Discipline: A Novel

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In defiance of Miss Mortimer's advice, I returned Lady St. Edmunds' visit without delay. I made, indeed, some general inquiries into the character of my new favourite; and though few were inclined to tell what I showed myself unwilling to hear, I learnt that she was said to play games of chance with extraordinary skill and success; and that she was suspected of impropriety in a point where detection is still more fatal. It is unfortunate that prudence and self-sufficiency are so rarely found together, since he who will make no use of the wisdom of others, certainly needs an extraordinary fund of his own. I was predetermined to consider whatever could be advanced against Lady St. Edmunds as the effect of malicious misrepresentation. My self-conceit pointed me out as no improper person to stem the tide of injustice; and, by an admirable, though in this case an abused, provision in our nature, my kindly feelings towards her were strengthened at once by my intentions to serve her, and by my resentment of her supposed wrongs.

Lady St. Edmunds, on her part, more than met my advances. She treated me with a distinction which I ascribed solely to the most flattering partiality; and sought my society with an eagerness in which I suspected no aim beyond its own gratification. Even now, when experience has taught me to look through these fair seemings, I am convinced that her affection was not entirely feigned; for I have seldom met with a heart so callous as not to be touched with a transient sympathy at least, by the honest enthusiasm of youth. In the meantime, I had the more confidence in the disinterestedness of her regard, because I could detect no sinister motive for her attentions. Once, and only once, she had engaged me in play; but the stake was not large, and I rose a winner.

Miss Mortimer nevertheless continued her opposition to the acquaintance, remonstrating against it with a perseverance and warmth which alternately surprised and provoked me. Regarding her warnings as the voice of that cold ungenerous suspicion which I imagined to be incident to age, I took a perverse delight in extolling the attractions of my new friend, and in magnifying their power over me. One prophecy of my Cassandra was impressed upon my recollection, by its containing the only severe expression that ever my incorrigible wilfulness could extort from the forbearing spirit of the Christian. Among other rapturous epithets, I called Lady St. Edmunds my dear enchantress. "Well may you give her that name," said Miss Mortimer, "for she is drawing you into a circle where nothing good or holy must tread; and if you will follow her to the tempter's own ground, you must bid farewell to better spirits. The wise and the virtuous will one by one forsake you, until you have no guide but such as lead to evil, and no companions but such as take advantage of your errors, or share in your ruin."

It is astonishing, that beings formed to look forward so anxiously to the future, when anxiety can be of no avail, should often treat it with such perverse disregard when foresight might indeed be useful. Will it be believed, that from this very conversation I went to exhibit myself to half the town as Lady St. Edmunds' companion, by attending her to an auction?

The sale was in consequence of an execution in the house of a lady of high fashion; and thither of course came all those of her own rank, who wished to be relieved of their time, their money, or their curiosity. Lord Frederick de Burgh, who seemed the almost constant associate of his fair relative, was of our party. Indeed I could not help observing, upon all occasions, that his attentions to me were infinitely more particular since my father had announced his decision. But I regarded that decision as final; and merely inferred that Lord Frederick, like Miss Arnold, perceived the safety of a flirtation which could lead to no consequence; or that, in the true spirit of his sex, he grew eager in pursuit when attainment appeared difficult.

As the sale proceeded, a hundred useless toys were exposed, and called forth a hundred vain and unlovely emotions. Curiosity, admiration, desire, impatience, envy, and resentment, chased each other over many a fair face; and the flush of angry disappointment, or of unprofitable victory, stained many a cheek from whence the blush of modesty had faded for ever. I took out my pencil to caricature a group, in which a spare dame, whose face combined no common contrast of projection and concavity, was darting from her sea-green eyes sidelong flames upon a china jar, which was surveyed with complacent smiles by its round and rosy purchaser. But my labours were interrupted, and from an amused spectator of the scene, I was converted into a keen actor, when the auctioneer exposed a tortoise-shell dressing-box, magnificently inlaid with gold. Art had exhausted itself in the elegance of the pattern and the delicacy of the workmanship. It was every way calculated to arrest the regards of fine ladies; for, like them, it was useless and expensive in proportion to its finery. It was put up at fifty guineas; less, as we were assured by the auctioneer, than half its value. Rather than allow such matchless beauty to be absolutely thrown away, I bade for the bauble. It proved equally attractive to others, and my fair opponents soon raised its price to seventy pounds. There for a while it made a pause, and no one seemed inclined to go farther; but this was still far below its value. I hesitated for a few moments, and then, in conviction that nobody would bid more, increased my offer. It seems I was mistaken. The lady with whom, but for my perseverance, the prize would have remained, measured me with a very contemptuous look, and bade again with a composure which seemed to say, "Does the girl fancy she can contend with me?" This was attacking me on the weak side. I instantly bade again. The lady coolly did the same. I, growing more warm, went on. The lady proceeded, with smiles not quite of courtesy; till, in exchange for my discretion, my temper, and a hundred and fifteen pounds, I had gained the tortoise-shell dressing-box.

The costly toy was already in my possession, and already every eye was turned upon me with envy, sarcasm, or compassion, before I remembered that it was necessary to pay for my purchase. In some perplexity I began to search for my purse; recollecting, not without dismay, that it did not contain above twenty guineas. I had indeed a farther supply at home, but the law of the sale required that every purchase should be paid for upon the spot, and I was obliged to apply to Lady St. Edmunds for assistance. This was the first time that ever I had found occasion to borrow money; and I shall never forget the embarrassment which it cost me. With a confusion which would have dearly paid for the possession of ten thousand baubles, I, in a timid, scarcely intelligible whisper, begged Lady St. Edmunds to lend me the necessary sum, assuring her that it should be repaid that very day. Her Ladyship at first frankly consented to my request; but suddenly recollecting herself, declared that she had not a guinea about her; and, without waiting for my concurrence, called upon Lord Frederick to relieve my difficulty. Giddy and imprudent as I was, I shrank from incurring this obligation to Lord Frederick. I at first positively refused his aid: and while, for a few minutes, I sat affecting to examine my purchase, I was cordially wishing that its materials were still in opposite hemispheres, and endeavouring to gain courage for a petition to some other of my acquaintance.

I at last fixed upon a young lady of fortune with whom I had contracted some intimacy; and under pretence of exhibiting my box, beckoned her towards me, and requested her to lend me the money. With an aspect of profound amazement, she exclaimed, "La, my dear! how can you think of such a thing? I have not ten pounds in the world. I never have. It is always spent before I can lay a finger on it."--" Indeed! I was in hopes you were in cash just now, for I thought I observed you bid for this box."--"Oh, one must bid now and then for a little amusement! But I assure you I had no thoughts of buying such a splendid affair. I must leave that to those who have more money than they know what to do with."

I could perceive a tincture of malice in the smile which accompanied these words; and turning from her, resumed my conversation with Lady St. Edmunds. Her Ladyship rallied me unmercifully upon what she called my prudery; asking me, in a very audible whisper, what sort of interest I expected Lord Frederick to exact, which made me so afraid of becoming his debtor. Lord Frederick himself joined in the raillery; and, laughing, offered to recommend me to an honest Jew, if I preferred such a creditor. Their manner of treating the subject made me almost ashamed of having refused Lord Frederick's assistance, especially as I was certain that the obligation might be discharged in an hour. I suspected, indeed, though I was but imperfectly acquainted with the state of my funds, that they were insufficient for this demand; but I knew that Miss Arnold had money, because I had divided my quarterly allowance with her, and had not since observed her to incur any serious expense. Besides, I was convinced that my father would permit me to draw upon him in advance, so that at all events I should be able to discharge my debt on the following day. I therefore half playfully, half in earnest, accepted of Lord Frederick's offered aid: and he instantly delivered the money to me with a gallantry, which showed that a man of fashion can, upon extraordinary occasions, be polite.

When I had received the notes, I jestingly asked him what security I should give him for their repayment? Lord Frederick took my hand, and drawing from my finger a ring of small value, said, with more seriousness than I expected, "This shall be my pledge; but you must not imagine that I shall restore it for a few paltry guineas. You may have it again as soon as you will, on a fit occasion." I could have dispensed with this piece of gallantry, which was conducted too seriously for my taste; but a lady, like a member of Parliament, must accept of no favours if she would preserve the right of remonstrance, and I allowed Lord Frederick to keep the ring.

Soon afterwards we returned home, and I proceeded to examine the state of my funds. I was astonished to find that my bureau did not contain above ten pounds. I searched every drawer and concealment, wondering at intervals what could possibly have become of my money,--a wonder, I believe, in which the fugitive nature of guineas involves every fair lady who keeps no exact register of their departure. Thus employed, I was found by Miss Arnold, to whom I immediately unfolded my dilemma; calling upon her to assist me with her recollection, as to the disposal of my funds, and with her purse, in supply of their present deficiency. "You may well look astonished, dearest Ellen," pursued she, "considering your noble generosity to me. But, indeed, nothing could have happened more unfortunately. It was only yesterday that I visited my brother, and happened to tell him what a princely spirit you had, and how liberal you had been to me. The deuce take my tongue for being so nimble,--but it is all your own fault, Ellen; for you won't let me praise you to your face, and one can't always be silent. So, just then, in came a fellow with a long bill for some vile thing or another, and my brother bade me lend him my money that he might settle with the creature. What could I do, you know? I could not refuse. But if I had once guessed that you could possibly want it, I should as soon have lent him my heart's blood."

I suffered the tale to conclude without interruption; for indeed I was fully as much astonished as I looked. I had by no means understood that my friend was upon such terms with her brother as to incline her to lend him money, nor that he was in such circumstances as to need to borrow. A doubt of her truth, however, never once darkened my mind. Self-love prevented me, as it daily prevents thousands, from making the very obvious reflection, that one who could be disingenuous with others to serve me, might be disingenuous with me to serve herself. Miss Arnold proceeded to reproach herself in the bitterest manner for her improvidence in parting with the money, and seemed so heartily vexed, that the little spleen which my disappointment had at first excited entirely subsided; and I comforted my friend as well as I was able, by assuring her that my father would advance whatever money I desired.

Miss Arnold now, in her turn, was silent, wearing a look of grave consideration. "If I were in your place, Ellen," said she, at last, "I don't think I would mention this matter to Mr. Percy."

"Not mention it!" said I, "why not?"

"Because," returned Miss Arnold, "I see no end it can serve, except to make him angry. You know his pompous notions; and, after what has passed, I am sure he will think your borrowing money from Lord Frederick an act of downright rebellion." "Indeed," returned I, "that is very likely; but I promised to repay Lord Frederick to-morrow; and I have no other way of obtaining the money."

"Poh! my dear yon are so punctilious about trifles! What can it possibly signify to Lord Frederick whether he be repaid to-morrow, or the day after?"

"Why, to be sure, it cannot signify much; only, as I have given my promise, I do not like to break it."

"Well, really, Ellen, if I were to shut my eyes, I could sometimes fancy you had been brought up with some queer old aunt in the country. What difference can one day make? And I am sure, by the end of the week, at farthest, I could get the money from my brother, and settle the whole matter peaceably. Do take my advice, and say nothing about it to your father; he will be so angry; and you know, at the worst, you can tell him at any time."

Had my mind been well regulated, or my judgment sound, Miss Arnold's argument would itself have defeated her purpose; and the very conviction of my father's disliking my debt to Lord Frederick would have determined me that it should, at all hazards, be repaid. But I was fated, in many instances, to suffer the penalty of those perverted habits of mind, which imposed upon me a sort of moral disability of choosing right, as often as a choice was presented to me.

Warned by my example, let him who is entering upon life review, with a suspicious eye, the transactions which he is inclined to conceal from the appointed guardians of his virtue. If the subject be of moment, let him be wisely fearful to rely upon his own judgment;--if it be trivial, let not concealment swell it to disastrous importance. If we have, unfortunately, a tendency to creep through the winding covered path, let him not strengthen by one additional act a habit so fatal to the lofty port of honour. If, like me, he be of a frank and open nature, let him not, to escape a transient evil, sink the light heart, and pervert the simple purpose, and bend the erect dignity of truth. Let him who can tread firm in conscious soundness of mind leave the stealthy course for those to whom nature has given no better means of attaining their end. The low and tangled way, the subtle tortuous progress, suits the base earth-worm; let creatures of a nobler mould advance erect and steady.

Having dissuaded me from using the only means of discharging my debt without delay, Miss Arnold, like a cautious general, contented herself with fortifying the post she had taken; and, for the present, carried her operations no further. But, the next day, she took occasion to ask me, with a careless air, "whether I had written a note of excuse to Lord Frederick?" I answered that I had not thought of it. "You intend writing, of course," said Miss Arnold, with that look of decision which has often served the purpose of argument.

"Don't you think it will be rather awkward?" said I.

"That you should not write, you mean?--Very awkward, indeed. And then I am sure you ought never to lose an opportunity of writing a note, for I know nobody who has such a talent for turning these things neatly."

The indistinct idea of impropriety which was floating in my mind was put to flight by the nonchalance of Miss Arnold's manner; for, when reason and conscience are deposed from their rightful authority at home, it is amazing how abjectly they learn to bend, not to the passions only, but to impulse merely external. I wrote the note to Lord Frederick. My lover, for now I may fairly call him so, contrived to reply to my billet in such terms as, with the help of Miss Arnold's counsels, produced a rejoinder. This again occasioned another; and notes, sonnets, epistles in verse, and billet-doux passed between us, till the folly had nearly assumed the form or a regular correspondence. All this was, of course, carried on without the knowledge of my father or Miss Mortimer; and so rapid are the inroads of evil, that I soon began to find a mysterious pleasure in the dexterity which compassed this furtive intercourse.

In the mean time, Miss Arnold was in no haste to perform her promise. Day after day she found some excuse for not going to ask her money, or some pretence for returning without it; and day after day she persuaded me to wait for its restitution; till the uneasy feeling of undischarged obligation subsided by degrees, and the natural disquiet of a debtor was nearly lost in the giddiness of perpetual amusement.

As the masked ball drew near, my eagerness for it had completely revived. It may seem strange, considering the multitude of my frivolous pleasures, that any single one should have awakened such ardour. But a masquerade was now the only amusement which was new to me; and I had already begun to experience that craving for novelty which is incident to all who seek for happiness where it never was and never will be found,--in bubbles which amuse the sense, but cheat the longing soul.

So entirely was I occupied in anticipating my new pleasure, that I should have had neither thought nor observation to bestow upon any other subject, had not conscience sometimes turned my attention to Miss Mortimer. I thought she looked ill and melancholy. Her complexion, always delicate, had faded to a sickly hue. Her eyes were sunk and hollow; and the jealous watchfulness of one who has given cause of complaint, made me remark that they were often fixed sadly upon me. I half suspected that she had discovered my intended breach of faith; and wondered whether it were possible that my misconduct could make such an impression upon her mind. I was relieved from this suspicion by the frankness with which she one day lamented to me that my father, for some reason which she could not divine, refused to permit a party to be formed for the 5th of May. "I could have wished," said she, "to make that evening pass more gaily than I fear it will. Dear Ellen, how like you are to your mother when you blush!"

"Then I am sure," said I, "I wish I could blush always, for there is nobody I should like so much to resemble."

"Well," said Miss Mortimer, "were it not for the fear of making you vain, I could tell you, that there is a more substantial resemblance; for she, like you, knew how to resign her strongest inclinations in compliance with the wishes of her friends."

This was too much. Conscience-struck, and quite thrown off my guard, I exclaimed, "like me! Oh! she was no more like me, than an angel of light is to a dark designing--" Recollecting that I was betraying myself, I stopped.

Miss Mortimer turned upon me a smile so kind, so confiding, that as oft as it rises to my memory I abhor myself. "Nay, Ellen," she said, "if I am to be your confessor, lay open the sins which do really beset you; unless, as Mr. Maitland would say, you are afraid that I should have a sinecure."

"I have a great mind," cried I, "to make a resolution, that I will never do a wrong thing again without confessing it to somebody!"

"The resolution would be a good one," said Miss Mortimer, "provided you could rely upon the judgment and integrity of your confessor; and provided you are sure that the pain of exposing your faults to another will not lead you to conceal them more industriously from yourself."

"Oh! I am sure I could never do wrong without being sensible of it. But the misfortune is, that people have not the right method of talking of my faults. They always contrive to say something provoking. You need not smile. It is not that I am so uncandid that I cannot endure to be blamed; for there's Juliet often finds fault with me, and I never grow angry."

"Well, Ellen," said Miss Mortimer, "if ever you should be inclined to make trial of me, I promise you never intentionally to say anything provoking. In dexterity I shall not pretend to vie with Miss Arnold, but in affectionate interest I will yield to none. You have a claim upon my indulgence, which your errors can never cancel; especially as I am sure that they will never lean towards artifice or meanness."

The heart must be callously vile, which can bear to be stabbed with the words of abused confidence. I sprung away in search of Miss Arnold, that I might retract my promise of concealing from Miss Mortimer the affair of the masquerade. I was met by the dress-maker, who, loaded with parcels and bandboxes, came to fit on the attire of the fair Fatima; and, during the hour which was consumed in this operation, the ardour of my sincerity had cooled so far, that Miss Arnold easily prevailed on me to let matters remain as we had first arranged them.

How often, I may say how invariably, did my better feelings vanish, ere they issued into action! But feeling is, in its very nature, transient. It is at best the meteor's blaze, shedding strong, but momentary day; while principle, the true principle, be it faint at first as the star whose ray hath newly reached our earth, is yet the living light of the higher heaven; which never more will leave us in utter darkness, but lend a steady beam to guide our way.

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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.