The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

Chapter 15

All, Mr Burchell’s villainy at once detected. The folly of being over-wise

That evening and a part of the following day was employed in fruitless attempts to discover our enemies: scarce a family in the neighbourhood but incurred our suspicions, and each of us had reasons for our opinion best known to ourselves. As we were in this perplexity, one of our little boys, who had been playing abroad, brought in a letter-case, which he found on the green. It was quickly known to belong to Mr Burchell, with whom it had been seen, and, upon examination, contained some hints upon different subjects; but what particularly engaged our attention was a sealed note, superscribed, ‘The copy of a letter to be sent to the two ladies at Thornhill-castle.’ It instantly occurred that he was the base informer, and we deliberated whether the note should not be broke open. I was against it; but Sophia, who said she was sure that of all men he would be the last to be guilty of so much baseness, insisted upon its being read, In this she was seconded by the rest of the family, and, at their joint solicitation, I read as follows:—

‘Ladies — The bearer will sufficiently satisfy you as to the person from whom this comes: one at least the friend of innocence, and ready to prevent its being seduced. I am informed for a truth, that you have some intention of bringing two young ladies to town, whom I have some knowledge of, under the character of companions. As I would neither have simplicity imposed upon, nor virtue contaminated, I must offer it as my opinion, that the impropriety of such a step will be attended with dangerous consequences. It has never been my way to treat the infamous or the lewd with severity; nor should I now have taken this method of explaining myself, or reproving folly, did it not aim at guilt. Take therefore the admonition of a friend, and seriously reflect on the consequences of introducing infamy and vice into retreats where peace and innocence have hitherto resided.’ Our doubts were now at an end. There seemed indeed something applicable to both sides in this letter, and its censures might as well be referred to those to whom it was written, as to us; but the malicious meaning was obvious, and we went no farther. My wife had scarce patience to hear me to the end, but railed at the writer with unrestrained resentment. Olivia was equally severe, and Sophia seemed perfectly amazed at his baseness. As for my part, it appeared to me one of the vilest instances of unprovoked ingratitude I had met with. Nor could I account for it in any other manner than by imputing it to his desire of detaining my youngest daughter in the country, to have the more frequent opportunities of an interview. In this manner we all sate ruminating upon schemes of vengeance, when our other little boy came running in to tell us that Mr Burchell was approaching at the other end of the field. It is easier to conceive than describe the complicated sensations which are felt from the pain of a recent injury, and the pleasure of approaching vengeance. Tho’ our intentions were only to upbraid him with his ingratitude; yet it was resolved to do it in a manner that would be perfectly cutting. For this purpose we agreed to meet him with our usual smiles, to chat in the beginning with more than ordinary kindness, to amuse him a little; and then in the midst of the flattering calm to burst upon him like an earthquake, and overwhelm him with the sense of his own baseness. This being resolved upon, my wife undertook to manage the business herself, as she really had some talents for such an undertaking. We saw him approach, he entered, drew a chair, and sate down. —‘A fine day, Mr Burchell.’—‘A very fine day, Doctor; though I fancy we shall have some rain by the shooting of my corns.’—‘The shooting of your horns,’ cried my wife, in a loud fit of laughter, and then asked pardon for being fond of a joke. —‘Dear madam,’ replied he, ‘I pardon you with all my heart; for I protest I should not have thought it a joke had you not told me.’—‘Perhaps not, Sir,’ cried my wife, winking at us, ‘and yet I dare say you can tell us how many jokes go to an ounce.’—‘I fancy, madam,’ returned Burchell, ‘you have been reading a jest book this morning, that ounce of jokes is so very good a conceit; and yet, madam, I had rather see half an ounce of understanding.’—‘I believe you might,’ cried my wife, still smiling at us, though the laugh was against her; ‘and yet I have seen some men pretend to understanding that have very little.’—‘And no doubt,’ replied her antagonist, ‘you have known ladies set up for wit that had none.’— I quickly began to find that my wife was likely to gain but little at this business; so I resolved to treat him in a stile of more severity myself. ‘Both wit and understanding” cried I, ‘are trifles, without integrity: it is that which gives value to every character. The ignorant peasant, without fault, is greater than the philosopher with many; for what is genius or courage without an heart? An honest man is the noblest work of God.

‘I always held that hackney’d maxim of Pope,’ returned Mr Burchell, ‘as very unworthy a man of genius, and a base desertion of his own superiority. As the reputation of books is raised not by their freedom from defect, but the greatness of their beauties; so should that of men be prized not for their exemption from fault, but the size of those virtues they are possessed of. The scholar may want prudence, the statesman may have pride, and the champion ferocity; but shall we prefer to these the low mechanic, who laboriously plods on through life, without censure or applause? We might as well prefer the tame correct paintings of the Flemish school to the erroneous, but sublime animations of the Roman pencil.’

‘Sir,’ replied I, ‘your present observation is just, when there are shining virtues and minute defects; but when it appears that great vices are opposed in the same mind to as extraordinary virtues, such a character deserves contempt.’ ‘Perhaps,’ cried he, ‘there may be some such monsters as you describe, of great vices joined to great virtues; yet in my progress through life, I never yet found one instance of their existence: on the contrary, I have ever perceived, that where the mind was capacious, the affections were good. And indeed Providence seems kindly our friend in this particular, thus to debilitate the understanding where the heart is corrupt, and diminish the power where there is the will to do mischief. This rule seems to extend even to other animals: the little vermin race are ever treacherous, cruel, and cowardly, whilst those endowed with strength and power are generous, brave, and gentle.’

‘These observations sound well,’ returned I, ‘and yet it would be easy this moment to point out a man,’ and I fixed my eye stedfastly upon him, ‘whose head and heart form a most detestable contrast. Ay, Sir,’ continued I, raising my voice, ‘and I am glad to have this opportunity of detecting him in the midst of his fancied security. Do you know this, Sir, this pocket-book?’— ‘Yes, Sir,’ returned he, with a face of impenetrable assurance, ‘that pocket-book is mine, and I am glad you have found it.’— ‘And do you know,’ cried I, ‘this letter? Nay, never falter man; but look me full in the face: I say, do you know this letter?’— ‘That letter,’ returned he, ‘yes, it was I that wrote that letter.’—‘And how could you,’ said I, ‘so basely, so ungratefully presume to write this letter?’—‘And how came you,’ replied he, with looks of unparallelled effrontery, ‘so basely to presume to break open this letter? Don’t you know, now, I could hang you all for this? All that I have to do, is to swear at the next justice’s, that you have been guilty of breaking open the lock of my pocket-book, and so hang you all up at his door.’ This piece of unexpected insolence raised me to such a pitch, that I could scare govern my passion. ‘Ungrateful wretch, begone, and no longer pollute my dwelling with thy baseness. Begone, and never let me see thee again: go from my doors, and the only punishment I wish thee is an allarmed conscience, which will be a sufficient tormentor!’ So saying, I threw him his pocket-book, which he took up with a smile, and shutting the clasps with the utmost composure, left us, quite astonished at the serenity of his assurance. My wife was particularly enraged that nothing could make him angry, or make him seem ashamed of his villainies. ‘My dear,’ cried I, willing to calm those passions that had been raised too high among us, ‘we are not to be surprised that bad men want shame; they only blush at being detected in doing good, but glory in their vices.

‘Guilt and shame, says the allegory, were at first companions, and in the beginning of their journey inseparably kept together. But their union was soon found to be disagreeable and inconvenient to both; guilt gave shame frequent uneasiness, and shame often betrayed the secret conspiracies of guilt. After long disagreeement, therefore, they at length consented to part for ever. Guilt boldly walked forward alone, to overtake fate, that went before in the shape of an executioner: but shame being naturally timorous, returned back to keep company with virtue, which, in the beginning of their journey, they had left behind. Thus, my children, after men have travelled through a few stages in vice, shame forsakes them, and returns back to wait upon the few virtues they have still remaining.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/goldsmith/oliver/vicar/chapter15.html

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