The last night’s raillery of his companions was recalled to his remembrance when he awoke, and the colder homilies of prudence began to suggest some things which were nowise favourable for a performance of his promise to the unfortunate female he had met with before. He rose, uncertain of his purpose; but the torpor of such considerations was seldom prevalent over the warmth of his nature. He walked some turns backwards and forwards in his room; he recalled the languid form of the fainting wretch to his mind; he wept at the recollection of her tears. “Though I am the vilest of beings, I have not forgotten every virtue; gratitude, I hope, I shall still have left.” - He took a larger stride - “Powers of mercy that surround me!” cried he, “do ye not smile upon deeds like these? to calculate the chances of deception is too tedious a business for the life of man!” - The clock struck ten. - When he was got down-stairs, he found that he had forgot the note of her lodgings; he gnawed his lips at the delay: he was fairly on the pavement, when he recollected having left his purse; he did but just prevent himself from articulating an imprecation. He rushed a second time up into his chamber. “What a wretch I am!” said he; “ere this time, perhaps - ” ’Twas a perhaps not to be borne; - two vibrations of a pendulum would have served him to lock his bureau; but they could not be spared.
When he reached the house, and inquired for Miss Atkins (for that was the lady’s name), he was shown up three pair of stairs, into a small room lighted by one narrow lattice, and patched round with shreds of different-coloured paper. In the darkest corner stood something like a bed, before which a tattered coverlet hung by way of curtain. He had not waited long when she appeared. Her face had the glister of new-washed tears on it. “I am ashamed, sir,” said she, “that you should have taken this fresh piece of trouble about one so little worthy of it; but, to the humane, I know there is a pleasure in goodness for its own sake: if you have patience for the recital of my story, it may palliate, though it cannot excuse, my faults.” Harley bowed, as a sign of assent; and she began as follows:-
“I am the daughter of an officer, whom a service of forty years had advanced no higher than the rank of captain. I have had hints from himself, and been informed by others, that it was in some measure owing to those principles of rigid honour, which it was his boast to possess, and which he early inculcated on me, that he had been able to arrive at no better station. My mother died when I was a child: old enough to grieve for her death, but incapable of remembering her precepts. Though my father was doatingly fond of her, yet there were some sentiments in which they materially differed: she had been bred from her infancy in the strictest principles of religion, and took the morality of her conduct from the motives which an adherence to those principles suggested. My father, who had been in the army from his youth, affixed an idea of pusillanimity to that virtue, which was formed by the doctrines, excited by the rewards, or guarded by the terrors of revelation; his dashing idol was the honour of a soldier: a term which he held in such reverence, that he used it for his most sacred asseveration. When my mother died, I was some time suffered to continue in those sentiments which her instructions had produced; but soon after, though, from respect to her memory, my father did not absolutely ridicule them, yet he showed, in his discourse to others, so little regard to them, and at times suggested to me motives of action so different, that I was soon weaned from opinions which I began to consider as the dreams of superstition, or the artful inventions of designing hypocrisy. My mother’s books were left behind at the different quarters we removed to, and my reading was principally confined to plays, novels, and those poetical descriptions of the beauty of virtue and honour, which the circulating libraries easily afforded.
“As I was generally reckoned handsome, and the quickness of my parts extolled by all our visitors, my father had a pride in allowing me to the world. I was young, giddy, open to adulation, and vain of those talents which acquired it.
“After the last war, my father was reduced to half-pay; with which we retired to a village in the country, which the acquaintance of some genteel families who resided in it, and the cheapness of living, particularly recommended. My father rented a small house, with a piece of ground sufficient to keep a horse for him, and a cow for the benefit of his family. An old man servant managed his ground; while a maid, who had formerly been my mother’s, and had since been mine, undertook the care of our little dairy: they were assisted in each of their provinces by my father and me: and we passed our time in a state of tranquillity, which he had always talked of with delight, and my train of reading had taught me to admire.
“Though I had never seen the polite circles of the metropolis, the company my father had introduced me into had given me a degree of good breeding, which soon discovered a superiority over the young ladies of our village. I was quoted as an example of politeness, and my company courted by most of the considerable families in the neighbourhood.
“Amongst the houses where I was frequently invited was Sir George Winbrooke’s. He had two daughters nearly of my age, with whom, though they had been bred up in those maxims of vulgar doctrine which my superior understanding could not but despise, yet as their good nature led them to an imitation of my manners in everything else, I cultivated a particular friendship.
“Some months after our first acquaintance, Sir George’s eldest son came home from his travels. His figure, his address, and conversation, were not unlike those warm ideas of an accomplished man which my favourite novels had taught me to form; and his sentiments on the article of religion were as liberal as my own: when any of these happened to be the topic of our discourse, I, who before had been silent, from a fear of being single in opposition, now kindled at the fire he raised, and defended our mutual opinions with all the eloquence I was mistress of. He would be respectfully attentive all the while; and when I had ended, would raise his eyes from the ground, look at me with a gaze of admiration, and express his applause in the highest strain of encomium. This was an incense the more pleasing, as I seldom or never had met with it before; for the young gentlemen who visited Sir George were for the most part of that athletic order, the pleasure of whose lives is derived from fox-hunting: these are seldom solicitous to please the women at all; or if they were, would never think of applying their flattery to the mind.
“Mr. Winbrooke observed the weakness of my soul, and took every occasion of improving the esteem he had gained. He asked my opinion of every author, of every sentiment, with that submissive diffidence, which showed an unlimited confidence in my understanding. I saw myself revered, as a superior being, by one whose judgment my vanity told me was not likely to err: preferred by him to all the other visitors of my sex, whose fortunes and rank should have entitled them to a much higher degree of notice: I saw their little jealousies at the distinguished attention he paid me; it was gratitude, it was pride, it was love! Love which had made too fatal a progress in my heart, before any declaration on his part should have warranted a return: but I interpreted every look of attention, every expression of compliment, to the passion I imagined him inspired with, and imputed to his sensibility that silence which was the effect of art and design. At length, however, he took an opportunity of declaring his love: he now expressed himself in such ardent terms, that prudence might have suspected their sincerity: but prudence is rarely found in the situation I had been unguardedly led into; besides, that the course of reading to which I had been accustomed, did not lead me to conclude, that his expressions could be too warm to be sincere: nor was I even alarmed at the manner in which he talked of marriage, a subjection, he often hinted, to which genuine love should scorn to be confined. The woman, he would often say, who had merit like mine to fix his affection, could easily command it for ever. That honour too which I revered, was often called in to enforce his sentiments. I did not, however, absolutely assent to them; but I found my regard for their opposites diminish by degrees. If it is dangerous to be convinced, it is dangerous to listen; for our reason is so much of a machine, that it will not always be able to resist, when the ear is perpetually assailed.
“In short, Mr. Harley (for I tire you with a relation, the catastrophe of which you will already have imagined), I fell a prey to his artifices. He had not been able so thoroughly to convert me, that my conscience was silent on the subject; but he was so assiduous to give repeated proofs of unabated affection, that I hushed its suggestions as they rose. The world, however, I knew, was not to be silenced; and therefore I took occasion to express my uneasiness to my seducer, and entreat him, as he valued the peace of one to whom he professed such attachment, to remove it by a marriage. He made excuse from his dependence on the will of his father, but quieted my fears by the promise of endeavouring to win his assent.
“My father had been some days absent on a visit to a dying relation, from whom he had considerable expectations. I was left at home, with no other company than my books: my books I found were not now such companions as they used to be; I was restless, melancholy, unsatisfied with myself. But judge my situation when I received a billet from Mr. Winbrooke informing me, that he had sounded Sir George on the subject we had talked of, and found him so averse to any match so unequal to his own rank and fortune, that he was obliged, with whatever reluctance, to bid adieu to a place, the remembrance of which should ever be dear to him.
“I read this letter a hundred times over. Alone, helpless, conscious of guilt, and abandoned by every better thought, my mind was one motley scene of terror, confusion, and remorse. A thousand expedients suggested themselves, and a thousand fears told me they would be vain: at last, in an agony of despair, I packed up a few clothes, took what money and trinkets were in the house, and set out for London, whither I understood he was gone; pretending to my maid, that I had received letters from my father requiring my immediate attendance. I had no other companion than a boy, a servant to the man from whom I hired my horses. I arrived in London within an hour of Mr. Winbrooke, and accidentally alighted at the very inn where he was.
“He started and turned pale when he saw me; but recovered himself in time enough to make many new protestations of regard, and beg me to make myself easy under a disappointment which was equally afflicting to him. He procured me lodgings, where I slept, or rather endeavoured to sleep, for that night. Next morning I saw him again, he then mildly observed on the imprudence of my precipitate flight from the country, and proposed my removing to lodgings at another end of the town, to elude the search of my father, till he should fall upon some method of excusing my conduct to him, and reconciling him to my return. We took a hackney-coach, and drove to the house he mentioned.
“It was situated in a dirty lane, furnished with a tawdry affectation of finery, with some old family pictures hanging on walls which their own cobwebs would better have suited. I was struck with a secret dread at entering, nor was it lessened by the appearance of the landlady, who had that look of selfish shrewdness, which, of all others, is the most hateful to those whose feelings are untinctured with the world. A girl, who she told us was her niece, sat by her, playing on a guitar, while herself was at work, with the assistance of spectacles, and had a prayer-book with the leaves folded down in several places, lying on the table before her. Perhaps, sir, I tire you with my minuteness, but the place, and every circumstance about it, is so impressed on my mind, that I shall never forget it.
“I dined that day with Mr. Winbrooke alone. He lost by degrees that restraint which I perceived too well to hang about him before, and, with his former gaiety and good humour, repeated the flattering things which, though they had once been fatal, I durst not now distrust. At last, taking my hand and kissing it, ‘It is thus,’ said he, ‘that love will last, while freedom is preserved; thus let us ever be blessed, without the galling thought that we are tied to a condition where we may cease to be so.’
“I answered, ‘That the world thought otherwise: that it had certain ideas of good fame, which it was impossible not to wish to maintain.’
“‘The world,’ said he, ‘is a tyrant, they are slaves who obey it; let us be happy without the pale of the world. To-morrow I shall leave this quarter of it, for one where the talkers of the world shall be foiled, and lose us. Could not my Emily accompany me? my friend, my companion, the mistress of my soul! Nay, do not look so, Emily! Your father may grieve for a while, but your father shall be taken care of; this bank-bill I intend as the comfort for his daughter.’
“I could contain myself no longer: ‘Wretch,’ I exclaimed, ‘dost thou imagine that my father’s heart could brook dependence on the destroyer of his child, and tamely accept of a base equivalent for her honour and his own?’
“‘Honour, my Emily,’ said he, ‘is the word of fools, or of those wiser men who cheat them. ’Tis a fantastic bauble that does not suit the gravity of your father’s age; but, whatever it is, I am afraid it can never be perfectly restored to you: exchange the word then, and let pleasure be your object now.’
“At these words he clasped me in his arms, and pressed his lips rudely to my bosom. I started from my seat. ‘Perfidious villain!’ said I, ‘who dar’st insult the weakness thou hast undone; were that father here, thy coward soul would shrink from the vengeance of his honour! Cursed be that wretch who has deprived him of it! oh doubly cursed, who has dragged on his hoary head the infamy which should have crushed her own!’ I snatched a knife which lay beside me, and would have plunged it in my breast, but the monster prevented my purpose, and smiling with a grin of barbarous insult -
“‘Madam,’ said he, ‘I confess you are rather too much in heroics for me; I am sorry we should differ about trifles; but as I seem somehow to have offended you, I would willingly remedy it by taking my leave. You have been put to some foolish expense in this journey on my account; allow me to reimburse you.’
“So saying he laid a bank-bill, of what amount I had no patience to see, upon the table. Shame, grief, and indignation choked my utterance; unable to speak my wrongs, and unable to bear them in silence, I fell in a swoon at his feet.
“What happened in the interval I cannot tell, but when I came to myself I was in the arms of the landlady, with her niece chafing my temples, and doing all in her power for my recovery. She had much compassion in her countenance; the old woman assumed the softest look she was capable of, and both endeavoured to bring me comfort. They continued to show me many civilities, and even the aunt began to be less disagreeable in my sight. To the wretched, to the forlorn, as I was, small offices of kindness are endearing.
“Meantime my money was far spent, nor did I attempt to conceal my wants from their knowledge. I had frequent thoughts of returning to my father; but the dread of a life of scorn is insurmountable. I avoided, therefore, going abroad when I had a chance of being seen by any former acquaintance, nor indeed did my health for a great while permit it; and suffered the old woman, at her own suggestion, to call me niece at home, where we now and then saw (when they could prevail on me to leave my room) one or two other elderly women, and sometimes a grave business-like man, who showed great compassion for my indisposition, and made me very obligingly an offer of a room at his country-house for the recovery of my health. This offer I did not chose to accept, but told my landlady, ‘that I should be glad to be employed in any way of business which my skill in needlework could recommend me to, confessing, at the same time, that I was afraid I should scarce be able to pay her what I already owed for board and lodging, and that for her other good offices, I had nothing but thanks to give her.’
“‘My dear child,’ said she, ‘do not talk of paying; since I lost my own sweet girl’ (here she wept), ‘your very picture she was, Miss Emily, I have nobody, except my niece, to whom I should leave any little thing I have been able to save; you shall live with me, my dear; and I have sometimes a little millinery work, in which, when you are inclined to it, you may assist us. By the way, here are a pair of ruffles we have just finished for that gentleman you saw here at tea; a distant relation of mine, and a worthy man he is. ’Twas pity you refused the offer of an apartment at his country house; my niece, you know, was to have accompanied you, and you might have fancied yourself at home; a most sweet place it is, and but a short mile beyond Hampstead. Who knows, Miss Emily, what effect such a visit might have had! If I had half your beauty I should not waste it pining after e’er a worthless fellow of them all.’
“I felt my heart swell at her words; I would have been angry if I could, but I was in that stupid state which is not easily awakened to anger: when I would have chid her the reproof stuck in my throat; I could only weep!
“Her want of respect increased, as I had not spirit to assert it. My work was now rather imposed than offered, and I became a drudge for the bread I eat: but my dependence and servility grew in proportion, and I was now in a situation which could not make any extraordinary exertions to disengage itself from either - I found myself with child.
“At last the wretch, who had thus trained me to destruction, hinted the purpose for which those means had been used. I discovered her to be an artful procuress for the pleasures of those who are men of decency to the world in the midst of debauchery.
“I roused every spark of courage within me at the horrid proposal. She treated my passion at first somewhat mildly, but when I continued to exert it she resented it with insult, and told me plainly that if I did not soon comply with her desires I should pay her every farthing I owed, or rot in a jail for life. I trembled at the thought; still, however, I resisted her importunities, and she put her threats in execution. I was conveyed to prison, weak from my condition, weaker from that struggle of grief and misery which for some time I had suffered. A miscarriage was the consequence.
“Amidst all the horrors of such a state, surrounded with wretches totally callous, lost alike to humanity and to shame, think, Mr. Harley, think what I endured; nor wonder that I at last yielded to the solicitations of that miscreant I had seen at her house, and sunk to the prostitution which he tempted. But that was happiness compared to what I have suffered since. He soon abandoned me to the common use of the town, and I was cast among those miserable beings in whose society I have since remained.
“Oh! did the daughters of virtue know our sufferings; did they see our hearts torn with anguish amidst the affectation of gaiety which our faces are obliged to assume! our bodies tortured by disease, our minds with that consciousness which they cannot lose! Did they know, did they think of this, Mr. Harley! Their censures are just, but their pity perhaps might spare the wretches whom their justice should condemn.
“Last night, but for an exertion of benevolence which the infection of our infamy prevents even in the humane, had I been thrust out from this miserable place which misfortune has yet left me; exposed to the brutal insults of drunkenness, or dragged by that justice which I could not bribe, to the punishment which may correct, but, alas! can never amend the abandoned objects of its terrors. From that, Mr. Harley, your goodness has relieved me.”
He beckoned with his hand: he would have stopped the mention of his favours; but he could not speak, had it been to beg a diadem.
She saw his tears; her fortitude began to fail at the sight, when the voice of some stranger on the stairs awakened her attention. She listened for a moment, then starting up, exclaimed, “Merciful God! my father’s voice!”
She had scarce uttered the word, when the door burst open, and a man entered in the garb of an officer. When he discovered his daughter and Harley, he started back a few paces; his look assumed a furious wildness! he laid his hand on his sword. The two objects of his wrath did not utter a syllable.
“Villain,” he cried, “thou seest a father who had once a daughter’s honour to preserve; blasted as it now is, behold him ready to avenge its loss!”
Harley had by this time some power of utterance. “Sir,” said he, “if you will be a moment calm - ”
“Infamous coward!” interrupted the other, “dost thou preach calmness to wrongs like mine!”
He drew his sword.
“Sir,” said Harley, “let me tell you” - the blood ran quicker to his cheek, his pulse beat one, no more, and regained the temperament of humanity - “you are deceived, sir,” said he, “you are much deceived; but I forgive suspicions which your misfortunes have justified: I would not wrong you, upon my soul I would not, for the dearest gratification of a thousand worlds; my heart bleeds for you!”
His daughter was now prostrate at his feet.
“Strike,” said she, “strike here a wretch, whose misery cannot end but with that death she deserves.”
Her hair had fallen on her shoulders! her look had the horrid calmness of out-breathed despair! Her father would have spoken; his lip quivered, his cheek grew pale, his eyes lost the lightning of their fury! there was a reproach in them, but with a mingling of pity. He turned them up to heaven, then on his daughter. He laid his left hand on his heart, the sword dropped from his right, he burst into tears.