Discipline: A Novel

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I have heard it remarked, that he who writes his own history ought to possess Irish humour, Scotch prudence, and English sincerity;--the first, that his work may be read; the second, that it may be read without injury to himself; the third, that the perusal of it may be profitable to others. I might, perhaps, with truth declare, that I possess only the last of those qualifications. But, besides that my readers will probably take the liberty of estimating for themselves my merits as a narrator, I suspect that professions of humility may possibly deceive the professor himself; and that, while I am honestly confessing my disqualifications, I may be secretly indemnifying my pride, by glorying in the candour of my confession.

Any expression of self-abasement might, indeed, appear peculiarly misplaced as a preface to whole volumes of egotism; the world being generally uncharitable enough to believe, that vanity may somewhat influence him who chooses himself for his theme. Nor can I be certain that this charge is wholly inapplicable to me; since it is notorious to common observation, that, rather than forego their darling subject, the vain will expatiate even on their errors. A better motive, however, mingles with those which impel me to relate my story. It is no unworthy feeling which leads such as are indebted beyond return, to tell of the benefits they have received; or which prompts one who has escaped from imminent peril, to warn others of the danger of their way.

It is, I believe, usual with those who undertake to be their own biographers, to begin with tracing their illustrious descent. I fear this portion of my history must be compiled from very scanty materials; for my father, the only one of the race who was ever known to me, never mentioned his family, except to preface a philippic against all dignities in church and state. Against these he objected, as fostering "that aristocratical contumely, which flesh and blood cannot endure; " a vice which I have heard him declare to be, above all others, the object of his special antipathy. For this selection, which will probably obtain sympathy only from the base-born, my father was not without reason; for, to the pride of birth it was doubtless owing that my grandfather, a cadet of an ancient family, was doomed to starve upon a curacy, in revenge for his contaminating the blood of the Percys by an unequal alliance; and when disappointment and privation had brought him to an early grave, it was probably the game sentiment which induced his relations to prolong his punishment in the person of his widow and infants, who, with all possible dignity and unconcern, were left to their fate. My father, therefore, began the world with very slender advantages; an accident of which he was so far from being ashamed, that he often triumphantly recorded it, ascribing his subsequent affluence to his own skill and diligence alone.

He was, as I first recollect him, a muscular dark-complexioned man, with a keen black eye, cased in an extraordinary perplexity of wrinkle, and shaded by a heavy beetling eyebrow. The peculiarity of his face was a certain arching near the corner of his upper lip, to which it was probably owing that a smile did not improve his countenance; but this was of the less consequence, as he did not often smile. He had, indeed, arrived at that age when gravity is at least excusable; although no trace of infirmity appeared in his portly figure and strong-sounding tread. His whole appearance and demeanour were an apt contrast to those of my mother, in whose youthful form and features symmetry gained a charm from that character of fragility which presages untimely decay, and that air of melancholy which seems to welcome decline. I have her figure now before me. I recollect the tender brightness of her eyes, as laying her hand upon my head, she raised them silently to heaven. I love to remember the fine flush that was called to her cheek by the fervour of the half-uttered blessing. She was, in truth, a gentle being; and bore my wayward humour with an angel's patience. But she exercised a control too gentle over a spirit which needed to be reined by a firmer hand than hers. She shrank from bestowing even merited reproof, and never inflicted pain without suffering much more than she caused. Yet, let not these relentings of nature be called weakness--or if the stern moralist refuse to spare, let it disarm his severity, to learn that I was an only child.

I know not whether it was owing to the carelessness of nurses, or the depravity of waiting-maids, or whether, "to say all, nature herself wrought in me so;" but, from the earliest period of my recollection, I furnish an instance at least, if not a proof, of the corruption of human kind; being proud, petulant, and rebellious. Some will probably think the growth of such propensities no more unaccountable than that of briers and thorns; being prepared, from their own experience and observation, to expect that both should spring without any particular culture. But whoever is dissatisfied with this compendious deduction, may trace my faults to certain accidents in my early education.

I was, of course, a person of infinite importance to my mother. While she was present, her eye followed my every motion, and watched every turn of my countenance. Anxious to anticipate every wish, and vigilant to relieve every difficulty, she never thought of allowing me to pay the natural penalties of impatience or self-indulgence. If one servant was driven away by my caprice, another attended my bidding. If my toys were demolished, new baubles were ready at my call. Even when my mother was reluctantly obliged to testify displeasure, her coldness quickly yielded to my tears; and I early discovered that I had only to persevere in the demonstrations of obstinate sorrow, in order to obtain all the privileges of the party offended. When she was obliged to consign me to my maid, it was with earnest injunctions that I should be amused,--injunctions which it every day became more difficult to fulfil. Her return was always marked by fond inquiries into my proceedings during her absence; and I must do my attendants the justice to say, that their replies were quite as favourable as truth would permit. They were too politic to hazard, at once, my favour and hers by being officiously censorious. On the contrary, they knew how to ingratiate themselves, by rehearsing my witticisms, with such additions and improvements as made my original property in them rather doubtful. My mother, pleased with the imposition, usually listened with delight; or, if she suspected the fraud, was too gentle to repulse it with severity, and too partial herself, to blame what she ascribed to a kindred partiality. On my father's return from the counting-house, my double rectified bon mots were commonly repeated to him, in accents low enough to draw my attention, as to somewhat not intended for my ear, yet so distinct as not to balk my curiosity. This record of my wit served a triple purpose. It confirmed my opinion of my own consequence, and of the vast importance, of whatever I was pleased to say or do: it strengthened the testimony which my mother's visitors bore to my miraculous prematurity; and it established in my mind that association so favourable to feminine character, between repartee and applause!

To own the truth, my mother lay under strong temptation to report my sallies, for my father always listened to them with symtoms of pleasure. They sometimes caused his countenance to relax into a smile; and sometimes, either when they were more particularly brilliant, or his spirits in a more harmonious tone, he would say, "Come, Fanny, get me something nice for supper, and keep Ellen in good humour, and I won't go to the club to-night." He generally, however, had reason to repent of this resolution; for though my mother performed her part to perfection, I not unfrequently experienced, in my father's presence, that restraint which has fettered elder wits under a consciousness of being expected to entertain. Or, if my efforts were more successful he commonly closed his declining eulogiums by saying, "It is a confounded pity she is a girl. If she had been of the right sort, she might have got into Parliament, and made a figure with the best of them. But now what use is her sense of?"--"I hope it will contribute to her happiness," said my mother, sighing, as if she had thought the fulfilment of her hope a little doubtful. "Poh!" quoth my father; "no fear of her happiness. Won't she have two hundered thousand pounds, and never know the trouble of earning it, nor need to do one thing from morning to night but amuse herself?" My mother made no answer:--so by this and similar conversations, a most just and desirable connexion was formed in my mind between the ideas of amusement and happiness, of labour and misery.

If to such culture as this I owed the seeds of my besetting sins, at least, it must be owned that the soil was propitious, for the bitter root spread with disastrous vigour; striking so deep, that the iron grasp of adversity, the giant strength of awakened conscience, have failed to tear it wholly from the heart, though they have crushed its outward luxuriance.

Self-importance was fixed in my mind long before I could examine the grounds of this preposterous sentiment. It could not properly be said to rest on my talents, my beauty, or my prospects. Though these had each its full value in my estimation, they were but the trappings of my idol, which, like other idols, owed its dignity chiefly to the misjudging worship which I saw it receive. Children seldom reflect upon their own sentiments; and their self-conceit may, humanly speaking, be incurable before they have an idea of its turpitude, or even of its existence. During the many years in in which mine influenced every action and every thought, whilst it hourly appeared in the forms of arrogance, of self-will, impatience of reproof, love of flattery, and love of sway, I should have heard of its very existence with an incredulous smile, or with an indignation which proved its power. And when at last I learnt to bestow on one of its modifications a name which the world agrees to treat with some respect, I could own that I was even "proud of my pride;" representing every instance of a contrary propensity as the badge of a servile and grovelling disposition.

Meanwhile my encroachments upon the peace and liberty of all who approached me, were permitted for the very reason which ought to have made them be repelled, namely, that I was but a child! I was the dictatrix of my playfellows, the tyrant of the servants, and the idolized despot of both my parents. My father, indeed, sometimes threatened transient rebellion, and announced opposition in the tone of one determined to conquer or die; but, though justice might be on his side, perseverance, a surer omen of success, was upon mine. Hour after hour--nay, day after day--I could whine, pout, or importune, encouraged by the remembrance of former victories. My obstinacy always at length prevailed, and of course gathered strength for future combat. Nor did it signify how trivial might be the matter originally in dispute. Nothing could be unimportant which opposed my sovereign will. That will became every day more imperious; so that however much it governed others, I was myself still more its slave, knowing no rest or peace but in its gratification. I had often occasion to rue its triumphs, since not even the cares of my fond mother could always shield me from the consequences of my perverseness; and by the time I had reached my eighth year, I was one of the most troublesome, and, in spite of great natural hilarity of temper, at times one of the most unhappy beings in that great metropolis which contains such variety of annoyance and of misery.

Upon retracing this sketch of the progress and consequences of my early education, I begin to fear that groundless censure may fall upon the guardians of my infancy; and that defect of understanding or of principle may be imputed to those who so unsuccessfully executed their trust. Let me hasten to remove such a prejudice. My father's understanding was respectable in the line to which he chose to confine its exertions. Indifference to my happiness or my improvement cannot surely be alleged against him, for I was the pride of his heart. I have seen him look up from his newspaper, while reading the "shipping intelligence," or the opposition speeches, to listen to the praises of my beauty or my talents; and, except when his temper was irritated by my perverseness, I was the object of his almost exclusive affection. But he was a man of business. His days were spent in the toil and bustle of commerce; and, if the evening brought him to his home, it was not unnatural that he should there seek domestic peace and relaxation, --a purpose wholly incompatible with the correction of a spoiled child. My mother was indeed one of the finer order of spirits. She had an elegant, a tender, a pious mind. Often did she strive to raise my young heart to Him from whom I had so lately received my being. But, alas! her too partial fondness overlooked in her darling the growth of that pernicious weed, whose shade is deadly to every plant of celestial origin. She continued unconsciously to foster in me that spirit of pride, which may indeed admit the transient admiration of excellence, or even the passing fervours of gratitude, but which is manifestly opposite to vital piety--to that piety which consists in a surrender of self-will, of self-righteousness, of self in every form, to the Divine justice, holiness, and sovereignty. It was, perhaps, for training us to this temper, of such difficult, yet such indispensable attainment, that the discipline of parental authority was intended. I have long seen reason to repent the folly which deprived me of the advantages of this useful apprenticeship, but this conviction has been the fruit of discipline far more painful.

In the meantime, my self-will was preparing for me an immediate punishment, and eventually a heavy, an irremediable misfortune. I had just entered my ninth year, when one evening an acquaintance of my mother's sent me an invitation to her box in the theatre. As I had been for some days confined at home by a cold and sore throat, my mother judged it proper to refuse. But the message had been unwarily delivered in my hearing, and I was clamorous for permission to go. The danger of compliance being, in this instance, manifest, my mother resisted my entreaties with unwonted firmness. After arguing with me, and soothing me in vain, she took the tone of calm command, and forbade me to urge her further. I then had recourse to a mode of attack which I had often found successful, and began to scream with all my might. My mother, though with tears in her eyes, ordered a servant to take me out of the room. But, at the indignity of plebeian coercion, my rage was so nearly convulsive, that, in terror, she consented to let me remain, upon condition of quietness. I was, however, so far from fulfilling my part of this compact, that my father, who returned in the midst of the contest, lost patience; and turning somewhat testily to my mother, said, "The child will do herself more harm by roaring there, than by going to fifty plays."

I observed (for my agonies by no means precluded observation) that my mother only replied by a look, which seemed to say that she could have spared this apostrophe; but my father, growing a little more out of humour as he felt himself somewhat in the wrong, chose to answer to that look, by saying, in an angry tone, "It really becomes you well, Mrs. Percy, to pretend that I spoil the child, when you know you can refuse her nothing."

"That, I fear," said my mother, with a sigh, "will be Ellen's great misfortune. Her dispositions seem such as to require restraint."

"Poh!" quoth my father, "her dispositions will do well enough. A woman is the better for a spice of the devil!"--an aphorism, which we have owed at first to some gentleman, who, like my father, had slender experience in the pungencies of female character.

Gathering hopes from this dialogue, I redoubled my vociferation, till my father, out of all patience closed the contest, as others had been closed before, by saying, "Well, well! you perverse, ungovernable brat, do take your own way and have done with it." I instantly profited by the permission, was dressed, and departed for the play.

I paid dearly for my triumph. The first consequence of it was a dangerous fever. My mother--but what words can do justice to the cares which saved my quivering life--what language shall paint the tenderness that watched my restless bed, and pillowed my aching temples on her bosom--that shielded from the light the burning eye, and warded from every sound the morbid ear--that persevered in these cares of love till nature failed beneath the toil, and till, with her own precious life, she had redeemed me from the grave! My mother--first, fondest love of my soul! is this barren, feeble record, the only return I can make for all thy matchless affection?

After hanging for three weeks upon the very brink of the grave, I recovered. But anxiety and fatigue had struck to the gentlest, the kindest of hearts; and she to whom I twice owed my life, was removed from me before I had even a thought of my vast debt of gratitude. For some months her decline was visible to every eye, except that of the poor heedless being who had most reason to dread its progress. Yet even I, when I saw her fatigued with my importunate prattle, or exhausted by my noisy merriment, would check my spirits, soften my voice to a whisper, and steal round her sofa on tiptoe. Ages would not efface from my mind the tenderness with which she received these feeble attributes of an affection, alas! so dearly earned. By degrees, the constant intercourse which had been the blessing of my life was exchanged for short occasional visits to my mother's chamber. Again these were restricted to a few moments, while the morning lent her a short-lived vigour; and a few more, while I received her evening blessing.

At length three days passed, in which I had not seen my mother. I was then summoned to her presence; and, full of the improvident rapture of childhood, I bounded gaily to her apartment. But all gladness fled, when my mother, folding me in her arms, burst into a feeble cry, followed by the big convulsive sob which her weakness was unable to repress. Many a time did she press her pale lips to every feature of my face; and often strove to speak, but found no utterance. An attendant, who was a stranger to me, now approached to remove me, saying, that my mother would injure herself. In the dread of being parted from her child, my fond parent found momentary strength; and, still clinging to me, hid her face on my shoulder, and became more composed. "Ellen," said she, in a feeble broken voice, "lift up thy little hands, and pray that we may meet again." Unconscious of her full meaning, I knelt down by her; and, resting my lifted hands upon her knees as I was wont to do while she taught me to utter my infant petitions, I said, "Oh! let mamma see her dear Ellen again!" Once more she made me repeat my simple prayer: then, bending over me, she rested her locked hands upon my head, and the warmth of a last blessing burst into tremulous interrupted whispers. One only of these parting benedictions is imprinted on my mind. Wonder impressed it there at first: and, when nearly effaced by time, the impression was restored with force irresistible. These were the well-remembered words: "Oh, be kinder than her earthly parents, and show thyself a father, though it be in chastising."

Many a tender wish did she breathe, long since forgotten by her thoughtless child, till at last the accents of love were again lost in the thick struggling sobs of weakness. Again the attendant offered to remove me: and I, half-wearied with the sadness of the scene, was not unwilling to go. Yet I tried to soothe a sorrow which I could not comprehend, by promising that I would soon return. Once more, with the strength, of agony, my mother pressed me to her bosom; then, turning away her head, she pushed me gently from her. I was led from her chamber--the door closed-- heard again the feeble melancholy cry, and her voice was silent to my ear for ever.

The next day I pleaded in vain to see my mother. Another came, and every face looked mournfully busy. I saw not my father; but the few domestics who approached me gazed sadly on my childish pastime, or uttered an expression of pity, and hurried away. Unhappily, I scarcely knew why, I remembered my resort in all my little distresses, and insisted upon being admitted to my mother. My attendant long endeavoured to evade compliance, and when she found me resolute, was forced to tell the melancholy truth. She had so often combated my wilfulness by deceit, that I listened without believing; yet, when I saw her serious countenance, something like alarm added to my impatience, and, bursting from her, I flew to my mother's chamber.

The door which used to fly open at my signal was fastened, and no one answered my summons: but the key remained in the lock, and I soon procured admission. All seemed strangely altered since I saw it last. No trace appeared of mother's presence. Here reigned the order and the stillness of desolation. The curtains were drawn back, and the bed arranged with more than wonted care: yet it seemed pressed by the semblance of a human form. I drew away the cover, and beheld my mother's face. I thought she slept; yet the stern quietness of her repose was painful to me. "Wake, dear mamma!" I hastily cried, and wondered when the smile of love answered not my call. I reached my hand to touch her cheek, and started at its coldness: yet, still childishly incre- dulous of my loss, I sprang upon the bed, and threw my arm round her neck.

A frightful shriek made me turn, and I beheld my attendant stretching her arms towards me, as if fearing to approach. Her looks of horror and alarm,--her incoherent expressions,--the motionless form before me, at last convinced me of the truth; and all the vulgar images of death and sepulture rushing on my mind, I burst into agonies of mingled grief and fear. To be carried hence by strangers, laid in the earth, shut out for ever from the light and from me!--I clung to the senseless clay, resolved, while I had life, to shield my dear mother from such a fate.

My cries assembled the family, who attempted to withdraw me from the scene. In vain they endeavoured to persuade or to terrify me. I continued to hang on the bosom which had nourished me, and to mingle my cries of "Mother! mother!" with vows that I would never leave her, not though they should hide me with her in the earth. At last my father commanded the servants to remove me by force. In vain I struggled and shrieked in anguish. I was torn, from her,--and the tie was severed for ever!

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This presentation of Discipline: A Novel, by Mary Brunton is Copyright 2003 by P.J. LaBrocca. It may not be copied, duplicated, stored or transmitted in any form without written permission. The text is in the public domain.