In which the sine quá non of all novels is, for the first time, introduced.
In the last chapter I have said in few words that Bessy Godwin had been sent to school, and had since returned home. She had been home nearly a year before the period to which I brought up my history, but now she no longer was employed in any menial service, the girl who had been hired during her absence being still retained. Bessy now superintended the household, but did nothing more; and there was a greater degree of comfort and expenditure than had formerly been the case. Whether this was on Bessy's account, or from Bessy's imbibed ideas, I cannot pretend to say; but certainly there was a great change in our style of living, which Bramble appeared to sanction. Mrs. Maddox remained as a mere pensioner, sitting by the fire, and perhaps finishing a pair of stockings about every five or six weeks, talking as usual at and to everybody and with everything. In another point, also, there was a change in Bramble's house: it was much oftener filled with company; this was, I presume, to be ascribed to Bessy's personal charms, which certainly were very great. She was of a peculiar and much admired style of beauty, a description which strikes some people at first sight, and not others—those not perceiving it at first eventually admiring it even more than the others. She was taller than the middle height, her person finely developed, yet not so much so as to take away from its grace: her complexion was pale and clear, her eyes and hair very dark; there was a coldness about her beauty when in repose, like statuary marble; but if the least excited or animated, the color would mantle in her cheek; her eyes would beam, till they appeared as if, like bright planets, they could almost cast a shadow; and dimples, before concealed, would show themselves when she indulged in her silvery laugh. Although her form was commanding, still she was very feminine: there was great attraction in her face, even when in repose—she was cold, but not chilling.
I had seen little of her for three years, during which she had sprung up to womanhood, for she was now seventeen, and appeared to be at least eighteen years old. Before, when we were living together, we kissed as brother and sister: since we had again become inmates of the same house, we had been friends, but nothing more. Bessy certainly showed as great a preference to me as our relative situations would admit; but still it appeared as if the extreme intimacy of childhood had been broken off, and that it was necessary that a renewed intimacy under another aspect should take place, to restore us to our former relations. Here it was for me to make the first overtures; not for her, as maidenly reserve would not permit it. Bramble seemed to be most anxious that such should be the case—indeed, considered it as a matter of course: perhaps Bessy thought so too in her own bosom; and the continual raillery of Bramble did more harm than good, as it appeared to warrant her thinking that it ought to be so. Why it was not I will now explain to the reader.
I have already made mention of Mr. Wilson, the lawyer, whose acquaintance we procured through Sir Hercules and his lady. This intimacy had very much increased; and a Miss Janet Wilson had come home from a finishing seminary near town. Between this young lady and my sister Virginia a certain degree of intimacy had been formed, and of course I had seen a great deal of her at the times when I was at Greenwich. She was a very pretty and very diminutive girl, but beautifully proportioned, although so very small; indeed, she was considered quite a model in figure, at least my mother used to say so, and I never heard any one disagree with her. Janet had, moreover, large eyes, penciled eyebrows, and a dimpled chin. Now, as Bessy was away at the time when I first made her acquaintance, if all these perfections were not enough for me to fall in love with, I must have been difficult to please at the age of eighteen, when one is not so very difficult; and the consequence was, I was her most devoted slave. Mr. Wilson laughed at us, and seemed either to think that it would end in nothing, or that if it did end in something he had no objection. Thus was I fixed; and with Virginia for a confidante, what was to prevent the course of true love running smooth? Janet received all my sighs, all my protestations, all my oaths, and all my presents—and many were the latter, although perhaps not equal to the former three. It was, therefore, not surprising that Bessy, who had been out of the way, had been forestalled by this diamond edition of Nature's handiwork. Such was the state of my heart at the commencement of the year 1805.
I have mentioned that my mother had taken a house in the principal street; but I must now add that in the year 1804 she found it necessary to remove into one much larger, and had therefore shifted more to the upper part of the town. Instead of being in a row, this house was detached, with a small garden in front and a good piece of ground at the back, which looked down toward the river. The situation not being so central did no harm to my mother, as she was so well known; on the contrary, it made her even more fashionable. She now kept no shop, but a show room; and had not only accommodation for more workpeople, but very handsome apartments to let. In another point it was advantageous, which was on account of my father. At the end of the garden there was an octangular summer-house, looking upon the river: it was a good-sized room, boarded floor, and, moreover, it had a fireplace in it, and when shut up was very warm and comfortable. My mother made this house over to my father as his own, to smoke and drink beer in; and my father preferred a place in which he could sit alone with his friends, to a public house, especially as the garden had a gate at the end of it by which he could admit himself whenever he pleased. Here my father, Ben the Whaler, Anderson, and others would sit, having a commanding view of the Thames and the vessels passing and repassing—in the summer-time, with all the windows open, and enjoying the fresh air and the fresh smoke from their pipes—in winter-time surrounding the fire and telling their yarns. It was an admirable arrangement, and Virginia and I always knew where to find him.
I have said but little of my sister Virginia. I may be considered partial to her—perhaps I was; but to me she was, if not the handsomest, certainly one of the most captivating persons I ever saw: to prove that I thought so, I can only say that, deeply as I was smitten with Miss Janet Wilson, I often thought that I wished she was a facsimile of my sister. Virginia was now seventeen years old, slender and very graceful: she reminded me more of an antelope in her figure than anything I can compare her to; her head was so beautifully placed on her shoulders that it was the first thing which attracted your notice when you saw her. Her eyes were of a deep hazel, fringed by long black eyelashes, and her arching and delicate eyebrows nearly met; her nose was perfectly straight, but rather small; and her face ended in a sharp oval, which added to the brilliancy and animation of her countenance; her mouth was small and beautifully formed, and her little teeth like seed pearl. Every one declared that she was the handsomest creature that ever they had seen; and what every one says must be true. She was so; but she was not always lively—she was only so at times: she appeared to be of a serious, reflective turn of mind, and she read a great deal; but at times she was mirth personified. To my mother she was always dutiful and attentive, and was very useful to her.
I could not at first imagine what made my mother so anxious to have lodgers in the house, as they must have proved a great nuisance to her, and her circumstances were above such an infliction. It was not long before I discovered the cause of this: it was no other but to make up some good match for my sister, whose beauty she considered would effect her purpose. Many were the applications for her lodgings, made by highly respectable gentlemen; but when she discovered, either that they were married, or that in other points they did not suit, she invariably refused, and for months her apartments continued vacant; but if anybody at all aristocratical, who was single, wished to inspect them, my mother was all smiles and eagerness. It may be supposed that she was not likely to meet with such people as she solicited at such a town as Greenwich, but such was not the case: before steamboats made Greenwich so come-at-able there were many families of distinction who resided there and in its environs—especially in the autumn of the year, when the river offered much amusement. It was just at that period that the whitebait parties became so much in vogue, and Greenwich was considered a pleasant retreat for a few months by many of the fashionable world.
Although Virginia never mentioned her surmises directly, I perceived, by her occasional remarks, that she had latterly become aware of what were my mother's views; indeed, how could she do otherwise, when my mother would refuse her lodgings one day to a gentleman because he was married, and let them the next time merely because he was a single man? And that she was disgusted with my mother's conduct I was convinced; at the same time, she certainly kept her thoughts to herself, merely telling me how very uncomfortable it was to have lodgers, and to be obliged to go into their rooms with messages from my mother. There was an Honorable Mr. ——, I really forget his name—indeed, I should not have mentioned him, except that he was the introduction of another personage who was several months in my mother's house, a harmless old bachelor. How old he was I cannot say, as he wore a very youthful wig and also false whiskers, but I should think about sixty. He was a great admirer of the fine arts, and a still greater admirer of his own performances in painting. He took lessons twice a day from two different masters, who came from London, and he was at it from morning to night. He came down to Greenwich, as he said, to study tints, and get up his coloring. I cannot say I thought his performances very good, but perhaps I was not a judge. My mother, who would, I believe, have sacrificed my sister to an ourang outang, provided he was an Honorable, took every opportunity of sending Virginia in to him, that he might study the delicate tints on her cheeks; but it would not do, even if Virginia had been a party to it. He looked at his palette instead of her pretty mouth, and his camelhair pencils attracted his attention more than her penciled eyebrows. He was wrapped up in his art, and overlooked the prettiest piece of nature in the world; and Virginia, seeing this to be the case, had no longer any objection to go into his room. But this gentleman had a nephew, a very different sort of a personage, a young heir to a marquisate, who used to pay attention to his bachelor uncle by paying him visits, at first because he was ordered so to do, and after once or twice because he had seen Virginia, and was struck with her appearance. He was a good-looking young man, about nineteen, but not very bright—indeed, I ought to say very silly, although at the same time not at all bashful. He made an acquaintance with my mother, who was delighted with his condescension, and declared that he was one of the most pleasant young men she had ever met with; and he would have been very intimate with Virginia had she not repulsed him. As soon as the leaves dropped off the trees the old bachelor declared that there were no more tints worth remaining for, and he took his departure. About a month afterward his nephew came down, accompanied by a young man who was his tutor, and hired the apartments, much to the joy of my mother, who now had hopes, and much to the annoyance of my sister, who had fears of being persecuted.
And now, having in this chapter brought up my history to the commencement of the year 1805, I shall again enter into a more detailed narrative.