful warmth gave those follies they hurried me into, for the moment, the air, and almost the force, of a passion.
At my first arrival in London, there had been a tort of consultation held between my four guardians, whether I should directly set out on the grand tour.
The Earl of T--, one of them, was clearly for my losing no time, towards gaining that accomplishment, which is held as taking the first degree of a modern, fine gentleman. His reason, and his only reason, was that the Duke of--and my lord such as one had sent their sons, when they were about my age, on the same errand, for a finishing. But not a word did he allege of the benefit they had received by it. Mr. Plumby, another of my guardians, sided with his lordship, adding with great gravity and importance, that nothing could be more profitable to a young man than travelling, which he was qualified to assert from his own experience. This, indeed, was true in some sense, for though his travels had been confined to the coast of Barbary, he had there kid, when clerk to a merchant at Tripoli, the foundation of his immense fortune.
On the other hand Sir Thomas Kingward, perhaps as much from a spirit of contradiction, that soul of dissent, as from any thing else, or because he had not first proposed it, declared resolutely against my going, observing, at least with more shew of reason, that travelling to any valuable purpose required a proper degree of observation on governments, manners, men and things. That my age was certainly not the age of judgment mature enough to attend to, or penetrate into, points of that importance: and that the superficial acquisition he saw brought home by the pretty, travelled gentlemen of the age, did not give him very favourable impressions of this fashion, since it served to procure to most of them no better than the engraftment of exotic follies and impertinencies on their native stock, with which they made an unnatural and ridiculous mixture. Sir Paul Plyant, my other guardian, acceded to this opinion, not from his thinking it the best, but as it happened to be the last delivered. Upon this equal division, the point was then referred to the umpirage of Lady Bellinger, who did not hesitate a moment in giving her casting vote for my stay. I dare swear she would not for the world have trusted me out of her sight, in those bloody-minded papist countries, of which she had, like a true, good protestant, more direful apprehensions, than a very exact conception.
As for my own inclinations, they were so equally balanced, that I was very much obliged to any one who should save me the trouble of a decision, so that I cheerfully acquiesced in my aunt's determination: glad to give her a mark, which cost me so little, and pleased her so much, of my readiness to comply with her desires.
Fixed then for some time at least in London, I took a firm resolution to lose as little of life as possible. Happily, however, amongst all my follies, I was constitutionally free from an itch of gaming, a dislike to which I never saw reason to regret. As I was soon known to have a liberal command of cash though I was not of age, through my aunt's lavish fondness and the indulgence of my guardians, the whole gang of sharpers had their eye upon me, from my lord Whiskem, down to beau Hedge, whose first rise was a guinea, given him by mistake for a halfpenny, his reward for showing a link to a gentleman coming out of the playhouse. He immediately ventured this at my lord M--d--n's gambling-shop with a spirit, which fortune was so charmed with as not to leave him, till she had niched him in a chariot, and thus more properly introduced him to the notice, than raised him to a very suitable companion to our modern nobility.
I was soon then considered as a pigeon very fit and easy to be plumed, on its first flight from the dove-cote. All their bubble-traps were presently baited and set for me. But if these gentry are not more dangerous than they appeared to me, I should think the general outcry against them did them too much honour, and that the persons who fell a prey to them, "well deserved their woe." For though I certainly then knew little, or rather nothing of the world, the chariot and bay horses, and the embroidered suit, and all the technical show, so necessary to carry on their trade, never once imposed on me: the rascal glared so transpicuously through all their false finery. Even then-smooth complacency, their eternal grin of assent, and indeed all their mock-courtliness, which tempts one rather to spit in their faces, than to be taken in by them, wore no more the air of genuine gentility, than a mask does of a face, and could as difficultly be mistaken. It was in short so impossible for wretches, actuated by principles so infamous and abasing, to counterfeit that frank, open, noble air, which distinguishes the true gentleman, that their dupes must be dupes indeed!
Guarded then as I was by an invincible contempt for all gaming, as a most wretched, tasteless destruction of time, my natural penetration had the fairer play. I felt, I may say, instinctively the hollowness of their insidious approaches, and my pride was so enraged at their remarking the country put enough wrote in my face to attempt me, that I kept very little measures with my rebuffs, as I should have been very sorry that they had not perceived I saw into them. But if they could defraud me of nothing else, they did of the pleasure I had so just a title to, and had bespoke of mortifying them. I had, however, misreckoned. Those, who are capable of their meannesses, are not extremely tender, or susceptible of confusion. The regret of their prey escaping them is all they can feel, and even for this baulk they did not want their consolation, in the reflection that one sheep's escape from bleeding did not absolutely thin the market.
I might expatiate more in so fair a field for it, but that it might look too much like playing the old saving game of pride, the miserable finesse of which consists in thinking to compound for those follies one has a warm or weak side towards, by declaiming against those one has naturally no delight in. I have not, however, mentioned my aversion to play here as a merit, but as a happiness.
The whole bent of my inclination then lying towards the pursuit of women, of which I had made an experience that gave them sovereignly the preference of every other allurement, I was now only undetermined as to my choice. Sure of liking all, as of loving none, since Lydia had exhausted and still engrossed my sentiments of that passion, I sought no farther than the satisfaction of those desires inseparable from one of my age and unruliness of constitution.
I had been now but a few days in town, and had gone through the whole tedious round of visits of business and ceremony, when I was at length left at liberty to indulge my own notions of life, from which I had not been restrained without some impatience, even for so short and necessary an interval.
But of all the follies and fopperies of high-life nothing had more surprised, or sickened me, than that which goes under the name of visiting; and indeed can there be any thing on earth more ridiculous than for women, who heartily despise one another, very probably with equal justice on all sides, to play over so often the dull, stupid farce of rapping at doors, where one wishes, and pray for nothing so heartily as not to be let in.
Poor Lady Featherweight! Could I ever remember her distress without laughing, if it was not doing her too much honour even to unsettle a muscle about her? This most consummate trifler had, one afternoon with great importance, scrawled out six and thirty names of her acquaintance, whom she owed visits to, not one of whom but without giving her the least trouble, would have gladly sent her a receipt in full for the debt. Thus equipped with her beadroll, my lady sets out one afternoon in her chair; and had already dispatched five and thirty, not one of whom, but had, to her great joy, refused her the door. The six and thirtieth, and the last to be sure, was the plain, untitled Mrs. Worthy, who with a fortune not 'more than middling, enjoyed life with ease and dignity. Content with acquisitions, which made her a companion for the elegantest, noblest and learnedest of our sex, she took care not to corrupt the merit of her superiority with affectation or female pedantry. She had, withal, friends amongst her own sex, whom she really loved, because she esteemed them. Even the triflers of it she tolerated with unaffected tenderness, and always made good-natured allowances for the mere defects of nature or education. Thus she never insulted the present, or wounded the absent. It was at this door then Lady Featherweight stopped. She had so slight an acquaintance with her, that Mrs. Worthy hardly knew her name, whilst her own was probably put down on that illustrious list, only as an expletive of the three dozen, or for the air-sake of having it to say she visited one who saw familiarly none but the best company. Mrs. Worthy happened not to be out, and no particular orders being lodged at her door, it was answered to Lady Featherweight's footman, that Mrs. Worthy was at home. As soon as she heard it, she flounces out of her chair, with a muttered ejaculation: "I think she is always at home," and was shewn up-stairs, where, after she had heartily tired poor Mrs. Worthy with a wretched hash of subjects, such as ribbons, marriages, laces, fops, scandals, balls and routs, she ran out of her house, whipped into her chair, and came in a hurry to my aunt's, whom she dishonoured by an exception, that was to saddle her with her nonsense for the rest of the evening, and lamented to her in the most pathetic terms the misfortune of meeting with one person at home, when she had, with so much fashionable politeness, laid her account for a general exclusion. My good aunt, with very little acquaintance with the world, and just plain sense enough to discern the extreme folly of this street-errantry, contented herself with observing to her, that if they were friends or acquaintances worth cultivating, worth in short the trouble of a visit, she should think it a misfortune to miss seeing them. "Oh, my dear!" says Lady Featherweight, "you cannot be in earnest!" And then she named us, in a breath, such a cluster of duchesses and countesses, who had visited for years, and never seen one another, as when, I came to know them afterwards, confirmed me heartily in my contempt of a childishness scarce pardonable in pretty misses, that have not outgrown the christening of their dolls. But to see the tawdry, frippery, overdressed figure of this fine lady, without one grace of beauty, youth or wit, to intercede for her; to hear her complain of her misfortunes, and to think at the same time of the distress she must have put the person to, who was so much out of luck as to be plagued with her visit, was so rich a jest, that I burst out a laughing in her face, which she made me redouble, by very cordially joining in it, in the idea of her succeeding in her pretty airs, without dreaming that the joke was of her personal subscription.
Folly does not amuse, or even employ one's notice long. The one I have just mentioned soon grew even beneath my contempt, and it is only by way of regret for the disappointment and loss of time, it has too often occasioned me in my dealings with that sex, that I have deigned to mention it at all.
To return then from this insignificant digression. As soon as I was at leisure to turn myself, I found that, towards carrying my plan of pleasures effectually into execution, I should need a companion and confidant of more experience and knowledge of the town than myself. Such an one the difficulty lay not in the finding, but in the choosing. I had several pretty near my age, and animated, like myself, with the prevailing spirit of our season of life, the love of pleasure, who offered me their service. Chance, however, more than any judgment, determined me in favour of Lord Merville, a young nobleman, just of age, whose father was still living, and with whom he lived in the strictest friendship, ever attentive to repay his paternal tenderness with all that filial respect and confidence withal, so infinitely more honourable to both, than that servile subordination, with which some fathers so sagaciously purchase the hatred and distrust of their children. A conformity of inclination soon drew us into a free communication of sentiments and pleasures.
Merville had, at an age when most young men are held to begin the world, essentially exhausted all its variety. No body knew it better, or was better acquainted with all its pleasure and all its ridicules: but blessed with that sort of good-nature which never goes without good sense, his taste for the first soon inspired him with a necessary toleration of the last. His complaisance, always without design, was indeed a kind of constitutional indolence, which would not offer him to give himself the trouble of maintaining his dissent from the humours or inclinations of his acquaintances, of which he had, as the natural consequence of such a character, a great number, and few friends, though none more deserved them. Yet yielding, as he almost always did, to the opinion of others, it was never without a graceful 'dignity that he yielded. Did he, which was indeed rare, give you his advice, it was ever with such a soothing sweetness, such a regard to your self-love, as freed it from the disrelish, which generally attends that office, even in the best of friends. But if too just to oppose a tendency to weaknesses he was himself not exempt from, his notions of friendship were, however, too high not to bestow on those he honoured with it, the assistance and benefit of his experience. One was sure of his company, nay his guidance, certain lengths, but not a step beyond safe or honourable ones. Wherever he found any invincible indocility in any of his friends or companions, in points essential to the preservation of character, health, or fortune, he constantly, without coming to a disagreeable rupture, gently dropped them. His friendship, in short, was that of a Mentor rather too much mitigated; but that was more the fault of human nature, than his. He was more for regulating pleasures than rigorously restraining them: his morals were relaxed, but his heart excellent, sure sign that they were not always to continue so. I began then by being his companion and associate to his pleasures, and, in process of time, had the honour of becoming his friend.
With too much discernment not to penetrate the ply of coxcombry I was taking, and to know at the same time the inutility of combating it directly, he leaned with me, in order to bring me back again, and, in the mean time, gave me all the instructions and insight I wanted towards my avoiding any gross mistake in my first launch into life, when the first steps are so decisive.
It was under his directions then, that to soften the inconvenience of my living, as I was obliged to do, at my aunt's, and to secure me from the necessity of "recurring to the mean expedient of appointments at bagnios or bordels, that I hired in a genteel, though remote street, a neat small pleasure-house, which was committed to the care of a trusty domestic, well versed in schemes of this sort, and recommended me by Lord Merville, who vouchsafed to direct the furnishing it, in the greatest simplicity, but with all the greatest elegance of taste: without one single article granted to show or denied to the most voluptuous luxury. In this retreat, so commodiously fitted for the reception of my company, every want of nature was refinedly provided for: and it was here we occasionally resorted, to unbend in select parties, and to find again that lively pleasure which always languished, died away, or deserted us, amidst the magnificence of fretwork ceilings, history'd tapestries and apartments too spacious for pleasure not to lose itself in. Delicacy of manners presided at our entertainments, and gave poignancy to those enjoyments, from which it is never excluded but to their detriment. Even our most sensual gratifications were those of rational votaries to pleasure, and had nothing of the grossness of tavern-bacchanals, or brothel-orgies. Comparatively, too, with which I may venture to lay down for a maxim, that true taste not only adds to the pleasures of life, but moderates the expenses of them.
My little pleasure-house was not, however, entirely finished and settled, before I was engaged in an adventure of gallantry, with which I opened my first campaign in town. One evening that Lord Merville and I were at the play together, the box door opened behind us, and let in a lady, who rather dragged after her, than she was led by, a pale meagre, spectre-like, young man of quality, whom she very cavalierly shook off, as soon as she saw Lord Merville, and with the greatest familiarity came down and seated herself next to him, in a place that happened to be empty. "Where do you "keep?--One never sees you.--Were you at the last opera?-- "Have you got your snuff-box?--A propos, when were you "at Lady Drumly's?--Did you win or lose?", all this was pronounced in a breath, with a volubility of tongue, and a disengagement of air, which plainly pointed her being used to the best company. Merville, who guessed by my looks my curiosity to know who this original could be, and knowing that barely naming her was enough to satisfy it, said with a bow between grave and careless; "Indeed, Miss Wilmore, I "am charmed to see you; you look extremely well." This was an answer full to the purpose of all her questions, which she had herself very probably forgot. Presently, after seeing Merville speak to me, she lolled upon him, and asked him loud enough for the galleries to have heard her, who I was. He spoke softly to her, and told her my name and family.
This was enough; I had now her eyes, in full stare, upon me without the least concern or confusion at my catching hers. And presently, with an air of unconstraint and superiority to all that might be said or thought of her, on that occasion, she got between Lord Merville and me, that I might not, I suppose, lose my share of the happiness of sitting next to her.
What Miss Wilmore had been in her early bloom was hard to say. I have been told she was then delicate, and even handsome: but she was now five and twenty, and was not at all the first, and had some remains of the last. She was an only child. Her father dying when in his fond opinion she was of age and sense sufficient to take care of her estate, he left her one large enough to give her pretensions to the first matches in the kingdom and that entirely at her own disposal. Hurried away by the impetuosity of her passions, and naturally an enemy to ceremony, she had not waited for that of marriage, to acquaint herself with the most essential mysteries of it. Having then satisfied her curiosity on that point, and supported her resolutions by a great and independent fortune, she was determined that it should not play her the trick common enough of purchasing her a tyrant. As she heartily despised her own sex, she soon kicked off its trammels, and declared openly for unbounded liberty, in defiance of the tyranny of custom, and the usurpation of the men, whom the interests of her pleasure only engaged her to admit as their mistress and her own, but to whom she disdained to stoop as a wife. Fixed in these sentiments, she braved the public, which by the way she heartily despised, with an intrepidity and spirit that might have done her honour in a better cause. That many women are rakes at their heart may be, and is, I believe, true. That all are so, in a sex evidently formed for domestic happiness, seems more a poetical licence, than a truth warrantable from nature or experience. But that not one could ever gracefully support that character, when openly professed, I believe will hardly be disputed. Miss Wilmore at least proved no exception to this general observation. The first use she made of the loss of her reputation, was to turn it to the account of her taste for gallantry, which she now gave full scope to, without excluding, however, every other pleasure, that her inclination led her into, and which she could easily gratify with her command of fortune, and her sense to live up to it, without hurting it.
Throwing then off entirely the restraints of her sex, she made parties of pleasure with young fellows to all public places, and held them play at cards, at table, or over a bottle, with all the freedom of a man: but for these liberties, she only chose such companions as she could either entirely command their complaisance, or were too well-bred to encroach upon the familiarity she allowed them, beyond her own bounds: for she kept up some decency even in the midst of her-disorders. It was then natural for those of her own sex, whose conduct and education had taken a different turn, to condemn and fulminate a sentence of civil excommunication against her. And this she neither complained of, nor regarded. But what diverted her, and confirmed her the most in her scorn of the opinion of women in general, was to find that some of the most worthless of them, the most ulcerated with every vice, hypocrisy not excluded from under the black cover of the last, declaimed the most fiercely against her, who had at least to plead for herself that she had one vice, and that one the very worst, less than they. Some indeed, equally guilty, but less barefaced, declined her acquaintance, out of policy, as the timid herd drives the blown deer from amongst them.
Her person had, however, suffered by her boundless indulgence to all her passions. It had robbed her entirely of that grace of modesty and delicacy, which distinguished and embellishes female softness. A masculine awe had taken the place of it, and appeared as unnatural, though not so disgustfully shocking, as effeminacy in a man. Her bloom was already worn off, and her features enlarged and grown towards coarse. Yet still there was great fire and spirit left in her eyes, and an unaccountable something about her, which engaged and took with one, the more one knew or conserved with her, especially in her cooler intervals, when her passions gave her natural sense fair play.
Lord Merville knew her, and it was his own fault that he had not known her better: but he had undertaken her with such a security of succeeding, founded on her character, as had alarmed her pride, which would not suffer her to be taken thus, as it were, by insult, and put her on the defensive, who probably would otherwise not have scrupled being the aggressor. As he immediately withdrew, and had really had no very deep design upon her, a few days absence had made her either forget or forgive his attempts, and on seeing him again she treated him, as if no such misunderstanding had ever existed. However, whether I was as a new face welcome to her or had not at least any prepossession against me to get over, as Merville had, all the distinctions and favours were for me. We presently engaged in a conversation, carried on in breaks and pauses, such as Merville's occasionally interposing or our looking round the house, naturally bred. For attending to the play was fashionably out of the question. For my part I was coxcomb enough to meet, and encourage, all the advances she made me, without the least reserve, though I was sensible I was subscribing a scene to the whole house. Merville frowned, bit his lips, lifted up his eyes in vain. I looked on Miss Wilmore as a kind of heroine, whose character and temper piqued my curiosity, and whose person had not yet lost all its pretensions to please, or at least amuse. As for her poor conductor, who had the air of a figure of straw stinted in the stuffing, he was, it seems, one of those insignificant danglers by trade, whom she could take and leave without consequence, and who was not absolutely without some merit, since he did himself justice enough to pretend to none, and humbly contented himself with handing the ladies to public places, and held it for the greatest honour, if they would let him fancy a suit of ribbons for them, or play with their monkeys, and to say the truth he looked as if favours of another sort would have cursedly embarrassed him. Miss Wilmore had picked him up, she did not well know how herself, at an auction, and he had continued ever since occasionally her most humble and most innocent servant. He saw himself then deserted by her as a thing too much in course, to give us any interruption with his very modest pretensions. As soon as the play was over, Miss Wilmore scarce waited for the tender of my hand, which she seized, I will not say grasped, and I led her with an air of triumph to her chariot, that diverted more than Merville, who, however he laughed at seeing me spirited away in that manner, was not without some concern, surely on my account, for the consequences.
I had told Merville loud enough for her to hear me, that I would instantly return, and take him up with me, so that she had but the time between the play-house door and her chariot, to settle the point of an invitation to me, to come and spend the evening with at her own house the next day, which I accepted as readily as she could desire, in the full determination to push the jest as far as it would go. As for this precipitation on Miss Wilmore's side, it was so much in character with her, that the wonder would have been, if she had omitted it.
This great preliminary being thus adjusted, I went back to Merville, who complimented me with much sneer and some malice, on the dignity of my conquest, which he observed could not but give high impressions of my nicety and distinction. But I was not easily to be bantered, especially out of a folly that I had unaccountably enough set my head upon. As for my heart, I had no reproaches to make to it, for any breach of my peace on this occasion.
At the hour appointed, I repaired to Miss Wilmore's, and found myself not mistaken, in bespeaking a clear stage and all favour.
I was immediately introduced to her, and found her sitting in her drawing-room, in a dress of design. But though she inspired me neither love nor respect, I could not help observing that she still very well deserved my desires. I approached her then with that air of triumphant certainty, which, presuming victory, not seldom commands it. I had myself, too, neglected no advantage that dress could give me. After the usual compliments then, I took post in the chair set for me, and spread myself out, in full display of my figure, and all its decorations. Miss Wilmore, who, however, was really above being pleased with the coxcomb-part of me, was too solid in her views not to forgive that, in favour of the taste she had taken for my person.
The tea equipage was set in order for my reception, which is generally a necessary part of the ceremonial in an afternoon visit to women. It serves like wine amongst men after supper, to open and engage conversation. It was over our teacups then, that we came to leading explanations, when, notwithstanding all that I had heard, all that I believed of her easiness, great enough even to spare one the trouble of advances, which she used liberally to take upon herself, I found such a fear of hurting herself in my opinion by the idea of cheapness she knew was annexed to her character, as threw an air of modesty and reserve upon her reception of my gallantries; an air that bore the double merit to me, of distinguishing me enough to depart from her usual freedom, and of letting me see her sincere motives in it without pretending to place her shyness to the account of a virtue that she had not, and which she was above affecting.
At first indeed, on finding a certain elusion of my attacks, where I had bespoke even a forwardness to meet them, I was half piqued, and half disgusted. The copying it with me, which I should naturally have expected in another woman, appeared as trifling ill-usage, if not impertinence, in one I had been made with reason to look on as a most determinate Anti-Platonic. I was even inwardly afraid of the ridicule I should incur, in having a blank tete a tete with her. I pouted a little, I even drew back, and threw out hints of taking my leave of her for that time, in the hopes of my having another opportunity with her, when she should be in a better humour. Miss Wilmore, who took this, as I really meant it, for a kind of menace, and divided between her fears of disobliging me too far, and of giving me too much reason to contemn her facility, sustained, for a while, this struggle between her decency and inclination, when the last in right of habit and accustomed sway prevailed, and determined her in favour of my ardour. The declaration of her eyes, preceded that of her tongue, which was delivered with all the disorder incident to those critical occasions.
Well," says she, "Sir William, I feel I deserve your manner of treating me too much to complain of it. I disdain to hide from you that the desires you express, are my own wish. I should be sorry you had not them. The step I have taken proves it. All my regret and confusion is that they cannot be accompanied with your esteem, however, I may have hitherto acted, to the discredit of this sentiment, which I have too sovereign a contempt for the falsities of form, to feign, if I did not feel, and feel it for the first time. May you hereafter do me the justice to reflect, that if I have surrendered to others on my own terms, I yield myself absolutely to you, on yours; that even my easiness has its merit to you, since you alone could change the motives of it, from those of the senses to the more noble ones of the heart, which now lay me low at your mercy, you alone".--
She was going on, in this strain: but though it flattered my vanity extremely, I was too impatient, too complaisant indeed to the confusion I saw she was in, to .prolong it, by giving her capitulations a calm audience. I interrupted her then, I closed up her mouth with a kiss of energy enough to take her breath from her. I had insensibly shifted my post from my chair to the couch she sat on, and soon found her too much subdued, too much in earnest in her passion, to trifle long with my attempts to prove mine. Sincere in her desires, sincere in her expressions of them, she at length met mine with a meltingness that restored her even to her beauty, and to her sex. All her masculine airs were now softened into tenderness. The rakish, the bold, the indelicate Miss Wilmore disappeared, and in her place I held in my arms a true female with all the timidity and modesty of a new-made bride. I could scarce conceive her change, nor my own. I had, I may say, achieved a victory without a resistance; I had enjoyed without esteem; yet, such was the force of my gratitude, such the visible alteration that new-born love had operated on her, and which stamped on her caresses an impression not to be mistaken for that of mere sensuality, that gave a point to my happiness, the keener in that I had not expected it, and that my vanity was agreeably feasted with the preference I imagined I had obtained over my predecessors. I stayed then 'till two in the morning with her, in which time we supped together, waited on only by a faithful confidante; and in the returns of our privacy, I employed myself full efficaciously in quelling or rather drowning her tender doubts and fears of my inconstancy, but withal in a way that would give her reason to redouble her regrets, whenever they should come to be verified.
Respects of decency obliging me to take my leave of her for that night, I did it with such apparent, and what I should never have imagined, with such real reluctance, as was, to say the truth, but a just return, for all she expressed at our separation.
I got then into a chair that had been kept in waiting for me, and in my way home I could not help reflecting on what had passed.
To dispose as I had done of Miss Wilmore's person, a circumstance I had so much in common with many others who had preceded me, was nothing. Perhaps the justest matter, to have made trophy of, would have been, not to have had her; but the idea of being the first to inspire her with sentiments of love, to fix her, to show her all over the town as my captive, and tied as it were to my triumphal car, carried with it something so soothing to my vanity, that I could not help giving it a dominion over me. My pleasure, too, had found its account in her, far beyond what I had anticipated, which I take to be often the case of those who, engaged with women of not more than ordinary beauty, and not having had their expectations over-raised, have been less subjected to disappointments, than others have been with those striking beauties, who promise too high a feast, for reality to make good. There are women again, who are wise enough, either for then-own interest, or that of their pleasure, to do themselves justice on the indifferent state of their reputation, or the mediocrity of their personal merit, by employing so much art and attraction, in supplement of these wants, as often to make and maintain the conquests they snatch out of the hands of ungraceful, indolent virtue, or insipid beauty.
The next morning I dressed and went to breakfast at Miss Wilmore's, whom I found at her toilette, and Merville with her, which I could not observe without a sentiment that had something of jealousy in it. She received me, at first, with a certain air of embarrassment and confusion, which delighted and informed Merville of the pass things were at between us, as clearly as if she had made him the confidence in express terms. But Miss Wilmore soon recovered herself, and as she had taken her resolution concerning me, and imagined she should please me by a sacrifice made to my vanity in the avowal of her sentiments for me, she declared me from that instant her sole favourite, and even desired Merville not only to take notice of it, but not to thwart or oppose her in it. Merville assured her he was so pleased with her frankness, that, since he was not to hope for himself, he would not be above accepting her confidence, though, he added, maliciously enough, that it was an honour he expected, considering her known discretion, to share with the whole town. And in this conjecture he did her no injustice, for a long habit of indifference to what should be thought or said of her conduct, was not to be suddenly changed, especially when the strength of her passion added its usual impatience of dissimulation to her natural disdain of it.
The alteration withal in Miss Wilmore's deportment, her now softened tone, her less boisterous vivacity, compared to what Merville had known of her in her former gallantries, neither escaped his observation, nor surprise. Himself could hardly believe she was the same individual woman, who had so openly renounced all modesty as a weakness of her sex, and seemed now as thoroughly reconciled to it, as could be consistent with her open confession of the motives of her conversion. I received then Merville's congratulations on it, with an air of coxcombry and exultation, which could not fail of giving him the comedy, and which proved how ill I deserved the distinction and power now attributed to me. I little then knew that women as rarely confer their favours upon merit, as princes or ministers. Then the event soon shewed how ill Miss Wilmore had judged, in giving me the honour of reclaiming and fixing her. Merville, however, was soon so sensible of her mistake, that his concern for me was now transferred to her, from his thinking her new-adopted sentiments merited another fate than he bespoke for them, with a certainty that did his penetration no dishonour.
Miss Wilmore, whose eyes were now opened, in virtue of a passion she had never before experienced, felt, and deeply felt, because too late, the hurt she had done herself by the irregularities of her former conduct. She now found that that very esteem of the world, which she had been rash enough to sacrifice irretrievably to her grosser pleasures, was become indispensably necessary to procure her the duration of those infinitely more valuable ones, the pleasures of the heart: which are never to be well, nor long enjoyed, where that private esteem, which always follows that of the public, is not of the party.
In vain then did she change, and sincerely change, her way of thinking and acting. The severest reserve to all but myself, the dismissing of her train of flatterers, gallants, or companions of her pleasures, and the exactest adherence to the decencies of her sex, served indeed to certify and proclaim my triumph, in a. manner which my vanity was highly pampered with, but which could engage no returns from me but gratitude; and what a weak, insufficient sentiment is gratitude, where love can only satisfy! and love was neither in my power, nor in my inclination. The world ever more constant in its condemnation, than in its approbation, now took its revenge of Miss Wilmore's former neglect, by refusing its favourable opinion of her reform, and carried even its injustice so far as to attribute it to designs upon me, which love might indeed have secretly suggested, but of which interest was, I am still persuaded, perfectly innocent.
But none gave her less quarter than some of our titled ignobles, who to my certain knowledge would have gladly married her, and passed over every thing, in favour of her fortune, which was great enough to wash out, in their eyes stains ten times deeper than what she could ever have contracted. This will not, however, seem incredible in this prodigiously refined age, when, if the hangman's daughter was but worth money enough, she would hardly escape being taken away with by the proudest of our nobility; nor would they who know the world, be at all surprised to see in the news-papers the following paragraph.
"On -- last my Lord--- was married to miss Thrift, a young lady possessed of every accomplishment that can render the marriage-state happy, and a fortune of one hundred thousand pounds."
It is even scarce to be queried, whether the condition of consummating the nuptials at the foot of her father's sign-post would be an objection, their delicacy would not overleap.
Miss Wilmore, however, did me and herself justice enough to consider her former conduct, as an eternal bar to an union, which as it could never have entirely healed the wounds of her reputation, so it must have for ever dishonoured mine. Making then a merit to me of this sentiment, she would often assure me that she would be the first to despise and oppose such a weakness, even were I capable of it, and that all she wished or aimed at, was the possession of my heart, which was the less likely for her to succeed in, as it was really not in my own disposal. Nothing, however, less would content her in the turn she had now taken, and as her passion made her extremely tender and quick-sighted, she soon discovered that she had no other hold on my inclinations but gratitude, which was not much, and my love of pleasure, which was yet less, since my desires had been satisfied, and of course satiated. On her sense of this invincible indisposition of mine for her purpose, she soon grew reserved, melancholy, and given up to that tender, pensive grief, which is so engaging, in consideration of its motive. She often obligingly complained to me, that if I had been the first to teach her the pleasure of pure love, I was likewise the first to make her feel its overbalance of pains and anxieties: that I had robbed her of the sweets of liberty, without making her the only amends for her loss, that could make the rest of her life supportable.
It was then that I employed myself to calm her uneasiness, and assure her of a constancy I was far from being capable of. All my ends of amusement and pride had been answered. Repeated enjoyments had unedged my appetite, and the notoriety of my conquest had left my vanity nothing to feed on. I succeeded then as ill as I deserved in my attempts to quiet her just alarms; and, less to my wish than it proved for my ease, she had spirit enough to prevent a desertion she foresaw was inevitable, and by that means saved me the disagreeable sense of its being my act, however I might be the case of it.
I had for some time fallen off both in the number and length of my visits, which in all commerce of this kind, passes for a sickly symptom, that ever threatens an approaching dissolution. Yet her expostulations were gentle, tender, and even friendly: those in short of a woman who wisely avoids giving her gallant the excuse of passion and ill temper for his leaving her. Softened then, by her submissive style of bearing the wrongs I did her, and which was in truth the only method of managing with a temper so hot and impatient as mine then was, I had exhausted the whole chapter of excuses for my visible negligence, and the indifference which grew upon me towards her, even against my will: so true it is that we cannot dispose of our desires as we please.
Miss Wilmore was now no longer that unthinking, giddy flirt, whose wild sallies of whim and gallantry had exposed her to the censure indifferently of the really virtuous, as well as of those who had not the tenth part of her merit, on stating a fair balance of her good and bad qualities. She was now recovered to reason and reflection, from which she soon discovered the necessity of giving me up, and her bearance of my neglect was at an end, on her being well-assured that I had commenced a new engagement. She took then, and what was more, she inflexibly kept, a resolution few women but herself would have been capable of, who had begun life so much at large as she had done.
After ordering with the greatest expedition and secrecy all the necessary dispositions, when every thing was ready, she struck the blow she had so firmly determined; she sent then for Lord Merville to desire to see him at her house, and on his obeying her intimation, she acquainted him with the motive for it in the following terms, as near as he could remember in his relation of them to me.
"The declaration I have now to make to you, my lord, as "you are Sir William's friend, and I flatter myself, even mine, I own I have not the courage to support to his face, such is the unfortunate ascendant I have given him over me- you will then, I am persuaded, forgive me the liberty I take with you, in desiring you would communicate to Sir William the sentiment which I prefer trusting to your doing justice to, rather than to a letter in heroics, that old and trite expedient of deserted and forlorn mistresses. Conscious that I must not hope, what I could not deserve, the engrossing your friend's attachment, I am, however, too proud to satisfy myself with a divided heart, to have the love only on my side: or being no more than the object of his transient amusement. Yet my obligations to Sir William are far superior to any reasons of complaint against him. My passion for him has recovered me out of a career of licentious and folly into the paths of virtue, too late indeed for the retrieval of my fame, which the tyranny of custom renders impossible to those of our sex unhappy enough to lose it, before they know the value of it. You will please then to tell him that I leave him with regret, with regret I abandon him to the pleasures and dissipations of life, of which himself was the instrument in the hand of love to show me the emptiness and vanity. It is nothing for him to leave me, who does not, nor probably ever did, love me; but I who at this instant leave him with unabated tenderness leave him, tho' to regret him whilst I live. I neither hope, nor wish he should even remember me: and all I earnestly beg of him, is not to stir a step either to his disquiet, or my own, which last would be greatly the case, if he should seek to interrupt my plan of a lasting separation, which I am unalterably determined upon, and now resolutely take my last adieu."
With this she flung into her closet, without waiting for his answer, and shut the door after her. Merville made haste to acquaint me with this new turn, and came to my apartment, but I was that very morning gone to Richmond on a party of pleasure, which Miss Wilmore knew of, and had made her use of that opportunity: so that I could know nothing of my doom till the next day. As soon as Merville had delivered me this message of dismission, I found my pride at least piqued, and I was half tempted to consider it as one of those common finesses used by women to alarm their lovers to their duty, by their fear of losing them. But on a reflection upon the solidity I had observed Miss Wilmore had lately been taken so sensibly a turn to, I began to apprehend the reality: I say apprehend, for now the pleasure I should have found in a peaceable riddance, was outweighed by the reproaches I made to myself for deserving this desertion, and the wound it gave my vanity, to think it was she that had thus got the start of me. In the first flutter then of this novelty, I took Merville with me, and drove directly to Miss Wilmore's, where I found the house shut up, with only a porter to answer that his lady had set off at five that morning in a post-chaise of her own, attended with her confidante, but that he could not possibly tell, as he did not know, what road she had taken.
I stared at first, and seemed a little fretted at this cavalier treatment of my fugitive mistress, which I looked on in that light which a prince would on a conquer'd province shaking off his dominion, and in the heat of my passion expressed myself accordingly. But Merville, who knew that I was not only treated as I deserved, but happier than wise, in the painful scenes she had thus generously spared me, soon by half-humouring, half-laughing at my resentment reconciled me to myself, which was what I had more to wish for, than even a reconciliation with my lost mistress. My vanity, too, which was at bottom the greatest cause of my concern, kindly poured its balm into the wounds it had made. I began now to pride myself on having inspired so respectable a passion, and to think it pleasant enough that Miss Wilmore should thus turn the tables upon me, and leave me the poor distressed Theseus on the shore, to lament the flight of my Ariadne.
A few days after, I received a dry and long letter from her, in which she acquainted me with her going to the south of France, where she proposed weaning herself from a passion, the misfortune of which she did not so much impute to me, as to her former misconduct, and giving me a full acquittal of all demands in point of love, she only begged me to maintain a friendship for her, and even not to deny her my esteem, if she should succeed in her firm resolution to deserve it.
This was a treaty, I readily came into, and answered her in terms which, without flattering her with a re-engagement, contained every thing that could satisfy her pride or my gratitude. And as in this I was perfectly sincere, I succeeded to my wish, and had the rare good fortune of keeping the friend, where I lost the mistress.
Miss Wilmore in a short time returned to her country-seat, and from thence to London, where I saw her afterwards on the foot of the most pure friendship. She opened her house to all who had merit to recommend them; and had soon the pleasure to find that, as difficult as the world generally is, in parting with its prejudices, they lose greatly of their force, if they are not often entirely destroyed by the power of time, and that course of conduct steadily pursued, which aims more at deserving than expressing a desire of its good opinion. By respecting then herself, she brought by degrees all those to respect her, whose respect was worth the caring for. As for the formal triflers of her own sex, who held out against the demonstrations of that order and decency which now breathed in all her steps, she considered their estrangement towards her, as so much gained upon the enemy. Disdaining to justify follies she had sincerely renounced, she observed that at least they had procured her a riddance from a number of frivolous acquaintances, which would have been a dead tax upon her time and patience; that she would not indeed recommend the expedient to practice, because overbalanced by superior considerations; but that if the forfeiture of reputation was to be attended with no worse consequences than getting rid of the common run of female visitants, many might be tempted to try the experiment: perhaps, too, with less real inconvenience than some women marry improperly, purely to deliver themselves from the obsession of disagreeable relations.
Here setting down Miss Wilmore, probably with a better grace than I had taken her up, I return to the engagement I had commenced, when, on the umbrage of it, she had so spiritedly dismissed me.
This new acquaintance, too, had been purely the effect of chance. I had left Lord Merville at a gentleman's house a few miles from London, and was returning to town alone in a landau and six, about eleven in the morning; which, overtaking a chariot that was proceeding the same way leisurely before us, ran against it, and carried off one of the wheels clean from the axle-tree, upon which the chariot now tottered in suspense. On seeing this, and hearing the scream of female voices, I sprang out of the coach, and with the help of the servants easily disengaged the two ladies, who were in the disabled conveyance, and who had happily suffered nothing more than the fright.
As it was then impossible for them to get on in their chariot, the roads bad, and the distance from town about two miles; they did not hesitate at accepting my invitation into my conveyance. After I had made them all the apologies and reparation they could wish, for the carelessness of my drivers, which had been the occasion of this accident, I handed them in and seated them, and then gave the coachman orders to drive us to their house.
In the mean time, they were both so muffled up in then-capuchins and hats, that there was scarce any pronouncing upon the merit of their persons, till on their being a little recomposed, they took off their hats, and letting down their cowls, shewed me their faces in full view, the one of which marked fifty, at least, and the other about eighteen.
I had already learned the name of the eldest, which was Lady Oldborough, now a widow for the fifth time. Her last husband, Sir Thomas Oldborough, was a young baronet, without a foot of estate, but himself a very handsome person. This lady, whose weakness it seems was to be too much governed by her eyes, had, in the full age of reason, and in her forty-fifth year, married him, made his fortune, and ruined his constitution; which ruin she was not so happy as to have it be directly her work. The truth is, he could not resist the only attraction she was mistress of, which was her fortune, and that a very considerable one, as she was lady-dowager of all the pillage of her four preceding husbands, by none of which she had any child alive. But this fortune became, not without a sort of justice, due to so mean a motive, the in-snaring instrument of his destruction. For soon breaking all measures of common decency with a wife he had only wedded in the way to pleasures he could not come at without her money, he launched into every branch of them which that could procure him. And as if to make amends for his former stint, he now abandoned himself to such riotous excesses of all sorts, he drove with such fury, that his constitution failed under him, before it could carry him half way through his fortune. Bagnio-amours, tavern-vigils, the momentary racks of ill fortune at play, in short the whole tasteless, despicable round of the joys of the town, in which so many young fellows of good estates so lamentably consume character, health and fortune, had all contributed to tear him to pieces. Drained then, consumptive, and exhausted, he died, before he was thirty, a very old man, that is to say, as to his favourite ends of living. Thus more properly than she the dupe of this match, which had brought him these fatal acquisitions, he was forced, no doubt to his great vexation, to leave the old woman, as he called her, behind him, whom he had often, with great exultation and certainty, bespoke the joy of burying- and who upon the arrival of the contrary event for known causes, conceiving that her affliction would be treated as a farce, very prudently declined acting it, contenting herself with observing the usual forms, which the world less forgives a failure in, than in the real grief, of which they are, however, no more than the expression, and at the best an apocryphal one.
Lady Oldborough, relieved by this riddance, and grown wiser by experience, determined against putting herself again in the power of marriage-tyranny, or embarking, at least with young fellows, on so crazy a bottom as their gratitude or discretion: yet her taste for them hindered her from absolutely renouncing them. How to come at them, then, upon terms of safety, was the question: and we shall soon see what measures she fell upon for the attainment of her ends.
Her glass had not, it seems, reflected in vain to her faded sallow complexion, the retreat of her eyes inwards, and the funereal stamp of the crow's foot on their corners. Rare and incredible as it may seem, though a woman, she had not been blind to this decline of her charms: conscious then of what she had suffered by the usual depredations of time, she consulted her greatest interest and acted like a wise minister, who feels himself going out of power, and finding it impossible to hold it in his own person, substitutes a favourite, of whom he can dispose, and thus at least make the best profit of a losing game.
In this view then, she had attached to her, by all the ties she could think of, this companion of hers in the chariot, Miss Agnes, a young woman, without either friends or fortune, but to whom nature had made some amends in the treasures of her person. In truth it was hardly possible to fish out a finer figure for her purpose, or indeed a more tractable disposition. She was, in short, in point of understanding, little better than a beautiful pantin, of which Lady Oldborough directed the motions, and played the wires as best suited her views of interest or pleasure: but this game she managed with too much art and secrecy for me to discover, before time and events betrayed it to me.
On my first sight of Agnes, I could not help paying her the admiration which so great a beauty naturally exacted. Nothing could be more engaging than her face, nothing more correct than her shape, and all together composed a system of attraction, more powerful and more naturally accounted for, than any in all Sir Isaac Newton's works. It was not that I felt that sort of emotion which was reserved for Lydia alone to inspire me, but I felt that quick and sensible desire, which sets all the powers of the mind in action to obtain its satisfaction, and which made me, on that instant, conceive and form designs of pleasure upon her.
Upon this plan, as I did not then know the inside of the cards, it was but ordinary policy for me to imagine that being over particular to the young lady would be a false move, which might prove the loss of my game. I turned therefore all my court towards Lady Oldborough, who, I could not escape observing, eyed me with an attention and a certain expression in her looks, which was not that of dislike. I had then on the side of my intentions that security of pleasing, which rarely fails of investing one with the power of it. I threw, consequently, into my addresses to her, all those easy graces of assurances, which are so irresistible to most women, that they often require no other merit to succeed with them: and I was neither ignorant nor neglectful of my advantages.
By the time I was arrived at Lady Oldborough's house, I had easily made my party so good with her, that I could not get away, till I had passed a promise of coming the next day in the afternoon, a promise which my eyes confirmed to Agnes with a clear declaration of the compliment being paid to her; this she received with such an equivocal and no-meaning countenance, that nothing but the charms of her face could have hindered me from throwing up my pretensions from that instant.
Punctual then, through inclination to my engagements, I went to Lady Oldborough's about the beginning of the evening, where I found her with Agnes, both dressed to receive company, in a drawing-room crowded with visitants, to some of whom I was personally known: and all were prepared to see me there, from the account they had of the accident which had bred our acquaintance.
My own concern had made me tolerably clear-sighted, so that I soon discovered that most of the men were drawn thither by the pleasure of seeing, and by their designs upon, Agnes: a circumstance which at the same time that it answered Lady Oldborough's purpose, informed me very disagreeably that I should have the competition of rivals to encounter with, besides the opposition I bespoke from Lady Oldborough herself. Nothing, however, could be less rigorous or severe than the order of her house. She had erected it into an academy of gallantry, where none were more welcome than the gay, the young, and the handsome; a disposition very prudentially kept up by the mistress of it, in the view of her coming in occasionally for a share of what was going.
Agnes, however, shone with such superior beauty, that she was incontestably the first figure of the drama, and Lady Oldborough, whose pride was subordinate to her more material pleasure, was so far from jealous of the pre-eminence, that she seemed even not without affectation, to set her up in the first place, and to accept the homage paid her, as a favour done to herself: her motives for which were of so new and extraordinary a nature, such a refinement of art, that they were not readily to be suspected, and her conduct in it had the merit of a delicate self-denial, whilst it aimed entirely at the grossest self-gratification.
Nothing could be more tender, more caressing, more attaching than the reception I met with. All the honours of the assembly were paid to me, in quality of the greatest stranger, and of one, it was already evident, Lady Oldborough made a point of engaging in her society, to which Agnes, who had her cue, contributed all the very little art she knew how to use, in aid of her patroness's intentions.
As my first visit was too purely an audience of ceremony to afford me an opportunity of proceeding upon my business, I made no particular address either to Lady Oldborough, or Agnes. This last, set out for show, like a Romish chapel, sat, with all the calm and tranquillity of one of their images, receiving the worship of her idolisers, and a jest or a word from her was as great a miracle. Nothing in short was ever handsomer or stupider. But even this last consideration fortified my desires of enjoying so great a beauty, as I knew it would cost me the less pain or regret, to leave her afterwards. These ideas, thus associated, sufficiently pointed out the nature of my new passion.
It is needless here to insist distinctly on the particulars of a conversation, which turned upon general subjects. Who is there of the least rank or fortune, who has been happy enough to escape the repeated martyrdom of those mixed conventions in which town scandal, characters of players, comparisons of dancers, criticisms upon operas, without the least taste for music, the merciless satires of dunces upon dunces, the control of fashions, the hankwords of the day any how brought in, form the whole frivolous fund of the chit-chat of those, who are far from suspecting themselves of being low company, on the strength of passing vulgarly for the highest?
For my part, I was too glaring a coxcomb not to take with one sex, and alarm the other. The airs of sufficiency and petulance with which I boldly decided upon subjects I had neither dived nor dipped into; the edge I cut up characters with, as they fell under my dissection, the insolent parade with which I displayed my person and dress, all these absurdities, which should have rendered me ridiculous and contemptible, were precisely the recommendations by which I succeeded the most: they were the advantages, in virtue of which I dazzled and captivated the women, and confounded the men, who envied, whilst they could not contest with me, this worthless pre-eminence. I was then without a competitor, the hero of the day.
Lady Oldborough, too, did not a little help, by her visible partiality, to fix my triumph. She caught up all my no-jests, and gave them the weight they wanted by some emphatic comment, or laugh of approbation, whilst she passed by neglectfully, or even condemned, much better things that were said by others, Agnes herself, who scarce took notice of any thing, appeared at least to listen to me, and whatever little meaning shewed itself in her face, it was that of a plain preference of my nonsense to that of the rest of the company.
Thus advantageously introduced and posted, I easily made good my footing, and I soon had the satisfaction of seeing myself reign without a rival. Those who had designs of the same nature as myself upon Agnes, finding themselves totally eclipsed by the happy splendour of my follies, and the favour of Lady Oldborough, muttering quitted the field to me, and I experienced no further obstruction from them to the accomplishment of my projects. Some of them, in a fit of despair, were so hard driven as to transfer their homage to Lady Oldborough herself, who was too alert at seizing all advantages, to be over scrupulous about the manner in which they fell to her.
It was then that my assiduities at her house, of which Agnes as was just, had the honour, were presently divulged, and procured me my dismission from Miss Wilmore, who had never once deigned to come to an explanation with me on the causes of my inconstancy. She saw, it seems, the personages I had to deal with in another light than my passion presented them to me.
Lord Merville, who had occasionally seen Agnes at public places, had, on his side, very undesignedly confirmed me in the prosecution of my designs upon her, by his praises of her beauty in raptures, which in strict justice there was no refusing her. But he was perfectly a stranger to either her, or Lady Oldborough's real character. And I had made no advances towards introducing him, for a very obvious reason. He had too much merit for me not to fear him as a rival, and I had desires too near resembling the passion of love not to carry a little of the hue of jealousy with them: so that I preferred suffering from the want of his advice, to the danger I apprehended from his competition, should I put him into a condition of giving it me, with knowledge or the subject. Merville was not insensible of those fears, which hurt his friendship for me the less, as the motives of them could not be disagreeable to his pride. He was satisfied, too, that in all events this affair would carry me no very serious lengths without my consulting him, and that at the worst I was no marriage-dupe, being, as I had told him, sufficiently defended by the free-engagement of my heart. The attractions of present pleasure might perhaps easily silence the voice of reason, but there was little likelihood of their stifling the cries of love. As for my aunt, whose fondness still continued in the same tenor since my friends found that complaining of my conduct was not the best way of making their court to her, I was perfectly at ease from all remonstrances from that quarter. I even reduced her to the point of respecting the ridiculous sides of character by the air of sufficiency and bravado, with which I rather displayed than exposed them. This is a secret I have often practised with a notable success on more than her, and which I bequeath with all liberality to my brother coxcombs.
In the meantime, my frequent visits and intimacy at Lady Oldborough's were bringing on upon the spur the execution of her designs. She had given me all the fair play, all the liberty I could conscientiously desire, towards carrying on my attacks upon the charming Agnes. I used even to wonder at the intrepidity with which she seemed to deliver her up to me; but she knew her better than I did, though she presumed and trusted rather more upon that knowledge than is, generally speaking, very safe or advisable. But Agnes was only a very distant relation of hers by one of her first husbands, and now entirely cast upon her for her support and dependence: a circumstance which Lady Oldborough had made a merit of not suppressing by way of caution to me, which was not, however, perfectly disinterested on her side.
In the course, then, of the familiarity allowed me, and the opportunities almost industriously thrown in my way, I had taken in deep draughts of what is generally called Love, but had not been able to inspire any. Agnes was, in truth, guarded against me, not only by Lady Oldborough's secret instructions, but by what is much stronger, that constitutional coldness, which takes from chastity the merit of its being a virtue. I had not even with her the chance of finding out the weak side to level my batteries at: for she was absolutely a piece of fine, still life without passions, by which to work or be worked upon. If she repulsed any attempts upon her person, which her easiness invited, and which she always did firmly and coolly, this repulse was as mechanical and as sure, as the effects of clock-work, wound up to strike exactly at certain determined touches or movements. Pride, honour, reason had no share in her resistance, and the instant the causes of it ceased, she resumed, as if nothing extraordinary had happened, the same calm unruffled countenance, the same air of indolent apathy, which was a thousand times more puzzling and provoking, than the most outrageous resentment. In vain then did I employ the whole artillery of gallantry. My presents she would not receive, because she was told it was not right to receive them. And as to all the common-place rhetoric I was master of, it was just so much breath expended in neat waste. I might as soon have persuaded one of the portraits of the Hampton-Court beauties to leap out of its frame into my arms by talking to it, as compass my ends with this fair idiot, who found perhaps more protection in her stupidity, than she would have done in that lively perception, which so ill rewards many of her sex for their trusting to it. Enraged then as I was, not only at the loss of my advances, but at myself for letting my desires get so much the head of me, that I could not command them off this object of adoration and contempt, I endeavoured without avail to play my reason and my pride against my passion, but the more I endeavoured to flounce out of this plunge, the faster I stuck. Her personal charms, recurring strongly to my imagination, re-inflamed me so effectually, that I could not think of parting from the hopes of possessing them. I had even tried the expedient of appeasing my ardours by some by-parties of joy at my little pleasure-house, with some of those easy beauties which London swarms with. But the torrent thus diverted for a moment, returned only with tenfold violence, and served purely to prove that the imagination, once strongly impressed with a particular object, is not so easily to be put off with a change. It is only for satisfied desires to afford one the benefit of inconstancy.
Lady Oldborough, whose observations had waited on me through the whole progress of my passion, and to whose secret artifice I had owed a good part of the obstacles I met with, now saw me sufficiently entangled not to fear my getting off the hook, and began to play off the strength of her stratagem.
Without her giving me any handle for imputations on herself, or to take up notions of her, unfavourable to her designs upon me, I found my opportunities of seeing Agnes alone (for conversing with her was out of the question) greatly abridged, and soon entirely cut off. She was either engaged with some insignificant of her own sex, picked out for the occasion, or she was not well, or detained from me by other excuses, in all which great measures were kept with me. So that had I even perceived they were affected, they appeared natural enough to take from me all pretence of murmur or complaint. This restraint answered a double end of irritating the more my desires, and of forcing me on embracing any expedient which might serve to come at their satisfaction.
Whilst I was thus fretted and disquieted with this new train of difficulties, Lady Oldborough, at the times when I could not see Agnes, took care to throw herself in my way, and to comfort me so obligingly for my disappointment, as closed up my eyes against her having the least share in it. She wondered, for her part, what the girl meant by her foolish coyness,--that my particularities to her did her more honour then she deserved.--that she hoped she was not silly enough to think of drawing me in, by her impertinent keeping me off,--that she had a good mind to return her to whence she had taken her,--that though it was true she could dispose absolutely of her (this she often emphatically dwelt upon,) yet she could not say that she could wish to force her inclinations,--she was glad indeed the girl was virtuous,--but there was no general rule without an exception,--that every thing in short had its limits and restrictions,--that if it was ever excusable to swerve from the exactness of duty, it was in favour of such an one as me.
By this strain of condolence and fulsome flattery Lady Oldborough half forced herself into the confidence of my designs, which in truth had never escaped her, and which, had my thoughts of Agnes deserved the name of love, I would never have forgiven Lady Oldborough the grossness of countenancing. But as my desires were without delicacy, so were my views of accomplishing them. She had indeed artfully insinuated her power to serve me, so indirectly and sparingly opened a glimpse to me of its barely not being impossible for me to win her over to act such a part, that I could not well be shocked with any easiness in her to undertake it; especially as my wishes met her hints more than halt way.
I seized then, with the eagerness of a drowning wretch, this .extended twig. My eyes all of a sudden opened on the importance of Lady Oldborough to the success of my pretensions. I found without more deliberation, that she must be the key of the wish'd-for-treasure; but still a difficulty occurred, and that not a small one. How was I to engage her in my interest? I knew very well that such offices could not be gratuitous. Her fortune placed her above the temptation of money: though I would not have scrupled the sacrifice of a very considerable sum for the satisfaction of my desires. Our vices are ever more liberal than our virtues, besides there appeared to me so much trouble to be saved by such a method of purchase, as greatly humoured my indolence and love of ease especially in an affair of purely sensual gratification. But Lady Oldborough was really unapproachable in that way: yet convinced that I ought to consider her as a frontier town, necessary for me to make myself master of in my way to the reduction of the capital I had thus laid siege to in vain, I soon found that I must new point my batteries. Determined then not to omit any thing that might level the obstructions to my success with Agnes, I projected the making fob-love to Lady Oldborough, sure that she would surrender on very little summoning, and sure that the other would drop to me in course. I repeat it, this expedient was about as delicate as my desires, and I caressed myself for my wonderful sagacity in having fallen upon it: whereas in truth all the honour of it was due to Lady Oldborough herself, whose art it had been to bring her own designs to seem self-suggested to me, and who waited for me at this very pass, which I had been less brought into by my own driving, than by her insensibly pushing at the wheel. As soon as I had agreed with myself this noble plan, I resumed, in virtue of the hopes it gave life to, all that air of sprightness and assurance, so fit to secure my success. Neither this change nor its motives escaped the amorous veteran, whose game, and she did not fail to play it with superior skill, was to give me all the encouragement I could desire to transfer my addresses to her, and to let me see, as through a perspective, what gate I was to knock at before I could have the right one set open to me.
I had likewise another collateral view, in this scheme of trying how far this love farce might go towards exciting a jealousy in Agnes, which might be serviceable to me in my design upon her. By jealousy, I mean here, not that which the passion of love is hardly ever less or more unattended with, but that common sentiment of selfishness, which makes one envy others the possession of what one does not care for oneself, and which even children and idiots are not exempt from.
I turned then all my gallantry visibly, and not without due ostentation, towards Lady Oldborough herself, and affected a coldness and indifference for Agnes, which the thorough subordination she was in to this patroness of hers, made her receive at first with a tranquillity, that did not a little mortify me. My courtship had made no impression upon her, and my desertion as little. Still I pushed my point with the other, who met my advances more than half way, and confirmed me in my presumption that, one way or another, I should certainly accomplish my desires, which were more than moderately inflamed by these difficulties, and ultimately enter my port, though I was obliged to steer thus for some time with my face from it.
Lady Oldborough was in the mean time too serious in her designs upon me to trifle with occasions. She knew herself to be at an age, when no time was to be lost, and that I myself was in that dangerous season of life, when I might very possibly slip through her ladyship's fingers. But in the view of omitting nothing that might secure her point, she rather overshot the necessary, when she went something too abruptly not to be maliciously observed, into all the dress and gaiety of youth, as if it was possible to stifle the truth of her age, by such notoriously false witnesses, as ceruse, carmine, powder, and the rest of the jourberie of the toilette. There is not, however, in nature a point, in which the opinion of mankind is more universally clear, nor in which women, especially the old and the homely, are more incorrigible, than in their dress: fine clothes indeed may so far be of use, not as they turn the eye upon the wearer, but as they call it off from a forbidding face, and relieve it more agreeably: but then this avocation never results to the benefit, or answers the intentions of the unfortunate claimant, under these exploded titles. On the contrary, a silent indignation is sure to rise in the men at seeing finery thus murdered and misplaced. How often do we see even the effect of brilliants of the first water spoiled by their unnatural assortment with a system of dim eyes, sepulchral sockets, cadaverous complexions, and flaggy, collapsed muscles, when they can at best be considered but as funeral torches to light round a corpse, exposed in state. On the other hand, those who are ill-treated by nature or time, and who have sense enough to shun, as death, these distinctions, which present their defects more glaring and disgustful, and these pretensions, which render them more ridiculous, are sure to find the finery they thus profitably deny their persons, still more made up to them by the honour, which, from the renunciation of it, redounds to their understandings.
To do Lady Oldborough justice, she was naturally not so weak, as to put her trust in the powers of dress. I had often myself heard her hold in a good hand, at playing off her raillery upon some of her co-evals, for their dressing out of age and character. But passions are inconsequential. Either she was so far hurried away by hers for me, as to go out of her mind, (for love at her age was no better than a temporary madness) or she imagined me more superficially sighted than I really was. Not contented, however, with adorning a winter landscape with all the flowers of the spring, as if it was in nature for December to wear the aspect of May, she now affected the mincing scuttle, the infantine lisp, the giddy simper, the pretty dandle, in short all the airs and the graces of a girl of fifteen. Then she was, with equal silliness, fond of having me constantly at her side in all the public, places, and of showing me about as the French did their hostages, for a proof of her still victorious charms. In short, I was so near sharing the ridicules she proceeded accumulating upon herself, that with no great impatience, so far as she was personally concerned, I began to think it high time to shorten my voyage and make my port.
In the mean time, I had the pleasure to find that all subdued as Agnes was to her patroness's will and disposal, her insensibility in a short time began to give way, and herself to betray certain signs of fire and life, which all my direct addresses had not been able to call forth. Her eyes now appeared to me charged with more meaning and expression. Too intent on my designs not to watch these progressions, I soon discovered the growing symptoms of her jealousy in the marks of impatience, pique and disquietude, at the gallantry I directed to Lady Oldborough, and at the tenderness and encouragement with which she received it, all which only determined me the more in the pursuit of my scheme. It was easy to conceive that if I should prematurely alter it, and listen more to my inclinations, than to the policy of ensuring my success, I should run the risk of losing all the pains I had hitherto taken for their satisfaction; since I could then expect no fair play from the provoked and disappointed Lady Old-borough, who might, and doubtless would, exert herself, to cross and counter-work my designs. But, in with her, I was sure of being in with Agnes: such was the situation of my game, and I governed my moves accordingly.
I had no more now to do, than signify my royal will and pleasure to my loving subject, who had, to say the truth, scarce waked for its proceeding from me as my own mere motion. She had not, however, with all her folly, been enough the dupe of her desires, to mistake the point I had in view, in my yielding to the attractions she had thrown out for me. She could not dissemble to herself the implicit compact, not the less understood, for not being directly expressed, of her good offices with Agnes, which was the foundation of our engagement, since it was of her own suggestion, and (I might add without much more insolence than truth) of her own solicitation. Pleasure courts the young, the old court Pleasure, and are often glad to come at it on any terms. It is an age, in short, condemned by the course of the world to have nothing but what it pays for. Those then who have not in strict keeping that rare winter-fruit, called discretion, must lay their account with having the forfeit of it exacted from them in some shape or another. They are seldom happy enough to play the fool with a thorough impunity.
It is not, however, improbable that amongst the deceptions of vanity and self-love, Lady Oldborough had somewhat relied on the imaginary remains of her personal charms, or she could never have taken so much pains with plastering up her ruins. She hoped perhaps that I might still find something in her, which might take off my edge to Agnes, and attach me to herself. We are always ready to apply in one's own favour, examples which flatter our weakness: and there were precedents enough of young fellows, who had been bewitched by superannuated mistresses, to countenance her hopes, or at least wishes, for such an event. But even if this illusion served her for nothing more than stunning her reflections upon the grossness of the implicit contract, which she was now to put the seal to, my purposes were not ill served by it.
Prepared then for my purpose, and mellowed to fall with less than a shake, there was nothing more wanting than to agree the time and the spot for coming to the grand conclusion; and these prerequisites were easily adjusted.
It was not that Lady Oldborough had not some measures to keep with decency. So transient an affair as mine threatened to be, could not make her amends for a loss of character, which might bring on that of her female visitants and all her card match acquaintance, which are so essential at her season of life. She made then a very wide and wise difference between the suspicion she would have been sorry not to have created, and the proof which would rob her of those comfortable resources: and, in truth, since the world is so ready to compound for the saving appearances, it would be rather too impudent, as well as too imprudent, to deny it so reasonable satisfaction. As soon then as I had, on the foot of the most insolent security, proposed to her by way of a salvo my having the honour of giving her a petit souper at my pleasure-house, she wondered at my impudence, and very cordially accepted my invitations, which she most certainly would not have done, had she not counted as little upon my virtue as her own; though she was not ashamed of throwing out some feeble hints of friendship, whilst her countenance betrayed the eagerest wishes for an opportunity to break Plato's neck headlong down the stairs.
Upon this, an evening was appointed for my calling upon her, with the pretence of escorting her to some Entertainment, whilst it lay upon her to amuse or employ Agnes out of the way, who used generally to attend her upon most parties of pleasure, from which a third person need not, from their nature, be excluded. This was Lady Oldborough's own affair, and she took care of it accordingly.
For my part, I saw the hour of my assignation approach with a kind of indolent impatience. It is for desire alone to beget Pleasure: and every interest but that of immediate Pleasure itself adulterates and brings with it a disgust very fit to destroy it. Immediate I say, because a pleasure in prospect rather detracts from the present object, which is only made use of as a pass to it. How glad then should I have been to have executed my scheme by proxy! But I had unluckily no measures of that sort; possibly too they could not have answered my end. Women, when once they have their heads warmed with a particular object, rarely lose sight of it; and Love is a Sprite, which, however it may flutter and frolic it in young tenements, when it takes possession of your old ruined castles, is devilish tenacious of its haunts, and is not easy to be laid by the exorcism of any but the person who has raised it.
Condemned then by all the laws of honour and prudence not to play false to my own challenge, after very coolly finishing a game of billiards, which had borrowed somewhat upon the precious instants of my appointed hour, I drove to Lady Oldborough's with an excuse in my mouth, and something not so favourable to her as perfect indifference, in my heart.
I did not deserve the being so happy as to have any accident favour me with a disappointment, or to find the lady herself indisposed to be satisfied with my apology for making her wait, for, rather than upbraid me with my want of punctuality, she chose to give her watch the lie, and observed how good I was to come at least half an hour before my time.
I found her just risen from before her toilette, where she had doubtless taken a great deal of pains to very little effect. Her dress for the occasion presented an appearance odd enough, as it aimed at a medium between the negligent dishabille, and the cumbersome full dress. A gown, stiff with embroidery and loosely enough wrapped round her, gave no further expression than was necessary for her interest that it should, of a shape which most surely was not that of a nymph; whilst a bosom bolstered up, obtruded its false evidence, without avail. Our senses are not such dupes. Modest enough, not to be wholly insensible of the ravages of time, and industrious to repair them, she had exhausted all the powers of paint, powder, laces, and jewels, to forge herself a face and figure more supportable than ordinary: but nature is hardly ever seen to yield to the efforts of art, which we are even cruel enough to impute as crimes to the women, though they commit them purely in favour of our pleasure. But if they thus egregiously deceive themselves, they deceive none of our sex, who are worth deceiving. Who sees not the difference between the dead colours produced by the toilette, and the inimitable roseate ones of nature? between the bloom of youthful smoothness, so florid to the eye, and delicious to the touch, and the spurious glaze of varnish, presenting nearly the disagreeable shine of a coarse enamel? The face in short can neither be hid, nor sufficiently sophisticated; the deception, therefore, of dress is as silly and inconsistent as that of a merchant who would attempt to pass a bale of dowlas under the false package of cambric wrappers, whilst a principal part of the contents was left staringly open, in contradiction to the fraud. Ornaments indeed, sparingly used and employed with taste, may heighten indifferent beauty, but they as surely serve to render age or homeliness more conspicuous and, of course, more disagreeable.
Such was the natural effect then of poor Lady Oldborough's treacherous auxiliaries. I viewed her with a smile, which in the blindness of her passion she doubtless took for a smile of approbation. I betrayed some marks of awkward confusion, that I owed to certain inward self-reproaches, which she kindly interpreted as a transport, or ecstasy, that did not allow me the liberty of expressing my sense of my happiness. Such a prepossession one would not, however, have suspected in one of her experience, and yielding to me on the terms understood between us: but what is there less consequential than passions at any age, but especially on the verge of dotage?
Not without some violence, however, could I assume something of a countenance befitting the occasion, after some shew of faint reluctance on her side, some hints of discretion --a word which came very unseasonably into mention from her-and a world of pretty little grimaces, meant for expressions of delicacy, which did not extremely become the widow of five husbands, she gave me her hand, and I led her to my chariot, she glowing with desires, and myself feeling only the coolness of one who had no desires of my own, and could have wished to have had none of hers to satisfy.
With these ideas, the way to my pleasure-house gave me no occasion to complain of its length. We arrived then, and the conveyance which carried Caesar and his rare good fortune landed us safe. I introduced her then to my little temple of joy, and, in the decency of doing the superficial honours of it, stupefied for a while the less pleasing sense of my engagement to do the more essential ones.
Women are not naturally born for liberties which dishonour them. Lady Oldborough was, at least as she pretended, and which I was too indifferent to examine scrupulously into the truth of, at the first of her campaigns of this sort. She was then obliged to act as if such a situation was not familiar to her, and accordingly the novelty of this adventure, the taste of my house and furniture, the delicious convenience of such places for transactions of polite gallantry, were all topics which served to amuse our first awkward minutes. She admired especially the downy air, the commodious cushioning of a superb sofa, with a warmth of expression in which its obvious destination had doubtless some share.
Presently an ambigu was served in, in which nothing was omitted, that could flatter the taste, or stir up the sensual powers. My attendants, duly disciplined to the orders of the house, disappeared, as usual, and a dumb-waiter supplied us with the most generous wines. These were not unnecessary preliminaries, at least to me, whose nerves, as high-strung as they were with health and youth, felt too much the absence of desire, not to want the being invigorated and aided by the warmth of good cheer.
We supped together with the confidence and ease of parties in full agreement. I began myself to enter into the spirit and humour of it, to consider my situation in a less disagreeable light, and to think it droll enough for me to divert myself with the nature of my conquest. I grew gradually more pleasant, more free, and more disposed to put an end gloriously to this adventure. Even my imagination deigned to come in to the assistance of my constitution, and, by softening the defects of the present object, as well as piquing my curiosity, began to press Desire into the service of Sensuality.
But Lady Oldborough's own indiscretion had like to have nipped in its bud this laudable disposition. For not content with manifesting a fondness more cloying than provoking, either with an eye to excite me by a view of my reward, or trusting triumphantly to the power she flattered herself with having acquired over me, she ventured to toast Agnes to me. Nothing could be more injudiciously timed. It served to awaken an idea of comparison highly prejudicial to her present interest. I could not recall to mind the youth, the freshness, the prodigious beauty of Agnes, without forming such a contrast of her charms, to the spectacle I had before me, as bred a momentary disqualification, equal to that of the monsters of the opera. In vain, for some moments, did the twice too tender Lady Oldborough redouble her ardours. They redoubled only my disrelish; and I saw myself on the point of freezing by a fire-side.
Partly through the necessity of gaining time to recover myself, partly through mere ill-nature, and to see how she would take it, I slackened my advances and declined into that sort of respect, which is to women in certain situations, an injury the more exquisite, in that they cannot so very decently complain of it. I enjoyed then, for a little time, her perplexity and distress, with all the barbarity of a tyrant who delights in the tortures of his subjects. But if by this means I forced Lady Oldborough to make a foolish figure enough to herself, that which I myself made was, candidly speaking, not a much more respectable one. At length, however, my vanity served her more effectually than either her wishes or my own. The dishonour, which I suggested to myself would redound to me from a blank entertainment, stood me instead of a goad. These thoughts, conspiring to fill up the void of desire with the heat of youth, now resuming its force, helped me to go on in the undertaking, for which I had, not without straining, taxed my abilities.
I addressed myself then with the best grace I was master of to acquit myself honourably of a function, which was not the more agreeable to me, for the now considering it as a sort of duty. I had commanded, and, what is rare enough in such cases, I had forced my imagination, on which the springs of pleasure so sensibly depend. Nature was now at my orders. My attacks then began to partake of the warmth of my emotions, and became decisive enough to quiet the lady's alarms for fear of carrying back her virtue, as untouched as she had trusted it with me in hopes of better treatment. I was now plainly her man; but who can paint what she seemed in those instants?
Her countenance enflamed and reddened so as to deepen the artificial layer of tints that overspread its surface; eyes twinkling and glimmering with those occasional fires: and languishingly fixed upon me with a certain timidity and diffidence, as if they were asking charity: her neck, bare in some places, through the disorder of a tippet, which had faithfully answered her intentions, in giving way to the slightest pull, discovered the peels and cracks of a varnish, which had not been proof against the variety of its inflexions. Her hands, the fingers of which appearing the longer for wanting the plumpness of juicy youth, had the air of pliers or nippers, with which she either tenderly gripped mine, or sleeking them over my face, numbed as they touched me, and made all heat retreat before them; the whole in short of her person, spread before me like a desert of dried fruit, exhibited such a picture of amorous fondness, as was even more ridiculous than distasteful, and had nigh quelled my best of man. But as I was now in the pride of my spring, well-bottomed, and my blood fermented strongly in my veins as to threaten the bursting its turgid and distended channels, so that love was rather a natural want in me, than merely a debauch of imagination. The sympathy of organs established between the two sexes, sensibly exerted itself, and drove all delicacy or distinction of persons out of my head. I became then quite as naughty, to use her own term, as she could have wished, and piquing myself upon doing things conscientiously, I repeated a ceremony, which in some respects resembled that of the doge of Venice, when he weds the gulf by way of asserting his dominion. I had now triumphantly founded mine, and inspired her not only with a respect, but with a gratitude, which was not perhaps the less serious and engaging, for the motives being such pleasant ones.
But that nothing might be wanting to my satiety, I was not, I found, to be let off without a most cloying after-course of sweets and dears, which almost overbalanced my self-satisfaction at the proofs of my prowess, from whence I presaged to myself the most advantageous successes, whenever my constitution should act with the whole force of imagination on its side.
I was soon, however, relieved by the welcome arrival of the instants of our separation, instants of which many a loving couple openly deplore the cruel necessity with as much inward joy, as captives feel in the crisis of their ransom and deliverance.
I gave my hand to the lady, and led her to my chariot, in which I was to set her down at her own door. In the way thither, she shewed so much love and tenderness for me, that merely out of good breeding or politeness, I could not squeeze in any intimations of the service I expected she should be of to me in my designs upon Agnes, towards whom my stream of passion now ran with redoubled violence, as was but natural from the comparison my officious imagination had suggested to me, and yet more so, from the coolness of my senses towards the present object, which proportionally reinforced my flame for the other.
Determined withal, in favour of the main point I had in view, I had too great a share of insensibility and presumption, to forego my advantages. I fancy, too, that I made Lady Oldborough feel my consciousness of them, in a way that could not much flatter or please her. My style to her was more assuming than became a lover, or even a husband, more in the imperative than in the optative strain, and by that time we arrived at her house, and there parted, I left her pretty sensible that I did not consider as her last favours those she had just bestowed upon me. Such an express declaration would have appeared too crude, and close on the heels of them, and accordingly I thought it the very extremity of politeness to spare it her, till a decenter season.
After then sacrificing a few days to a forced complaisance, my impatience drove me to such explanations with Lady Oldborough in respect to Agnes, as she could neither avoid comprehending nor expressing her resentment at, as far as her fear of offending me, in a point she saw I was not to be trifled with, would permit her. A conqueror may submit to request, but does not therefore submit to a denial. She did not fail accordingly to expostulate tenderly with me, on the barbarity there would be in exacting such a disgraceful service, especially from her; as well as on the indignity of such a conspiracy against the innocence of a young creature under her protection. Her remonstrances, in short, had not fault in them, but her having bethought herself of urging them too late. Possibly had they come from any but herself, I might have listened to them with more calmness and deference, but in her they appeared as so many prevarications, which rather insulted my authority, than convinced my reason. I was unhappily too, at that time, of too impetuous a character, too much hurried away by the violence of my passions and the heat of my blood, to have much relish for that heroic merit, which is annexed to the sway of reason. I could not then easily part with the hopes of a possession I had taken such uncommon pains for, nor relinquish the reward I flattered myself that I had earned. I had known, I had seen, that the accomplishment of my desires entirely depended on Lady Oldborough; I had taken all my measures upon the foot of this presumption, and I was not of a humour, nor indeed generous enough, to bear a baulk of this sort with much patience or resignation. I was, besides, confirmed in my resolution by the behaviour of Agnes herself, whose constitutional coldness and apathy began sensibly to break way, and she grew more disposed to let in an enemy the less effectually guarded against, in that it is nature which unbars the gates to it. More beautiful than Venus, and more simple than her doves, if she was thus charming, it was more than she knew or cared for, though she had been a thousand times told so. But none had succeeded in making any impression on her silly insensibility, till a natural sentiment of jealousy, which she probably could herself give no account for, had advanced my affairs with her, to say nothing of the language and whisperings of an instinct common to all living beings, and which doubtless began to operate on a girl of her age and full formation. This instinct, by the bye, however the men ungratefully affect to despise and decry it, is probably often their best friend, even with those prodigies of virtue, who surrender to their lovers with the flag of sentiment flying abroad, whilst it is this very instinct which, from under the hatches, gives the word of command for striking.
Agnes, ignorant of the art generally used, and which seems so innate to women since they are mistresses of it even in their first weaknesses, added to the merit of her sentiments, that of the pure simplicity of the golden-age, in the escape rather than the expression of them. I soon found her melting so fast into my arms, that I could easily have dispensed with any obligations of Lady Oldborough's, but barely that of her not opposing me.
But this alteration in Agnes had as little escaped her observation as mine; and she treated the discovery more like a woman jealous and exasperated, than as a lucky incident which would save, or at least lighten her of, the incumbency of a criminal complaisance to those desires of mine, of which she had contracted an implicit engagement to procure me the satisfaction.
To say the truth too, I had not entirely deserved the best of usage from her. For (not to mention the coolness and neglect, with which I had repaid her fondness, and made her, by keeping too little measures with her, sensible of the ingratitude with which it is not uncommon for youth to reward the favour of those who at a certain age are unhappy enough to be plagued with a state for it) I had received too cavalierly those remonstrances of hers, to which, as they were the results of her regard for me, I ought at least, in favour of the motive, to have shown more tenderness. But I was naturally too hot and impetuous to bear the least thwarting, where I thought myself so much the master; and I had not yet, in my converse with women, learned enough of their dissimulation, to play it upon them, in favour of my ends with them.
I found indeed no direct obstacles to the consummation of my success with Agnes, but now they were not the less invincible for being oblique. I might see her as often as I pleased. I could single her out, draw her to a window, talk to her, which by the way only served the more to tantalize me, as I discovered that I should, upon occasion, have little or no opposition from herself; but I could never come at her alone. It was only in company, or at such hours and places, where all essential privacy was impracticable, that I could gain admission to her. The evident nearness to my point, which such insufficient opportunities pointed out to me, at the same time that I could neither bring things home, nor well complain openly of the impediments of my progress, tortured and wearied me to a degree that tried my patience beyond its bearing.
Lady Oldborough's finger was too plain in these incessant disappointments of my desire, for me either not to see it or her motives. They redoubled my ardours for Agnes, and my resentment against her. Yielding then at length to the vehemence of my passion, I became cruel and ungenerous enough, upon one of those occasions of privacy with herself, of which at least she was not sparing, to talk to her in a tone, in which I neither respected her nor myself. I upbraided her with duplicity, with breach of faith, and what was yet more inhuman, with her fondness for me. I knew she dreaded an open rupture with me, and though I was not so lost to decency and honour, as to mean such an extremity, I was not, in the blindness of my passion, ashamed to drop her distant hints of leaving her house, and never seeing her again. The acrimony which a fretful eagerness threw into my expressions, and the menacing tone which I lost myself so far as to assume, without working the effect I wished, had another which, as stale, as worn, as easily seen through, as the trick is, in the service of that sex, I had not experience enough to be prepared against.
Lady Oldborough, after giving me a tolerably quiet hearing, seemed overwhelmed, and unable to support herself under so heavy a storm; and after certain convulsions of face, which certainly did not extremely beautify it, fell into a fainting fit. This was a novelty which accordingly made a forcible impression on my good-nature. I was at once alarmed, and sorry for my petulances. Could the traitress have viewed me, (as not improbably she did, through half-closed eyelids) my confusion and grief must not have a little diverted her. I held her up for a few instants in my arms; and at length carried her and laid her tenderly down upon a settee, where I composed her as decently as I could. I was preparing to leave her there, in order to call for help; but I felt she held me so fast by one of my hands, which had, I know not how, got locked in hers, that I could not without violence disengage it from her grip. Then she squeezed it with such convulsive grasps, and fetched such deep-heaved sighs, as made me tremble for fear of her being in the agonies of death. In this idea, I burst from her, got to the bell, and rang for assistance. But before the servants came up, madam thought proper to come a little to herself, and sitting up on the couch, with a wildness in her eyes and a faint voice, just articulated in breaks a few mournful ejaculations. I was cruel--I was barbarous--I should be the death of her--no matter; she had deserved it all--and worse--but not from me---By this time the vehemence of my ringing had brought in two or three of her attendants, to whom she only complained of a violent fit of the head-ache, and bid her woman get her some volatile-drops. They were accordingly brought: and I was for some time idiot enough, to believe that those were the drops she wanted to relieve her. We were once more left alone. And I began to make some apologies for my vivacity, which I could not give utterance to, without a tenderness of tone, that shewed her I was melted into compassion for what I had made her suffer. With too much experience not to know the advantages of this soft season, with too little delicacy not to seize and make the most of them, Lady Oldborough, who still kept her post upon the settee, and had insensibly drawn me to sit down by her, listened with her head languishingly reclined upon me, and now and then convulsively clasped me. She said little, sighed much, and looked a great deal more. The situation was new to me, and I was at first no doubt awkward and mistaken enough in my means of consolation. But I must have been less than man, could I have long held out against the designations of the sole specific in cases of this sort, which her eyes tenderly turned upon me, and her fond caresses left no room to misunderstand. Penetrated then with concern for the extremities I had come to with her, and perceiving that I could not well atone for them, but by proceeding to others, and unwilling to lose the merit I was coxcomb enough to attribute to myself with her for past indulgences, by now leaving her with so much reason to complain of my brutality, I employed myself so efficaciously to console and repair the injury I imagined I had done her, that we parted for this time better friends than ever. For now convinced that she had owed entirely my complaisance to my expectation of hers, and to a momentary fit of compassion, she had given up the point of attaching me to herself. She assured me then very cordially, and with great seeming sincerity, that since she was not to reckon any longer on solely engaging me, she would rather bear the tortures of dividing my affection, than part with the pleasure of receiving sometimes marks of it, though she were to owe them to no more than my gratitude.
Content with this intimation, I believed and left her. On cooler reflections too, I began not to be so dissatisfied with myself for having carried matters with so high a hand. The issue of the fainting fit had greatly relieved me from considering it in the tragic light, I had at first viewed it. I began even to suspect the reality of it, and indeed it was a remains of weakness in me, that I no more than suspected. Could the laws of honour have allowed me to have made a confidence of my adventure to Lord Merville, he would doubtless have set me right, and not have suffered me to have been so egregiously the dupe of my candour and inexperience; but I was fated to acquire my knowledge at my own expense.
In two or three meetings I had afterwards with Lady Old-borough, she amused me with a false confidence of the progress of her dispositions in favour of my designs upon Agnes, which I was the easier to believe her sincere in, from the increased artless demonstrations of love, or at least liking, I met with from Agnes herself. I seemed even so sure to myself, that, like a master-engineer, I thought I could have named the very day the place would surrender to me: but in the fairest of this prospect I found myself stopped, as it were, by a Haha wall, the very instant I expected to enter it at discretion.
I had told Lady Oldborough a day before that I could not dispense with attending my aunt, next evening, to an opera, but that as soon as I had reconducted her home, I would come and sup with her and Agnes, and hoped to have the pleasure of finding them both disengaged.
Accordingly about eleven I came to my appointment. I found Lady Oldborough waited supper for me; Agnes was not with her. On the terms we were then, I thought myself authorized to complain a little peevishly at this baulk. I imagined her absence was a little paltry finesse of Lady Oldborough's, to procure herself an opportunity of privacy with me, which I could scarce forgive her the being so silly as to hope any good from, towards answering the ends I supposed she had in it. I took no pains, of course, to dissemble my ill-humour, whilst she vainly took a great deal, to quiet and recover me to any tolerable temper. She assured me that Agnes had positively begged her to dispense with her company for that night, and had retired to her apartment early, on the plea of indisposition.
"The truth of this," added she artfully, "you may satisfy yourself of tomorrow, as you will have all liberty of access to her; and, as I am really myself sorry for the girl's being out of order, it will be cruel for you to punish me for what I can so little "help, and even doubly feel for the pain it gives you."
This she pronounced with so much seeming candour and veracity, that I actually suspended my suspicions. Supper was served in, and we sat down duly enough on both sides. After supper, just as I was meditating my escape, and preparing as tolerable an excuse as I could think of, my lady's woman came in, and taking her mistress aside, spoke to her with a great air of mystery, and with great emotion and vehemence. They stood at a reasonable distance from me, and I could just overhear, as her servant's voice occasionally raised itself, the interjections of--"what will this world come to?--had long suspected something extraordinary,--who would ever have thought it?--such a creature too!--I was almost afraid to tell your ladyship of it.--I should not deserve to eat your ladyship's bread, if"--here, as in other breaks, the fall of her voice left my curiosity grievously in the lurch.
Lady Oldborough, whispering something in her ear, too low for me to hear, dismissed her, and returned to me with all the marks of confusion, anger, grief and vexation, as legible in her countenance as she could have wished. She kept withal a profound silence, as if at a loss for expressions to give vent to what she felt; less than I now saw and had heard would have provoked my desire of knowing what was the meaning of it. I pressed Lady Oldborough urgently to relieve my suspense. She hesitated a little, and acted the utmost unwillingness to break the matter to me. I easily conjectured that Agnes was what all this mystery related to, but had not the least guess of the nature of this novelty.
At length she broke out in a most bitter exclamation, that Agnes was ruined, undone, vilely, vilely lunk and lost. The colour which rose into my face at this, the quiver of my lips, the passion which I felt at my heart, and which lightened in my eyes, readily betrayed to her, that I was more disposed to look on this information as a trick than truth. But this she was no doubt prepared for: she then told me that she herself would never believe, nor desire me to believe, less than ocular demonstration, which, she added, she was afraid would not be wanting, for that her woman assured her, she was at that instant in the arms of her paramour, a young man, the choice of whom did her taste as little honour as her reputation; that she expected, in short, her woman instantly back again, who was to lead her to be a witness herself of the infamous scene: that if I pleased, and would give her my word and honour that I would command my passion, I should myself partake the discovery with her, but that for many obvious respects she would not have the creature exposed, less for her own sake, than that of her poor friends, and the honour of her own house. I stood, at the hearing of this, overcome with surprise. I aimed at speaking. Rage and vexation choked up my words: I could not refuse so fair an offer as that of seeing the proof with my own eyes, yet I dreaded it as the death of those desires which were so dear to me, and in which I had treasured up, by anticipation, such an exquisite feast for my senses, and in truth for them alone.
Whilst I was thus undecided, and stood like a statue, her woman returned, and entering the room, where we were, stood pausing, as if waiting for Lady Oldborough to speak privately to her; but this she declined, and to shew she had no reserve for me, with an air of confidence and ingenuity, bid her woman speak out before me. Upon which this Mrs. Burward, whose looks by the bye, I had never much liked, as I fancied I saw something in them fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and who had doubtless returned me the aversion I had never dissembled for her, broke out with all the malignity, which her face was of an admirable cut and hue to express, and which was not now much embellished to me, by the nature of the discovery.
She had long suspected, that she had, Miss Agnes's forwardness; but she never could have thought her capable of taking evil courses,--that she seemed so innocent! well! to be sure there was no trusting to looks:--that, on miss's excusing herself particularly though mightily pressed by her good lady to sup with her that night, on pretence of being out of .order, she shrewdly imagined there was something more than ordinary at bottom,--that she watched her waters narrowly,--and as good-luck would have it, she had found out the whole plot.--That the intrigue could not be of yesterday's standing, since it was with young Tom Stokes, a neighbour's child in the country, who had been observed even there to be more noticed by her, than he should have been.--That this sweet-heart of hers was come to town, not above four days ago, as she supposed, after Agnes, though when he came to the house, he pretended he was only up on an errand to see some relations, who had promised to do for him; that miss had seen him, and that she could not well tell how, but that, with all her simplicity, she had been cunning enough, to conceal and harbour him all the day till night, in her bedchamber, where he then actually was locked up with her: that it was the greatest mercy in the world, she had discovered such doings--that she would not for the world's worth have concealed them from her good lady, and that if she pleased, she might with her own eyes satisfy herself of the truth. --That she was sure, by the silence and darkness in the room as she could perceive through the key-hole, that they were gone to bed together, for she had taken care that he should not escape."
Whilst this recital lasted, it was hard to say what I felt. Indignation, contempt, regret of so much time and trouble thrown away on a worthless object, all mixed, and made me feel at once their blended impressions. But soon no passion was stronger with me than that of curiosity, to which I annexed at least the benefit of undeception, one way or another.
I urged Lady Oldborough then to accept immediately of her servant's offer, which she agreed to, on re-exacting from me a solemn promise, that nothing should tempt me to any violence or eclat. A promise I readily gave her, in the security that my rising scorn would enable me to keep it.
It was now one in the morning. Mrs. Burward took the lead with a candle and a pass-par-tout key in her hand, and directing us to tread softly, marched at the head of the silent procession, Lady Oldborough dolefully leaning upon me, as if the extremity of her grief had rendered such a support indispensably needful to her. After going up the private stairs, and passing through a range of apartments, we came at length to that of Agnes. Our conductress stole her key softly into the door, opened it, and let us in.
Lady Oldborough made me observe, for I was almost blind with the fury of my passion, the hat and clothes of a man, lying in disorder upon the chairs near the bed. They served to confirm Mrs. Burward's information about the person, as they seemed those of a plain country farmer. At this I snatched pretty abruptly the light out of the woman's hands, and leaving Lady Oldborough to sustain herself as well as she could, hurried towards the bed, and drew the curtain. Agnes, the beautiful Agnes, whom I had thought so innocent, lay under the bed-clothes, which covered every thing but her face and hands, buried in the profoundest sleep, which even added to her charms new graces of tenderness and delicacy: no! never appeared she to my eyes more lovely and more despicable. For behold! on the side of her a young fellow, with his hand passed under her neck, and clasping her as it were to him, lay snoring, with his eyes fast enough shut, to defy the effect of the light glaring in them; which I naturally attributed to the fatigues of his chamber-confinement of the preceding day. I was so enraged, however, at the rascal's tranquillity and happy posture, that I was wishing for a cane or horsewhip, just to have given him a hearty remembrance of his good fortune of that night: I was lifting up my hand, to present him at least with some token of good will when Lady Old-borough stopped me, and with a beseeching look, which silently put me in mind of my promise, drew me away gently from the guilty scene, and accordingly we left the chamber with as much precaution as we had entered it.
As soon as we had recovered the room in which we had supped, Lady Oldborough did not fail to value herself upon, as well as praise me, for our command of temper. She observed that there was no medium, between acting as we had done, or proceeding to such extremities, as they indeed deserved, but which for superior respects were better avoided; but that she would take care to pack her off instantly, and not keep her disgrace at least within her doors.
I heard this with the utmost unconcern. The sight I had just been regaled with, had on reflection, instead of adding to my indignation, perfectly cooled it. The revolution in my sentiments towards Agnes was seemingly complete: my contempt had so thoroughly taken place, that but for shame of having so much misemployed myself in the pursuit of her, I could have laughed heartily at this adventure. To Lady Old-borough, then, who affected to ask my advice, by way of sounding my pulse, how she should proceed, I answered with the most frozen indifference, that I did not pretend to experience enough, in cases of this sort, to direct her ladyship what to do; that it was enough I knew very well what I was to do myself: but that she might depend on my secrecy in all events and consequences.
Upon this I precipitately retreated, and left Lady Old-borough in some consternation at the tone I took it in; she who had probably counted on being a gainer, by all that was detracted from Agnes. But she had overshot her mark; for now, full of the most determinate detestation and contempt of them both, I quitted the house, with a fixed resolution never to set my foot in it again. I was not indeed very justifiable for thus involving both, on these appearances, in my renunciation, but the whole of the part I had suffered my passion to prevail on me to act, now appeared to me in so ridiculous and even criminal a light, that I could not well bear the thoughts of either, so that now the destruction of my desires became a sort of reason to me, or supplied the place of it.
The next morning I received a letter from Lady Oldborough, acquainting me with having that instant sent Agnes away, to do penitence in the mountains of Wales after such a connivance at her gallant's getting off, as she supposed we had agreed on, as the best salvo. The letter concluded with an intimation how welcome a visit would be, to comfort her for her affliction on this occasion.
But she could not have applied to a person on earth less disposed, after what had happened, to afford her consolation. Unmoveable then in my resolves, I sent her an answer, such as was fit to cut off all further commerce; and on receiving, and sending back unopened several consequential letters from her, I arrived at disembarrassing myself from an affair, which was grown highly disgustful to me, and in which I was not soon to know how much and how basely I had been abused.
It was not till some months after, that Lady Oldborough, upon the marriage of Agnes in the country to a gentleman of worth and honour, in favour of which this patroness of hers had parted with a very considerable sum, completed the reparation she owed her, 'by sending me, (for I constantly refused to see her) an authentic and well attested narrative of the deception which had been practised upon me, and which I was ultimately not sorry for, as time and other objects had favoured my disengagement, and as it justified me so amply to myself for my usage of Lady Oldborough, which as it happened had no other fault but that of not being bad enough.
The truth, in short, was that the whole of my discovery of Agnes and her pretended gallant was a device, and that a coarse one enough employed on any but a novice, and framed and executed by Lady Oldborough and her worthy confidante. The person in bed with Agnes was a lusty country girl, picked out and disguised for the purpose, and equally innocent with her of their hellish designs upon us; as they were both thrown into that deep sleep, which had deceived me, by the common operation of drugs given them for that effect, it is easy to imagine how the rest came to be artfully disposed, as the hat and clothes and hour of the night.
In the meant time, Lady Oldborough, whether by her own suggestions, or by conjectures naturally enough combined, reaped even honour from my desertion, and the sending away of Agnes. It was presently whispered about, that finding my assiduities began to grow too serious, and to alarm her for her charge, she had not only broke off her acquaintance with me, but sent Agnes very discreetly out of harm's way. For my part, I was far from being sorry that the story took this turn: I had even good-nature enough to encourage it, as most certainly, when the interest of my passions did not mislead me, it was not in my nature to be ungenerous to the sex, or to make an ill use of any secrets I came at, in the course of my commerce with it.