Hannah Webster Foster (1759–1840). The Coquette, or The History of Eliza Wharton. 1855.
When I arrived at Mrs. Wharton’s, and inquired for Eliza, I was told that she had rode out, but was soon expected home. An hour after, a phaeton stopped at the door, from which my fair one alighted, and was handed into the house by Major Sanford, who immediately took leave. I met her, and offered my hand, which she received with apparent tenderness.
When the family had retired after supper, and left us to talk on our particular affairs, I found the same indecision, the same loathness to bring our courtship to a period, as formerly. Her previous excuses were renewed, and her wishes to have a union still longer delayed were zealously urged. She could not bear the idea of confinement to the cares of a married life at present, and begged me to defer all solicitation on that subject to some future day. I found my temper rise, and told her plainly that I was not thus to be trifled with; that if her regard for me was sincere, if she really intended to form a connection with me, she could not thus protract the time, try my patience, and prefer every other pleasure to the rational interchange of affection, to the calm delights of domestic life. But in vain did I argue against her false notions of happiness, in vain did I represent the dangerous system of conduct which she now pursued, and urge her to accept, before it was too late, the hand and heart which were devoted to her service. That, she said, she purposed ere long to do, and hoped amply to reward my faithful love; but she could not fix the time this evening. She must consider a little further, and likewise consult her mother. “Is it not Major Sanford whom you wish to consult, madam?” said I. She blushed, and gave me no answer. “Tell me, Eliza,” I continued, “tell me frankly, if he has not supplanted me in your affections—if he be not the cause of my being thus evasively, thus cruelly, treated.” “Major Sanford, sir,” replied she, “has done you no harm. He is a particular friend of mine, a polite gentleman, and an agreeable neighbor, and therefore I treat him with civility; but he is not so much interested in my concerns as to alter my disposition towards any other person.” “Why,” said I, “do you talk of friendship with a man of his character? Between his society and mine there is a great contrast. Such opposite pursuits and inclinations cannot be equally pleasing to the same taste. It is, therefore, necessary that you renounce the one to enjoy the other; I will give you time to decide which. I am going to a friend’s house to spend the night, and will call on you to-morrow, if agreeable, and converse with you further upon the matter.” She bowed assent, and I retired.
The next afternoon I went, as agreed, and found her mamma and her alone in the parlor. She was very pensive, and appeared to have been in tears. The sight affected me. The idea of having treated her harshly the evening before disarmed me of my resolution to insist on her decision that day. I invited her to ride with me and visit a friend, to which she readily consented. We spent our time agreeably. I forbore to press her on the subject of our future union, but strove rather to soothe her mind, and inspire her with sentiments of tenderness towards me. I conducted her home, and returned early in the evening to my friend’s, who met me at the door, and jocosely told me that he expected that I should now rob them of their agreeable neighbor. “But,” added he, “we have been apprehensive that you would be rivalled if you delayed your visit much longer.” “I did not suspect a rival,” said I. “Who can the happy man be?” “I can say nothing from personal observation,” said he; “but fame, of late, has talked loudly of Major Sanford and Miss Wharton. Be not alarmed,” continued he, seeing me look grave; “I presume no harm is intended; the major is a man of gallantry, and Miss Wharton is a gay lady; but I dare say that your connection will be happy, if it be formed.” I noticed a particular emphasis on the word if; and, as we were alone, I followed him with questions till the whole affair was developed. I informed him of my embarrassment, and he gave me to understand that Eliza’s conduct had, for some time past, been a subject of speculation in the town; that, formerly, her character was highly esteemed; but that her intimacy with a man of Sanford’s known libertinism, more especially as she was supposed to be engaged to another, had rendered her very censurable; that they were often together; that wherever she went he was sure to follow, as if by appointment; that they walked, talked, sung, and danced together in all companies; that some supposed he he would marry her; others that he only meditated adding her name to the black catalogue of deluded wretches whom he had already ruined.
I rose and walked the room in great agitation. He apologized for his freedom; was sorry if he had wounded my feelings; but friendship alone had induced him frankly to declare the truth, that I might guard against duplicity and deceit. I thanked him for his kind intensions, and assured him that I should not quit the town till I had determined this affair in one way or another.
I retired to bed, but sleep was a stranger to my eyes. With the dawn I rose, and after breakfast walked to Mrs. Wharton’s, who informed me that Eliza was in her chamber, writing to a friend, but would be down in a few minutes. I entered into conversation with the old lady on the subject of her daughter’s conduct, hinted my suspicions of the cause, and declared my resolution of knowing my destiny immediately. She endeavored to extenuate, and excuse her, as much as possible, but frankly owned that her behavior was mysterious; that no pains had been wanting, on her part, to alter and rectify it; that she had remonstrated, expostulated, advised and entreated as often as occasion required. She hoped that my resolution would have a good effect, as she knew that her daughter esteemed me very highly.
In this manner we conversed till the clock struck twelve; and, Eliza not appearing, I desired her mamma to send up word that I waited to see her. The maid returned with an answer that she was indisposed, and had lain down. Mrs. Wharton observed that she had not slept for several nights, and complained of the headache in the morning. The girl added that she would wait on Mr. Boyer in the evening. Upon this information I rose, and abruptly took my leave. I went to dine with a friend, to whom I had engaged myself the day before; but my mind was too much agitated to enjoy either the company or the dinner. I excused myself from tarrying to tea, and returned to Miss Wharton’s. On inquiry, I was told that Eliza had gone to walk in the garden, but desired that no person might intrude on her retirement. The singularity of the request awakened my curiosity, and determined me to follow her. I sought her in vain in different parts of the garden, till, going towards an arbor, almost concealed from sight by surrounding shrubbery, I discovered her sitting in close conversation with Major Sanford! My blood chilled in my veins, and I stood petrified with astonishment at the disclosure of such baseness and deceit. They both rose in visible confusion. I dared not trust myself to accost them. My passions were raised, and I feared that I might say or do something unbecoming my character. I therefore gave them a look of indignation and contempt, and retreated to the house. I traversed the parlor hastily, overwhelmed with chagrin and resentment. Mrs. Wharton inquired the cause. I attempted to tell her, but my tongue refused utterance. While in this situation, Eliza entered the room. She was not less discomposed than myself. She sat down at the window and wept. Her mamma wept likewise. At length she recovered herself, in a degree, and desired me to sit down. I answered, No, and continued walking. “Will you,” said she, “permit me to vindicate my conduct, and explain my motives?” “Your conduct,” said I, “cannot be vindicated; your motives need no explanation; they are too apparent. How, Miss Wharton, have I merited this treatment from you? But I can bear it no longer. Your indifference to me proceeds from an attachment to another, and, forgive me if I add, to one who is the disgrace of his own sex and the destroyer of yours. I have been too long the dupe of your dissimulation and coquetry—too long has my peace of mind been sacrificed to the arts of a woman whose conduct has proved her unworthy of my regard; insensible to love, gratitude, and honor.
“To you, madam,” said I, turning to her mother, “I acknowledge my obligations for your friendship, politeness, and attention. I once hoped for the privilege of rocking for you the cradle of declining age. I am deprived of that privilege; but I pray that you may never want a child whose love and duty shall prove a source of consolation and comfort.
“Farewell. If we never meet again in this life, I hope and trust we shall in a better—where the parent’s eye shall cease to weep for the disobedience of a child, and the lover’s heart to bleed for the infidelity of his mistress.”
I turned to Eliza, and attempted to speak; but her extreme emotion softened me, and I could not command my voice. I took her hand, and bowing, in token of an adieu, went precipitately out of the house. The residence of my friend, with whom I lodged, was at no great distance, and thither I repaired. As I met him in the entry, I rushed by him, and betook myself to my chamber. The fever of resentment and the tumult of passion began now to give place to the softer emotions of the soul. I found myself perfectly unmanned. I gave free scope to the sensibility of my heart; and the effeminate relief of tears materially lightened the load which oppressed me.
After this arduous struggle I went to bed, and slept more calmly than for several nights before. The next morning I wrote a farewell letter to Eliza, (a copy of which I shall enclose to you,) and, ordering my horse to be brought, left town immediately.
My resentment of her behavior has much assisted me in erasing her image from my breast. In this exertion I have succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectations. The more I reflect on her temper and disposition, the more my gratitude is enlivened towards the wise Disposer of all events for enabling me to break asunder the snares of the deluder. I am convinced that the gayety and extravagance of her taste, the frivolous levity of her manners, disqualify her for the station in which I wished to have placed her. These considerations, together with that resignation to an overruling Providence which the religion I profess and teach requires me to cultivate, induce me cheerfully to adopt the following lines of an ingenious poet:—
For your own sake, however, let me conjure you to review your conduct, and, before you have advanced beyond the possibility of returning to rectitude and honor, to restrain your steps from the dangerous path in which you now tread.
Fly Major Sanford. That man is a deceiver. Trust not his professions. They are certainly insincere, or he would not affect concealment; he would not induce you to a clandestine intercourse. Many have been the victims to his treachery. O Eliza, add not to the number. Banish him from your society if you wish to preserve your virtue unsullied, your character unsuspicious. It already begins to depreciate. Snatch it from the envenomed tongue of slander before it receive an incurable wound.
Many faults have been visible to me, over which my affection once drew a veil. That veil is now removed; and acting the part of a disinterested friend, I shall mention some few of them with freedom. There is a levity in your manners which is inconsistent with the solidity and decorum becoming a lady who has arrived to years of discretion. There is also an unwarrantable extravagance betrayed in your dress. Prudence and economy are such necessary, at least such decent, virtues, that they claim the attention of every female, whatever be her station or her property. To these virtues you are apparently inattentive. Too large a portion of your time is devoted to the adorning of your person.
Think not that I write thus plainly from resentment. No, it is from benevolence. I mention your foibles, not to reproach you with them, but that you may consider their nature and effects, and renounce them.
I wish you to regard this letter as the legacy of a friend, and to improve it accordingly. I shall leave town before you receive it. O, how different are my sensations at going from what they were when I came! But I forbear description. Think not, Eliza, that I leave you with indifference. The conquest is great, the trial more than I can calmly support; yet the consciousness of duty affords consolation—a duty I conceive it to be which I owe to myself and to the people of my charge, who are interested in my future connection.
I wish not for an answer; my resolution is unalterably fixed. But should you hereafter be convinced of the justice of my conduct, and become a convert to my advice, I shall be happy to hear it.
That you may have wisdom to keep you from falling, and conduct you safely through this state of trial to the regions of immortal bliss, is the fervent prayer of your sincere friend and humble servant,