“Virtue may be assail’d, but never hurt, Surpris’d by unjust force, but not inthrall’d; Yea, even that which mischief meant most harm Shall in the happy trial prove most glory.” -- Comus [^1]
WILLIAM FLETCHER was the son of a respectable country gentleman of Suffolk, England; and the destined heir of his uncle Sir William Fletcher, an eminent lawyer, who had employed his talents with such effective zeal and pliant principle, that he had won his way to courtly favour and secured a courtly fortune.
Sir William had only one child — a daughter; and possessing the common ambition of transmitting his name with his wealth, he selected his nephew as the future husband of his daughter Alice.
“Take good heed,” Sir William thus expressed himself in a letter to his brother, “take good heed that the boy be taught unquestioning and unqualified loyalty to his sovereign — the Alpha and Omega of political duty. These are times wh en every true subject h as his price. Divers of the leaders of the Commons are secret friends of the seditious mischief- brewing puritans; and Buckingham himself is suspected of favouring their cabals — -but this sub rosa — I burn not my fingers with these matters. ‘He who meddleth with another man’s strifes, taketh a dog by the ear,’ said the wisest man that ever lived; and he — thank God — was a king. Caution Will against all vain speculation and idle inquiries — there are those that are for ever inquiring and inquiring, and never coming to the truth. One inquiry should suffice for a loyal subject. ‘What is established?’ and that being well ascertained, the line of duty is so plain, that he who runs may read.
“I would that all our youths had inscribed on their hearts that golden rule of political religion, framed and well maintained by our good Queen Elizabeth. ‘No man should be suffered to decline either on the left or on the right hand, from the drawn line limited by authority, and by the sovereign’s laws and injunctions.’
“Instead of such healthy maxims, our lads’ heads are crammed with the philosophy and rhetoric and history of those liberty-loving Greeks and Romans. This is the pernicious lore that has poisoned our academical fountains. Liberty, what is it! Daughter of disloyalty and mother of all misrule — who, from the frour that she tempted our hrst parents to forfeit paradise, hath ever worked mischief to our race.
“But above all, brother, as you value the temporal salvation of your boy, restrain him from all confederacy, association, or even acquaintance with the puritans. If my master took counsel of me, he would ship these mad canting fools to our New-England colonies, where their tender con- sciences would be no more offended because, forsooth, a prelate saith his prayers in white vestments, and where they might enjoy with the savages that primitive equality, about which they make such a pother. God fore- fend that our good lad William should company with these misdoers! He must be narrowly watched; for, as I hear, there is a neighbour of yours, one Winthrop[^2] (a notable gentleman too, as they say, but he doth grievously scandalize his birth and breeding) who hath embraced these scurv y prin- ciples, and doth magnify them with the authority of his birth and condi- tion, and hath much weight with the country. There is in Suffolk too, as I am told, one Eliot,[^3] a young zealot — a fanatical incendiary, w ho doth find ample combustibles in the gossiping matrons, idle maidens, and lawless youth who flock about him.
“These are dangerous neighbours — rouse yourself, brother — give over your idle sporting with hawk and hound, and watch over this goodly scion of ours — ours, I say, but I forew arn you, no daughter or guinea of mine shall ever go to one w ho is infected with this spreading plague.” This letter was too explicit to be misunderstood; but so far from having the intended effect of awakening the caution of the expectant of fortune, it rather stimulated the pride of the independent country gentle- man. He permitted his son to follow the bent of accident, or the natural course of a serious, reflecting, and enthusiastic temper. Winthrop, the future governor of Massachusetts, was the counsellor of young Fletcher; and Eliot, the “apostle of New-England,” his most intimate friend. These were men selected of Heaven to achieve a great work. In the quaint language of the time, “the Lord sifted three nations for precious seed to sow the wilderness.
There were interested persons who were not slow in conveying to Sir William unfavourable reports of his nephew, and the young man received a summons from his uncle, who hoped, by removing him from the infected region, to rescue him from danger.
Sir William’s pride was gratified by the elegant appearance and graceful deportment of his nephew, whom he had expected to see with the “slovenly and lawyerlike carriage” that marked the scholars of the times. The pliant courtier was struck with the lofty independence of the youth who, from the first, shewed that neither frowns nor favour would induce him to bow the knee to the idols Sir William had served. There was something in this independence that awed the inferior mind of the uncle. To him it was an unknown mysterious power, which he knew not how to approach, and almost despaired of subduing. However, he was experi- enced in life, and had observed enough of human infirmity to convince him, that there was no human virtue that had not some weak — some assailable point. Time and circumstances were not long in developing the vulnerability of the nephew. Alice Fletcher had been the companion of his childhood. They now met without any of the reserve that often prevents an intimate intercourse between young persons, and proceeds from the consciousness of a susceptibility which it would seem to deny.
The intercourse of the cousins was renewed with all the frankness and artlessness of the sunny season of childish love and confidence. Alice had been educated in retirement, by her mother, whom she had recently attended through a long and fatal illness. She had been almost the exclusive object of her love, for there was little congeniality between the father and daughter. The ties of nature may command all dutiful observances, but they cannot control the affections. Alice was deeply afflicted by her bereavement. Her cousin’s serious temper harmonized with her sorrow, and nature and opportunity soon indissolubly linked their hearts together.
Sir William perceived their growing attachment and exulted in it; for, as he fancied, it reduced his nephew to dependence on his will and whims. He had never himself experienced the full strength of any generous sentiment; but he had learned from observation, that love was a control- ling passion, and he now most anxiously watched and promoted the kindling of the flame, in the expectation that the fire would subdue the principles of civil and religious liberty, with which he had but too well ascertained the mind of his nephew to be imbued.
He silently favoured the constant and exclusive intercourse of the young people: he secretly contrived various modes of increasing their mutual dependence; and, when he was certain their happiness was staked, he cast the die. He told his nephew that he perceived and rejoiced in the mutual affection that had so naturally sprung up between him and his daughter, and he confessed their union had been the favourite object of his life; and said, that he now heartily accorded his consent to it, prescribing one condition only — but that condition was unalterable.
“You must abjure, William, in the presence of witnesses,” he said, “the fanatical notions of liberty and religion with which you have been infected — you must pledge yourself, by a solemn oath, to unqualified obedience to the king, and adherence to the established church: you shall have time enough for the effervescence of your young blood. God send this fermentation may work off all impurities. Nay, answer me not now. Take a day — a week — a month for consideration; for on your decision depends fortune and love — or the alternative, beggary and exile.”
If a pit had yawned beneath his feet, and swallowed Alice from his view, William Fletcher could not have been more shocked. He was soul- stricken, as one who listens to a sentence of death. To his eye the earth was shrouded in darkness; not an object of hope or pursuit remained.
He had believed his uncle was aware of what he must deem his political and religious delinquency; but he had never spoken to him on the subject: he had treated him with marked favour, and he had so evidently encouraged his attachment to his cousin, that he had already plighted his love to her, and received her vows without fearing that he had passed even the limit of strict prudence.
There was.no accommodating flexibility in his princi ples; his fidelity to what he deemed his duty could not have been subdued by the fires of martyrdom, and he did not hesitate to sacrifice what was dearer than life to it. He took the resolution at once to fly from the temptation that, present, he dared not trust himself to resist.
“I shall not again see my Alice,” he said. “I have not courage to meet her smiles; I have not strength to endure her tears.”
In aid of his resolution there came, most opportunely, a messenger from his father, requiring his immediate presence. This afforded him a pretext for his sudden departure from London. He left a few brief lines for Alice, that expressed without explaining the sadness of his heart.
His father died a few hours before he arrived at the paternal He was thus released from his strongest natural tie. His mother long dead; and he had neither brother nor sister. He inherited a patrimony, sufficient at least to secure the independence of a gentleman. He immediately repaired to Groton, to his friend Winthrop; not that he should dictate his duty to him, but as one leans on the arm of a friend when he finds his own strength scarcely sufficient to support him.
Mr. Winthrop is well known to have been a man of the most tender domestic affections and sympathies; but he had then been long married— and twice married — and probably a little dimness had come over his recollection of the enthusiasm of a first passion. When Fletcher spoke of Alice’s unequalled loveliness, and of his own unconquerable love, his friend listened as one listens to a tale he has heard a hundred times, and seemed to regard the cruel circumstances in which the ardent lover was placed only in the light of a fit and fine opportunity of making a sacrifice to the great and good cause to which this future statesman had even then begun to devote himself, as the sole object of his life. He treated his friend’s sufferings as in their nature transient and curable; and concluded by saying,
“the Lord hath prepared this fire, my friend, to temper your faith, and you will come out of it the better prepared for your spiritual warfare.”
Fletcher listened to him with stern resolution, like him who permits a surgeon to probe a wound which he is himself certain is incurable.
Mr. Winthrop knew that a ship was appointed to sail from South- ampton in a few days for New-England. With that characteristic zeal which then made all the intentions of Providence so obvious to the eye of faith, and the interpretation of all the events of life so easy, Mr. Winthrop assured his friend that the designs of Heaven, in relation to him, were decent mansion^ had been plain. He said, “there was a great call for such services as he could render in the expedition just about to sail, and which was like to fail for the want of them; and that now, like a faithful servant to the cause he had confessed, he must not look behind, but press on to the things that were before.”
Fletcher obeyed the voice of Heaven. This is no romantic fiction. Hundreds in that day resisted all that solicits earthly passions, and sacri- ficed all that gratifies them, to the cause of God and of man — the cause of liberty and religion. This cause was not to their eyes invested with any romantic attractions. It was not assisted by the illusions of chivalry, nor magnified by the spiritual power and renown of crusades. Our fathers neither had, nor expected their reward on earth.
One severe duty remained to be performed. Fletcher must anno unce their fate to Alice. He honoured her too much to believe she would have permitted the sacrifice of his integrity, if he would have made it. He, therefore, had nothing to excuse; nothing but to tell the terrible truth — to try to reconcile her to her father — to express, for the last time, his love, and to pray that he might receive, at Southampton, one farewell line from her. Accompanying his letter to Alice was one to Sir William, announcing the decision to resign his favour and exile himself for ever from England.
He arranged his affairs, and in a few days received notice that the vessel was ready to sail. He repaired to Southampton, and as he was quitting the inn to embark in the small boat that was to convey him to the vessel, already in the offing, a voice from an inner apartment pronounced his name — and at the next moment Alice was in his arms. She gently reproved him for having estimated her affection at so low a rate as not to have anticipated that she shouldTolkw him, jmdjdiare his destiny. It was more than could have been expected from man, that Fletcher should have opposed such a resolution. He had but a moment for deliberation. Most of the passengers had already embarked; some still lingered on the strand protracting their last farewell to their country and their friends. In the language of the one of the most honoured of these pilgrims —
“truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs, and sobs, and prayers, did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s hearts.”
With the weeping groupe Fletcher left Alice and her attendants, while he went to the vessel to prepare for her suitable reception. He there found a clergyman, and immediately after their embarcation. All the necessary arrangements were made, and he was returning to the shore, his eye fixed on the lovely being whom he believed Heaven had interposed to give to him, when he descried Sir William’s carriage guarded by a cavalcade of armed men, in the uniform of the King’s guards, approaching the spot where she stood.
He comprehended at once their cruel purpose. He exhorted the boatmen to put forth all their strength; he seized the oars himself — despair gave him supernatural power — the boat shot forward with the velocity of light; but all in vain! — he only approached near enough to the shore to hear Alice’s last impotent cries to him — to see her beautiful face convulsed with agony, and her arms outstretched towards him — when she was forced to the carriage by her father, and driven from his sight.
He leaped on the strand; he followed the troop with cries and entreaties; but he was only answered by the coarse jeering and profane jests of the soldiery.
Notice was soon given that the boat was ready to return to the ship for the last time, and Fletcher in a state of agitation and despair, almost amounting to insanity, permitted it to return without him.
He went to London and requested an interview with his uncle. The request was granted, and a long and secret conference ensued. It was known by the servants of the household, that their mistress, Alice, had been summoned by her father to this meeting; but what was said or done, did not transpire. Immediately after, Fletcher returned to Mr. Winthrop’s, in Suffolk. The fixedness of despair was on his countenance; but he said nothing, even to this confidential friend, of the interview with his uncle. The particulars of the affair at Southampton, which had already reached Suffolk, seemed sufficiently to explain his misery.
In less than a fortnight he there received despatches from his uncle, informing him that he had taken effectual measures to save himself from a second conspiracy against the honour of his family — that his daughter, Alice, had that day been led to the altar by Charles Leslie; and concluding with a polite hope, that though his voyage had been interrupted, it might not be long deferred.
Alice had, indeed, in the imbecility of utter despair, submitted to her bespoke his holy offices to unite him to his cousin father’s commands. It was intimated at the time, and reported for many years after, that she had suffered a total alienation of mind. To the world this was never contradicted, for she lived in absolute retirement; but those who best knew could have attested, that if her mind had departed from its beautiful temple, an angelic spirit had entered in and possessed it.
William Fletcher was, in a few months, persuaded to unite himself with an orphan girl, a ward of Mr. Winthrop, who had, in the eyes of the elders, all the meek graces that befitted a godly maiden and dutiful help- mate. Fletcher remained constant to his purpose of emigrating to New England, but he did not effect it till the year 1630, when he embarked with his family and effects in the ship Arabella, with Governor Winthrop, who then, for the first time, went to that land where his name will ever be held in affectionate and honourable remembrance.
: John Milton (1608—74), Comus (1637), 389— 92. Originally staged as a pastoral entertainment, the poem concerns the entrapment and temptation of a woman by Comus, the son of Bacchus and Circe: she resists his blandishments and is rescued by two brothers.
: John Winthrop (1588- 1649), first governor of Massachusetts Bay and its most influential leader during the two decades after settlement in 1630, played a central role in development of the colony’s policies, including those established toward such Indian tribes as the Pequods. Winthrop ’s journals were later published as The History of New England, 1630— 1649.
: John Eliot (1604-90) was a Congregational clergyman who made conversion of Indians the major objective of his ministry. Eliot taught himself Algonquian, preached to tribes throughout southern New England, translated the Bible into Algonquian, and organized fourteen communities of “praying Indians.” Sedgwick’s sympathetic portrait is found in volume II, chapter 9.