Mr Selvyn, the younger brother of an ancient family, whose fortune was inferior to the rank it held in the country where it had long been fixed, was placed in trade in London; but his success not answering his hopes, he gave it up before it was too late to secure himself a small subsistence and retired into the country when Miss Selvyn was about five years old. His wife had been dead two years; thus his little girl’s education devolved entirely on himself.
He bred her up genteelly, though his fortune was small, and as he was well qualified for the part became himself her tutor and executed that office so well that at twelve years old she excelled all the young ladies in the neighbourhood of her own age in French and writing, either for hand or style; and in the great propriety and grace with which she read English. She had no small knowledge of accounts and had made some progress in the study of history. Her person was elegant and pleasing and her temper and manner perfectly engaging; but yet these charms could not induce the neighbouring families to forgive her for excelling other girls in her accomplishments.
They censured Mr Selvyn for giving his daughter an education to which her fortune was so little suited, and thought he would have done better to have bred her up to housewifery and qualified her for the wife of an honest tradesman; for part of what he had was known to be a life income; a small sinecure having been procured him by his friends in town before he retired into the country.
The censures of those who love to shew their own wisdom by blaming others had little effect on Mr Selvyn; he continued his diligence in cultivating his little girl’s mind; and even taught himself many things that he might be able to instruct her. If he did not breed her up in a manner to gain a subsistence by the most usual means, he however qualified her to subsist on little; he taught her true frugality without narrowness of mind, and made her see how few of all the expenses the world ran into were necessary to happiness. He deprived her of all temptation to purchase pleasures, by instructing her to seek only in herself for them; and by the various accomplishments he had given her, prevented that vanity of mind which leads people to seek external amusements. The day was not sufficient for her employments, therefore she could not be reduced to trifle away any part of it for fear of its lying heavy on her hands.
Thus Miss Selvyn was bred a philosopher from her cradle, but was better instructed in the doctrine of the ancient moralists than in the principles of Christianity. Mr Selvyn was not absolutely a free-thinker, he had no vices that made him an enemy to Christianity, nor that pride which tempts people to contradict a religion generally received; he did not apprehend that disbelief was a proof of wisdom, nor wished to lessen the faith of others, but was in himself sceptical; he doubted of what he could not entirely comprehend and seemed to think those things at least improbable which were not level to his understanding. He avoided the subject with Miss Selvyn; he could not teach her what he did not believe, but chose to leave her free to form that judgement which should in time seem most rational to her.
I could not forbear interrupting Mrs Maynard to signify my approbation of Mr Selvyn’s conduct in this particular as the only instance I had ever met with of a candid mind in one who had a tendency towards infidelity; for ‘I never knew any who were not angry with those that believed more than themselves, and who were not more eager to bring others over to their opinions than most foreign missionaries; yet surely nothing can be more absurd, for these men will not dare to say that the virtues which Christianity requires are not indispensable duties; on the contrary, they would have us imagine they are most sincerely attached to them; what advantage then can accrue to any one, from being deprived of the certainty of a reward for his obedience? If we deny revelation, we must acknowledge this point to be very uncertain; it was the subject of dispute and doubt among all the philosophers of antiquity; and we have but a poor dependence for so great a blessing if we rest our expectation where they did theirs. Can a man therefore be rendered happier by being deprived of this certainty? Or can we suppose he will be more virtuous, because we have removed all the motives that arise from hope and fear? And yet, what else can excuse an infidel’s desire to make converts? Nothing. Nor can any thing occasion it but a secret consciousness that he is in the wrong, which tempts him to wish for the countenance of more associates in his error; this likewise can alone give rise to his rancour against those who believe more than himself; he feels them a tacit reproach to him, which to his pride is insupportable.’
‘But,’ said Lamont, ‘do you imagine that a free-thinker may not be certain of a future state?’
‘Not positively,’ answered Mrs Maynard. ‘If he is certain of that point, he is a believer without owning it; he must have had his certainty from Scripture; all the reason he boasts can only shew it probable, and that probability is loaded with so many difficulties as will much weaken hope. Where can reason say immortality shall stop? We must allow that Omnipotence may bestow it on such ranks of being as he pleases. But how can reason tell us to whom he has given it? Whether to all creation, or no part of it? Pride indeed makes man claim it for himself, but deny it to others; and yet the superior intelligence perceivable in some brutes, to what appears in some of his own species, should raise doubts in him who has nothing but the reasonings of his own weak brain to go upon. But to proceed with my subject.’
The minister of the parish wherein Mr Selvyn dwelt was a gentleman of great learning and strict probity. He had every virtue in the most amiable degree, and a gentleness and humility of mind which is the most agreeable characteristic of his profession. He had a strong sense of the duties of his function and dedicated his whole time to the performance of them. He did not think his instructions should be confined to the pulpit; but sensible that the ignorant were much more effectually taught in familiar conversation than by preaching, he visited frequently the very poorest of his parishioners; and by the humility of his behaviour as much as by his bounty (for he distributed a great part of his income among the necessitous) he gained the affections of the people so entirely that his advice was all-powerful with them.
This gentleman’s great recreation was visiting Mr Selvyn, whose sense and knowledge rendered his conversation extremely entertaining, and Miss Selvyn’s company was a great addition to the good minister’s pleasure, he took delight in seeing her, as Hamlet says, ‘bear her faculties so meekly’. She was entirely void of conceit and vanity, and did not seem to have found out that her knowledge exceeded that of most persons of her age, at least she looked upon it as a casual advantage which reflected no honour to herself but was entirely owing to Mr Selvyn. Her youthful cheerfulness enlivened the party without rendering the conversation less solid; and her amiable disposition made the good minister particularly anxious for her welfare.
He soon found out Mr Selvyn’s scepticism and endeavoured to remove it. He represented to him that his not being able to understand the most mysterious parts of Christianity was no argument against the truth of them. That there were many things in nature whose certainty he by no means doubted, and yet was totally ignorant of the methods whereby many of them operated, and even of the use of some of them. Could he say what purpose the fiery comet answers? How is its motion produced, so regular in its period, so unequal in its motion, and so eccentric in its course? Of many other things man is in reality as ignorant, only being able to form a system which seems to suit in some particulars, he imagines he has discovered the whole, and will think so till some new system takes place, and the old one is exploded. He asked Mr Selvyn if they descended to the meanest objects in what manner could they account for the polypus’s property of supplying that part of its body which shall be cut away? That insect alone, of all the creation, does not continue maimed by amputation, but multiplies by it. ‘To what can we attribute this difference in an insect, which in all particulars beside, resembles so many others? Yet who doubts of the reality of these things? If we cannot comprehend the smallest works of almighty wisdom, can we expect to fathom that wisdom itself? And say that such things he cannot do, or cannot choose because the same effects could be produced by other means? Man no doubt might exert the same functions under another form, why then has he this he now wears? Who will not reply, because his Maker chose it, and chose it as seeing it best. Is not this the proper answer on all occasions, when the decrees of the Almighty are discussed? Facts only are obvious to our reason; we must judge of them by the evidence of their reality if that is sufficient to establish the facts; why, or how they were produced, is beyond our comprehension. Let us learn that finite minds cannot judge of infinite wisdom, and confine our reason within its proper sphere.’ By these, and many other arguments, Mr Selvyn was brought to believe the possibility of what he did not comprehend; and by this worthy clergyman’s care Miss Selvyn was early taught the truths of Christianity, which though the most necessary of all things, was at first the only one neglected.
In this retired situation they continued till Miss Selvyn was near seventeen years old; Mr Selvyn then determined to remove to London; and taking a small house in Park Street, fixed his abode there. Lady Emilia Reynolds lived next door and soon after their arrival made them a visit, a compliment she said, she looked upon as due to so near a neighbour. Some other ladies in the same street followed her example, and in a very short time Miss Selvyn was introduced into as large an acquaintance as was agreeable to her, for she was naturally averse to much dissipation.
Lady Emilia Reynolds was a single lady of very large fortune, her age upwards of thirty, her person fine, her manner gentle and pleasing, and an air of dejection did not render her countenance the less engaging. She was grave and sensible, and kept a great deal of good company, without entering into a gay way of life. Miss Selvyn’s modesty and good sense seemed to have great charms for her; she cultivated a friendship with her, notwithstanding some disparity in their ages; and neither of them appeared so nappy as when they were together.
Mr Selvyn could not be displeased at an intimacy so desirable, nor could Miss Selvyn be more properly introduced into the world than by a person of Lady Emilia’s respectable character.
At her house Miss Selvyn saw a great deal of good company, and was so generally liked that many intreated Lady Emilia to bring her to them whenever her ladyship favoured them with a visit. These invitations were generally complied with, as under such a protectress Miss Selvyn might properly venture to any place. Lady Sheerness was one of this number, whose rank, and some degree of relationship, brought acquainted with Lady Emilia, though the different turn of their minds and their very opposite taste of life prevented any intimacy between them. Lady Emilia was not blind to Lady Sheerness’s follies, but she esteemed them objects of her compassion, not of her censure, nicely circumspect in her own conduct, she judged with the extremest lenity of the behaviour of others, ready to attempt excusing them to the world, and not even suffering herself to blame what she could not approve; she sincerely pitied Lady Mary Jones, who seemed by fortune sacrificed to folly; and she was in continual fear lest she should fall a victim to that imprudence which in her case was almost unavoidable.
By this means Miss Selvyn became acquainted with Lady Mary and was the young woman I before mentioned as Lady Mary’s adviser and conductor, in putting an end to Lord Robert St George’s courtship.
Not long after she had the satisfaction of thus assisting a young lady whose failings gave her almost as many charms as they robbed her of, she had the misfortune to lose Mr Selvyn. All that a child could feel for the loss of a tender parent Miss Selvyn suffered. His death was not so sudden, but that it afforded him time to settle his affairs, and to give every direction to Miss Selvyn which he thought might save her from all embarrassment on the approaching event. He recommended to her, as her fortune would be but small, to attach herself as much as possible to Lady Emilia, since she now became still more necessary as a protectress, than she had before been desirable as a friend, and that interest as much as gratitude required her cultivating the affection that lady had already shewn her.
The latter motive was sufficient to influence Miss Selvyn, whose heart sincerely returned the regard Lady Emilia had for her; but at that time she was too much affected with Mr Selvyn’s approaching dissolution to think of anything else. His care for her in his last moments still more endeared him who through life had made her happiness his principal study. Her affliction was extreme, nor could Lady Emilia by the tenderest care for some time afford her any consolation.
Miss Selvyn found herself heiress to three thousand pounds, a fortune which exceeded her expectation, though it was not sufficient to suffer her to live in London with convenience. Lady Emilia invited her to her house; and as the spring advanced, her ladyship inclining to pass the fine season in the country, hired a house about a hundred miles from London which she had formerly been fond of and was but just become empty. She had been but little out of town for some years and went to her new habitation with pleasure. Miss Selvyn bid adieu without regret to every thing but Lady Mary Jones, for whom she had conceived a real affection, which first took its rise from compassion and was strengthened by the great docility with which she followed her advice about Lord Robert, and the resolution with which she conquered her inclination. Lady Mary grieved to lose one whom she esteemed so prudent and faithful a friend, and considered her departure as a real misfortune; but they agreed to keep up a regular correspondence as the best substitute to conversation.
The country was perfectly agreeable to Lady Emilia and her young friend. The life they led was most suitable to their inclinations, and winter brought with it no desires to return to London; whereupon Lady Emilia disposed of her house there and settled quite in the country. They were both extremely fond of reading, and in this they spent most of their time. Their regular way of life, and the benefits of air and exercise, seemed to abate the dejection before so visible in Lady Emilia; and she never appeared to want any other conversation than that of Miss Selvyn, whom she loved with a tenderness so justly due to her merit.
After they had been settled about two years in the country, Lord Robert St George, who was colonel of a regiment quartered in a town not far from them, came to examine into the state of his regiment; and having at that time no other engagement, and the lodgings he had taken just out of the town being finely situated, he determined to make some stay there. Here he renewed his slight acquaintance with Lady Emilia and Miss Selvyn; and by favour of his vicinity saw them often. Lord Robert’s heart was too susceptible of soft impressions not to feel the influence of Miss Selvyn’s charms. He was strongly captivated by her excellent understanding and engaging manner, as for her person, he had known many more beautiful, though none more pleasing; but the uncommon turn of her mind, her gentleness and sensible modesty, had attractions that were irresistible.
Lord Robert’s attachment soon became visible; but Miss Selvyn knew him too well to think his addresses very flattering, and by his behaviour to Lady Mary Jones feared some insulting declaration; but from these apprehensions he soon delivered her. Real affection conquering that assurance which nature had first given and success increased, he had not courage to declare his passion to her, but applied to Lady Emilia to acquaint her friend with his love, and begged her interest in his behalf, fearing that without it Miss Selvyn’s reserve would not suffer her to listen to his addresses.
Lady Emilia promised to report all he had said, and accordingly gave Miss Selvyn a circumstantial account of the whole conversation, wherein Lord Robert had laid before her the state of his fortune, which was sufficient for a woman of her prudence; and she added that she did not see how Miss Selvyn could expect to be addressed by a man more eligible, whether she considered his birth, his fortune, or his person and accomplishments.
Miss Selvyn was a little surprised that so gay a man should take so serious a resolution. She allowed the justness of what Lady Emilia said in his favour and confessed that it was impossible Lord Robert could fail of pleasing; but added that it could not be advisable for her to marry: for enjoying perfect content, she had no benefit to expect from change; and happiness was so scarce a commodity in this life that whoever let it once slip, had little reason to expect to catch it again. For what reason then should she alter her state? The same disposition which would render Lord Robert’s fortune sufficient made hers answer all her wishes, since if she had not the joy of living with her ladyship, it would still afford her every thing she desired.
Lady Emilia said some things in recommendation of marriage; and seemed to think it improbable Miss Selvyn should not be a little prejudiced in favour of so amiable a lover as Lord Robert, which tempted that young lady to tell her that though she allowed him excessively pleasing, yet by some particulars, which formerly came to her knowledge, she was convinced his principles were such as would not make her happy in a husband.
Lady Emilia allowed the force of such an objection, and did not press a marriage, for which she had pleaded only out of an apprehension lest Miss Selvyn’s reserve might lead her to act contrary to her inclinations; and therefore she had endeavoured to facilitate her declaration in favour of Lord Robert, if she was in reality inclined to accept his proposals. She acquiesced then readily in her friend’s determination; only desired she would herself acquaint Lord Robert with it, as he would not easily be silenced by a refusal which did not proceed from her own lips.
His lordship came in the evening to learn his fate, and Lady Emilia having contrived to be absent, he found Miss Selvyn alone. Though this was what he had wished, yet he was so disconcerted that Miss Selvyn was reduced to begin the subject herself, and to tell him that Lady Emilia had acquainted her with the honour he had done her, that she was much obliged to him for his good opinion and hoped he would be happy with some woman much more deserving than herself; but she could by no means accept the favour he intended her, being so entirely happy in her present situation that nothing in the world should induce her to change it.
This declaration gave rise to a very warm contest, Lord Robert soliciting her to accept his love with all the tenderness of the strongest passion, and she with equal perseverance persisting in her refusal. He could not be persuaded that her motive for doing so was really what she alleged but as she continued to affirm it, he begged however to know if she had not made so strange a resolution in favour of a single life, whether she should have had any particular objection to him?
Miss Selvyn shewed the uselessness of this question, since the reason of her refusing the honour he intended her would have made her reject the addresses of every other man in the world. Lord Robert could not believe this possible and therefore desisted not from urging a question so disagreeable to answer.
When Miss Selvyn found it impossible to avoid satisfying him in this particular, she told him that if he were entirely unexceptionable, she should be fixed in the same determination; but since he insisted on knowing if she had any objection to him, she was obliged to confess that had she been better inclined to enter into the matrimonial state, his lordship was not the man she should have chosen, not from any dislike to his person or understanding, but from disapprobation of his principles; that, in regard to her sex he had a lightness in his way of thinking and had been so criminal in his conduct that of all men she knew, she thought him most improper for a husband.
Lord Robert was surprised at so new an objection, and told her, that he did not apprehend himself more blamable in those respects than most young men. Gallantry was suitable to his age, and he never imagined that any woman would have reproached him with his regard for her sex, when he gave so strong a proof of an inclination to leave them all for her.
‘I am sorry,’ replied Miss Selvyn, ‘that your lordship thinks me mean enough to take pleasure in such a triumph, or so vain as to imagine I can reform a man of dissolute manners, the last thing I should hope or endeavour to succeed in. Such a tincture of corruption will always remain the mind of what you are pleased to term a gallant man, to whom I should give the less polite appellation of vicious, that I could not be happy in his society. A reformed rake may be sober, but is never virtuous.’
Lord Robert growing very urgent to know what she had particularly to lay to his charge, she told him frankly, that his treatment of Lady Mary Jones had disgusted her, as she, and perhaps she only, had been acquainted with the whole.
Lord Robert endeavoured to excuse himself on the encouragement Lady Mary’s levity had given to his hopes; observing that when a woman’s behaviour was very light, his sex were not apt to imagine there was any great fund of virtue; nor could it be expected that any one else should guard that honour of which she herself was careless.
‘I am sure,’ replied Miss Selvyn, ‘your lordship’s hopes must have been founded on Lady Mary’s folly, not her real want of innocence; a folly which arose from the giddiness of youth and the hurry of dissipation; for by nature Lady Mary’s understanding is uncommonly good. By what you say, you imagined her honour was lawful prize, because she appeared careless of it; would this way of arguing be allowed in any other case? If you observed a man who neglected to lock up his money, and seemed totally indifferent what became of it, should you think yourself thereby justified in robbing him? But how much more criminal would you be, were you to deprive him of his wealth because he was either so thoughtless or so weak as not to know its value? And yet surely the injury in this case would be much less than what you think so justifiable. If the world has but the least sense of real honour, in this light they must see it; and to that tribunal I imagine you only think yourself answerable; for did you reflect but one moment on another bar before which you will be summoned, you would see there can be no excuse for violating the laws by which you are there to be tried. If you could justify yourself to the world, or to the women of whose folly you take advantage, by the fallacious arguments which you have so ready for that purpose, such cobweb sophistry cannot weaken the force of an express command.’
‘I will not pretend,’ answered Lord Robert, ‘to deny the truth of what you say, but must beg you will consider it more easy for you to urge these truths, than for those to obey them who are exposed to and susceptible of temptations. When a woman has no title to our respect, how difficult is it to consider her in the light you require! Levity of conduct we are apt to look upon as an invitation, which a man scarcely thinks it consistent with his politeness to neglect.’
‘I wish,’ replied Miss Selvyn, ‘that women were better acquainted with the ways of thinking so common with your sex; for while they are ignorant of them, they act to a great disadvantage. They obtain by that levity which deprives them of your esteem, a degree of notice and pretended liking which they mistake for approbation; did they but know that you in your hearts despise those most to whom you are most assiduously and openly attached, it would occasion a great change in their behaviour; nor would they suffer an address to which they cannot listen without incurring your contempt. How criminally deceitful is this behaviour! And what real virtue can a man truly boast, who acts in this manner? What woman in her senses can enter into a union for life with such a man?’
‘Why not, madam?’ said Lord Robert. ‘My behaviour to you shews that we yield to merit the homage it deserves; you would lose all your triumph were we to put you and the lighter part of your sex on an equality in our opinions. We are always ready to esteem a woman who will give us leave to do so; and can you require us to respect those who are not in the least respectable?’
‘No,’ answered Miss Selvyn, ‘I only wish you would cease your endeavours to render those women objects of contempt, who deserve only to be neglected, and particularly not to deprive them of the very small portion of regard they are entitled to, by the fallacious appearance of an attachment of the tenderest kind; which in reality arises from contempt, not love. But,’ added she, ‘I have said more than I designed on the subject; I only meant to answer the question you put to me with so much importunity; and must now confirm what I have already declared, by telling you that were I inclined to marry, I would not on any account take a husband of your lordship’s principles; but were you endowed with all the virtues that ever man possessed, I would not change my present happy situation for the uncertainties of wedlock.’
When Lord Robert found all his solicitations unavailing, he left the country and returned to London, where he hoped, by a series of diversions, to efface from his heart the real passion he had conceived for Miss Selvyn. She forbore informing Lady Mary Jones, though their correspondence was frequent, of Lord Robert’s courtship; she did not doubt but her ladyship was sincere when she assured her she now beheld him with the indifference he deserved, but thought that to tell her she had received so very different an address from him would bear too much the air of a triumph, a meanness which her heart abhorred.
Lady Emilia and Miss Selvyn had lived several years in the country with great rational enjoyment, when the former was seized with a fever. All the skill of her physicians proved ineffectual, and her distemper increased daily. She was sensible of the danger which threatened her life, but insisted on their telling her, if they had any great hopes of her recovery, assuring them that it was of importance to her to know their opinions with the utmost frankness. Thus urged, they confessed they had but little hopes. She then returned them thanks for their care, but still more for their sincerity: and with the greatest composure took leave of them, desiring to be left alone with Miss Selvyn, who was in tears at her bedside. Every one else withdrew, when taking Miss Selvyn in her arms, and shedding a few silent tears, she afterwards thus addressed her.
‘At the moment that I must bid you a long farewell, you will know that you have a mother in her whom you before thought only your friend. Yes, my dearest Harriot, I am your mother, ashamed of my weakness and shocked at my guilt, while your gentle but virtuous eyes could reproach your unhappy parent, I could not prevail on myself to discover this secret to you, but I cannot carry to my grave the knowledge of a circumstance which concerns you. Yes, you are my daughter, my child, ever most dear to me, though the evidence and continual remembrancer of my crime.’
Miss Selvyn imagined the distemper had now seized Lady Emilia’s brain, which it had hitherto spared; and intreated her to compose herself, assuring her that what so much agitated her decaying frame was only the phantom of an overheated imagination; for her parents were well known, neither was there any mystery in her birth.
‘Oh!’ interrupted Lady Emilia, ‘do not suspect me of delirium; it has pleased the Almighty to spare my senses throughout this severe disorder, with a gracious design of allowing me even the last moments of my life to complete my repentance. What I tell you is but true, Mr Selvyn knew it all and like a man of honour saved me from shame by concealing the fatal secret; and acted the part of a father to my Harriot, without having any share in my guilt. But I see you do not yet believe me, take this,’ pulling a paper from under her pillow, ‘herein you will find an account of the whole unfortunate affair, written a year ago; lest at the time of my death I should not be able to relate it; this will prove, by the nice connection of every circumstance, that the words therein contained are not the suggestions of madness.’
Miss Selvyn accordingly read as follows:
‘When I was seventeen years old, Lord Peyton asked me of my father, but not till after he had secured my tenderest affections. His estate was sufficient to content a parent who was not regardless of fortune and splendour; and his proposals were accepted. But while the tediousness of the lawyers made us wait for the finishing of settlements, Lord Peyton, who was in the army, was commanded to repair immediately to his regiment, then stationed in Ireland. He endeavoured to prevail with my father to hasten our marriage, offering every kind of security he could desire, instead of the settlements so long delayed; my wishes concurred with his, rather than suffer him to go without me into a kingdom which I imagined would not prove very amusing to him. But my father, who was a very exact observer of forms, would not consent to any expedient. No security appeared to him equivalent to settlements; and many trifling circumstances requisite to the splendour of our first appearance were not ready; which to him seemed almost as important as the execution of the marriage writings.
‘When Lord Peyton found my father inexorable, he attempted to persuade me to agree to a private marriage, only desiring, he said, to secure me entirely his before he left the kingdom; and proposed, that after his return, we should be publicly married, to prevent my father’s suspecting that we had anticipated his consent. But this I rejected; disobedience to a parent, and other objections, were sufficient to make me refuse it; and we saw ourselves reduced to separate when we were so near being united. As Lord Peyton was an accepted lover, and our intended marriage was publicly known, and generally approved, he passed great part of his time with me. My father was obliged to go out of town on particular business, the day before that appointed for Lord Peyton’s departure. It is natural to suppose we passed it entirely together. The concern we were both under made us wish to avoid being seen by others, and therefore I was denied to all visitors. Lord Peyton dined and supped with me; and by thus appropriating the day to the ceremony of taking leave, we rendered the approaching separation more afflicting than in reason it ought to have been, and indeed made it a lasting affliction; a grief never to be washed away.
‘Lord Peyton left London at the appointed hour, but the next days, and almost every succeeding post, brought me the tenderest expressions of regret for this enforced absence, and the strongest assurances of the constancy of his affection. Mine could not with truth be written in a more indifferent strain, my love was the same, but my purpose was much altered; as soon as I had calmness of mind enough to reflect on what had passed, I resolved never to be Lord Peyton’s wife. I saw my own misconduct in all its true colours. I despised myself, and could not hope for more partial treatment from my husband. A lover might in the height of his passion excuse my frailty, but when matrimony, and continued possession had restored him to his reason, I was sensible he must think of me as I was conscious I deserved. What confidence, what esteem could I hope from a husband who so well knew my weakness; or how could I support being hourly exposed to the sight of a man whose eyes would always seem to reproach me! I could scarcely bear to see myself; and I was determined not to depend on any one who was equally conscious of my guilt.
‘I soon acquainted Lord Peyton with this resolution, which he combated with every argument love could dictate. He assured me in the most solemn manner of his entire esteem, insisted that he only was to blame, and that he should never forgive himself for the uneasiness he had already occasioned me; but intreated me not to punish him so severely as ever again to give the least intimation of a design not to confirm our marriage. As I resisted my own passion, it may be supposed that, although too late, I was able to resist his. I saw that a generous man must act as he did, but no generosity could restore me to the same place in his esteem I before possessed. His behaviour on this occasion fixed my good opinion of him, but could not restore my opinion of myself. All he could urge therefore was unavailing; the stronger my affection, the more determined I was in my purpose; since the more I valued his esteem, the greater would my suffering be at knowing that I had forfeited it. I acquainted my father with my resolution, alleging the best excuses I could make. He was at first angry with my inconstancy, charged me with capriciousness and want of honour; but at last was pacified by my assuring him I would never marry any man. As he had been sorry to part with me, the thought of my continuing with him as long as he lived, made my peace.
‘Lord Peyton’s impatience at being detained in Ireland increased with his desire of persuading me to relinquish a design so very grievous to my own heart, as well as to his; but he could not obtain leave to return into England before I found, to my inexpressible terror, that the misfortune I so sincerely lamented would have consequences that I little expected. In the agony of my mind I communicated my distress to Lord Peyton, the only person whom I dared trust with so important a secret.
‘Instead of condoling with me on the subject of my affliction, he expressed no small joy in a circumstance which he said must reduce me to accept the only means of preserving my reputation; and added, that as every delay was now of so much importance, if the next packet did not bring him leave of absence, he should set out without it; and rather run the hazard of being called to account for disobedience, than of exposing me to one painful blush.
‘I confess his delicacy charmed me; every letter I received increased my esteem and affection for him, but nothing could alter my purpose. I looked upon the execution of it as the only means of reinstating myself in his good opinion, or my own, in comparison of which even reputation seemed to lose its value. But severe was the trial I had to undergo upon his return into England, which was in a few days after his assurance of coming at any hazard. He used every means that the tenderest affection and the nicest honour could suggest to persuade me to marry him; and the conflict in my own heart very near reduced me to my grave; till at length pitying the condition into which I was reduced, without the least approach to a change of purpose, he promised to spare me any further solicitation and to bury his affliction in silence; after obtaining a promise from me that I would suffer him to contrive the means for concealing an event which must soon happen; as my unintriguing spirit made me very incapable of managing it with tolerable art and secrecy.
‘Lord Peyton had maintained his former friendship with my father, who thought himself obliged to him for not resenting my behaviour in the manner he imagined it deserved. When the melancholy and much dreaded time approached, Lord Peyton gave me secret information that he would invite my father into the country, on pretence of assisting him by his advice in some alterations he was going to make there; and assured me of careful attendance, and the most secret reception, from a very worthy couple to whose house he gave me a direction if I could contrive, under colour of some intended visit, to leave my own.
‘All was executed as he had planned it; and when my servants thought I was gone to visit a relation some miles distant from London, I went as directed, and was received with the greatest humanity imaginable by Mr and Mrs Selvyn; not at their own house, but at one taken for that purpose, where the affair might be more secretly managed. Lord Peyton had concealed my name even from them; and secured their care of me under a borrowed appellation.
‘The day after I got to them I was delivered of you, my dearest child, whom I beheld with sorrow as well as affliction; considering you as the melancholy memorial and partner in my shame.
‘Mr and Mrs Selvyn attended me with the greatest care, and were never both absent at a time; they acquainted Lord Peyton with the state of my health by every post; and I was enabled, by the necessity of the case, to write to my father as frequently as I usually did when absent from him. Within the fortnight from the time of my departure from my own house I returned to it again, after delivering my dear Harriot into the care of these good people, who promised to treat her as their own child. Under pretence of a cold I confined myself till I was perfectly recovered.
‘Lord Peyton detained my father till he heard I was entirely well; and then went with impatience to see his little daughter, over whom he shed many tears, as Mr Selvyn afterwards informed me; telling it that it was a constant memorial of the greatest misfortune of his life, and could never afford him a pleasure that was not mingled with the deepest affliction.
‘Mrs Selvyn had lain in about six weeks before I went to her, the child she brought into the world lived but a few months; upon its death, at Lord Peyton’s desire, they took you from nurse, and pretending you their own, privately buried their child, who was likewise nursed abroad. Mr Selvyn was a merchant, but had never been successful, his wife died when you were about three years old. Having no children to provide for, and not being fond of trade, he was desirous of retiring into the country. Lord Peyton to facilitate the gratification of his wish, procured him a small sinecure; gave into his possession three thousand pounds, which he secured to you; and allowed him a hundred a year for the trouble of your education; with an unlimited commission to call on him for any sums he should want.
‘The constant sense of my guilt, the continual regret at having by my own ill conduct forfeited the happiness which every action of Lord Peyton’s proved that his wife might reasonably expect, fixed a degree of melancholy on my mind, which no time has been able to conquer. I lived with my father till his death, which happened not many years ago; at his decease, I found myself mistress of a large fortune, which enabled me to support the rank I had always enjoyed. Though Lord Peyton had provided sufficiently for Mr Selvyn’s and your convenience, yet I constantly sent him a yearly present; till no longer able to deny myself the pleasure of seeing my dear child, I prevailed on him to remove to London and to fix in the same street with me, taking care to supply all that was requisite to enable him to appear there genteelly. You know with what appearance of accident I first cultivated a friendship with you, but you cannot imagine with how much difficulty I concealed the tenderness of a mother under the ceremonies of an acquaintance.
‘Of late I have enjoyed a more easy state of mind: I have sometimes been inclined to flatter myself that your uncommon merit, and the great comfort I have received in your society, are signs that Heaven has forgiven my offence and accepted my penitence, which has been sincere and long, as an atonement for my crime; in which blessed hope I shall, I trust, meet death without terror, and submit, my dear daughter, whenever I am called hence, in full confidence to that Power whose mercy is over all his works. I ought to add a few words about your dear father, who seemed to think my extreme regular conduct and the punishment I had inflicted on myself, such an extenuation of my weakness that he ever behaved to me with the tenderest respect, I might almost say reverence, and till his death gave me every proof of the purest and the strongest friendship. By consent we avoided each other’s presence for three years, by which time we hoped the violence of our mutual passion would be abated. He spent the greatest part of it abroad; and at the end of that period we met with the sincerer joy, from finding we were not deceived in our hopes. Our attachment was settled into the tenderest friendship; we forbore even the mention of your name, as it must have reminded us of our crime; and if Lord Peyton wanted to communicate any thing concerning you, he did it by letter; avoiding with the extremest delicacy ever to take notice that any such letters had passed between us; and even in them he consulted about his child, in the style of a man who was writing to a person that had no other connection with it than what her friendship for him must naturally occasion, in a point where he was interested by the tenderest ties of the most extreme paternal love.
‘I have often with pleasure heard you mention his great fondness for you in your childhood, when he visited at your father’s; your growing years increased it, though it obliged him to suppress the appearance of an affection which you would have thought improper. I need not tell you that I had the misfortune to lose this worthiest of friends, about half a year before you came to London, which determined me to send for you, that I might receive all the consolation the world could give me, and see the inheritor of her dear father’s virtues. While he lived I dared not have taken the same step; your presence would have been too painful a testimony against me, and continually reminded my lord of a weakness which I hope time had almost effaced from his remembrance.’
Miss Selvyn was extremely affected with the perusal of this paper; she was frequently interrupted by her tears; grieved to the heart to think of how much uneasiness she had been the cause. As soon as she had concluded it, she threw herself on her knees at Lady Emilia’s bedside, and taking one of her hands, which she bathed with her tears, ‘Is it possible then,’ said she, ‘that I have thus long been ignorant of the best of parents? And must I lose you when so lately found? Oh! my dear mother, how much pleasure have I lost by not knowing that I might call you by that endearing name! What an example of virtue have you set me! How noble your resolution! How uniform and constant your penitence! Blest you must be supremely by him who loveth the contrite heart; and you and my father I doubt not will enjoy eternal felicity together, united never more to part. Oh! may your afflicted daughter be received into the same place, and partake of your happiness; may she behold your piety rewarded, and admire in you the blessed fruits of timely repentance; a repentance so immediately succeeding the offence, that your soul could not have received the black impression!’
‘Can you, who have never erred,’ said Lady Emilia, ‘see my offence in so fair a light? What may I not then hope from infinite mercy? I do hope; it would be criminal to doubt, when such consolatory promises appear in almost every page of holy writ. With pleasure I go where I am called, for I leave my child safe in the Divine Protection, and her own virtue; I leave her, I hope, to a happy life, and a far more happy death; when joys immortal will bless her through all eternity. I have now, my love, discharged the burden from my mind; not many hours of life remain, let me not pass them in caressing my dear daughter, which, though most pleasing to my fond heart, can end only in making me regret the loss of a world which will soon pass from my sight. Let me spend this hour, as I hope to do those that will succeed it through all eternity. Join with me in prayers to, and praises of, him in whom consists all our lasting happiness.’
Miss Selvyn sent for the minister of the parish at Lady Emilia’s desire, and the remainder of her life passed in religious exercises. She expired without a groan, in the midst of a fervent prayer, as if her soul was impatient to take its flight into the presence of him whom she was addressing with so much ardour.
Miss Selvyn’s affliction was at first extreme, but when she reflected on her mother’s well-spent life, and most happy death, it much abated the excess of her grief. By that lady’s will, she found herself heir to twelve thousand pounds, and all her personal estate. She had been charmed with the account Lady Mary Jones had sent her of this society, and wished to increase her acquaintance with that lady, and therefore offered, if proper, to make her a short visit, as soon as her necessary affairs were settled. This met with the most welcome reception, and she came hither as a visitor. Her stay was gradually prolonged for near two months; when having reason, from the great regard shewn her, to think she should be no disagreeable addition, she asked leave to join her fortune to the common stock, and to fix entirely with them. Nothing could be more agreeable to the other three ladies than this offer, and with extreme satisfaction she settled here.
Upon this increase of income it was that my friends established the community of indigent gentlewomen, which gave you so much pleasure.
Lamont was much struck with the conduct of Lady Emilia; she had shewn, he said, a degree of delicacy and prudence which exceeded what he had a notion of; he never met with a woman who foresaw the little chance she had for happiness in marrying a man who could have no inducement to make her his wife but a nice, often a too nice, sense of honour; and who certainly could have no great opinion of her virtue. The folly of both men and women in these late unions was the subject of our conversation till we separated. In the afternoon the ladies asked us to accompany them to the house they had just taken for the new community, to which they were obliged to go that day, as they had set several persons to work there. They keep a post-coach and post-chaise, which with the help of ours, were sufficient to accommodate us all. A short time brought us to the house, a very old and formerly a very fine mansion, but now much fallen to decay. The outside is greatly out of repair, but the building seems strong. The inside is in a manner totally unfurnished; for though it is not empty, yet the rats and mice have made such considerable depredations on what time had before reduced to a very tattered condition that the melancholy remains can be reckoned little better than lumber.
The last inhabitant of this house we were informed was an old miser whose passion for accumulating wealth reduced him into almost as unfortunate a state as Midas, who, according to the fable, having obtained the long-desired power of turning every thing he touched to gold, was starved by the immediate transmutation of all food into that metal the instant it touched his lips. The late possessor of the house I am speaking of, when he was about fifty years old, turned away every servant but an old woman, who if she was not honest, was at least too weak to be able to put any dishonesty in practice. When he was about threescore, she died, and he never could venture to let any one supply her place. He fortified every door and window with such bars of iron that his house might have resisted the forcible attack of a whole army. Night and day growled before his inhospitable door a furious Dutch mastiff, whose natural ferocity was so increased by continual hunger, for his master fed him most sparingly, that no stranger could have entered the yard with impunity.
Every time this churlish beast barked, the old gentleman, with terror and dismay in his countenance, and quaking limbs, ran to the only window he ever ventured to unbar, to see what danger threatened him; nor could the sight of a barefoot child, or a decrepit old woman, immediately dispel his fears. As timorous as Falstaff, his imagination first multiplied and then clothed them in buckram; and his panic ceased not till they were out of view.
This wretched man upon the death of his only servant, agreed with an old woman to buy food for him, and bring it to the well defended door of his yard; where informing him of her arrival by a signal agreed upon between them, he ventured out of his house to receive it from her; and dressed it himself; till worn out by anxiety of mind he grew too weak to perform that office and ordered the woman to bring it ready prepared; this continued for a little time, till at last he appeared no more at his gate. After the old woman had knocked three days in vain, the neighbourhood began to think it necessary to take some measures thereupon; but not choosing to run the hazard of breaking open the house, they sent to the old gentleman’s nephew, whose father had been suffered to languish in extreme poverty many years before his death; nor was the son in much better condition; but he had acquainted some of the neighbours with the place of his abode in hopes of the event which now induced them to send for him.
As soon as he arrived, he prepared to force his way into the house, but it was found so impracticable that at length they were obliged to untile part of the roof, from whence a person descended, and opened the door to those who did not choose so dangerous an entrance as that through which he had passed.
They found the old man dead on a great chest which contained his money, as if he had been desirous to take possession even in death.
His nephew was just of age, and having till then been exposed to all the evils of poverty, was almost distracted with joy at the sudden acquisition of a large fortune. He scarcely could be prevailed with to stay long enough in this house to pay the last duties to an uncle who had no right to anything more from him than just the decent ceremonies; and without giving himself time to look over his estate, hastened to London.
He hired a magnificent house in Grosvenor Square; bespoke the most elegant equipages; bought the finest set of horses he could hear of at double their real value; and launched into every expense the town afforded him. He soon became one of the most constant frequenters of Whites; kept several running horses; distinguished himself at Newmarket, and had the honour of playing deeper, and betting with more spirit, than any other young man of his age. There was not an occurrence in his life about which he had not some wager depending. The wind could not change or a shower fall without his either losing or gaining by it. He had not a dog or cat in his house on whose life he had not bought or sold an annuity. By these ingenious methods in one year was circulated through the kingdom the ready money which his uncle had been half his life starving himself and family to accumulate. The second year obliged him to mortgage great part of his land, and the third saw him reduced to sell a considerable portion of his estate, of which this house and the land belonging to it made a part.
I could not help observing the various fate of this mansion, originally the seat of ancient hospitality; then falling into the hands of a miser who had not spirit to enjoy it, nor sense enough to see that he was impairing so valuable a part of his possessions by grudging the necessary expenses of repairs; from him devolving to a young coxcomb who by neglect let it sink into ruin and was spending in extravagance what he inherited from avarice; as if one vice was to pay the debt to society which the other had incurred; and now it was purchased to be the seat of charity and benevolence. How directly were we led to admire the superior sense, as well as transcendent virtue of these ladies, when we compared the use they made of money with that to which the two late possessors had appropriated it! While we were in doubt which most to blame, he who had heaped it up without comfort, in sordid inhumanity, or he who squandered it in the gratification of gayer vices. Equally strangers to beneficence, self-indulgence was their sole view; alike criminal, though not equally unfashionable, one endeavoured to starve, the other to corrupt mankind; while the new owners of this house had no other view than to convenience and to reform all who came within their influence, themselves enjoying in a supreme degree the happiness they dispersed around them.
It was pleasing to see numbers at work to repair the building and cultivate the garden and to observe that at length from this inhospitable mansion, ‘health to himself, and to his children bread, the labourer bears.’ Within it were all the biggest schoolgirls, with one of their mistresses to direct them in mending such furniture as was not quite destroyed; and I was pleased to see with how much art they repaired the decays of time, in things which well deserved better care, having once been the richest part of the furniture belonging to the opulent possessors.
On our way home we called at a clergyman’s house, which was placed in the finest situation imaginable and where we beheld that profusion of comforts which sense and economy will enable the possessors of narrow fortunes to enjoy. This gentleman and his wife have but a small living and still less paternal estate, but the neatness, prettiness and convenience of their habitation were enough to put one out of humour with riches, and I should certainly have breathed forth Agar’s prayer with great ardour if I had not been stopped in the beginning by considering how great a blessing wealth may be when properly employed, of which I had then such hourly proof.
At our return to Millenium Hall we found some of the neighbouring society who were come to share the evening’s concert and sup with us.
But at ten o’clock they departed, which I understood was somewhat later than usual, but they conformed to the alteration of hours our arrival had occasioned.
The next day being very hot, we were asked to breakfast in a delightful arbour in the flower garden. The morning dew, which still refreshed the flowers, increased their fragrance to as great an excess of sweetness as the senses could support. Till I went to this house, I knew not half the charms of the country. Few people have the art of making the most of nature’s bounty; these ladies are epicures in rural pleasures and enjoy them in the utmost excess to which they can be carried. All that romance ever represented in the plains of Arcadia are much inferior to the charms of Millenium Hall, except the want of shepherds be judged a deficiency that nothing else can compensate; there indeed they fall short of what romantic writers represent, and have formed a female Arcadia.
After breakfast all the ladies left us except Mrs Maynard. We were so charmed with the spot we were in that we agreed to remain there and I called on my cousin to continue the task she had undertaken, which she did in the following manner.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13