The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

Chapter 10

The family endeavours to cope with their betters. The miseries of the poor when they attempt to appear above their circumstances

I now began to find that all my long and painful lectures upon temperance, simplicity, and contentment, were entirely disregarded. The distinctions lately paid us by our betters awaked that pride which I had laid asleep, but not removed. Our windows again, as formerly, were filled with washes for the neck and face. The sun was dreaded as an enemy to the skin without doors, and the fire as a spoiler of the complexion within. My wife observed, that rising too early. would hurt her daughters’ eyes, that working after dinner would redden their noses, and she convinced me that the hands never looked so white as when they did nothing. Instead therefore of finishing George’s shirts, we now had them new modelling their old gauzes, or flourishing upon catgut. The poor Miss Flamboroughs, their former gay companions, were cast off as mean acquaintance, and the whole conversation ran upon high life and high lived company, with pictures, taste, Shakespear, and the musical glasses.

But we could have borne all this, had not a fortune-telling gypsey come to raise us into perfect sublimity. The tawny sybil no sooner appeared, than my girls came running to me for a shilling a piece to cross her hand with silver. To say the truth, I was tired of being always wise, and could not help gratifying their request, because I loved to see them happy. I gave each of them a shilling; though, for the honour of the family, it must be observed, that they never went without money themselves, as my wife always generously let them have a guinea each, to keep in their pockets; but with strict injunctions never to change it. After they had been closetted up with the fortune-teller for some time, I knew by their looks, upon their returning, that they had been promised something great. —‘Well, my girls, how have you sped? Tell me, Livy, has the fortune-teller given thee a pennyworth?’—‘I protest, pappa,’ says the girl, ‘I believe she deals with some body that’s not right; for she positively declared, that I am to be married to a ‘Squire in less than a twelvemonth!’—‘Well now, Sophy, my child,’ said I, ‘and what sort of a husband are you to have?’ ‘Sir,’ replied she, ‘I am to have a Lord soon after my sister has married the ‘Squire.’— ‘How,’ cried I, ‘is that all you are to have for your two shillings! Only a Lord and a ‘Squire for two shillings! You fools, I could have promised you a Prince and a Nabob for half the money.’ This curiosity of theirs, however, was attended with very serious effects: we now began to think ourselves designed by the stars for something exalted, and already anticipated our future grandeur. It has been a thousand times observed, and I must observe it once more, that the hours we pass with happy prospects in view, are more pleasing than those crowned with fruition. In the first case we cook the dish to our own appetite; in the latter nature cooks it for us. It is impossible to repeat the train of agreeable reveries we called up for our entertainment. We looked upon our fortunes as once more rising; and as the whole parish asserted that the ‘Squire was in love with my daughter, she was actually so with him; for they persuaded her into the passion. In this agreeable interval, my wife had the most lucky dreams in the world, which she took care to tell us every morning, with great solemnity and exactness. It was one night a coffin and cross bones, the sign of an approaching wedding: at another time she imagined her daughters’ pockets filled with farthings, a certain sign of their being shortly stuffed with gold. The girls themselves had their omens. They felt strange kisses on their lips; they saw rings in the candle, purses bounced from the fire, and true love-knots lurked in the bottom of every tea-cup.

Towards the end of the week we received a card from the town ladies; in which, with their compliments, they hoped to see all our family at church the Sunday following. All Saturday morning I could perceive, in consequence of this, my wife and daughters in close conference together, and now and then glancing at me with looks that betrayed a latent plot. To be sincere, I had strong suspicions that some absurd proposal was preparing for appearing with splendor the next day. In the evening they began their operations in a very regular manner, and my wife undertook to conduct the siege. After tea, when I seemed in spirits, she began thus. —‘I fancy, Charles, my dear, we shall have a great deal of good company at our church tomorrow,’—‘Perhaps we may, my dear,’ returned I; ‘though you need be under no uneasiness about that, you shall have a sermon whether there be or not.’—‘That is what I expect,’ returned she; ‘but I think, my dear, we ought to appear there as decently as possible, for who knows what may happen?’ ‘Your precautions,’ replied I, ‘are highly commendable. A decent behaviour and appearance in church is what charms me. We should be devout and humble, chearful and serene.’—‘Yes,’ cried she, ‘I know that; but I mean we should go there in as proper a manner as possible; not altogether like the scrubs about us.” ‘You are quite right, my dear,’ returned I, ‘and I was going to make the very same proposal. The proper manner of going is, to go there as early as possible, to have time for meditation before the service begins.’—‘Phoo, Charles,’ interrupted she, ‘all that is very true; but not what I would be at. I mean, we should go there genteelly. You know the church is two miles off, and I protest I don’t like to see my daughters trudging up to their pew all blowzed and red with walking, and, looking for all the world as if they had been winners at a smock race. Now, my dear, my proposal is this: there are our two plow horses, the Colt that has been in our family these nine years, and his companion Blackberry, that have scarce done an earthly thing for this month past. They are both grown fat and lazy. Why should not they do something as well as we? And let me tell you, when Moses has trimmed them a little, they will cut a very tolerable figure.’ To this proposal I objected, that walking would be twenty times more genteel than such a paltry conveyance, as Blackberry was wall-eyed, and the Colt wanted a tail: that they had never been broke to the rein; but had an hundred vicious tricks; and that we had but one saddle and pillion in the whole house. All these objections, however, were over-ruled; so that I was obliged to comply. The next morning I perceived them not a little busy in collecting such materials as might be necessary for the expedition; but as I found it would be a business of time, I walked on to the church before, and they promised speedily to follow. I waited near an hour in the reading desk for their arrival; but not finding them come as expected, I was obliged to begin, and went through the service, not without some uneasiness at finding them absent. This was encreased when all was finished, and no appearance of the family. I therefore walked back by the horse-way, which was five miles round, tho’ the foot-way was but two, and when got about half way home, perceived the procession marching slowly forward towards the church; my son, my wife, and the two little ones exalted upon one horse, and my two daughters upon the other. I demanded the cause of their delay; but I soon found by their looks they had met with a thousand misfortunes on the road. The horses had at first refused to move from the door, till Mr Burchell was kind enough to beat them forward for about two hundred yards with his cudgel. Next the straps of my wife’s pillion broke down, and they were obliged to stop to repair them before they could proceed. After that, one of the horses took it into his head to stand still, and neither blows nor entreaties could prevail with him to proceed. It was just recovering from this dismal situation that I found them; but perceiving every thing safe, I own their present mortification did not much displease me, as it would give me many opportunities of future triumph, and teach my daughters more humility.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37