Hannah Webster Foster (1759–1840). The Coquette, or The History of Eliza Wharton. 1855.
I want words to express the emotions of indignation and grief which oppress me. But I will endeavor to compose myself, and relate the circumstances as they came to my knowledge.
After my last letter Eliza remained much in the same gloomy situation as I found her. She refused to go, agreeably to her promise, to visit your mamma, and, under one pretext or another, has constantly declined accompanying me any where else since my arrival.
Till last Thursday night she slept in the same bed with me, when she excused herself by saying she was restless, and should disturb my repose. I yielded to her humor of taking a different apartment, little suspecting the real cause. She frequently walked out, and though I sometimes followed, I very seldom found her. Two or three times, when I happened to be awake, I heard her go down stairs; and, on inquiry in the morning, she told me that she was very thirsty, and went down for water. I observed a degree of hesitancy in her answers for which I could not account. But last night the dreadful mystery was developed. A little before day, I heard the front door open with great caution. I sprang from my bed, and, running to the window, saw by the light of the moon a man going from the house. Soon after, I perceived a footstep upon the stairs, which carefully approached, and entered Eliza’s chamber.
Judge of my astonishment, my surprise, my feelings upon this occasion. I doubted not but Major Sanford was the person I had seen; and the discovery of Eliza’s guilt in this infamous intrigue almost deprived me of thought and recollection. My blood thrilled with horror at this sacrifice of virtue. After a while I recovered myself, and put on my clothes. But what to do I knew not—whether to go directly to her chamber, and let her know that she was detected, or to wait another opportunity.
I resolved on the first. The day had now dawned. I tapped at her door, and she bade me come in. She was sitting in an easy chair by the side of her bed. As I entered she withdrew her handkerchief from her face, and, looking earnestly at me, said, “What procures me the favor of a visit at this early hour, Miss Granby?” “I was disturbed,” said I, “and wished not to return to my bed. But what breaks your rest, and calls you up so unseasonably, Eliza?” “Remorse and despair,” answered she, weeping. “After what I have witnessed, this morning,” rejoined I, “I cannot wonder at it. Was it not Major Sanford whom I saw go from the house some time ago?” She was silent, but tears flowed abundantly. “It is too late,” continued I, “to deny or evade. Answer my question sincerely; for, believe me, Eliza, it is not malice, but concern for you, which prompts it.” “I will answer you, Julia,” said she. “You have discovered a secret which harrows up my very soul—a secret which I wished you to know, but could not exert resolution to reveal. Yes, it was Major Sanford—the man who has robbed me of my peace, who has triumphed in my destruction, and who will cause my sun to set at noon.”
“I shudder,” said I, “at your confession! Wretched, deluded girl! Is this a return for your parent’s love and assiduous care; for your friends’ solicitude and premonitory advice? You are ruined, you say! You have sacrificed your virtue to an abandoned, despicable profligate! And you live to acknowledge and bear your infamy!” “I do,” said she; “but not long shall I support this burden. See you not, Julia, my decaying frame, my faded cheek, and tottering limbs? Soon shall I be insensible to censure and reproach. Soon shall I be sequestered in that mansion ‘where the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest.’” “Rest!” said I; “can you expect to find rest, either in this world or another, with such a weight of guilt on your head?” She exclaimed, with great emotion, “Add not to the upbraidings of a wounded spirit. Have pity upon me, O my friend, have pity upon me. Could you know what I suffer, you would think me sufficiently punished.” “I wish you no other punishment,” said I, “than what may effect your repentance and reformation. But your mother, Eliza! She cannot long be ignorant of your fall; and I tremble to think of her distress. It will break her widowed heart. How has she loved, how has she doted upon you! Dreadful is the requital which you have made.” “My mother,” rejoined she, “O, name her not! The very sound is distraction to me. O my Julia, if your heart be not shut against mercy and compassion towards me, aid me through this trying scene. Let my situation call forth your pity, and induce you, undeserving as I am, to exert it in my behalf.”
During this time, I had walked the chamber. My spirits had been raised above their natural key, and were exhausted. I sat down, but thought I should have fainted, till a copious flood of tears gave me relief. Eliza was extremely affected. The appearance of calamity which she exhibited would have softened the most obdurate anger. Indeed, I feared some immediate and fatal effect. I therefore seated myself beside her; and assuming an air of kindness, “Compose yourself, Eliza,” said I; “I repeat what I told you before—it is the purest friendship which thus interests me in your concerns. This, under the direction of charity, induces me again to offer you my hand. Yet you have erred against knowledge and reason, against warning and counsel. You have forfeited the favor of your friends, and reluctant will be their forgiveness.” “I plead guilty,” said she, “to all your charges. From the general voice I expect no clemency. If I can make my peace with my mother, it is all I seek or wish on this side the grave. In your benevolence I confide for this. In you I hope to find an intercessor. By the remembrance of our former affection and happiness, I conjure you, refuse me not At present, I entreat you to conceal from her this distressing tale. A short, reprieve is all I ask.” “Why,” said I, “should you defer it? When the painful task is over, you may find relief in her lenient kindness.” “After she knows my condition, I cannot see her,” resumed she, “till I am assured of her forgiveness. I have not strength to support the appearance of her anger and grief. I will write to her what I cannot speak. You must bear the melancholy message, and plead for me, that her displeasure may not follow me to the grave, whither I am rapidly hastening.” “Be assured,” replied I, “that I will keep your secret as long as prudence requires. But I must leave you now; your mamma will wonder at our being thus closeted together. When opportunity presents, we will converse further on the subject. In the mean time keep yourself as composed as possible, if you would avoid suspicion.” She raised her clasped hands, and with a piteous look, threw her handkerchief over her face, and reclined in her chair, without speaking a word. I returned to my chamber, and endeavored to dissipate every idea which might tend to disorder my countenance, and break the silence I wished to observe relative to what had happened.
When I went down, Mrs. Wharton desired me to step up and inform Eliza that breakfast was ready. She told me she could not yet compose herself sufficiently to see her mamma, and begged me to excuse her absence as I thought proper. I accordingly returned for answer to Mrs. Wharton, that Eliza had rested but indifferently, and being somewhat indisposed, would not come down, but wished me to bring her a bowl of chocolate, when we had breakfasted. I was obliged studiously to suppress even my thoughts concerning her, lest the emotions they excited might be observed. Mrs. Wharton conversed much of her daughter, and expressed great concern about her health and state of mind. Her return to this state of dejection, after having recovered her spirits and cheerfulness in a great degree, was owing, she feared, to some cause unknown to her; and she entreated me to extract the secret, if possible. I assured her of my best endeavors, and doubted not, I told her, but I should be able in a few days to effect what she wished.
Eliza came down and walked in the garden before dinner; at which she commanded herself much better than I expected. She said that a little ride might, she imagined, be of service to her, and asked me if I would accompany her a few miles in the afternoon. Her mamma was much pleased with the proposition, and the chaise was accordingly ordered.
I observed to Eliza, as we rode, that with her natural and acquired abilities, with her advantages of education, with her opportunities of knowing the world, and of tracing the virtues and vices of mankind to their origin, I was surprised at her becoming the prey of an insidious libertine, with whose character she was well acquainted, and whose principles, she was fully apprised, would prompt him to deceive and betray her. “Your surprise is very natural,” said she. “The same will doubtless be felt and expressed by every one to whom my sad story is related. But the cause may be found in that unrestrained levity of disposition, that fondness for dissipation and coquetry, which alienated the affections of Mr. Boyer from me. This event fatally depressed and enfeebled my mind. I embraced with avidity the consoling power of friendship, insnaringly offered by my seducer; vainly inferring, from his marriage with a virtuous woman, that he had seen the error of his ways, and forsaken his licentious practices, as he affirmed, and I, fool that I was, believed it.
“It is needless for me to rehearse the perfidious arts by which he insinuated himself into my affections and gained my confidence. Suffice it to say, he effected his purpose. But not long did I continue in the delusive dream of sensual gratification. I soon awoke to a most poignant sense of his baseness, and of my own crime and misery. I would have fled from him; I would have renounced him forever, and by a life of sincere humility and repentance endeavored to make my peace with Heaven, and to obliterate, by the rectitude of my future conduct, the guilt I had incurred; but I found it too late. My circumstances called for attention; and I had no one to participate my cares, to witness my distress, and to alleviate my sorrows, but him. I could not therefore prevail on myself wholly to renounce his society. At times I have admitted his visits, always meeting him in the garden, or grove adjoining; till, of late, the weather and my ill health induced me to comply with his solicitations, and receive him into the parlor.
“Not long, however, shall I be subject to these embarrassments. Grief has undermined my constitution. My health has fallen a sacrifice to a disordered mind. But I regret not its departure. I have not a single wish to live. Nothing which the world affords can restore my former serenity and happiness.
“The little innocent I bear will quickly disclose its mother’s shame. God Almighty grant it may not live as a monument of my guilt, and a partaker of the infamy and sorrow, which is all I have to bequeath it. Should it be continued in life, it will never know the tenderness of a parent; and, perhaps, want and disgrace may be its wretched portion. The greatest consolation I can have will be to carry it with me to a state of eternal rest; which, vile as I am, I hope to obtain, through the infinite mercy of Heaven, as revealed in the gospel of Christ. I must see Major Sanford again. It is necessary to converse further with him in order to carry my plan of operation into execution.”
“What is this plan of operation, Eliza?” said I. “I am on the rack of anxiety for your safety.” “Be patient,” continued she, “and you shall soon be informed. To-morrow I shall write my dreadful story to my mother. She will be acquainted with my future intentions; and you shall know, at the same time, the destination of your lost friend.” “I hope,” said I, “that you have formed no resolution against your own life.” “God forbid,” rejoined she. “My breath is in his hands; let him do what seemeth good in his sight! Keep my secret one day longer, and I will never more impose so painful a silence upon you.”
By this time we had reached home. She drank tea with composure, and soon retired to rest. Mrs. Wharton eagerly inquired whether I had found out the cause of Eliza’s melancholy. “I have urged her,” said I, “on the subject; but she alleges that she has particular reasons for present concealment. She has, notwithstanding, promised to let me know the day after to-morrow.” “O,” said she, “I shall not rest till the period arrives.” “Dear, good woman,” said I to myself, “I fear you will never rest afterwards.”
This is our present situation. Think what a scene rises to the view of your Julia. She must share the distress of others, though her own feelings on this unhappy occasion are too keen to admit a moment’s serenity. My greatest relief is in writing to you; which I shall do again by the next post. In the mean time, I must beg leave to subscribe myself sincerely yours,