WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Memoirs of a Coxcomb
John Cleland (1751) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
There is nothing like a disappointment, for throwing one into the arms of philosophy for consolation. The baulk I had met with in my designs upon Agnes, had heartily mortified me, though perhaps not more than the consciousness of my rare success with Lady Oldborough, whom I now heartily detested with a less reason than I was then sensible of her deserving. Yet my coolness on the discovery had been only a temporary illusion, in which my pride had helped to smother my vexation, even to myself. But when I was alone my rage returned upon me with tenfold violence, and as soon as I got home, I relieved it by a copious expectoration of "spleen, which I vented in a ranting soliloquy against the sex. And then alone it was, that I forgot Lydia, purely that I might not too positively involve her in the fulmination of my general censures.
"The women were all, ay that they were, nothing but living magazines of levity, art and folly. The only wise were those, who by treating with them, merely on the foot of their subservience to their own pleasure, without ever suffering it to be in their power to give them a moment's pain, preserved their great character of superiority. The complaints of being made fools of by them ought to begin at home."
These ravings, with some scraps of poetry, theatrically tattered away, and which were certainly not panegyrics upon a sex, whose power never stands more sensibly confessed, than in these impotent sallies of rage and railings, eased and composed me into the most philosophical serenity. As my passion, too, had never been of a nature to break in upon my rest, a few hours' sleep restored me so perfectly, that I waked in no other disposition, than looking out for a new mistress, with whom to repair my loss of time and trouble.
I was then so thoroughly humbled, that I was once more determined to take the readiest; a disposition in which, however, my natural impatience and the love of an easy satisfaction of my senses had some share: my senses, I say, which I was sure were always true to me, whatever the favourite objects of them might be. I made it then with myself a point of justice not to punish them for what was not their fault.
I was full of this commodious casuistry, when Merville came to pay me a morning-visit. I saw him with the more pleasure, as I had undergone less raillery from him, for my attachment to Agnes, than I was sensible I well deserved. He proposed to me then a party of pleasure, for the evening, at one of the most celebrated houses in town for the accommodation of such travellers as are bound on voyages to the land of love, and who are not over curious of what bottoms they venture upon, provided they are trim vessels and pleasing to the eye. As there is then no insurance-office, yet erected for the security of those adventurers, especially against the case of poisoned returns, which often obliges them to make disagreeable quarantines, every one runs personally his own risk. Merville was himself an admirable pilot, not only as he knew the chart perfectly well, but as he was defended by his experience from embarking farther than was consistent with his safety. No man besides had ever declared a higher contempt for all the false and insipid delights of this course than himself. Not was it inconsistent with his regard for me, to engage me once in such a party, if but to give me a right, from my own personal observation, to share with him the honour of holding them as cheap as he did.
I the readier came into his scheme, as I was now clearly disengaged from Agnes, the mystery of which I suppressed to Merville, as much out of pride, as from any point of honour.
We parted on the terms of my accepting his engagements, and met again that evening at the Play, after which we proceeded, to finish the remains of the night, to one of those shambles in the neighbourhood, in which, with a barbarism of taste scarce inferior to that of the cannibal markets, human flesh is exposed and set out for sale; and the terms of the craft generally used to put off the goods to their customers, or cheapeners, are so nearly those of a carcase-butcher, that one may reasonably enough deduce from them the affinity of these genteel trades. "See here, my masters! here is a charming piece of flesh! oh this is a delicate morsel for the spit! here is a substance to cut up, so juicy, so meaty, so young, fresh out of the country, none of your overdriven cattle, neither handled, tainted, nor fly-blown; plump, white, and lovingly worth your money:" with the rest of the puff in this style, or rather not quite so delicate.
Our company consisted of Lord Merville, and besides my self, three more, the Duke of-- Lord Melton, and Harry Burr.
The party was made upon the Duke of--'s losing a supper upon a wager: the scene of payment was settled by his adversary, and the plan of it left to Merville, who was to bring whom he pleased with him. The Duke of--, besides the illustrations common to him with the rest of the nobility, was distinguished by that of having with the fortune of a prince the soul of an usurer, and of exhibiting the rare personage of a young hunks. Thus his only virtue, frugality, was an arrant imposition on superficial judgments, and was at bottom the meanest of vices, since it was far from wearing the genuine air of that worthy economy, which is not to be safely or commendably neglected, even with the greatest estates. His parsimony was visibly the dirtiest avarice, added to all the other impertinencies and follies that dishonour the commonalty of those of his rank. If he paid his tradesmen ready money, it was not from principle, or tenderness due to all trading industry, but merely as that rarity gave him a sort of title to screw them up to harder terms. The management of his household, all breathed more the narrowness of his soul, than that spirit of order and regulation, which it is even a pout of taste to establish in a family. Even the pleasures of the sex, which were never to him more than the gratifications of a purely animal instinct, in which his chairmen or porter observed as much delicacy as his Grace, could not in the softest moments unlock the gripe of his contracted heart, and nothing was commoner than stories of his sordidness and brutality to his mistresses, who were constantly ill used and ill paid by him. Conformable, however, to his manners, was the coarseness of his appetite, which coincided deliciously with his darling penury, by directing his choice in his amours to the cheapest objects; those in short less likely to prove expensive to him, than in a rank of life nearer his own level. The public opinion of a character, so little respectable as his was, could not escape even his own knowledge of it; but besides that the saving half a crown would have proved at any time a specific consolation to him, under the united censure of mankind, he had naturally a most serene insensibility upon that head. Not indeed that noble carelessness of it, which proceeds from a consciousness of right, but from that contempt of reputation, which constantly goes with the contempt of virtue.
Then friends he had neither the taste to relish, the merit to create, nor indeed the impudence to expect. He modestly contented himself with giving that name to those muck-flies, which swarm round any dung-hill eminence.
Contrasted to this character in, perhaps, as indefensible an extreme was that of Lord Melton, to whom the wager had been lost. He had not been above three years emancipated by the death of a rigorous father, who had kept him under a restraint much fitter to inflame, than moderate, the natural impetuosity of youth, and drive it headlong down the flowery precipice of pleasure, on the first snap of the curb. And accordingly as he came at once to the full possession of his liberty and estate, he laid about him like a fury unchained, and let loose upon the town. Void of all experience of the world, and an enemy to all advice, the physical taste of which from the manner in which he had been drenched with it, he could never after endure; his fine person became the prey of every drab that would poison his blood, and drain him in every sense; and his purse the resource of every sharper of every rank, who, considering it as his property, made no scruple of taking his own wherever he found it. In so short a time then he had irretrievably foundered his estate and constitution. His estate, in tasteless, silly profusions, which had produced him no return but ridicule from those who were enriched by them: his constitution, in one continued succession of excesses. Thus by too greedy a grasp at pleasures, he had really tasted none, so constantly did any enjoyment in view, cut the throat of the one in actual possession. In the arms of one mistress, he was less sensible to the present joy, than to his wishes for another in perspective, so that he could never gratify his desires for the obtrusion of new ones, which kept deriding him, like the horizon, that flies for ever before the approaches to it. He had aimed at the character of a voluptuary, and fell so short of it, as to be nothing more than one of those debauchees, those woeful sons of pleasure, of which one sees so many scarcely living objects about town, who with pale jaundiced faces, hectic constitutions, and reduced legs, preach from example the virtue of temperance, stronger than whole libraries of sermons or morality.
As for Harry Burr, this facetious gentleman was one, who, having very foolishly spent a small income of his own, by associating with young fellows of superior fortune, and by that means bought his experience of the brittleness of those friendships founded upon a bawdy-house acquaintance, was now grown wise enough to make the most of the present minutes, and lived by reprisals on the rising rakes, and by which means he had made some of them refund his losses by their fathers. He possessed then so thoroughly all that branch of town-knowledge, which centres nearly in the rounds of Covent-garden, that no party of debauchery was esteemed a complete one, without his comptrollership and presence at it. The bawds accounted with him, the gamesters fee'd, the whores courted, and the waiters respected him. In short he was the beau N--of all that important province. He had taken Lord Melton under his protection from his first launch into the ruinous extravagancies of the town, and had taken especial care, that no one should impose upon him, without his coming in for a competent share of the pillage. With regard to this person, my coxcombry was of great advantage, as the insolence and haughtiness, which made a part of its composition, served me to awe and keep him at a distance.
It was in this company, however, that I was destined to make my first campaign of this sort in form. For though I had had several parties of gallantry at my little pleasure-lodge, with not the most straight-laced of women, they had been always conducted with a spirit of decency and order, unknown to these hackney seraglios. As soon as we were let into our assembly-room, the patroness of the house waddled in, and welcomed us with a most nauseous familiarity, chucking one under the chin, and slapping another on the shoulder, with all that coarse, vulgar style or freedom, so fit to open a man's eyes on the level he lets himself down to in suffering it from those creatures.
Then, Dick, Harry, Tom, were all her forms of compilations, accompanied with a silly, hollow laugh, which she meant for an expression of joy. "So, my killbucks, you are come I see, --it is an age since you have darkened my doors--ah! rogues, I have got such goods--such roses and lilies----none of your rotten regiment--but where the devil did you get this young smooth face? I never saw him before [meaning me]; is he come to lose his maidenhead here? Adds me, if that is the case, I have his match to a hair,--a girl with an eye like a sloe, and a hip as hard as a green apple. She will do for him, my life on't."
This greeting, joined to the figure it came from, drew a laugh from me, in which she was too gross of sense to distinguish contempt from approbation. I begged her, however, to keep her hands off me, the fat and oiliness of which gave me no relish to the touch of them. And, to say the truth, this majestic dame was no exception to the general rule of those of her vocation, who break as naturally into fogginess and corpulence, as the rest of the publican tribe, which may be one reason, too, why, their sensations of pleasure being buried in their fat, they can the more quietly manage the duties of their function, and see with less pain their old personal customers go by their doors.
Yet, one would naturally enough imagine, that these superannuated suffocks should consult their interest so far as to keep as much out of sight as possible, if but to stave off an idea that cannot but be unfavourable to their trade; the idea, that the pupils whom they produce as objects of pleasure, should be of the same species as themselves, and must, if not cut short by diseases or accidents, as naturally come into that form of being, as young pickpockets grow up into housebreakers and highwaymen. As for mother Sulphur, which was a name de guerre, given her by one of her customers, and the propriety of which had fastened it upon her: there could be nothing even more shocking or disgustful than her appearance. Only imagine a tartarphiz, begrimed with powder and sweat, that could not, however, conceal the coarseness of a dun skin; a. mob, that with all its pink ribbons, was forced to give way, all round, to the impatience of confinement of stiff, bristling, grizzly locks, every hair of which was as thick as a pea-straw; then this gorgon head was sunk between her two shoulders, and carried in mock state, something in the style of the crown and cushion; descending from which blessed landscape, to where the creases and plaits of her breast triumphed over all the dirt and ceruse that encrusted it, the sight, if not the scent, was feasted with two pailfuls, at least, of uberous flesh, which had outgrown the size, and neither in hue and consistence deserved the names of breasts. I go no lower than a busto description for the sake of nice stomachs. But as her whole figure was of a piece with this sketch, it will be easy for an imagination, unwilling to lose any part, to supplement the whole of this lovely original. It was, however, more natural to take such a scare-pleasure for a priestess of Diana, than a minister of the Cyprian queen. The sight of her was at least enough to lay in a month's provision of chastity.
Lord Merville, who had had the arrangement of this party left to him, to the visible discomfort of Harry Burr, who looked upon him for that time as an usurper upon his jurisdiction, asked her how trade went on: she thanked heaven, never better, and that, for her part, she was satisfied; she had a neighbour's share. She did not doubt, if the Lord was pleased to bless her, but that she should have, before long, one of the genteelest bawdy-houses in town. I was growing sick of her cant, when Merville, who saw how I suffered, fell to, asking her what forwardness the dispositions were in that he had given her directions about. "Ay," says she, "gentlemen, if you would always give a body orders in such good time, you might be better served, and to be sure, I have for this bout done my best to oblige you."
Upon this, Merville desired her to send in, together with the girls, the largest bowl of arrack punch in her house, to which she signified her ready obedience by a gracious nod, a frightful grin of joy, and disencumbered the room.
Presently entered, with the liquor ordered, a fellow, or kind of tyburn-smart figure, in the double quality of a waiter and master of ceremonies to the ladies. The old woman had had her instructions, and there were five bespoke for our entertainment. Accordingly they whisked into the room with that unceremonious familiarity which breaks out in a silly giggle, and half-curtsies. Harry Burr, whom Lord Merville's request had restored to his usual superintendence, resumed his function with great importance of dignity and aspect. He presented then the girls to the company with a gracious smile of protection, and assured us upon his word and honour, which was, upon these occasions, as authentic as a bill of health, that these were all fresh and sound pieces, and at the first of their appearance in that character, and that he would pass for them all partly upon his own knowledge, and partly on the venerable mother Sulphur's assurance, who, he was certain, durst not impose upon him, or his company! The truth is that they were all very young and very pretty figures. The oldest was not twenty.
Their dress, too, was that of drabs of distinction, and such as became the high rank of a house of the first note in town; yet, all their finery had a certain paltry patchwork, frippery air, and a dash of the tawdry-fine, which could not escape any one, the least acquainted with the dress of real high life, with which these creatures have so often to boast momentary connexions, and in which they are, however, so far from catching the air of it, that nothing ever betrays their invincible strangeness to it, than when they attempt it, and mistake flippancy and pert-ness for ease and freedom.
Some of them had besides, toward repairing the ill effects of their night vigils on their complexion, tricked it up with some red, but so coarsely, that it was discerned with half an eye and gave them such a finished look of their trade, as was far from being the advantage to them for which they meant it.
For my own part, I who was then too vain, too insolent and too presuming on my person, to debase it to the embraces of these devotees to the public debauchery, who raised in me only sentiments of compassion, and none of pleasure, I could peruse their charms with perfect impunity. I considered them as the unhappy victims of indigence; as the objects, in short, of charity, more than of desire. I wondered how such figures could pass, not indeed upon country-bumpkins, apprentices, lawyer's clerks and the like, but upon young fellows of fortune, fashion and spirit. I could not conceive by what infatuation some of the first rank in the kingdom could sink their taste of pleasure into scenes of it, too low for description, and rake for their delights in the sinks of the stews. Surely, if women of true worth and distinction, were to consider who those wretches are, they are so often sacrificed to, the excess of the disproportion would prove their consolation. They would disdain to regret any so low of taste, as to content themselves with such carrion-quarry. Unfortunate creatures! at once the sport and scorn of those who deal with them, and who well know that for the most part these slaves of necessity are obliged to feign and forge joy, in order to give joy.
It was then but natural for me with these sentiments, to acquiesce with the utmost ease in the distribution of these fake ones to their owners for the night. There was then no scrambling for them. The Duke of--, with an air of authority and eagerness that I was much more disposed to laugh at than resent, laid claim to his duchess, who was neither the handsomest, nor appeared to be over-much exalted or pleased with the preference. She knew his Grace. Lord Melton waited for Burr's signal of distinction, before he would venture to throw his handkerchief: though, if he was not belied, he was so far broke down, that a nun might have picked it up without essentially endangering her vows. Lord Merville, upon mine and Burr's refusal of precedence, for expedition's sake took the one next him; after which Burr, with the most nauseous humility and designing self-denial, forced me to make a choice, which I let drop with unaffected carelessness, on evidently the least amiable of the two left, doubtless to the no small inward diversion of so great a connoisseur, who could not keep the pity of my taste to himself as far as his looks could betray it. Merville alone construed me right, and took the first opportunity to tell me so. As for the girl who fell to Burr's share, she made such a face, as one may suppose of a captain of a privateer, when he falls in with one of his own trade, where he expected a Spanish galleon. Our being thus packed threw, however, a sort of order into our assembly, and every one of us behaved at least, as if we liked each our partner. I was not come there to give myself the airs of a young Cato, and went of course with the current. A compliance, which was not only due to my knowledge of life, but necessary to my views of making the right use of scenes, in which I should have thought my taste for ever dishonoured to have found a pleasure. Every thing went smoothly on. The girls began their usual part. They acted gaiety in the way on earth the least fit to inspire it, and pretended a fondness, which, considering the motives of it, could not be returned with contempt enough.
Merville, who was, in his fits of humour, as malicious as a monkey, observing that his Dear hummed an air then in vogue at one of the gardens, was barbarous enough to take the hint, and asked her to sing for the diversion of the company; which she was so good as to comply with, after the usual forms and grimaces, as "lord, she wondered any body " could of all things desire her to sing,--she had got a sad "cold, to be sure,--she would, however, endeavour to pleasure the company,"--then primming up, she set out with a squawl that kept me on the rack the whole unmerciful length of a sad song, at the end of which Merville had the impudence to cry out bravo! and his Grace, entranced to the point of repenting his not having chosen her, encored it, upon which encouragement the poor girl was on the point of renewing her complaisance at our expense, when Merville, in whom compassion began to take its turn, eluded the second torture, by observing that it was cruel to take the advantage of so much sweetness and condescension, and succeeded in silencing her by dint of compliments.
But who can paint, or who would wish to see painted, all the follies and nonsense of this motley assembly, bad warm, and worse cold? the lust-toying of the men, and the repulsive false fondling of the women, or, what was yet more nauseating, that sort of mock modesty which these sometimes affect, because they are often told that modesty pleased our sex, and which becomes them yet worse than the most abandoned impudence: as all art, when it is not exact enough to be mistaken for nature, is sure to turn doubly to the disadvantage of those who employ it. Who does not hate imposture, or not expect to find it in them?
After a little time thus spent in these preliminaries, the chat, by Merville's management, landed at length on a question commonly enough proposed. "How came you first upon "the town, my dear?" and a question which they are generally prepared for, and take special care to have a moving story, ready cut and dry, in which they stick all the lies that may be useful to them, without suppressing such truths as may not clash with their designs, or which may spread over the whole a colour of probability.
One was the daughter of a reverend clergyman, who had brought up a numerous family in too genteel a way, and being left destitute by his death, she was betrayed into this course by a woman who pretended herself a friend to the family. She had never thought to have seen the day, and endeavoured to squeeze a few drops, that honestly refused coming to her assistance.
Upon this, I could not escape observing that the girl, who was devolved to my share, was endeavouring to stifle a titter, and, by the way, though the least pretty of the five, she appeared the archest, and most sensible of them. I asked her what straw it was that tickled her upon this occasion. She whispered me as conveniently as she could manage it, that that unfortunate daughter of a reverend clergyman had, to her certain knowledge, no other relation to the church but being taken off the steps of St. George's porch, Hanover-square (where she was loitering for want of a lodging, and eat up with the itch) by one of her quondam landladies, who seeing this girl with a pretty face and tolerable shape, had taken her home, washed, purified and clothed her, by which means she became, after a subaltern course of prostitution in her house to half the town, qualified for the preferment, she was now raised to, in this stately bawdy house.
As the question went round, they had all some very tragic circumstance to relate of their family, and of the rogue that had betrayed and left them; upon all which my peculiar had some arch comment or remark 'till it came to her own turn, when she said, very naturally; "Gentlemen, if you have any curiosity concerning me, I hope you will be so good to suspend it, 'till my story is made too; at present, I have not one ready, unless you will be contented with the plain truth which is, that I am the daughter of an honest chairman, and as soon as I came of age to feel desires, having no education to awe and instruct me of the danger of humouring them, I honestly gave way to their force, and was soon let into the great secret by a young prentice in our neighbourhood, since which after various adventures, I came at length to harbour here."
Upon this ingenuous confession, her companions frowned, the men laughed and probably did not think a whit the worse of her for it.
I was, however, amidst all this entertainment and repeated observations, "how merry we were," growing into the most wearisome impatience, when the waiter coming in, relieved me with the news of supper being upon table, which was no farther welcome than as it promised me, at the least, the diversifying our dullness.
We adjourned then to the supper-room, where we found the table covered with the most exquisite viands, in the preparation of which all the refinements of modern cookery had been exhausted, all the foreign delicacies had been made to contribute, and all the seasons had been forced. The wines were proportionally rich, and chosen. Burgundy, Champagne, Sileri, Aix, and Tokay were profusely ready at call, as Merville, who had traced the plain of this entertainment, took care to signify to us. Upon which, I was not a little diverted at seeing the Duke of--change his colour to a silly pale. He had, as before observed, lost a supper at discretion to Lord Melton, who had agreed to refer the arbitration and management of it to Merville. The duke had come into this readier, as that being ashamed to name a sum as small as he could have wished the payment stinted to it, he was in hopes that Merville would have behaved in the affair, like any of his own stewards, who knew his aversion to expense, and would have accordingly made court to his reigning passion. But Merville, who had no more respect for him than his personal character deserved, had proposed to himself great joy, in giving him the fret by this piece of innocent and meritorious perfidy. He had then studiously spared no article of the most expensive luxury, which his own perfect knowledge of every branch could suggest to him, towards inflaming the reckoning, the great no-jest of which to the Duke of--was that he by this means gave a miser's feast without having the merit of giving it.
We took our places then with no other respect to rank or order than every one placing his fair partner next him; when it was not the least part of the treat to me, to observe the girls, some of them giving fairly way to the impulse of their appetites, and falling on as ravenously as a starved carter, whilst the others acted the delicates and eat so divinely, picking of small bones so prettily to preserve their shapes, a nicety which they however immediately renounced as soon as they found that we took no notice of them. And it was not long before their repletion with eating and drinking heightened their good humours to a point that threatened an excess of it. The wine especially had begun its usual operation of substituting sincerity to falsity, nature to art. The female tongues had now acquired such a volubility, that in the necessity of giving a loose to them, and being put by all the guards of their little cunning, they began to shew themselves in their original true characters, and drop their masks and bridles. It was then, that occasionally they came out with some oaths, that savoured of the liberties of a guardroom, or produced some flowers of the fish-market or Covent-garden: freedoms which are so far from turning of some stomachs, that they are welcomed as provocative by some debauchees of the first rank. We were then in the height of this miserable mirth, when the sudden apparition of mother Sulphur engrossed our attention.
She had bounced into the room, almost unobserved, 'till with a gesture that demanded silence she obtained an audience from our curiosity to know the meaning of this irruption.
"Gentlemen," says she, with an impudence peculiar to all of her vocation, and which they take for a grace the more I beg pardon for disturbing you, but I have such an excuse. Well! to be sure you are in luck! I have such a bargain this instant put into my hands--a pure untouched virgin. I will put my hand into the fire upon it; and as I can light of no good thing, that I am not willing to communicate to my friends, I would not delay giving this honourable company the preference of the offer. She is but this instant come to my house, and it is with a deal to do, that I have managed so as to get her. Now, gentlemen, you are to agree amongst yourselves, which shall be the happy man. We shall not disagree about the price. There is not a sober substantial citizen but would think such a maidenhead dog-cheap at an hundred pieces; and I ask you no more than fifty. I have a conscience, that I have. Say the word, my heroes, and she is yours, upon honour. It is no bargain, if you do not like her. See for love, and buy for money."
Every one of us, however before provided with each his bird of paradise, appeared, at least, alert and alive at the proposal of a new face, and a maid too. The impressions, however, were different.
The Duke of--, who loved pleasure, but loved his money yet better, had pricked up his ears at the beginning, and hung them down again at the mention of the price. Lord Melton sucked it in the greediest, and as he had hardly ever received a favour from any woman, that he had not been soon after obliged to run and make a confidence of to the doctor, was so keen on the opening to him of a safe enjoyment, that he seemed to have forgot his present physical incapacity for it.
Lord Merville betrayed no great eagerness to close with a proposal of this nature, from his being used to consider them in a very problematical light.
As for Burr, whose sensations were worn out, and to whom these proffers were no novelties, and generally preconcerted with him, he shewed no more concern than was in character for one to express, who was a pillar of the piazzas. For me, as I had no relish for any of the present objects, I was delighted with the thoughts of a new one, and my curiosity adding its spur to that of the wine in my head, I seconded the good old lady's motion, with the utmost zeal.
Upon Burr's declining then and giving up all pretensions with a modesty which made us all laugh, the point to be decided was, which of us four should have the first cut of the haunch. Merville insisted, as he told me afterwards, purely to yield up his right to me, if the prize fell to his share; but, in short, after a few discussions of means to adjust the precedence, we agreed to draw cuts. We did so, and the benefit-ticket fell to me: upon which I received the compliments of all the company, except of the poor girl who had been destined to me for the night. But I immediately consulted her consolation in the most specific manner by putting a purse into her hands, which could not fail to have its due weight, since there were above twenty pieces in it; as I thought myself bound in conscience to pay, since it was no fault of hers, the fine for what I did not do, as old men pay it for what they cannot do.
Upon this, the old lady rolled out of the room, to bring in the candidate for initiation; it having been universally pre-resolved upon, that we should all see her: a point which I was now rather pleased with, as it humoured the vanity I took in the preference, and was in course not sorry of having witnesses to my little triumph. It was true, I owed it to chance. But what of that? Does not chance preside more in matter of choice made by women than any thing else? And chance for chance perhaps, the way of drawing cuts would not succeed worse, in general, than what we daily see in most matches or intrigues, that have been brought about by the caprice of it, only in another manner.
My imagination was, however, now set to work, and my head tolerably well warmed with the more poignant pleasure which I prefigured to myself there was in the leading, rather than in following. And though I well knew that nothing was commoner than counterfeits of this sort, and that some, even of my acquaintance, had been so woefully bit, as to have had one of those town-vestals, who never let their sacred fire go out, imposed upon them for untouched virgins; the idea, and which my own desires treacherously took part with, that such a trick of the trade was beneath the dignity of this most princely bordel, confirmed me in my scheme of acceptance; and in the humour I was then wound up to, I am conscious I should have more admired, than been tempted to imitate, those heroic self-denials, I have met with in history on the like occasions.
In the mean time, I could hardly conceal my exultation. I looked on my companions of the night with come compassion, and I waited with great impatience the return of our so obliging landlady.
At length she came, handing in this copy of a bride, this pure and well warranted mistress of her maiden-flower. As the door opened, the general stare had been directed to it, and modest miss, in preservation of character, advanced towards us, leaning upon her introductress with her eyes declined, as not daring to lift them up in so large and mixed a company, especially on so critical a conjuncture.
As the person then most interested, my looks were doubtless the quickest upon their march, and informed me, on the instant, of this precious maiden being no other than the individual Diana; once my Diana, and now any body's Diana.
My first emotions were, to confess the plain truth, a medley of surprise, shame and indignation. This was a re-meeting for which I was in no sort prepared; and one of my first ideas was that it must be a trick preconcerted and forelaid for me.
I recovered, however, presently, and, before even she had made me out, burst out into so violent a fit of laughter, as surprised the company in their turn, and bringing the eyes of this unfortunate girl upon me, she immediately knew me, gave a scream, and fainted away, perhaps in earnest; for less than such an accident might have shocked and overpowered the natural weakness of her sex.
Merville, without precisely knowing particulars, easily conjecturing that we were old acquaintances, ran to her relief, on seeing me put out of my laugh by her fainting, and too disconcerted to attend even to such an office of common humanity. The alarm was general; the girls all gathered round the distressed princess, and busied themselves about recovering her to life again. Vexed, too, and fretted as I was at my part in this scene, I yet could not help being diverted with the tragi-comic phiz of the old conscientious beldam, who was watching my looks to compose her own by, and displayed such a state of suspense in mustles ready to take their cue from the reception I should give to this discovery, as would have delighted me to have kept her as long as she deserved on the rack of it, had my own impatience not interfered. As the old woman was then lifting up her hands and eyes, crying out now and then, "who would ever have "thought it?" for want of something better to say, or rather from not knowing what to think, and Diana was now come to herself, I asked in a dry severe tone for a private room, which to be sure there was no want of in that house, and, by a whisper to Merville of the name of the girl, removed all his anxiety about the nature of the explanations I was desirous of having with her.
I was then immediately shewn to an apartment, to which I civilly and coolly desired Diana to follow me, and left the company to resume their course of entertainment, to whom this novelty had given a short interruption.
As soon as we were alone together, I was master enough of myself, and of the air of the world, to put on a brow of awe and interrogation; how it came, that after I had made a handsome provision for her for life, and had given her positive directions to stay in the country 'till I sent for her, I now met with her in such a place and upon such an errand? Diana, who was in too great a surprise, to have the presence of mind necessary to cook up an extempore fiction, and was too much humbled by the circumstances I found her in, to dare deny me the satisfaction I deigned to exact of her, made a shift between sighing and sobbing, to give me her history, since I had left her, and of which I afterwards verified the reality.
She then told me that in the impatience of not hearing from me, and of some little mortifications she had met with in the country upon the account of her connexions with me, which could not, as she said, be kept a secret, and where they were not so polite as to treat her slip as venially and slightly, as the frequency of these accidents makes them pass in town, she was advised to come to London, where she proposed to wait upon me. (At this I gave her a look extremely fit to assure her of my not being flattered with the compliment.) That she had accordingly taken a place in the stagecoach, where she had contracted an acquaintance with one of those Irish fortune-hunters, who are not suffered in, or are driven out by the contempt or justice of their own nation, to seek a livelihood in ours, the mob of which, with the grossest injustice and inconsequence, lumps conclusions from these outcasts against a country which produces a nobility in many points superior to that of their neighbours, and a people naturally brave and generally genteel, and who deserve a better fate than a subordination, which does not at least seem so grateful a reward for their constant exertion and co-operation in the cause of liberty. This digressive remark will, I hope, be excused, as the homage due from candour to truth, and paid it in the teeth of the vulgarest of prejudices. It was then one of these adventurers, who had liberally bestowed upon himself a commission under the commodious travelling name of captain, that lighting upon this silly, half-bred creature on the road, soon found out that she was game for him: and, as he easily passed upon her both in point of character and fortune for what he pleased, under favour of a good person, he soon got into her confidence, and made his harvest of it. His success then was neither very difficult, nor extraordinary. After making himself the master of her, by a fleet-marriage, and as unauthentic a one as either of them could wish it, he soon prevailed on her to convert the annuity, which had been too loosely tacked to her, into ready money; and having got possession of every thing she had, left her one fair morning without a shilling to help her, and decamped in quest of new adventures. In this extremity she had been ashamed to have recourse to me, and, by the inducements of her landlady where they had lodged, she had been driven into this wretched course, in which, however, this was not less than the fourth time she had been made a virgin, and produced in this very house upon that footing.
I was, on the hearing of this-, too much moved with compassion, to make her any reproaches. And as for the hag of the house, she was beneath any thing but even a mirthful contempt. I saw then nothing in her proceeding, but in a ludicrous light. But as to Diana, whatever her fault might be, I felt and disdained to dissemble to myself that I was originally the author of it, and of course in point of justice, as well as that I might reconcile myself to myself, bound to repair the disorder I had occasioned. I could not bear to think that any act of mine should procure for the public, and add a victim to it in the once object of my private pleasure. Resolved then to remedy an ill I had not at the first, for want of experience, sufficiently provided against, I took a note of her lodging and immediately sent her away. How I afterwards took care to settle her in a way more secure against such scandalous necessities, without however renewing with her, which I was sufficiently guarded against by the conditions in which I had found her, is a point which circumstantiating would only favour too strongly of egotism; and having naturally no place amongst the follies I am in the course of confessing, I readily and properly pass it over. After giving Diana the necessary instructions in seeing her out of this execrable house, I returned to my company. My eclipse had not lasted above an hour and a half, and in that time the wine and warmth of dalliance had given them a Bacchanalian air, which to me, who was sobered even by the scene I had gone through and the reflection obviously arising from it, appeared in its true and genuine light of rejoicings, from the noise and nonsense of which one would hold escaping to desert a cheap ransom. The men, except Merville, who possessed the great art of reserving himself without being remarked to reserve himself, and of course without incurring the ridicule or offence of singularity; the men, I say, appeared in too great a disorder of their senses, to enjoy any true feast of them, and the women in high colour looked like to many furies, that had violently driven the Graces from the side of Venus, and taken up their post.
As soon as I came into the room, I was immediately surrounded and attacked with questions without order or measure. Merville, who saw my confusion, good naturedly helped to extricate me, and furnished me with a hint by observing that I looked pale and out of order, to plead an indisposition, which in the more than one sense was no more than true. I pretended then that I was taken so ill, that I could not satisfy their curiosity just at that time, and proved so great a comedian, that Merville himself was ready to take his own suggestions for reality, and being besides willing to improve this opportunity into a plausible excuse for his own escape from a party of which he was heartily weary, he obtained leave of the company to see me home, as I was particularly under his protection for the night. I saw his drift, and humoured it by closing eagerly with the proffer of his taking me home in his chariot, my own not being so much as ordered.
Thus we accomplished our deliverance. As soon as we were alone together, Merville remarked to me, that low and disgustful as the ribaldry of such revels must appear to any who were not devoid of all taste for distinction of pleasure, such, or no better than these, were chiefly the orgies in which the common run of our young nobility stooped W mix purest of their blood with the puddle of those kennels of filth and venery, and in the grossness of which they contracted an habitual disrelish to the joys of sensations, seasoned with sentiments and disembruted by love. That ridiculous, as he owned, the whine of a passion to be, when romantically pursued, he questioned whether even the pains of such an extreme were not preferable to the pleasures of the other. That to recover a truth of taste in even voluptuousness, we should, after all, be obligated to return to the simplicity of the old times, when men loved like men, neither like mere brutes, nor in the air like the sheer Platonics. That at present it was matter even of compassion to see so many promising youths sacrifice their health's and fortunes to despicable systems of debauchery, and rush headlong into a ruinous course, in which their persons and purses were, literally speaking, the sponges of the meanest and dissolute of mercenaries in one sex, and of the most dangerous sharpers and sycophants in the other. That, in short, great as the misfortunes which they might bring on themselves might be, they could not possibly be greater than the reproach they would one day have to make to themselves for their want of all taste and elegance: ingredients which may be truly called the spirit of pleasure, since they confer upon it a kind of immortality, which hinders reflection from putting it to death.
This sermon of Merville's took the faster hold of me, and found the welcomer reception, for its recalling strongly to me the delicate and dear distinction between all the sensual gratifications, in which I had indulged myself, and my unextinguished passion for my ever adorable Lydia. Lydia! to whom I had first owed all the rapturous feelings of an innocent, virtuous love: Lydia! to whom I owed all the little checks I felt in the career of that worthless coxcombry, which consisted in my seeking to reduce women to my point for the sake of my pleasure as well as my vanity, which last came cruelly in for its share, with my libertine taste for variety in leaving them. But these sentiments had only their reign of a moment. The excuse I framed to myself, out of the uncertainty of ever seeing Lydia again, and present objects prevailed over these protests of love and reason, and soon re-subjected me to the misrule of an imagination too easily inflamed, and too indelicate of appetite, to refuse its subsistence on the feast at hand, in preference to much higher out of reach, or placed at too discouraging a distance of perspective.
It was then I acquainted Merville with the consequences of my last meeting with Diana, of whose history I had before made him a confidence, and with the dispositions I was in towards her, which he was not content with approving, but afterwards assisted me effectually in the execution of them.
As soon then as he had seen me home to my apartment, he took his leave of me for that night. I was now alone, and on reflecting on that revel-riot, in the midst of which I had left my happy companions of the party, I could not help congratulating myself on the different figure I now made to my own view, cool, free, and tranquil, from what I painted to myself, and what I probably should have made, had I gone all the lengths of these worthies, heated, muddled, and fearful of dismal consequences to my health. Of this, however, I was sure, that without affecting a false merit I had denied myself to such pleasures with infinitely more satisfaction than I should have found in taking a fulsome fill of them. In short, I was naturally too much the true voluptuary, to mudsuck my pleasure in such dirty dull debauches, or to content myself with joys, that had not some degree of taste for their sanction and seasoning. I had besides too much of pride and self-value, to barter that florid bloom, that freshness and vigour of my youth, of which I was not a little vain, for very little or no pleasure with those rank retailers to the public of rottenness and diseases.
The refusal of the door to one folly was, however, far from implying the exclusion of another; since the current of my constitutional desires, banked off by one dam, turned its course with the more impetuosity to gallantry and plans of attack upon women, whose favours should not be quite so much in the hackney style, or so liable to penitential consequences.
I was now under a necessity of looking out for a new conquest, and London is happily a place, in which with any thing of a tolerable person and an easy fortune there is, with very little industry, no great fear of losing much time or trouble in achievements of that sort. My late disappointment with Agnes had humbled but cured me of ever designing again upon idiot-beauty, and I was determined that at least in my next adventure it should not be a simpleton that should make a fool of me; which was, however, a needless precaution, since a woman of true sense is never the woman by whom a man need apprehend the being made a fool.
I had remained then but a few days without any particular attachment, and not without being in a hurry to form one, when at a visit to one of my relations, an old lady, I saw for the first time the celebrated Lady Bell Travers, who was just returned from France by the way of Bath.
This lady was a daughter of one of the highest rank of our nobility, and had married very young without her father's consent, who, charmed with the double advantage of getting rid of a girl, the custody of whom began to be pretty difficult, and of an handle for not giving her a groat, treated this act of undutifulness with the utmost acquiescence, without ever approving it or coming to a reconciliation, that must have naturally been an expensive one.
As for her husband, who was a man of considerable fortune, he had fixed his choice upon her, yet less upon the account of her person, which was, to do her no more than justice, a very desirable one, or even of her birth, than from his having seen reason to expect being thwarted, and having his pretensions rejected by the father, on account of certain dissentions between his family and hers. As soon then as he saw himself in the quiet, uncontested possession of her, and that she was left upon his hands without the least stir or opposition, the indifference of her friends begat his, and as if the life of his passion had been tied to the difficulties of gratifying it, the instant they failed, his passion died with them. But Lady Travers had too much penetration and acuteness of sense, (as what woman is there that wants it on these occasions? ) not to feel the difference, as well as too much spirit not to resent and revenge herself. From the first then of her discovering the remission of his taste for her, she took care to lead him such a life, that with too little dissimulation of his coolness, if not aversion, and too much indolence to support the spirit of it, he suffered her to subdue him to a point; that taking him by this weak side, his superior love or ease and quiet, she made at length what terms she pleased with him; and he thought none too extravagant, that could purchase him the joy of a separation and deliverance from a domestic torment.
Emboldened with this success, Lady Travers hoisted immediately the flag of independence, and made all her advantages of her irregular condition, being now, properly speaking, neither maid, widow, nor wife. She launched out then into the world with a very competent stock of personal charms and a great fund of spirit and imagination, which, according to custom, she applied to the service of her pleasures, and of her turn to scandal, by which means she was the envy and dread of her own sex, and occasionally courted, but never thoroughly esteemed, by ours. She was not, at the time I got acquainted with her, less than at the latter end of the season of pleasing, and yet she had amply preserved the power of it. Besides it was a kind of fashion to have had her, and who knows not the tyranny of fashion even in points of taste, which one would imagine from their nature the least liable to come under it?
For my own part, who had seen much younger and greater beauties than she was with impunity, I was struck, at first sight, with the taste and magnificence of her dress, the nobility of her manner, a travelled air, and a certain freedom and superiority, with which she commanded the conversation, and rather decided than gave her opinion upon all the subjects of it. She displayed, in fine, a sort of imperious-ness much after my own heart, which began by awing, and ended by captivating me. I conceived now that I had met with my match, and promised myself, without looking further, that I would try what was to be won or lost with one whose reduction was, however, with me rather a point of ambition than of love.
At first, indeed, she hardly vouchsafed me the honour of the least attention or regard. My youth, which though at bottom was no discommendation of me to her, but had not yet attracted her examination, made her treat the lead I aimed at taking in the conversation, as a kind of usurpation on her prerogative; and, though few could fill the coxcomb-character with a more audacious self-sufficiency than I did, I had the mortification to find a woman, who durst outbrave me, and expressed pretty plainly, not only by her looks and contemptuous smiles, but by some shrewd hints occasionally dropped, that she took me for nothing better than a forward, petulant boy, spoiled by the complaisance's of a world, which she was above, to my rank and figure. This insolence of hers, for such I construed it, piqued my vanity, but then it provoked a desire of dealing with one, whose superiority I could not conceal to myself. I figured to myself such a high joy, such a triumph, in demolishing her haughtiness and levelling her to my purposes, that I believe I should have been at the expense of some submission, rather than not accomplish them. By chance, however, I took a more effectual course. For, in trying masteries of pride, the most long-breathed ever wins the field. Adhering then stiffly to the air of control I had begun with, I not only dissembled the impressions she had made upon me, but the chagrin and humiliation I felt from her procedure towards me. Upon this, I redoubled my presumption, and without giving up one point to her, right or wrong, in the face of a company whose admiration and dread she was, I arrived at appearing so ridiculous and contemptible to her, that she began to pity me, and think it a matter of real compassion, that such a pretty fellow as I was, an appellation which she allowed me with great seeming scorn of it, should be such a consummate coxcomb. The term indeed she politely spared me, but put the full equivalent of it into a periphrasis, as clear as one would not have wished it.
The great point with women is to be taken notice of by them; no matter, whether for one's good or bad qualities, a one has but the merit of a pleasing person. With that advantage, one may safely rely upon them, for turning even one's faults into recommendations. I played away then my fire so briskly, that Lady Travers, from contemning and pitying me, as well she might, fell to envying me for my spirits and intrepidity. She had not been prepared for so determinate and well supported an assurance in one of my age and inexperience of life, and I began, as was no more than natural, to succeed in virtue of a quality, which, if resolutely, is rarely employed without success.
It was not then without my great inward exultation, that before we parted for that time, Lady Travers included me in an invitation, which she gave to others, to see her at her own house; and which she particularized to me by a smile of protection, and telling me with a tone extremely softened, that she hoped I would not grudge her the pleasure of contributing any thing in her power to the settling a better understanding between us, and that she should set me down on the list of the company she admitted to visit her; and which she did not doubt I would find not inferior to the best in England. This she said to me, as I was leading her to her chair, and as this was a provenience of the request I was meditating, I received and answered it with a warmth of acknowledgment, very fit to convince her how much I was pleased with it.
The next morning I waited on her, and was admitted without hesitation to her dressing-room, where I found her at high toilet, and nobody with her but her woman, who was dressing her, and one next to nobody, the Lord Tersillion, who was paying his most formal and insignificant devoirs to her, in a visit of ceremony.
As soon as I came in, she treated me with all the easy familiarity of a long established acquaintance. A chair was set me on one side of the dressing table, in which I spread myself as unceremoniously as I was received. Her woman stood over her, combing her hair, which fell over her shoulders and neck in an agreeable confusion, and gave the sight fair play enough to discover a perfectly white skin; and I could easily observe that she was not shy of showing me her independence upon art, and that she was still able to hold it out against the dismal necessity of making a mystery of the operations of the toilet.
As for her visitant, he was one of those figures of state, whose gravity and solemnity compose so high a burlesque; equip them with cap and bells, and they would not subscribe half so rich a jest. Then a trivial, unmeaning face, drowned in a voluminous white wig, when his chin was in motion with talking, gave one the idea of a white rabbit at feed.
My coming in had bred a short interruption of the conversation, which this Mock-Machiavelli resumed, and in which he gave both of us the yawns, with the unmerciful repetition of a speech he had lately made in the house, and which, however, for any thing I knew to the contrary, might be as intrinsically important, as any that had been made there for twenty years before. And after some Pindaric transitions from subject to subject, of all which the central point was to convince his audience of the vast consequence he was of to public as well as private life, he at long length relieved us, and went out, if one might judge by his air of self-satisfaction, intimately persuaded of his leaving us penetrated with as high a veneration and respect for him, as he had for himself. What was this, however, but coxcombry, only of another species than mine?
As soon as he was gone, Lady Travers lamented to me the necessity there was of letting such people in, by way of keeping measures with them, not for the good, but for the hurt, which the most worthless of them were not incapable of doing. That for example, that solemn personage having engrossed for his own use all the little interest he had with the present team of state, could do no service to others, but that, withal, his admission every where, upon the foot of his rank and title, gave him opportunities of doing mischief. That, for the rest, he was one of those things made up of fashions and forms, who being reckoned by number, and not by weight, compose that high and respectable order of beings, so vulgarly called amongst themselves the great world. That he had, like the rest of that populace, his town-house, his seats, his equipage, and all that follows in their stale, dull rote of life, the grand distinctions of which consist in being sold, or devoured, by their dependents, poisoned by their cooks, and enslaved by all the nonsense of shew and ceremony. That with a much larger estate than was necessary to support even the splendour of life, he had been mean enough to carry his whole stock of importance to the old market, in which he hugged himself, not without reason, for his having oversold it, tho' at no better a price than his obtaining much such a grace of distinction and preferment, as the hackney-coaches have to boast of, which are driven about town, with the arms half worn out of some ancient family, under the royal mark and number.
Lady Travers, who did not easily give out, when once her hand was in, was running on, when I barred her the box by begging her to consider that such an animal was game not worth stooping to; that there was neither joy nor wit in sousing such as were beneath mention, and, properly speaking, could not be abused. This was a remonstrance too just in itself, and too much in her taste, for her not to acquiesce in it, and accordingly she dropped a subject too trivial even for an expletive, and asked me pardon for having omitted at first to thank me for the proof of my readiness to accept the offer of her friendship, in the quickness of my visit upon it. This was furnishing me the cue I wanted, and accordingly, to my assuring her that inclination had robbed my duty of any pretentious to merit in the payment of it, I added every thing I could best think of to introduce me advantageously, by beginning with engaging her vanity in my interests.
As impatient, however, as I was of coming to a point with her, I was very sensible that my designs had measures to keep with so superior a skill, in the exercise of gallantry, if T was in earnest to secure the success of them. I was far from being modest enough to despair of Lady Travers granting me what I was well assured she had not refused to many others. I was no stranger to her turn for tenderness and sensibility, and, if I might trust to very authentic chronicles of her reign, I could have called over a pretty numerous list of her favourites. I had especially been told that striking deep into the virtue, she had made herself renowned at Rome for her private studies in a Villa near it, of the antiquities of nature in the finest modern editions of them; so that it could not be her character for rigour which could overawe, or discourage me. I had besides my own full-sufficient fund of presumption, which, together with my having desires enough to put me into action, without having too much of love to check the ease and freedom of that action, might have told me that I was entitled to make such a jest of any resistance of hers, as should be very fit to abridge it. But then I knew, too, that Lady Travers was a woman of too much experience, too well acquainted with consequences, not to be mistress of her own moments of yielding. She was not to be attacked with the common-place protestations of pains, ardour, dying, and all that soft nonsense, which is the vulgar idiom of love, and the lullaby of a raw girl's virtue. Neither was she to be attempted in so summary a way, as to wound the dignity she affected, if not as a virtue, at least as a grace, essential to raising the price of her favours, and exalting a pleasure, which is commonly very slight, or of short continuance, without having had its due preliminary digestion of desire. And I fancy men would not be much mistaken, if they were generally to look upon the resistance of the sex, as kindly meant in favour of their greater satisfaction, and take their measures upon the foot of that presumption.
With no opinion then of Lady Travers's virtue, and a very high one of her experience and management, I imagined that I might safely rely upon herself, for preparing and determining the accomplishment of my designs upon her, whenever I should have raised her taste enough, to appear important to her own pleasure. My point then was simply to give my person all the value to her I possibly could, and to excite her desires in favour of my own, as I had no reason greatly to fear that she would love herself so little, as in mine perversely to deny her own satisfaction. She was none of those dupes.
My plan of operations was accordingly, in an instant, concerted and resolved in my head; in pursuance of which I took care in this my first visit, to make no direct court to her. Our conversation turned upon generals; but when some of the reigning beauties were occasionally mentioned, I did not fail to observe of Miss Beryll, that she had bad teeth; of Miss Powers, that she had a coarse and clumsy hand; of Lady Laval, that her hair was harsh and sandy; all which was in other words praising Lady Travers in those points, in which she manifestly excelled; as it was hardly possible to have whiter, evener teeth, a delicater hand, or a finer head of hair than she had. Then I had to do with one, upon whom no compliment was ever lost, or without merit, that included a detraction from any other.
She had besides, with all the appearances of wit, the rage of being thought one; a weakness which had been fomented by the complaisance of poets, who had flattered and consulted her, and of authors who had read their works to her, from all which she had furnished herself with a fund, if not properly speaking of wit, at least, of a specious, fluent jargon, which dazzled and imposed upon the vulgar of her admirers. She had, too, seen most of the courts in Europe, and had picked up crumbs of politics enough to have set up ten modern ministers. With so much knowledge of the world, she only wanted knowledge enough of herself, and of her own interest, to avoid making too great a display of her acquisitions; as too knowing an air in women only gives them a masculine look, which becomes them no better than whiskers and jack-boots would do.
Too conscious of having great advantages over me, to suppose she should ever give me any but what she pleased herself over her, she set out with treating me as a young fellow of no consequence; and even took care not to dissemble her superiority over me. And I on my side set myself to humour this foible of hers, by making an assiduous court to her vanity, and pretending to take lessons from her, 'till she took it into her head, that it was a kind of charity to take charge of the finishing of my education, and to form me. The pleasant charity that, when I think of it, of forming a young pupil, and bestowing upon him the improvement of his mind, wrapped up in all the blandishments of his senses!
I had not then long attended her lectures, before I had established some pretensions. I could not, all coxcombry apart, escape observing that I had played my figure in her eyes with some success. I had caught her viewing me with attention, and with those looks which carry breviate-com-missions of pay in them, and which it would have been rather stupidity than modesty to have mistaken. She had besides, at times, insinuated some of those leading questions about the state of my heart, which are never motioned by indifferent curiosity. My answers had seemed to satisfy her, and I daily saw reasons for not despairing.
A woman who knew so perfectly as she did the value of time, who had not herself much to lose, and who by her condition, as well as by her way of thinking, was above the ordinary restraints of form, or the grimaces of affectation, was not a woman I was to fear would let me languish for her favours longer than was necessary, or that would trifle with her own inclinations; consequently, it was not a very unconscionable length of time before that, after having acquitted herself of what she thought she owed her pride, she began to consider of putting into a course of payment her debt to pleasure, which desire exacted, and of which I now stood a fair candidate for an employ in the collection.
That my pride, too, might not want the favourite feast of rivals sacrificed to it, I had the pleasure to see several pretenders to her favours, ill enough received, or dismissed, whilst all the marks of favour and distinction were even ostentatiously reserved for me. I was admitted to her at most hours, and those of the greatest privacy, when her door was refused to every body else, of which, however, I had made such ill use, that I do not doubt of my having often given her the comedy with the appearances of my bashfulness and timidity. I knew very well she had not been always used, nor was indeed of a temper to be pleased, with over-respect, but to say the truth, she had got a greater ascendant over me than I cared to confess even to myself, and I was a good while awed, and withheld by no other obstacles than what my own imagination had created me.
I had dined with her one day, at a country-house of hers upon the Thames-side near Chiswick, when after dinner and a party at piquet, we adjourned tete-a-tete, to a tea-room at the end of the gardens, and situated in the corner of a terrace that overlooked the river. Nothing could be more joyous than the prospect, nothing more commodious than the furniture; every chair was an ottoman, or demi sofa. Here it was the tea was ordered, the lamp set, and we were left to ourselves. But this was no novelty; and I had certainly brought with me no particular notion of this being my occasion.
Yet nothing could be more poignant than the dishabille in which she had received my expected visit from town. An Armenian of white satin, so loosely wrapped round her, as rather to invite a ruffling than extremely awful; a tippet artfully adjusted to humour the half discoveries of a fine neck; her hair playing free in a style of noble, negligent un-correction, all together composed her a slattern elegance of undress, that she swam in with an ease and a grace, the natural air of which is never familiarized, but to women of the highest form of breeding, and is ever so ridiculous in the unavoidable stiffness of their copyists.
As I had never seen her so handsome, or so dangerous, I was scarce master enough of my desires to give my expression of them a due share of decency, and yet I scarce durst think myself advanced enough to state them to her. I began, however, at all hazards, to treat the tea-drinking as matter of form and pretext, and drawing my chair, ventured to take hold of her hand, sighing and barely not trembling. She abandoned it to me in a style of carelessness, as a matter of no consequence, and I moulded it in mine at discretion. Encouraged, however, by this passiveness, I proceeded to press her with increased vivacity, and grew rather more enter-prizing than was exactly consistent with the declarations of my profound respect. It is a term, however, never better employed than in the midst of the widest breaches of it. She desired me at length, when I was reducing her to take a little more notice of what I was about, to have done with liberties, which she had not expected I would permit myself: but in these expressions of her displeasure, the tone of her voice had nothing very severe or imperious: on the contrary, she seemed favourably fluttered, and I could plainly read the emotions of her senses and the looks of her desire; when, all of a sudden, she recalled an air of austerity into her face, and withdrew her hand hastily from the lock of mine, as if upon sudden recollection. I ventured to ask the reason of this shift of humour.
"It is not," said she, "that I am either disconcerted or offended with your designs upon me. I should act a part much beneath me, if I dissembled to you, that you are in all senses far from disagreeable to me. I prefer even the degradation attached to the declaration of my sentiments, to the constraint of concealing them. Yet, if I know myself (continued she with a sigh) I wish less for the pleasure of complying with my inclinations, than for the power of preserving your esteem by overcoming them. You are young, and with the means of pleasing peculiar to that age, have not you the dangerous faults of it too? Can you, ought you to wish, that I should run the risks of your levity and indiscretion, or consign to your keeping a happiness, which must depend on so frail a tenure as your constancy? I do not by constancy mean that of a passion, which you will not the less scruple to promise me, for knowing it is not in your power, nor perhaps even in your idea; but of your friendship and esteem, to which these weaknesses are ever fatal.
"If the love I should, and not impossibly, have already conceived for you, could bear an infidelity, of which I am not enough the fool of my own desires, not to foresee the necessity; yet my pride could never brook the reproaches I should imagine you would make me for having overlooked the disparity of our ages. You would, probably, have too much good-nature, too much politeness, not to spare me the wound of hearing them from you; but to what purpose, if I could not forbear whispering them to myself? Even the ridicule, which the eyes of the world, as well as your own, opened upon this transient caprice of yours, will not fail to suggest to you, you will have the cruel injustice to impute to me, and disclaim your share in it, by laying the whole burthen of it upon me, and hate me only the more for my having the less deserved it of you."
This was a theatrical sally for which I was not prepared, and had too little experience to answer without premeditation. I could not dissemble to myself that there was an air of probability ran through these objections: they even staggered my resolutions, and dazzled me to a point that I did not presently see how much they were out of time and out of place, in the heart of such an opportunity. I was not quite so clear then, as I have been since, that the plain English of all parleys of this nature is, capitulation. I very simply then applied myself to demolish scruples which she had not, by dint of a rhetoric, confused, unseasonable, and only fit to prove my noviceship in adventures of this sort. Yet, I could plainly enough observe that she heard all my protestations, with an impatience and absence, that might have shewn me her head was not upon any thing I could say to her. I confess it, however, with shame, that I was some time before I could recover from the damp with which she had struck and stopped me in mid-career. She had, in short, against her own intention, re-inspired me with such a respect, as made me consume the time of action, in that silly apologizing, which is rather calling the guards, than benefiting by their being off duty. I behaved then so ill, that I believe the critical minute would have struck in vain for me, if Lady Travers had not kindly won upon herself to relinquish her heroics, and re-descended to a more explicit encouragement.
On seeking then to read my fate once more in the oracles of it, her eyes, I caught them turned towards me in that arch and sly askance, with which women mean to hide, and never more effectually betray the tenderness of their looks. Emboldened now, and once more resolved to repair the ridicule of my timidity, I repossessed myself of her hand; and ventured even to press her bosom with one of mine, and discomposed her tippet. On her part, little or no opposition: 'till I soon convinced myself that every pulse in every vein was beating a point of surrender. Yet she was still enough her own mistress to act a sort of defence which obliged me to graduate my approaches, 'till by a gentle and sly escalade, I made myself at length master of the post of honour.
Plenary possession was, however, far from abating my ardour. The pride I had placed in subduing one of her port and figure had added a piquancy to the extreme sweets of a pleasure, in which my senses had found their account beyond their most sanguine expectation, that made me look on myself with a rapture of complacency and exultation, which may be called the self-apotheosis of a coxcomb. I had entirely forgotten the list of my predecessors in her good graces; and when the memory of them re-obtruded, I treated them but as so many rivals sacrificed, or supplanted by my superior merit; as if women, in their transitions from one lover to another, were ever influenced by that consideration. But such are the illusions of vanity, such the joys, of self-deception. As for Lady Travers, she seemed entranced and overwhelmed with the sense of her defeat, and though these situations could not be extremely new to her, she had the art of throwing so much engaging confusion, such a modest delicate diffidence of the power of her charms into her expressions, as obliged me to give her all the tenderest re-assurances both of my gratitude and esteem. Then she was too expert, and deep in acquired knowledge, to overdose the immediately following moments with that mistimed fondness or those cloying endearments that sink satisfaction into satiety. She kept then so just a measure in every look and gesture, as secured to her the recalls of my desire, without her departing from the admirable policy of suffering them to appear more my own mere motion than a complaisance to her wishes: as an artful minister never fails of passing his suggestions for his .master's own thought. And let me observe, by the way, that the nicest of a woman's play is the after-game of discretion.
I thought now of nothing so intensely, as of deserving the continuance of Lady Travers's indulgence to me; whilst on her side she gave herself up without the least reserve, and with a loose indeed, to the gratifications of her taste for me. We became from that instant inseparable. Having then long before exhausted the whole quiver of scandal, and left the malicious world nothing new to say of her, she was resolved to let it see how little she was governed by her respect for it; in virtue of which noble indifference, she made up to herself in ease and pleasure, what she lost on the side of reputation. She produced me at her assembly, which was open every night to what passed generally for very good, if not the best, company in town; a term, however, which does not carry with it a very high idea, when one comes to decompose and simplify the qualifications of the individuals comprehended ink.
As Lady Travers was far from deigning to make a mystery of her connexions with me, neither could I perceive that she was the less respected for them. She had taken the lead in life, with so high a hand, and had secured the suffrage and countenance of so many who were at the head of taste, and understood raillery upon affairs of this nature, that she could very easily despise or dispense with the approbation of the rest of the world. And indeed the world seems to have come to an amicable enough composition with those superior women, who have formed to themselves a fund of merit independent of their sex, and benevolently pass them those very weaknesses, for which it tears to pieces without mercy those of it, whose whole of pretensions being chastity, have had the misfortune to forfeit their character of it. Yet what is the merit of this chastity in many of them, but that of a constitution which has spared them the temptation from within, or of a form which has spared it them from without?
It was then at these assemblies I appeared always with the ease and freedom of the master of the house, and the more so, in that I never permitted myself any particularities to Lady Travers, who on her side treated me with as much indifference and cool politeness, as if I really had been her husband.
It was at these conventions, too, that I could not help viewing with eyes of great compassion some grave personages, who, by their rank and situation in life, one would hardly have suspected of having much time to lose, reduced to so miserable a confession of the insignificance of their existence, either to public or private life, and to themselves, as to sit down with great earnestness and importance to a card-table, and trifle away whole centuries, (to measure time by its value) in an amusement, fit only for tasteless frivolous idleness, or for the gratification of one of the most worthless of the human passions.
Here I could observe some women, unamiable enough in all conscience already, render themselves yet more so, by then unmasked meanness, their gaunt eagerness after gain, and the fury which rose in their countenances in the unfavourable turns of their game, passions of which even the best bred of them are often not the mistresses of concealing the deformity, and which must destroy in the men every idea of tenderness and respect to them. Be it, too, remarked, that women, in general, are the bubbles of their fondness for cards. If they play with the men, they are overmatched by their superior skill; for there are so few women that ever arrive at playing well even those games which require the least attention or combination, that the exception hardly deserves the name of one. If they play amongst themselves, they hate and despise one another too much, not to lose their temper at least.
Others again retrenched themselves into sheer conversation, and affected to look down as from an eminence on the triflers at cards, whose ridicule, however, they unhappily justified, by the subscription of as great an one in the management of their alternative. As surely even cards may vie with smattered politics, party-spleen, characters and comparisons of players, adventures at the public gardens, jubilee-drolls, dissertations upon dress, little scandalous stories, and all the rest of the common-place trash, which constitutes the quick-stock of wit and humour, I repeat it here, in the commerce of not the lowest Hie.
I was then in one sense obliged to the casting-weight of a passion, which by engrossing, defended me from being more carried away with the shallow stream, than was just necessary for me to avoid the reproach of singularity. It was not, however, with total impunity that I gave way to the torrent of a disorderly passion. Merville and my other friends who saw my weakness, were not content with pitying, and endeavoured in vain to break or divert the course of it by serious hints or salutary raillery. No wonder, however, that I could not listen to the remonstrances of friendship, when I was ensnared and entangled to the point of being deaf to those of love. Even my sentiments for Lydia, if impossible to be crazed from my heart, were at least long absorbed in this ruling passion of my senses; in which, too, I drove with such fury, that my constitution, overdrawn upon by the fierceness of my desires, and even by the vanity I took in the pleasure I gave, began to give signs of suffering by my un-moderate profusion.
Lady Travers, who joined to the charms of her person a consummation in all the mysteries and science of voluptuousness, employed such successive varied refinements of it, that she appeared new mistress to me upon every re-approach. Whether her travels had not procured her these advantages I will not say, but she united in herself the profound fire of the Spanish, the sentimental tenderness of the French, and the elegant neatness of the English women. She was alone a seraglio of beauties.
Such even was the magic of her attractions, that some transient sallies of occasional infidelity had, in consequence of a comparison, in which my senses gave judgment highly in her favour, only served to bring me back to her, more re-inflamed, and more desire-drunk than ever.
How could I then resist the tyranny of a passion that was founded and established on pleasure, or suspend services which carried so richly with them their own reward? Lady Travers indeed, from reasons of self-interest and of an experience not unfamiliar to her, often recommended moderation to me, but while she preached that necessary virtue, her presence made the practice of it impossible.
It has been remarked that excesses carry with them the principles of their own destruction, and generally involve with them the cause of them, by bringing on upon the spur a decline of passion. Mine, however, stood proof even against the force of an intemperance, which battered me to ruins. All my sprightliness, vigour, and florid freshness, the native attendants of healthy youth, began to give shew of drooping, and flagged under the violence of the heat, with which the constancy of fire in my imagination melted me down into current love. My tender aunt was, without so much as dreaming of the true cause, afraid of my constitution taking a consumptive turn. Merville, with juster judgment, after experiencing the fruitlessness of his friendly advice, had fairly given me over, on the foot of the maxim, that violent ills cure themselves. But it was reserved for Lady Travers alone to disgust me of Lady Travers.
I had been now near two months under the absolute dominion of an unremitting lust for her, when one day, about two in the afternoon, I came to Lady Travers's, and finding the street-door open, slipped by the porter unperceived, without any design of being unperceived, and as I was perfectly acquainted with the disposition of the apartments, made my way directly to her bed-chamber-door. I opened it, and found nobody there. I instantly recollected that she was gone to an auction, to which the evening before she had desired me to accompany her; and I had excused myself on the account of a business that was to command me a great part of the morning. This business I had dispatched, and the force of custom had mechanically carried me to Lady Travers's. This was a liberty, too, I had often before taken without any consequence. Finding myself then alone, I amused myself with the first stray-book about the room, during the time of my waiting for her return: my expectation of which was answered in a few minutes. I heard her footman's rap at the street-door, and a whim suddenly took me, that I would hide myself, without, however, any other view, but that of playing her an innocent trick by bolting out and surprising her. Accordingly I took my post in a kind of dark closet let into the wainscot, in which were kept a few books, some bottles of cordials, and some toilet lumber on shelves which hardly afforded me room to niche myself without some uneasiness. I shut the door of it upon me, which being in carve work, symmetrically with other parts of the room, gave both sight and hearing fair-play, through the interstices of the foliage; and all this, both thought and execution, was the work of a moment.
Lady Travers came in alone, in her morning-dress, gave a transient glance, very likely without meaning, round the room, and rang the bell; upon which I proposed keeping to my entrenchment till she should have dismissed her attendant. Presently, her woman, her trusty confidante, Mrs. Vergers, appeared to the bell. Lady Travers asked her if Sir William (meaning me) had been there. "No, my lady." "Well," says she, with a carelessness that piqued me heartily, "it is no great matter: go and give orders at the door, that I am not at home either to him, or any one else, and return instantly."
The general order of exclusion, out of which, too, I had heard myself specifically not excepted, and which I could so little expect, mortified and indisposed me to pursue my project of surprise, and while I was deliberating what countenance to put on my. appearance to her, Mrs. Vergers returned; and Lady Travers asked her if she had taken care to provide the woman she had ordered her. "Yes, my lady, she is in waiting."--"Well then, you may bid Buralt come to me, if he is able; if not, I think I must go to him."--"May it please your ladyship, he is a great deal better; he has been down in the steward's room already."--"Let me see him then, and the nurse may come at the same time."
Upon this, Mrs. Vergers went out upon her errand, and I remained in a profound muse, upon what should be the meaning of this odd condescension. I knew there was one Buralt in the house. I had seen him without ever having taken the least notice of him, nor had I ever remarked that Lady Travers had distinguished him from the rest of her domestics. He was by birth a Swiss, and of a very ordinary, coarse figure. She had picked him up abroad in her travels, and had brought him home with her. I had heard, too, transiently, some time after my acquaintance with his mistress, that he had been at the point of death; but she had never, to me, laid any stress upon his illness. I was then admiring within myself the sudden excess of this charitable concern, without justly penetrating either the motives or the extent of it; when the door opened, and this Buralt came in, leaning upon Mrs. Vergers, with his knees knocking together, a wildish stare, and all the symptoms of debility and pallid faintness. They were followed, at a little distance, by a plain, modest-looking country-woman. As soon as this Buralt was come the length of the bed, he let himself fall upon it, without the least ceremony, whilst Lady Travers busied herself with examining the nature of the woman's milk, and the terms of her agreement. After which she brought the nurse to the bed-side; but as soon as the poor woman viewed more narrowly the object to whom she was to give her breast, she recoiled with visible horror and affright. Nor without reason; for it is hardly possible to figure to oneself a more ghastly spectre than what this wretch exhibited, wrapped in a kind of blue coat, that sat on him yet less loosely than his skin, which was of a dun sallow hue. His eyes goggled from sockets appearing sunk inwards by the retreat of the flesh round them, which likewise added to the protuberance of his cheek-bones. A napkin in the shape of a night-cap covered all his hair, (except a platted queue of it, and some lank side-locks) the dull dingy black of which, by its shade, raised and added to the hideousness of his grim meagre visage.
It was this figure, however, that this superb, this delicate lady, employed herself to support, bolster up with pillows, besides her own arms, so as to place him in a posture to receive the benefit of the restorative which she had prepared for him, in the milk of this nurse; and the fondness and humility with which she performed this tender office obviously enough reminded me of the libidinous lady in one of Scarron's novels.
She could not, however, prevail over the nurse to conquer her fears and aversion, so far as to suckle this babe of delight, but by dint of increasing her hire; and then, with her face averted, she gave him her breast, which he fastened upon, and looked more like a sucking demon, or a vampire escaped from his grave, than a human creature. He presented, in short, a horrible caricature of the story of Roman piety, where a daughter saves the life of her condemned father by the nourishment of her breast.
I stood in the mean time motionless with surprise, without other sense of life, than in the sharpness of my affliction, which exceeded, at first, even my indignation. There was no possibility of mistaking the motives of all this wonderful charity. The apprehensions of them, from my own experience, too sensibly began at home with me. I was more than once, upon the point of breaking out, and adding one more figure to the group before me. My pride, however, stepped in to my rescue, and, by representing to me the unworthiness of the object, prevailed over the rage which impetuously prompted me to exhale it, by covering her with confusion. Reproaches would indeed have relieved the vexation with which I was bursting, but then they would have done her too much honour. It was then myself, that I respected, more than I spared her. And after all, I was only wounded in the loss of a pleasure, which the habit of it had endeared to me, and upon the grossness of which this scene had opened my eyes; a scene, too, which had not the greatest right to surprise me, considering all that I had before known of her character. I felt, however, pangs in the first instants, as for the severance of a limb, but the immediately consequent reflection of its being a rotten one helped me to support myself under the agonies of my pain. I had then barely the patience necessary to see the whole disgustful transaction without breaking covert.
The nurse was dismissed with orders to come again, and Lady Travers, after several expressions of tenderness, which closed up the evidence of the nature of her concern for this chamber-satyr, proposed seeing him herself back to his apartment. This was a circumstance which luckily paved the way for my escaping, without the necessity of coming to personal explanation, any pleasure in which my rising scorn had not, however, without difficulty enabled me to renounce.
As soon then as I saw the coast clear, I sallied out of my hiding-place, and with a perfect indifference about my being seen or not by any of the domestics that might be in the way, I got to the street-door, and finding nobody in waiting in the hall, opened it, and let myself out with a most thorough determination never to re-enter it.
In the heat of my emotion, and in the urgency of my passions with me, to give them a vent by communicating this most woeful disaster of mine, I hurried to Lord Merville's, and happily found, not only that he was not at home, but that I could not expect to see him that day, for which I was afterwards not sorry, since, all as my fury subsided, I confessed to myself that this chance of his being out of the way had saved me the ill grace of a complaint, and the folly of exposing to him, unnecessarily, a scandalous secret; my own concern in which did not suffer me to make the best of figures in it, and which was so much better to be passed over in a contemptuous concealment.
I was, however, so faint and overcome with all the agitations and conflicts which I had just undergone, that I threw myself on a chair at Merville's apartment, 'till I could recover a little breath. It was then I desired his servant to furnish me the necessaries for writing, and my recent rage dictated me a letter to Lady Travers, embittered with all the gall and vinegar that overflowed from my heart. It was, doubtless, a curious piece, and, to the best of my remembrance, stuffed full or the most virulent invectives, and concluded with a complete self-dismission from her ladyship's service, with a recommendation of her for consolation to her gipsy-Adonis, as soon as she should have recruited and set him upon his legs again.
When I had finished this most unheroic epistle, I went home, and sent it by one of my servants, with an order simply to deliver it, without waiting for an answer. And indeed Lady Travers was wise enough not to attempt to answer it. For what could she have said so well as saying of nothing upon a discovery so flagrant and so unsusceptible of palliations? Neither did I ever enquire how she took it. Probably, it did not operate so very violently upon her, as I would, at the time of writing it, have wished or presumed it. Those who are capable of such a conduct are not generally very sore: the habit of deserving reproaches sears them to the sense of them. Lady Travers then, who had often boldly drove two or three intrigues abreast, could not either be very delicate of feeling, much confounded, or at a loss to find a colour for my sudden desertion of her. Nor could I help being told some time after, that she literally followed my advice in one point, for she placed her minion, as soon as he was recovered, at the head of her household, and that, no doubt, with her hearty consent for the world's thinking just as it should please of it.
There is in some cases a consolatory enormity, and that which I saw in this of mine, combining with my natural levity, soon inspired me with sentiments of the coolest resignation. Even the satisfaction of seeing myself free from an engagement, of which I now saw all the indignity, made me heartily ashamed of the pain which my undeception had cost me. I grew ever hard to return into favour with myself, for having wrote in such outrageous terms to Lady Travers; not only as it betrayed a sensibility which she did not deserve, but as it was inconsistent with the considerations of compassion which began to occur to me. For I soon came to see Lady Travers in no other light, than as one of those unfortunate characters, constitutionally subjected by the violence of their passions to those weaknesses which too often debase those of the highest intellects beneath their own notions and principles; and who, by this means, become lessons of humility to man in general, by showing him, in the examples of others, to what excesses intemperance and misrule of appetite are, at times, capable of carrying even the wisest: at the same time that they should inspire him with a salutary diffidence of that strength, which human pride is too apt to attribute to reason.
Thus, however, Lady Travers lost at once all the merit of her favours, and all the power of her beauty to give me either pleasure or pain. The discovery of such an abandoned cheapness had now sunk her in my esteem, beneath the rank of those unfortunate commoners, who having none of those respects to break through, which she owed to herself, have besides the plea of necessity to intercede for them. Those_ unhappy creatures follow vice as a trade, and treat it as a~ drudgery. But Lady Travers went such sousing lengths in it, with the less excuse, as she had so many more obligations from birth, fortune and nature, to have at least spared herself the indignity of such a choice. Taste and distinction, if they do not justify, they at least ennoble weaknesses. As there are virtues then which are their own reward, so there are vices which are amply their own punishment. And I did not doubt, but that even her own self-contempt would sooner or later do her justice on herself, even if she could be proof against the sense of thus losing me, for whom she had openly pretended a violent passion, and in which she had at least found the solid amusements of one.
As a quickness of consolation is not one of the least enviable perquisites of the coxcomb-character, the sum of my reflections presently amounted to a radical cure, and I began to be less provoked than ashamed at the smart of it. As nothing, too, is more natural than the skip of levity from extreme to extreme, I now felt the joy of my disengagement, with such a sincere gust, that I conceived I might safely embark afresh in new adventures; if not for the pleasure I might expect in the course of them, at least for that I figure to myself in getting rid of them. Such are generally the plans of a coxcomb's reformation, such his use of his experience.
In these laudable dispositions, I declared war within myself against the whole sex. Not that I was yet fool enough to put all women indifferently under one cover and superscription, or to lump conclusions against them from those objects of my amusement or contempt. But the truth is, that I had contracted a very low opinion of the mass of them. I had not observed, in their favour, that most of them treated none with more ridicule and contempt than such of our sex as were in awe of, or really respected, them: and that nothing was more sure of commanding success with them, than precisely the not deserving it; a humour, of which, however, they have had the honour of setting the fashion to Church and State.
Possessed, as I eminently then was, of the sort of merit necessary to make all the fortune I wanted with them, I was determined to profess gallantry at large, to cultivate no serious attachment, nor entertain any passion for that sex, other than that of the bee with the flower-tribe, pillaging upon the wing the sweets of one, and fluttering on to the next.
In this course, however, whatever airs of superiority I had inwardly presumed myself capable of, my fondness for ease, and certain remains of that undebauched natural candour, which is the character of youth, made me find one great inconvenience in that it was so much easier to get a mistress, than to get rid of her. But then this discount was balanced again by the service the noise of an infidelity to a stale mistress did me in the getting a fresh one. Women, naturally enemies to women, and from that principle incapable of union enough to make a common cause against a common enemy, seem rather to treat the most notorious perfidies, as recommendations. Thus the ill usage of one woman, besides that it flatters the hatred of another, it provokes her vanity to the dangerous trial, whether the presumed superiority of her charms may not give her the honour of making a fool of one, who has made fools of thousands. A project, however, by which numbers have been cruelly drawn in, with this comfort to them, indeed, that their examples will give as little warming to, as they themselves had taken it from, others.
I set out then full speed in the same career, which I had seen pursued by a number of coxcombs, whom I heartily despised, and in which, most certainly, I never found those rapturous joys, the hopes of which had seduced me into it. More passions, too, than one fell short in their account, since I could not dissemble to myself that those women whom I undertook, and over whom I prevailed, were either too weak to give my desires the pleasure of a proper resistance, or too worthless to give my vanity leave to live upon the reputation of having subdued them. To particularize them farther, would, after all, be abusing the privilege of my character to trifle. I could scarce be more insignificantly employed in writing the History of my own Times, than in that of those unmemorable, with whom I lumbered the list of my conquests, and who were consequently far from being matter of triumph or record.
Men are only great grown children, as fond of new play things, and especially as apt to be cured of their eagerest fancies, as that age is of its liquorishness for sweet-meats, by a surfeit. Thus arrived at the topping my character, after having, in the course of it, obtained the honour of passing for the most splendid, happy, dangerous coxcomb in town, I grew cloyed and sick of my successes. The frequency of indulging benumbed my sensations, and I was suddenly taken torpid in the midst of my good fortunes. I began as well to disrelish the facility of the sex, to whom I was so ungrateful, as not to give it the least credit for all that it spared me, in the very little expense it put me to, of time, modesty, and sincerity, as to despise myself for my own cheapness. For I had even descended, in the wantonness of a promiscuous chase, to women, and those not in the lowest walks of life, whom I thought myself obliged to swear previously to secrecy, and that they would never divulge the honour I did them.
I saw myself then with pain in the wretched enough condition of those pleasure-sated Sultans, who, in the midst of their overstocked seraglios, overtaken with the languor's of satiety, and drugged even to loathing, with all the passive obedience and non-resistance round them, find at length how essential the heart is to the preparation of a feast worth the appetite of the senses; and are obliged, for the interest of pleasure itself, to renounce their prerogative, in order to receive it at the hands of love, its only sovereign dispenser.
Then it was that Lydia once more rose to my rescue, triumphantly, and dispelling the clouds and fumes of a debauched imagination, resumed a flame which was to burn the purer and fiercer for its victory over the fuel of a grosser fire. Her memory now revindicated fully the possession of me. I felt severely, but salutarily, that nothing but the true love-passion could afford me a happiness, to which my taste could set its face. And as nothing preaches so powerfully or leads more surely into a return to reason, than the experienced insufficiency of a course of folly and vice, even to the end of pleasure, aimed at in it, I was not yet so grossly abandoned, or so much an enemy to myself, as to withstand my own self conviction, however ungratefully I had stood unmoved to the tender remonstrances of my relations and friends.
Variety exhausted, indolence and, above all, my sensible experience of the futility and nonsense of the course in which I had been bewildered, had all favourably disposed me to a suspension, at least, of my follies. But then it was reserved for love alone to secure to me the benefit of this disgust, and to detach me effectually from them. My heart, at last roused and resuming its importance, made me sensible that it was made for love; that nothing less would worthily satisfy its delicacy, and that in playing false to that passion I had, to my own wrong, renounced the truest, greatest pleasure, to which humanity can boast its inheritance. I remembered now, between raptures of delight and pangs of regret, the first instants of my conception of it. All the sweet emotions I had felt at the sight of Lydia, and had never felt for any other, rose in review before me, and movingly reproached me with the wilful murder of my own happiness. I wondered how, or by what infatuation, I could sacrifice a divinity to objects beneath even the honour of being her victims. I could not conceive then a more mortifying degradation, than what the error of indistinction, and the violence of all those tasteless passions had plunged me into, only to make me feel the more sharply their comparison with the noble one, to which I had seemed to give up my pretensions. I judged, I condemned myself then, and the severe consciousness of my follies began to do Lydia justice on myself, for a toleration of her absence, which had worn too much the air of indifference.
I had, it is true, not punctually obeyed her orders to me, to suspend any enquiries after her, but I had not disobeyed them enough to acquit me, even to myself, of an accusation of neglect. But in this violent reflux of the tide of love, I determined nothing so strongly as repairing my failure, and going personally in quest of her, with a diligence that should leave no hero of a romance, in pursuit of his princess, the odds of comparison to his advantage.
1 had long settled within myself that, for many obvious reasons, it was not in the British dominions I was to seek for her. I imagined with justice that so finished a beauty, attended with the circumstances before related, could not have remained so long in obscurity, or concealed from such pre-requisitions as I had imagined, I durst venture, without giving her cause to complain of my having too glaringly violated her injunctions. And, to say the truth, I had delayed from instant to instant my fixed designs of commencing an effectual search, in the momentary hopes of her own manifestation to me. But my impatience was now risen to such a pitch, that I decided within me that a longer acquiescence would be an injustice to myself and an indignity to Lydia.
As soon then as I had given my resolutions a degree of consistence requisite to carry them into execution, I prevailed with my aunt to indulge me with her consent to proceed upon my travels, and as Lady Bellinger was at length grown to think that I could scarce employ my time worse abroad than at home, I obtained it even from her fondness and regard for me; upon the condition, however, of my attending her down to Warwickshire, where certain indispensable affairs required her presence for a few weeks, and of my bringing her to town, after which I was to dispose of the time of my out-set at my own discretion.
I came into this condition (though certainly I would not have refused her any she should have been pleased to exact of me) the readier, for that I looked upon that country as the central point, from which I was regularly to begin my enquiries on the spot where Lydia first disappeared, and thence date my departure in the search of her.
Upon communicating, too, my design to Merville, he, without entirely approving the romantic part of it, with his usual warmth of friendship, offered to accompany me abroad, though it was not long since he was returned from the tour of Europe; and finding me unwilling to abuse his complaisance by straining it so far, he forced me in my retrenchment by engaging, and making a point of my acceptance, with Lady Bellinger, who was greatly pleased and relieved by it of any apprehensions for me, under a conductor, of whom, with no more than mere justice, she had the highest opinion.
Our equipages were then ordered to be got ready with all expedition, that we might set out immediately upon my return from the country. Whilst these dispositions were making, I could not help feeling with the purest joy the restoration of Lydia to all her empire over my heart. I compared myself now with the figure I made to myself, in the days of my most triumphant coxcombry, and found it a virtue to be vain of my gains by the change. A delicious calm had now succeeded to those gusts of folly and intemperance which had made me take a gulf for a port, and carried me with such violence down the dangerous stream. I seemed now to breathe a fresher, purer air. Sentiments of all another merit, sentiments more delicate, and infinitely more voluptuous, filled my heart, and added to the sweetness they brought with them the joy and self-gratulation of an escape. I tasted now, with the highest relish, the difference between pleasures, which reflection is sure to redouble, and those it is sure to destroy and erect pain upon their ruins: between, in fine, those delicate desires, which are the rectified spirit of the highest passion, and those instinctive ones which are the sediments or the lowest.
I had, however, something to suffer from my impatience, my doubts, and my fears: but even that suffering was compensated by the worthiness of their motives.
At length every thing was in readiness for our preliminary journey into the country, when, on the eve of our setting out, I went with Merville, by way of dissipation, to a mask-ball given by the Duke of N--, at his own house in--.
Nothing could be more splendid than the assembly of the company there, or more elegant than the entertainment, in which taste wondered to see itself for once in alliance with magnificence. Merville happening to separate from me, I sauntered about the apartments, with an indifference natural to the sentiments I had lately taken up, and which made me decline any particular notice of the ladies, in the conviction that the best precaution against a relapse is the not depending too thoroughly upon a cure. I was in this careless disposition, when early, and before any number of the company thought proper to take off their masks, mine, too loosely fastened, dropped off, and I took no pains to retie it, being rather pleased with the ease and freshness of which this accident had, without my meaning it, given me the benefit. I could not, however, escape hearing a gentle exclamation of surprise from a corner of the room, to which I was, at the time, nearest. A motion of curiosity directed my eyes thither, and I observed three ladies clustering together, and whispering in a way for me easily to discern that I was the subject of it.
This alone at first drew my attention towards them, and with a liberty familiar to these assemblies, I examined them to see if through their masks I could penetrate who they were.
One of them especially engrossed the whole strain of my conjectures, being superiorly distinguished by a delicacy of shape, and dignity of air, which not only attracted my eyes, but gave my heart a palpitation, of which I could not conceive the meaning. I could not be weary of admiring the graces which composed her every gesture, and all that nameless charm, that powerful unaccountable, which, mocking definition, is, without being precisely beauty, the very soul and spirit of it. I tried to command away my eyes from so dangerous an object, but in vain, whilst my heart mutinously determined them upon it, in direct rebellion to my will. Alarmed at these violent emotions, which I began to consider as re-germinating seeds of those follies which I had hoped were entirely killed, I was then meditating my retreat, when one of the other ladies advanced towards me, and slipping her mask, for an instant, aside, let me sec she was Mrs. Barmore, one who visited frequently at my aunt's, and was besides a near relation to Lord Merville, whom she took for her text, and asked me if he was at the ball. I assured her he was, and at the same time, urged by an impulse stronger than myself, I could not resist the opportunity of joining company, in the hopes of discovering who this fair unknown might be, who had given the peace of my breast a disturbance, to which it had been long disused. Mrs. Barmore herself seemed to favour this inclination, by continuing the conversation with me. My incognita, in the mean time, kept a profound silence, which did not hinder me from imagining that I observed a certain air of concern and agitation diffused over her, and which communicated to me a disquiet the more distracting, for my ignorance of any particular cause for it. As for the other lady, she talked to Mrs. Barmore of indifferent matters, and occasionally made me a compliment upon my habit, which, however, was neither very remarkable, nor very curiously chosen, being simply that of a huntsman with his accoutrements for the chase.
By this time, Merville had joined us, and presently, as if upon sudden recollection, Mrs. Barmore asked us if we had seen Lady Gertrude Sunly, who had the day before been introduced at court. Merville declared he had not, upon which I answered very coolly and carelessly that I was in the drawing room at the very juncture, and in the crowd of the circle when she was presented. The next question in course put to me was how I liked her. To which very giddily, and without considering the interest which Mrs. Barmore herself or her company might take in the opinion I should give of her, I answered that I had seen her long before without knowing who she was, but that I had perused her even with attention, and had seen nothing very extraordinary in her person. That she had a good shape and skin, a face too that was not very exceptionable, but that the features of it had no play, nor air of life; that she had one of those tame, unmeaning countenances, that wit never went with, and that altogether she was a figure common enough, and such as one might view without too much risk: and this, I added, I might say from my own experience. Mrs. Barmore shrugged up her shoulders at this impertinence, and told me with some acrimony that I was not only very difficult, but singular in my opinion; that the whole town was, and would be against me in this decision of mine. This tone of contradiction, instead of enlightening or proving a hint of reserve or reparation to me, pushed me deeper into my plunge, especially as I could not associate the idea of this Lady Gertrude with what I saw of, and felt for, the young lady who was with Mrs. Barmore, and whose mask could not conceal certain marks of concern and impatience, which broke out at what I had said. As for the third lady, she was entirely, by her size and stature, out of the question. The truth, too, was that I had been the whole day so dunned and pestered by numbers, with the terms of "a prodigy of beauty,--a miracle "of Nature,--the finest creature under the heavens," with other exaggerations of this sort, applied to this Lady Gertrude, in whom I had seen nothing but what was barely tolerable, that on this occasion I could not command myself from giving my spleen a little vent, and accordingly, instead of receding from what I had advanced, or giving it at least a palliative turn, I filled up the measure of my absurdity, by the indecent eagerness with which I thought myself obliged to support my opinion, insomuch that the third lady pulled Mrs. Barmore by the sleeve, and beckoning her to follow her, took the young lady away, leaning upon her arm, and left Merville and me pretty abruptly. Mrs. Barmore just stayed behind long enough to let me know the excess of my impoliteness, for that it was Lady Gertrude in person, before whom I had spoke with such apparent slight of herself. That besides my being extremely in the wrong, in point of judgment, I must have been either absent, or thoughtless indeed, not to take the hints that she had given me. That, for her part, she was entirely clear of any malicious design of drawing me into the scrape by her interrogation, how I liked the lady; for that she had grounded it on a reasonable supposition, that there could not be two opinions of a beauty so universally allowed to be one, as Lady Gertrude was. That therefore her question was purely an innocent trap for a compliment, which she thought it had been impossible to have refused her by any one who had ever seen her. Upon this she left me under my confusion, with my mouth open and a silly excuse sticking in my throat, which she saved me the confusion of bringing out.
Yet, to say the truth, I was less displeased with myself for the blunder I had committed, than at the baulk I could not dissemble to myself this discovery had been to those sentiments and emotions I had felt at the sight of this Lady Gertrude under her mask, and whom I had seen with such perfect indifference without one; and in this idea, I could not help telling Merville laughingly that it was greatly her interest to wear it for life. In the mean time I was so disgusted with myself, for the impressions of which I had found myself susceptible on this occasion, and so damped with my disappointment in the object of them, that I presently after took leave of Merville, hurried out of the ball-room, flung into the first chair in waiting, and came home with a redoubled impatience to begin my journey, upon which I accordingly set out with Lady Bellinger, the very next morning.
As soon as we were arrived at our seat, and I could dispose of an instant's leisure from the crowd of friends and neighbours who came in to pay us their compliments, my first visit, (and I proceeded upon it with the devotion of a pilgrim to the shrine of his select saint) was to the cottage, which had been consecrated to me by the residence Lydia had made in it. Here I found Mrs. Gibson, who still tenanted it, alive and transported with joy to see me, and especially her grandchild Tom, whom I had brought down with me, and of whom I had taken a care suitable to the importance of his recommendation to me, from having had the honour to serve Lydia. Nor did I think it beneath me to be pleased with seeing the force of blood take place, and break out in the pure language of nature, which entertained me with a scene, not without its worth, if but for its movingly presenting to me the power of simple undebauched sensibility in this low, rustic state, to bestow a happiness too often adulterated or smothered amidst the clash of interests or the dissipations of high life.
As soon then as the good old woman had satisfied the pleasing duties of natural affection, I indulged myself with the commemoration of Lydia to her. And it can only be conceived by those who have truly loved, how high a rank and interest the circumstance of her having lodged this sovereign of my heart, gave her with me. It is the character, it . is the privilege of that imperial passion to ennoble every thing that has any relation to the object of it. I knew she could not have heard any thing of her, with which I should not immediately have been made acquainted, and yet I could not help asking her the vain question, her answer to which in the negative had the power to afflict, without the right to surprise me.
The idea, however, of my now being upon the spot in which I had, for the first time, seen Lydia, carried with it, in the midst of the most wishful regret of her, a peculiar sentiment of sweetness and delight. A thousand tenderly interesting images crowded to my memory, and flattered the resumption of all my passion for her. Every thing I saw round me, to which my remembrance could annex any relation to her, wore in proportion a stamp of value and an aspect of joy, that seemed to hail the momentary presence of her to my enchanted imagination. The air, methought, had a local virtue, and felt more balmy, more serene, from a consideration of the place in which I now breathed, and-returned the respiration of it modulated into sighs, which relieved the tender anxieties of my breast. A soft and not unvoluptuous melancholy stole upon me, which I indulged and cherished, under the whispers of my hopes, that I should yet find again the only person on earth, capable of restoring me to myself and to the world, which without Lydia was no more to me than the wilds of Tartary, or the desolate wastes of Russia.
I did myself then some violence to quit a spot so necessary to me, but during my stay in the country I neglected not one instant of leisure, in which I could return to it, and enjoy, in the bosom of solitude, those soothing pleasures of love-pensiveness, so preferable to the tumult of irregular passions, or to the comparatively cheap, indeed, joys of promiscuous company or dissipated life.
Retreats into the country had never appeared to me in any other light, than of a duty to cultivate, at certain seasons, the old English hospitality if but to give the mine workers of agriculture their just encouragement, in their share in the circulation of the revenues produced by them. This, too, I allowed to be no more than a grateful return for the enablements draughted out of the country, to live in town, the capital seat of society. But then I could annex no ideas of a very lively pleasure, to the acquittal of this kind of land tax. The examples of those mutton-headed self-exiles, who dare not in any point think or live out of the fashion, of those who are obliged to retire on the retrieving plan, or of those who affect a rural recess, (forsooth!) with an air of philosophical self-importance, or withdraw in fits of heroic spleen from a world unhappily fallen under their disgrace, and to which they are perfectly insignificant; all these were far from disinclining me to a choice, which I saw they did not make, of keeping to town. I had often then beheld, without the least temptation to envy or imitation, those cavalcades, called grand retinues, which appeared to me rather like funeral processions, in which some lifeless corpse was carrying out of town to be deposited for a time in its burying-place, in one of those temples of dullness called country-seats, where yawns are the form of worship; neither had I, at times, diverted myself amiss with scenes of fondness, I had seen acted between many a woeful pair of turtle-doves, who had taken shelter under shady bowers from the disturbance of an envious world and passed most lovingly the live-long hours, phiz to phiz, in cooing over the old slobbered tale of "my "dear, and my dear." Yet with all this railing, with all this my distaste to the general insipidity of a country-life, which I perhaps pushed to a coxcomb-excess, I could not help confessing to myself that such a companion as Lydia was very capable of making me dispense with all the wearisome-ness and even ridicule of it: of infusing into it all the spirit I could wish, and of indemnifying one, by her presence, for all the pleasures of the universe besides.
With these sentiments, it was not natural for me to neglect any measures conducive to a point that was so much a point with me, as the recovery of Lydia. I went then to Warwick myself, where I made all the enquiries imaginable, and all resulting in vain. I proceeded then on my search, 'till, at length, I arrived at Bristol, where, by the minuteness of the description with which Tom had furnished me, and by proper diligence and exactness in my dates, I found, at length, how much more effectually one is self-served than by commission. For, on examining, by advice, the port-entries, so far backward as was necessary for my purpose, it appeared that a Flanders trader had cleared out thence for Ostend, on or about the day that Tom lost sight of the coach in which Lydia went off, the master's name Ebenezer Tomkins; whose habitation too, by farther enquiry, I discovered was not above a short mile out of town. Justly then ashamed and enraged at myself, for having so long delayed procuring myself a satisfaction that I might have come at with such obvious ease, I proceeded in person to this Tompkins's house, who I was informed was then actually at home, on his return from one of his trips. On my meeting with and exposing to him the purport of my application, he very frankly told me all that I believe he knew, which was in sum that his vessel had been freighted at a very liberal price for some time before, to proceed, with permission of wind and weather, at a minute's warning by one who called himself Mr. Bernard, for himself and his family, consisting of three gentlewomen; that he believed they must be persons of note, by their sparing no cost for accommodation and provisions for the voyage. That he had no discourse with them, as they kept close in the cabin, 'till he had landed them safe at Ostend; and farther he could give me no account.
Incomplete as this information was, I took it as a good omen for the success of my future researches. I had now traced Lydia to her landing-place on the continent, and was determined not to give over my chase, 'till I should have perfected a discovery, to which I now annexed all the satisfaction and happiness of my life.
I returned then to our seat with an impatience for my return to town, redoubled by the light I had obtained, and I was only withheld from hiring a vessel and setting out directly from Bristol, by the circumstances of my travelling-equipage being in London, and of the engagement I was under to Lord Merville for his company in the expedition.
I easily, however, prevailed on Lady Bellinger to expedite her affairs", and succeeded so far as to bring her up to town, at least a fortnight before the time she had set herself for the transaction of them, but which my ardour obliged, and my activity enabled her to abridge without too much inconvenience.
Upon our return to town, Merville came to me, and I could not help observing, amidst his compliments of welcome, a certain air of awkwardness and embarrassment, natural to precede a declaration, which he did me, however, the justice to think would disappoint without offending me. It came out at length, to the following purport.
"I flatter myself, I shall not want much persuasion with you of the sincerity of my proffers to accompany you abroad; I will still punctiliously make them good, unless yourself shall dispense with it. The truth is, that since your leaving town, I saw, by pure accident, at my cousin Bar- more's, the celebrated Lady Gertrude Sunly, and could not escape the fate which inevitably attends all who see her. Once more, I say, all, because even the friendship I have for you does not give my memory leave to do you so ill an office, as to take charge of any thing that makes so much against your taste and judgment, as what I heard you so rashly pronounced upon that lady at the ball; which, however, upon reflection, does not more surprise than please me, as I own I should be sorry to see you on the ranks of competition with me. From only admiring her then, at first sight, since my introduction to her acquaintance through Mrs. Barmore's interest, that admiration is become a passion, but a passion in form, and the most serious business of my life-I confess to you then, that I should not without a regret, easily excusable to a friend not insensible of the power of love, see you too rigorously exact from me the accomplishment of a promise, the inconvenience of which to you, from your acquitting me of it, bears no proportion to the necessity of my presence here, to the pursuit, in short, of a point, my success in which will greatly decide the future happiness of my life. Not," added he, "that I have hitherto made any progress, to which I dare yet give the name of encouragement. Lady Gertrude can as yet only conjecture my sentiments, by my assiduity, my respect, and"--"Courage!" said I, "Merville," and burst out into a laugh, which at once disconcerted and assured him of my not taking his disappointment of me in too grave a light; why this is little less than stark staring love; what a tragic whine was there? Assiduity, and respect too! what solemn terms are these! Have you been pillaging for them the old obsolete dictionary of the love-cant of our ancestors, or if this the identical Lord Merville, who, with all his complaisance, used to treat my passion for Lydia as a romantic flight?--You feel then, my good lord, at length, the force of your own suggestions, that to retrieve a true taste of pleasure, you must look for it in the natural, genuine love passion, in spite of all the fashionable decry it is in. In favour then of this reformation I instantly desist, and release you from your engagement to go abroad with me, and you have not only my consent to stay, but my best wishes for your succeeding to your heart's content."
And I spoke as I thought. Nothing, after all, was more impersonal to me, than this passion of his for Lady Gertrude; I had seen her at some assembly, before her presentment at court, when she had not so much as stirred my curiosity to enquire her name, nor did I know it, 'till I accidentally heard it mentioned. All that a little chagrined me in this incident was that, by this means, she deprived me of the valuable company or a friend, upon which I had in some sort depended, and now gave up, on so superior an objection, even according to my own sense of things.
This did not, however, contribute to dispose me more favourably to the lady herself, whom I made accountable for my disappointment. Neither was I over-surprised at this influence of hers. I knew tastes were arbitrary, and though she had been far from striking mine, I easily allowed that she might please another, without my leave for it.
Merville, thus relieved from his engagement, resumed all his ease and cheerfulness, and offered to get me introduced to Lady Gertrude, before I should proceed on my voyage, in the firm assurance, as he said, that I should be ashamed of having passed my opinion so lightly upon the merit of her person; that he was certain I could not have seen her with my usual eyes; that I, even in point of politeness, owed her a reparation for the rudeness of what she had herself heard me say of her at the ball, and upon which, though she had not, to his knowledge, said any thing, when it was occasionally mentioned, her looks had glaringly betrayed a certain air of pique and confusion, in contradiction to her aim at indifference and unconcern; but that indeed she must have been more than woman not to have resented an injury, especially of this sort. This was a satisfaction that I would have gladly given both Merville and the lady, even upon my own account, had not I considered my time as too short to spare any instants of it to form and ceremony.
Upon this I told Merville that I constituted him my proxy, and hoped he would acquit me of the reparation to which he taxed me. That, besides, it was requiring of me to do myself an ill office to see a person whom he represented so dangerous, and that would only load my departure with an additional regret. That I might, however, probably see her at some public place, which would save me the formality of a visit, in which case I should--here, Merville interrupted me, with observing that I need not refer any thing to that chance, for that independent of her seeming to understand the value, which reserve and rarity add to beauty, too well to contract the cheapness of those faces constantly upon shew at the gardens, wells, and other parading-places, she had lately especially appeared in prey to a profound melancholy, which had indisposed her to all public diversions, and even to the amusements of private society, to a point that her mother complained of, without assigning any cause for it.
I stuck, however, to my evasion of any visit in form, though Merville did not easily give over his insistence. We parted then, nevertheless, upon the terms of unabated friendship, and he went, as I afterwards learned, to Lady Gertrude's, whom he acquainted of his solicitations of me to see her, and of my having declined them, purely from the hurry I was in, nor did he omit valuing to them the obliging turn I had given to this excuse; but withal he took Care not to entrench upon the secret I had in general, and before, recommended to him, in respect to the capital and sole motive of my resolution to leave England. This mark then of my indifference, where I was already so much in the wrong, was naturally enough received and construed as a fresh insult.
Every thing being now soon ready for my proceeding to Deal, where I proposed embarking for Flanders, I had only left myself to pay a few visits of duty or business. And on the foot of the latter it was, that I could not help calling at Lady Snellgrove's, from whom I was to take letters of recommendation to a brother of hers, then residing at Brussels. Merville was in the chariot, and engaged for the rest of the evening with me. We found she was at home by a coach being at the door, and were immediately let up to the drawing-room, in which she was in company with two ladies, who were then upon a visit to her. We advanced towards them. They had got up at our entrance into the room, and as I was sliding my bow, my heart yet more than my eyes discerned that one of them was--who? even the Lydia so long lost to me, and in pursuit of whom I was preparing to range the universe, and to seek for her every where but where she was not to be. Yes! I shudder yet to think how near I was to wandering from the centre of all my wishes, all my happiness. At this dear and unexpected sight then, I stood in a trance of surprise and joy, unable to command any motion, or exert one power of free agency, under the oppression of such sudden sensations acting united upon me and keeping every other faculty of my soul suspended. I gazed, I devoured her with eyes insufficient to all the raptures and avidity of my heart. But the vivacity of my ideas kept down the burst of expressions with which it heaved, and choked my utterance. I was even too much engrossed by all I felt, to attend to, or distinguish, what impressions the sight of me made upon her: but the instant of my recovering my natural liberty of motion, I precipitated myself at her feet, I seized her hand before she could draw it away from;. my grasp, and could not but disconcert her with an impetuosity, or which I was not in these moments of transport the master. I tried in vain to speak, but my emotions still overpowered me. And when at length my sentiments forced a passage, it was only in an exclamation of the name of Lydia, in inarticulate breaks and heart-fetched sighs. Lydia herself appeared to rile, as soon as I was capable of remarking her situation, if less surprised, not less confounded or agitated than myself: yet the quickness of discernment so peculiar to the love-passion, that it may be called its instinct, made me feel a somewhat, if not dry or reserved in her reception of me, at least wanting much of that warmth of welcome, which I should have wished in such a re-meeting. But even that remark could not materially dash my draught of delight. The violence of my sentiments expunged all memory or reflection on every thing but the present object. I saw Lydia, and that was enough.
The lady, however, who was with Lydia, did not leave me time to recover myself, before taking her by the hand with an air of authority and an unexpected suddenness, which cut off all explanation, led her out of the room, whilst I represented the figure of one petrified alive, without the sense or courage to follow or oppose them. I heard, too, the oldest lady murmur, as she passed me, that I "should not make a " bad actor."
I looked wildly round me, expecting from Merville some succour or consolation. But he, too, was vanished: so that deserted at once by my mistress and friend, I remained in a state of stupor and desolation, 'till unable to support myself under all this distraction of distress, the severer for so quick a shift, I sank down under my weight upon a chair, Lydia still swimming before my eyes, Lydia so happily found and so unaccountably lost in one and the same instant.
Lady Snellgrove, who was herself astonished at this scene, approached, and asked me what I had done to affront or drive away Lady Gertrude Sunly and her mother in that manner.
Lady Gertrude Sunly?" I cried out. "Is the whole earth combined to perplex and torture me? What Lady Gertrude? what relation has she to Lydia, to this Lydia, who has just left me in this cruel manner?"
"I do not know what you mean by Lydia," replied Lady Snellgrove, coolly enough, "but surely you jest; you cannot but know that these ladies were the Countess of M--and her daughter, Lady Gertrude."
I was, however, so far from knowing, that I was even then incapable of believing it, though I was assured that Lady Snellgrove was not or a turn to trifle with me. But how was I to believe her against the deposition of my own eyes? We proceeded then to explanations, in the course of which I soon discovered that my error was owing to a cause too simple for the consequence of which it had been, and too probable not to give me the chance of an easy clearance of my innocence.
Lady Gertrude had not, as it happened, been the only one presented that day at court. Miss E--had preceded her, and it was to her introduction only that I had been witness, without the least curiosity to ask her name, any more than I had done, when I had seen her once before. As she was not then made, if propriety may excuse a vulgarism, to be named in the same day with Lady Gertrude, this last had engrossed the public attention; insomuch that when her name was mentioned, upon the occasion of her presentment, I very currently affixed it to the person whom I had myself seen introduced, and had never once started a doubt of my mistake, till I was now undeceived and set right; but with what pain to reflect on all the appearances of wrong, which this unlucky error had given me, to Lydia no longer, and now Lady Gertrude! I had slighted her to her face at the ball, left the town the next morning, though I was by her supposed to know she was in it; I had contemptuously refused to see her, and to crown all, was setting out upon a voyage, that to her wore more the air of shunning, than of seeking, her. Yet in the midst of all these subjects of confusion and regret, the consciousness of my innocence was, not without reason, my consolation. As my thoughts, too, had flown the compass round, they could not escape the consideration of Merville being my rival, and of his sudden eclipse from my side; but I had not time to dwell upon it, for, company coming in to Lady Snellgrove's, I was driven away by their interruption and my own impatience, to pursue my inquiries after Lady Gertrude, and to procure myself the essential relief of clearing up my mistake to her.
Easy it was to find out where she lived, and as I had no thought of presenting myself either before Lady Gertrude or her mother, before I should have smoothed the way by an explanation, I imagined this could not be better executed than by a letter which I proposed should be conveyed to Lady Gertrude by Mrs. Bernard, or her father-in-law, the little old gentleman who had so fairly put the flame upon me. In pursuance of this resolution, I drove directly home, and preparatorily dispatched a head domestic of mine with Tom, who knew Mr. Bernard personally, with a note to beg the favour of seeing him, and, in the mean time, I drew up a letter to Lady Gertrude, in which I had nothing to do, but to flow upon paper the pure emanations of my heart, which patheticized the truth too forcibly not to compel conviction.
By the time I had finished my letter, my messenger returned, and acquainted me that the gentleman was not in the way that evening, but that the note left would certainly come to his hands in the morning. All delay was death to me, but against this I had no remedy. It was now that I felt the want of Merville to unbosom myself to, and, as if my ill fortune was bent upon not sparing me one circumstance of torture, even that of jealousy rose upon me, in the remembrance of his confidence to me of his sentiments, for Lady Gertrude. In the restlessness then natural to such a situation, I drove to Merville's, but could neither find, nor get any intelligence where to meet with him; upon this I coursed him all over the town, through all his haunts or places of resort, and all to no purpose.
I returned home then, late, oppressed, and harassed with the variety of violent emotions and fatigues I had undergone, and then found myself not a whit the nearer to my repose, for its being so necessary to me.
The next morning, pretty early, I received the following billet from Merville.
I have no excuse, Sir, to make you for the abruptness of my leaving you yesterday evening. The pain which your discovery of Lydia put me to, abundantly acquits that incumbency. In the first heat then of my vexation, the rival naturally prevailed over the friend; and I 'was not extremely disposed to make you, in a fit of high heroics, a sacrifice of my competition. Neither then to friendship, or even to honour, shall I falsely give the merit of my desistence in your favour, but purely to a reasonable despair of succeeding in a pursuit, where you have so much the start of me. I am sensible, too, there has been some devilish mistake on your side, and have myself so much more candour than to aim at taking an advantage of it, that, even before I shall see you, I propose to wait on Lady M--and acquaint her of my persuasion of your innocence towards Lady Gertrude, from all that I know myself of it, and which will come with the more efficacy from me, as she is not ignorant of my sentiments for her daughter. You will, on your part, no doubt, neglect nothing that may forward your clearance to them. Thus you see, you traitor, that all my revenge on you for the death of my pretensions will be my sincerest endeavours to re-invalidate yours, and to find, at least, in the satisfaction of your wishes, some recompense for all that is denied to me in mine. I shall see you same time this morning, and now I am my own again,
I am truly yours.
Nothing could have more rejoiced or tranquillized me than this recovery of Merville to me, unless a reconciliation with Lady Gertrude, of which I accepted this for a good omen. I had scarce finished the reading of it, when Mr. Bernard, or rather Mr. Withers, which was his true name, was at the door, and had immediate admission to me: when not all the sense I had of his having imposed upon me, and yet more unmercifully continued me so long in the ignorance of a point so important to me, could hinder me from embracing and giving him the cordialest reception; and tho' he was ' naturally of a dry, stoic temper, he did not seem entirely unmoved at the profusion of caresses with which I loaded him. After then the first compliments, I made him sit down, and not without some gentle expostulations, and to say the truth, I durst not permit myself any other than the gentlest, and a succinct explanation of the adventure at the ball, which I thought no more than necessary to bespeak and engage his confidence, he gave me the satisfaction, for which I ardently longed, in the following history of Lydia; in the recital of which he had now renounced all disguise of fact, or falsity of face and language.
"It may, Sir," said he, "very well have seemed strange and unaccountable to you, that a young lady of such birth, rank, and fortune, as Lady Gertrude, should in so tender a season of life have been forced, in the character of a fugitive, to take shelter in that retreat, where you first saw her, especially in an Age, and in a Country, so very unfavourable to romantic adventures.
It will then be necessary to go back to the source, and to acquaint you with some particularities of the family which you may have possibly heard before, in order to introduce those which may have escaped your knowledge, and which form one of those secrets, that are restrained to the narrow circle of relations or intimate friends, especially where scandal has no very material interest in the divulging them.
The Earl of M-- has by his lady only one son, Lord Sunly, a young nobleman of great promise, and this Lady Gertrude, who is what you see her. Lord Sunly was upon his travels, when my lord F--, upon an accidental visit at the Earl of M--'s seat, saw Lady Gertrude for the first time, and, though she was then scarce out of the verge of childhood, he was so struck, as to forget the whole distance of the horizons between her dawn and his setting, for he was upwards of sixty, a widower, and childless. He had then no sooner formed to himself the project of a match with this young lady, but he signified it to her father with that air or authority which he thought became him, as one of those leading ministers who dispose of the fate of the nation, and taking the Earl of M--by his weak side, his ambition, he shewed him such an access to power, and accompanied his proposal with such tempting advantages of fortune and interest, as dazzled my lord M--to a point, that shutting his eyes on every opposing consideration, he hardly hesitated his consent; in which he involved without further ceremony, and as matter of course, that of the young lady and her mother. He had the more readily, too, presumed the concurrence, or at least acquiescence of Lady M--in this disposition of his, as he had never experienced any material opposition to his will from her, as she is naturally of a mild, passive temper, and had ever appeared to be thoroughly subdued by the air of absolute control and authority, with which he believed he swayed every thing in his family; though, by that submission of hers, and the less of art there was in it, the effect of it was the more lasting and secure, she had often by giving way in points repugnant to her sense of things, seen the fury of the current spend, break, and insensibly turn itself in her favour.
When he intimated then to her, in his usual strain, his views for Lady Gertrude, as a measure upon which he was resolved, Lady M--, who for many obvious reasons was utterly averse to this disposal, without directly coming into it expressed no farther dislike to it, than what might be construed a natural indecision, in so critical and interesting; a concern, in hopes that her turn would come to state her objections, and to elude, by gaining time for his cooler consideration to take place, the execution of the treaty, before it should be too far engaged.
As for Lady Gertrude, when she received the advice of it from her father, in the style of an irrevocable edict, she was too much surprised and over-awed to utter any sentiments at all, so that her silence from consternation and duty did her the ill office of passing for a submission, in the midst; of all her inward horrors and revolt against the proposal. Sentiments which nothing could more be made to justify than the person and character of Lord F--. For besides the disparity of his years, which rendered him more venerable than amiable, and the disagreeable circumstance of an inveterate gout, he rather arrogated than made love. Incapable of unbending a brow habituated to the austere contractions of it in his political functions, he carried all the emphasis of tone and gesture, with which he solemnized the delivery of his false and frivolous oracles in state- debates, into his addresses to the ladies, upon whom, however, nothing could be so little apt to succeed as those magisterial airs, especially without the merit of youth and a good figure to set against all the ridicule of them.
In the Lady M--, her repugnance to this alliance was the result of her reason and knowledge of life; but was in Lady Gertrude the wisdom of pure Nature, which has sensibly implanted in that tender age the guard of an instinctive aversion to those murderous sacrifices of it to the spurious powers of Interest or Ambition, which Happiness flies from, and disdains; nor can indeed be found, (all romantic sentiment apart) but in mutual love alone, which, when un- der the protection of honour and duty, ceases to be a passion, and commences Reason.
Lord F--, however, had not the time, if the thing had been possible, or his pride had suffered him, to conquer that coolness, with which, if he was not made to feel it, his addresses were not the less received by Lady M--and her daughter. An express from London, requiring his immediate attendance in the business of his department in the public affairs, obliged him to leave the country precipitately, before he had much to boast of his progress with them, and perhaps without thinking their consent over necessary, from his abundant dependence on Lord M--, with whom he had equal to settled and concluded.
The family soon after came to town; in the mean time Lady M--found that she had misreckoned upon the influence of time, and of her own gentle suggestions, occasionally thrown in against this destination of her daughter. Lord M--continued to speak of it, as a point unalterably fixed, and with an air of determination that made her tremble for the consequences to Lady Gertrude, who had rather languished than lived, since her hearing, literally speaking, worse than sentence of death pronounced upon her; sentence of life with one she could not but detest as her persecutor, and dread as her executioner.
When Lady M--was convinced that the matter was going so seriously on, that my lord M--was proceeding upon preparations for the match, she tried every insinuation, every argument, and every measure to divert or dissuade him from this cruel resolution, in vain. He had not been shaken by an oblique opposition, and was only the more obstinately confirmed by a direct one. He answered then in a tone to cut off all further contradiction or remonstrance, so as to let her see that there were no extremities to which he would not go, rather than be disappointed of the schemes of interest and elevation, which he had planned out to himself, in the consummation of his alliance.
Lady M--, pierced at this to the heart, with the threat of this imminent blast to the happiness of a daughter, who was so deservedly her dear and tender care, gave on this occasion a proof, that the mildest, tamest tempers, when urged beyond their line of bearance, are capable of the most dauntless and desperate resolutions, when generally, too, they succeed the better, for no warning of them preceding their projection and execution. After seeing reason then to give over all hopes of Lord M--'s revoking this disposal of Lady Gertrude, and determined to put every thing to the risk, rather than it should take place; after exhausting, too, every practicable expedient she could imagine for her rescue, she round she had no chance for it but one, and that a desperate one, in withdrawing herself and daughter, 'til Time, the intervention of friends, and the enormity of the step itself should open his eyes on that of the cause given for it. A cause, great enough to force her to lose the wife in the mother, and to consult the preservation of her child, at so dear an expense, as such a terrible forfeiture of duty.'
Nothing, however, now appeared to Lady M--too violent, or too hazardous, to save Lady Gertrude from the worst of ruin, a compulsion to give her hand, where her heart could not accompany, and would more than probably never follow it. Upon the foot of this determination, she communicated her designs to my daughter Withers, whom you know under the occasional name of Bernard, and with her she concerted the necessary measures for the accomplishment of the escape which she meditated. For me, who had been the steward of my lady's estate in Yorkshire, though I had quitted it for some time, on my leaving off business, my lady and Mrs. Withers both set upon me so urgently, and stated the extreme necessity of this step in so fair and forcible a light, that though I was far from dissembling to myself or them the improprieties both of character and conduct, in a measure of such importance as the secretion of a wife and daughter from the fury of an incensed husband and father, and the power of a minister interested, for his own sake, to recover and re-subject them to it, I was at length obliged to acquiesce, and even not deny them the assistance for which they had depended upon me.
And here I must do the Lady M--the justice to observe that she offered to relinquish with joy this resolution of hers, if I should suggest to her any other expedient to preserve her daughter; adding that she would, then, acknowledge me her own deliverer from the unfathomable plunge she was rushing into, with her eyes open on the dangers of it, but which she preferred to the reproaches she should have incessantly to make to herself for an inaction that should expose her to see her child torn from her arms, and made away with, in a manner so barbarous, that in both their unexagerating imaginations death was a gentle escape from the horrors of such a destiny. That, for the rest, she durst undertake that when my lord M--should have vented his first fire, and have had time to recover, and get disinfatuated from his present dreams of power and state, he would receive her again, and treat her as the preserver of a child, equally dear to them both. That, in the mean time, she should have recourse to the mediation of Lord Sunly, of whose sentiments and concurrence she was assured, and who could hardly intercede with his father in vain. That gaining time then was gaining every thing.
I was the less able, too, to stand before the pressure of these arguments, for that, bad as the expedient proposed necessarily appeared to me, I could not, by what I knew myself of my lord's temper, name a better, and to say the truth, I knew it was the only one. I saw then, with the most tender sense of compassion, my good mistress driven to this distressful dilemma of being forced of two evils, both very great ones, only to choose the least in her sense of them, and that sense perhaps not so unreasonable an. one.
Nor could I consistently with my grateful attachment to her, or even my own desire of being instrumental to the preservation of Lady Gertrude, refuse running those risks of which I saw they were not afraid. I could have wished a less obnoxious method, but since there evidently was none, I obeyed, where I could not advise.
There was now no time to lose. Accordingly the plan was presently digested and formed under my direction, in which it was agreed, that as it might be too dangerous, too liable to discovery to keep all together, Lady M--should take care of herself, and that Lady Gertrude should be under the tuition of my daughter and me. That for fear of any accident of detention in any of the seaports, where the search would instantly follow the hottest, by contrary winds or any other accidents, I should manage them an asylum in some obscure and unsuspected corner of any of the inland counties, where I was to wait for what further orders I should receive from her ladyship.
Few women would have dared to have formed such a resolution, and fewer yet would, with the same steadiness and mastery as Lady M--have executed it. She acted, in short, upon this occasion, as if she had kept in reserve the whole spirit of her life to come out with it upon this critical exigency. For with a simulated serenity that masked her intentions, she predisposed every thing before the day fixed for their escape, when I received from her Lady Gertrude --and Mrs. Bernard, to be conducted to the Warwick-stage, which I had taken as for a family going down out of the city, whilst she herself in the character of a plain gentlewoman took a post-chaise for Bristol, with a trusty maid-servant of my recommendation, who was not likely to betray the secret she was not let into, of the true name or condition of the lady, and there it was easy for her in that great and populous city, singly to preserve her incognita, free from all enquiry or suspicion.
For the execution of this, my lady had selected a day, in which she knew my lord was to be absent upon a party of pleasure with Lord F--, his now not future son-in-law.
At his return home, he found a letter left for him by his lady, acquainting him with the motives of this dispantion, and conceived in the most pathetic terms of remonstrance and regret, of firmness and of tenderness, of nature and of duty. A fact, however pregnant with such apparent indignity and revolt, could not be entitled to much alleviation from words only. Reason was not made to prevail instantly
over such a storm of resentment and passion, as such a step would naturally enough provoke. Restrained, however, by a just pride from giving scenes to the public, he exhaled his rage within his domestic, and all as he gave orders for an immediate search and enquiry after them, he had the command of himself enough to stifle the eclat of this es cape by a deep silence on the ladies having left the town without his consent. He relied probably, too, upon the efficacy of his measures to find out and recover their persons, before their secession should take air. But he was disappointed by the start they had of him, and the preventional care taken against leaving any traces that might immaturely betray them to him. Besides which, he was ill obeyed by those whom he trusted with his orders, and who were all at bottom in my lady's and in fact in his interest, as he could not ultimately be more unfaithfully served, than to the content of his passion upon this occasion.
My lady M--though, found herself mistaken in her presumption that my lord would soon cool, or hear reason upon this point. My lord Sunly, who was wrote to by his mother, took the part of his mother and sister, in vain. In vain did he write to his father in the most moving strain. He continued implacable. It was then soon generally understood, that there subsisted great dissensions between my lord M--and his lady, but it was known only to a few intimate friends and relations that they were gone the lengths of so violent a separation, especially as my lord M--affected to circulate their being gone to Aix-la-Chapelle, for the benefit of the waters to my lady, where he intended himself soon to follow. The report, too, which had been universally enough spread, of the alliance in agitation, still continued with no other difference than that it was to take place upon their return. In the mean time my lady received repeated advices of my lord's inflexible disposition, and of the expedience of continuing her sequestration, if she meant to reap the fruit of having hazarded it at all; so that, tired at length with her disagreeable situation, she resolved to repair to Brussels, where she knew Lord Sunly was soon to be. It was then that Lady Gertrude was obliged to quit the shelter, in which she had such obligations to your politeness. A circumstance, however which at that time I durst not mention to Lady M--, for fear of adding to her anxieties and affliction; since if she could scarce justify to herself the rescue of her daughter from the unpaternal exertion of my lord M--'s power, in marrying her against her consent, she would have been, but with great reason, the more averse to dispose of her without his. This would have been too insufferable an aggravation of his causes of complaint, already too great. It was upon this consideration then, that you found in Mrs. Withers (Mrs. Bernard) so severe a guardian against the least advances towards any engagement, that should not have had the previous avowal of Lord and Lady M--. [I confessed here that this objection was a reasonable one, and gave all honour to that vigilance of Mrs. Bernard, though I could at that time so gladly have dispensed with it.]
Mr. Withers went on, We got then safe to Brussels, and soon after two events contributed to soften and relent my lord M--. The one was my lord F--striking up a match with a young lady more fashionably prudential than very delicate in the disposal of herself; which circumstance, if alone, would have only the more exasperated my lord M--, but as it happened to be immediately followed by my lord F--'s going out of power in one of those familiar and insignificant changes of the political drama here; when, with as little ceremony as amendment, a set of ministers is as quickly shifted as a set of opera scenes, my lord M--grew a little more calm and composed. The peace and happiness of persons once so dear to him began to resume their due weight with him. My lady did not want for friends about him to seize and improve the first appearance of a lull of his resentment, and being now at ease from any disquietudes for Lady Gertrude from my lord F--, she made no scruple of proportioning her submissions to the measure of her offence, and, for the sake of purchasing her peace, gave my lord, on that side, all the satisfaction he
could wish for, towards justifying to himself the forgive ness of a step so bold, so extraordinary, and so derogatory to his just authority. A reconciliation then was soon effectuated, and the advice of my lord Sunly's having, with leave from himself, joined the ladies at Brussels, determined him to go in person to them, and realize in company with them the journey he had occasionally pretended to Aix-la-Chapelle.
Accordingly he arrived happily at Brussels, where nothing could be more moving than the interview between my lord and family. Lady M-- and Lady Gertrude threw themselves at his feet, and bathing his hands with tears of tenderness and joy, implored the confirmation of his pardon in a strain of self-accusation and regret, which disarmed and deprived him of the power of pronouncing the least reproach.
All past bitternesses now merged in the sweets of their present reunion. Mrs. Withers and myself were included in the amnesty, and my lady had the singular happiness of finding that success had done her motives that justice which she owned she had no right to expect from means rather too irregular, and perhaps as little to be recommended to imitation, as the cause that was given for them.
Soon after they proceeded together to Aix-la-Chapelle, where my lord, finding more advantages than he had proposed to his health, made a long residence, and we had the pleasure of seeing a lasting and sincere calm succeed the terrible storm that had so unpromisingly parted them. From Aix-la-Chapelle, the time of our return was spun out in various excursions of curiosity and pleasure, 'till at length some affairs at home required my lord's presence in the country; upon which, not two days before your seeing Lady Gertrude at the Masquerade, he came to town, and taking Lord Sunly with him, he went down for some time, and left Lady M--and Lady Gertrude here to recover from the fatigues of the voyage, so that we now expect my lord M--and his son both instantly back to town. Upon receipt, however, of your billet, I would not in justice to Lady Gertrude, postpone the clearing up to you these particulars, however indifferent they may be, by this time, to you, and I could not well, without a charge of officiousness, obtrude them upon you, 'till your advances should have given me ground for it.'
I coloured with conscious shame at this conclusion of his, in which I felt there was couched a sort of reproach, which I had not entirely deserved, and which I would have gladly turned upon himself, but that I thought the time now too precious to waste in expostulations. I begged him then to take charge of my letter of apology to Lady Gertrude, which he readily undertook, on the condition of Lady M--'s leave for it, to the which I neither had, nor made, an objection. Neither did I forget my especial and sincere compliments to Mrs. Bernard.
He took leave then, and left me to my transition from a painful to a not unpleasing inquietude, since I had now a. portion of hope mixed with it, sufficient to ferment and inspirit it.
All my preparations for going abroad were now countermanded in an instant, to the great joy of Lady Bellinger, whom I had acquainted with the substance of my discoveries and the revolution in my schemes.