Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Esther Vanhomrigh’s Confession to Dean Swift
By Margaret L. Woods (1856–1945)
From ‘Esther Vanhomrigh’

THERE was a thorough search made round the two parlors and on the stairs, but no paper was to be found. It was decided that the dean must have dropped it between St. James’s Street and Bury Street; and the party settled down as before, with the exception of Esther. When the search had proved in vain, she remembered seeing a folded piece of paper lying by the altar rails in church, close by where the dean stood. Sending welcome injunctions to Patrick, the dean’s footman, to join the revels below-stairs, she ran up for her hood and gloves, and left the house as quickly and as quietly as she could. The dusty streets were beginning to be shady, and were comparatively quiet, for it was not much past five o’clock; and the fashionable world had not yet left its after-dinner wine for the coffee-house, the tavern, or the Mall. Yet had they been noisier they would have seemed a haven of peace to Esther, a fugitive from the crowded stage of conventional merriment in which she had been playing her part for so many hours. She turned down by St. James’s Palace into the Mall, where a certain number of people were already walking; and so past the milk fair at the corner, to Spring Gardens. Thence she took a hackney to the rectory, near the quiet church the Stones had chosen for the wedding. The rector, whose dinner had been large if not luxurious, sat over his empty bottle of Florence wine smoking a pipe of tobacco; and though he wondered much what Miss Vanhomrigh might want with the church key, he sent it down by the maid without exerting himself to formulate a question. So she went on to the church. The flower-seller had gone from the steps, and the costermonger’s cart from below them. Some grimy children were playing at marbles by the door; and interrupted in their game by the unexpected arrival, gathered round to stare at her, as she painfully turned the big key in the lock, with a faint exclamation of annoyance as she split the palm of her glove in the process. She had no sooner entered than a pale, inquisitive, snub-nosed little face, about on a level with the lock, was thrust in after her. She hastily withdrew the key and closed the door behind her. There was something strange and unnatural about the emptiness of the place, with the long rays of the afternoon sun streaming above its untenanted pews and bulging hassocks and cushions. The church smelt of dust, for it was not sufficiently fashionable to be open for those daily prayers which were wont to offer a convenient rendezvous for the beau and the fine lady. It had none of the dim impressiveness of a mediæval church, that seems reared with a view to heaven rather than earth, and whose arches, massive or soaring, neither gain nor lose by the accidental presence of ephemeral human creatures below them. No—the building seemed to cry out for a congregation; and the mind’s eye involuntarily peopled it with its Sunday complement of substantial citizens and their families.  1
  Esther walked quickly up to the altar rails and looked over. There lay the folded paper, just as she remembered it. She fell on her knees on the long stool placed there for the convenience of communicants; not with any idea of reverence, for Esther was a philosopher after the fashion of the day, but merely in order to reach the paper with greater ease. She snatched it up and glanced at it. Yes, it was undoubtedly the lost key. Tossing her head with a little “Ah!” of triumph and satisfaction, she put it away safely in her pocket. The prize was secured; yet she lingered, ungloved her left hand, and touched a spot of ground just within the rails, pressing her warm palm and shapely fingers down upon the cold stone. Just there Swift had stood; so close to where she knelt that if he stood there now, his robes would brush her as he moved. She hid her face on the arm that lay on the communion rails, and with a thrill of passionate adoration saw once more the impressive figure that she had seen that morning, and heard again the grave tones of his voice. The sensation of bustle attendant on a wedding, the near presence of the little crowd of relations, had robbed the scene of its emotional quality at the time; but now she was fully sensible of its significance. She was kneeling just where the bride had knelt: and for her the recollection of the stupid, vulgar girl, who had been round to St. James’s so often lately with tiresome questions about millinery, faded before the realization of the woman’s heart that she had seen beating a few hours ago, on the spot where her own beat now; not more full, surely not so full of love and pride in the man beloved, but blest in a completed joy that was not Esther’s yet. Might it not one day be hers also? A minute or two only she continued kneeling, and then passed down the aisle and out to the steps like a somnambulist,—pale, with wide eyes and close-pressed brooding lips. Another person so rapt might have forgotten to lock the door, or else to return the church key to its owner; but Esther’s methodicalness—a natural quality cultivated in response to Swift’s approval—never forsook her, and quite mechanically she struggled with the massive lock and left the key at the clergyman’s house with a message of thanks.  2
  As she called a coach she asked herself with a start whether she had done these things; then smiled and blushed at her own self-absorption. Up till now she had had no definite purpose beyond that of finding the lost paper; and having accomplished this, she was going home again. But now, smiling, she thought: “Patrick will be drunk by this time; at least, if he is not drunk yet, he will not, in justice to himself, leave such a feast until he is. I had better take it myself.”  3
  It seemed a simple and natural thing to do: but though Swift received the Vanhomrighs at his lodgings as often as any other friends, that did not mean very often; and she knew he hated to be unexpectedly invaded by any one, most of all by ladies. Yet to lose this opportunity of finding out the truth about this sudden departure would be too tantalizing. It must be only one of those foolish mystifications by which he loved to throw dust in the eyes of his acquaintance, and to which she had become almost resigned. As she drove on, the desire to see him, to ask him a thousand questions such as he would not answer before others, and to extract from him a promise to write, grew till it became a necessity. So she got down at the corner of Bury Street, and flew on to the well-known door. She did not observe Mr. Erasmus Lewis, who was passing through the street on the other side; but he observed her and her destination. On the door-step she paused, struck with sudden terror at finding herself entering uninvited that presence which could sometimes be so awe-inspiring. Then with a touch of scorn at her own unreasoning vacillation, she resolutely raised the knocker. No one came in answer to her rap; but she found that the door was on the latch, and went in. The doors of most of the rooms stood wide open, and there was a feeling of loneliness about the dull little house. She went up-stairs and knocked timidly at Swift’s parlor; but here too no one answered. The bedroom beside was obviously empty; and with an inconsequent sensation of relief she said to herself he must be gone out, and peeped carelessly into the parlor. It was a dreary room at the best of times; and now it bore all those marks of disorder and discomfort that attend a move, even from lodgings. A large wooden case half full of books stood near the door, the floor and the chairs were strewn with volumes, and those shabby odds and ends which seem never to appear except on such occasions; while the hearthstone and empty grate were piled with an immense heap of papers, mostly torn up very small. The cloth had fallen off the heavy old oak table, which filled the middle of the room, and was generally completely covered with books and pamphlets. It was quite bare now, except that the man who sat at one end on a high stool had bowed his body on it, and lay face downwards on its polished surface, with arms and tightly clenched hands stretched out before him. He was wrapped in a loose gown, and wore neither peruke nor cap; but his head, which must have been left unshaven for some time, was covered with a short thick growth of blue-black hair, dashed with glittering silver at the temples. As Esther stood by the door, amazed and undecided, a sound broke from him: a groan, ending in a long, low, sighing wail. It was a heart-broken sound: the cry of one worn out with some intolerable misery of mind or body. In an instant all hesitation disappeared, all fear or desire for herself,—everything vanished except the consciousness of her adored friend’s anguish. She moved forward quickly and silently, and falling on her knees by the table laid her hand on his arm. He made no sign, but again that muffled wail broke forth, like the lamentation of a damned spirit. Trembling excessively, she pulled him by the sleeve, and said in a voice so broken it was scarcely more than a whisper:—  4
  “Oh, sir! For pity’s sake—for God’s sake—”  5
  With an impatient gesture he folded his arms round his head, so as more completely to shield his face, and spoke hoarsely from beneath them: “You confounded rascal, I thought you knew better! Go—go—go, I say!”  6
  The last words were spoken with increasing vehemence. But Esther, who had often been awe-struck before him, did not fear him now. He was suffering, how or why she knew not; and without her reverence for him being in any way impaired, he awoke her instinctive feeling of responsibility towards all suffering creatures. The first shock over, she was comparatively calm again, only thinking with painful intensity what she had better do. So for a minute or two they both remained in the same position, till he burst out again with greater violence than before:  7
  “Knave! Beast! Idiot! Go, go!”  8
  Then she touched his hand. “It is Hess,” she said.  9
  He lifted his head slowly, and turned his face towards her, as though with reluctance. It was pale with the livid pallor of a dark skin no longer young, and the firm lines of mouth and cheek were slackened and hollowed. He looked a ghost; but hardly the ghost of himself. In a minute, as he realized Esther’s presence, the life and individuality began to return to his face, but in no amiable form.  10
  “So, madam,” he said after a pause, with a grimace that did duty for a smile, “you are here! Ha! Charming! Pray, to what am I indebted, et cætera?”  11
  Esther was too much shocked at his appearance to consider how he received her.  12
  “I have brought the paper you lost,” she returned hastily. “’Tis here. But no matter—you are ill. You must let me find your drops for you, and send for Dr. Arbuthnot.”  13
  He sat upright, and clutching the edge of the stool on which he sat with both hands,—“I am not ill,” he said with harsh impatience. “Leave me.”  14
  “You are either ill or in some great trouble,” she replied: “in either case not fit to be alone. If you will not have my company, you must let me send you some other friend; though a truer one it cannot be. Patrick will only come home to sleep off his wine.”  15
  “Friend!” he cried, “friend!”  16
  And with a shriek of laughter he rocked himself to and fro on the stool. Esther was standing up now; she looked at him steadily, with a severity born rather of amazement than of any conscious criticism of his conduct: but he was calm again so instantaneously that she almost doubted whether it was he who had laughed. They were silent for a minute or two, looking at each other. He was apparently calm, but the singular blueness of his eyes had disappeared; they glittered under the heavy black eyebrows, each with a curious spark in it, not at all like the azure eyes so familiar to his friends. The change in them made his whole face look different; from having been pale, it had now flushed a dark red.  17
  “You talk to me of friends, child,” he resumed hoarsely, but in a more normal tone, leaning forward and smiling at her bitterly, both his hands still clutching the stool, “as though you expected me to believe in ’em, or to fancy you believed in ’em. No, no, Governor Huff has too much wit for that. Friends! Fellows that suck your brains, suck ’em dry, dry, and pay you with their damned promises; that when you’ve slaved and slaved and made a million enemies, and when they think you’re done with, fling you out an Irish deanery, as you might fling a stick into the sea for your dog—‘Hi! Swim for it, sir!’” He paused a moment, moistened his dry lips, and drawing in his breath let it out again in a low fierce exclamation. “But ’tis not I, ’tis they who are done with,—Oxford, Bolingbroke. Puppets! Pawns on the board! Oh, when I am gone they’ll know themselves, and whistle me back when ’tis too late. And I shall come, ay, blundering fool that I am, I shall come. The moths,—do you remember at Kensington, Hess?—they come back to frizzle where they frizzled before, don’t they?”  18
  He laughed again the same sudden shrieking laugh. The perpendicular line was defining itself on Esther’s white brow; a line which looked severe, but really indicated only anxiety or bewilderment.  19
  “I esteem your political friends as little as you do,” she replied, mentioning them disdainfully, “and thought I esteemed ’em less. But you have others—better ones—Mr. Gay, Mr. Pope—”  20
  “Mr. Addison—Mr. Steele,”—he broke in with a mincing accent meant to imitate her feminine voice. “Was that what you was going to say, miss? Ha, ha, ha! Warm-hearted, generous Joseph! Steele, true as—thyself! Gay, now—Gay’s a charming fellow when one feels charmingly. As to Pope,”—at that name he dropped his sneer and spoke with sombre earnestness—“as to Pope, never talk of him, Hesskin. He’s a thing I believe in, I will believe in, I tell you, Brat—so don’t let’s think of him for fear—for fear— Ah! Did you say he was crooked?”  21
  “I said nothing, sir,” she replied with dignity: “I would aim at no man’s defects of person, least of all at Mr. Pope’s. But if I cannot name a man friend but you’ll mock at him, I’ll bring your women friends to your mind,—the truest, the most attached of ’em.” And she held her head higher. “There’s Lady Betty Germayne, my mother, Molly, and—myself. That’s four.”  22
  “Women’s friendship! Women’s friendship! By the powers, she talks as though it were a thing to be calculated,—four female friendships to one male. Pshaw! Weigh froth! Weigh moonshine! They’re more weighable than the parcel of vanity and caprice called female friendship. Don’t I know why Madam Van and you were all anxiety to know Mr. Gay before I left? Why, to be sure, she must have a poet in her ante-chamber like other women of quality; for Madam Van is as mad as old Newcastle, and thinks herself a duchess. And when that poor dean that’s been so useful is gone, why, he’s gone; and Hess must get another fellow to teach her how to talk and make the wits in love with her. Ay, I know what your female friendship’s worth.”  23
  Esther stood upright beside him. She made no visible motion while he spoke; but she held her head higher, the frown on her brow deepened, and she looked down at him with eyes in which an angry light began to burn, and cheeks flushing with an indignant red. He tried to meet her gaze indifferently as he finished speaking, but his own sank beneath it; and before she made any answer he hung his head as one rebuked.  24
  “You dare to say so!” she said at last sternly. “And to me!” Then after a pause, “Unworthy! Most unworthy!” she ejaculated.  25
  Her words did not exactly represent her feeling. She was more moved by horror and surprise that he should speak in a way so unlike and so degrading to himself, than at his preposterous reflections on herself and Mrs. Vanhomrigh. But whatever the precise proportion in which her emotions were mingled, she stood there the very image of intense yet self-contained indignation, fixing upon him a steady look of stern reproof. She who had so often trembled before his least frown did not fear his fury now, in this feverish sickness of his soul. He was silent, looking at the table and drumming on it like a boy, half sullen, half ashamed. Then on a sudden, putting both hands to his head with a contortion of pain, “Oh, my head! my head!” he cried. “O God!—O God!”  26
  And he rolled on the table in a paroxysm of anguish, moaning inarticulately either prayers or curses. Every physical pang that he endured created its mental counterpart in her; and her whole soul was concentrated in a passionate prayer for help for the body and mind of him laid there in anguish and disarray.  27
  At length the paroxysm subsided, almost as suddenly as it had come; but for a time he seemed unable to speak. Shading his brow with his hand, he looked at her from time to time with a faint, pleading, almost timid smile. This piteous smile, so unlike any look she had ever seen or fancied on those haughty features, was more than Esther could bear. Her breath came quick, a strangling sob rose in her throat, and the hot tears blinded her eyes. But he had too often, quite mistakenly, praised her as above the female weakness of tears; and she had too often blushed to think of those tears of hers by the river at Windsor, and those in the Sluttery, to weep again in his company. No, she would rather choke than do it. So she could not answer that pleading look with a kind one, but faced him with drooped eyelids, lips severely close, flushed cheeks, and heaving bosom. He spoke at last in a languid, hesitating voice, but calm and like his own; no longer with the confused articulation of the fierce grinding tones which had shocked Esther when he was talking to her before.  28
  “I beg your pardon, Essie, very humbly; yours and good Madam Van’s as well. You’d grant me grace if you only knew what a bad head I have. Oh, such a racking head, Hess! ‘The pains of hell gat hold upon me,’ last night when I came home from Parson’s Green; and all because of the least bit of fruit from his glass-house the mad Peterborough would have me to eat. No, I’ll not do it again: fruit always did give me a bad head. You’ve forgiven me, Brat, ha’n’t you?”  29
  But Esther could not yet answer or meet that anxious, humble look of his.  30
  “Essie!” he cried pleadingly, “Essie!” and stretched out his hand towards hers as though to touch it, yet without doing so.  31
  “Hess!” he cried again. “What! You can’t forgive your poor friend, that hardly knows what he says when he cries aloud in his misery. Can’t you forgive me, little Hesskin? Do—do now forgive me.”  32
  Esther was still kneeling like one in prayer, with her cheek leaned on her clasped hands; but now the color had ebbed from it and left her very pale, and the resolute lines of her lips had softened. She lifted to his her great eyes, luminous with tears repressed and an irrepressible fire of passion, and he started as he met them.  33
  “Forgive you?” she cried in a voice whose deep vibrating music thrilled him in spite of himself; and then the same words again, but set to some new harmony—“Forgive you? Why, I love you!”  34
  The mental shock was sufficient to have thrust him back again into that Inferno from which he had just escaped; but it had the opposite effect. The weak, helpless feeling in the brain, that usually remained with him for long after such an attack, passed suddenly almost entirely away. Yes, it was a shock. For weeks a dim troubling something, to which he obstinately refused to give the shape of an idea, had been stirring in the depths of his mind; and he had kept it down there by main force. Now it sprang up before him, full-armed, like Minerva.  35
  “I am obliged to you, Essie,” he said. “I should have been sorry if I had offended you past your forgiveness. But now you talk as wildly as I did. Had we not been friends so long, I might misunderstand your meaning.”  36
  “Ah!” she cried, leaping to her feet, and tossing back her hood with a fierce, impatient gesture, “you wish to misunderstand it! You that have plagued me, tortured me with your questions, now you would fain not hear the answer to ’em all. You that have told me a thousand times to show you my heart, now you will not see it. But you know, you know what you are to me;”—and a tearless sob strangled her voice.  37
  “Your friend, Essie,” he said gravely, flinching before this outburst of a passion it had been beyond his power to imagine.  38
  “Friend!” she cried, “friend!” and laughed, not bitterly, but with a kind of wild tenderness. “Could Adam call the God that shaped him out of dust his ‘friend’? No, he must worship, he must adore him. You shaped me. I was nothing, nothing, before you taught me how to think, how to feel, and to love what you love and despise what you despise. I am the creature of your hands, you made me and I am yours. You may be sorry for’t, but ’tis too late now to help it.”  39
  Swift made an attempt to assume that awful air with which he was wont to cow the boldest of his friends or foes, but he felt the attempt to be a failure.  40
  “Hush, Essie!” he cried. “What you are saying is very wrong: ’tis rank blasphemy, and I will not hear it.”  41
  Esther turned from him, and paced the room for a minute or two in a silence which Swift did not break, with her head thrown back, and biting her under lip, as was her wont. Looking on the ground, not at him, who had once more shaded his face with one hand, she began again:—  42
  “We are neither of us enthusiasts, and I cannot pick my words. Oh, that I could find one sharp enough to cut right through my breast and show you my heart! Once you said I should cease to be your friend on the day when I was afraid to pin my heart to my sleeve-ruffles—yes, those were your very words, ‘pin it to my sleeve-ruffles’—for your inspection. You forget, but I remember. Now you don’t love to see it, but ’tis too late to go back. If I said I worshiped you as one worships God, I spoke wrongly. God is a long way off, and we have never seen him, but we know he cannot need us. But you”—she paused before him with clasped hands, like a worshiper before a shrine—“you are far indeed above other men, yet you are a man, and here among us; and you have often—ah! do not try to deny it: little, nothing as I am compared to you, you have often, often needed me! How can I choose but worship, adore,—love you?”  43
  And as she ended, she fell on her knees once more, and bending over his hand, that still lay stretched out on the table, touched it with a swift hot kiss, and bowed her forehead on her folded arms.  44
  There was a sharp tap at the door. Some one must have mounted the stairs unheard by either of them. Quick as lightning Esther sprang up and pulled her hood over her face. Swift made a dash for his peruke, which lay on a neighboring chair; but he had not got his head well into it when the door was flung open, and, loudly announced by an invisible some one, Mr. Erasmus Lewis walked in.  45

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