The Mystery of Stella

This paper have I wrote for certain grave considerations which make me suppose it well it were one day placed in the hands of the Dean. ’T is, however, possible I may destroy it, but this time shall determine ere my death. (Writ an: 1727 by me, Esther Johnson.)


WHEN the Dean paid his last visit to London, an: 1726, he writ thus in a letter directed to Mrs. Dingley, but for her and me: —

‘Farewell, my dearest lives and delights. I love you better than ever, as hope saved, and ever will. I can count on nothing but M. D.’s love and kindness, and so, farewell, dearest Md. PRESTO.’

So he signs himself, and so it seems the old screen will still be kept up and the letters to me wrote to her also, and in the child’s talk that pleaseth him, lest any in the world suspect the famous divine hath a man’s heart. But hath he? This I have not known, nor shall. Yet let me tell my own heart yet again how deep my debt to him, remembering the sickly child of Moor Park to whom he brought not alone learning but companionship, and all the joy known to her childhood. And Dr. Swift hath since been pleased to acknowledge that, having instilled in this poor child the principles of honour and virtue, she hath not swerved from them in any passage of her life.

Yet have I not ? Again I question my heart. ’T is the most I can hope that the woman hath repaid the child’s debt. On this I will be judged.

A keen remembrance begins not much before the age of eight, nor can I recall a time when I did not love him. My mother’s time was took up in making her court to my Lady Giffard, sister to our benefactor, Sir William Temple; and Rebecca Dingley’s (a kinswoman of the Temples) in making her court to all; and the child Esther might run as she pleased, chid only when she was remembered. And this young man took pity on her. I remember very well Dr. Swift’s face in youth. ’T was extraordinary handsome and commanding, the eyes blue and piercing, the features strong, and a something that very early distinguisht him from others, so that great persons coming of errands to Sir William Temple were not seldom drawn into intercourse with his secretary.

Mr. Swift was not then so prudent, as he became later. What need with a child? He permitted his fancy to range in all he said; and seated by the lake at Moor Park, with this child at his knee looking up into his face, he would discourse of things in heaven and earth, forgetting his hearer. For he who could charm all charmed himself no less, and often hath said to me laughing: —

‘There’s no company so good as Jonathan Swift’s — and he himself would choose it before all others!’

Of this I am not certain, for the Dean hath been and is very partial to the company of the great and famous of either sex.

’T was thus, sitting by the lake and gazing down the great perspective cut in the trees, he saw the peasants going homeward up the hill, no greater than ants, and looking into my eyes (from which and my name he called me Star, and later, Stella), he said: —

‘What say you, Mrs. Star, if these folk were really no bigger than now they seem? What if this country were peopled by a race of little creeping Hop-o’-my-Thumbs?’

‘O rare, rare!’ I cried, and clapt my hands. ‘Tell me the history of them, Mr. Swift, and their little homely ways and houses like bees’ cells for size.’

And as I looked up and the words came from him, truly all was visible before me. ’T is a gift Mr. Swift hath had from the beginning, that men should see what he would. And women, — O Father Almighty, — women!

If I ask myself when this harmless love did change to a woman’s, I cannot tell, because with my growth it grew. But the first pain it brought (and sure pain is love’s shadow) was an: 1697, when I was sixteen years of age. For I sat by the housekeeper’s window, and Sir William and Mr. Swift were pacing the path, their voices coming and going. Mr. Swift was now dressed as the young Levite he sometimes called himself since he returned from Ireland a clergyman; and he walked with his eyes fixed moodily on the ground, listening to Sir William.

‘Why, as to that, Jonathan,’ said he familiarly, ‘I ever thought it behoves a parson to marry when he hath got preferment. There is room for Mrs. Parson’s help with the women and children of the parish and’t is meet she should set an example with her neat parsonage, and be a notable woman with her possets and cordials for the sick. Now what like is this pretty Varina that Dr. Holmes hath brought news of from Belfast?’

‘Miss Waring,’ says Mr. Swift, very grave, ' is a commendable young lady, but I design not for marriage as yet, sir, nor for a long time to come.’

They past out of hearing and, returning, I heard but the last part of Sir William’s words: —

‘ ’T is a cruel thing for a man to raise hopes he means not to be answerable for, and I am told the young lady grows very melancholy upon it. True it is, a man must sow his wild oats even though he honour his cloth; but’t is not well to sow them in a harmless girl’s acre, Jonathan. Sow them by the wayside, and then they come not up to her confusion and your own.’

‘A sound precept, sir; but better still to sow none. This shall be my care. As to the connection you speak of, ’t is long broke off, and was at all times impossible, the lady having no portion, and myself — as you know!’

His brow was like a thunder-cloud ere it bursts; but, looking up, he catcht sight of me, and continued with no pause: —

‘As for that matter of the publishers, sir — they have writ to say that they wait your commands anent the Letters of Phalaris. Asking your pardon, time goes, and we should be speaking of this and not of child’s toys.’

I knew by the black blink of his eyes that I had heard what he would not; and as they turned, my heart beat so that I laid my hand on it, as if that poor fence might hide its throbbing. And for the first time in my life I knew I had in this world an enemy, and that was this Varina; and from that hour mine eyes waited on him.

Mr. Swift was now grown very cautious. In public he addressed me as ‘Mrs. Johnson,’ or, when Sir William rallied him, as ‘Mrs. Esther,’ affecting an awful distance, which was not in his heart, for therein was still the tenderness for his child and pupil, as he had used to call me. And he was good enough to signify to Mrs. Dingley, who carried it to me, that he found me grown to his liking; ‘beautiful, graceful and agreeable,’ says he, and condescended to praise even my black hair and pale face, after which I would not have exchanged it against the golden hair of Helen. but still held aloof except when I was in company with others. And I took note that, of all the ladies that came and went at Moor Park, there was not one but hung upon his talk, and held up her head when he came near, spreading out all her graces. Mr. Swift had always that power with our sex and, if he used it, ’t is but what all men do. Providence made us fair game, to our undoing and theirs. ’T is not all men who have this gift, and never have I seen one who, having it, spared to use it, whether from liking or policy.

Yet he used it strangely. I remember, when the fair lady Mary Fane came to Moor Park, — a widowed beauty and toast, — the look of scorn she cast from her fine eyes on the young secretary.

‘I marvel, Sir William,’ says she, ‘that you will have your servant ever at your elbow, so that a body hath never a word with you alone. I would not presume to censure, but certainly my father’s chaplain does not so intrude himself into company; and ’t is difficult for persons of quality to speak their mind in such underbred society.’

‘Why, your ladyship!’ says he laughing, ‘be gracious to my young Levite. He is not of the common sort of creeping parson, but I dare venture will yet be heard of. Simple as your ladyship thinks him, he is at home in all company, be it. great or little; and I had not known him t hree year when I sent him to London on a secret errand — and I was not mistook.’

‘Such persons,’ says the lady, very haughty, ‘are paid to exert themselves in our service. We may expect no less.’

So it passed; but a busybody carried this, with other tattle, to Air. Swift, who questioned me also. I looked to see him mighty angry, and first his brows frowned, and then he laughed, as if a thought pleased him.

‘Said she so, the painted jade! What, Madam Stella, shall not a stinking pride be taught its place by the Church? I’ll give the hussy her lesson.’

That very day my Lady Mary sitting to embroidery on the great terrace in the shade, and I holding her threads, she threw Mr. Swift a word as he past, to ask the name of the nymph that was turned to a bush to escape the pursuit of Apollo; for that was the subject of her needle.

‘Daphne, madam,’ says he. ‘Have I your permission to look upon your work? Oh, fie! — this bush — ’t is a rose-bush, and Daphne became a laurel. Sure, a lady with your ladyship’s reputation for wit will not be in error.’

She stopped with the needle in her hand and lookt at him angrily.

‘Sir, if you know better than Mrs. Weyland who drew my pattern, instruct me. I am not too proud to learn from my — betters.’

She made the word an insult, and went on: —

‘Have I done amiss to give Apollo wings to his feet?’

‘Why, indeed, madam, ’t. is Mercury carries the wings. In another lady’s I had said ’t is Cupid, but from some ladies love cannot fly.’

So it began. In a moment more she had bid him be seated, and tell her stories that a lady might paint with her needle. And presently her hands dropt in her lap, and her eyes fixed on his face, and presently also I was dismist.

That evening he came into Dingley’s room, where I sat with her to repair the household linen, and rattled on, full of wit and good humour; and when Dingley went out to fetch a cordial for him, he says: —

‘ Well, Mistress Stella, did we give the lying slut her lesson to-day — did we? Sure, ’t was a pure bite!’

And says I: —

‘I have seldom heard your Reverence more entertaining.’

And he, laughing hugely: —

‘A cat may be choked with cream as well as fishbones, Mrs. Stella. Keep your pretty little eyes open, child, and thou shalt see.’

In a week she was his humble servant. ’T is scarce credible, but I saw her once lay her hand, sparkling with jewels, upon his, and he shake it off as if ’t were dirt. Pity— ’t is a flower that grows in the furrows of a heart ploughed up by sorrow, and my day was not come.

Yet for all his caution we met sometimes, when I would be gathering flowers and lavender, or fruit for Mrs. Groson the cook. And I knew he loved to talk with me. He loves it still. Many was the jest we had — jests with their root in childhood and folly to all but him and me.

So came the day that changed all.


’T was a fair sunset , with one star shining, and I stood in the copse far from the house, to hear the nightingale; and, though I thought of him, did not see that he leaned against the King’s Beech, until he stirred and made my heart to flutter.

‘ I watch your namesake, Stella,’ says he, ‘and wonder if in that sweet star are plots and envyings — a Marlborough intriguing against his King, a Burnet plotting for an archbishopric, an ugly Dutch monsterkin on the throne — and a naughty rogue called Stella, that hath forgot her old tutor and loves him no more. Yet if that love should miscarry, I know not—’

’If it miscarry,’ says I, trembling, ‘there will be many to succeed it. But I think, Mr. Swift, it cannot.’

‘Many?’ he answered, and up went his brows. ‘Such as my Lady Mary and such-like? But that is no love, Stellakin. ’T is only thy innocence could mistake it. The true name is none so pretty, and not for thy lips. Get thee to a nunnery, child — the world is not for such as thee.’

So I faltered out: ‘What is love?’

‘A thing that hath no existence between man and woman in this world, so mixed is it with lust, and hatred and jealousy. True, there is love, but it is not that one. ’T is the loves filial and paternal, and friendship, better than all the loves the rhymesters hang with their namby-pamby. The love between the sexes — ’t is a game wherein the weaker loses, and then — væ victis! Hast forgot thy Latin, child?’

And then I broke out into a great sobbing, as if my bursting heart would break; for, I know not why, but this cut me like a knife. And he took my hand with anxious kindness to soothe me; and at the bird’s rustle in the tree, dropt it and stood apart. He lived in the eye of the world even in such affections as he owned. But I sobbed on.

‘Pray, pray, don’t sob, Stella,’ he says. ‘This is mighty, mighty ill and like a child. Dry those pretty eyes, — prettier, gadso! than any Lady Mary’s of them all! — and tell me wherein I have offended. ’T was not willingly.’

So, drowned in tears, I lookt up, and having lookt, turned away weeping, and could say no more. For what skill had I to argufy with a man of such infinite parts? And yet well I knew that in this matter of love, I was the wiser, though but a simpleton. But he caught my hands.

‘Have I hurt thee, Stella? I were a devil if I did. What ails my girl at love? What is it to thee? Keep away from that raging fire. Souse it with every stream of reason and honour. Heap the ice of the Pole on it, for it is not only hell itself but feeds the flame of hell eternal.’

He so wrung my hand that it pained; and I saw his face work like a man most desperately sick and ill. It dried the tears in my eyes, and I stood trembling and staring upon him, and the twilight was sweet about us with a smell of grass and growing things and flowers; a night for lovers —and I most miserable.

‘I doubt,’ — he began and stopt; and then, with a cry that choked in his throat, he put his arms about me and I laid my head on his breast.

Should I blame myself for that halfhour? Should I blame my Dear, the Desire of mine eyes? ’T was but a step to take across the line that parts innocence from — No, no, never will I say guilt ! ’T was not guilt, if all the tongues of men and angels should so preach. ’T is in the later denial of love that guilt lay hid. But these things I did not then know, and I thought in my simplicity the world changed and the foolish girl become a woman and beloved, and our lives together in a fair prospect before us.

And suddenly — ‘Go — go!’ he cried, rejecting me and thrusting me from him. ‘Go, and never again let me see your face. I sicken — I sicken at what is done. No — no! Speak not, utter not, lest I strike you and myself dead. Leave me, for God’s pity’s sake. Go!’

So did the Angel with the flaming sword drive our first parents out of Paradise. I drew apart shuddering, and he cried after me in a loud whisper: —

‘Let none see your face. Go in by the covered door, and so to your room, and plead headache if Dingley sec you. Go.’

What woman in giving all met ever so sorry a return — and why? I broke my brain with thinking, and at that time found no answer. Later, I knew.

I washed the tears from my eyes in the morning, and so to the housekeeper’s room. And he was there, reading in a great book, and my heart leapt like the last leap of a hare with the dogs on it.

‘Why, Stellakin — saucy-nose!’ says he, laughing, but his face was pale. He could cheat with his words, but I saw his face bleacht like a linen clout behind his laugh, and I swear at that time he loved me, though he loved advancement better. ‘You are bright and early, young woman! Are you for the garden, to get you a stomach for breakfast? Well, so-so! and pray for poor Presto as you go; for in honour and conscience, his Ppt. is the child of his heart.’

How could I endure this? I closed the door, and left him laughing with white lips.

So went the day, and now I saw his drift. He would hold the little language of childhood for a shield betwixt us. I should be nothing more for ever than Ppt — poor pretty tiling, Stellakin, the pretty rogue. He would not fail in this, but only in all my hopes. He would give me all but that I longed for.

And next day a new thing. Dingley and I sitting together, he came upon us, and in all he said included her. She was his second Md. He was her poor Presto, also. I saw his will and knew he built a fence about himself.

So gradually the days covered that sunset, and ’t was impossible that I should speak, and life went by, and still I studied with him, but Dingley always present.


Hath he a heart? I know not. That sunset was a grave between us; and had the corpse risen and stared him in the face, I think he had run mad. In my solitary hours, I would imagine I spoke. Sometimes I would kneel before him entreating, and he would raise me up, as a certain king did another Esther. Sometimes he would fall at my knees, and I would bow my head upon him, weeping for joy. But yet always I knew that, if we glanced near that secret, he would rise and stare upon me with a ghastly face, and I would see him no more. Yet at that time he loved me. To himself he will not lie in reading this.

’T was in 1699 Sir William Temple died, and the household at Moor Park was broke up. Mr. Swift took the kindest part in my settlement and the laying out of my little fortune. ‘And be easy about money, you nauti-nauti, dear girls,’ says he to old Dingley and me; ‘for what is mine is yours, and were it my blood, ’t is all one.’

And so laid his plans that we should come to Ireland, where he had preferment at Laracor near Dublin, and the prebend of Dunlavin in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And, God forgive me, I asked myself if the thought to keep me under his guidance mingled not itself with all his kindness.

So I, being twenty years old, and Dingley a kind bustling woman, we went, and Ireland was a kindly home, for ’t was near him, and I might see him. Not as I would — oh, never that! but as a friend, provided ’t was with caution. For as he now mounted in the Church and his ambition strengthened on him (and sure Cromwell himself did not more suffer from that failing of noble minds), caution grew to be his main thought; for he said the adventure of our coming looked so like a frolic that censure might hold as if t here were a secret history in such a removal; but this would soon blow over by circumspect conduct, and this too was used to put a distance between us.

We lodged near him and met as friends. And this I thought the more, when Mr. Tisdall, his friend, made suit, to me. I was cold, — what else, — for I thought myself a wife, if a forsaken one, and Mr. Tisdall imagined that Dr. Swift opposed his suit, objecting that, his means did not come up to the expectation he formed for me, who was, he said, in a manner, his ward.

Poor Mr. Tisdall writ in haste on this, and brought me Dr. Swift ’s reply (who had not broke the matter to me) and thus it ran: —

My conjecture is that you think I obstruct your inclinations to please my own. In answer to all which I will, upon my conscience and honour, tell you the naked truth. [The naked truth! O God, if it were told!] If my fortunes and humour served me to think of that state, I should certainly make your choice, because I never saw that person whose conversation I entirely valued but hers. This was the utmost I ever gave way to. [But once — but once!] And this regard of mine never once entered my head as an impediment to you, since it is held so necessary and convenient a thing for ladies to marry, and that time takes off the lustre of virgins in all other eyes but mine.

This Mr. Tisdall offered on his knees, declaring it must remove my last objections, since the worthy friend of my childhood supported his suit. I received it sedately, and dismist him with the compunction so worthy a gentleman merited. Was this letter honest to his friend? I say not.

Henceforth he disliked Mr. Tisdall. Could I impute this to jealousy? Why not? Truly, there is a something Oriental in the passions of men; and if a woman break through this, ’t is at her peril.

So stood matters when the Doctor went to London, an: 1710, on his errand of obtaining the First Fruits for the Irish Church from the Crown — and he chosen from all others to this, for his commanding talent and presence, though then but forty-two years of age, and many dignitaries older yet not wiser. It created much envy.

I missed him, and yet took a sad ease in his going. ’T was the easier to talk with Dingley, to play at ombre with the Dean and Mrs. Walls; for when he was in presence, my heart, waited upon his speech, and he wounded with many a word and look he thought not on. And he writ often in the form of a Journal to Dingley and me, saying: —

‘I will write something every day to MD., and when it is full, will send it; and that will be pretty, and I will always be in conversation with MD, and MD with Presto.’


’T was near a year since his going when Mrs. Coleburn came to Dublin, full of London talk, and her friendship with the great Dr. Swift, the hope of the Tories. Indeed, it made her a great woman with the clergy in Dublin, that she knew so much of his sayings and doings and in what great company he was got and the clutter he made in London. Much was true, as I knew under his own hand. Much was idle twattle and the giddiness of a woman that will be talking. Now, one day, she visited me, dressed out in the last London mode, and talked as I knotted, and presently says she: —

‘And, Mrs. Johnson, what will be said, the Doctor being made a Bishop as he now looks for, if he bring home a fine young bride from London. Sure he lives at Mrs. Vanhomrigh’s, so often is he there, and Miss Hessy is as pretty a girl as eye can see, in her young twenties and a bit of a fortune to boot. I have ever said the Doctor was not on the market for nothing. He is not the man for a portionless beauty. Hath he wrote of this? for all the tongues are wagging, and the lady in such a blaze with the tender passion that she can’t by any means smother it.’

‘Doctor Swift hath often writ of Mrs. Vanhomrigh and her hospitalities,’ says I, smiling. ‘Also of the charming Miss V. Her name is no stranger here.’

So I baffled the woman, and could see her petty malice dumbed. I held the smile on my face like a mask.

‘Well, ’t is a charming creature, and the Doctor commends her wit in all quarters; and ’t is certain he should be a judge, for he tutors her in Latin. There’s many a man would gladly tutor the seductive Miss Hessy.’

When she took leave, I writ to the kind Patty Rolt in London. When her reply returned, ’t was but to confirm Mrs. Coleburn. Then I turned over all his letters — yet did not need — for mention of this woman, and found but three, though of the mother and her house he writ in almost every letter, but making somewhat too light of it. ’T was a raging pain that he should be her tutor—I had thought that was mine only and not to recur — a memory stored where neither rust nor moth might touch it. Well — what could I but hate the girl? And to hate is a bitter thing: it saps the life and breaks the strength, and so no escape night or day. I must then fancy his letters cooling, and later says Dingley unprompted: —

‘The Doctor is took up with his fine friends and his business. La! — for sure he writes not as he did, but is plaguey busy. Two simple women can’t expect so much of his time that duchesses go begging for.’

He stayed long away, and Patty Rolt writ often, discreet and willing to serve me; and one day comes a packet from her, and when I cut the seals, out falls a letter — his. I read it first.

Miss Hessy, I am so weary of this place [’t was Windsor] that I am resolved to leave it in two days. I will come as early on Monday as I can find opportunity, and will take a little Grub Street lodgings pretty near where I did before, and will dine with you three times a week and tell you a thousand secrets, provided you will have no quarrels with me. I long to drink a dish of coffee in thesluttery, and hear you dun me for secrets, and ‘ Drink your coffee — why don’t you drink your coffee?’

So he writ, and more — much more could I read unsaid. For him, this was much — I knew it. Then, another letter — a woman’s hand.

It is inexpressible the concern I am in ever since I heard from Mrs. Lewis that your head is so much out of order. Who is your physician? Satisfy me so much as to tell me what medicines you have took and do take. O what would I give to know how you do this instant. My fortune is too hard. Your absence was enough without this cruel addition. I have done all that was possible to hinder myself from writing for fear of breaking my promise; but it is all in vain; for had I vowed neither to touch pen, ink, or paper, I certainly should have had some other invention, and I am impatient to the last degree to hear how you are. I hope I shall soon have you here.

The two were wrapt in a sheet from Patty who had writ thereon: — ‘ Dropt by the Doctor when in a giddy attack, visiting me.’

I think she was shamed. So was not I. As well ask the hound if he is shamed when tracking the deer. Had it been to save my life, instead of lose it, I had less eagerly read. ’T was clear they understood one another. With me, in his caution, Dingley must be joined when he writ. With her, not so. Her happiness was a knife turned in a bleeding wound.

So I writ him, in a letter of many matters, somewhat scornfully of the family as marveling a little that he whom all solicited could be satisfied with such inconsiderable people. In time he replied thus: —

Sir A. Fountaine and I dined by invitation with Mrs. V. You say they are of no consequence — why, they keep as good female company as I do male. I see all the drabs of quality at this end of the town with them. I saw two Lady Bettys there this afternoon. Rare walking in the Park now. Why don’t you walk in the Green of St. Stephen’s? What beasts the Irish women are never to walk.

Men hide not matters so well as women. They say too much or not enough.

Much later he writ; ‘I found Mrs. V. all in combustion with her landlord. Her eldest daughter is of age, and going to Ireland to look after her fortune and get it in her own hands.’

So I was to think it concerned them not to be apart. Immediately I set my wits to discover where was her estate, and ’t was not long ere I knew ’t was Marlay Abbey, near Celbridge; but the lady would reside in Dublin while making her dispositions, being Mrs. Emerson’s guest, and was like to be at a rout at her house. ’T was long since I attended a rout, but I intrigued to be bidden as courtiers intrigue for an inch of blue ribbon; and in such a fever and anguish as I think I had died of it if not successful.

So, when the day was come, I went with Mrs. Stoyte; and the first person I saw was a young lady on the stair-head as we went up, and Mrs. Emerson presenting her to many. A fine young London madam, who curtseyed to me, taking no more heed than of any other.

Shall I admit her beauty? I did not think her charming, despite fine sparkling eyes and a luxuriance of brown hair. Her lips were full and her chin round, but she looked full her age, and between the brows was a line that I would call the Doctor’s sign-manual. I have it myself — I have seen it in others — ’t is the claw-foot of care, care never-ending and cruel unrest, and hope that sickens the spirit and fades the bloom; and in her, though but just of age, the first bloom was gone that is like morning dew in a young girl’s eyes. He loves to tyrannise over women and show his familiarity by a certain brutality of address, and the line comes not slowly.

I caught sight of her person with mine in a long glass — she in her seagreen sacque flowered with pink, and myself in gray, — ‘an angel’s face a little cracked,’ — that was the best he could say for Stella! She gave not a thought to the faded Dublin lady that would have given all but her eternal hope to read in that girl’s soul. Oh, the mask of the human face behind which none may look!


So she went, and after a year he returned, now Dean of St. Patrick. He was kind, but ’t was a kindness that stood apart and viewed itself carefully lest it diminish my due. ’T was easy seen he was engaged in thought. Well — shall a woman expect more from a man in the world’s eye? Let her be humbly grateful for the crumbs he lets fall.

Also for the crumbs from her rival’s table; for Miss Hessy following, and now an orphan, was established soon after at Marlay; and whether I would or not, I knew when the Dean’s rides took him that way, my Mrs. Prue being courted by his man Samuel, and all he did trickling through that channel. ’T was at this time also that copies were handed about of his poem ‘ Cadenus and Vanessa,’ and ’t was the very top of talk and admiration. Many might guess who was the lady, and the Dean was mighty angry, and said ’t was but a jest, and no friend to him who took it otherwise. He asked me with a feigned carelessness if I had read it, and I, replying carelessly that I thought it extreme fine and could wish he would write oftener in that vein, he smiled and looked pleased and so it passed. But again and yet again I conned the lines: —

’T is to the world a secret yet
Whether the nymph to please her swain
Talks in a high romantic strain,
Or whether he at last descends
To act with less seraphic ends.
Or, to compound the business, whether
They temper love and books together,
Must never to mankind be told,
Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold.

I knew the meaning of that passage where others guesst. I read it by the light of a sunset many years gone, and lived in hell.

’T was when Mr. Dean was next in London, came a letter to me.

Madam, I have great and urgent reason to wish the honour of meeting you and a half hour’s conversation. Any place you may condescend to appoint will be perfectly agreeable and the favour prized by
Your obedient humble servant,
ESTHER VANHOMRIGH (who would not ask it unless it concerned Mrs. Johnson as nearly as herself).

I broke my brains thinking, should I or should I not? Nor can I now unravel all the motives at work. But in two days’ time I writ: —

Madam, I have a difficulty to come at the reason for your request, but am compelled by courtesy to appoint three o’ the clock at the rooms of Mrs. Dew, my old servant, at Kidder Street, No. 12. Your obt humble servant,

Strange our names should be alike!

She was the first at the meeting. I ensured this, delaying my chair at the corner of Kidder street till I saw her enter.

The room was small and poorly decent, and her hoop and mine filled it. She curtseyed low, as did I, and though she aimed at composure I could see her lips work. The line between her brows was eight years deeper, her face pale, the bloom faded, and her mouth droopt. Had she been any other, I had pitied her. His friendship is fatal to my sex, though I have wore it like an honour. For me, I was composed. It’s not for nothing I have spent my life in that school — she was a newer pupil.

Being seated, I asked her to favour me with her commands, and she came straight at the business with a kind of directness pitiable enough.

‘Madam, all the world talks of the goodness of Mrs. Johnson. I am not long a resident of these parts, but am no stranger to your merits. ’T is my confidence in them causes this explanation. May I ask pardon for plain speaking?’

‘Madam, if the subject is one I can admit of, speech cannot be too plain.’

‘So I have been told. Accept me therefore as a plain-dealer, madam, and have the goodness to read what I cannot speak. But first,’ — she put her hand to her throat as if she might swoon, and so closing her eyes for a moment, opened them clearly on me, — ‘Madam, between a certain gentleman and myself have been love-passages tending, as I believed — hoped — to marriage. A passion that, with due regard to honour, hath been the ruler of my life hath brought me to Celbridge as I did think for the happiness of both. Being arrived, I have the happiness to see this gentleman often, and he hath had the goodness to say that no person hath ever been so loved, honoured, esteemed, ADORED by him as your humble servant. Yet I am told that a former attachment doth so constrain his honour that little can be hoped.’— (Her voice broke.) ‘Madam, will you read this paper, and say Yes or No?’

I opened it, and thus read: —

Madam, of your angelic goodness be pleased to answer, are you indeed the wife of one I name not? If it be true, I will utterly withdraw my intrusive presence. In pity, answer me.

It seemed many minutes I sat with this in my hand, and she dropt on her knee at my feet, looking up in agony. Time passed and I heard my voice as if it were another’s, and strange to me.

‘Madam, am I expected to disclose my secrets to one of whom I know not if she tells truth? What are you to the Dean, and what proof do you give of what you are, that I should answer?’

She said very low: —

‘I had not thought of that. But ’t is very true.’ And, trembling and looking fearfully about her, she put her hand inside the whalebone of her bodice and drew out letters. ‘ I thought not these would be seen by any, but buried with me when I die; but’t is impossible you should know me for honest, and because honour speaks in your face — read these.’

I took them, trembling inwardly. She, poor wretch, was newer to her trade, and was like to faint. I knew the writing.

I will see you tomorrow, if possible. You know it is not above five days since I saw you, and that I would ten times more, if it were at all convenient. — Cad bids me tell you that, if you complain of difficult writing, he will give you enough to complain of.

‘ Cad ’ ? Then I remembered — ‘ Cadenus and Vanessa.’ So — she might call him by a little familiar name, but I, never. I stopt there.

‘Madam, have you thus writ to him?’

‘Always of late, madam. With a dash before it, as here you will see the cause.’

She pushed a letter into my hand, eager, as I thought, to convince not only me but herself of his regard. And thus it read: —

I wish your letters were as difficult (cautious) as mine, for then they would be of no consequence if dropped by careless messengers. A stroke thus — signifies all that may be said to Cad at beginning or conclusion.

‘So,’ says I, ‘a stroke means endearments. Otherwise’t is difficult to conclude these sentimental letters.’

‘Madam,’ she broke out, ‘it means more than tongue can tell. And since you still doubt, have the condescension to read this letter of my own which he returned to me in rebuke. ’T will show you our terms.’

— Cad, you are good beyond expression. I thought that last letter I writ was obscure and restrained enough. I took pains to write it after your manner. I am sorry my jealousy should hinder you from writing more love letters. Pray tell me, did you not wish to come where that road to the left would have led you? I am now as happy as I can be without seeing — Cad. I beg you will continue happiness to your own Heskinage.

I read, and was silent — reading this letter by the light of a dead sunset. I never dared so write. There was that between them that he had never shared with me, and yet all his old caution, as with me. I thought not, however, so much of his feelings as of hers, for I think his care for women is but skindeep at best. He was ever willing to take the tribute of their hearts — nay, of their lives; but should they incommode him, or trespass across the line he hath marked — this careless liking is changed to hatred, and he will avenge himself brutally on the weak creatures that love him.

Who should know this but I — I who have lived beside him and retained his friendship only because I have in all things submitted to his will — silent to death ? Had I anything to lose to this unfortunate woman? No, I had lost all many a long year ago. She still had hopes; I, none. Why torture a wretch so miserable?

She kneeled before me, pale as a corpse. ’T was, sure, the strangest meeting. I could scarce hear her voice.

‘Madam,’ says she, ‘I have put my life in your hand; for if Mr. Dean knew that I had come here — that I had dared — O madam, he can be cruel to women! ’

I strove to collect my thoughts; then heard my own voice as a stranger’s: —

‘Madam, to your question, the answer is No. There is no marriage between Mr. Dean and me. I have no claim on him that obstructs your own.’

She looked up like one in a stupor of amazement — so dazed and white that I repeated my words. Then, suddenly, she gathered herself into composure like my own, but her poor lips trembled. I saw in her my girlhood long dead.

‘If I say I thank you, madam, with all my heart and soul for thus opening your mind to a most miserable woman, I say little. What is left of my life shall be a study to deserve your compassion. What would you have me do?’

I replied: ‘ I think you will not fail in what honour and conscience dictate.

’T is not for me to say. ’T is between you and Mr. Dean. And now, madam, will you give me leave to withdraw, for this hath been a painful meeting for us both.’

‘Not before I bless you with all my broken heart,’ she cried, and took my hand. ‘For I will now tell you that, for all these letters, I know he loves not me nor any. I may please him better than another in moments, but there’s no security. He hath a contempt for women that scorches, and to hurt them — but ’t is not this I would say. I feared to find an exulting rival when I came to you, madam, and instead I find an angel of compassion. Sure I read it in your eyes. In this life we shall meet no more; but in my prayers you will be present, and I beseech you, as the last favour, to give me an interest in yours, that I may know myself not utterly forsook. My one sister is not long dead — I am utterly alone in the world.’

She could not continue, but kissed my hand, and her tears fell on it. I told her that this meeting should remain secret, but she needed not assurance. We embraced, and so, curtseying, separated, she departing first. A good woman, if I have known one. ’T is of good women men make their victims. When I reached home, I found her paper still in my hand.

I must now be brief. Mr. Dean returned, and all was as before; but I wearied yet more of the child’s play and prattle he still continued for my amusement. He was much engaged with writing. I thought him ill at ease.

I was seated by the window on a day he will recall, when he entered pale and furious.

‘What hath gone amiss?’ I cried, starting up.

‘This,’ says he, in a voice I scarce knew, so awful was it; and laid before me the poor Vanessa’s paper that I believed I had destroyed weeks agone. O, what had I done? ’T was another paper I had burned, and this had lain in my pocket. ’T was most certainly Mrs. Prue — But what matter? He had what for her sake and mine I had died to hide.

‘ Hath that vixen dared to come anigh you?’ he cried. ‘Hath she ventured to disquiet my friends, the wanton jade, the scheming—’ and so on, pouring horrid words upon her that chilled my blood. ’T was terrible in him, that he could so swiftly change to these furies with one he had favoured and to a rage frightful to see. I tried to moderate him, to speak for her; but nothing availed. Finally I rose to withdraw, for he would hear nothing.

‘But I’ll break her spirit,’ he said with clenched hands. ‘I’ll ride to Celbridge and face her with her crime — ’

I held him back. ‘For God’s sake, no. Have patience. She hath done no harm, and no eye but mine saw the paper. I pitied her — we parted friends.’

‘Then you saw her? She came?’

But I can write no more. He tore his coat from me, and so down the stair like a madman; and I heard his horse clatter down the street while I prayed for a soul in agony, and that she might not think I betrayed her.

Hours went by. He returned, still riding furiously, and told me how he had dashed the paper on the table before her, and how she had sunk down speechless when he so spoke as satisfied even his vengeance. And so continued: —

‘But I am resolved. Such sluts, such tongue-snakes shall not cross my path. You have been obedient, Stella, through good and ill report, and merit reward. I will speak with the Bishop of Clogher and he shall marry us forthwith, though privately. And we will live apart, for I cannot bend my will to live with any woman; but Stella shall know she is my wife, and the knowledge pierce that ——’s heart.’

So, at last, the words I had once died to hear came and found me cold. Indeed, I despised them, though still I honour my friend. I mused, while he leaned against the window, breathing heavily and waiting my reply.

‘It comes too late,’ I said. ‘There was a time when it had been welcome, but not now. Also, my sympathies are engaged in a quarter where I think a little mercy had become you. With your permission, Mr. Dean, this is a subject that shall detain us no more.’

I pickt up my knotting as Dingley entered. He stared upon me and went out, nor was it ever again mentioned.

After, she writ me a word: ‘Madam and my friend, I know’t was not your doing. That needs no words. I am very ill, and were it possible we should meet, ’t would be my solace, but ’t is impossible. May the happiness the good should enjoy attend you, as do my prayers. Your grateful humble servant, E. V.’

I answered thus: ‘Madam and my friend, God be with you in life and death. The question you put to me I shall for ever answer as then. Comfort yourself, for sure there is a world that sets this right, else were we of all men most miserable.’

She was dead in three weeks, of a broken heart. For me, my own hour draws on. I have writ this paper, yet think to destroy it, and know not what is best. No happiness lies before him in old age, for’t is a plant he pulled up by the roots for himself and others — alas! how many. Should I then cause him to suffer more? He hath had the mercy of my silence for a lifetime. ’T is not so hard to be silent in the grave.

(Stella died in the year 1727.)

  1. The letters in this story to or from Dean Swift are authentic. — THE AUTHOR.