Discipline: A Novel

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My father signalized my return from school by a change in his mode of life. He had been accustomed to repair regularly every morning at ten o'clock, to the counting-house; and there, or upon 'Change he spent the greater part of the day in a routine of business, which twenty years had seen uninterrupted, save by the death of my mother, and a weekly journey to his villa at Richmond, where he always spent Saturday and Sunday. Upon placing me at the head of his establishment, my father, not aware of the difference between possessing leisure and enjoying it, determined to shake off, in part, the cares of business, and to exchange a life of toil for one of recreation, or rather of repose. Upon this account, and tempted by a valuable consideration, he admitted into the house a junior partner, who undertook to perform all the drudgery of superintending one of the most extensive mercantile concerns in London, while my father retained a large share of the profits.

At the Christmas holidays I quitted school, impatient to enter on the delights of womanhood. My father, whose ideas of relaxation were all associated with his villa at Richmond, determined that I should there spend the time which intervened before the commencement of the gay winter. In compliance with my request, he invited Miss Arnold, whose liberation took place at the same time with my own, to spend a few weeks with me,--an invitation, which was gladly accepted.

This indulgence, however, was somewhat balanced by the presence of a very different companion. My mother was a woman of real piety; and to her was accorded that "medicine of life," which respectable authority has assigned exclusively to persons of that character. She had a "faithful friend." This friend still survived, and in her my father sought a kind and judicious adviser for my inexperience. He pressed her to make his house her permanent abode, and to share with him in the government of my turbulent spirit, until it should be consigned to other authority. Miss Elizabeth Mortimer, therefore, though she refused to relinquish entirely the independence of a home, left her cottage for a while to the care of her only maid-servant; and rejoicing in an occasion of manifesting affection for her departed friend, and pleasing herself with the idea that one bond of sympathy yet remained between them, prepared to revive her friendship to the mother in acts of kindness to the child.

I regret to say that she was received with sentiments much less amicable. Miss Arnold and I considered her as a spy upon our actions, and a restraint upon our pleasures. We called her Argus and duenna; voted her a stick, a bore, a quiz, or, to sum up all reproach in one comprehensive epithet, a Methodist. Not that she really was a sectary. On the contrary, she was an affectionate and dutiful daughter of the establishment, countenancing schismatics no further than by adopting such of their doctrines and practices as are plainly scriptural, and by testifying towards them, on all occasions, whether of opposition or conformity, a charity which evinced the divinity of its own origin. But Miss Mortimer displayed a practical conviction, that grey hairs ought to be covered with a cap; and that a neck of five-and-forty is the better for a handkerchief; she attended church regularly; was seldom seen in a public place; and, above all, was said to have the preposterous custom of condesending to join her own servants in daily prayer. Miss Arnold and I were persuaded that our duenna would attempt to import this "pernicious superstition" into her new residence, and we resolved upon a vigorous resistance of her authority.

Our spirit, however, was not put to the proof. Miss Mortimer affected no authority. She seemed indeed anxious to be useful, but afraid to be officious. She was even so sparing of direct advice, that, had she not been the most humble of human beings, I should have said that she trusted to the dignity and grace of her general sentiments, and the beautiful consistency of her example, for effecting the enormous transition from what I was to what I ought to be.

Her gentleness converted the dislike of her charge into feelings somewhat less hostile. My friend and I could find nothing offensive in her singularities; we therefore attempted to make them amusing. We invented dismal cases of calamity, and indited piteous appeals to her charity, making her often trudge miles over the snow in search of fictitious objects of compassion; that we might laugh at the credulity which was never deaf to the cry of want, and at the principle which refused to give without inquiry. We hid her prayer-book; purloined her hoards of baby linen and worsted stockings; and pasted caricatures on the inside of her pew in church.

Much of the zest of these excellent jokes was destroyed by the calm temper and perverse simplicity of Miss Mortimer. If by chance she was betrayed into situations really ludicrous nobody laughed with more hearty relish than she. Even on the more annoying of these practical jests, she smiled with good-natured contempt; never, even by the slightest glance, directing to Miss Arnold or myself the pity which she expressed for the folly of the contriver. We could never perceive that she suspected us of being her persecutors; and her simplicity, whether real or affected, compelled us to a caution and respect which we would have renounced had we been openly detected. Our jokes, however, such as they were, we carried on with no small industry and perseverance; every day producing some invention more remarkable for mischief than for wit. At last, the tragical issue of one of our frolics inclined me to a suspension of hostilities; and had it not been for the superior firmness of my friend Miss Arnold, I believe I should have finally laid down my arms.

We were invited one day to dine with a neighbouring gentleman, a widower; whose family of dissipated boys and giddy girls were the chosen associates of Miss Arnold and myself. My father was otherwise engaged, and could not go; hut Miss Mortimer accepted the invitation, very little to the satisfaction of the junior members of the party, who had projected a plan for the evening, with which her presence was likely to interfere. Miss Arnold and I, therefore, exerted all our ingenuity to keep her at home. We spilt a dish of tea upon her best silk gown; we pressed her to eat pine-apple in hopes of exasperating her toothache; and we related to her a horrible robbery and murder which had been committed only the night before, in the very lane through which we were to pass. These and many other contrivances proved ineffectual. As Miss Mortimer could not wear her best gown, she could go in a worse; she would not eat pine-apple; and she insisted that those who had committed the murder only the night before must be bloody-minded indeed if they were ready to commit another. Next, I bribed the coachman to say that the barouche could not stir till it was repaired; but my father, who, on this occasion, seemed as determined as Miss Mortimer, insisting that we should go under her auspices or not go at all, settled that Miss Arnold should ride, while I drove Miss Mortimer in the curricle.

Highly displeased with this decision, I resolved that Miss Mortimer, whose forte certainly was not strength of nerve, should rue the mettle of her charioteer. With this good-natured purpose, I privately arranged that a race should be run between my steeds, and those which were mounted by Miss Arnold, and one of the fry which had already begun to swarm round the rich Miss Percy. We set off quietly enough, but we were no sooner out of sight of my father's windows, than the signal was given, and away we flew with the speed of lightning. I saw poor Miss Mortimer look aghast, though she betrayed no other sign of fear, and I had a malicious triumph in the thoughts of compelling her to sue for quarter.

"Is it not better, my dear," said she, at last, "to drive a little more deliberately? The road is narrow here, and if we were to run over some poor creature, I know you would never forgive yourself."

There was such irresistible mildness in the manner of this expostulation, that I could not disregard it; and I was checking my horses at the moment, when my beau, who had fallen behind, suddenly passed me. He gave them a triumphant smack with his whip, and the high-mettled animals sprang forward with a vigour that baffled my opposition. At this moment a decent-looking woman, in standing aside to let me pass, unfortunately threw herself into the line of his course; and I felt the horror which I deserved to feel, when my companions, each bounding over her, left her lying senseless within a step of the destruction which I had lost the power to avert.

From the guilt of murder I was saved by the fortitude of a stranger. He boldly seized the rein; and with British strength of arm turning the horses short round, they reared, backed, and in an instant overturned the carriage. The stranger, alarmed by this consequence of his interference, hastened to extricate Miss Mortimer and myself; while our jockeys, too intent on the race to look back, were already out of sight.

Miss Mortimer looked pale as death, and trembled exceedingly; yet the moment she was at liberty she flew to the poor woman, whom the stranger raised from the ground. They chafed her temples, and administered every little remedy which they could command, while I stood gazing on her in inactive alarm. At length she opened her eyes; and so heavy a weight was lifted from my heart, that I could not refrain from bursting into tears; but unwilling to exhibit these marks of a reproving conscience, I turned proudly away.

It soon appeared that the woman was not materially hurt,--the horses, more sagacious and humane than their riders, having cleared without striking her. Her cottage was not fifty yards distant from the spot, and Miss Mortimer, with the stranger, conducted her home; whilst I stood biting my glove, and affecting to superintend the people who were raising our overturned vehicle. The charitable pair soon returned. Neither of us being inclined to mount the curricle again, Miss Mortimer proposed that we should walk home, and send an apology to our party. But dreading that the temptation of an evening's tete-a-tete might draw something like a lecture even from Miss Mortimer, I determined to accomplish my visit; and she consented that we should proceed on foot, giving, at the same time, permission to her companion to attend us.

I felt a sullen disinclination to talk, and therefore had full leisure to examine the stranger, whom Miss Mortimer introduced to me by the name of Maitland, adding that he was her old acquaintance. He was a tall erect man, of a figure more athletic than graceful. His features were tolerably regular, and his eyes the brightest I have ever seen; but he was deprived of his pretensions to be called handsome, by a certain bony squareness of countenance, which we on the south side of the Tweed are accustomed to account a national deformity. His smile was uncommonly pleasing, either from its contrast with the ordinary cast of his countenance, or because it displayed the whitest and most regular teeth in the world; but he smiled so seldom as almost to forfeit these advantages. His accent was certainly provincial; yet I believe that, without the assistance of his name, I could not decidedly have pronounced him to be a Scotchman. His language, however, was that of a gentleman; always correct, often forcible, and sometimes elegant. But he spoke little, and his conversation borrowed neither strength nor grace from his manner, which was singularly calm, motionless, and unimpassioned.

Either from habitual reserve with strangers, or from particular disapprobation of me, he addressed himself almost entirely to Miss Mortimer, paying me no other attentions than bare civility required; and I, who had already begun to expect far other devoirs, from every man who accosted me, rejoiced when the conclusion of our walk separated us from the presumptuous being who had dared to treat me as a secondary person.

As soon as we entered Mr. Vancouver's house, my young companions surrounded me, laughing and hallooing--"Beaten, beaten,--fairly beaten!" The victors pressed forward before the rest. "Down with your five guineas, Ellen," cried Miss Arnold. --"Oh! faith 'twas a hollow thing!" shouted the other. Real sorrow for my fault would have made me gentle to those of my fellow-transgressors; but the shame of a proud heart had a contrary effect.--"Take your five guineas," said I, throwing them my purse, with great disdain, "and you had better help yourself to a little more--that will scarely repay the risk of being tried for murder." My ill-humour effected an instantaneous change on the countenances of the group. Kiss Arnold, quite crest-fallen, picked up the purse, and stood twisting it in her hand, looking very silly, While she tried to excuse herself, and to throw all the blame upon her companion. He retorted, and their mutual recriminations were occasionally renewed during the afternoon; banishing whatever good humour had been spared by the disappointment which Miss Mortimer had undesignedly occasioned. At last, to our mutual satisfaction, the party separated; and Miss Mortimer, with her hopeful charge, returned home.

Never, during the whole day, did a syllable of reproof escape the lips of Miss Mortimer. She seemed willing to leave me to my conscience, and confident that its sentence would be just. But when, on retiring for the night, I could not help exclaiming, "Thank heaven! this day is done!"--she took my hand, and said with a look of great kindness, "Let me dispose of one hour of your time to-morrow, dear Ellen, and I will endeavour to make it pass more agreeably." I felt no real gratitude for her forbearance, because I had argued myself, with Miss Arnold's assistance, into a conviction that Miss Mortimer had no right to interfere; but I could not withstand the soothing gentleness of her manner, and therefore promised that I should be at her command at any hour she pleased.

Next day, therefore, while Miss Arnold was shopping in town, I became the companion of Miss Mortimer's morning walk; but, I own, I began to repent of my complaisance, when I perceived that she was conducting me to the cottage of the poor woman who had so nearly been the victim of my late frolic. "Is this," thought I, "the way that Mrs. Elizabeth fulfils her promise of making the hour pass agreeably? Such a finesse might do mighty well for a methodist; but what would she have said had I been the author of it?" It is wonderfully delightful to detect the errors of a saint. On first discovering our destination, my feelings had wavered between shame and anger; but the detection of Miss Mortimer's supposed peccadillo restored me to so much self-complacency, that I was able at least to conceal my reluctance, and entered the cottage with a pretty good grace.

The apartment was clean and comfortable. The furniture, though simple, was rather more abundant and more tasteful than is common in the abodes of labour. Two neat shelves on the wall contained a few books; and in the window stood a tambouring frame. On one side of the fire-place our old woman was busy at her spinning-wheel; on the other, in all the ease of a favourite, lay a beautiful Italian greyhound. Miss Mortimer, with the frankness of old acquaintance, accosted our hostess, who received her with respectful kindness. While they were asking and answering questions of courtesy and good-will, the dog, who had started up on our entrance, did the honours to me. He looked up in my face, smelled my clothes, examined me again, and, wagging his tail, seemed to claim acquaintance. I, too, thought I remembered the animal, though I could not recollect where I had seen him; and I own, I was glad to relieve a certain embarrassment which the old woman's presence occasioned me, by returning his caresses with interest.

"Mrs. Wells," said Miss Mortimer, when she had finished her inquiries, "I have brought Miss Percy to visit you."

In spite of my affected nonchalance, I was not a little relieved when I discovered by the old woman's answer, that she had not recognised me as the author of her accident. "Miss Ellen!" she exclaimed, as if with surprise and pleasure. Then taking my hand with a sort of obsequious affection, she said, "Dear young lady, I should never have known you again, you are so grown! and I have never seen you since I lost my best friend," added she, shaking her head mournfully. "Poor Fido," resumed she, "he has more sagacity. He knew you again in a minute."

"Fido--mamma's Fido!" cried I, and I stooped over the animal to hide the tears that were rushing to my eyes.

"Yes, miss, your papa sent him here, because he said he did not like to have him killed, seeing that he was but a young thing, and the very last thing that worthy Mrs. Percy had ever taken a liking to; and he could not keep him about the house, because you never set eyes of him but you cried fit to break your heart. So he sent him here, where he was very welcome, as he had a good right to be, having belonged to her; for it was owing to her that I had a home to bring him to."

"How was that?" inquired I, with some eagerness: "for, to this day, my heart beats warm when I hear the praises of my mother."

"Why, ma'am," returned she, "my husband was a sober, industrious man, but we were unfortunate in working for great people, who never thought of our wants, because they had no wants of their own. So we became bankrupt, and that went to my husband's heart; for he had a high spirit. So he pined and pined away. I sold our little furniture, and then our clothes; and paid for all honestly, as far as it would go. But what with the doctors, and what with the funeral, my two poor little girls and I were quite destitute. I believe it was the second night after my Thomas was laid in his grave, that my youngest girl was crying for bread, and I had none to give her. I saw the eldest cry, too; but she said it was not for hunger. So, with one thing and another, I was desperate, and told the children I would go and beg for them. The little one bade me go, for she was hungry; but Sally said I should never beg for her, and followed me to the door, holding me back, and crying bitterly. So, just then, Providence sent that good saint, Mrs. Percy, by our house, and she looked so earnestly at us --for it was not in her nature to see any creature in sorrow, and pass by on the other side:--I thought I could take courage to speak to her; but, when I tried it, I had not the heart, for I had never begged before. But when she saw how things were, I did not need to beg, for she had the heart of a Christian and the hand of a princess. She put us into this house, and gave us whatever was really needful for us. I was a good worker with my needle then, though my eyes are failing me now; and she got me as much work as I could overtake. She came, besides, every forenoon herself, and taught my eldest girl to make gowns, and my youngest to tambour, so that now they can earn their own bread, and the most part of mine. Yes, Miss Ellen," continued the woman, perceiving that she had fixed my pleased attention, "your worthy mother did more than this; she brought heavenly hopes to me when I had few hopes upon earth; she gave pious counsels to my children, and they minded them the more for coming from so great a lady; so that they are good girls, and a real comfort to my old age."

After some further conversation, Miss Mortimer put an end to our visit. I own I was somewhat struck with the contrast between the cottager's obligations to my mother and to myself; and I had a desire to place this matter on a footing less painful to my feelings, or, to speak more justly, less galling to my pride. For this reason, when we had gone a few steps from the cottage, I returned, pretending that I had forgotten my handkerchief. "Mrs. Wells," said I, "I have a great desire to possess Fido,--will you make an exchange with me?" continued I, presenting my purse to her.

The good woman coloured deeply; and, drawing back with a little air of stateliness, said, "You are welcome to poor Fido, ma'am. Indeed, as for that, your mother's child is welcome to the best I have; but I cannot think of selling the poor dumb animal. No," said she, her spirit struggling with the sob that was rising in her throat, "I shall be poorly off indeed, before I sell the least thing that ever was hers."

I own I felt myself colour in my turn, as I awkwardly withdrew my purse; and I had not the confidence to look the woman in the face, while I said, "Give me poor Fido, then, for my mother's sake; and perhaps the time may come when you will allow me the pleasure of assisting you for my own."

"One of the girls, ma'am, shall take him to the Park this evening. I know Miss Mortimer wished to have him, but you have the best right to him; and I hope you will make him be kindly treated, ma'am; he is used to kindness."

I thanked the good woman, promised attention to her favourite, and hurried away. Fido arrived at the Park that afternoon, and soon became the most formidable rival of Miss Arnold; nor unjustly, for he was playful, fawning, and seemingly affectionate-- the very qualities to which she owed my favour.

"See, my dear Ellen," said Miss Mortimer, when I rejoined her; "see how your mother's mornings were spent." Had any one but my mother furnished the subject of this apostrophe, or had my friend Miss Arnold been present to witness its application, I should certainly have turned it off, by ridiculing the absurdity of a handsome woman of fashion spending her time in teaching cottage girls mantua-making and morality. But now, tenderness stealing on my self-reproach, I only answered with a sigh, "Ah! my mother was an angel; I must not pretend to resemble her."

"My dearest child!" cried Miss Mortimer, catching my hand; with more animation than she had ever shown in speaking to me, "why this ill-timed humility? Born to such splendid advantages, why should you not aspire to make your life a practical thanksgiving to the bestower? I acknowledge that your own strength is not 'sufficient for these things,' but He who has called you to be perfect, will--"

"Oh! pray now, my good Miss Mortimer," interrupted I, "give over for to-day,--I am more than half melancholy already. Ten or a dozen years hence, I shall attend to all these matters."

Before my reader comment on the wisdom of this reply, let him examine whether there be any more weight in the reasons which delay his own endeavours after Christian perfection.

Our dialogue was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Maitland, who alighted at the wicket of the cottage garden, with the intention of inquiring after the widow; but, upon hearing that she felt no bad effects from her accident, he gave his horse to his servant, and accompanied us, or rather Miss Mortimer, to the Park. A few civil inquiries were, indeed, the only notice which he deigned to bestow upon me; and, to own the truth, I was not at all more gracious to him.

At the door of Sedley Park, stood my father, as usual, with one arm resting in the hollow of his back, the other supported by his gold-headed cane; and he not only discomposed this favourite attitude by offering his hand to Mr. Maitland, but advanced some steps to meet him, a mark of regard which I do not recollect having seen him bestow on any other visitor. He followed up this courtesy by pressing his guest to dine with him, and Mr. Maitland was at length induced to comply; while I stood wondering what my father could mean, by expending so much civility upon a person of whom nobody had ever heard before.

I cannot pretend to have made any observations upon Mr. Maitland's manners or conversation during this visit, having previously convinced myself, that neither was worth observing. After dinner, while he discoursed with my father and Miss Mortimer, I, agreeably to the polite practice of many young ladies, formed, apart with Miss Arnold and the young Vancouvers, a coterie which, if not the most entertaining, was at least the most noisy part of the company; the sound and form holding due proportion to the shallowness. My father made some ineffectual attempts to reduce us to order; and Miss Mortimer endeavoured to dissolve our combination, by addressing her remarks to me; but I, scarcely answering her, continued to talk and titter apart with my companions till it was time for our visitors to depart.

As soon as they were gone, my father strode gravely to the upper end of the room, planted himself firmly with his back to the fire, and, knitting his brows, addressed me as I stood at the further window:--"Miss Percy," said he, "I do not approve of your behaviour this afternoon. I have placed you at the head of a splendid establishment, and I desire you will consider it as your duty to entertain my guests,--all my guests, Miss Percy."

A few moments of dead silence followed, and my father quitted the room.

Had this well-deserved reproof been given in private, I might have acknowledged its justice, but Miss Mortimer and my friend were present to stimulate my abhorrence of blame; and, as soon as my father disappeared, I began a surly complaint of his ill humour, wondering "whether he expected me to sit starched by the side of every tiresome old fellow he brought to his house, like the wooden cuts of William and Mary."

Miss Arnold joined me in ridiculing the absurdity of such an expectation, but Miss Mortimer took part with my father. "Indeed, my dear," said she, "you must allow me to say, that Mr. Percy's guests, of whatever age, have an equal right to your attentions. I particularly wish you had distributed them more impartially to-day; for I would have had you appear with advantage to Mr. Maitland, whom I imagine you would not have found tiresome, and who is certainly not very old."

"Appear with advantage to Mr. Maitland!" exclaimed I:--"oh! now the murder is out. My father and Miss Mortimer want me to make a conquest of Stiffy."

Miss Arnold laughed immoderately at the idea. "You make a conquest of Mr. Maitland!" repeated Miss Mortimer in her turn, gazing in my face with grave simplicity; "no, my dear, that, indeed, surpasses my expectation. Mr. Maitland!" exclaimed she again, in a sort of smiling soliloquy over her knitting;--"no, that would indeed be too absurd."

I own my pride was piqued by this opinion of Miss Mortimer's; and I felt some inclination to convince her, that there was no such violent absurdity in expecting that a stiff old bachelor should be caught by a handsome heiress of seventeen. I half determined to institute a flirtation.

The idea was too amusing to be abandoned, and Mr. Maitland soon gave me an opportunity of commencing my operations. He again visited Sedley Park; and in spite of several repulses, I contrived to draw him into conversation; and even succeeded in obtaining my full share of his attention. But when he rose to be gone, I recollected, with surprise, that I had spent half an hour without talking much nonsense, or hearing any. Our second interview was not more effective. At the end of the third I renounced my attack as utterly hopeless; and should as soon have thought of shaping a dangler out of Cincinnatus. Mr. Maitland's heart, too, seemed as impregnable as his dignity; and I was glad to forget that I had ever formed so desperate a project as an attempt upon either.

Our acquaintance, however, continued to make some progress; and if at any luckless hour I happened to be deserted by more animating companions, I could pass the time very tolerably with Mr. Maitland. I believe he was a scholar, and to this, perhaps, he owed that force and variety of language which was often amusing, independently of the sentiment which it conveyed. He possessed, besides, a certain dry sententious humour, of which the effect was heightened by the inflexible gravity of his countenance, and by the low tones of a voice altogether unambitious of emphasis. His stiffness, which was too gentle for hauteur, and too self-possessed for bashfulness, was a constitutional, or rather, perhaps, a national reserve; which made some amends for its repulsive effect upon strangers, by gratifying the vanity of those who were able to overcome it. I own that I was selfish enough to be flattered by the distinction which he appeared to make between Miss Arnold and myself; the more so, because there was, I know not what, in Mr. Maitland, which impressed me with the idea of a sturdy rectitude that bowed to no extrinsic advantage. This gratification, however, was balanced by the preference which he constantly showed for Miss Mortimer; and such was my craving for adulation, that I was at times absolutely nettled by this preference, although Mr. Maitland was some years above thirty.

Towards the end of our stay at Sedley Park, his visits became more frequent; but in spite of his company, and that of many other gentlemen more agreeable to me, I was dying with impatience for our removal to town. My eagerness increased when I accidentally heard that Lady Maria de Burgh had already started as the reigning beauty of the winter. When this intelligence was conveyed to me I was standing opposite to a large mirror. I glanced towards it, recalled with some contempt the miniature charms of my fairy competitor, and sprang away to entreat that my father would immediately remove to town. But my father had already fixed the fourteenth of January for his removal; and Miss Arnold alleged, that nothing short of a fire would have hastened his departure, or reduced him to the degradation of acquainting the family that he had changed his mind.

The fourteenth of January, however, at length arrived, and I was permitted to enter the scene of my imaginary triumphs.

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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.