LETTER 222: MR. BELFORD, TO ROBERT LOVELACE

Tuesday, June 6. 

Unsuccessful as hitherto my application to thee has been, I cannot for the heart of me forbear writing once more in behalf of this admirable woman: And yet am unable to account for the zeal which impels me to take her part with an earnestness so sincere.

 

But all her merit thou acknowlegest; all thy own vileness thou confessest, and even gloriest in it; what hope then of moving so harden’d a man? —Yet, as it is not too late, and thou art nevertheless upon the crisis, I am resolved to try what another letter will do. It is but my writing in vain, if it do no good; and if thou wilt let me prevail, I know thou wilt hereafter think me richly intitled to thy thanks.

 

To argue with thee would be folly. The case cannot require it. I will only intreat thee, therefore, that thou wilt not let such an excellence lose the reward of her vigilant virtue.

 

I believe, there never were libertines so vile, but purposed, at some future period of their lives, to set about reforming; and let me beg of thee, that thou wilt, in this great article, make thy future repentance as easy, as some time hence thou wilt wish thou hadst made it. If thou proceedest, I have no doubt, that this affair will end tragically, one way or other. It must. Such a woman must interest both gods and men in her cause. But what I most apprehend, is, that with her own hand, in resentment of the perpetrated outrage, she (like another Lucretia) will assert the purity of her heart: Or, if her piety preserve her from this violence, that wasting grief will soon put a period to her days. And in either case, will not the remembrance of thy ever-during guilt, and transitory triumph, be a torment of torments to thee?

 

‘Tis a seriously sad thing, after all, that so fine a creature should have fallen into such vile and remorseless hands: For, from thy cradle, as I have heard thee own, thou ever delightedst to sport with and torment the animal, whether bird or beast, that thou lovedst, and hadst a power over.

 

How different is the case of this fine woman from

that of any other whom thou hast seduced! I need not mention to thee, nor insist upon the striking difference: Justice, gratitude, thy interest, thy vows, all engaging thee; and thou certainly loving her, as far as thou art capable of love, above all her sex. She not to be drawn aside by art, or to be made to suffer from credulity, nor for want of wit and discernment (that will be another cutting reflection to so fine a mind as hers): The contention between you only unequal, as it is between naked innocence and armed guilt. In every thing else, as thou ownest, her talents greatly superior to thine! —What a fate will hers be, if thou art not at last overcome by thy reiterated remorses!

 

At first, indeed, when I was admitted into her presence ( a ) , and (till I observed her meaning air, and heard her speak), I supposed that she had no very uncommon judgment to boast of: For I made, as I thought, but just allowances for her blossoming youth, and for that loveliness of person, and easiness of dress, which I imagined must have taken up half her time and study to cultivate; and yet I had been prepared by thee to entertain a very high opinion of her sense and her reading. Her choice of this gay fellow, upon such hazardous terms (thought I), is a confirmation that her wit wants that maturity which only years and experience can give it. Her knowlege (argued I to myself) must be all theory ; and the complaisance ever consorting with an age so green and so gay, will make so inexperienced a lady at least forbear to shew herself disgusted at freedoms of discourse, in which those present of her own sex, and some of ours (so learned, so well read, and so travelled), allow themselves.

 

In this presumption, I run on; and, having the advantage, as I conceited, of all the company but thee, and being desirous to appear in her eyes a mighty clever fellow, I thought I shewed away, when I said any foolish things that had more sound than sense in them; and when I made silly jests, which attracted the smiles of thy Sinclair, and the specious Partington; and that Miss Harlowe did not smile too, I thought was owing to her youth or affectation, or to a mixture of both, perhaps to a greater command of her features. —Little dreamt I, that I was incurring her contempt all the time.

 

But when, as I said, I heard her speak; which she did not till she had fathomed us all; when I heard her sentiments on two or three subjects, and took notice of that searching eye, darting into the very inmost cells of our frothy brains, by my faith, it made me look about me; and I began to recollect, and be ashamed of all I had said before; in short, was resolved to sit silent, till every one had talk’d round, to keep my folly in countenance. And then I raised the subjects that she could join in, and which she did join in, so much to the confusion and surprize of everyone of us! —For even thou, Lovelace, so noted for smart wit, repartee, and a vein of raillery, that delighteth all who come near thee, sattest in palpable darkness, and lookedst about thee, as well as we.

 

One instance only, of this, shall I remind thee of?

 

We talked of wit, and of wit, and aimed at it, bandying it like a ball from one to another of us, and resting it chiefly with thee, who wert always proud enough and vain enough of the attribute; and then more especially, as thou hadst assembled us, as far as I know, principally to shew the lady thy superiority over us; and us thy triumph over her. And then Tourville (who is always satisfied with wit at second-hand; wit upon memory; other mens wit), repeated some verses, as applicable to the subject; which two of us applauded, tho’ full of double entendre. Thou, seeing the lady’s serious air on one of those repetitions, appliedst thyself to her, desiring her notions of wit: A quality, thou saidst, which every one prized, whether flowing from himself, or found in another.

 

Then it was she took all our attention: —It was a quality much talked of, she said, but, she believed, very little understood: —At least, if she might be so free as to give her judgment of it, from what had passed in the present conversation, she must say, that Wit with Gentlemen was one thing; with Ladies, another.

 

This startled us all: —How the women looked! — How they pursed in their mouths, a broad smile the moment before upon each, from the verses they had heard repeated, so well understood, as we saw, by their looks—While I besought her to let us know, for our instruction, what Wit was with Ladies : For such I was sure it ought to be, with Gentlemen .

 

Cowley, she said, had defined it prettily by negatives.

 

Thou desiredst her to repeat his definition.

 

She did; and with so much graceful ease, and beauty, and propriety of accent, as would have made bad poetry delightful.

A thousand diff’rent shapes it bears,
Comely, in thousand shapes appears.
‘Tis not a tale : ‘Tis not a jest,
Admir’d, with laughter, at a feast,
Nor florid talk, which must this title gain:
The proofs of wit for ever must remain.
Much less can that have any place
At which a virgin hides her face.
Such dross the fire must purge away:—‘Tis just
The author blush there, where the reader must. 

Here she stopt, looking round her upon us all with conscious superiority, as I thought. Lord! how we star’d! Thou attemptedst to give us thy definition of wit, that thou mightest have something to say, and not seem to be surprised into silent modesty.

 

But, as if she cared not to trust thee with the subject, referring to the same author as for his more positive decision, she thus, with the same harmony of voice and accent, emphatically decided upon it.

Wit, like a luxuriant vine,
Unless to Virtue’s prop it join,
Firm and erect, tow’rd heaven bound,
Tho’ it with beauteous leaves and pleasant fruit be crown’d;
It lies deform’d, and rotting on the ground. 

If thou recollectest this part of the conversation, and how like fools we looked at one another: How much it put us out of conceit with ourselves, and made us fear her; when we found our conversation thus excluded from the very character which our vanity had made us think unquestionably ours: And if thou profitest properly by the recollection, thou wilt be of my mind, that there is not so much wit in wickedness, as we had flattered ourselves there was.

 

And after all, I have been of opinion ever since that conversation, that the wit of all the rakes and libertines I ever convers’d with, from the brilliant Bob Lovelace down to little Johnny Hartop the punster, consists mostly in saying bold and shocking things, with such courage, as shall make Modest people blush, the Impudent laugh, and the Ignorant stare.

 

And why dost thou think I mention these things, so mal-à-propos, as it may seem? —Only, let me tell thee, as an instance, among many that might be given from the same evening’s conversation, of this fine lady’s superiority in those talents which ennoble nature, and dignify her sex: Evidenced not only to each of us, as we offended, but to the flippant Partington, and the grosser, but egregiously hypocritical Sinclair, in the correcting eye, the discouraging blush, in which was mixed as much displeasure as modesty, and sometimes, as the occasion called for it (for we were some of us hardened above the sense of feeling delicate reproof),
by the sovereign contempt, mingled with a disdainful kind of pity, that shewed, at once, her own conscious worthy and our despicable worthlessness.

 

O Lovelace! what then was the triumph, even in my eye, and what is it: still upon reflection, of true modesty, of true wit, and truepoliteness, over frothy jest, laughing impertinence, and an obscenity so shameful, even to the guilty, that they cannot hint at it but under a double meaning!

 

Then, as thou hast somewhere observed, all her correctives avowed by her eye. Not poorly, like the generality of her sex, affecting ignorance of meanings too obvious to be concealed; but so resenting, as to shew each impudent laugher, the offence given to, and taken by, a purity, that had mistaken its way, when it fell into such company.

 

Such is the woman, such is the angel, whom thou hast betrayed into thy power, and wouldst deceive and ruin. —Sweet creature! did she but know, how she is surrounded (as I then thought as well as now think), and what is intended, how much sooner would death be her choice, than so dreadful a situation! — And how effectually would her story, were it generally known, warn all the Sex against throwing themselves into the power of ours, let our vows, oaths, and protestations, be what they will!

 

But let me beg of thee, once more, my dear Lovelace, if thou hast any regard for thy honour, for the honour of thy family, for thy future peace, or for my opinion of thee (who yet pretend not to be so much moved by principle, as by that dazling merit, which ought still more to attract thee ), to be prevailed upon— to be—to be humane, that’s all—Only, that thou wouldest not disgrace our common humanity!

 

Hardened as thou art, I know, that they are the abandoned people in the house who keep thee up to a resolution against her. O that the sagacious fair one, with so much innocent charity in her own heart, had not so resolutely held those women at distance! — That, as she boarded there, she had oftener tabled with them. Specious as they are, in a week’s time, she would have seen thro’ them; they could not have been always so guarded, as they were when they saw her but seldom, and when they prepared themselves to see her; and she would have fled their house as a place infected. And yet, perhaps, with so determined an enterprizer, this discovery might have accelerated her ruin.

 

I know that thou art nice in thy loves. But are there not hundreds of women, who, tho’ not utterly abandoned, would be taken with thee for mere personal regards? Make a toy, if thou wilt, of principle, with regard to such of the Sex as regard it as a toy; but rob not an angel of those purities, which, in her own opinion, constitute the difference between angelic and brutal qualities.

 

With regard to the passion itself, the less of soul in either man or woman, the more sensual are they. Thou, Lovelace, hast a soul, tho’ a corrupted one; and art more intent (as thou even gloriest) upon the preparative stratagem, than upon the end of conquering.

 

See we not the natural bent of idiots and the crazed? —The very appetite is body ; and when we ourselves are most fools, and crazed, then are we most eager in these pursuits. See what fools this passion makes the wisest men! What snivellers, what dotards, when they suffer themselves to be run away with by it! —An unpermanent passion ! —Since, it (ashamed of its more proper name) we must call it Love, Love gratified, is Love satisfied—And Love satisfied, is Indifference begun . And this is the case where consent on one side adds to the obligation on the other. What then but remorse can follow a forcible attempt?

 

Do not even chaste lovers choose to be alone in their courtship preparations, ashamed to have even a child to witness to their foolish actions, and more foolish expressions? —Is this deified passion, in its greatest altitudes, fitted to stand the day? —Do not the lovers, when mutual consent awaits their wills, retire to coverts and to darkness, to complete their wishes? And shall such a sneaking passion as this, which can be so easily gratified by viler objects, be permitted to debase the noblest?

 

Were not the delays of thy vile purposes owing more to the awe which her majestic virtue has inspired thee with, than to thy want of adroitness in villainy [I must write my free sentiments in this case; for have I not seen the angel?]; I should be ready to censure some of thy contrivances and pretences to suspend the expected day, as trite, stale, and (to me, who know thy intention) poor ; and too often resorted to, as nothing comes of them, to be gloried in; particularly that of Mennell, the vapourish lady, and the ready-furnished house.

 

She must have thought so too, at times, and in her heart despised thee for them, or love thee (ingrateful as thou art) to her misfortune; as well as entertain hope against probability. But this would afford another warning to the Sex, were they to know her story; as it would shew them what poor pretences they must seem to be satisfied with, if once they put themselves into the power of a designing man.

 

If trial only was thy end, as once was thy pretence ( a ) , enough surely hast thou tried this paragon of virtue and vigilance. But I knew thee too well, to expect, at the time, that thou wouldest stop there. Men of our cast, whenever they form a design upon any of the Sex, put no other bound to their views, than what want of power gives them. I knew, that from one advantage gained, thou wouldest proceed to attempt another. Thy habitual aversion to wedlock too well I knew; and indeed thou avowest thy hope to bring her to cohabitation, in that very letter in which thou pretendest trial to be thy principal view ( a ).

 

But do not even thy own frequent and involuntary remorses, when thou hast time, place, company, and every other circumstance, to favour thee in thy wicked design, convince thee, that there can be no room for a hope so presumptuous? —Why then, since thou wouldst choose to marry her, rather than lose her, wilt thou make her hate thee for ever?

 

But if thou darest to meditate personal trial, and art sincere in thy resolution to reward her, as she behaves in it, let me beseech thee to remove her from this vile house: That will be to give her and thy conscience fair play. So intirely now does the sweet deluded excellence depend upon her supposed happier prospects, that thou needest not to fear that she will fly from thee, or that she will wish to have recourse to that scheme of Miss Howe, which has put thee upon what thou callest thy master-strokes .

 

But whatever be thy determination on this head; and if I write not in time, but that thou hast actually pulled off the mask; let it not be one of thy devices, if thou wouldst avoid the curses of every heart, and hereafter of thy own, to give her, no not for one hour (be her resentment ever so great), into the power of that villainous woman, who has, if possible, less remorse than thyself; and whose trade it is to break the resisting spirit, and utterly to ruin the heart unpractised in evil. —O Lovelace, Lovelace, how many dreadful stories could this horrid woman tell the Sex! And shall that of Miss Clarissa Harlowe swell the guilty list? thou art, thou canst not be capable. Thou couldst not enjoy a triumph so disgraceful to thy wicked pride, as well as to humanity.

 

Shouldst thou think, that the melancholy spectacle hourly before me has made me more serious than usual, perhaps thou wilt not be mistaken. But nothing more is to be inferr’d from hence (were I even to return to my former courses), but that whenever the time of cool reflection comes, whether brought on by our own disasters, or by those of others, we shall undoubtedly, if capable of thought, and if we have time for it, think in the same manner.

 

We neither of us are such fools, as to disbelieve a futurity, or to think, whatever be our practice, that we came hither by chance, and for no end but to do all the mischief that we have in our power to do. — Nor am I ashamed to own, that in the prayers which my poor uncle makes me read to him, in the absence of a very good clergyman, who regularly attends him, I do not forget to put in a word or two for myself.

 

If, Lovelace, thou laughest at me, thy ridicule will be more conformable to thy actions, than to thy belief . —Devils believe and tremble. Canst thou be more abandoned than they?

 

And here let me add, with regard to my poor old man, that I often wish thee present but for one half hour in a day, to see the dregs of a gay life running off in the most excruciating tortures, that the colic, the stone, and the gangrene, can unitedly inflict; and to hear him bewail the dissoluteness of his past life, in the bitterest anguish of a spirit every hour expecting to be called to its last account. —Yet, by all his confessions, he has not to accuse himself in sixty-seven years of life, of half the very vile enormities, which you and I have committed in the last seven only.

 

I conclude with recommending to thy serious consideration all I have written, as proceeding from the heart and soul of

Thy assured friend,
John Belford .

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