Peg Plunkett's Memoirs - CHAP. III.

Memoirs of Mrs. Margaret Leeson

CHAP. III.

 

If Love the Virgin's heart invade
How, like a Moth the simple Maid
Still plays around the flame.
If soon she be not made a Wife
Her honour's sing'd, and then, for life,
She's—what I dare not name.
GAY

            MY LIFE, since the death of my dear mother, had hitherto been an alternative of pain and pleasure; the one constantly rendering the other the more poignant. At home, continually exposed to the harshest of treatment; abroad, soothed with every amusement that the sisters with whom I had occasionally resided, or my friends could procure. In my father's house—alas! his no more!—I was sunk in despondency, and my mind, wedded to sorrow and despair, could find no opportunity for laudable exertion. At the dwellings of others, I gave loose to pleasure, and banished every thought but of diversions that might recompense me for the evil hours I had spent at Killough. Thus I had neither time nor inclination for improvement, or laying a solid foundation for happiness, by an increase of useful knowledge. Hence my natural genius was cramped, and my heart became filled only with frivolity. The attachments I had shown to some of my admirers, were quite transient: and if I yielded a moment to any desire for marriage, it was more than from a wish, thereby to get rid of oppression than from any love of either of the men. Nay the mortification I received from being disappointed, rather sprung from my defeated hopes on that ground, than from having my affections crossed, therefore, they lasted no longer than whilst their immediate impressions continued. But alas! I was soon to experience love as a passion, and to yield to its fascinating power.

            For some time after I came to Dublin, my body was weak, my health very precarious, and my spirits heavily oppressed. Pleasures seemed to have lost their exhilarating effect, and I experienced a kind of lethargy of the mind. In short, I fell into a state, the most destructive to virtue that possibly can be. It is when the heart is replete with sorrow and languor, that is most susceptible of love. In the midst of a round of amusements, each equally engaging, and a train of admirers the giddy female gives neither a preference, and has not leisure to attach herself to either. But when softened, and inactive, the tender passions find easy admission, and the comforter, and consoler soon becomes the favoured lover—such was my case.

            My brother-in-law had a very intimate friend, a Mr. Dardis. He beheld my languid state with a sympathetic eye of compassion. He frequently conversed with me, and all his study seemed to be to console and comfort me. His mind appeared humane and generous. His address was soft and pathetic, though rather distant and reserved.

 

Not warm as a Lover, but cool as a Friend.

            I felt a kind of new-born delight in his conversation. Whilst it lasted my sorrows seemed lulled into a calm, and my mind soothed into content. I forgot my past grief in the satisfaction of his soothings, and thought the hour lost in which he was not present. His visits became more frequent, his attachment to me more visible and pointed, he appeared more affable and gay, and I more cheerful. Still he only spoke the language of friendship; and under that form I had no reserve, I entertained no suspicion. The pains he had taken to bring me back from despondency demanded, I thought, at least my gratitude. His pains were not lost, I recovered my spirits, and my looks testified a complete return of health. This was visible to all my friends, who attributed it to every cause but that which was the real one. He now was seldom absent, he doubtless observed a change in my heart, before I perceived it myself; and when I did, I was unwilling to believe it. I beheld him as a true friend, and such a one is a real treasure, a comfort in sorrow, and a refuge in distress. He redoubled his assiduities. He, at length, spoke the language of love, and I listened to it with pleasure. His proposals were honourable; but we agreed, that at that time the state of his affairs and my own situation rendered the accomplishment of our wishes, by a marriage, totally impracticable; therefore, we determined to wait the favourable opportunity, which we hoped a little time would produce. This point being settled, we mutually acknowledged our love, and solemnly engaged ourselves to each other. I looked upon him as my future husband, and as such permitted his visits by night as well as day, that we might give vent to the effusion of our passion unobserved by others.

            Every interview gave birth to the following; for some time he totally forebore from any freedom that could alarm virtue, or arouse suspicion. Lulled into security by this apparently honourable reserve, I apprehended nothing. Our expressions of affection gradually became more fervent; our confidence in each other, more confirmed; our dalliances less confined; our passions more inflamed; I felt a tumult in my blood, which I scarce wished to restrain, at length—to use the language of Lothario.

 

Hot with the Tuscan grape, and high in blood,
Haply he stole unheeded to my chamber.
He found the soft, believing love-sick maid
Loose, unattir'd, young, tender, full of wishes.
Fierceness and Pride, the guardians of her honour,
Were all asleep—and none but Love was waking;
He snatch'd the glorious, golden opportunity,
And with prevailing youthful ardor press'd her.

            Here then was my first failing—the first indeed, but the fatal foundation of all that followed. Learn hence my young female readers, cautiously to guard against the first approaches of vice—learn to keep firm the barriers of virtue, and know that if the smallest breach is made in the mounds of Chastity, vice rushes in like a torrent.

 

At length the morn, and cool reflection came.

            I saw the greatness of my fault, I saw my seducer had triumphed, yet how could I call him seducer, when I met the seduction half way; and whatever compunction I then felt at my offence, I could not hate the offender. I saw that I had been imprudent, yet the flatterer, Hope was at hand, that that imprudence might be amended by his marrying me, which I did not doubt but his honour would prompt him to do. Yet what reliance could I justly have on his honour, when I had weakly given up my own. This indeed, Mr. Dardis continued to promise, as soon as circumstances would permit; and this assurance reconciled my mind to repetitions of our guilty joys, and lulled both conscience and remorse asleep.

            I then wrote to my father for money, which my mind foreboded would be the last I should ever receive from him. But it was difficult for him to procure me any, as his son had warned all the tenants not to pay any more rents to my father, and they could not be persuaded to act contrary to the orders they had received. However, my indulgent parent, ignorant of the false step I had taken, and which had really made me unworthy of his attention, resolved to leave no effort untried to serve me. An uncle of mine had come up to Dublin, to fetch one of his daughters home, who had boarded in the nunnery in Channel-row; and when I was in doubt from the long delay, whether my father could comply with my request, he sent me a draft upon that uncle for forty pounds, which was accepted and paid. I received the money with a kind of compunction, as it made me reflect on the old gentleman's paternal fondness, and how little I deserved it. However, as by the receipt of such a considerable sum I thought myself as rich as a queen, and that I should never want money any more; and as I was not of a temper to give gloomy ideas any long habitation in my breast, when I could entertain others more lively and agreeable, my repentance and compunction were of no long duration.

            My spirits continued to be lively, Mr. Dardis constantly repeated his visits, both public and private. He did not drop his assurances of his honourable intentions, and gave me incessant marks of his esteem, and unabated love; nay he seemed (as Shakespeare says)

 

As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on.

            Thus we went on, enjoying the pernicious sweets of an illicit amour, and priding ourselves in the prudent secrecy with which it was carried on, until, at length an event ensued that mocked our secrecy, and threatened to divulge it to the world; to expose me to the resentment of my family; and plunge me into disgrace. In short, I found myself in a state that could not be long hidden, but would soon produce a living witness of my indiscretion.

            This tell-tale circumstance ensuing, roused me at once from the lethargy into which guilty pleasure, and false security had plunged me. I beheld in a moment all the horror of my situation. I saw myself on the eve of shame, reproach and detestation, and knew not how to ward off either. I appreciated the value of the world's estimation and an unspotted character, when I was about to lose both; and had only one single twig to break my fall adown the dark abyss, into which I was sinking; and that was by Mr. Dardis fulfilling his promise. I took the first opportunity that offered to acquaint him, in a flood of tears, with my condition; the impossibility of concealing it for many days longer from the eyes of my sister and the family, and the ruin that the discovery must inevitably draw upon me. He appeared deeply struck with this event, which had not both him and I been greatly infatuated, we must have forseen would naturally be the consequence of our conduct.

            Mr. Dardis agreed to the necessity of guarding against censure; but at the same time, he very forcibly urged that the making his intentions known to my family, especially to my brutish brother, would induce them to desire an immediate compliance, which would thereby be rendered unattainable by the opposition that his relations would give to the completion of his wishes. To marry me in private might indeed, silence any scruples of conscience, but would not stop the clamours of the world; and a public marriage would deprive him of the countenance of his friends, and of all the hopes of the benefits of succeeding to his family fortune: and of even his present income; which would involve us both in poverty and distress. The best method he saw in our present circumstances, was, that I should leave my sister's house and go to genteel lodgings, which he would provide for me, where I should want for nothing, and when I had lain in, it would be perhaps in his power to make good his engagements to me, which he wished as cordially as I did, and would do the moment he was able. It was true indeed, that my sudden departure, and the uncertainty where I was might cause some conjectures, but then they could not amount to any certainties, and whenever I should emerge into the world again my character would be secure.

            Although I was not altogether satisfied with this plan, yet, as I could not offer any better I acquiesced in it. He then took apartments for me in Clarendon-street, at the house of a Mrs. Butler. The lodgings were genteel and convenient, but in the most improper house to which chance could have directed him; for although the mistress of it had a very respectable appearance, she was one of the impure ones, and therefore, not a fit habitation for the recovery of character; but this I did not know till after I had left her.

            Here I was, for the first time in my life, absent from all my relations, and from every friend and former acquaintance. It is true, I enjoyed as much as I desired of Mr. Dardis's company, in which I was somewhat cheerful; but when alone I was oppressed with anxiety, and could neither look back without remorse, nor forward without apprehension of what might follow. My mind was continually tormented with the thoughts of what my sisters, and especially my poor father must feel at my sudden elopement. It was possible they might not divine the real circumstance, but they could figure none to themselves but what must he to my disadvantage. In this state of mind I entreated my lover, to make every inquiry into what they thought, and what they said of me. He did so, and in about a fortnight brought me the following intelligence.

            My whole family was in the greatest possible consternation about me; as my clothes were left behind, they imagined that in some fit of discontent, though they knew not for what, I had put an end to my life in some manner or other; my brother and sister had gone down the North-wall, to make some enquiries about me, and in sorrowful expectation of seeing my body either floating on the water, or driven ashore. My brother Smith, then recollected that the driver of the coach, in which I had left his house, as on a visit, drove with his left hand. After searching all the coach-stands, he found this man, who informed him that he had sat me down at such a house in Clarendon-street. My two brothers-in-law then went to a public-house, the very next door to that in which I lodged, and in answer to their inquiries, heard that the house in which I was, was a very improper one. Distracted at this news, they gave me up as an abandoned woman, and went away without condescending, or indeed wishing to see me.

            Of this circumstance I was ignorant for some time, but the news that Mr. Dardis brought me of the uneasiness my absence had caused, filled me with the deepest concern. He compassionated my anxiety, and advised me to write word to my sister, where I was, that she might no longer continue in her fears for my personal safety. I eagerly followed his advice, and wrote to my sister Brady, to request she would call on me the next day. She did not fail, but conscious of my situation and willing to hide it, when she came I enveloped myself in my cloak, that my increase of bulk might not be apparent. Her visit was long, and the time was chiefly spent in interrogatories, of the manner and motives of my elopement, and in my returning such answers as seemed the most proper either to excuse, or palliate my conduct. The result of our conversation was her offer of receiving me into her house (as she assured me that in which I was, would destroy my character if I stayed longer in it), and my promise to dine with her next day.

            When Mr. Dardis came at night, anxious to know the event of our interview, I told him all that had passed, and my intention of going to Mrs. Brady. This did not meet his approbation. He very forcibly represented to me, that it would be totally impossible to conceal my condition, if I went to reside with my sister; nay, if even I stayed in Dublin, now my family knew where I was. He urged the absolute necessity of a retreat, at least till I had lain in. He offered to take me to England, but my dread of the sea, and my imagination that I should be drowned if I ventured upon it, prevented my compliance with that plan. He next proposed that I should go to some country place; I consented, and he went immediately to take a place in the Drogheda stage. The next morning he went and put me into the coach; but how great was my surprise, when I found sitting there a near relation of my own, a Mrs. Drumgoold, of Drogheda, who having been in Dublin on some business was returning home. She was as much struck at seeing me, as I was at beholding her. I was so depressed that I could scarce make any rational answer to her civilities, but sat a few moments revolving in my mind what falsehoods I should invent to conceal the truth. At length I told her that I was going to Drogheda to receive some money for my brother Smith. This assertion passed current, as she could not know anything to the contrary. But it involved me in another embarrassment, she had very politely obliged me to accept her invitation of staying in her house whilst my business demanded my presence in Drogheda. But this promise I did not intend to keep, as it would not only discover the falsehood of my assertion, respecting my coming to that town, but would also betray the condition which I was most interested to hide. O sacred Truth! what does one single deviation from thee, cost us to support! how many falsehoods must be uttered to screen the first?

            Whilst I remained in the coach my mind was employed in framing some plan of evading my promise to Mrs. Drumgoold, and getting farther from Drogheda. When the coach stopped at the Inn, I said I would make some enquiries after the persons I wanted, and would be with her in half a hour. Instead of which, as soon as she was gone home I procured a man and horse to take me to Dunleer, a small town about seven miles farther off, and galloped away directly; but to stop all enquiries whither I was gone, and all pursuit, I requested the Inn-keeper, at Drogheda, to say to any person Mrs. Drumgoold might send for me; that I had walked out of his house, just after the coach came in, and that he knew nothing more about me.

            It was late when I arrived at Dunleer, and as I was totally a stranger in the town, I stayed that night at the Inn. After a very slight refreshment I retired to bed. I say to bed, for rest was a stranger to me, and sleep never once visited my weeping eyes. Being left alone in the silent hours of darkness, I had leisure to consider the horrors of my situation. I became a prey to reflection, and lay self-condemned without the alleviation of a single excuse for my conduct. Oh! could we but foresee in the moments of the gratification of our passions, the hours of bitter remorse they must necessarily produce, we would surely stop in career, and avoid the heart-rending pangs that follow guilt.

            I arose in the morning without feeling myself in the least refreshed, but the necessity of coming to some resolution roused me to exertion. I enquired of the chambermaid, about the disposition of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood, and being satisfied from her answers that I might remain unknown; by the assistance of the waiter I procured lodging and board in the house of a decent farmer, at half-a-guinea a week. I found my new dwelling perfectly retired, and the people, especially the farmer's wife, attentive and agreeable. There I passed my time in innocence, though I cannot say in content, for reflection would frequently obtrude, and represent to me a father grieving for his loss, sisters lamenting my lapse from virtue, which they could not but suppose was the case; friends condemning me; and all of them enraged at my conduct. In this state religion alone could dart a ray of comfort; and I felt no pleasure but in the strict attention to my duties in the neighbouring chapel.—Alas! that these emotions were but for the season. Had I even then persevered in the right path, I might not have only avoided evils which followed, but have atoned for my wanderings in a wrong one.

            At length, in this cottage, where I remained totally unknown, I was delivered of a fine girl, with which as soon as I was perfectly recovered, I sat out for Dublin, at the earnest request of Mr. Dardis. He met me at the Inn on my arrival, where he seemed transported with joy at seeing me, and testified the greatest fondness for the little innocent. The next day he hired a fresh nurse, and having discharged the one I had hitherto employed and brought to town, he took me to a very agreeable lodging he had procured; where, forgetting all the resolutions I had made in Dublin, we lived together as before.

            There are certain temptations which are only to be resisted by flying from them. When sensuality attacks the human heart, there is no time for contending; a speedy flight alone can secure the victory: we may profitably bear up under the losses and crosses of this life, with a laudable firmness of resolution, and come off conquerors; but we must not even capitulate with allurements of sense, and the poet says,

 

The woman who deliberates is lost.

 

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