Clarissa Harlowe LETTER XVIII


Never blame me for giving way to have art used with this admirable creature. All the princes of the air, or beneath it, joining with me, could never have subdued her while she had her senses.

I will not anticipate—only to tell thee, that I am too much awakened by her to think of sleep, were I to go to bed; and so shall have nothing to do but to write an account of our odd conversation, while it is so strong upon my mind that I can think of nothing else.

She was dressed in a white damask night-gown, with less negligence than for some days past. I was sitting with my pen in my fingers; and stood up when I first saw her, with great complaisance, as if the day were still her own. And so indeed it is.

She entered with such dignity in her manner as struck me with great awe, and prepared me for the poor figure I made in the subsequent conversation. A poor figure indeed!—But I will do her justice.

She came up with quick steps, pretty close to me; a white handkerchief in her hand; her eyes neither fierce nor mild, but very earnest; and a fixed sedateness in her whole aspect, which seemed to be the effect of deep contemplation: and thus she accosted me, with an air and action that I never saw equalled.

You see before you, Sir, the wretch, whose preference of you to all your sex you have rewarded—as it indeed deserved to be rewarded. My father’s dreadful curse has already operated upon me in the very letter of it, as to this life; and it seems to me too evident that it will not be your fault that it is not entirely completed in the loss of my soul, as well as of my honour—which you, villanous man! have robbed me of, with a baseness so unnatural, so inhuman, that it seems you, even you, had not the heart to attempt it, till my senses were made the previous sacrifice.

Here I made an hesitating effort to speak, laying down my pen: but she proceeded!—Hear me out, guilty wretch!—abandoned man!—Man, did I say?—Yet what name else can I? since the mortal worryings of the fiercest beast would have been more natural, and infinitely more welcome, that what you have acted by me; and that with a premeditation and contrivance worthy only of that single heart which now, base as well as ungrateful as thou art, seems to quake within thee.—And well may’st thou quake; well may’st thou tremble, and falter, and hesitate, as thou dost, when thou reflectest upon what I have suffered for thy sake, and upon the returns thou hast made me!

By my soul, Belford, my whole frame was shaken: for not only her looks and her action, but her voice, so solemn, was inexpressibly affecting: and then my cursed guilt, and her innocence, and merit, and rank, and superiority of talents, all stared me at that instant in the face so formidably, that my present account, to which she unexpectedly called me, seemed, as I then thought, to resemble that general one, to which we are told we shall be summoned, when our conscience shall be our accuser.

But she had had time to collect all the powers of her eloquence. The whole day probably in her intellects. And then I was the more disappointed, as I had thought I could have gazed the dear creature into confusion—but it is plain, that the sense she has of her wrongs sets this matchless woman above all lesser, all weaker considerations.

My dear—my love—I—I—I never—no never—lips trembling, limbs quaking, voice inward, hesitating, broken—never surely did miscreant look so like a miscreant! while thus she proceeded, waving her snowy hand, with all the graces of moving oratory.

I have no pride in the confusion visible in thy whole person. I have been all the day praying for a composure, if I could not escape from this vile house, that should once more enable me to look up to my destroyer with the consciousness of an innocent sufferer. Thou seest me, since my wrongs are beyond the power of words to express, thou seest me, calm enough to wish, that thou may’st continue harassed by the workings of thy own conscience, till effectual repentance take hold of thee, that so thou may’st not forfeit all title to that mercy which thou hast not shown to the poor creature now before thee, who had so well deserved to meet with a faithful friend where she met with the worst of enemies.

But tell me, (for no doubt thou hast some scheme to pursue,) tell me, since I am a prisoner, as I find, in the vilest of houses, and have not a friend to protect or save me, what thou intendest shall become of the remnant of a life not worth the keeping!—Tell me, if yet there are more evils reserved for me; and whether thou hast entered into a compact with the grand deceiver, in the person of his horrid agent in this house; and if the ruin of my soul, that my father’s curse may be fulfilled, is to complete the triumphs of so vile a confederacy?—Answer me!—Say, if thou hast courage to speak out to her whom thou hast ruined, tell me what farther I am to suffer from thy barbarity?

She stopped here, and, sighing, turned her sweet face from me, drying up with her handkerchief those tears which she endeavoured to restrain; and, when she could not, to conceal from my sight.

As I told thee, I had prepared myself for high passions, raving, flying, tearing execration; these transient violences, the workings of sudden grief, and shame, and vengeance, would have set us upon a par with each other, and quitted scores. These have I been accustomed to; and as nothing violent is lasting, with these I could have wished to encounter. But such a majestic composure—seeking me—whom, yet it is plain, by her attempt to get away, she would have avoided seeking—no Lucretia-like vengeance upon herself in her thought—yet swallowed up, her whole mind swallowed up, as I may say, by a grief so heavy, as, in her own words, to be beyond the power of speech to express—and to be able, discomposed as she was, to the very morning, to put such a home-question to me, as if she had penetrated my future view—how could I avoid looking like a fool, and answering, as before, in broken sentences and confusion?

What—what-a—what has been done—I, I, I—cannot but say—must own—must confess—hem—hem——is not right—is not what should have been—but-a—but—but—I am truly—truly—sorry for it—upon my soul I am—and—and—will do all—do every thing—do what—whatever is incumbent upon me—all that you—that you—that you shall require, to make you amends!——

O Belford! Belford! whose the triumph now! HER’S, or MINE?

Amends! O thou truly despicable wretch! Then lifting up her eyes—Good Heaven! who shall pity the creature who could fall by so base a mind!—Yet—[and then she looked indignantly upon me!] yet, I hate thee not (base and low-souled as thou art!) half so much as I hate myself, that I saw thee not sooner in thy proper colours! That I hoped either morality, gratitude, or humanity, from a libertine, who, to be a libertine, must have got over and defied all moral sanctions.*

* Her cousin Morden’s words to her in his letter from Florence. See Vol. IV. Letter XIX.

She then called upon her cousin Morden’s name, as if he had warned her against a man of free principles; and walked towards the window; her handkerchief at her eyes. But, turning short towards me, with an air of mingled scorn and majesty, [what, at the moment, would I have given never to have injured her!] What amends hast thou to propose! What amends can such a one as thou make to a person of spirit, or common sense, for the evils thou hast so inhumanely made me suffer?

As soon, Madam—as soon—as—as soon as your uncle—or—not waiting——

Thou wouldest tell me, I suppose—I know what thou wouldest tell me—But thinkest thou, that marriage will satisfy for a guilt like thine? Destitute as thou hast made me both of friends and fortune, I too much despise the wretch, who could rob himself of his wife’s virtue, to endure the thoughts of thee in the light thou seemest to hope I will accept thee in!—

I hesitated an interruption; but my meaning died away upon my trembling lips. I could only pronounce the word marriage—and thus she proceeded:

Let me, therefore, know whether I am to be controuled in the future disposal of myself? Whether, in a country of liberty, as this, where the sovereign of it must not be guilty of your wickedness, and where you neither durst have attempted it, had I one friend or relation to look upon me, I am to be kept here a prisoner, to sustain fresh injuries? Whether, in a word, you intend to hinder me from going where my destiny shall lead me?

After a pause—for I was still silent:

Can you not answer me this plain question?—I quit all claim, all expectation, upon you—what right have you to detain me here?

I could not speak. What could I say to such a question?

O wretch! wringing her uplifted hands, had I not been robbed of my senses, and that in the basest manner—you best know how—had I been able to account for myself, and your proceedings, or to have known but how the days passed—a whole week should not have gone over my head, as I find it has done, before I had told you, what I now tell you—That the man who has been the villain to me you have been, shall never make me his wife.—I will write to my uncle, to lay aside his kind intentions in my favour—all my prospects are shut in—I give myself up for a lost creature as to this world—hinder me not from entering upon a life of severe penitence, for corresponding, after prohibition, with a wretch who has too well justified all their warnings and inveteracy; and for throwing myself into the power of your vile artifices. Let me try to secure the only hope I have left. This is all the amends I ask of you. I repeat, therefore, Am I now at liberty to dispose of myself as I please?

Now comes the fool, the miscreant again, hesitating his broken answer: My dearest love, I am confounded, quite confounded, at the thought of what—of what has been done; and at the thought of—to whom. I see, I see, there is no withstanding your eloquence!—Such irresistible proofs of the love of virtue, for its own sake, did I never hear of, nor meet with, in all my reading. And if you can forgive a repentant villain, who thus on his knees implores your forgiveness, [then down I dropt, absolutely in earnest in all I said,] I vow by all that’s sacred and just, (and may a thunderbolt strike me dead at your feet, if I am not sincere!) that I will by marriage before to-morrow noon, without waiting for your uncle, or any body, do you all the justice I now can do you. And you shall ever after controul and direct me as you please, till you have made me more worthy of your angelic purity than now I am: nor will I presume so much as to touch your garment, till I have the honour to call so great a blessing lawfully mine.

O thou guileful betrayer! there is a just God, whom thou invokest: yet the thunderbolt descends not; and thou livest to imprecate and deceive!

My dearest life! rising; for I hoped she was relenting——

Hadst thou not sinned beyond the possibility of forgiveness, interrupted she; and this had been the first time that thus thou solemnly promisest and invokest the vengeance thou hast as often defied; the desperateness of my condition might have induced me to think of taking a wretched chance with a man so profligate. But, after what I have suffered by thee, it would be criminal in me to wish to bind my soul in covenant to a man so nearly allied to perdition.

Good God!—how uncharitable!—I offer not to defend—would to Heaven that I could recall—so nearly allied to perdition, Madam!—So profligate a man, Madam!——

O how short is expression of thy crimes, and of my sufferings! Such premeditation is thy baseness! To prostitute the characters of persons of honour of thy own family—and all to delude a poor creature, whom thou oughtest—But why talk I to thee? Be thy crimes upon thy head! Once more I ask thee, Am I, or am I not, at my own liberty now?

I offered to speak in defence of the women, declaring that they really were the very persons——

Presume not, interrupted she, base as thou art, to say one word in thine own vindication. I have been contemplating their behaviour, their conversation, their over-ready acquiescences, to my declarations in thy disfavour; their free, yet affectedly-reserved light manners: and now that the sad event has opened my eyes, and I have compared facts and passages together, in the little interval that has been lent me, I wonder I could not distinguish the behaviour of the unmatron-like jilt, whom thou broughtest to betray me, from the worthy lady whom thou hast the honour to call thy aunt: and that I could not detect the superficial creature whom thou passedst upon me for the virtuous Miss Montague.

Amazing uncharitableness in a lady so good herself!—That the high spirits those ladies were in to see you, should subject them to such censures!—I do must solemnly vow, Madam——

That they were, interrupting me, verily and indeed Lady Betty Lawrance and thy cousin Montague!—O wretch! I see by thy solemn averment [I had not yet averred it,] what credit ought to be given to all the rest. Had I no other proof——

Interrupting her, I besought her patient ear. ‘I had found myself, I told her, almost avowedly despised and hated. I had no hope of gaining her love, or her confidence. The letter she had left behind her, on her removal to Hampstead, sufficiently convinced me that she was entirely under Miss Howe’s influence, and waited but the return of a letter from her to enter upon measures that would deprive me of her for ever: Miss Howe had ever been my enemy: more so then, no doubt, from the contents of the letter she had written to her on her first coming to Hampstead; that I dared not to stand the event of such a letter; and was glad of an opportunity, by Lady Betty’s and my cousin’s means (though they knew not my motive) to get her back to town; far, at the time, from intending the outrage which my despair, and her want of confidence in me, put me so vilely upon’—

I would have proceeded; and particularly would have said something of Captain Tomlinson and her uncle; but she would not hear me further. And indeed it was with visible indignation, and not without several angry interruptions, that she heard me say so much.

Would I dare, she asked me, to offer at a palliation of my baseness? The two women, she was convinced, were impostors. She knew not but Captain Tomlinson and Mr. Mennell were so too. But whether they were so or not, I was. And she insisted upon being at her own disposal for the remainder of her short life—for indeed she abhorred me in every light; and more particularly in that in which I offered myself to her acceptance.

And, saying this, she flung from me; leaving me absolutely shocked and confounded at her part of a conversation which she began with such uncommon, however severe, composure, and concluded with so much sincere and unaffected indignation.

And now, Jack, I must address one serious paragraph particularly to thee.

I have not yet touched upon cohabitation—her uncle’s mediation she does not absolutely discredit, as I had the pleasure to find by one hint in this conversation—yet she suspects my future views, and has doubt about Mennell and Tomlinson.

I do say, if she come fairly at her lights, at her clues, or what shall I call them? her penetration is wonderful.

But if she do not come at them fairly, then is her incredulity, then is her antipathy to me evidently accounted for.

I will speak out—thou couldst not, surely, play me booty, Jack?—Surely thou couldst not let thy weak pity for her lead thee to an unpardonable breach of trust to thy friend, who has been so unreserved in his communications to thee?

I cannot believe thee capable of such a baseness. Satisfy me, however, upon this head. I must make a cursed figure in her eye, vowing and protesting, as I shall not scruple occasionally to vow and protest, if all the time she has had unquestionable informations of my perfidy. I know thou as little fearest me, as I do thee, if any point of manhood; and wilt scorn to deny it, if thou hast done it, when thus home-pressed.

And here I have a good mind to stop, and write no farther, till I have thy answer.

And so I will.