Mrs. Winifrid Wormwood was the daughter of a rustic merchant, who, by the happy union of many lucrative trades, amassed an enormous fortune. His family consisted of three girls, and Winifrid was the eldest: Long before she was twenty, she was surrounded with lovers, some probably attracted by the splendid prospect of her expected portion, and others truly captivated by her personal graces; for her person was elegant, and her elegance was enlivened with peculiar vivacity. Mr. Wormwood was commonly called a kind parent, and an honest man; and he might deserve, indeed, those honorable appellations, if it were not a profanation of language to apply them to a narrow and a selfish spirit. He indulged his daughters in many expensive amusements, because it flattered his pride; but his heart was engrossed by the proffits of his extensive traffic: He turned, with the most repulsive asperity, from every proposal that could lead him to diminish his capital, and thought his daughters unreasonable, if they wished for any permanent satisfaction above that of seeing their father increase in opulence and splendor. His two younger children, who inherited from their diseased1 mother a tender delicacy of frame, languished and died at an early period of life, and the death of one of them was imputed, with great probability, to a severe disappointment in her first affection. The more sprightly Winifrid, whose heart was a perfect stranger to genuine love, surmounted the mortification of seeing many suitors discarded; and by the insensate avarice of her father, she was naturally led into habits of artifice and intrigue. Possessing an uncommon share of very shrewd and piercing wit, with the most profound hypocrisy, she contrived to please, and to blind, her plodding old parent; who perpetually harangued on the discretion of his daughter, and believed her a miracle of reserve and prudence, at the very time when she was suspected of such conduct as would have disqualified her, had it ever been proved, for the rank she how holds in this essay. She was said to have amused herself with a great variety of amorous adventures, which eluded the observation of her father; but of the many lovers who sighed to her in secret, not one could tempt her into marriage, and, to the surprise of the public, the rich heiress of Mr. Wormwood reached the age of thirty-seven, without changing her name. Just as she arrived at this mature season of life, the opulent old gentleman took his leave of a world, in which he ad acted a busy part, pleased with the idea of leaving a large fortune, as monument of his industry, but wanting the superior satisfaction, which a more generous parent would probably have derived from the happy establishment of a daughter. He gained, however, from the hypocrisy of Winifrid, what he could not claim from her affection, the honour of being lamented with a profusion of tears. She distinguished herself by displaying all the delicate gradations of filial sorrow; but recovered at a proper time, all the natural gaiety of her temper, which she now had the full opportunity of indulging, being mistress of a magnificent mansion, within a mile of a populous town, and enabled to enliven it with all the arts of luxury, by inheriting such accumulated wealth, as would safely support the utmost efforts of provincial splendor. Miss Wormwood now expected to see every batchelor of figure and consequence a suppliant at her feet; she promised to herself no little entertainment in sporting with their addresses, without the fear of suffering from a tyrannical husband, as she had learned caution from her father, and had privately resolved not to trust any man with her money; a resolution the more discreet, as she had much to apprehend, and very little to learn, from so dangerous a master! The good-natured town, in whose environs the rich Winifrid resided, very kindly pointed out to her no less than twenty lively beaux for her choice; but, to the shame or the honour of those gentlemen, they were too timid, or, to honest, to make any advances. The report of her youthful frolics, and the dread of her sarcastic wit, had more power to repel, than her person and her wealth had to attract. Passing her fiftieth year, she acquired the serious name of mistress, without the dignity of a wife, and without receiving a single offer of marriage from the period in which she became the possessor of so opulent a fortune.
Whether this mortifying disappointment had given a peculiar asperity to her temper, or whether malevolence was the earlier characteristic of her mind, I will not pretend to determine; but it is certain, that from this autumnal or rather wintry season of her life, Mrs. Wormwood made it her chief occupation to amuse herself with the most subtle devices of malicious ingenuity, and to frustrate every promising scheme of affection and delight, which she discovered in the wide circle of her acquaintance. She seemed to be tormented with an incessant dread, that youth and beauty might secure to themselves that happiness, which she found wit and fortune were unable to bestow; hence she watched, with the most piercing eye, all the lovely young women of her neighbourhood, and often insinuated herself into the confidence of many, that she might penetrate all the secrets of their love, and privately blast its success. She was enabled to render herself intimate with the young and the lovely, by the opulent splendor in which she lived, and by the bewitching vivacity of her conversation. Her talents of this kind were, indeed, extraordinary; her mind was never polished or enriched by literature, as Mr. Wormwood set little value on any books, excepting those of his counting-house; and the earlier years of his daughter were too much engaged by duplicity and intrigue, to leave her either leisure or inclination for a voluntary attachment to more improving studies. She read very little, and was acquainted with no language but her own; yet a brilliant understanding and an uncommon portion of ready wit, supplied her with a more alluring fund of conversation, than learning could bestow. She chiefly recommended herself to the young and inexperienced, by the insinuating charm of the most lively ridicule, and by the art of seasoning her discourse with wantton inuendos of so subtle a nature, that gravity knew not how to object to them: She had the singular faculty of throwing such a soft and dubious twilight over the most licentious images, that they captivated curiosity and attention, without exciting either fear or disgust. Her malevolence was perpetually disguised under the mask of gaiety, and she completely possessed that plausibility of malice, so difficult to attain, and so forcibly recommended in the words of lady Macbeth.
“Bear welcome in your eye,
“Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower,
“But be the serpent under it.”
With what success she practised this dangerous lesson, the reader may learn from the following adventure—
It was the custom of Mrs. Wormwood to profess the most friendly solicitude for female youth, and the highest admiration of beauty; she wished to be considered as their patroness, because such an idea afforded her the fairest opportunities of secretly mortifying their insufferable presumption. With a peculiar refinement in malice, she first encouraged, and afterwards defeated, those amusing matrimonial projects, which the young and beautiful are so apt to entertain. The highest gratification, which her ingenious malignity could devise, consisted in torturing some lovely inexperienced girl, by playing upon the tender passions of an open and unsuspecting heart.
Accident threw within her reach a most tempting subject for such fiend-like diversion, in the person of Amelia Nevil, the daughter of a brave and accomplished officer, who, closing a laborious and honourable life in very indigent circumstances, had left his unfortunate child to the care of his maiden sister. The aunt of Amelia was such an old maid as might alone suffice to rescue the sisterhood from ridicule and contempt. She had been attached, in her early days to a gallant youth, who unhappily lost his own life in preserving that of his dear friend, her brother; she devoted herself to his memory with the most tender, unaffected, and invariable attachment; refusing several advantageous offers of marriage, though her income was so narrow, that necessity obliged her to convert her whole fortune into an annuity, just before the calamitous event happened, which made her the only guardian of poor Amelia. This lovely, but unfortunate girl, was turned of fourteen on the death of her father. She found, in the house of his sister, the most friendly asylum, and a relation, whose heart and mind made her most able and willing to form the character of this engaging orphan, who appeared to be as highly favoured by nature, as she was persecuted by fortune. The beauty of Amelia was so striking, and the charms of her lively understanding began to display themselves in so enchanting a manner, that her affectionate aunt could not bear the idea of placing her in any lower order of life: she gave her the education of a gentlewoman, in the flattering and generous hope, that her various attractions must supply the absolute want of fortune, and that she should enjoy the delight of feeling her dear Amelia happily settled in marriage, before her death exposed her lovely ward to that poverty, which was her only inheritance—Heaven disposed it otherwise. This amiable woman, after having acted the part of a most affectionate parent to her indigent niece, died before Amelia attained the age of twenty. The poor girl was now apparently destitute of every resource; and exposed to penury, with a heart bleeding for the loss of a most indulgent protector. A widow lady of her acquaintance very kindly afforded her a refuge in the first moments of her distress, and proposed to two of her opulent friends, that Amelia should reside with them by turns, dividing the year between them, and passing four months with each. As soon as Mrs. Wormwood was informed of this event, as she delighted in those ostentatious acts of apparent beneficence, which are falsely called charity, she desired to be admitted among the voluntary guardians of the poor Amelia. To this proposal all the parties assented, and it was settled, that Amelia should pass the last quarter of every year, as long as she remained single, under the roof of Mrs. Wormwood. This lovely orphan had a sensibility of heart, which rendered her extremely grateful for the protection she received, but which made her severely feel all the miseries of dependance. Her beauty attracted a multitude of admirers, many of whom, presuming on her poverty, treated her with a licentious levity, which always wounded her ingenuous pride. Her person, her mind, her manners were universally commended by the men; but no one thought of making her his wife. “Amelia (they cried) is an enchanting creature; but who, in these times, can afford to marry a pretty, proud girl, supported by charity?” Though this prudential question was never uttered in the presence of Amelia, she began to perceive its influence, and suffered a painful dread of proving a perpetual burden to those friends, by whose generosity she subsisted; she wished, a thousand times, that her affectionate aunt, instead of cultivating her mind with such dangerous refinement, had placed her in any station of life, where she might have maintained herself by her own manual labour: she sometimes entertained a project of making some attempt for this purpose; and she once thought of changing her name, and of trying to support herself as an actress on one of the public theatres; but this idea which her honest pride had suggested, was effectually suppressed by her modesty; and she continued to waste the most precious time of her youth, under the mortification of perpetualy wishing to change her mode of life, and of not knowing how to effect it. Almost two years had now elapsed since the death of her aunt, and without any prospect of marriage, she was now in her second period of residence with Mrs. Wormwood. Amelia’s understanding was by no means inferior to her other endowments: she began to penetrate all the artful disguise, and to gain a perfect and very painful insight into the real character of her present hostess. This lady had remarked, that when Miss Nevil resided with her, her house was much more frequented by gentlemen, than at any other season. This, indeed, was true; and it unluckily happened, that these visitors often forgot to applaud the smart sayings of Mrs. Wormwood, in contemplating the sweet countenance of Amelia; a circumstance full sufficient to awaken, in the neglected wit, the most bitter envy, hatred and malice. In truth, Mrs. Wormwood detested her lovely guest with the most implacable virulence; but she had the singular art of disguising her detestation in the language of flattery: she understood the truth of Pope’s maxim,
“He hurts me most who lavishly commends.”
and she therefore made use of lavish commendations, as an instrument of malevolence towards Amelia; she insulted the taste, and ridiculed the choice, of every new-married man, and declared herself convinced, that he was a fool, because he had not chosen that most lovely young woman. To more than one gentleman she said, you must marry Amelia; and, as few men chuse to be driven into wedlock, some offers were possibly prevented, by the treacherous vehemence of her praise. Her malice, however, was not sufficiently gratified by observing that Amelia had no prospect of marriage. To indulge her malignity, she resolved to amuse this unhappy girl with the hopes of such a joyous event, and then to turn, on a sudden, all these splendid hopes into mockery and delusion. Accident led her to pitch on Mr. Nelson, as a person whose name she might with the greatest safety employ, as the instrument of her insidious design, and with the greater chance of success, as she observed that Amelia had conceived for him a particular regard. Mr. Nelson was a gentleman, who, having met with very singular events, had contracted a great, but very amiable singularity of character:—he was placed early in life, in a very lucrative commercial situation, and was on the point of settling happily in marriage with a very beautiful young lady, when the house, in which she resided, was consumed by fire. Great part of her family, and among them the destined bride, was buried in the ruins. Mr. Nelson, in loosing2 the object of his ardent affection by so sudden a calamity, lost for some time the use of his reason; and when his health and senses returned, he still continued under the oppression of the profoundest melancholy, till his fond devotion to the memory of her, whom he had lost in so severe a manner, suggested to his fancy a singular plan of benevolence, in the prosecution of which he recovered a great portion of his former spirits. This plan consisted in searching for female objects of charity, whose distresses had been occasioned by fire. As his fortune was very ample, and his own private expences were moderate, he was able to relieve many unfortunate persons in this condition; and his affectionate imagination delighted itself with the idea, that in these uncommon acts of beneficence he was guided by the influence of that lovely angel, whose mortal beauty had perished in the flames. Mr. Nelson frequently visited a married sister, who was settled in the town where Mrs. Wormwood resided. There was also, in the same town, an amiable elderly widow, for whom he had a particular esteem. This lady, whose name was Melford, had been left in very scanty circumstances on the death of her husband, and resided at that time in London, where she had been involved in additional distress by that calamity, to which the attentive charity of Mr. Nelson was forever directed: he more than repaired the loss which she sustained by fire, and assisted in settling her in the neighbourhood of his sister. Mrs. Melford had been intimate with the aunt of Amelia, and was still the most valuable friend of that lovely orphan, who paid her frequent visits, though she never resided under her roof. Mr. Nelson had often seen Amelia at the house of Mrs. Melford, which led him to treat her with particular politeness, whenever he visited Mrs. Wormwood; a circumstance on which the latter founded her ungenerous project. She perfectly knew all the singular private history of Mr. Nelson, and firmly believed, like all the rest of this acquaintance, that no attractions could ever tempt him to marry; but she thought it possible to make Amelia conceive the hope that her beauty had melted his resolution; and nothing she supposed, could more effectually mortify her guest than to find herself derided for so vain an expectation.
Mrs. Wormwood began, therefore, to insinuate, in the most artful manner, that Mr. Nelson was very particular in his civilities to Amelia, magnified all his amiable qualities, and expressed the greatest pleasure in the prospect of so delightful a match. These petty artifices, however, had no effect on the natural modesty and diffidence of Amelia; she saw nothing that authorised such an idea in the usual politeness of a well-bred man of thirty-seven; she pitied the misfortune, she admired the elegant and engaging, though serious manners, and she revered the virtues of Mr. Nelson; but, supposed his mind to be entirely engrossed, as it really was, by his singularly charitable pursuits; she entertained not a thought of engaging his affection. Mrs. Wormwood was determined to play off her favourite engine of malignity, a counterfeited letter. She had acquired, in her youth, the very dangerous talent of forging any hand that she pleased; and her passion for mischief had afforded her much practice in this treacherous art. Having previously and secretly engaged Mr. Nelson to drink tea with her, she wrote a billet to Amelia, in the name of that gentleman, and with the most perfect imitation of his hand. The billet said, that he designed himself the pleasure of passing that afternoon at the house of Mrs. Wormwood, and requested the favour of a private conference with Miss Nevil in the course of the evening, intimating, in the most delicate and doubtful terms, an ardent desire of becoming her husband. Mrs. Wormwood contrived that Amelia should not receive this billet till just before dinner-time, that she might not show it to her friend and confidant, Mrs. Melford, and by her means, detect its fallacy before the hour of her intended humiliation arrived.
Amelia blushed in reading the note, and, in the first surprise of unsuspecting innocence, gave it to the vigilant Mrs. Wormwood; who burst into vehement expressions of delight; congratulated her blushing guest on the full success of her charms, and triumphed in her own prophetic discernment. They sat down to dinner, but poor Amelia could hardly swallow a morsel; her mind was in a tumultuous agitation of pleasure and amazament. The maliciouis imposter, enjoying her confusion, allowed her no time to compose her hurried spirits in the solitude of her chamber. Some female visitors arrived to tea; and, at length, Mr. Nelson entered the room. Amelia trembled and blushed as he approached her; but she was a little relieved from her embarrassment by the business of the tea-table, over which she presided. Amelia was naturally graceful in every thing she did, but the present agitation of her mind gave a temporary awkwardness to all her motions: she committed many little blunders in the management of the tea-table; a cup fell from her trembling hand, and was broken; but the politeness of Mr. Nelson led him to say so many kind and graceful things to her on these petty incidents, that, instead of encreasing her distress, they produced an opposite effect, and the tumult of her bosom gradually subsided into a calm and composed delight. She ventured to meet the eyes of Mr. Nelson, and thought them expressive of that tenderness which promised a happy end to all her misfortunes. At the idea of exchanging misery and dependance for comfort and honor, as the wife of so amiable a man, her heart expanded with the most innocent and grateful joy. This appeared in her countenance, and gave such an exquisite ratiance to all her features, that she looked a thousand times more beautiful than ever. Mrs. Wormwood saw this improvement of her charms, and, sickening at the sight, determined to reduce the splendor of such insufferable beauty, and hastily terminate the triumph of her deluded guest. She began with a few malicious and sarcastic remarks on the vanity of beautiful young women, and the hopes, which they frequently entertain of an imaginary lover; but finding these remarks produced not the effect she intended, she took an opportunity of whispering in the ear of Amelia, and begged her not to harbour any vain expectations, for the billet she had received was a counterfeit, and a mere piece of pleasantry. Amelia shuddered, and turned pale: surprise, disappointment, and indignation, conspired to overwhelm her. She exerted her utmost disappointment, and indignation, conspired to overwhelm her. She exerted her utmost power to conceal her emotions; but the conflict in her bosom was too violent to be disguised. The tears, which she vainly endeavoured to suppress, burst forth, and she was obliged to quit the room in very visible disorder. Mr. Nelson expressed his concern; but he was checked in his benevolent inquiries by the caution of Mrs. Wormwood, who said, on the occasion, that Miss Nevil was a very amiable girl, but she has some peculiarities of temper, and was apt to put a wrong construction on the innocent pleasantry of her friends. Mr. Nelson observing that Amelia did not return, and hoping that his departure might contribute to restore the interrupted harmony of the house, took an early leave of Mrs. Wormwood; who immediately flew to the chamber of Amelia, to exult, like a fiend, over that lovely victim of her successful malignity. She found not the person whom she was so eager to insult. Amelia had, indeed, retired to her chamber, and passed there a very miserable half hour, much hurt by the treacherous cruelty of Mrs. Wormwood, and still more wounded by reflections on her own credulity, which she condemned with that excess of severity so natural to a delicate mind in arraigning itself.. She would have flown for immediate consolation to her friend, Mrs. Melford, but she had reason to believe that lady engaged on a visit, and she therefore resolved to take a solitary walk for the purpose of composing her spirits; but neither solitude nor exercise could restore her tranquillity; and, as it grew late in the evening, she hastened to Mrs. Melford’s, in hopes of now finding her returned. Her worthy old confidant was, indeed, in her little parlour alone, when Amelia entered the room. The eyes of this lovely girl immediately betrayed her distress; and the old lady, with her usual tenderness, exclaimed, “Good heaven! my dear child, for what have you been crying?” “Because,” replaied Amelia, in a broken voice, and bursting into a fresh shower of tears, “because I am a fool?”—“There,” says she, “is a letter in the name of your excellent friend, Mr. Nelson; it is a forgery of Mrs. Wormwood’s, and I have been such an idiot as to believe it real.” The affectionate Mrs. Melford, who in her first alarm, had apprehended a much heavier calamity, was herself greatly comforted in discovering the truth, and said many kind things to console her young friend. “Do not fancy,” replied Amelia, “that I am foolishly in love with Mr. Nelson, though I think him the most pleasing as well as the most excellent of men; and though I confess to you, that I should certainly think it a blessed lot to find a refuge from the misery of my present dependance, in the arms of so benevolent and so generous a protector.”—“Those arms are now open to receive you,” said a voice that was heard before the speaker appeared. Amelia started at the sound, and her surprise was not a little encreased in seeing Mr. Nelson himself, who entering the room from an adjoining apartment, embraced the lovely orphan in a transport of tenderness and delight. Amelia, alive to all the feelings of genuine modesty, was for some minutes more painfully distressed by this surprise, than she had been by her past mortification: she was ready to sink into the earth, at the idea of having betrayed her secret to the man, from whom she would have laboured most to conceal it. In the first tumult of this delicate confusion, she sinks into a chair, and hides her face in her handkerchief. Nelson with a mixture of respect and love, being afraid of encreasing her distress, seizes one of her hands, and continues to kiss it without uttering a word. The good Mrs. Melford, almost as much astonished, but less painfully confused than Amelia, behonds this unexpected scene with that kind of joy which is much more disposed to weep than to speak:—And, while this little party is thus absorbed in silence, let me hasten to relate the incidents which produced their situation.
Mr. Nelson had observed the sarcastic manner of Mrs. Wormwood towards Amelia, and, as soon as he had ended his uncomfortable visit, he hastened to the worthy Mrs. Melford, to give her some little account of what had passed, and to concert with her some happier plan for the support of this amiable, insulted orphan. “I am acquainted,” said he, “with some brave and wealthy officers, who have served with the father of Miss Nevil, and often speak of him with respect; I am sure I can raise among them a subscription for the maintenance of this tender unfortunate girl: we will procure for her an annuity, that shall enable her to escape from such malignant patronage, to have a little home of her own, and to support a servant.” Mrs. Melford was transported at this idea; and, recollecting all her obligations to this benevolent man, wept, and extolled his generosity; and, seeing Amelia at some distance, through a bow window, which commanded the street in which she lived, “thank Heaven,” she cried, “here comes my poor child, to hear and bless you for the extent of your goodness.” Nelson, who delighted most in doing good by stealth, immediately extorted from the good old lady a promise of secrecy: it was the best part of his plan, that Amelia should never know the persons to whom she was to owe her independence. “I am still afraid of you, my worthy old friend,” said Nelson “your countenance or manner will, I know betray me, if Miss Nevil sees me here tonight.”—“Well,” said the delighted old lady, “I will humour your delicacy; Amelia will, probably, not stay with me ten minutes; you may amuse yourself, for that time, in my spacious garden; I will not say you are here; and, as soon as the good girl returns home I will come and impart to you the particulars of her recent vexation.”—“Admirably settled,” cried Nelson; and he immediately retreated into a little back room, which led into a long slip of ground, embellished with the sweetest and least expensive flowers, which afforded a favourite occupation and amusement to Mrs. Melford. Nelson, after taking a few turns in this dimunitive garden, finding himself rather chilled by the air of the evening, retreated again into the little parlour he had passed, intending to wait there till Amelia departed; but the partition between the parlours being extremely slight, he overheard the tender confessions of Amelia, and was hurried towards her by an irresistible impulse, in the manner already described.
Mrs. Melford was the first who recovered from the kind of trance into which our little party had been thrown by their general surprise; and she enabled the tender pair, in the prospect of whose union her warm heart exulted, to regain that easy and joyous possession of their faculties, which they lost for some little time in their embarrassment. The applause of her friend, and the adoration of her lover, soon taught the diffident Amelia to think less severely of herself. The warm-hearted Mrs. Melford declared that these occurrences were the work of Heaven. “That,” replied the affectionate Nelson, “I am most willing to allow; but you must grant, that Heaven has produced our happiness by the blind agency of a fiend; and, as our dear Amelia has too gentle a spirit to rejoice in beholding the malignity of a devil converted into the torment of its possessor, I must beg, that she may not return, even for a single night, to the house of Mrs. Wormwood.” Amelia pleaded her sense of past obligations, and wished to take a peaceful leave of her patroness; but she submitted to the urgent entreaties of Nelson, and remained for a few weeks under the roof of Mrs. Melford, when she was united to the man of her heart. Nelson had the double delight of rewarding the affection of an angel, and of punishing the malevolence of a fiend: he announced in person to Mrs. Wormwood, his intended marriage with Amelia, on the very night when the treacherous Old Maid had amused herself with the hope of deriding her guest; whose return she was eagerly expecting, in the very moment Nelson arrived to say, that Amelia would return no more.
The surprise and mortification of Mrs. Wormwood arose almost to frenzy; she racked her malicious and inventive brain for expedients to defeat the match, and circulated a report for that purpose, which decency will not allow me to explain. Her artifice was detected and despised. Amelia was not only married, but the most admired, and most beloved, and the happiest of human beings; an event which preyed so incessantly on the spirit of Mrs. Wormwood, that she fell into a rapid decline, and ended, in a few months, her mischievous and unhappy life, a memorable axample, that the most artful malignity may sometimes procure for the object of its envy, that very happiness which it labours to prevent!