The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

Chapter 21

The short continuance of friendship amongst the vicious, which is coeval only with mutual satisfaction

My son’s account was too long to be delivered at once, the first part of it was begun that night, and he was concluding the rest after dinner the next day, when the appearance of Mr Thornhill’s equipage at the door seemed to make a pause in the general satisfaction. The butler, who was now become my friend in the family, informed me with a whisper, that the ‘Squire had already made some overtures to Miss Wilmot, and that her aunt and uncle seemed highly to approve the match. Upon Mr Thornhill’s entering, he seemed, at seeing my son and me, to start back; but I readily imputed that to surprize, and not displeasure. However, upon our advancing to salute him, he returned our greeting with the most apparent candour; and after a short time, his presence served only to encrease the general good humour.

After tea he called me aside, to enquire after my daughter; but upon my informing him that my enquiry was unsuccessful, he seemed greatly surprised; adding, that he had been since frequently at my house, in order to comfort the rest of my family, whom he left perfectly well. He then asked if I had communicated her misfortune to Miss Wilmot, or my son; and upon my replying that I had not told them as yet, he greatly approved my prudence and precaution, desiring me by all means to keep it a secret: ‘For at best,’ cried he, ‘it is but divulging one’s own infamy; and perhaps Miss Livy may not be so guilty as we all imagine.’ We were here interrupted by a servant, who came to ask the ‘Squire in, to stand up at country dances; so that he left me quite pleased with the interest he seemed to take in my concerns. His addresses, however, to Miss Wilmot, were too obvious to be mistaken; and yet she seemed not perfectly pleased, but bore them rather in compliance to the will of her aunt, than from real inclination. I had even the satisfaction to see her lavish some kind looks upon my unfortunate son, which the other could neither extort by his fortune nor assiduity. Mr Thornhill’s seeming composure, however, not a little surprised me: we had now continued here a week, at the pressing instances of Mr Arnold; but each day the more tenderness Miss Wilmot shewed my son, Mr Thomhill’s friendship seemed proportionably to encrease for him.

He had formerly made us the most kind assurances of using his interest to serve the family; but now his generosity was not confined to promises alone: the morning I designed for my departure, Mr Thornhill came to me with looks of real pleasure to inform me of a piece of service he had done for his friend George. This was nothing less than his having procured him an ensign’s commission in one of the regiments that was going to the West Indies, for which he had promised but one hundred pounds, his interest having been sufficient to get an abatement of the other two. ‘As for this trifling piece of service,’ continued the young gentleman, ‘I desire no other reward but the pleasure of having served my friend; and as for the hundred pound to be paid, if you are unable to raise it yourselves, I will advance it, and you shall repay me at your leisure.’ This was a favour we wanted words to express our sense of. I readily therefore gave my bond for the money, and testified as much gratitude as if I never intended to pay.

George was to depart for town the next day to secure his commission, in pursuance of his generous patron’s directions, who judged it highly expedient to use dispatch, lest in the mean time another should step in with more advantageous proposals. The next morning, therefore, our young soldier was early prepared for his departure, and seemed the only person among us that was not affected by it. Neither the fatigues and dangers he was going to encounter, nor the friends and mistress, for Miss Wilmot actually loved him, he was leaving behind, any way damped his spirits. After he had taken leave of the rest of the company, I gave him all I had, my blessing. ‘And now, my boy,’ cried I, ‘thou art going to fight for thy country, remember how thy brave grandfather fought for his sacred king, when loyalty among Britons was a virtue. Go, my boy, and immitate him in all but his misfortunes, if it was a misfortune to die with Lord Falkland. Go, my boy, and if you fall, tho’ distant, exposed and unwept by those that love you, the most precious tears are those with which heaven bedews the unburied head of a soldier.’

The next morning I took leave of the good family, that had been kind enough to entertain me so long, not without several expressions of gratitude to Mr Thornhill for his late bounty. I left them in the enjoyment of all that happiness which affluence and good breeding procure, and returned towards home, despairing of ever finding my daughter more, but sending a sigh to heaven to spare and to forgive her. I was now come within about twenty miles of home, having hired an horse to carry me, as I was yet but weak, and comforted myself with the hopes of soon seeing all I held dearest upon earth. But the night coming on, I put up at a little public-house by the roadside, and asked for the landlord’s company over a pint of wine. We sate beside his kitchen fire, which was the best room in the house, and chatted on politics and the news of the country. We happened, among other topics, to talk of young ‘Squire Thornhill, who the host assured me was hated as much as his uncle Sir William, who sometimes came down to the country, was loved. He went on to observe, that he made it his whole study to betray the daughters of such as received him to their houses, and after a fortnight or three weeks possession, turned them out unrewarded and abandoned to the world. As we continued our discourse in this manner, his wife, who had been out to get change, returned, and perceiving that her husband was enjoying a pleasure in which she was not a sharer, she asked him, in an angry tone, what he did there, to which he only replied in an ironical way, by drinking her health. ‘Mr Symmonds,’ cried she, ‘you use me very ill, and I’ll bear it no longer. Here three parts of the business is left for me to do, and the fourth left unfinished; while you do nothing but soak with the guests all day long, whereas if a spoonful of liquor were to cure me of a fever, I never touch a drop.’ I now found what she would be at, and immediately poured her out a glass, which she received with a curtesy, and drinking towards my good health, ‘Sir,’ resumed she, ‘it is not so much for the value of the liquor I am angry, but one cannot help it, when the house is going out of the windows. If the customers or guests are to be dunned, all the burthen lies upon my back, he’d as lief eat that glass as budge after them himself.’ There now above stairs, we have a young woman who has come to take up her lodgings here, and I don’t believe she has got any money by her over-civility. I am certain she is very slow of payment, and I wish she were put in mind of it.’—‘What signifies minding her,’ cried the host, ‘if she be slow, she is sure.’—‘I don’t know that,’ replied the wife; ‘but I know that I am sure she has been here a fortnight, and we have not yet seen the cross of her money.’—‘I suppose, my dear,’ cried he, ‘we shall have it all in a, lump.’—‘In a lump!’ cried the other, ‘I hope we may get it any way; and that I am resolved we will this very night, or out she tramps, bag and baggage.’—‘Consider, my dear,’ cried the husband, ‘she is a gentlewoman, and deserves more respect.’—‘As for the matter of that,’ returned the hostess, ‘gentle or simple, out she shall pack with a sassarara. Gentry may be good things where they take; but for my part I never saw much good of them at the sign of the Harrow.’— Thus saying, she ran up a narrow flight of stairs, that went from the kitchen to a room over-head, and I soon perceived by the loudness of her voice, and the bitterness of her reproaches, that no money was to be had from her lodger. I could hear her remonstrances very distinctly: ‘Out I say, pack out this moment, tramp thou infamous strumpet, or I’ll give thee a mark thou won’t be the better for this three months. What! you trumpery, to come and take up an honest house, without cross or coin to bless yourself with; come along I say.’—‘O dear madam,’ cried the stranger, ‘pity me, pity a poor abandoned creature for one night, and death will soon do the rest.’ I instantly knew the voice of my poor ruined child Olivia. I flew to her rescue, while the woman was dragging her along by the hair, and I caught the dear forlorn wretch in my arms. —‘Welcome, any way welcome, my dearest lost one, my treasure, to your poor old father’s bosom. Tho’ the vicious forsake thee, there is yet one in the world that will never forsake thee; tho’ thou hadst ten thousand crimes to answer for, he will forget them all.’—‘O my own dear’— for minutes she could no more —‘my own dearest good papa! Could angels be kinder! How do I deserve so much! The villain, I hate him and myself, to be a reproach to such goodness. You can’t forgive me. I know you cannot.’—‘Yes, my child, from my heart I do forgive thee! Only repent, and we both shall yet be happy. We shall see many pleasant days yet, my Olivia!’—‘Ah! never, sir, never. The rest of my wretched life must be infamy abroad and shame at home. But, alas! papa, you look much paler than you used to do. Could such a thing as I am give you so much uneasiness? Sure you have too much wisdom to take the miseries of my guilt upon yourself.’—‘Our wisdom, young woman,’ replied I. —‘Ah, why so cold a name papa?’ cried she. ‘This is the first time you ever called me by so cold a name.’—‘I ask pardon, my darling,’ returned I; ‘but I was going to observe, that wisdom makes but a slow defence against trouble, though at last a sure one.

The landlady now returned to know if we did not chuse a more genteel apartment, to which assenting, we were shewn a room, where we could converse more freely. After we had talked ourselves into some degree of tranquillity, I could not avoid desiring some account of the gradations that led to her present wretched situation. ‘That villain, sir,’ said she, ‘from the first day of our meeting made me honourable, though private, proposals.’

‘Villain indeed,’ cried I; ‘and yet it in some measure surprizes me, how a person of Mr Burchell’s good sense and seeming honour could be guilty of such deliberate baseness, and thus step into a family to undo it.’

‘My dear papa,’ returned my daughter, ‘you labour under a strange mistake, Mr Burchell never attempted to deceive me. Instead of that he took every opportunity of privately admonishing me against the artifices of Mr Thornhill, who I now find was even worse than he represented him.’—‘Mr Thornhill,’ interrupted I, ‘can it be?’ —‘Yes, Sir,’ returned she, ‘it was Mr Thornhill who seduced me, who employed the two ladies, as he called them, but who, in fact, were abandoned women of the town, without breeding or pity, to decoy us up to London. Their artifices, you may remember would have certainly succeeded, but for Mr Burchell’s letter, who directed those reproaches at them, which we all applied to ourselves. How he came to have so much influence as to defeat their intentions, still remains a secret to me; but I am convinced he was ever our warmest sincerest friend.’

‘You amaze me, my dear,’ cried I; ‘but now I find my first suspicions of Mr Thornhill’s baseness were too well grounded: but he can triumph in security; for he is rich and we are poor. But tell me, my child, sure it was no small temptation that could thus obliterate all the impressions of such an education, and so virtuous a disposition as thine.’

‘Indeed, Sir,’ replied she, ‘he owes all his triumph to the desire I had of making him, and not myself, happy. I knew that the ceremony of our marriage, which was privately performed by a popish priest, was no way binding, and that I had nothing to trust to but his honour.’ ‘What,’ interrupted I, ‘and were you indeed married by a priest, and in orders?’—‘Indeed, Sir, we were,’ replied she, ‘though we were both sworn to conceal his name.’— ‘Why then, my child, come to my arms again, and now you are a thousand times more welcome than before; for you are now his wife to all intents and purposes; nor can all the laws of man, tho’ written upon tables of adamant, lessen the force of that sacred connexion.’

‘Alas, Papa,’ replied she, ‘you are but little acquainted with his villainies: he has been married already, by the same priest, to six or eight wives more, whom, like me, he has deceived and abandoned.’

‘Has he so?’ cried I, ‘then we must hang the priest, and you shall inform against him tomorrow.’—‘But Sir,’ returned she, ‘will that be right, when I am sworn to secrecy?’—‘My dear,’ I replied, ‘if you have made such a promise, I cannot, nor will I tempt you to break it. Even tho’ it may benefit the public, you must not inform against him. In all human institutions a smaller evil is allowed to procure a greater good; as in politics, a province may be given away to secure a kingdom; in medicine, a limb may be lopt off, to preserve the body. But in religion the law is written, and inflexible, never to do evil. And this law, my child, is right: for otherwise, if we commit a smaller evil, to procure a greater good, certain guilt would be thus incurred, in expectation of contingent advantage. And though the advantage should certainly follow, yet the interval between commission and advantage, which is allowed to be guilty, may be that in which we are called away to answer for the things we have done, and the volume of human actions is closed for ever. But I interrupt you, my dear, go on.’

‘The very next morning,’ continued she, ‘I found what little expectations I was to have from his sincerity. That very morning he introduced me to two unhappy women more, whom, like me, he had deceived, but who lived in contented prostitution. I loved him too tenderly to bear such rivals in his affections, and strove to forget my infamy in a tumult of pleasures. With this view, I danced, dressed, and talked; but still was unhappy. The gentlemen who visited there told me every moment of the power of my charms, and this only contributed to encrease my melancholy, as I had thrown all their power quite away. Thus each day I grew more pensive, and he more insolent, till at last the monster had the assurance to offer me to a young Baronet of his acquaintance. Need I describe, Sir, how his ingratitude stung me. My answer to this proposal was almost madness. I desired to part. As I was going he offered me a purse; but I flung it at him with indignation, and burst from him in a rage, that for a while kept me insensible of the miseries of my situation. But I soon looked round me, and saw myself a vile, abject, guilty thing, without one friend in the world to apply to. Just in that interval, a stage — coach happening to pass by, I took a place, it being my only aim to be driven at a distance from a wretch I despised and detested. I was set down here, where, since my arrival, my own anxiety, and this woman’s unkindness, have been my only companions. The hours of pleasure that I have passed with my mamma and sister, now grow painful to me. Their sorrows are much; but mine is greater than theirs; for mine are mixed with guilt and infamy.’

‘Have patience, my child,’ cried I, ‘and I hope things will yet be better. Take some repose to-night, and tomorrow I’ll carry you home to your mother and the rest of the family, from whom you will receive a kind reception. Poor woman, this has gone to her heart: but she loves you still, Olivia, and will forget it.

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