Discipline: A Novel

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As soon as Miss Arnold and I were alone, she renewed the subject of the masked ball. "Well, Ellen!" cried she, "I protest, I never was so much astonished as at your simplicity in returning those tickets. That old woman really winds you about just as she pleases."

"No, I am not quite so pliant," answered I, somewhat piqued; "but after the footing upon which Miss Mortimer put her request, I do not see how I could refuse it."

"She has art enough to know where you are most accessible," said Miss Arnold, well knowing that nothing was more likely to stir the proud spirit than a suspicion of being duped. "It is really provoking to see you so managed!" continued she; "and now to have her trick us out of this ball, where we should have been so happy! You would have looked quite enchanting as a sultana! and your diamond plume would have been divine in the front of your turban, and--"

She ran on describing our dresses and characters, enlarging on the amusement of which my ill-timed facility had deprived us, till I was thoroughly indignant at Miss Mortimer's interference. "I am sure," interrupted I, "I wish I had not allowed myself to be wheedled over like a great baby; but I promise you that she shan't find it so easy to persuade me another time." Then I proceeded to reproach my own want of spirit; for we can all attack ourselves where we are invulnerable. "If I had not been the tamest creature in the world," said I, "I should not have yielded the matter; but it is in vain to talk of it now."

"Why in vain?" cried Miss Arnold, with vivacity.

"You know," answered I, "that now when we have returned the tickets nothing more can be done."

"What if we could still have the tickets?" said Miss Arnold.

"Impossible!" said I, "I would not condescend to ask them again from Lord Frederick."

"But," said Miss Arnold, throwing her arm round my neck with an insinuating smile, "what if I, seeing that my dearest Ellen's heart was set upon this ball, and guessing that she would soon repent of her saint-errantry, had slily put the tickets into my pocket, and could produce them thus" (showing me a corner of them), "at this very moment?"

I was thunderstruck. In spite of eight years' intimacy, Miss Arnold had miscalculated upon my sentiments, when she expected me to approve of this manoeuvre. Confidence in my mother's mildness and affection had instilled into my infant mind habits of sincerity; habits which she had strengthened less by precept than by encouragement and example. A dead silence followed Miss Arnold's discovery; she waiting to hear my sentiments, I not caring to speak them; she looking intently in my face, I gazing steadfastly on the tickets, without recollecting that I held them in my hand.

"How could we produce them to Miss Mortimer?" said I, at last, pursuing my reflections aloud. "She confidently believes that they are gone, and she will think this such a piece of--" cunning, I would have said, but I could not utter the ungracious truth to the kind creature who had erred purely to oblige me. "She would be so astonished!" continued I! "and only this morning she praised my ingenuousness! I cannot keep these tickets.

"Oh!" cried Miss Arnold, "I am sure there is no disingenuousness on your part. It was not you who detained the tickets. I will tell her honestly how the matter stands. I would be chidden for a month rather than that you should lose this ball,--you would be so happy, and so much admired!"

"My dear, kind-hearted Juliet! you cannot suppose that I will take advantage of your good nature! You would not have me buy my pleasure at the expense of injuring you in any one's good opinion? No, no; were I to keep these tickets it should be at my own hazard."

I think Miss Arnold blushed; and she certainly hesitated a moment before she replied--"I assure you, I do not care a straw for her good opinion. "What signify the whims of people who think like nobody else?" Of all my acquaintance, Mr. Maitland alone joined Miss Mortimer in "thinking like nobody else;" and a recollection of him glanced across my mind. The association was not over favourable to Miss Arnold's purpose. "Some of the most sensible men in the kingdom think like Miss Mortimer," said I.

"The most sensible men in the kingdom often think wrong," returned Miss Arnold. "Besides, what signify their thoughts, so long as they dare not tell us them?"

"Some of them do dare," said I, with a sigh.

"Come, come, Ellen," said Juliet, "do you keep the tickets, and I shall willingly take the blame. Be satisfied with being afraid of the men and the methodists yourself, you will never make me so."

"Afraid!" The word jarred upon my spirit. "Afraid!" repeated I; "I fear no mortal! but I scorn to do what the coldest, most correct man in England could think dishonourable. I would not be despised for all the pleasures under heaven! I will send back these tickets this moment."

I turned proudly away, wholly unconscious how much the sense of honour was indebted to the opportune remembrance of Mr. Maitland, and as confident in my own integrity as if it had already been seven times tried in the furnace. I rang the bell; delivered, with my own hand, the tickets to a servant; and never in my life felt more conscious of my advantages of stature. I forgot the languor of indisposition. I walked with the springing step of exultation. I forgave Miss Mortimer my disappointment. I was grateful to Juliet for her kind intentions. Every object was pleasing, for it shone with the reflected light of self-approbation. My evening was cheerful, though comparatively lonely; my sleep refreshing, though unbought by exercise. I could have wished that it had been allowable to tell Miss Mortimer all my cause of triumph; and once (such is the selfishness of pride) I entertained a thought of boasting to her my second sacrifice to propriety; but, when I remembered the meanness of betraying my friend to censure, the base suggestion vanished from my mind; and again I inwardly applauded my own rectitude, instead of blushing that such a thought could have found entrance into my soul.

Almost for the first time in my life I wished for Mr. Maitland's presence; probably, though I did not shape the idea to myself, in the hope that he would confirm my self-esteem. But he came not to take advantage of my order for excluding all visitors except himself. The next day, however, he called; and as I was still somewhat indisposed, he was admitted to my boudoir. He had not been seated many minutes, when Miss Mortimer adverted to my late sacrifice. "You must assist me with your invention, Mr. Maitland," said she. "I want to make Monday, the 5th of May, the happiest day in the season, and as gay as is consistent with happiness."

"My invention is quite at your service," said Mr. Maitland; "but why is the 5th of May to be so distinguished?"

"I am deeply in Miss Percy's debt for amusement on that day; for it was fixed for a masked ball, which she has given up at my request."

I stole a glance at Mr. Maitland, and saw his countenance relax pleasantly. "I dare say," said he, "you owe Miss Percy nothing on that account, for she will have more pleasure in complying with your wish than twenty masked balls would have given her."

"I am not sure of that," cried I; "for, of all things on earth, I should like to see a masked ball."

"Must I then, perforce, allow you some merit for relinquishing this one?" said Mr. Maitland, seating himself by my side, with such a smile of playful kindness as he sometimes bestowed on Miss Mortimer. "But why," continued he, "should you, of all women, desire to appear in masquerade? Come, confess that you believe you may conceal more charms than fall to the lot of half your sex, and still defy competition."

"You may more charitably suppose," returned I, "that I am humbly desirous to escape comparisons."

"Nay," said Mr. Maitland, with a smile which banished all the severity of truth, "that would imply too sudden a reformation. Would you have me believe that you have conquered your besetting sin since the last time we met?"

"How have you the boldness," said I, smiling, "to talk to me of my besetting sin?"

"As I would talk to a soldier of his scars," said Mr. Maitland. "You think it an honourable blemish."

"This is too bad!" cried I, "not only to call me vain, but to tell me that I pique myself on my vanity."

"Ay," returned Mr. Maitland, drily, "on your vanity, or your pride, or your--call it what you will."

"Well, pride let it be," said I. "Surely there is a becoming pride, which every woman ought to have."

"A becoming pride!" repeated Mr. Maitland; "the phrase sounds well, now tell me what it means."

"It means--it means--that is, I believe it means--that sort of dignity which keeps your saucy sex from presuming too far."

"What connexion is there, think you, between cautious decency--that peculiar endearing instinct of woman--and inordinate self-estimation?"

"Oh, I would not have my pride inordinate. I would merely have a comfortable respect for myself and my endowments, to keep up my spirit, that I might not be a poor domestic animal to run about tame with the chickens, and cower with them into a corner, as oft as lordly man presented his majestic port before me. No, I hope I shall never lose my spirit. What should I be without it?"

"Far be it from me to reduce you so deplorably!" said Mr. Maitland, beginning with a smile, though, before he ceased to speak, the seriousness of strong interest stole over his countenance; "but what if Miss Percy, intrusted with every gift of nature and of fortune, should remember that still they were only trusts, and should fear to abuse them? What, if like a wise steward, instead of valuing herself upon, the extent of her charge, she should study how to render the best account of it? What would you then be? All that your warmest friends could wish you. You would cease to covet--perhaps to receive--the adulation of fools; and gain in exchange the respect, the strong affection, of those who can look beyond a set of features."

The earnestness with which Mr. Maitland spoke was so opposite to the cold composure of his general manner; his eyes, which ever seemed to penetrate the soul, flashed with such added brightness, that mine fell before them, and I felt the warm crimson burn on my cheek. I believe no other man upon earth could have quelled my humour for a moment; but I had an habitual awe of Mr. Maitland, and felt myself really relieved when the entrance of my father excused me from replying.

I knew, by my father's face, that he was full of an important something; for he merely paid the customary compliment to Mr. Maitland, and then walked silently up and down the room with an air of unusual stateliness and satisfaction. "What has pleased you so much this morning, papa?" inquired I.

"Pleased, Miss Percy!" returned my father, knitting his brow, and endeavouring to look out of humour; "I tell you I am not pleased. I am teased out of my life on your account by one fellow or another." Then, turning to Maitland, he formally apologized for troubling him with family affairs, though I believe he was, on this occasion, not at all sorry to have his friend for a hearer.

"Which of them has been teasing you now, sir?" said I, carelessly.

"The Duke of C----," said my father, in a fretful tone, though a smile was lurking at the corner of his mouth, "has been here this morning to make proposals for a match between you and his son Frederick."

"Well, sir," said I, with some little interest in the issue of the conference; but my curiosity was instantly diverted into another channel, by a sudden and not very gentle pressure of the hand, which Mr. Maitland had still held, and which he now released. The gesture, however inadvertant, attracted my eye towards him; but his face was averted, and my vanity could not extract one particle of food from the careless air with which he began to turn over the pages of a book which lay upon my work-table.

My father proceeded. "His Grace proposed to settle two thousand pounds a-year upon his son; no great matter he was forced to confess; but then he harangued about supporting the dignity of the title, and the hardship of burdening the representative of the family with extravagant provision for younger children. But, to balance that, Ellen, he hinted that you might be a Duchess; for the Marquis, like most of these sprigs of quality, is of a very weakly constitution. Pity that ancient blood should so often lose strength in the keeping! Eh, Ellen!"

My father made a pause, and looked as if he expected that I should now express some curiosity in regard to his decision, but my pride was concerned to show my total indifference on the subject; so I sat quietly adjusting my bracelet, without offering him the slightest encouragement to proceed. He looked towards Maitland; but Maitland was reading most intently. He turned to Miss Mortimer; and at last found a listener, who was trembling with interest which she had not power to express.

"What think you of the great man's liberality?" continued my father. "Is not two thousand pounds a-year a mighty splendid offer for a girl like my Ellen there, with a hundred thousand pounds down, and perhaps twice as much more before she dies? Eh, Mrs. Elizabeth? Should not I be a very sensible fellow, to bring a jackanapes into my house to marry my daughter, and spend my money, and be obliged to me for the very coat on his back, and all by way of doing mo a great honour forsooth? No, no. I'll never pay for having myself and my girl looked down upon. She's a pretty girl, and a clever girl, and the d---l a De Burgh in England can make his daughter as well worth an honest man's having; eh, Maitland?"

"Not in your opinion and mine, undoubtedly, sir," said Maitland, with the air of a man who is obliged to pay a compliment.

"I told the old gentleman my mind very distinctly," said my father, drawing up his head and advancing his chest. "I have given his grandee pride something to digest, I warrant you. And now he is ashamed of his repulse, and wants the whole affair kept private forsooth. I am sure it is none of my concern to trumpet the matter. All the world knows I have refused better offers for Miss Percy."

"If his Grace wishes the affair to be so private," cried I, "I am afraid he won't inform his daughters of it."

"You of course will consider it as quite at an end," said my father, addressing himself to me.

"Oh, certainly, sir," answered I; "but how shall I get the news conveyed to Lady Maria?"

"Tell it to a mutual friend as a profound secret," said Mr. Maitland, drily. "But why are you so anxious that Lady Maria should hear of her brother's disappointment?"

"Oh, because it will provoke her so delightfully," cried I. "The descendant of a hundred and fifty De Burghs to be rejected by a city merchant's daughter! It will ruin her in laces and lip-salve."

I was so enchanted with the prospect of my rival's vexation, that it was some moments ere I observed that Mr. Maitland, actually turning pale, had shrunk from me as far as the end of the couch would permit him, and sat leaning his head on his hand with an air of melancholy reflection. Presently afterwards he was rising to take his leave, when a servant came to inform Miss Mortimer that Mrs. Wells, the woman whom Mr. Maitland had rescued from the effect of my rashness, was below, waiting to speak with her. "Stay a few minutes, Mr. Maitland, and see your protege," said Miss Mortimer to him, as he was bidding her good morning. He immediately consented; while my father quitted the room, saying, "If the woman is come for money, Miss Mortimer, you may let 44 me know. I always send these people what they want, and have done with them."

Mrs. Wells, however, was come, not in quest of money, but of a commodity which the poor need almost as often, though they ask it less frequently. She wanted advice. Finding that Miss Mortimer was not alone, she was at first modestly unwilling to intrude upon the attention of the company. But Mr. Maitland, who, I believe, possessed some talisman to unlock at his pleasure every heart but mine, engaged her by a few simple expressions of interest to unfold the purpose of her coming. She told us that her eldest daughter, Sally, had for some time been courted by a young man of decent character, and was inclined to marry him. "The girl must be a great fool," thought I, "for she can neither expect carriages nor jewels, and what else should tempt any woman to marry?" The lover, Mrs. Wells said, could earn five-and-twenty or thirty shillings a week by his trade, which was that of a house carpenter. This, together with Sally's earnings as a mantua-maker, might maintain the young couple in tolerable comfort. But they had no house, and could not furnish one without incurring debts which would be a severe clog on their future industry. The young man, however, being in love, was inclined to despise all prudential considerations; and, in spite of her mother's counsels, had almost inspired his mistress with similar temerity. Mrs. Wells, therefore, begged of Miss Mortimer to fortify Sally with her advice, and to set before her the folly of so desperate a venture. "Thanks to your excellent mother, Miss Percy," said she, "my children have forgotten poverty; and, indeed, no one rightly knows what it is, but they who have striven with it as I have. Any other distress one may now and then forget; but hard creditors, and cold hungry children, will not allow one to forget them." Her proposal was, that Miss Mortimer should prevail with the girl to resist her lover's solicitations for a few years, till the joint savings of the pair might amount to forty or fifty pounds, which she said would enable them to begin the world reputably.

"Forty or fifty pounds," cried I; "is that all?--Oh! if you are sure that Sally really wants to be married, I can settle that in a minute. I am sure I must have more than that left of my quarterly allowance."

"What are you talking of, Ellen?" cried Miss Arnold, who had just entered the room. "You are not going to give away fifty pounds at once?"

"Why not?" answered I. "Probably I shall not want the money; or if I do, papa will advance my next quarter."

I had, I believe, at first offered my gift from a simple emotion of good-will; but now, taught by my friend's resistance, I began to claim some merit for my generosity; and glanced towards Mr. Maitland in search of his approving look. But Mr. Maitland had no approving look to reward a liberality which sprang from no principle, and called for no labour, and inferred no self-denial. His eye was fixed upon me with an expression of calm compassion, passion, which seemed to say, "Poor girl! have even thy best actions no solid virtue in them?" Mrs. Wells, however, had less discrimination. The poor know not what it is to give without generosity, for they possess nothing which can be spared without self-denial. Tears of gratitude filled her eyes while she praised and thanked me; but she positively refused to deprive me of such a sum. "No, no," said she, "let Robert and Sally work and save for two or three years, and in that time they will get a habit of patience and good management, which will be of as much use to them as money." The approving look which I had sought was now bestowed upon Mrs. Wells. "You judge very wisely, Mrs. Wells," said Mr. Maitland. "But two or three years will seem endless to them; say one year, that we may not frighten them, and whatever they can both save in that time, I will double to them."

Mrs. Wells thanked him, not with the servility of dependence, but with the warmth of one whom kindness had made bold. Then turning to me, and apologizing for the liberty she took, she begged my patronage for Sally in the way of her business. "I assure you, ma'am," said she, "that Sally works very nicely; and if she could get the name of being employed by such as you, she would soon have her hands full."

I was thoroughly discomposed by this request. I could part with fifty pounds without inconvenience, but to wear a gown not made by Mrs. Beetham, was a humiliation to which I could not possibly submit. Unwilling to disappoint, I knew not what to answer; but Miss Arnold instantly relieved my dilemma. "Bless you, good woman," cried she, "how could Miss Percy wear such things as your daughter would make? Before she could have a pattern, it would be hacked about among half the low creatures in town."

Mrs. Wells coloured very deeply. "I meant no offence," said she: "I thought, perhaps, Miss Percy might direct Sally how she wished her gowns to be made, and I am sure Sally would do as she was directed."

"Indeed, my good friend," answered I, "I can no more direct Sally in making a gown than in making a steam-engine. But I will ask employment for her wherever I think I am likely to be successful. Come, Miss Mortimer, I shall begin with you."

"Do," said Mr. Maitland, in his dry manner. "Miss Mortimer can afford to spare the attraction of a fashionable gown."

It has been since discovered that Mr. Maitland did, that very day, provide for the accomplishment of his promise, in case that death or accident should prevent his fulfilling it in person. Miss Mortimer easily persuaded Sally to pursue the prudent course; and, besides, exerted her influence so successfully, as to procure employment for every hour of the girl's time. My profuse offer passed from my mind, and was forgotten. But their charity--the charity of Christians--had at all times little resemblance to the spurious quality which in my breast usurped the name. Theirs was the animated virtue, instinct with life divine!--mine the mutilated stony image, which even if it had been complete in all its parts, would still have wanted the living principle. Theirs was the blessed beam of heaven, active, constant, universal!--mine the unprofitable, unsteady flash of the "troubled sea, which cannot rest."

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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.