Clarissa Harlowe LETTER XXXVI


I thought I should not have had either time or inclination to write another line before I got to M. Hall. But, having the first, must find the last; since I can neither sleep, nor do any thing but write, if I can do that. I am most confoundedly out of humour. The reason let it follow; if it will follow—nor preparation for it from me.

I tried by gentleness and love to soften—What?—Marble. A heart incapable either of love or gentleness. Her past injuries for ever in her head. Ready to receive a favour; the permission to go to Hampstead: but neither to deserve it, nor return any. So my scheme of the gentle kind was soon given over.

I then wanted to provoke her: like a coward boy, who waits for the first blow before he can persuade himself to fight, I half challenged her to challenge or defy me. She seemed aware of her danger; and would not directly brave my resentment: but kept such a middle course, that I neither could find a pretence to offend, nor reason to hope: yet she believed my tale, that her uncle would come to Kentish-town, and seemed not to apprehend that Tomlinson was an impostor.

She was very uneasy, upon the whole, in my company: wanted often to break from me: yet so held me to my purpose of permitting her to go to Hampstead, that I knew not how to get off it; although it was impossible, in my precarious situation with her, to think of performing it.

In this situation; the women ready to assist; and, if I proceeded not, as ready to ridicule me; what had I left me, but to pursue the concerted scheme, and to seek a pretence to quarrel with her, in order to revoke my promised permission, and to convince her that I would not be upbraided as the most brutal of ravishers for nothing?

I had agreed with the women, that if I could not find a pretence in her presence to begin my operations, the note should lie in my way, and I was to pick it up, soon after her retiring from me. But I began to doubt at near ten o’clock, (so earnest was she to leave me, suspecting my over-warm behaviour to her, and eager grasping of her hand two or three times, with eye-strings, as I felt, on the strain, while her eyes showed uneasiness and apprehension,) that if she actually retired for the night, it might be a chance whether it would be easy to come at her again. Loth, therefore, to run such a risk, I stept out a little after ten, with intent to alter the preconcerted disposition a little; saying I would attend her again instantly. But as I returned I met her at the door, intending to withdraw for the night. I could not persuade her to go back: nor had I presence of mind (so full of complaisance as I was to her just before) to stay her by force: so she slid through my hands into her own apartment. I had nothing to do, therefore, but to let my former concert take place.

I should have promised (but care not for order of time, connection, or any thing else) that, between eight and nine in the evening, another servant of Lord M. on horseback came, to desire me to carry down with me Dr. S., the old peer having been once (in extremis, as they judge he is now) relieved and reprieved by him. I sent and engaged the doctor to accompany me down: and am to call upon him by four this morning: or the devil should have both my Lord and the Doctor, if I’d stir till I got all made up.

Poke thy damn’d nose forward into the event, if thou wilt—Curse me if thou shalt have it till its proper time and place. And too soon then.

She had hardly got into her chamber, but I found a little paper, as I was going into mine, which I took up; and opening it, (for it was carefully pinned in another paper,) what should it be but a promissory note, given as a bribe, with a further promise of a diamond ring, to induce Dorcas to favour her mistress’s escape?

How my temper changed in a moment!—Ring, ring, ring, ring, I my bell, with a violence enough to break the string, and as if the house were on fire.

Every devil frighted into active life: the whole house in an uproar. Up runs Will.—Sir—Sir—Sir!—Eyes goggling, mouth distended—Bid the damn’d toad Dorcas come hither, (as I stood at the stair-head,) in a horrible rage, and out of breath, cried I.

In sight came the trembling devil—but standing aloof, from the report made her by Will. of the passion I was in, as well as from what she had heard.

Flash came out my sword immediately; for I had it ready on—Cursed, confounded, villanous bribery and corruption——

Up runs she to her lady’s door, screaming out for safety and protection.

Good your honour, interposed Will., for God’s sake!—O Lord, O Lord!—receiving a good cuff.—

Take that, varlet, for saving the ungrateful wretch from my vengeance.

Wretch! I intended to say; but if it were some other word of like ending, passion must be my excuse.

Up ran two or three of the sisterhood, What’s the matter! What’s the matter!

The matter! (for still my beloved opened not the door; on the contrary, drew another bolt,) This abominable Dorcas!—(call her aunt up!—let her see what a traitress she has placed about me!—and let her bring the toad to answer for herself)—has taken a bribe, a provision for life, to betray her trust; by that means to perpetuate a quarrel between a man and his wife, and frustrate for ever all hopes of reconciliation between us!

Let me perish, Belford, if I have patience to proceed with the farce!

If I must resume, I must——

Up came the aunt, puffing and blowing—As she hoped for mercy, she was not privy to it! She never knew such a plotting, perverse lady in her life!—Well might servants be at the pass they were, when such ladies as Mrs. Lovelace made no conscience of corrupting them. For her part she desired no mercy for the wretch; no niece of her’s, if she were not faithful to her trust!—But what was the proof?——

She was shown the paper——

But too evident!—Cursed, cursed toad, devil, jade, passed from each mouth:—and the vileness of the corrupted, and the unworthiness of the corruptress, were inveighed against.

Up we all went, passing the lady’s door into the dining-room, to proceed to trial.——

Stamp, stamp, stamp up, each on her heels; rave, rave, rave, every tongue——

Bring up the creature before us all this instant!——

And would she have got out of the house, say you?—

These the noises and the speeches as we clattered by the door of the fair bribress.

Up was brought Dorcas (whimpering) between two, both bawling out—You must go—You shall go—’Tis fit you should answer for yourself—You are a discredit to all worthy servants—as they pulled and pushed her up stairs.—She whining, I cannot see his honour—I cannot look so good and so generous a gentleman in the face—O how shall I bear my aunt’s ravings?——

Come up, and be d—n’d—Bring her forward, her imperial judge—What a plague, it is the detection, not the crime, that confounds you. You could be quiet enough for days together, as I see by the date, under the villany. Tell me, ungrateful devil, tell me who made the first advances?

Ay, disgrace to my family and blood, cried the old one—tell his honour—tell the truth!—Who made the first advances?——

Ay, cursed creature, cried Sally, who made the first advances?

I have betrayed one trust already!—O let me not betray another!—My lady is a good lady!—O let not her suffer!—

Tell all you know. Tell the whole truth, Dorcas, cried Polly Horton.—His honour loves his lady too well to make her suffer much: little as she requites his love!——

Every body sees that, cried Sally—too well, indeed, for his honour, I was going to say.

Till now, I thought she deserved my love—But to bribe a servant thus, who she supposed had orders to watch her steps, for fear of another elopement; and to impute that precaution to me as a crime!—Yet I must love her—Ladies, forgive my weakness!——

Curse upon my grimaces!—if I have patience to repeat them!—But thou shalt have it all—thou canst not despise me more than I despise myself!

But suppose, Sir, said Sally, you have my lady and the wench face to face! You see she cares not to confess.

O my carelessness! cried Dorcas—Don’t let my poor lady suffer!—Indeed, if you all knew what I know, you would say her ladyship has been cruelly treated—

See, see, see, see!—repeatedly, every one at once—Only sorry for the detection, as your honour said—not for the fault.

Cursed creature, and devilish creature, from every mouth.

Your lady won’t, she dare not come out to save you, cried Sally; though it is more his honour’s mercy, than your desert, if he does not cut your vile throat this instant.

Say, repeated Polly, was it your lady that made the first advances, or was it you, you creature——

If the lady had so much honour, bawled the mother, excuse me, so—Excuse me, Sir, [confound the old wretch! she had like to have said son!]—If the lady has so much honour, as we have supposed, she will appear to vindicate a poor servant, misled, as she has been, by such large promises!—But I hope, Sir, you will do them both justice: I hope you will!—Good lack!—Good lack! clapping her hands together, to grant her every thing she could ask—to indulge her in her unworthy hatred to my poor innocent house!—to let her go to Hampstead, though your honour told us, you could get no condescension from her; no, not the least—O Sir, O Sir—I hope—I hope—if your lady will not come out—I hope you will find a way to hear this cause in her presence. I value not my doors on such an occasion as this. Justice I ever loved. I desire you will come to the bottom of it in clearance to me. I’ll be sworn I had no privity in this black corruption.

Just then we heard the lady’s door, unbar, unlock, unbolt——

Now, Sir!

Now, Mr. Lovelace!

Now, Sir! from every encouraging mouth!——

But, O Jack! Jack! Jack! I can write no more!

If you must have it all, you must!

Now, Belford, see us all sitting in judgment, resolved to punish the fair bribress—I, and the mother, the hitherto dreaded mother, the nieces Sally, Polly, the traitress Dorcas, and Mabell, a guard, as it were, over Dorcas, that she might not run away, and hide herself:—all pre-determined, and of necessity pre-determined, from the journey I was going to take, and my precarious situation with her—and hear her unbolt, unlock, unbar, the door; then, as it proved afterwards, put the key into the lock on the outside, lock the door, and put it in her pocket—Will. I knew, below, who would give me notice, if, while we were all above, she should mistake her way, and go down stairs, instead of coming into the dining-room: the street-door also doubly secured, and every shutter to the windows round the house fastened, that no noise or screaming should be heard—[such was the brutal preparation]—and then hear her step towards us, and instantly see her enter among us, confiding in her own innocence; and with a majesty in her person and manner, that is natural to her; but which then shone out in all its glory!—Every tongue silent, every eye awed, every heart quaking, mine, in a particular manner sunk, throbless, and twice below its usual region, to once at my throat:—a shameful recreant:—She silent too, looking round her, first on me; then on the mother, no longer fearing her; then on Sally, Polly, and the culprit Dorcas!—such the glorious power of innocence exerted at that awful moment!

She would have spoken, but could not, looking down my guilt into confusion. A mouse might have been heard passing over the floor: her own light feet and rustling silks could not have prevented it; for she seemed to tread air, and to be all soul. She passed backwards and forwards, now towards me, now towards the door several times, before speech could get the better of indignation; and at last, after twice or thrice hemming to recover her articulate voice—‘O thou contemptible and abandoned Lovelace, thinkest thou that I see not through this poor villanous plot of thine, and of these thy wicked accomplices?

‘Thou, woman, [looking at the mother] once my terror! always my dislike! but now my detestation! shouldst once more (for thine perhaps was the preparation) have provided for me intoxicating potions, to rob me of my senses——

‘And then, thus, wretch, [turning to me,] mightest thou more securely have depended upon such a low contrivance as this!

‘And ye, vile women, who perhaps have been the ruin, body and soul, of hundreds of innocents, (you show me how, in full assembly,) know, that I am not married—ruined as I am, by your help, I bless God, I am not married to this miscreant—and I have friends that will demand my honour at your hands!—and to whose authority I will apply; for none has this man over me. Look to it then, what farther insults you offer me, or incite him to offer me. I am a person, though thus vilely betrayed, of rank and fortune. I never will be his; and, to your utter ruin, will find friends to pursue you: and now I have this full proof of your detestable wickedness, and have heard your base incitements, will have no mercy upon you!’

They could not laugh at the poor figure I made.—Lord! how every devil, conscience-shaken, trembled!—

What a dejection must ever fall to the lot of guilt, were it given to innocence always thus to exert itself!

‘And as for thee, thou vile Dorcas! Thou double deceiver!—whining out thy pretended love for me!—Begone, wretch!—Nobody will hurt thee!—Begone, I say!—thou has too well acted thy part to be blamed by any here but myself—thou art safe: thy guilt is thy security in such a house as this!—thy shameful, thy poor part, thou hast as well acted as the low farce could give thee to act!—as well as they each of them (thy superiors, though not thy betters), thou seest, can act theirs.—Steal away into darkness! No inquiry after this will be made, whose the first advances, thine or mine.’

And, as I hope to live, the wench, confoundedly frightened, slunk away; so did her sentinel Mabell; though I, endeavouring to rally, cried out for Dorcas to stay—but I believe the devil could not have stopt her, when an angel bid her begone.

Madam, said I, let me tell you; and was advancing towards her with a fierce aspect, most cursedly vexed, and ashamed too——

But she turned to me: ‘Stop where thou art, O vilest and most abandoned of men!—Stop where thou art!—nor, with that determined face, offer to touch me, if thou wouldst not that I should be a corps at thy feet!’

To my astonishment, she held forth a penknife in her hand, the point to her own bosom, grasping resolutely the whole handle, so that there was no offering to take it from her.

‘I offer not mischief to any body but myself. You, Sir, and ye women, are safe from every violence of mine. The LAW shall be all my resource: the LAW,’ and she spoke the word with emphasis, the LAW! that to such people carries natural terror with it, and now struck a panic into them.

No wonder, since those who will damn themselves to procure ease and plenty in this world, will tremble at every thing that seems to threaten their methods of obtaining that ease and plenty.——

‘The LAW only shall be my refuge!’——

The infamous mother whispered me, that it were better to make terms with this strange lady, and let her go.

Sally, notwithstanding all her impudent bravery at other times, said, If Mr. Lovelace had told them what was not true, of her being his wife——

And Polly Horton, That she must needs say, the lady, if she were not my wife, had been very much injured; that was all.

That is not now a matter to be disputed, cried I: you and I know, Madam——

‘We do, said she; and I thank God, I am not thine—once more I thank God for it—I have no doubt of the farther baseness that thou hast intended me, by this vile and low trick: but I have my SENSES, Lovelace: and from my heart I despise thee, thou very poor Lovelace!—How canst thou stand in my presence!—Thou, that’——

Madam, Madam, Madam—these are insults not to be borne—and was approaching her.

She withdrew to the door, and set her back against it, holding the pointed knife to her heaving bosom; while the women held me, beseeching me not to provoke the violent lady—for their house sake, and be curs’d to them, they besought me—and all three hung upon me—while the truly heroic lady braved me at that distance:

‘Approach me, Lovelace, with resentment, if thou wilt. I dare die. It is in defence of my honour. God will be merciful to my poor soul! I expect no more mercy from thee! I have gained this distance, and two steps nearer me, and thou shalt see what I dare do!’——

Leave me, women, to myself, and to my angel!—[They retired at a distance.]—O my beloved creature, how you terrify me! Holding out my arms, and kneeling on one knee—not a step, not a step farther, except to receive my death at that injured hand which is thus held up against a life far dearer to me than my own! I am a villain! the blackest of villains!—Say you will sheath your knife in the injurer’s, not the injured’s heart, and then will I indeed approach you, but not else.

The mother twanged her d—n’d nose; and Sally and Polly pulled out their handkerchiefs, and turned from us. They never in their lives, they told me afterwards, beheld such a scene——

Innocence so triumphant: villany so debased, they must mean!

Unawares to myself, I had moved onward to my angel—‘And dost thou, dost thou, still disclaiming, still advancing—dost thou, dost thou, still insidiously move towards me?’—[And her hand was extended] ‘I dare—I dare—not rashly neither—my heart from principle abhors the act, which thou makest necessary!—God, in thy mercy! [lifting up her eyes and hands] God, in thy mercy!’

I threw myself to the farther end of the room. An ejaculation, a silent ejaculation, employing her thoughts that moment; Polly says the whites of her lovely eyes were only visible: and, in the instant that she extended her hand, assuredly to strike the fatal blow, [how the very recital terrifies me!] she cast her eye towards me, and saw me at the utmost distance the room would allow, and heard my broken voice—my voice was utterly broken; nor knew I what I said, or whether to the purpose or not—and her charming cheeks, that were all in a glow before, turned pale, as if terrified at her own purpose; and lifting up her eyes—‘Thank God!—thank God! said the angel—delivered for the present; for the present delivered—from myself—keep, Sir, that distance;’ [looking down towards me, who was prostrate on the floor, my heart pierced, as with an hundred daggers;] ‘that distance has saved a life; to what reserved, the Almighty only knows!’—

To be happy, Madam; and to make happy!—And, O let me hope for your favour for to-morrow—I will put off my journey till then—and may God—

Swear not, Sir!—with an awful and piercing aspect—you have too often sworn!—God’s eye is upon us!—His more immediate eye; and looked wildly.—But the women looked up to the ceiling, as if afraid of God’s eye, and trembled. And well they might, and I too, who so very lately had each of us the devil in our hearts.

If not to-morrow, Madam, say but next Thursday, your uncle’s birth-day; say but next Thursday!

‘This I say, of this you may assure yourself, I never, never will be your’s.—And let me hope, that I may be entitled to the performance of your promise, to be permitted to leave this innocent house, as one called it, (but long have my ears been accustomed to such inversions of words), as soon as the day breaks.’

Did my perdition depend upon it, that you cannot, Madam, but upon terms. And I hope you will not terrify me—still dreading the accursed knife.

‘Nothing less than an attempt upon my honour shall make me desperate. I have no view but to defend my honour: with such a view only I entered into treaty with your infamous agent below. The resolution you have seen, I trust, God will give me again, upon the same occasion. But for a less, I wish not for it.—Only take notice, women, that I am no wife of this man: basely as he has used me, I am not his wife. He has no authority over me. If he go away by-and-by, and you act by his authority to detain me, look to it.’

Then, taking one of the lights, she turned from us; and away she went, unmolested.—Not a soul was able to molest her.

Mabell saw her, tremblingly, and in a hurry, take the key of her chamber-door out of her pocket, and unlock it; and, as soon as she entered, heard her double-lock, bar, and bolt it.

By her taking out her key, when she came out of her chamber to us, she no doubt suspected my design: which was, to have carried her in my arms thither, if she made such force necessary, after I had intimidated her; and to have been her companion for that night.

She was to have had several bedchamber-women to assist to undress her upon occasion: but from the moment she entered the dining-room with so much intrepidity, it was absolutely impossible to think of prosecuting my villanous designs against her.

This, this, Belford, was the hand I made of a contrivance from which I expected so much!—And now I am ten times worse off than before.

Thou never sawest people in thy life look so like fools upon one another, as the mother, her partners, and I, did, for a few minutes. And at last, the two devilish nymphs broke out into insulting ridicule upon me; while the old wretch was concerned for her house, the reputation of her house. I cursed them all together; and, retiring to my chamber, locked myself in.

And now it is time to set out: all I have gained, detection, disgrace, fresh guilt by repeated perjuries, and to be despised by her I doat upon; and, what is still worse to a proud heart, by myself.

Success, success in projects, is every thing. What an admirable contriver did I think myself till now! Even for this scheme among the rest! But how pitifully foolish does it now appear to me!—Scratch out, erase, never to be read, every part of my preceding letters, where I have boastingly mentioned it. And never presume to rally me upon the cursed subject: for I cannot bear it.

But for the lady, by my soul, I love her. I admire her more than ever! I must have her. I will have her still—with honour or without, as I have often vowed. My cursed fright at her accidental bloody nose, so lately, put her upon improving upon me thus. Had she threatened ME, I should have soon been master of one arm, and in both! But for so sincere a virtue to threaten herself, and not to offer to intimidate any other, and with so much presence of mind, as to distinguish, in the very passionate intention, the necessity of the act, defence of her honour, and so fairly to disavow lesser occasions: showed such a deliberation, such a choice, such a principle; and then keeping me so watchfully at a distance that I could not seize her hand, so soon as she could have given the fatal blow; how impossible not to be subdued by so true and so discreet a magnanimity!

But she is not gone. She shall not go. I will press her with letters for the Thursday. She shall yet be mine, legally mine. For, as to cohabitation, there is no such thing to be thought of.

The Captain shall give her away, as proxy for her uncle. My Lord will die. My fortune will help my will, and set me above every thing and every body.

But here is the curse—she despises me, Jack!—What man, as I have heretofore said, can bear to be despised—especially by his wife!—O Lord!—O Lord! What a hand, what a cursed hand, have I made of this plot!—And here ends

The history of the lady and the penknife!—The devil take the penknife!—It goes against me to say,

God bless the lady!