Susanna Haswell Rowson (17621824). Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. 1905.
MR. TEMPLE was the youngest son of a nobleman, whose fortune was by no means adequate to the antiquity, grandeur, and I may add, pride of the family. He saw his elder brother made completely wretched by marrying a disagreeable woman, whose fortune helped to prop the sinking dignity of the house; and he beheld his sisters legally prostituted to old, decrepit men, whose titles gave them consequence in the eyes of the world, and whose affluence rendered them splendidly miserable. I will not sacrifice internal happiness for outward shew, said he; I will seek Content; and if I find her in a cottage, will embrace her with as much cordiality as I should if seated on a throne.
Mr. Temple possessed a small estate of about five hundred pounds a year; and with that he resolved to preserve independence, to marry where the feelings of his heart should direct him, and to confine his expenses within the limits of his income. He had a heart open to every generous feeling of humanity, and a hand ready to dispense to those who wanted, part of the blessings he enjoyed himself.
As he was universally known to be the friend of the unfortunate, his advice and bounty was [sic] frequently solicited; nor was it seldom that he sought out indigent merit, and raised it from obscurity, confining his own expenses within a very narrow compass.
Come along then, said the young man, we will go and visit a man who is not in so good a lodging as he deserves; and were it not that he has an angel with him, who comforts and supports him, he must long since have sunk under his misfortunes. The young mans heart was too full to proceed; and Temple, unwilling to irritate his feelings by making further inquiries, followed him in silence, till they arrived at the Fleet Prison.1
The officer inquired for Captain Eldridge: a person led them up several pair of dirty stairs, and pointing to a door which led to a miserable, small apartment, said that was the captains room, and retired.
The officer, whose name was Blakeney, tapped at the door, and was bid to enter by a voice melodiously soft. He opened the door and discovered to Temple a scene which riveted him to the spot with astonishment.
The apartment, tho small and bearing strong marks of poverty, was neat in the extreme. In an armchair, his head reclined upon his hand, his eyes fixed on a book which lay open before him, sat an aged man in a lieutenants uniform, which, tho threadbare, would sooner call a blush of shame into the face of those who could neglect real merit, than cause the hectic of confusion to glow on the cheeks of him who wore it.
Beside him sat a lovely creature, busied in painting a fan mount. She was fair as the lily; but sorrow had nipped the rose in her cheek before it was half blown. Her eyes were blue; and her hair, which was light brown, was slightly confined under a plain muslin cap, tied round with a black ribbon; a white linen gown and plain lawn handkerchief composed the remainder of her dress; and in this simple attire she was more irresistibly charming to such a heart as Temples than she would have been if adorned with all the splendor of a courtly belle.
When they entered, the old man arose from his seat, and shaking Blakeney by the hand with great cordiality, offered Temple his chair; and there being but three in the room, seated himself on the side of his little bed with evident composure.
This is a strange place, said he to Temple, to receive visitors of distinction in, but we must fit our feelings to our station. While I am not ashamed to own the cause which brought me here, why should I blush at my situation? Our misfortunes are not our faults; and were it not for that poor girl
Temple cast his eye on Miss Eldridge; a pellucid drop had stolen from her eyes and fallen upon a rose she was painting. It blotted and discolored the flower. Tis emblematic, said he mentally; the rose of youth and health soon fades when watered by the tear of affliction.
My friend Blakeney, said he, addressing the old man, told me I could be of service to you: be so kind, then, dear sir, as to point out some way in which I can relieve the anxiety of your heart and increase the pleasures of my own.
My good young man, said Eldridge, you know not what you offer. While deprived of my liberty, I can not be free from anxiety on my own account; but that is a trifling concern; my anxious thoughts extend to one more dear a thousand times than life: I am a poor, weak old man, and must expect in a few years to sink into silence and oblivion, but when I am gone who will protect that fair bud of innocence from the blasts of adversity, or from the cruel hand of insult and dishonor.
Oh, my father! cried Miss Eldridge, tenderly taking his hand, be not anxious on that account, for daily are my prayers offered to Heaven that our lives may terminate at the same instant, and one grave receive us both; for why should I live when deprived of my only friend?
Temple was moved even to tears. You will both live many years! said he, and, I hope, see much happiness. Cheerily, my friend, cheerily; these passing clouds of adversity will serve only to make the sunshine of prosperity more pleasing. But we are losing time: you might, ere this, have told me who were your creditors, what were their demands, and other particulars necessary to your liberation.
My story is short, said Mr. Eldridge, but there are some particulars which will wring my heart barely to remember; yet to one whose offers of friendship appear so open and disinterested, I will relate every circumstance that led to my present painful situation. But, my child, continued he, addressing his daughter, let me prevail on you to take this opportunity, while my friends are with me, to enjoy the benefit of air and exercise. Go, my love; leave me now; to-morrow, at your usual hour, I will expect you.
Note 1. The famous Fleet Prison in London for centuries had been a general receptacle for debtors. In the eighteenth century it had become a scene of the worst forms of brutality, and even vice, in consequence of the extortions exacted by keepers, but primarily chargeable to a system by which wardens were able to underlet privileges. [back]