Chapter 2

[31] “My dear Charlotte,” exclaimed her sister, as she precipitately entered the dressing room, in which the former, elegantly attired, was, after dismissing her maid, most complacently viewing in a large mirror the entire reflection of her finely formed little person, “My dear Charlotte, I hope the hint which I have just received from Mrs. Percy has no foundation in fact?”

“Fie! Ellen; so you hope your good aunt has told a fib; or, to adopt the more polite language of Swift’s Houyhnhums, has said the thing that is not. Is this, think you, very respectful to her matronship?” [32]

“Dear girl, do, if possible, be serious on what appears to me a very serious subject.”

“Why, to you grave and sentimental maidens, who conceive that, when they marry, every faculty and every inclination is, in submissive duty, to be yielded to a despot, marriage, to be sure, must wear a formidable aspect: but to me, a woman of the great, or, if you like it better, of the gay world, the subject has been otherwise considered. Yet, I will allow (smiling archly as she spake) that, to a true heroine, it is a little mortifying to find a discarded lover, instead of making a voyage to Greece in search of the promontory of Leucate, consoling himself by the exchange of flowery fetters for those more weighty and galling, in which he had witlessly entangled himself.”

“It is then the mere triumph of coquettry, I will not say how unjustifiable at which you are aiming; or do you really intend [33] to vow at the altar, and bind yourself by the laws of your country, to love, honour and respect a man whose character and qualities are, I more than suspect, but little calculated to inspire either of those sentiments?”

“A mere custom-house oath, my dear: it is by the imposer of obligations, not by those on whom they are imposed, that they are violated.”

“Supposing them to be indeed an imposition; but, surely not when they are voluntarily incurred?”

“You, dear Ellen, are a philosopher, and therefore can be at no loss to comprehend, that there is not only a physical but a moral necessity. Now, physically, I am not, I confess, compelled to console Mr. Wycherly for the scorn of my elder and more sage sister, by bestowing upon him my own equally fair hand, which my smiles, [34] in the very moment of mortified self-love and importance, gave him courage to solicit: but morally, I cannot, when our dear father is removed from us to his kindred heaven, live upon the interest of three thousand pounds. Even though I should resume my account book, the balance, I am persuaded, would never be even; and, though I have all due respect for our worthy aunt, her establishment in London is not exactly suited to my magnificent ideas; nor is her temper such as I should like to be constantly exposed to; a declining fashionable belle is usually a little soured. What resource that remains other than this which so opportunely offers, and which promises me, with independence and affluence, the power of indulging my favorite propensities?”

“Have but patience, a little patience: our dear father’s life may be longer than our fears presage; my house, should I be mistress of one, will ever be open to receive [35] you: our brother, who loves his sisters, is daily expected in England; your attractions, your accomplishments, your powers of captivation, may draw to you other suiters, better fitted by age and character to give you a taste for higher, more endearing sources of happiness.”

“I understand you: but as the French say, chacun a son gout![1] Now I never was in love with any thing but my own pretty person, and the last new fashion: I am too vain and too volatile to find happiness in a passion so serious as love. The more substantial, and more varied gratifications which fortune can give, are better suited to my tastes and capacities.”

“You do yourself wrong; you are capable, and you will feel it, I fear, too late, of better things. How much to be deplored is that talent for the arts, for the cultivation of which in the metropolis our dear father was prevailed upon to allow of your so frequent [36] and long visits to Mrs. Percy. Yet, we had hopes that your superior intellect would not thus have been perverted and subjugated.”

“It was my destiny, dear girl; and to repine would be vain. But, let me ask, whether, with your enlarged understanding and liberal principles, it is quite philosophical and fair, to insist on others seeing through your own medium? Whether the difference in our characters and tastes has its source in nature or in accident, in organization or in circumstance, I am not sufficiently profound to determine: but, certain it is, that difference is real and great. Love and a cottage would, in less than six months, kill me with ennui: the world is my passion, and the theatre upon which I am decided, if in my power, to exhibit myself and my pretensions.”

And to discover, when the discovery is too late to be availing, the heartless, unsatisfactory [37] nature of the passion to which you sacrifice. It has been well and truly observed, that fools only are ever made happy by vanity. — And it is a fool’s paradise to which the highly gifted Charlotte aspires.”

“Your description, my dear, severely as it bears upon the foibles of your poor little sister, would, I shrewdly suspect, be found not inapplicable to other passions besides this universal one of vanity.”

“Yes; to every mere passion, I allow, upon which duties and high duties, cannot be engrafted. Passions are the winds only by which the bark of life is wafted; it is the helm of reason that must safely direct its course.”

“A very pretty metaphor, to which some years hence I will pay more attention; but, really, my little vessel, at present, floats so smoothly on the summer sea, which [38] dimples and ripples and sparkles so prettily around it, while the light zephyrs of this same vanity fill and swell its gay streamers and silken sails, that I cannot but indulge the delightful placidity which its undulating motion produces.”

“Beware of treacherous quick sands and hidden shoals!”

“Love also has its wrecks! Dreadful are the rocks on which its hapless votaries have been driven, and unfathomable the gulphs which have swallowed them up.”

“Granted, if that love is not founded upon principle, guided by duty, and chastened by propriety.”

“Even, with all these correctives, you will not deny, that it may, that it has, and that it is not unlikely to produce misery. ‘The course of true love (says our own Shakespear) never did run smooth;’ and [39] how did I see the cheek of my Ellen blanched, and even her lips turn pale, when our father spoke of the weak lungs and pulmonary tendency of her lover. Again, that tremor! Forgive me, my sweet sister, for thus renewing apprehensions so appalling.

“I hope, Charlotte, and I trust (still I own, at the idea my heart sinks within me) should the calamity you hint at, so great a calamity, be destined, as the trial of my fortitude, that, though the tenderness of my heart should render philosophy a too feeble support, resignation to the Almighty disposer of events, and confidence in the paternal wisdom of His providence, would yet sustain me?

And, doubtless, they would do so, my pious and amiable sister; but my mind must content itself with a lower flight. With a character less elevated and heroic than that of my Ellen, I neither aspire to her enjoyments, nor should dare to incur her hazards. [40] My happiness, or gratifications, if you judge that a more appropriate term, will never depend upon any one individual. I will take the world as it goes, and try to make the best of it. When all things change around us, it were folly to become stationary. If I cannot enjoy, let me at least be amused.”

“There might be some wisdom in this, were the world eternal, or was no hope afforded us of a higher and a better, for which the performance of duties here, serious duties, must prepare and fit us.”

“A truce, dear Ellen, I pray you! or, by summoning up all these sombre images, you will chace the bloom from my cheek, and spoil the harmony and play of my features. Not a trace, I declare (running to examine herself in the glass) of a dimple remains; and the liquid lustre of my eyes is becoming languid and dim. I have an engagement this evening, and was armed for conquest, merciless girl that you are!” [41]

“The conquest, I understood, had been already atchieved.”

“True, yes; but, after alluring a lover by complacency and smiles, a little coquetry is an excellent stimulatus to preserve the new born inclination from languishing. Know you not what is said by our English poet: —

‘Yet ne’er so sure our passion to create

As when she touch’d the brink of all we hate.’

“Farewell love; the il-penseroso becomes your soft expressive features, accords with the flexible sounds of your plaintive voice; while l’ allegro should be the motto of your more animated, yet perhaps less affectingly seductive sister.” [42]

[1] French: ‘to each his own.’