Hannah Webster Foster (17591840). The Coquette, or The History of Eliza Wharton. 1855.
TO MRS. LUCY SUMNER.
The retirement of my native home is not so gloomy, since my return from Boston, as I expected, from the contrast between them. Indeed, the customs and amusements of this place are materially altered since the residence of Major Sanford among us. The dull, old-fashioned sobriety which formerly prevailed is nearly banished, and cheerfulness, vivacity, and enjoyment are substituted in its stead. Pleasure is now diffused through all ranks of the people, especially the rich; and surely it ought to be cultivated, since the wisest of men informs us that a merry heart doth good like a medicine. As human life hath many diseases which require medicines, are we not right in selecting the most agreeable and palatable? Major Sanfords example has had great influence upon our society in general; and though some of our old ones think him rather licentious, yet, for aught I can see, he is as strict an observer of decorum as the best of them. True, he seldom goes to church; but what of that? The Deity is not confined to temples made with hands. He may worship him as devoutly elsewhere, if he chooses; and who has a right to say he does not?
His return from Boston was but a day or two after mine. He paid me an early visit, and, indeed, has been very attentive ever since. My mamma is somewhat precise in her notions of propriety, and, of course, blames me for associating so freely with him. She says that my engagements to Mr. Boyer ought to render me more sedate, and more indifferent to the gallantry of mere pleasure hunters, to use her phrase. But I think otherwise. If I am to become a recluse, let me at least enjoy those amusements which are suited to my taste a short time first. Why should I refuse the polite attentions of this gentleman? They smooth the rugged path of life, and wonderfully accelerate the lagging wheels of time.
Indeed, Lucy, he has an admirable talent for contributing to vary and increase amusement. We have few hours unimproved. Some new plan of pleasure and sociability is constantly courting our adoption. He lives in all the magnificence of a prince: and why should I, who can doubtless share that magnificence if I please, forego the advantages and indulgences it offers, merely to gratify those friends who pretend to be better judges of my happiness than I am myself? I have not yet told my mamma that he entertains me with the lovers theme, or, at least, that I listen to it. Yet I must own to you, from whom I have never concealed an action or idea, that his situation in life charms my imagination; that the apparent fervor and sincerity of his passion affect my heart. Yet there is something extremely problematical in his conduct. He is very urgent with me to dissolve my connection with Mr. Boyer, and engage not to marry him without his consent, or knowledge, to say no more. He warmly applauds my wish still longer to enjoy the freedom and independence of a single state, and professedly adopts it for his own. While he would disconnect me from another, he mysteriously conceals his own intentions and views. In conversation with him yesterday, I plainly told him that his conduct was unaccountable; that, if his professions and designs were honorable, he could not neglect to mention them to my mamma; that I should no longer consent to carry on a clandestine intercourse with him; that I hourly expected Mr. Boyer, whom I esteemed, and who was the favorite of my friends; and that, unless he acted openly in this affair before his arrival, I should give my hand to him.
He appeared thunderstruck at this declaration. All his words and actions were indicative of the most violent emotions of mind. He entreated me to recall the sentence; for I knew not, he said, his motives for secrecy; yet he solemnly swore that they were honorable. I replied in the words of the poet,
Trust not a man; they are by nature cruel,
False, deceitful, treacherous, and inconstant.
When a man talks of love, with caution hear him;
But if he swear, hell certainly deceive you.
He begged that he might know by what means he had provoked my suspicions; by what means he had forfeited my confidence. His importunity vanquished my fortitude; and before we parted, I again promised to make him acquainted, from time to time, with the progress of my connection with Mr. Boyer.
Now, my dear friend, I want your advice more than ever. I am inadvertently embarrassed by this man; and how to extricate myself I know not. I am sensible that the power is in my hands; but the disposition (shall I confess it?) is wanting.
I know the right, and I approve it too;
I know the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue.
I have just received a card from Major Sanford, inviting me to ride this afternoon. At first I thought of returning a negative answer; but, recollecting that Mr. Boyer must soon be here, I concluded it best to embrace this opportunity of talking further with him. I must now prepare to go, but shall not close this letter, for I intend writing in continuation, as events occur, till this important business is decided.
Tuesday evening.The little tour which I mentioned to you this afternoon was not productive of a final determination. The same plea was repeated over and over again without closing the cause. On my return I found Mr. Boyer waiting to receive me. My heart beat an involuntary welcome. I received him very cordially, though with a kind of pleasure mixed with apprehension. I must own that his conversation and manners are much better calculated to bear the scrutinizing eye of a refined understanding and taste than Major Sanfords. But whether the fancy ought not to be consulted about our settlement in life, is with me a question.
When we parted last I had promised Mr. Boyer to inform him positively, at this visit, when my hand should be given. He therefore came, as he told me in the course of our conversation, with the resolution of claiming the fulfilment of this promise.
I begged absolution, told him that I could not possibly satisfy his claim, and sought still to evade and put off the important decision. He grew warm, and affirmed that I treated him ungenerously and made needless delays. He even accused me of indifference towards him, and of partiality to another. Major Sanford, he believed, was the man who robbed him of the affection which he had supposed his due. He warned me against any intercourse with him, and insisted that I must renounce the society of the one or the other immediately.
He would leave me, he said, this evening, and call to-morrow to know the result of my determination. It was late before he bade me good night, since which I have written these particulars. It is now time to lay aside my pen, and deliberate what course to take.
Wednesday evening.Last night I closed not my eyes. I rose this morning with the sun, and went into the garden till breakfast. My mamma doubtless saw the disorder of my mind, but kindly avoided any inquiry about it. She was affectionately attentive to me, but said nothing of my particular concerns. I mentioned not my embarrassment to her. She had declared herself in favor of Mr. Boyer; therefore I had no expectation that she would advise impartially. I retired to my chamber, and remained in a kind of revery for more than an hour, when I was roused by the rattling of a carriage at the door. I hastened to the window, and saw Major Sanford just driving away. The idea of his having been to converse with my mamma gave me new sensations. A thousand perplexities occurred to my mind relative to the part most proper for me to act in this critical situation. All these might have been avoided, had I gone down and inquired into the matter; but this I delayed till dinner. My mamma then informed me that Major Sanford had been with her, and inquired for me, but that she thought it unnecessary to call me, as she presumed I had no particular business with him. I knew the motives by which she was actuated, and was vexed at her evasions. I told her plainly that she would never carry her point in this way; that Thought myself capable of conducting my own affairs, and wished her not to interfere, except by her advice, which I should always listen to and comply with when I could possibly make it consistent with my inclination and interest. She wept at my undutiful anger, (of which I have severely repented since,) and affectionately replied, that my happiness was the object of her wishes and prayers; conformably to which she felt constrained freely to speak her mind, though it incurred my displeasure. She then went through again with all the comparative circumstances and merits of the two candidates for my favor, which have perpetually rung in my ears for months. I shed tears at the idea of my embarrassment; and in this condition Mr. Boyer found us. He appeared to be affected by my visible disorder, and, without inquiring the cause, endeavored to dissipate it. This was kindly done. He conversed upon indifferent subjects, and invited me to ride, and take tea with your mamma, to which I readily consented. We found her at home, and passed the time agreeably, excepting the alloy of your absence. Mr. Boyer touched lightly on the subject of our last evenings debate, but expatiated largely on the pleasing power of love, and hoped that we should one day both realize and exemplify it in perfection. When we returned he observed that it was late, and took his leave, telling me that he should call to-morrow, and begged that I would then relieve his suspense. As I was retiring to bed, the maid gave me a hint that Major Sanfords servant had been here and left a letter. I turned instantly back to my mamma, and, telling her my information, demanded the letter. She hesitated, but I insisted on having it; and seeing me resolute, she reluctantly gave it into my hand. It contained the following words:
I came this day to plead my cause at your feet, but was cruelly denied the privilege of seeing you. My mind is all anarchy and confusion. My soul is harrowed up with jealousy. I will be revenged on those who separate us, if that distracting event take place. But it is from your lips only that I can hear my sentence. You must witness its effects. To what lengths my despair may carry me I know not. You are the arbitress of my fate.
Thursday morning.The morning dawns, and ushers in the daya day, perhaps, big with the fate of your friend. What that fate may be is wrapped in the womb of futuritythat futurity which a kind Providence has wisely concealed from the penetration of mortals.
After mature consideration, after revolving and re-revolving every circumstance on both sides of the question, I have nearly determined, in compliance with the advice of my friends and the dictates of my own judgment, to give Mr. Boyer the preference, and with him to tread the future round of life.
As to the despair of Major Sanford, it does not much alarm me. Such violent passions are seldom so deeply rooted as to produce lasting effects. I must, however, keep my word, and meet him according to promise.
One oclock.My mamma, alarmed by my indisposition, has visited my apartment. I soon convinced her that it was but trifling, owing principally to the want of sleep, and that an airing in the garden, which I intended towards night, would restore me.
Ten oclock at night.The day is past; and such a day it has been as I hope nevermore to see. At the hour appointed, I went, tolerably composed and resolute, into the garden. I had taken several turns, and retired into the little arbor, where you and I have spent so many happy hours, before Major Sanford entered. When he appeared, a consciousness of the impropriety of this clandestine intercourse suffused my cheek, and gave a coldness to my manners. He immediately penetrated the cause, and observed that my very countenance told him he was no longer a welcome guest to me. I asked him if he ought so to be, since his motives for seeking admission were unworthy of being communicated to my friends. That, he said, was not the case, but that prudence in the present instance required a temporary concealment. He then undertook to exculpate himself from blame, assuring me that as soon as I should discountenance the expectations of Mr. Boyer, and discontinue the reception of his address, his intentions should be made known. He was enlarging upon this topic, when we heard a footstep approaching us, and, looking up, saw Mr. Boyer within a few paces of the arbor. Confusion seized us both. We rose involuntarily from our seats, but were mute as statues. He spoke not a word, but casting a look of indignant accusation at me,a glance which penetrated my very soul,turned on his heel, and walked hastily back to the house.
Major Sanford took my hand. I withdrew it from him. I must leave you, said I. Where will you go? said he. I will go and try to retrieve my character. It has suffered greatly by this fatal interview.
He threw himself at my feet, and exclaimed, Leave me not, Eliza; I conjure you not to leave me. Let me go now, I rejoined, or I bid you farewell forever. I flew precipitately by him, and went into the parlor, where I found Mr. Boyer and my mamma, the one traversing the room in the greatest agitation, the other in a flood of tears. Their appearance affected me, and I wept like an infant. When I had a little recovered myself, I begged him to sit down. He answered, No. I then told him that however unjustifiable my conduct might appear, perhaps I might explain it to his satisfaction if he would hear me; that my motives were innocent, though they doubtless wore the aspect of criminality in his view. He sternly replied, that no palliation could avail; that my motives were sufficiently notorious. He accused me of treating him ill, of rendering him the dupe of coquetting artifice, of having an intrigue with Major Sanford, and declared his determination to leave me forever, as unworthy of his regard, and incapable of love, gratitude, or honor. There was too much reason in support of his accusations for me to gainsay them, had his impetuosity suffered me to attempt it.
But, in truth, I had no inclination to self-defence. My natural vivacity had forsaken me, and I listened without interrupting him to the fluency of reproachful language which his resentment inspired. He took a very solemn and affectionate leave of my mamma, thanking her for her politeness, and wishing her much future felicity. He attempted to address me, I suppose, somewhat in the same way; but his sensibility somewhat overcame him, and he only took my hand, and, bowing in silence, departed.
When I opened my eyes and beheld this amiable and tender parent watching and attending me with the most anxious concern, without one reproachful word, without one accusing look, my reflections upon the part I had acted, in defeating her benevolent wishes, were exquisitely afflictive. But we mutually forbore to mention the occasion of my illness; and I complied with her advice to take some refreshment, and retire to my chamber. I am so much fatigued by the exertions of the day that rest is absolutely necessary; and I lay aside my pen to seek it.
Friday morning.When I shall again receive the balmy influence of sleep, I know not. It has absolutely forsaken me at present. I have had a most restless night. Every awakening idea presented itself to my imagination; whether I had sustained a real loss in Mr. Boyers departure, reflections on my own misconduct, with the censure of my friends, and the ill-natured remarks of my enemies, excited the most painful anxiety in my mind.
I am going down; but how shall I see my mamma? To her I will confess my faults, in her maternal breast repose my cares, and by her friendly advice regulate my conduct. Had I done this before, I might have escaped this trouble, and saved both her and myself many distressing emotions.
Mr. Atkins, with whom Mr. Boyer lodged while in town, called here this afternoon. I did not see him; but he told my mamma that Mr. Boyer had returned home, and left a letter for me, which he had promised to convey with his own hand. By this I am convinced that the die is absolutely cast with respect to him, and that no attempts on my part to bring about a reconciliation would be either prudent or successful. He has penetrated the cause of my proceedings; and such is his resentment, that I am inclined not much to regret his avoiding another interview.