Discipline: A Novel

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For some hours I was inconsolable; but at length tired nature befriended me, and I wept myself to sleep. The next morning, before I was sufficiently awake for recollection, I again, in a confused sense of pain, began my instinctive wailing. I was, however, somewhat comforted by the examination of my new jet ornaments; and the paroxysms of my grief thenceforth returned at lengthening intervals, and with abating force. Yet when I passed my mother's chamber-door, and remembered that all within was desolate, I would cast myself down at the threshold, and mix with shrieks of agony the oft repeated cry of "Mother! mother!" Or, when I was summoned to the parlour, where no one now was concerned to promote my pastimes, or remove my difficulties, or grant my requests, --on the failure of some of my little projects, I would lean my head on her now vacant seat, and vent a quieter sorrow, till reproof swelled it into loud lamentation.

These passing storms my father found to be very hostile to the calm which he had promised himself in a fortnight of decent seclusion from the cares of the counting-house. Besides, I became, in other respects, daily more troublesome. The only influence which could bend my stubborn will being now removed, he was hourly harassed with complaints of my refractory conduct. It was constantly, "Sir, Miss Ellen won't go to bed,"--"Sir, Miss Ellen won't get up,"--"Sir, Miss Ellen won't have her hair combed,"-- "Sir, Miss Ellen won't learn her lesson." My father, having tried his authority some half-a-dozen times in vain, declared, not without reason, that the child was completely spoiled; so, by way of a summary cure for the evil, so far at least as it affected himself, he determined to send me to a fashionable boarding-school.

In pursuance of this determination, I was conveyed to ---- House, then one of the most polite seminaries of the metropolis, and committed to the tuition of Madame Dupre. My father, who did not pique himself on his acquaintances with the mysteries of education, gave no instructions in regard to mine, except that expense should not be spared on it; and he certainly never found reason to complain that this injunction was neglected. For my own part, I submitted without opposition to the change in my situation. The prospect of obtaining companions of my own age reconciled me to quittiug the paternal roof, which I had of late found a melancholy abode.

A school,--it has been observed so often, that we are all tired of the observation,--a school is an epitome of the world. I am not even sure that the bad passions are not more conspicuous in the baby commonwealth, than among the "children of a larger growth;" since, in after-life, experience teaches some the policy of concealing their evil propensities; while others, in a course of virtuous effort, gain strength to subdue them. Be that as it may, I was scarcely domesticated in my new abode ere I began at once to indulge and to excite the most unamiable feelings of our nature.

"What a charming companion Miss Percy will make for Lady Maria," said one of the teachers to another who was sitting near her. "Yes," returned the other in a very audible whisper, "and a lovely pair they are." The first speaker, directing to me a disapproving look, lowered her voice, and answered something of which only the words "not to be compared," reached my ear. The second, with seeming astonishment at the sentiments of her opponent, and a glance of complacency to me, permitted me to hear that the words "animation," "sensibility," "intelligence," formed part of her reply. The first drew up her head, giving her antagonist a disdainful smile; and the emphatical parts of her speech were, "air of fashion," "delicacy," "mien of noble birth," &c. &c. A comparison was next instituted aloud between the respective ages of Lady Maria and myself; and at this point of the controversy, the said Lady Maria happened to enter the room.

I must confess that I had reason to be flattered by any personal comparison between myself and my little rival, who was indeed one of the loveliest children in the world. So dazzling was the fairness of her complexion, so luxuriant her flaxen hair, so bright her large blue eyes, that, in my approbation of her beauty, I forgot to draw from the late conversation an obvious inference in favour of my own. But I was not long permitted to retain this desirable abstraction from self. "Here is a young companion for you, Lady Maria," said the teacher:--"come, and I will introduce you to each other."

Her little Ladyship, eyeing me askance, answered, "I can't come now--the dress-maker is waiting to fit on my frock."

"Come hither at once when you are desired, young lady," said my champion, in no conciliating tone; and Lady Maria, pouting her pretty under lip, obeyed.

The teacher, who seemed to take pleasure in thwarting her impatience to begone, detained her after the introduction, till it should be ascertained which of us was eldest, and then till we should measure which was tallest. Lady Maria, who had confessed herself to be two years older than I was, reddened with mortification when my champion triumphantly declared me to have the advantage in stature. It was not till the little lady seemed thoroughly out of humour that she was permitted to retire; and I saw her no more till we met in school, where the same lesson was prescribed to both. Desirous that the first impression of my abilities should be favourable, I was diligent in performing my task. Perhaps some remains of ill-humour made Lady Maria neglect hers. Of consequence, I was commended, Lady Maria reproved. Had the reproof and the commendation extended only to our respective degrees of diligence, the equitable sentence would neither have inflamed the conceit of the one, nor the jealousy of the other; but my former champion, whose business it was to examine our proficiency, incautiously turned the spirit of competition into a channel not only unprofitable but mischievous, by making our different success the test of our abilities, not of our industry; and while I cast a triumphant glance upon my fair competitor, I saw her eyes fill with tears not quite "such as angels shed."

At length, we were all dismissed to our pastimes; and "every one strolled off his own glad way;" every one but I; who finding myself, for the first time in my life, of consequence to nobody, and restrained partly by pride, partly by bashfulness, from making advances to my new associates, sat down alone, looking wistfully, from one merry party to another. My attention was arrested by a group more quiet than the rest; where, however, my new rival, seemed to play the orator, speaking very earnestly to two of her companions, and laying one hand on the shoulder of each, as if to enforce attention. Her Ladyship spoke in whispers, for good manners are not hereditary; casting, at intervals, such glances towards me as showed that I was the subject of remarks not over laudatory.

Presently the group began to move; and Lady Maria, leading it, as if by accident, to the place where I sat, accosted me with an air of restrained haughtiness. "Pray, Miss Percy," said she "are you of the Duke of Northumberland's family?"--"No," answered I.-- "What Percys, then, do you belong to?"--"I belong to my father, Mr. Percy, the great West India Merchant, in Bloomsbury Square," returned I, not doubting that my consequence would be raised by this information. To my great surprise, however, Lady Maria's ideas of my importance did not seem affected by this intelligence; for she said in a familiar tone, "But who was your grandfather, my dear? I suppose you had a grandfather?"-- she looked round for applause at this sally.

Now it happened that I was then wholly ignorant of the dignity which may be derived from this relative, having never heard whether I had a grandfather or not; but I plainly perceived that the question was not graciously meant; and therefore I answered, with mixed simplicity and ill-humour, "Oh! I am not a fool,--I, know I must have had a grandfather; but I think he could not be a duke, for I have heard papa say he had just five shillings to begin the world with!"

"So, for aught you can tell," said Lady Maria, shrugging her shoulders and tittering, "your father may be the son of a blacksmith or a cobbler!"

"No, no," interrupted one of her Ladyship's abettors; "don't you hear Miss Percy say that he owed his being to a crown?"

This piece of boarding-school wit seemed to delight Lady Maria, who, looking me full in the face, burst into a most vociferous fit of laughter; an impertinence which I resented with more spirit than elegance, by giving her Ladyship a hearty box on the car. A moment of dead silence ensued; the by-standers looking at each in consternation, while my pretty antagonist collected her breath for screams of pain and rage.

The superior powers were speedily assembled on the field of conflict; and the grounds of quarrel were investigated. The incivility of mine adversaries was reproved; but my more heinous outrage was judged worthy of imprisonment. In consequence of my being a stranger, it was proposed that this punishment should be remitted, upon condition of my apologizing to Lady Maria, and promising future good behaviour. With these conditions, however, I positively refused to comply; declaring that, if they were necessary to my release, I would remain in confinement till my father removed me from school. In vain did the teachers entreat, and Madame Dupre command. I insisted, with sobs of indignation, that Lady Maria was justly punished for her impertinence; and stoutly asserted my right to defend myself from aggression. The maintenance of order required that I should be subdued; and, finding me altogether inflexible in regard to the terms of capitulation, the governess, in spite of the wildest transports of my rage, committed me to close custody.

Left to itself, my fury, by degrees, subsided into sullen resolution. Conceiving that I had been unjustly treated, I determined not to yield. This humour lasted till the second day of my captivity, when I began to entertain some thoughts of a compromise with my dignity. Yet, when the original terms were again proposed to me without abatement, pride forbade me to accept what I had so often refused; and I remained another day in durance. At last, when I was heartily wearied of solitude and inaction, I received a visit from my champion; and though I had stubbornly withstood higher authority. I was moved by remembrance of the favour she had shown me, to consent, that, provided Lady Maria would humble herself before me for her impertinence, I would apologize for the blow which I had given. It was now her Ladyship's turn to be obstinate. She refused to comply; so after another day's confinement I was liberated unconditionally, as having sufficiently expiated my fault.

From that time an ill-humour prevailed between Lady Maria and myself, which was kept alive by mutual indications of insolence and ill-will. It had too little dignity to bear the name of hatred; and might rather be characterized as a kind of snappishness, watchful to give and to take offence. Our companions enlisted in our quarrels. By degrees almost every girl in the school had been drawn to engage on one side or other; and our mutual bickerings were often carried on with as much rancour as ever envenomed the contests of Whig and Tory.

Of all my adherents, the last to declare in my favour, the most steady when fixed, was Miss Juliet Arnold, the daughter of an insurance broker lately deceased. Mr. Arnold, finding it impossible to derive from himself or his ancestors sufficient consequence to satisfy his desires, was obliged to draw for importance upon posterity, by becoming the founder of a family; therefore, leaving his daughter almost in a state of dependence, he bequeathed the bulk of a considerable fortune to his son. This young gentleman calculated that the most frugal way of providing for his sister would be to aid her in obtaining an establishment. Miss Juliet Arnold, therefore, was educated to be married.

Let no simple reader, trained by an antiquated grandmother in the country, imagine my meaning to be that Miss Arnold was practised in the domestic, the economical, the submissive virtues; that she was skilled in excusing frailty, enlivening solitude, or scattering; sunshine upon the passing clouds of life!--I only mean that Miss Arnold was taught accomplishments which were deemed likely to attract notice and admiration; that she knew what to withdraw from the view, and what to prepare for exhibition; that she was properly instructed in the value of settlements; and duly convinced of the degradation and misery of failure in the grand purpose of a lady's existence. For the rest, nature had done much to qualify Juliet for her profession; for she had a pliant temper, and an easy address; she could look undesigning, and flatter fearlessly; her manners were caressing, her passions cool, and her person was generally agreeable, without being handsome enough to awaken the caution of the one sex or the envy of the other. Even when a child, she had an instinctive preference for companions superior to herself in rank and fortune; and though she was far from being a general favourite, was sure to make herself acceptable where she chose to conciliate.

Miss Arnold balanced long between my party and that of Lady Maria de Burgh. She affected to be equally well inclined to both, and even assumed the character of mediatrix. An invitation from Lady Maria to spend the holidays at the seat of her father, the Duke of C----, entirely alienated Miss Arnold from my interests for a time; but just as she had finished her preparations for the important journey, the fickle dame of quality transferred her choice of a travelling companion to a young lady of her own rank, whose holiday festivities she was desirous of sharing in her turn.

From this time, Miss Arnold was my firm ally. She praised me much, defended me pertinaciously, and, right or wrong, embraced my opinions. Of course, she convinced me of her ardent affection for me; and I, accustomed almost from my birth to love with my whole heart, seized the first object that promised to fill the place which was now vacant there. Miss Arnold and I, therefore, became inseparable. We espoused each other's quarrels, abetted each other's frolics, assisted each other's plots, and excused each other's misdemeanours. I smuggled forbidden novels into school for her; and she introduced contraband sweetmeats for me. In short, to use the language often applied to such confederations, we were "great friends."

This compact was particularly advantageous to me; for having, partly from nature, partly from habitual confidence of indulgence, a tendency to blunt plain-dealing, I was altogether inadequate to the invention of the hundred sly tricks and convenient excuses which I owed to the superior genius of my confederate. Often when I would have resigned myself, like a simpleton, to merited reproof, did she, with a bold flight of imagination, interpose, and bear me through in triumph. If these efforts of invention had been made in the cause of another, I might have been tempted to brand them with their proper title; as it was, I first learnt to pardon them because of their good nature, and then to admire them for their ingenuity.

Meanwhile our education proceeded selon les regles. We were taught the French and Italian languages; but, in as far as was compatible with these acquisitions, we remained in ignorance of the accurate science, or elegant literature to which they might have introduced us. We learnt to draw landscape; but, secluded from the fair originals of nature, we gained not one idea from the art, except such as were purely mechanical. Miss Arnold painted beautiful fans, and I was an adept in the manufacture of card purses and match figures. But had we been restricted to the use of such apparel as we could make, I fear we should have been reduced to even more than fashionable scantiness of attire. The advertisements from ---- House protested that "the utmost attention should be paid to the morals of the pupils;" which promise was performed, by requiring, that, every Sunday afternoon, we should repeat by rote a page of the Catechism, after which we were sent "forth to meditate, at even-tide," in the Park. We were instructed in the art of wearing our clothes fashionably, and arranging our decorations with grace and effect; but as for "the ornaments of a meek and quiet spirit," they were in no higher estimation at ----- House than "wimples and round tires like the moon."

At the end of seven years of laborious and expensive trifling, the only accomplishment, perhaps, in which I had attained real proficiency, was music. I had naturally a clear voice, a delicate ear, and a strong sensibility to sweet sounds; but I should never have exercised the perseverance necessary to excellence, had it not been from emulation of Lady Maria de Burgh. This stimulant, of doubtful character, even when untainted with the poison of enmity, operated so effectually, that I at last outstripped all my competitors; and my musical powers were pronounced equal to any which the public may command for hire. This acquisition (I blush whilst I write it) cost me the labour of seven hours a day!--full half the time which, after deducting the seasons of rest and refreshment, remained for all the duties of a rational, a social, an immortal being! Wise Providence! was it to be squandered thus, that leisure was bestowed upon a happy few!--leisure, the most precious distinction of wealth!--leisure, the privilege of Eden! for which fallen man must so often sigh and toil in vain!

Not such were the sentiments with which at sixteen I reviewed my acquirements. I considered them as not less creditable to my genius and industry, than suitable to the sphere in which I expected to move; and I earnestly longed to exhibit them in a world which my imagination peopled with admiring friends. I had, besides, an indistinct desire to challenge notice for gifts of more universal attraction. I knew that I was rich; I more than half suspected that I was handsome; and my heart throbbed to taste the pleasures and the pomps of wealth, but much more to claim the respectful homage, the boundless sway, which I imagined to be the prerogative of beauty.

In the summer of my sixteenth year, Lady Maria was removed from school to accompany the duchess her mother, on a tour to the watering-places; and the accounts with which she favoured her less fortunate companions, of her dresses, her amusements, and her beaux, stimulated my impatience for release. My father at last yielded to my importunities; and consented, that, at the beginning of the fashionable winter, I should enter a world which looked so alluring from afar; where the objects, like sparks glittering in the distant fallow, flashed with a splendour which they owed only to the position of the eye that gazed on them.

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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.