The Countess of ----'s ball was fixed upon as the occasion of my first appearance. What meditation did it not cost me to decide upon the style of my costume for that eventful evening! [NH?]ow did my preference fluctuate between the gorgeous and the simple, the airy and the magnificent! The balance was cast in favour of the latter, by the possession of my mother's jewels, which my father ordered to be reset for me, with superb additions. "He could afford it," he said, "as well as Lady ----- or any of her company, and he saw no reason why I should not be as fine as the proudest of them." My heart bounded with delight when I at last saw the brilliants flash in my dark hair, mark the contour of my neck, and circle a waist slender as the form of a sylph. All that flattery had told, and vanity believed, seemed now to gain confirmation; yet, still some doubts allayed my self-conceit, till it received its consummation from the cold, the stately Mr. Maitland. I overheard Miss Arnold whisper to him, as I entered the drawing-room where he and a large party were waiting to escort me, "Look what lovely diamonds Mr. Percy has given Ellen."
"They would have been better bestowed elsewhere," returned Mr. Maitland; "nobody that looks at Miss Percy will observe them."
Though certain that this compliment was not meant for my ear, I had the hardihood to acknowledge it, by saying, "Thank you, sir; I shall put that into my memorandum-hook, and preserve it like a Queen Anne's farthing, not much worth in itself, but precious, because she never made but one."
"The farthing was never meant for circulation," returned he, drily, "but it unluckily fell into the hands of a child, who could not keep it to herself."
The word "child" was particularly offensive on this first night of my womanhood; and I should have made some very impertinent rejoinder if I had not been prevented by Miss Mortimer. "What, Ellen!" cried she, "quarrelling with Mr. Maitland for compliments! Is it not enough to satisfy you, that he who is so seldom seen in places of that sort accompanies you to the ball to-night?"
"Oh, pray," returned I, "since Mr. Maitland has so few bienseances to spare, allow him to dispose of them as he pleases. His attendance to-night is meant as a compliment to my father."
"Do not make me pay a whole evening's comfort for what is only a farthing's worth, you know," said Maitland, good-humouredly; "but leave off trying to be disagreeable and witty. Nay, do not frown now; your face will not have time to recover itself. I see the carriage is at the door."
I did not wait for a second intimation, but bounded down stairs, and I was already seated in the barouche, with Miss Arnold, before my deliberate beau made his appearance. I was too full of expectation to talk; and we had proceeded for some time in silence when I was awakened from a dream of triumph by Mr. Maitland's saying, and, as I thought, with a sigh, "What a pleasing woman is Miss Mortimer! That feminine simplicity and sweetness make the merest common-place delightful!"
I suppose it was my vanity grasping at a monopoly of praise which made me feel myself teazed by this encomium; and I pettishly answered, "That it was a pity Miss Mortimer did not hear this compliment, for she might keep it to herself, since she at least was no child."
"Within these few years," said Mr. Maitland, "she was a very enchanting woman."
"Indeed!" exclaimed I, more and more out of humour at the unusual warmth of his expressions, "Miss Mortimer has no wit, and she has never been pretty."
"True," returned Mr. Maitland, "but I dislike wits. I am not even fond of beauties. It is in bad taste for a woman to 'flash on the startled eye.' Miss Mortimer did not burst on us like a meteor,--she stole on us like the dawn, cheering and delightful, not dazzling."
This speech seemed so manifest an attack upon me, who dealt in a certain fearless repartee that passed for wit, and who was already a beauty by profession, that my eyes filled with tears of mortification. Of what use is beauty, thought I, if it be thus despised by men of sense, and draw the gaze only of silly boys? Yet men of sense have felt its power; and when people have, like Mr. Maitland, outlived human feelings, they should leave the world, and not stay to damp the pleasures of the young and the happy."
The next moment, however, sparkling eyes and skins of alabaster recovered their full value in my estimation, when, as we pressed into Lady-----'s crowded rooms, a hundred whispers met my car of "Lovely!" "Charming!" and "Devilish handsome!" My buoyant spirits rose again, and I looked up to take a triumphant survey of my admirers. Yet, when I met the universal gaze, nature for a moment stirred in me; and though I had indignantly turned from Mr. Maitland, and accepted the devoirs of a more obsequious attendant, I now instinctively caught his arm, and shrank awkwardly behind him.
I quickly, however, recovered my self-possession, and began to enjoy the gaiety of the scene. Not so my companion; who seemed miserably out of place at a ball, and whose manner appeared even more grave and repulsive than usual. I shall never forget the solemn abstracted air with which he sat silently gazing on a chandelier; and then suddenly interrupting my conversation with half a dozen beaux, resumed the discussion of a plan, to which I had listened with interest a few days before, for bettering the condition of the negroes upon his plantations. But my attention was at once withdrawn from his discourse, and from the titter which it occasioned, when a sudden movement opening the circle which surrounded me, gave to my view the figure of Lady Maria de Burgh.
Never had she looked so lovely. Her Ariel-like form was flying through the dance; her blue eyes sparkling with pleasure; exercise flushing her snowy skin with the hues of life and health. I observed the graceful fall of her white drapery, the unadorned braids of her sunny hair, and distrusted the taste which had loaded me with ornaments.
The dance ended; and Lady Maria was going to throw herself upon a seat, when it was suddenly taken possession of by a young man, who withdrew my attention even from Lady Maria. The easy rudeness of this action announced him to be of the first fashion. He languidly extended a limb of the most perfect symmetry, viewed it attentively in every direction, drew his fingers through his elegantly dishevelled hair; then, composing himself into an attitude of rest, began to examine the company through an eye-glass set with brilliants. Lady Maria having, with some difficulty, wedged herself into a place by his side, was beginning to address him, but he turned from her with the most fashionable yawn imaginable. Presently his eyes were directed, or rather fell upon me; and I felt myself inclined to excuse the plebeian vivacity with which he instantly pointed me out to his fair companion, seeming to inquire who I was. Her ladyship looked, and a toss of her head seemed to indicate that her reply was not very favourable. An altercation then appeared to ensue; for the gentleman rising offered the lady his hand, as if to lead her forward; the lady frowned, pouted, flounced, and at last, with a very cloudy aspect, rose and suffered him to conduct her towards me. Scarcely relaxing her pretty features, she addressed me with a few words of very stately recognition; introduced me to her brother, Lord Frederick de Burgh and then turned away. Miss Arnold claimed her acquaintance by a humble courtesy. Her Ladyship, looking her full in the face, passed, "and gave no sign." I was instantly possessed with the spirit of patronage; and though I had before forgotten that Miss Arnold was in the room, I now gave her my arm, and all the attention which I could spare from Lord Frederick de Burgh.
For a man of fashion Lord Frederick was tolerably amusing. He knew the name, and a little of the private history, of every person in the room. He flattered with considerable industry; and it was not difficult to flatter him in return. He asked me to dance. I was engaged for the three next dances; but disappointed one of my partners that I might sit with Lord Frederick. His Lordship next proposed that I should waltz with him. So much native feeling yet remained in me, that I shrank from making such an exhibition, and at first positively refused; but, happening to observe that Lady Maria was watching, with an eye of jealous displeasure, her brother's attentions to me, I could not resist the temptation of provoking her, by exhibiting these attentions to the whole assembly; and therefore consented to dance the waltz.
I own that I bitterly repented this compliance when I found myself standing with Lord Frederick alone, in the midst of the circle which was instantly formed round us. I forgot even the possibility of the admiration of which I had before been so secure. My knees knocked together, and a mist swam before my eyes. But there was now no retreat, and the dance began. My feelings of disquiet, however, did not rise to their height till I met the eye of Mr. Maitland fixed on me in stern disapprobation. I have never yet met with any person whose displeasure was so disagreeably awful as that of Mr. Maitland. At that moment it was more than I could bear. Hastily concluding the dance, I darted through the crowd of spectators, regardless of their praise or censure; and, faint and unhappy, I sunk upon a seat.
I was instantly surrounded by persons who offered me every sort of assistance and refreshment. Lord Frederick was particularly assiduous. But I owed the recovery of my spirits chiefly to the sarcastic smile with which I was eyed by Lady Maria de Burgh, whom I overheard say, with a scornful glance at the gentlemen who crowded round me, "Really the trick takes admirably!" Mr. Maitland now making his way towards me, said very coldly, "Miss Percy, if you are inclined to go home, I shall attend you." I was provoked at his unconcern for an uneasiness of which he had been the chief cause; and carelessly answering that I should not go home for an hour or two, accepted Lord Frederick's arm, and sauntered round the room.
During the rest of the evening, I paid no further attention to my father's friend. Once or twice I thought of him, and with an indistinct feeling of self-reproach; but I was occupied with the assiduities of my new admirer, and had no leisure to consider of propriety. I saw, too, or fancied that I saw, Lady Maria make some attempts to detach, her brother from me, and I had therefore double enjoyment in detaining him by my side. Though she affected indifference, I could easily see that she continued to watch us; and as often as I perceived her eye turned towards us, I laughed, flirted, and redoubled the demonstrations of our mutual good understanding. About five in the morning the party separated, and I returned home. Lord Frederick attended me to my carriage; and Mr. Maitland having handed in Miss Arnold, bowed without speaking, and retired.
Some very excellent and judicious persons maintain a custom of calling to mind every night the transactions of the day; but even if the habit of self-examination had at all entered into my system, this was manifestly no season for its exercise. Completely exhausted, I dropped asleep even while my poor weary maid was undressing me; and closed a day of folly, pride, and enmity, without one serious, one repentant thought.
But why do I particularize one day? My whole course of life was aptly described in a short dialogue with Mr. Maitland. "Miss Percy," said he, "I hope your are not the worse for the fatigues of last night."--"Not in the least, sir."--"Well, then, are you anything the better for them? Do you look back on your amusement with pleasure?"--"No, I must confess I do not. Besides, I have not leisure to look back, I am so busily looking forward to this evening's opera."
Mr. Maitland sighed from the very bottom of his heart, gave me a look which said as intelligibly as a look could speak, "Unfortunate, misguided girl!" We were alone, and I was half inclined to bid him give utterance to his sentiments, and tell me all the follies which, in his secret soul, he ascribed to me. Pride was struggling with my respect for his opinion, when Lord Frederick de Burgh was admitted; and the voice of candour and of common sense was never again allowed to mingle discord with the sounds of the "harp and the viol."
I had entered the throng who were in chase of pleasure, and I was not formed for a languid pursuit. It became the employment of every day, of every hour. My mornings were spent at auctions, exhibitions, and milliners' shops; my evenings wherever fashionable folly held her court. Miss Mortimer attempted gently to stem the torrent. She endeavoured to remove my temptation to seek amusement abroad, by providing it for me at home; but I had drunk of the inebriating cup, and the temperate draught was become tasteless to me. She tried to convince my reason; but reason was in a deep sleep, and stirred no further than to repulse the hand which would have roused. She attempted to persuade me; and I, to escape the subject, told her that when I had fulfilled the engagements which were to occupy every moment of my time for the six succeeding weeks, I would, on some rainy Sunday, stay at home all day, and patiently swallow my whole dose of lecture at a sitting. I look back with astonishment upon her patient endurance of my impertinences. But she saw my follies with the pity of a superior nature; aware, indeed, of the tremendous difference between her state and mine, yet remembering who it was that had "made her to differ."
Finding her own efforts fruitless, she endeavoured to obtain my father's interposition. But my father considered all human kind as divided into two classes, those who were to labour for riches, and those who were to enjoy them; and he saw no reason for restricting me in the use of any pleasure for which I could afford to pay. Besides, he secretly regarded with some contempt the confined notions of Miss Mortimer, and was not without his share of elation at the triumphs which I won. He delighted to read in the "Morning Chronicle," that at Lady G----'s ball, the brilliancy of Miss Percy's jewels had never been surpassed, save by the eyes of the lovely wearer. He chuckled over the paragraph which announced my approaching nuptials with the young Duke of ----, although he, at the same time, declared with an oath, that "he would take care how he gave his daughter and his money to a fellow who might be ashamed of his father-in-law." Indeed, he took great pleasure in bringing my suitors, especially those of noble birth, to the point of explicit proposal, and then overwhelming them with a tremendous preponderance of settlement. I left these matters entirely to his arrangement, for I had neither wish nor love that did not centre in amusement. I sometimes wondered, however, what were his intentions in regard to me, and more than half suspected that they pointed towards Mr. Maitland; but I never recollected Mr. Maitland's manner towards me without laughing at the absurdity of such a scheme.
In the meantime, along with a few sober suitors, I attracted dangers innumerable; for I was the fashion--admired by fashionable men--envied by fashionable women--and, of course, raved of by their humbler mimics of both sexes. Each had his passing hour of influence, but the lord of the ascendant was Lord Frederick de Burgh. He was handsome, showy, extravagant, and even more the fashion than myself. He danced well, drove four-in-hand, and was a very Oedipus in expounding anagrams and conundrums. Yet it was not to these advantages alone that he owed my preference. These might have won for him the smiles which he shared with fifty others; but he was indebted for my peculiar grace to his relationship with Lady Maria.
The mutual dislike of this lady and myself had been confirmed by seven years interchange of impertinences; nor was it in the least degree mitigated by the new circumstances in which we were placed. The leader of fashion, for the winter, was nearly related to the De Burgh family, and she had perhaps a stronger connexion with me--she owed my father 12,000L. Thus she naturally became the chaperon, both to Lady Maria and myself; and we often met in circles where a person of my rank is usually considered as an intruder. Lady Maria, proud of an ancient family, resented this intrusion, the more, perhaps, because I trespassed upon rights still dearer than the privileges of rank. I, too proud myself to tolerate pride in another, lost no opportunity of retort; and my ingenuity in discovering these occasions was probably heightened by the necessity of improving them with due regard to the rules of politeness. Our mutual acquaintance, accustomed to witness genteel indications of hatred, soon learnt to please, by gentle sarcasms against an absent rival; and we were never without some good-natured friend, who could hint to each whatever debt she owed to the malice of the other. I know not how Lady Maria might feel; but I was alternately pleased with these sacrifices to my malevolence, and mortified by perceiving, that it was visible to every common observer. I attempted to conceal what I was ashamed to avow; but the arrogance and irascibility, still more than the natural openness of my temper, unfitted me for caution; and between the fear of exposing my rancour, and my eagerness to give it vent, I endured more pain than it would have cost me to banish from my breast every vindictive thought.
How does one disorderly passion place us at the mercy of every creature who will use it as a tool to serve his purpose! Even my maid endeavoured to make her peace after the destruction of a favourite cap, by telling me that she had quitted Lady Maria's service for mine, because she had no pleasure in dressing her last lady, who, she said, "was little bigger than a doll, and not much wiser." Miss Arnold, who, in spite of her obsequious endeavours to please, had one day the misfortune to offend her capricious patroness, was restored to immediate favour, by informing me, that "the whole town believed Lady Maria's pretended cold to be nothing but a fit of vexation, because her father had permitted Lord Frederick to pay his addresses to me."
In spite of the belief of the "whole town," however, Lord Frederick was still nothing more than a dangler; nor had I the slightest desire to attract his more particular regards. I was even afraid that he should, by a serious proposal, oblige me to dispense with his future attentions, and thereby deprive me of the amusement of witnessing the frowns, and tosses, and fidgetings, with which Lady Maria watched a flirtation always redoubled when she was near.
This amusement, indeed, was obtained at the expense of incurring some animadversion. My competitors for fashion, and of course for the notice of fashionable men, revenged themselves for my superior success by sarcastic comments upon my supposed conquest; each obliquely insinuating, that she might have transferred it to herself, if she could have descended to such means as I employed. These inuendos, however, were softened ere they reached my ear, into gentle raillery,--friendly questions, as to the time when I was to bless Lord Frederick with my hand,--and tender-hearted expostulations on the cruelty of delay. Miss G-----would speak to me in the most compassionate terms, of the envy which my conquest excited in her poor friend Miss L----; and Miss L----, in her turn, would implore me to marry Lord Frederick, were it only to put poor Miss G---- out of suspense. That which should have alarmed my caution only flattered my vanity. Instead of discountenancing the attacks of my acquaintance by calm and steady opposition, I invited them by feeble defence; or at best, parried them with a playfulness which authorized their repetition.
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.