Clarissa Harlowe LETTER XXVI


I read that part of your conclusion to poor Belton, where you inquire after him, and mention how merrily you and the rest pass your time at M. Hall. He fetched a deep sigh: You are all very happy! were his words. —I am sorry they were his words; for, poor fellow, he is going very fast. Change of air, he hopes, will mend him, joined to the cheerful company I have left him in. But nothing, I dare say, will.

A consuming malady, and a consuming mistress, to an indulgent keeper, are dreadful things to struggle with both together: violence must be used to get rid of the latter; and yet he has not spirit enough left him to exert himself. His house is Thomasine’s house; not his. He has not been within his doors for a fortnight past. Vagabonding about from inn to inn; entering each for a bait only; and staying two or three days without power to remove; and hardly knowing which to go to next. His malady is within him; and he cannot run away from it.

Her boys (once he thought them his) are sturdy enough to shoulder him in his own house as they pass by him. Siding with the mother, they in a manner expel him; and, in his absence, riot away on the remnant of his broken fortunes. As to their mother, (who was once so tender, so submissive, so studious to oblige, that we all pronounced him happy, and his course of life the eligible,) she is now so termagant, so insolent, that he cannot contend with her, without doing infinite prejudice to his health. A broken-spirited defensive, hardly a defensive, therefore, reduced to: and this to a heart, for so many years waging offensive war, (not valuing whom the opponent,) what a reduction! now comparing himself to the superannuated lion in the fable, kicked in the jaws, and laid sprawling, by the spurning heel of an ignoble ass!

I have undertaken his cause. He has given me leave, yet not without reluctance, to put him into possession of his own house; and to place in it for him his unhappy sister, whom he has hitherto slighted, because unhappy. It is hard, he told me, (and wept, poor fellow, when he said it,) that he cannot be permitted to die quietly in his own house!—The fruits of blessed keeping these!——

Though but lately apprized of her infidelity, it now comes out to have been of so long continuance, that he has no room to believe the boys to be his: yet how fond did he use to be of them!

To what, Lovelace, shall we attribute the tenderness which a reputed father frequently shows to the children of another man?—What is that, I pray thee, which we call nature, and natural affection? And what has man to boast of as to sagacity and penetration, when he is as easily brought to cover and rear, and even to love, and often to prefer, the product of another’s guilt with his wife or mistress, as a hen or a goose the eggs, and even young, of others of their kind?

Nay, let me ask, if instinct, as it is called, in the animal creation, does not enable them to distinguish their own, much more easily than we, with our boasted reason and sagacity, in this nice particular, can do?

If some men, who have wives but of doubtful virtue, considered this matter duly, I believe their inordinate ardour after gain would be a good deal cooled, when they could not be certain (though their mates could) for whose children they were elbowing, bustling, griping, and perhaps cheating, those with whom they have concerns, whether friends, neighbours, or more certain next-of-kin, by the mother’s side however.

But I will not push this notion so far as it might be carried; because, if propagated, it might be of unsocial or unnatural consequence; since women of virtue would perhaps be more liable to suffer by the mistrusts and caprices or bad-hearted and foolish-headed husbands, than those who can screen themselves from detection by arts and hypocrisy, to which a woman of virtue cannot have recourse. And yet, were this notion duly and generally considered, it might be attended with no bad effects; as good education, good inclinations, and established virtue, would be the principally-sought-after qualities; and not money, when a man (not biased by mere personal attractions) was looking round him for a partner in his fortunes, and for a mother of his future children, which are to be the heirs of his possessions, and to enjoy the fruits of his industry.

But to return to poor Belton.

If I have occasion for your assistance, and that of our compeers, in re-instating the poor fellow, I will give you notice. Mean time, I have just now been told that Thomasine declares she will not stir; for, it seems, she suspects that measures will be fallen upon to make her quit. She is Mrs. Belton, she says, and will prove her marriage.

If she would give herself these airs in his life-time, what would she attempt to do after his death?

Her boy threatens any body who shall presume to insult their mother. Their father (as they call poor Belton) they speak of as an unnatural one. And their probably true father is for ever there, hostilely there, passing for her cousin, as usual: now her protecting cousin.

Hardly ever, I dare say, was there a keeper that did not make keeperess; who lavished away on her kept-fellow what she obtained from the extravagant folly of him who kept her.

I will do without you, if I can. The case will be only, as I conceive, that like of the ancient Sarmatians, their wives then in possession of their slaves. So that they had to contend not only with those wives, conscious of their infidelity, and with their slaves, but with the children of those slaves, grown up to manhood, resolute to defend their mothers and their long-manumitted fathers. But the noble Sarmatians, scorning to attack their slaves with equal weapons, only provided themselves with the same sort of whips with which they used formerly to chastise them. And attacking them with them, the miscreants fled before them.—In memory of which, to this day, the device on the coin in Novogrod, in Russia, a city of the antient Sarmatia, is a man on horseback, with a whip in his hand.

The poor fellow takes it ill, that you did not press him more than you did to be of your party at M. Hall. It is owing to Mowbray, he is sure, that he had so very slight an invitation from one whose invitations used to be so warm.

Mowbray’s speech to him, he says, he never will forgive: ’Why, Tom,’ said the brutal fellow, with a curse, ’thou droopest like a pip or roup-cloaking chicken. Thou shouldst grow perter, or submit to a solitary quarantine, if thou wouldst not infect the whole brood.’

For my own part, only that this poor fellow is in distress, as well in his affairs as in his mind, or I should be sick of you all. Such is the relish I have of the conversation, and such my admiration of the deportment and sentiments of this divine lady, that I would forego a month, even of thy company, to be admitted into her’s but for one hour: and I am highly in conceit with myself, greatly as I used to value thine, for being able, spontaneously as I may say, to make this preference.

It is, after all, a devilish life we have lived. And to consider how it all ends in a very few years—to see to what a state of ill health this poor fellow is so soon reduced—and then to observe how every one of ye run away from the unhappy being, as rats from a falling house, is fine comfort to help a man to look back upon companions ill-chosen, and a life mis-spent!

It will be your turns by-and-by, every man of ye, if the justice of your country interpose not.

Thou art the only rake we have herded with, if thou wilt not except thyself, who hast preserved entire thy health and thy fortunes.

Mowbray indeed is indebted to a robust constitution that he has not yet suffered in his health; but his estate is dwindled away year by year.

Three-fourths of Tourville’s very considerable fortunes are already dissipated; and the remaining fourth will probably soon go after the other three.

Poor Belton! we see how it is with him!—His own felicity is, that he will hardly live to want.

Thou art too proud, and too prudent, ever to be destitute; and, to do thee justice, hath a spirit to assist such of thy friends as may be reduced; and wilt, if thou shouldest then be living. But I think thou must, much sooner than thou imaginest, be called to thy account—knocked on the head perhaps by the friends of those whom thou hast injured; for if thou escapest this fate from the Harlowe family, thou wilt go on tempting danger and vengeance, till thou meetest with vengeance; and this, whether thou marriest, or not: for the nuptial life will not, I doubt, till age join with it, cure thee of that spirit for intrigue which is continually running away with thee, in spite of thy better sense, and transitory resolutions.

Well, then, I will suppose thee laid down quietly among thy worthier ancestors.

And now let me look forward to the ends of Tourville and Mowbray, [Belton will be crumbled into dust before thee, perhaps,] supposing thy early exit has saved thee from gallows intervention.

Reduced, probably, by riotous waste to consequential want, behold them refuged in some obscene hole or garret; obliged to the careless care of some dirty old woman, whom nothing but her poverty prevails upon to attend to perform the last offices for men, who have made such shocking ravage among the young ones.

Then how miserably will they whine through squeaking organs; their big voices turned into puling pity-begging lamentations! their now-offensive paws, how helpless then!—their now-erect necks then denying support to their aching heads; those globes of mischief dropping upon their quaking shoulders. Then what wry faces will they make! their hearts, and their heads, reproaching each other!—distended their parched mouths!—sunk their unmuscled cheeks!—dropt their under jaws!—each grunting like the swine he had resembled in his life! Oh! what a vile wretch have I been! Oh! that I had my life to come over again!—Confessing to the poor old woman, who cannot shrive them! Imaginary ghosts of deflowered virgins, and polluted matrons, flitting before their glassy eyes! And old Satan, to their apprehensions, grinning behind a looking-glass held up before them, to frighten them with the horror visible in their own countenances!

For my own part, if I can get some good family to credit me with a sister or daughter, as I have now an increased fortune, which will enable me to propose handsome settlements, I will desert ye all; marry, and live a life of reason, rather than a life of a brute, for the time to come.