RECOVERED from my indisposition, I resumed my gay career. But who ever spent a week in retirement without projecting some reform, however partial, some small restraint upon desire, or some new caution in its gratification? I determined to observe more circumspection in my conduct towards Lord Frederick; though Miss Arnold laboured to convince me that our flirtation might now be carried on with more safety than ever, since the parties were aware that it could have no serious issue. Tete-a-tete with her in my dressing-room, I could detect the fallacy of her arguments, and refused to be misled by them. The most imprudent being upon earth makes many a judicious resolution; and may trace his errors less to the weakness of his judgment than to the feebleness of his self-command.
The first party which I joined after my convalescence was at a concert and petit souper which Lady G. gave to fifty-eight of her particular friends. As soon as I entered the room, my attention was arrested by a group, consisting of Lady Maria de Burgh, her favourite Lady Augusta Loftus, Lord Frederick, and Lord Glendower. Lady Augusta seemed assiduous to entertain my admirer, who, lounging against a pillar, with his eyes half shut, appeared only to study how he might answer her with the slightest possible exertion of mind or muscle. Perceiving me, Lady Maria touched her friend's arm, as if to direct her eye towards me; then whispered behind her fan somewhat which seemed immoderately entertaining to both. A rudeness which ought to have awakened only my pity, roused my resentment, and I piously resolved to seize an early opportunity of retort. The party continued their merriment, and I even observed Lady Augusta endeavouring to engage Lord Frederick to join in it. This was too much; and I resolved to show Lady Augusta that I was no such despicable rival. But I had been accustomed to accept, not to solicit, the attentions of Lord Frederick, and I waited till he should accost me. Lord Frederick, however, seemed entirely insensible to my presence. His eye did not once wander towards me; indeed the assiduity of his companion left scarcely even his eyes at liberty. Weary of watching Lady Augusta's advances to my quondam admirer, I at last condescended to claim his notice by passing close to him. A distant bow was the only courtesy which I obtained. I was asked to sing, and chose an elaborate bravura, which Lord Frederick had often declared to be divine. In the midst of it I saw him break from his obsequious fair one, and approach me. My heart, I own, bounded with triumph. Premature triumph, alas! He addressed our hostess, who was bending over me; pleaded indispensable business; and leaving the divine bravura to more disengaged hearers, withdrew.
Lord Frederick's "indispensable business" was the next day explained by a report that he had passed the night in a gaming-house, where he had lost five-and-twenty thousand pounds. Miss Arnold spoke with the tenderest compassion of this disaster, "smoothing my ruffled plumes," by ascribing it to the desperation occasioned by his late disappointment. Forgetting that she had so lately ridiculed my romantic estimate of the force of his passion, she suddenly appeared convinced that it was strong enough to account for the most frantic actions. Folly itself is not so credulous as self-conceit. I more than half believed, though I affected to disprove her assertion. It approached, indeed, to the truth more nearly than she suspected. Money, however obtained, was absolutely necessary to Lord Frederick; and mine being beyond his reach, he had recourse to fortune. But, in calculating upon the actions of the gay, the liberal Lord Frederick, the narrow motives of interest never once entered into my account. Dazzled by the false spirit indicated by the magnitude of his loss, and pleased with the cause to which vanity ascribed it, I had half pardoned his late neglect, when I that evening met him at Mrs. Clermont's rout.
So crowded were the rooms that I was not aware when he entered; and when I first observed him he was standing in close conversation with Miss Arnold. Even pride can make concessions where it imagines cause of pity. I condescended to give Lord Frederick another opportunity of renewing his attention, and moved towards him through the crowd. My friend and he were conversing with great earnestness; and, as I approached them from behind, I caught the last words of their dialogue. His lordship's speech concluded with the expression, "I should look confoundedly silly." Miss Arnold's answer was, "The thing is impossible; he has not another relation upon earth, except--"
Seeing me at her side, Miss Arnold stopped abruptly, and, I think, changed colour; but I had no time to make observations, for Lord Frederick, seizing my hand, exclaimed, "Ah, you cruel creature, have you at last given me an opportunity to speak with you? I thought you had been determined to cut me, since old squaretoes interfered." I carelessly answered, that I had not made up my mind on that subject: but, had my reply been delayed a few moments, it could not have been uttered with truth; for just then Lady Maria came to request, with no small earnestness, that her brother would go and exhibit to Lady Augusta Loftus a trick with cards, which it seems he could perform with singular dexterity. "We shall see who will prevail," thought I, and I seated myself as if to evince my resolution of remaining where I was. Lord Frederick immediately excused himself to his sister; and she at last, in evident vexation, relinquished her attempt.
This little victory raised my spirits; and I enjoyed with double relish, and provoked with double industry, the jealous glances with which I was watched by Lady Maria and her fair friend. Lord Frederick, on his part, had never been so assiduous to entertain. He flattered, made love, spoke scandal, and even threw out some sarcasms upon the jealousy of his sister. How had enmity perverted my mind, when I could tolerate this unnatural assassination! How had it darkened my understanding, when I shrank not with suspicion from the heart which was dead to the sacred charities of kindred!
In the course of our conversation, Lord Frederick rallied me on the subject of the masked ball, urging me to give my reasons for refusing the tickets. Weakly ashamed to be suspected of submitting to authority, I employed every excuse except the true one; and, among others, alleged, that I was unacquainted with the lady by whom the ball was to be given. Lord Frederick insisted upon introducing his relation, Lady St. Edmunds, to me; declaring that he had often heard her express a desire to be of my acquaintance. I could not resist the temptation of this introduction, for Lady St. Edmunds was of the highest fashion. I protested, indeed, that my resolution, with regard to the masquerade, was immutable, but I suffered Lord Frederick to go in search of his gay relative.
He soon returned, leading a lady, in whose appearance some half-a-dozen wrinkles alone indicated the approach of the years of discretion. Her cheek glowed with more than youthful roses. Her eye flashed with more than cheerful fires. Her splendid drapery loosely falling from her shoulders, displayed the full contour of a neck whiter than virgin innocence, pure even from the faintest of those varying hues which stain the lilies of nature. She addressed me with much of the grace and all the ease of fashion, loaded me with compliments and caresses, and charmed me with the artful condescension which veils itself in respectful courtesy. She proposed to wait upon me the next day, and entreated that I would allow her the privilege of old acquaintance, by giving orders that she should be admitted. I readily consented, for indeed I was delighted with my new friend. I was dazzled with the freedom of her language, the boldness of her sentiments, and her apparent knowledge of the world.
Faithful to her appointment, Lady St. Edmunds called upon me the next morning; and though she looked less youthful, was as fascinating as ever. No charm of graceful sportiveness, of artful compliment, or of kindly seeming, was wanting to the attraction of her manners. I was accustomed to the adulation of men; and sometimes, when it was less dexterously applied, or when I was in a more rational humour, I could ask myself which the obsequious gentlemen admired the most--Miss Percy, or the pretty things they said to her. But let no one boast of being inaccessible to flattery, till he has withstood that of a superior; and let that superior be highly bred, seemingly disinterested, and a woman. I did not, at the time, perceive that Lady St. Edmunds flattered me; I merely was convinced that she had a lively sensibility towards a kindred mind, and a generosity which could bestow unenvying admiration upon superior youth and beauty.
When she was about to retire, she mentioned her masked ball, expressing a strong desire to see me there, and extending the request to Miss Arnold. With one of the deepest sighs I ever breathed, I told her of my unfeigned regret that it was out of my power to accept her invitation. Lady St. Edmunds looked as if she read my thoughts. "I won't be denied," said she; "be as late as you will; but surely you may escape from your engagement for an hour or two at least. Come, dear Miss Percy, you would not be so mischievous as to spoil my whole evening's pleasure; and now that I know you, there is no thinking of pleasure without you."
I was again on the point of declining, though with tears in my eyes, when I was interrupted by Miss Arnold. "I can assure your Ladyship," said she, "that we have no engagement; only, our duenna does not approve of masquerades, and Ellen happens to be in a submissive frame just now."
I could better endure the weight of my shackles than the exhibition of them; and, the warm blood rushing to my cheek, I answered, "That I did not suppose Miss Mortimer, or any other person, pretended a right to control me; that I had merely yielded to entreaties, not submitted to authority."
"And why must the duenna's entreaties be more powerful than mine?" said Lady St. Edmunds, laying her white hand upon my arm, and looking in my face with a soul-subduing smile.
"Dear Lady St. Edmunds!" cried I, kissing her hand, "do not talk of entreaty. Lay some command upon me less agreeable to my inclination, that I may show how eager I am to obey you. But indeed, I fear--I think--I--after giving my promise to Miss Mortimer, I believe I ought not to retract."
"Why not, my dear?" said Lady St. Edmunds. "It is only changing your mind, you know, which the whole sex does every day."
"You know, Ellen," said Miss Arnold, "the case is quite altered since you talked of it with Miss Mortimer. She did not object so much to the masked ball, as to your going with--"
"Juliet!" said I, stopping her with a frown, for I felt shocked that she should tell Lady St. Edmunds that her nephew's attendance was objected to by Miss Mortimer.
"Ah!" cried Lady St. Edmunds, with the prettiest air of reproach imaginable, "I see Miss Arnold is more inclined to oblige me than you are; so to her I commit my cause for the present, for now I positively must tear my myself away. Good-by, my pretty advocate. Be sure you make me victorious over the duenna. Farewell, my lovely perverse one," continued she, kissing my cheek. "I shall send you tickets, however. I issue only three hundred."
Lady St. Edmunds retired, and left my heart divided between her and the masquerade. She was scarcely gone, when Miss Mortimer came in; and, full of my charming visitor, I instantly began to pronounce her eulogium. I thought Miss Mortimer listened with very repulsive coldness; of course, a little heat of a less gentle kind was added to the warmth of my admiration, and my language became more impassioned. "I have been told that Lady St. Edmunds is very insinuating," said Miss Mortimer; and this was all the answer I could obtain. My praise became more rapturous than ever. Miss Mortimer remained silent for some moments after I had talked myself out of breath. Perhaps she was considering how she might reply without offence. "Such manners," said she, "must indeed be engaging. I see their effect in the eloquence of your praise. I wish it were always safe to yield to their attraction."
"Bless me! Miss Mortimer," interrupted I, "you are the most suspicious being! I see you want me to suspect Lady St. Edmunds of everything that is bad, and for no earthly reason but because she is delightful!"
"Indeed, my dear Ellen," returned Miss Mortimer, "you wrong me. I should be the last person to taint your mind with any unfounded suspicion. But it is natural, you know, that years should teach us caution."
"Oh!" exclaimed I, fervently clasping my hands, "if age must chill all my affections, and leave me only a dead soul chained to a half-living body, may Heaven grant that my years maybe few! May I go to my grave ere my heart cease to love and trust its fellows!"
"Dearest child!" cried Miss Mortimer, "may many a happy year improve and refine your affections; and may they long survive the enthusiasm which paints their objects as faultless! But is it not better that you should know a little of Lady St. Edmunds' character before intimacy confirm her power over you?"
"Why should I know anything more of her than I do? I can see that she has the most penetrating understanding, the most affectionate heart!"
"No doubt these are great endowments; but something more may be necessary. The proverb is not the less true for its vulgarity, which tells us, that the world will estimate us by our associates; and, what is still more important, the estimate will prove just. If you form intimacies with the worthless, or even with the suspected--"
"Worthless! suspected!" exclaimed I, my blood boiling with indignation; "who dares to use such epithets in speaking of Lady St. Edmunds?"
"Be calm, Ellen. I did not, at the moment that I uttered these offensive words, intend any personal application. If I had, my language should have been less severe. But I can inform you that the world has been less cautious, and that those epithets have been very freely applied to Lady St. Edmunds!"
"Yes! perhaps by a set of waspish bigots, envious of her, who is herself so far above the meanness of envy,--or who cannot pardon her for refusing to make Sunday a day of penance!"
Miss Mortimer, though naturally one of the most timid creatures upon earth, was as inflexible in regard to some particular opinions, as if she had had the nerves of a Hercules. "Indeed, Ellen," said she, calmly, "it would be ungrateful in you, or any other woman of fashion, to charge the world with intolerance towards Sabbath- breakers. I fear that Lady St. Edmunds would give little offence by her Sunday's parties, if she were circumspect in her more private conduct."
"Bless my heart, Miss Mortimer!" cried I, "what have I to do with the private conduct of all my acquaintance? What is it to me, if Lady St. Edmunds spoil her children, or rule her husband, or lose a few hundred pounds at cards now and then?"
Miss Mortimer smiled.--"Even bigots," said she, "must acquit her Ladyship of all these faults, for she takes no concern with her children,--she is separated from her husband,--and certainly does not lose at cards."
"And so you, who pretend to preach charity towards all mankind, can condescend to retail second-hand calumny? You would have me desert an amiable, and, I am persuaded, an injured woman, merely because she has the misfortune to be slandered?"
"When you know me better, Ellen," said Miss Mortimer, meekly, "you will find, that it is not my practice to repeat any scandalous tale without some better reason than my belief that it is true. I shall not at present defend the justice of the censures which hare fallen upon Lady St. Edmunds. I will merely offer you my opinion, in hopes that, a few hours hence, you may reconsider it. If a friend, whose worth you had proved, whose affection you had secured, were made a mark for the shafts of calumny,--far be it from you to seek a base shelter, leaving her unshielded, to be 'hit by the archers;' but, against the formation of a new acquaintance, the slightest suspicion ought, in my opinion, to be decisive. The frailty of a good name is as proverbial as its value; and virgin fame is far too precious to be ventured upon uncertainty, and far too frail to escape uninjured even from the appearance of hazard."
This speech was so long that it gave me time to cool, and so incontrovertible, that I found some difficulty in replying. Before I could summon a rejoinder, Miss Mortimer, who never pursued a victory, had quitted the room. She had left me an unpleasant subject of meditation; but she had allowed me to postpone the consideration of it for a few hours; so in the meantime, I turned my thoughts to the masquerade.
And first, by way of safeguard against temptation, I thought it best to lay down an immutable resolution that I would not go. It was very hard indeed to be deprived of such a harmless amusement; but, as I had given an unlucky promise, I purposed magnanimously to adhere to it, resolving, however, to indemny myself the next opportunity. Thus fortified, I began to indulge my fancy in painting what might have been the pleasures of the masquerade. I imagined (there was surely no harm in imagining!) how well I could have personated the fair Fatima,--how happily the turban would have accorded with the Grecian turn of my head,--how softly the transparent sleeves of my caftan would have shaded my rounded arm,--how favourably the Turkish costume would have shown the light limb, and the elastic step. I invented a hundred witticisms which I might have uttered,--a hundred compliments which I might have received. Above all, I dwelt upon the approbation, the endearments of the charming Lady St. Edmunds, till my heart bounded with the ideal joy.
How suitable to our nature is that commandment which places upon the thoughts the first restraints of virtue! It was painful to interrupt my delightful reverie, by renewing my resolutions of self-denial, so I passed them over as already fixed, insensible how fatally I was undermining their foundations. The bribe must be poor indeed which the aids of imagination cannot render irresistible. The longer my fancy dwelt upon my lost pleasure, the more severe seemed my privation, the more unfounded Miss Mortimer's prejudice. From the wish that the thing had been right, the step was easy to the belief that it could not be very wrong. Before the morning, my inclination had so far bewildered my judgment, that Miss Arnold found no difficulty in persuading me to refer the matter to my father, and, regardless of my promise, to abide by his decision.
She herself undertook the statement of the case; for it happened, I know not how, that, even when she spoke only truth, her statements always served a purpose better than mine. The effect of her adroit representation was, that my father decided in favour of the masquerade; observing that "Miss Mortimer, though a very good woman, had some odd notions, which it would not do for everybody to adopt."
Thus it seemed determined that I was to enjoy the amusement upon which I had set my heart. And yet I was not satisfied. My gay visions were no sooner likely to be realized, than they lost half their charms. A slight scrutiny into my own mind would have enabled me to trace the cause of this change to a consciousness of error; but a vague anticipation of the issue was sufficient to prevent me from entering upon the inquiry. I therefore contented myself with attempting to impose upon my own judgment, by asserting that, since my father was satisfied, I was at full liberty to pursue my inclination. "To be sure," said Miss Arnold," when Mr. Percy has given his permission, who else has any right to interfere?"
"And will you, my dear sir, speak of it to Miss Mortimer," said I, anxious to transfer that task to any one who would undertake it.
"Oh, I'll manage all that," cried Miss Arnold. "If Mr. Percy were to mention the matter to Miss Mortimer, it would look as if he thought himself accountable to her; and then there would be no end of it; for she fancies already that she should be consulted in everything that concerns you,--as if Mr. Percy, who has so long superintended the greatest concerns in the kingdom, could not direct his own family without her interference!"
I believe my father, as well as myself, might have some latent misgivings of mind, which made him not unwilling to accept of Miss Arnold's offered services. "I have so many important affairs to mind," said he, "that I shall probably think no more of such a trifle; so I commission you, Miss Juliet, to let Miss Mortimer know my opinion, which I dare say you will do discreetly, for you seem a civil judicious young lady. Elizabeth, poor soul, meant all for the best; thinking to save me a few pounds, I suppose. But you may let her know, that what it may be very commendable in her to save is altogether below my notice. When a man has thousands, and tens of thousands passing through his hands every day, it gives him a liberal way of thinking. But as for a woman, who never was mistress of a hundred pounds at a time, what can she know of liberality?"
My father had now entered on a favourite topic, the necessary connexion between riches and munificence. Miss Arnold listened respectfully, approving by smiles, nods, and single words of assent; while I stood wrapt in my meditations, if I may give that name to the succession of unsightly images which conscience forced into my mind, and which I as quickly banished. Having triumphantly convinced an antagonist who ventured not upon opposition, my father withdrew; and left my friend and me to consult upon our communication to Miss Mortimer.
"She will be in a fine commotion," said I, endeavouring to smile, "when she hears that we are going to this masquerade after all. But since you have undertaken the business, Juliet, you may break it to her to-night, while I am at the opera; and then the fracas will be partly over before I come home."
"I have been just thinking," said Miss Arnold, "all the time that your father was making that fine oration, that it would be wiser not to break it to her at all. Where is the necessity for her knowing anything of the matter? We shall have other invitations for the same evening, so we may go somewhere else first, and afterwards look in for an hour or two at the ball. Nobody need know that we have been there."
"What, Juliet! would you have me steal off in that clandestine way, as if I were afraid or ashamed to do what my father approves of? If I am to act in defiance of Miss Mortimer, I will do it openly, and not slavishly pilfer my right, as if I did not dare to assert it."
"Don't be angry, Ellen," said Miss Arnold, soothingly; "I shall most willingly do whatever you think best. But, for my part, I would almost as soon give up the masquerade, as be lectured about it for the next three weeks."
"But, to give Miss Mortimer her due," returned I, "she does not lecture much."
"That is true," replied Miss Arnold. "But then she will look so dolefully at us. I am sure I would rather be scolded heartily at once."
In this last sentiment I cordially sympathized; for the silent upbraiding of the eye is the very poetry of reproach--it addresses itself to the imagination, "I wish," cried I, sighing from the very bottom of my heart, "that I had never heard of this ball!"
"In my opinion," said Miss Arnold, "it would save both us and Miss Mortimer a great deal of vexation if she were never to hear more of it."
"Say no more of that, Juliet," interrupted I; "I am determined not to take another step in the business without her knowledge."
Miss Arnold was silent for a few moments; and when her voice again drew my attention, I perceived tears in her eyes. "Well, Ellen." said she, "since you are so determined, I see only one way of settling the matter quietly. I will give my ticket to Miss Mortimer,--she can have no objection to your going, if she be there herself to watch you."
"Never name such a thing to me, Juliet! What! leave you moping alone, fancying all the pleasure you might have had, while I am amusing myself abroad. I had rather never see a mask in my life!"
"I should prefer any thing to bringing her ill-humour upon you," said Miss Arnold; "and since you persist in telling her, I see no other way of escape. I shall most cheerfully resign the masquerade to give you pleasure."
"My own dear Juliet!" cried I, locking my arms round her neck, while unbidden tears filled my eyes, "how can you talk of giving me pleasure by sacrificing your own, when you know that more than half the delight of my life is to share its joys with you." Nor were these the empty sounds of compliment, nor even the barren expression of a passing fervour. My purse, my ornaments, my amusements, even the assiduities of my admirers, all on which my foolish heart was most fixed, I freely shared with her. Yet this same Juliet--but is it for me to complain of ingratitude?--for me, who, favoured by an all-bountiful Benefactor, abused his gifts, despised his warnings, neglected his commands, abhorred his intercourse! Let those who are conscious of similar demerit cease to reproach the less flagrant baseness, which repays with evil the feeble benefits that man bestows on man.
On the present occasion, Juliet's influence prevailed with me so far, that, before we separated. I had agreed to a compromise.
Miss Arnold undertook to keep my father silent, which she performed in the most dexterous manner; and with the more ease, because, perhaps, he was conscious that the subject furnished materials for confession as well as for narrative.
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.