The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

Chapter 17

Scarce any virtue found to resist the power of long and pleasing temptation

As I only studied my child’s real happiness, the assiduity of Mr Williams pleased me, as he was in easy circumstances, prudent, and sincere. It required but very little encouragement to revive his former passion; so that in an evening or two he and Mr Thornhill met at our house, and surveyed each other for some time with looks of anger: but Williams owed his landlord no rent, and little regarded his indignation. Olivia, on her side, acted the coquet to perfection, if that might be called acting which was her real character, pretending to lavish all her tenderness on her new lover. Mr Thornhill appeared quite dejected at this preference, and with a pensive air took leave, though I own it puzzled me to find him so much in pain as he appeared to be, when he had it in his power so easily to remove the cause, by declaring an honourable passion. But whatever uneasiness he seemed to endure, it could easily be perceived that Olivia’s anguish was still greater. After any of these interviews between her lovers, of which there were several, she usually retired to solitude, and there indulged her grief. It was in such a situation I found her one evening, after she had been for some time supporting a fictitious gayety. —‘You now see, my child,’ said I, ‘that your confidence in Mr Thornhill’s passion was all a dream: he permits the rivalry of another, every way his inferior, though he knows it lies in his power to secure you to himself by a candid declaration.’—‘Yes, pappa,’ returned she, ‘but he has his reasons for this delay: I know he has. The sincerity of his looks and words convince me of his real esteem. A short time, I hope, will discover the generosity of his sentiments, and convince you that my opinion of him has been more just than yours.’—‘Olivia, my darling,’ returned I, ‘every scheme that has been hitherto pursued to compel him to a declaration, has been proposed and planned by yourself, nor can you in the least say that I have constrained you. But you must not suppose, my dear, that I will ever be instrumental in suffering his honest rival to be the dupe of your ill-placed passion. Whatever time you require to bring your fancied admirer to an explanation shall be granted; but at the expiration of that term, if he is still regardless, I must absolutely insist that honest Mr Williams shall be rewarded for his fidelity. The character which I have hitherto supported in life demands this from me, and my tenderness, as a parent, shall never influence my integrity as a man. Name then your day, let it be as distant as you think proper, and in the mean time take care to let Mr Thornhill know the exact time on which I design delivering you up to another. If he really loves you, his own good sense will readily suggest that there is but one method alone to prevent his losing you forever.’— This proposal, which she could not avoid considering as perfectly just, was readily agreed to. She again renewed her most positive promise of marrying Mr Williams, in case of the other’s insensibility; and at the next opportunity, in Mr Thornhill’s presence, that day month was fixed upon for her nuptials with his rival.

Such vigorous proceedings seemed to redouble Mr Thornhill’s anxiety: but what Olivia really felt gave me some uneasiness. In this struggle between prudence and passion, her vivacity quite forsook her, and every opportunity of solitude was sought, and spent in tears. One week passed away; but Mr Thornhill made no efforts to restrain her nuptials. The succeeding week he was still assiduous; but not more open. On the third he discontinued his visits entirely, and instead of my daughter testifying any impatience, as I expected, she seemed to retain a pensive tranquillity, which I looked upon as resignation. For my own part, I was now sincerely pleased with thinking that my child was going to be secured in a continuance of competence and peace, and frequently applauded her resolution, in preferring happiness to ostentation.

It was within about four days of her intended nuptials, that my little family at night were gathered round a charming fire, telling stories of the past, and laying schemes for the future. Busied in forming a thousand projects, and laughing at whatever folly came uppermost, ‘Well, Moses,’ cried I, ‘we shall soon, my boy, have a wedding in the family, what is your opinion of matters and things in general?’—‘My opinion, father, is, that all things go on very well; and I was just now thinking, that when sister Livy is married to farmer Williams, we shall then have the loan of his cyder-press and brewing tubs for nothing.’— ‘That we shall, Moses,’ cried I, ‘and he will sing us Death and the Lady, to raise our spirits into the bargain.’—‘He has taught that song to our Dick,’ cried Moses; ‘and I think he goes thro’ it very prettily.’ —‘Does he so,’ cried I, then let us have it: where’s little Dick? let him up with it boldly.’—‘My brother Dick,’ cried Bill my youngest, ‘is just gone out with sister Livy; but Mr Williams has taught me two songs, and I’ll sing them for you, pappa. Which song do you chuse, the Dying Swan, or the Elegy on the death of a mad dog?’ ‘The elegy, child, by all means,’ said I, ‘I never heard that yet; and Deborah, my life, grief you know is dry, let us have a bottle of the best gooseberry wine, to keep up our spirits. I have wept so much at all sorts of elegies of late, that without an enlivening glass I am sure this will overcome me; and Sophy, love, take your guitar, and thrum in with the boy a little.’

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.

Good people all, of every sort, Give ear unto my song; And if you find it wond’rous short, It cannot hold you long.

In Isling town there was a man, Of whom the world might say, That still a godly race he ran, Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had, To comfort friends and foes; The naked every day he clad, When he put on his cloaths.

And in that town a dog was found, As many dogs there be, Both mungrel, puppy, whelp, and hound, And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends; But when a pique began, The dog, to gain some private ends, Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets, The wondering neighbours ran, And swore the dog had lost his wits, To bite so good a man.

The wound it seem’d both sore and sad, To every Christian eye; And while they swore the dog was mad, They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light, That shew’d the rogues they lied, The man recovered of the bite, The dog it was that dy’d.

‘A very good boy, Bill, upon my word, and an elegy that may truly be called tragical. Come, my children, here’s Bill’s health, and may he one day be a bishop.’

‘With all my heart,’ cried my wife; ‘and if he but preaches as well as he sings, I make no doubt of him. The, most of his family, by the mother’s side, could sing a good song: it was a common saying in our country, that the family of the Blenkinsops could never look strait before them, nor the Huginsons blow out a candle; that there were none of the Grograms but could sing a song, or of the Marjorams but could tell a story.’—‘However that be,’ cried I, ‘the most vulgar ballad of them all generally pleases me better than the fine modern odes, and things that petrify us in a single stanza; productions that we at once detest and praise. Put the glass to your brother, Moses. — The great fault of these elegiasts is, that they are in despair for griefs that give the sensible part of mankind very little pain. A lady loses her muff, her fan, or her lap-dog, and so the silly poet runs home to versify the disaster.’

‘That may be the mode,’ cried Moses, ‘in sublimer compositions; but the Ranelagh songs that come down to us are perfectly familiar, and all cast in the same mold: Colin meets Dolly, and they hold a dialogue together; he gives her a fairing to put in her hair, and she presents him with a nosegay; and then they go together to church, where they give good advice to young nymphs and swains to get married as fast as they can.’

‘And very good advice too,’ cried I, ‘and I am told there is not a place in the world where advice can be given with so much propriety as there; for, as it persuades us to marry, it also furnishes us with a wife; and surely that must be an excellent market, my boy, where we are told what we want, and supplied with it when wanting.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ returned Moses, ‘and I know but of two such markets for wives in Europe, Ranelagh in England, and Fontarabia in Spain.’ The Spanish market is open once a year, but our English wives are saleable every night.’

‘You are right, my boy,’ cried his mother, ‘Old England is the only place in the world for husbands to get wives.’—‘And for wives to manage their husbands,’ interrupted I. ‘It is a proverb abroad, that if a bridge were built across the sea, all the ladies of the Continent would come over to take pattern from ours; for there are no such wives in Europe as our own. ‘But let us have one bottle more, Deborah, my life, and Moses give us a good song. What thanks do we not owe to heaven for thus bestowing tranquillity, health, and competence. I think myself happier now than the greatest monarch upon earth. He has no such fire-side, nor such pleasant faces about it. Yes, Deborah, we are now growing old; but the evening of our life is likely to be happy. We are descended from ancestors that knew no stain, and we shall leave a good and virtuous race of children behind us. While we live they will be our support and our pleasure here, and when we die they will transmit our honour untainted to posterity. Come, my son, we wait for a song: let us have a chorus. But where is my darling Olivia? That little cherub’s voice is always sweetest in the concert.’— Just as I spoke Dick came running in. ‘O pappa, pappa, she is gone from us, she is gone from us, my sister Livy is gone from us for ever’—‘Gone, child’—‘Yes, she is gone off with two gentlemen in a post chaise, and one of them kissed her, and said he would die for her; and she cried very much, and was for coming back; but he persuaded her again, and she went into the chaise, and said, O what will my poor pappa do when he knows I am undone!’—‘Now then,’ cried I, ‘my children, go and be miserable; for we shall never enjoy one hour more. And O may heaven’s everlasting fury light upon him and his! Thus to rob me of my child! And sure it will, for taking back my sweet innocent that I was leading up to heaven. Such sincerity as my child was possest of. But all our earthly happiness is now over! Go, my children, go, and be miserable and infamous; for my heart is broken within me!’—‘Father,’ cried my son, “is this your fortitude?’—‘Fortitude, child! Yes, he shall see I have fortitude! Bring me my pistols. I’ll pursue the traitor. While he is on earth I’ll pursue him. Old as I am, he shall find I can sting him yet. The villain! The perfidious villain!’— I had by this time reached down my pistols, when my poor wife, whose passions were not so strong as mine, caught me in her arms. ‘My dearest, dearest husband,’ cried she, ‘the bible is the only weapon that is fit for your old hands now. Open that, my love, and read our anguish into patience, for she has vilely deceived us.’—‘Indeed, Sir,’ resumed my son, after a pause, ‘your rage is too violent and unbecoming. You should be my mother’s comforter, and you encrease her pain. It ill suited you and your reverend character thus to curse your greatest enemy: you should not have curst him, villian as he is.’—‘I did not curse him, child, did I?’—‘Indeed, Sir, you did; you curst him twice.’—‘Then may heaven forgive me and him if I did. And now, my son, I see it was more than human benevolence that first taught us to bless our enemies! Blest be his holy name for all the good he hath given, and for all that he hath taken away. But it is not, it is not, a small distress that can wring tears from these old eyes, that have not wept for so many years. My Child! — To undo my darling! May confusion seize! Heaven forgive me, what am I about to say! You may remember, my love, how good she was, and how charming; till this vile moment all her care was to make us happy. Had she but died! But she is gone, the honour of our family contaminated, and I must look out for happiness in other worlds than here. But my child, you saw them go off: perhaps he forced her away? If he forced her, she may ‘yet be innocent.’—‘Ah no, Sir!’ cried the child; ‘he only kissed her, and called her his angel, and she wept very much, and leaned upon his arm, and they drove off very fast.’ —‘She’s an ungrateful creature,’ cried my wife, who could scarce speak for weeping, ‘to use us thus. She never had the least constraint put upon her affections. The vile strumpet has basely deserted her parents without any provocation, thus to bring your grey hairs to the grave, and I must shortly follow.’

In this manner that night, the first of our real misfortunes, was spent in the bitterness of complaint, and ill supported sallies of enthusiasm. I determined, however, to find out our betrayer, wherever he was, and reproach his baseness. The next morning we missed our wretched child at breakfast, where she used to give life and cheerfulness to us all. My wife, as before, attempted to ease her heart by reproaches. ‘Never,’ cried she, ‘shall that vilest stain of our family again darken those harmless doors. I will never call her daughter more. No, let the strumpet live with her vile seducer: she may bring us to shame but she shall never more deceive us.’

‘Wife,’ said I, ‘do not talk thus hardly: my detestation of her guilt is as great as yours; but ever shall this house and this heart be open to a poor returning repentant sinner. The sooner she returns from her transgression, the more welcome shall she be to me. For the first time the very best may err; art may persuade, and novelty spread out its charm. The first fault is the child of simplicity; but every other the offspring of guilt. Yes, the wretched creature shall be welcome to this heart and this house, tho’ stained with ten thousand vices. I will again hearken to the music of her voice, again will I hang fondly on her bosom, if I find but repentance there. My son, bring hither my bible and my staff, I will pursue her, wherever she is, and tho’ I cannot save her from shame, I may prevent the continuance of iniquity.’

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