The Female Advocate/The Story of Fidelia
Says Fidelia, I shall make no apology for the trouble I am about to give you, since I am sure the motives that induce me to give it will have as much weight with you as they have with me; I shall, therefore, without farther preface, relate to you the events of a life, which, however insignificant and unentertaining, affords a lesson of the highest importance; a lesson, the value of which I have experienced, and may therefore recommend.
I am the daughter of a gentleman of good family, who, as he was a younger brother, purchased, with the portion that was allotted him, a genteel post under government. My mother died when I was but twelve years old, and my father, who was excessively fond of me, determined to be himself my preceptor, and to take care that my natural genius, which his partiality made him think above the common rank, should not want the improvements of a liberal education.
He was a man of sense, with a tolerable share of learning. In his youth he had been a free liver, and, perhaps, for that reason took some pains to become a free thinker. But whatever fashionable frailties he might formerly have allowed in himself, he was now in advanced life, and had, at least, worldly wisdom enough to know, that it was necessary his daughter should be restrained from those liberties, which he had looked upon as trifling errors in his own conduct. He therefore laboured with great application to inculcate in me the love of order, the beauty of moral rectitude, and the happiness and self-reward of virtue; but, at the same time, professed it his design to free my mind from vulgar prejudices and superstition, for so he called revealed religion. As I was urged to chuse virtue and reject vice, from motives which had no necessary connection with immortality. I was not led to consider a future state either with hope or fear. My father, indeed, when I urged him upon that subject, always intimated that the doctrine of immortality, whether true or false, ought not at all to influence my conduct, or interrupt my peace, because the virtue which secured happiness in the present state, would also secure it in a future state: a future state, therefore, I wholly disregarded, and, to confess the truth, disbelieved: for I thought I could plainly discover, that it was disbelieved by my father, though he had not thought fit explicitly to declare his sentiments. As I had no very turbulent passions, a ductile and good disposition, and the highest reverence for his understanding, as well as the tenderest affection for him, he found it an easy talk to make me adopt every sentiment and opinion which he proposed to me, as his own, especially as he took care to support his principles by the authority and arguments of the best writers against Christianity.
At the age of twenty, I was called upon to make use of all the philosophy I had been taught, by his death; which not only deprived me of a parent I most ardently loved, but with him of all the ease and affluence to which I had been accustomed. His income was only for life, and he had rather lived beyond than within it; consequently, there was nothing left for me, but the pride and helplessness of genteel life, a taste for every thing elegant, and a delicacy and sensibility that has doubled my sufferings. In this distress, a brother of my mother's, who was grown rich in trade, received me into his house, and declared he would take the same care of me as if I had been his own. When the first transports of my grief were abated, I found myself in an easy situation, and from the natural cheerfulness of my temper, I was beginning once more to taste of happiness. My uncle, who was a man of narrow understanding and illiberal education, was a little disgusted with me for employing so much of my time in reading; but still more so, when happening to examine my books, he found, by the titles, that some of them were what he called blasphemy, and tended, as he imagined, to make me me an atheist. I endeavoured to explain my principles, which I thought beneath the dignity of virtue to disguise or disavow; but as I never could make him conceive any difference between a deist and an atheist, my arguments only served to confirm him in the opinion, that I was a wicked wretch, who, in his own phrase, believed neither God nor devil, As he was really a good man, and heartily zealous for the established faith, though more from habit and prejudice than reason, my errors gave him great affliction. I perceived it with the utmost concern; I perceived too, that he looked upon me with a degree of abhorrence mixed with pity, and that I was wholly indebted to his good nature for that protection, which I had flattered myself I should owe to his love. I comforted myself, however, with my own integrity, and even felt a conscious pride, in suffering this persecution from ignorance and folly, only because I was superior to vulgar errors and popular superstition. And that Christianity deserved these appellations, I was not more convinced by my father's arguments, than my uncle's conduct, who, as his zeal was not according to knowledge, was by no means qualified to "adorn the doctrine which he professed to believe."
I had lived a few months under the painful sensibility of receiving continual benefits from a person whose esteem and affection I had lost, when my uncle one day come into my chamber, and after preparing me for some unexpected good fortune, told me, he had just had a proposal of marriage for me, from a man to whom I could not possibly have any objection. He then named a merchant with whom I had often been in company at his table. As the man was neither old nor ugly, had a large fortune, and a fair character, my uncle thought himself sufficiently authorised to pronounce as he did, that I could not possibly have any objection to him. An objection, however, I had, which I told my uncle was to me insuperable; it was, that the person whom he proposed to me as the companion, the guide, and director of my whole life, to whom I was to vow, not only obedience, but love, had nothing in him that could ever engage my affection: his understanding was low, his sentiments mean and indelicate, and his manner unpolite and unpleasing. "What stuff is all this?" interrupted my uncle, "sentiments indelicate, unpolite, his understanding forsooth, not equal to your own! Ah! child, if you had less romance, conceit, and arrogance, and more true discretion and prudence, it would do you more good than all the fine books you have confounded your poor head with, and, what is worse, perhaps, ruined your poor soul. I own it went a little against my conscience to accept my honest friend's kind offer, and give him such a pagan for a wife. But I know not, whether the believing husband may not convert the unbelieving wife? As to your slighty objections, they are such nonsense, that I wonder you can suppose me fool enough to be deceived by them. No, child, wife as you are, you cannot impose upon a man who has lived as many years in the world as I have. I see your motive; you have some infidel libertine rake in your eye, with whom you would go headlong to perdition. But I shall take care to have your soul to answer for, as well as your person. Either I shall dispose of you to an honest man that may convert you, or you shall dispose of yourself how you please for me; for I disclaim all farther care or trouble about you. So I leave you to consider, whether or no the kindness I have shewn you, entitles me to some little influence over you, and whether you chuse to seek protection where you can find it, or accept of the happy lot Providence has cut out for you."
He left me at the close of this fine harangue, and I seriously set myself to consider, as he bade me, which of the two states he had set before me, I ought to chuse.—To submit to a legal sort of prostitution, with the additional weight of perjury on my conscience, or to expose myself to all the distress of friendless poverty and unprotected youth. After some hours of deliberation, I determined on the latter, and that more from principle than inclination; for, though my delicacy would have suffered extremely in accepting a husband, at least indifferent to me, yet as my heart was perfectly disengaged, and my temper naturally easy, I thought I could have been less unhappy in following my uncle's advice than I might probably be by rejecting it. But then I must have submitted to an action I could not think justifiable, in order to avoid mere external distresses. This would not have been philosophical. I had always been taught, that virtue was of itself sufficient to happiness; and that those things which are generally esteemed evils, could have no power to disturb the felicity of a mind governed by the eternal rule of right, and truly enamoured of the charms of moral beauty, I resolved, therefore, to run all risques, rather than depart from this glorious principle. I felt myself raised by the trial, and exulted in the opportunity of shewing my contempt of the smiles or frowns of fortune, and of proving the power of virtue to sustain the soul under all accidental circumstances of distress.
I communicated my resolution to my uncle, assuring him at the same time of my everlasting gratitude and respect, and that nothing should have induced me to offend or disobey him, but his requiring me to do what my reason and conscience disapproved; that supposing the advantages of riches to be really as great as he believed, yet still those of virtue were greater, and I could not resolve to purchase the one by a violation of the other; that a false vow was certainly criminal; and that it would be doing an act of the highest injustice, to enter into so solemn an engagement without the power of fulfilling it; that my affections did not depend on my own will; and that no man should possess my person, who could not obtain the first place in my heart.
I was surprised that my uncle's impatience had permitted me to go on thus far; but looking in his face, I perceived that passion had kept him silent. At length the gathering storm burst over my head in a torrent of reproaches; my reasons were condemned as romantic absurdities, which I could not myself believe. I was accused of designing to deceive, and to throw myself away on some worthless fellow, whose principles were as bad as my own. It was in vain for me to assert, that I had no such design, nor any inclination to marry at all. My uncle could sooner have believed the grossest contradiction, than that a young woman could so strenuously refuse one man, without being prepossessed in favour of another. As I thought myself injured by his accusations and tyranny, I gave over the attempt to mitigate his anger. He appealed to Heaven for the justice of his resentment, and against my ingratitude and rebellion; and then giving me a note of fifty pounds, which he said would keep me from immediate indigence, he bade me leave his house, and see his face no more. I bowed in sign of obedience, and collecting all my dignity and resolution, I arose, thanked him for his past benefits, and, with a low curtsey, left the room.
In less than an hour, I departed, with my little wardrobe, to the house of a person who had formerly been my father's servant, and who now kept a shop and let lodgings. From thence I went the next day to visit my father's nephew, who was in possession of the family estate, and had lately married a lady of great fortune. He was a young gentleman of good parts, his principles the same as my father's, though his practice had not been quite agreeable to the strict rules of morality. However, setting aside a few of those vices which are looked upon as genteel accomplishments in young fellows of fortune, I thought him a good sort of man; and, as we had always lived in great kindness, I doubted not that I should find him my friend, and meet with approbation and encouragement, at least, if not assistance, from him. I told him my story, and the reasons that had determined me to the refusal that had incurred my uncle's displeasure; but how was I disappointed, when, instead of the applause I expected for my heroic virtue and unmerited persecutions, I perceived a smile of contempt on his face, when he interrupted me in the following manner:
"And what in the devil's name, my dear cousin, could make a woman of your sense behave so like an ideot? What! forfeit all your hopes from your uncle, refuse an excellent match, and reduce yourself to beggary because, truly, you were not in love? Surely one might have expected better from you even at fifteen. Who is it, pray, that marries the person of their choice? For my own part, who have rather a better title to please myself, with a good fifteen hundred a year, than you who have not a shilling, I found it would not do; and that there was something more to be sought after in a wife, than a pretty face or a genius. Do you think I cared three farthings for the woman I married?—No, faith; but her thirty thousand pounds were worth having; with that I can purchase a seraglio of beauties, and indulge my taste in every kind of pleasure. And, pray, what is it to me, whether my wife has beauty, or wit, or elegance, when her money will supply me with all that in others? You, cousin, had an opportunity of being as happy as I am. The men, believe me, would not like you a bit the worse for being married; on the contrary, you would find, that for one who took notice of you as a single woman, twenty would be your admirers and humble servants, when there was no danger of being taken in: thus you might have gratified all your passions, made an elegant figure in life, and have chosen out some gentle swain, as romantic and poetical as you pleased, for your cecisbeo. The good John Trot husband would have been easily managed."
My indignation could be contained no longer, and I was leaving the room in disdain, when he caught me by the hand. "Nay, prithee, my dear cousin, none of these violent airs: I thought you and I had known one another better. Let the poor souls who are taught by the priests and their nurses to be afraid of hell-fire, and to think they shall go to the devil for following nature, and making life agreeable, be as outrageously virtuous as they please, you have too much sense to be frightened at bugbears. You know that the term of our existence is but short, and it is highly reasonable to make it as pleasant as possible."
I was too angry to attempt confusing his arguments; but, bursting from his hold, told him, I would take care not to give him a second opportunity of insulting my distress, and affronting my understanding; and so left his house with a resolution never to enter it again.
I went home mortified and disappointed; my spirits sunk into a dejection which took from me, for many days, all inclination to stir out of my lodging, or to see a human face. At length I resolved to try whether indigence and friendship were really incompatible, and whether I should meet with the same treatment from a female friend, whose affection had been the principal pleasure of my youth. Surely, thought I, the gentle Amanda, whose heart seems capable of every tender and generous sentiment, will do justice to the innocence and integrity of her unfortunate friend; her tenderness will encourage my virtue, and animate my fortitude; her praises and endearments will compensate all my hardships. Amanda was a single woman, of a moderate independent fortune, which I heard she was going to bestow on a young officer, who had little or nothing besides his commission. I had no doubt of her approbation of my refusing a mercenary match, since she herself had chosen from motives so opposite to those which are called prudent. She had been in the country some months, so that my misfortunes had not reached her ear, till I myself related them to her.
She heard me with great attention, and answered with politeness enough, but with a coldness that chilled my very heart.
"You are sensible, my dear Fidelia," said she, "that I never pretended to set my understanding in competition with yours. I know my own inferiority, and though many of your notions and opinions appeared to me very strange and particular, I never attempted to dispute them with you. To be sure, you know best: but it seems to me a very odd conduct, for one in your situation to give offence to so good an uncle; first, by maintaining doctrines which may be very true for ought I know, but which are very contrary to the received opinions we are brought up in, and therefore are apt to shock a common understanding; and secondly, to renounce his protection, and throw yourself into the wide world, rather than marry the man he chose for you; to whom, after all, I do not find you had any real objection, nor any antipathy for his person."
"Antipathy, my dear," said I, "are there not many degrees between loving and honouring a man preferably to all others, and beholding him with abhorrence and aversion. The first is, in my opinion, the duty of a wife, a duty voluntarily taken upon herself, and engaged in under the most solemn contract. As to the difficulties that may attend my friendless, unprovided state, since they are the consequences of a virtuous action, they cannot really be evils, nor can they disturb that happiness which is the gift of virtue."—"I am heartily glad," answered she, "that you have found out the art of making yourself happy by the force of imagination. I wish your enthusiasm may continue, and that you may still be farther convinced, by your own experience, of the folly of mankind, in supposing poverty and disgrace to be evils."
I was cut to the soul by the unkind manner which accompanied this sarcasm, and was going to remonstrate against her unfriendly treatment, when her lover came in, with another gentleman, who, in spite of my full heart, engaged my attention, and, for a while, made me forget the stings of unkindness. The beauty and gracefulness of his person caught my eye, and the politeness of his address, and the elegance of his compliments, soon prejudiced me in favour of his understanding. He was introduced by the captain to Amanda as his most intimate friend, and seemed desirous to give credit to his friend's judgment, by making himself as agreeable as possible. He succeeded so well, that Amanda was wholly engrossed by the pleasure of his conversation, and the care of entertaining her lover and her new guest. Her face brightened and her good humour returned. When I arose to leave her, she pressed me so earnestly to stay dinner, that I could not, without discovering how much I resented her behaviour, refuse. This, however, I should probably have done, as I was naturally disposed to shew every sentiment of my heart, had not a secret wish arisen there to know a little more of this agreeable stranger. This inclined me to think it prudent to conceal my resentment, and to accept the civilities of Amanda. The conversation grew more and more pleasing; I took my share in it; and had more than my share of the charming stranger's notice and attention. As we all grew more and more unreserved, Amanda dropped hints in the course of the conversation relating to my story, my sentiments, and unhappy situation. Sir George Freelove, for that was the young gentleman's name, listened greedily to all that was said of me, and seemed to eye me with an earnest curiosity, as well as admiration. We did not part till it was late; and Sir George insisted on attending me to my lodgings. I strongly refused it, not without a sensation, which more properly belonged to the female than the philosopher, and which I condemned in myself, as arising from dishonest pride.
I could not, without pain, suffer the polite Sir George, upon so short an acquaintance, to discover the meanness of my abode. To avoid this, I sent for a chair, but was confused to find that Sir George and his servants prepared to attend it on foot, by way of guard. It was in vain to dispute: he himself walked before, and his servants followed it. I was covered with blushes, when, after all this parade, he handed me in at the little shop door, and took leave with as profound respect, as if he had guarded me into a palace. A thousand different thoughts kept me from closing my eyes that night. The behaviour of Amanda wounded me to the soul: I found that I must look on her as no more than a common acquaintance, and that the world did not contain one person whom I could call my friend. My heart felt desolate and forlorn. I knew not what course to take for my future subsistence. The pain which my pride had just given me, convinced me that I was far from having conquered the passions of humanity, and that I should feel too sensibly all the mortifications which attend on poverty. I determined, however, to subdue this pride, and call to my assistance the example of ancient sages and philosophers, who despised riches and honours, and felt no inconveniencies from the malice of fortune. I had almost reasoned myself into a contempt for the world, and fancied myself superior to its smiles or frowns, when the idea of Sir George Freelove rushed upon my mind, and destroyed, at once, the whole force of my reasoning. I found that, however I might disregard the rest of the world, I could not be indiffernt to his opinion; and the thought of being despised by him was insupportable. I recollected that my condition was extremely different from that of an old philosopher, whose rags, perhaps, were the means of gratifying his pride, by attracting the notice and respect of mankind: at least, the philosopher's schemes and wishes were very different from those which, at that time, were taking possession of my heart. The looks and behaviour of Sir George, left me no doubt, that I had made as deep an impression in his favour as he had done in mine. I could not bear to lose the ground I had gained, and to throw myself into a state below his notice. I scorned the thought of imposing on him with regard to my circumstances, in case he should really have had favourable intentions for me; yet to disgrace myself for ever in his eye, by submitting to servitude, or any low way of supporting myself, was what I could not bring myself to resolve on.
In the midst of these reflections. I was surprised, the next morning, by a visit from Sir George. He made respectful apologies for the liberty he took; told me he had learned from my friend, that the unkindness and tyranny of an uncle had cast me into uneasy circumstances; and that he could not know that so much beauty and merit were so unworthily treated by fortune, without earnestly wishing to be the instrument of doing me more justice. He entreated me to add dignity and value to his life, by making it conducive to the happiness of mine; and was going on with the most fervent offers of service, when I interrupted him, by saying that there was nothing in his power that I could with honour accept, by which my life could be made happier, but that respect which was due to me as a woman and a gentlewoman, and which ought to have prevented such offers of service from a stranger, as could only be justified by a long-experienced friendship; that I was not in a situation to receive visits, and must decline his acquaintance, which, nevertheless, in a happier part of my life would have given me pleasure.
He now had recourse to all the arts of his sex, imputing his too great freedom to the force of his passion, protesting the most inviolable respect, and imploring on his knees, and even with tears, that I would not punish him so severely, as to deny him the liberty of seeing me, and making himself more and more worthy of my esteem. My weak heart was but too much touched by his artifices, and I had only just fortitude enough to persevere in refusing his visits, and to insist on his leaving me, which at last he did; but with such a profusion of tenderness, prayers, and protestations, that it was some time before I could recal my reason enough to reflect on the whole of his behaviour, and on my own situation, which compared, left me but little doubt of his dishonourable views.
I determined never more to admit him to my presence, and accordingly gave orders to be denied, if he came again. My reason applauded, but my heart reproached me, and heavily repined at the rigid determination of prudence. I knew that I acted rightly, and I expected that that consciousness would make me happy; but I found it otherwise, I was wretched beyond what I had ever felt, or formed any idea of. I discovered that my heart was entangled in a passion which must for ever be combated, or indulged at the expence of virtue. I now considered riches as truly desirable, since they would have placed me above disgraceful attempts, and given me reasonable hopes of becoming the wife of Sir George Freelove. I was discontented and unhappy, but surprised and disappointed to find myself so, since hitherto I had no one criminal action to reproach myself with; on the contrary, my difficulties were all owing to my regard for virtue.
I resolved, however, to try still farther the power of virtue to confer happiness, to go on in my obedience to her laws, and patiently wait the good effects of it. But I had stronger difficulties to go through than any I had yet experienced: Sir George was too much practised in the arts of seduction to be discouraged by a first repulse, every day produced either some new attempt to see me, or a letter full of the most passionate protestations and entreaties for pardon and favour: it was in vain I gave orders that no more letters should be taken in from him: he had so many different contrivances to convey them, and directed them in hands so unlike, that I was surprised into reading them, contrary to my intentions. Every time I stirred out, he was sure to be in my way, and to employ the most artful tongue that ever ensnared the heart of woman, in blinding my reason and awakening my passions.
My virtue, however, did not yet give way, but my peace of mind was utterly destroyed. Whenever I was with him, I summoned all my fortitude, and constantly repeated my commands, that he should avoid me: his disobedience called for my resentment, and, in spite of my melting heart, I armed my eyes with anger, and treated him with as much disdain as I thought his unworthy designs deserved. But the moment he left me, all my resolution forsook me, I repined at my fate, I even murmured against the Sovereign Ruler of all things, for making me subject to passions I could not subdue, yet must not indulge. I compared my own situation with that of my libertine cousin, whose pernicious arguments I had heard with horror and detestation; who gave the reins to every desire; whose house was the seat of plenty, mirth, and delight; whose face was ever covered with smiles; and whose heart seemed free from sorrow and care. Is not this man, said I, happier than I am? and if so, where is the worth of virtue? Have I not sacrificed to her my fortune and my friends? Do I not daily sacrifice to her my darling inclination; yet, what is the compensation she offers me? What are my prospects in this world but poverty, mortification, disappointment, and grief? Every wish of my heart denied, every passion of humanity combated and hurt, though never conquered! Are these the blessings with which Heaven distinguishes it favourites? Can the King of Heaven want power or will to distinguish them? or does he leave his wretched creatures the sport of chance, the prey of wickedness and malice? Surely no. Yet is not the condition of the virtuous often more miserable than that of the vicious? I myself have experienced that it is. I am very unhappy, and see no likelihood of my being otherwise in this world—and all beyond the grave is eternal darkness. Yet why do I say that I have no prospect of happiness? does not the most engaging of men offer me all the joys that love and fortune can bestow? Will not he protect me from every insult of the proud world that scoffs at indigence? Will not his liberal hand pour forth the means of every pleasure, even of that highest and truest of all pleasure, the power of relieving the sufferings of my fellow-creatures, of changing the tears of distress into tears of joy and gratitude, of communicating my own happiness to all around me? Is not this a state far preferable to that in which virtue has placed me? But what is virtue? Is not happiness the laudable pursuit of reason? Is it not then laudable to pursue it by the most probable means? Have I not been accusing Providence of unkindness, whilst I myself only am in fault for rejecting its offered favours? Surely, I have mistaken the path of virtue: it must be that which leads to happiness. The path which I am in is full of thorns and briars, and terminates in impenetrable darkness; but I see another that is strewed with flowers, and bright with the sun shine of prosperity: this, surely, is the path of virtue and the road to happiness. Hither then let me turn my weary steps, nor let vain and idle prejudices fright me from felicity. It is surely impossible that I should offend God, by yielding to a temptation which he has given me no motive to resist. He has allotted me a short and precarious existence, and has placed before me good and evil. What is good but pleasure? What is evil but pain? Reason and nature direct me to chuse the first, and avoid the last. I sought for happiness in what is called virtue, but I found it not: shall I not try the other experiment, since I think I can hardly be more unhappy by following inclination, than I am by denying it?
Thus had my frail thoughts wandered into a wilderness of error, and thus had I almost reasoned myself out of every principle of morality, by pursuing, through all their consequences, the doctrines which had been taught me as rules of life and prescriptions for felicity, the talismans of truth, by which I should be secured in the storms of adversity, and listen without danger to the syrens of temptation; when, in the fatal hour of my presumption, sitting alone in my chamber, collecting arguments on the side of passion, almost distracted with doubts, and plunging deeper and deeper into falsehood, I saw Sir George Freelove at my feet, who had gained admittance, contrary to my orders, by corrupting my landlady. It is not necessary to describe to you his arts, or the weak effects of that virtue which had been graciously implanted in my heart, but which I had taken impious means to undermine by false reasoning, and which now tottered from the foundation: suffice it that I submitted to the humiliation I have so well deserved, and tell you, that, in the pride of human reason I dared to condemn, as the effect of weakness and prejudice, the still voice of conscience, which would yet have warned me from ruin; that my innocence, my honour was the sacrifice to passion and sophistry; that my boasted philosophy, and too much flattered understanding, preserved me not from the lowest depth of infamy, which the weakest of my sex with humility and religion would have avoided.
I now experienced a new kind of wretchedness: my vile seducer tried in vain to reconcile me to the shameful life to which he had reduced me, by loading me with finery, and lavishing his fortune in procuring me pleasures which I could not taste, and pomp which seemed an insult on my disgrace. In vain did I recollect the arguments which had convinced me of the lawfulness of accepting offered pleasures, and following the dictates of inclination. The light of my understanding was darkened, but the sense of guilt was not lost: my pride and my delicacy, if, criminal as I was, I may dare to call it so, suffered the most intolerable mortification and disgust every time I reflected on my infamous situation. Every eye seemed to upbraid me, even that of my triumphant seducer. O depth of misery! to be conscious of deserving the contempt of him I loved, and for whose sake I was become contemptible to myself.
This was the state of my mind during a year which I passed in Sir George's house: his fondness was unabated for eight months of the time; and as I had no other object to share my attention, neither friend nor relation to call off any part of my tenderness, all the love of a heart naturally affectionate centered in him. The first dawnings of unkindness were but too visible to my watchful eyes. I had now all the torments of jealousy to endure, till a cruel certainty put an end to them; I learnt, at length, that my false lover was on the brink of marriage with a lady of great fortune. I immediately resolved to leave him, but could not do it without first venting my full heart in complaints and reproaches. This provoked his rage, and drew on me insolence, which, though I had deserved, I had not learnt to bear. I returned with scorn, which no longer became me, all the wages of my sin, and the trappings of my shame, and left his house in the bitterest anguish of resentment and despair.
I returned to my old lodgings; but unable to bear a scene which recalled every circumstance of my undoing, ashamed to look in the face of any creature who had seen me innocent, wretched in myself, and hoping from change of place some abatement of my misery, I put myself into a post-chaise at two in the morning, with orders to the driver to carry me as far from town as he could before the return of night, leaving it to him to chuse the road.
My reason and my senses seemed benumbed and stupified during my journey. I made no reflections on what I was about, nor formed any design for my future life. When night came, my conductor would have stopped at a large town, but I bid him go on to the next village: there I alighted at a paltry inn, and dismissed my vehicle, without once considering what I was to do with myself, or why I chose that place for my abode. To say truth, I can give no account of my thoughts at this period of time: they were all confused and distracted. A short frenzy must have filled up those hours, of which my memory retains such imperfect traces. I remember only, that without having pulled off my clothes, I left the inn as soon as I saw the day, and wandered out of the village.
My unguided feet carried me to a range of willows by a river's side, where, after having walked some time, the freshness of the air revived my senses, and awakened my reason. My reason, my memory, my anguish, and despair returned together. Every circumstance of my past life was present to my mind; but most the idea of my faithless lover, and my criminal love tortured my imagination and rent my bleeding heart, which, in spite of all its guilt and all its wrongs, retained the tenderest and most ardent affection for its undoer. This unguarded affection, which was the effect of a gentle and kind nature, heightened the anguish of resentment, and compleated my misery. In vain did I call off my thoughts from this gloomy retrospect, and hope to find a gleam of comfort in my future prospects. They were still more dreadful: poverty, attended by infamy, and want groaning under the cruel hand of oppression, and the taunts of insolence were before my eyes. I, who had once been the darling and the pride of indulgent parents, who had once been beloved, respected, and admired, was now the outcast of human nature; despised and avoided by all who had ever loved me, by all whom I had most loved! hateful to myself, belonging to no one, exposed to wrongs and insults from all.
I tried to find out the cause of this dismal change, and how far I was myself the occasion of it. My conduct, with regard to Sir George, though I spontaneously condemned, yet, upon recollection, I thought the arguments which produced it would justify. But as my principles could not preserve me from vice, neither could they sustain me in adversity: conscience was not to be perverted by the sophistry which had beclouded my reason. And if any, by imputing my conduct to error, should acquit me of guilt, let them remember, it is yet true, that in this uttermost distress, I was neither sustained by the consciousness of innocence, the exultation of virtue, nor the hope of reward: whether I looked backward or forward, all was confusion and anguish, distraction and despair. I accused the Supreme Being of cruelty and injustice, who, though he gave me not sufficient encouragement to resist desire, yet punishes me with the consequences of indulgence. If there is a God, cried I, he must be either tyrannical and cruel, or regardless of her creatures. I will no longer endure a being which is undeservedly miserable, either from chance or design, but fly to that annihilation in which all my prospects terminate. Take back, said I, listing my eyes to Heaven, the hateful gift of existence, and let my dust no more be animated to suffering, and exalted to misery.
So saying, I ran to the brink of the river, and was going to plunge in, when the cry of some person very near me made me turn my eyes to see whence it came. I was accosted by an elderly gentleman, who, with looks of terror, pity, and benevolence, asked what I was about to do? At first I was sullen, and refused to answer him: but by degrees the compassion he shewed, and the tenderness with which he treated me, softened my heart, and gave vent to my tears.
"O, Madam!" said he, "these are gracious signs, and unlike those which first drew my attention, and made me watch you unobserved, fearing some fatal purpose in your mind. What must be the thoughts which could make a face like yours appear the picture of horror? I was taking my morning walk, and have seen you a considerable time: sometimes stopping and wringing your hands, sometimes quickening your pace, and sometimes walking slow, with your eyes fixed on the ground, till you raised them to Heaven, with looks not of supplication and piety, but rather of accusation and defiance. For pity tell me, how it is that you have quarrelled with yourself, with life, nay even with Heaven? Recal your reason and your hope, and let this seasonable prevention of your fatal purpose be an earnest to you of good things to come, of God's mercy not yet alienated from you, and stooping from his throne to save your soul from perdition?"
The tears which flowed in rivers from my eyes while he talked, gave me so much relief, that I found myself able to speak, and desirous to express my gratitude for the good man's concern for me. It was so long since I had known the joys of confidence, that I felt surprising pleasure and comfort from unburdening my heart, and telling my kind deliverer every circumstance of my story, and every thought of my distracted mind. He shuddered to hear me upbraid the Divine Providence, and stopping me short, told me he would lead me to one who should preach patience to me whilst she gave me the example of it.
As we talked he lead me to his own house, and there introduced me to his wife, a middle-aged woman, pale and emaciated, but of a cheerful placid countenance, who received me with the greatest tenderness and humanity. She saw I was distressed, and her compassion was before hand with my complaints. Her tears stood ready to accompany mine; her looks and her voice expressed the kindest concern; and her assiduous cares demonstrated that true politeness and hospitality, which is not the effect of art but of inward benevolence. While she obliged me to take some refreshment, her husband gave her a short account of my story, and of the state in which he found me. "This poor lady," said he, "from the fault of her education and principles, sees every thing through a gloomy medium. She accuses Providence, and hates her existence for those evils which are the common lot of mankind in this short state of trial. You, my dear, who are one of the greatest sufferers I have known, are best qualified to cure her of her faulty impatience, and to convince her, by your own example, that this world is not the place in which virtue is to find its reward. She thinks no one so unhappy as herself; but if she knew all that you have gone through, she would surely be sensible, that if you are happier than she, it is only because your principles are better."
"Indeed, my dear madam!" said she, "that is the only advantage that I have over you; but that indeed out weighs every thing else. It is now but ten days since I followed to the grave my only son, the survivor of eight children, who were all equally the objects of my fondest love: my heart is no less tender than your own, nor my affections less warm. For a whole year before the death of my last darling, I watched the fatal progress of his disease, and saw him suffer the most amazing pains. Nor was poverty, that dreaded evil, to which you could not submit, wanting to my trials: though my husband is, by his profession, a gentleman, his income is so small, that I and my children have often wanted necessaries: and though I had always a weakly constitution, I have helped to support my family by the labour of my own hands At this time I am consuming, by daily tortures, with a cancer, which must shortly be my death. My pains, perhaps, might be mitigated by proper assistance, though nothing could preserve my life; but I have not the means to obtain that assistance." O, hold! interrupted I, my soul is shocked at the enumeration of such intolerable sufferings: how is it that you support them? Why do I not see you, in despair like mine, renounce your existence, and put yourself out of the reach of torment? But, above all, tell me how it is possible for you to preserve, amidst such complicated misery, that appearance of cheerfulness and serene complacency which shines so remarkably in your countenance, and animates every look and motion.
"That cheerfulness and complacency," answered the good woman, "I feel in my heart. My mind is not only serene, but often experiences the highest emotions of joy and exultation, that the brightest hopes can give." And whence, said I, do you derive this astonishing art of extracting joy from misery, and of smiling amidst all the terrors of pain, sorrow, poverty, and death? She was silent for a moment, then stepping to her closet, reached a Bible, which she put into my hands: "See there," said she, "the volume in which I have learnt this art. Here I am taught, that everlasting glory is in store for all who will accept it upon the terms which Infinite Perfection has prescribed; here I am promised consolation, assistance, and support from the Lord of Life; and here I am assured, that my transient afflictions are only meant to fit me for eternal and unspeakable happiness. This happiness is at hand. The short remainder of my life seems but a point, beyond which opens the glorious prospect of immortality: thus encouraged, how should I be dejected? Thus supported, how should I sink? With such prospects, such assured hopes, how can I be otherways than happy?"
While she spoke, her eyes sparkled, and her whole face seemed animated with joy. I was struck with her manner, as well as her words. Every syllable she uttered seemed to sink into my soul, so that I never can forget it. I resolved to examine a religion, which was capable of producing such effects as I could not attribute either to chance or error. The good couple pressed me, with so much unaffected kindness, to make their little parsonage my asylum till I could better dispose of myself, that I accepted their offer. Here, with the assistance of the clergyman, who is a plain, sensible, and truly pious man, I have studied the Holy Scriptures, and the evidences of their authority. But after reading them with candour and attention, I found all the intrinsic arguments of their truth superfluous: the excellency of their precepts, the consistency of their doctrines, and the glorious motives and encouragements to virtue which they propose; together with the striking example I had before my eyes of their salutary effects, left me no doubt of their divine authority.
During the time of my abode here, I have been witness to the more than heroic, the joyful, the triumphant death of the dear good woman. With as much softness and tenderness as I ever saw in a female character, she shewed more dauntless intrepidity than the sternest philosopher, or the proudest hero. No torment could shake the constancy of her soul, or length of pain wear out the strength of her patience. Death was to her an object not of horror but of hope. When I heard her pour forth her last breath in thanksgiving, and saw the smile of extasy remain on her pale face when life was fled, I could not help crying out in the beautiful language I had lately learnt from the Sacred Writings, "O Death! where is thy sting? O Grave! where is thy victory?"
I am now preparing to leave my excellent benefactor, and get my bread in a service, to which he has recommended me in a neighbouring family. A state of servitude, to which once I could not resolve to yield, appears no longer dreadful to me; that pride, which would have made it galling, Christianity has subdued, though philosophy attempted it in vain. As a penitent, I should gratefully submit to mortification; but as a Christian, I find myself superior to every mortification, except the sense of guilt. This has humbled me to the dust: but the assurances that are given me by the Saviour of the world of the divine pardon and favour, upon sincere repentance, have calmed my troubled spirit, and filled my mind with peace and joy, which the world can neither give nor take away. Thus, without any change for the better in my outward circumstances, I find myself changed from a distracted, poor, despairing wretch, to a contented, happy, grateful being; thankful for, and pleased with my present state of existence; yet exulting in the hope of quitting it for endless glory and happiness.
O! Sir, tell the unthinking mortals, who will not take the pains of enquiring into those truths which most concern them, and who are led by fashion, and the pride of human reason, into a contempt for the sacred oracles of God, tell them this truth, which experience hath taught me, that though vice is constantly attended by misery, virtue itself cannot confer happiness in this world, except it is animated with the hopes of eternal bliss in the world to come.
- The story of Fidelia made its first appearance in the Adventurer, No. 77, 78, 79.