The fifth of May arrived; and never did lover, waiting the hour of meeting, suffer more doubts and tremors than I did, lest Mrs. Beetham should disappoint me of my evening's paraphernalia. Although I had ordered the dress to be at my bed-side as soon as I awoke, the faithless mantua-maker detained it till after two o'clock; and the intermediate hours were consumed in fits of anger, suspense, and despondency. At last it came; and I hastened to ascertain its becomingness and effect. I knew that Miss Mortimer was closeted with a medical friend; I had, therefore, no interruption to fear from her. Yet I locked myself into my dressing-room, because I could not, without constraint, allow even Miss Arnold to witness those rehearsals of vanity, which I was not ashamed to exhibit before Him who remembers that we are but dust. Others may smile at this and many other instances of my folly. I look back upon them as on the illusions of delirium, and shudder whilst I smile.
I was practising before a looking-glass the attitudes most favourable to the display of my dress and figure, when my attention was drawn by the sound of bustle in the staircase. I opened my door to discover the cause of the noise, and perceived some of the servants bearing Miss Mortimer, to all appearance lifeless. In horror and alarm I sprung towards her; and in answer to some incoherent questions, I learnt, that she had had a long private conference with Dr. ----, and that he had scarcely left the house, when she had fainted away. A servant had hastened to recal the surgeon, but his carriage had driven off too quickly to be overtaken.
The dastardly habits of self-indulgence had so estranged me from the very forms of sickness or of sorrow, that I now stood confounded by their appearance; and if a menial, whose very existence I scarcely deigned to remember, had not far excelled me in considerate presence of mind, the world might then have lost one of its chief ornaments, and I the glorious lesson of a Christian's life--of a Christian's death! By means of the simple prescriptions of this poor girl, Miss Mortimer revived. Her first words were those of thankfulness for all our cares; her next request that she might be left alone. Recollecting my strange attire, which alarm had driven from my mind, I felt no disinclination to obey; but the girl, whose assistance had already been so useful, begged for permission to remain. "Indeed, ma'am," said she, "you ought not to be left alone while you are so weak and ill."
"0h, I am weaker than a child!" cried Miss Mortimer; "but go, my dear: I shall not be alone! I know where the weakest shall assuredly find strength!"
The countenance of the person to whom she spoke gave signal of intelligence; the rest stared with vacant wonder. All obeyed Miss Mortimer's command; and I hastened to lay aside my Turkish drapery, which, for some minutes, I had almost unconsciously been screening from observation behind the magnitude of our fat housekeeper.
As soon as I had resumed my ordinary dress, I stole back to the door of Miss Mortimer's apartment. I listened for a while,--but all was still. I entered softly, and beheld Miss Mortimer upon her knees, her hands clasped in supplication; the flush of hope glowing through the tears which yet trembled on her cheek; her eyes raised with meek confidence, as the asking infant looks up in has mother's face. I was not unacquainted with the attitude of devotion. That I might have studied even at our theatres, where a mockery of prayer often insults both taste and decency. I had even preserved from my childish days a habit of uttering every morning a short "form of sound words." But the spirit of prayer had never touched my heart; and when I beheld the signs of vital warmth attend that which I had considered as altogether lifeless, it seemed like the moving pictures in the gallery of Otranto, portentous of something strange and terrible. "Good heavens! my dear Miss Mortimer," exclaimed I, advancing towards her as she rose, and wiped the tears from her eyes, "surely something very distressing has happened to you."
"Nothing new has happened," answered she, holding out her hand kindly towards me; "only I have an additional proof that I am, by nature, a poor, timid, trustless creature."
"Ah!" cried I, "do trust me. I can be as secret as the grave, and there is nothing on earth I won't do to make you comfortable again."
"I thank you, dear Ellen," answered Miss Mortimer; "but I have no secret to tell: and, to make me comfortable, you must minister to both body and mind. I have long been trifling with a dangerous disorder. I have acted in regard to it as we are wont to do in regard to the diseases of our souls,--deceived myself as to its existence, because I fear to encounter the cure,--and now I must submit to an operation so tedious, so painful!"--she stopped, shuddering. I was so much shocked, that I had scarcely power to inquire whether there were danger in the experiment. "Some danger there must be," said Miss Mortimer; "but it is not the danger which I fear. Even such cowards as I can meet that which they are daily accustomed to contemplate. If it had been the will of Heaven, I would rather have died than--But it is not for me to choose. Shall I presume to reject any means by which my life may be prolonged? Often, often have I vowed," continued she, with strong energy of manner, "that I would not 'live to myself.' And was all false and hollow? Was this but the vow of the hypocrite, the self-deceiver?"
"Oh no!" cried I, "that is impossible. Before I knew you I might be prejudiced. But now I see that you are always good,--always the same. You cannot be a hypocrite."
This testimony, extorted from me by uniform, consistent uprightness, was answered only by a distrustful shake of the head; for Miss Mortimer habitually lent a suspicious ear to the praise of her own virtues; and was accustomed to judge of her thoughts and actions, not by the opinion of others, but by a careful comparison with the standard of excellence. Tears trickled down her cheeks while she upbraided herself as one who, having pretended to give up all, kept back a part; and even those tears she reproached as symbols of distrust and fear, rather than of repentance.
Only a few months had passed since the fairest dream of pleasure would have vanished from my mind at the thought that the life of the meanest servant of our household was to hang upon the issue of a doubtful, dangerous experiment. Only a few months had passed since the sufferings of a friend would have banished sleep from my pillow, and joy from my most chosen delights. But intemperate pleasure is not more fatal to the understanding than to the heart. It is not more adverse to the "spirit of a sound mind," than to the "spirit of love." Social pleasures, call we them! Let the name no more be prostituted to that which is poison to every social feeling. Pour months of dissipation had elapsed; and the distress, the danger of my own friend, and my mother's friend, now made no change in my scheme of pleasure for the evening. I was merely perplexed how to impart that scheme to the poor invalid. Conscience, indeed, did not fail to remind me, that to bestow this night upon amusement was robbery of friendship and humanity; but I was unhappily practised in the art of silencing her whispers. I assured myself that if my presence could have been essentially useful to Miss Mortimer, I should cheerfully have sacrificed my enjoyment to hers; but I was certain that if I remained at home, the sight of her melancholy would depress me so much as to make my company a mere burden. I endeavoured to persuade myself that, after the scene of the morning, my spirits needed a cordial; and a sudden fit of economy represented to me the impropriety of throwing aside as useless, a dress which had cost an incredible sum. At the recollection of this dress, my thoughts at once flew from excusing my folly to anticipating its delights; and, in a moment, I was already in the ball-room, surrounded with every pleasure, but those of reason, taste, and virtue.
This heartless selfishness may well awaken resentment or contempt; but it ought not to excite surprise. The very flower which we have cherished in the sunshine, and sheltered from the storm, attains, in our regard, a value not its own; and whoever confines his cares, and his ingenuity, to his own gratification, will find, that self-love is not less rapid, or less vigorous in its progress, than any better affection of the soul.
All my endeavours, however, could not make me satisfied with my determination. I therefore resorted to my convenient friend, with whose honied words I could always qualify my self-upbraidings. I opened the case, by saying, that I believed we should be obliged to give up the masquerade after all; but I should have been terribly disappointed if that opinion had passed uncontroverted. I was, however, in no danger. Miss Arnold knew exactly when she might contradict without offence; and did not fail to employ all her persuasion on the side where it was least necessary. This question, therefore, was quickly settled; but another still remained,--how were we to announce our purpose to Miss Mortimer? With this part of the subject inclination had nothing to do; and therefore we found this point so much more difficult to decide, that when we were dressed, and ready to depart, the matter was still in debate.
It was, however, suddenly brought to an issue, by the appearance of Miss Mortimer. She had remained alone in her apartment during the early part of the evening; and now entered the drawing-room with her wonted aspect of serene benevolence, a little "sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought." I involuntarily retreated behind Miss Arnold, who herself could not help shrinking back. Miss Mortimer advanced towards her with the most unconscious air of kindness. "You are quite equipped for conquest, Miss Arnold," said she. "I never saw anything so gracefully fantastic." She had now obtained a view of my figure, and the truth seemed to flash upon her at once; for she started, and changed colour.
A dead silence followed, for indeed I did not dare to look up, much less to speak. Miss Arnold first recovered herself. "Mr. Percy," said she, endeavouring to speak carelessly, "has given Ellen and me permission to go out for an hour."
"Yes," rejoined I, hesitatingly, "papa has given us leave, and we shall only stay a very little while."--Miss Mortimer made no answer. I stole a glance at her, and saw that she was pale as death. I ventured a step nearer to her. "You are not very angry with us," said I.
"No, Miss Percy," said she, in a low constrained voice; "I never claimed a right to dictate where you should or should not go. There was, therefore, on this occasion, the less necessity for having recourse to--"
She left the sentence unfinished; but my conscience filled up the pause. "Indeed, my dear Miss Mortimer," said I, for at that moment I was thoroughly humbled, "I never meant to go without your knowledge. Miss Arnold will tell you that we have been all day contriving how we should mention it to you."
"Your word did not use to need confirmation," said Miss Mortimer, sighing heavily. "I did hope," continued she, "that yon would have spared to me a part of this evening; for I have many things to say, and this is the last--"
Mis Mortimer stopped, cleared her throat, bit her quivering lip, and began industriously to arrange the drapery upon my shoulder; but all would not do,--she burst into tears. I could not withstand Miss Mortimer's emotion, and, throwing my arms round her neck,--"My dear, dear friend," I cried, "be angry with me, scold me as much as you will, only do not grieve yourself. If I could once have guessed that you were to be ill to-night, I should never have thought of this vile ball; and I am sure, if it will please you, I will send away the carriage, and stay at home still."
This proposal was perfectly sincere, but not very intelligible; for the thought of such a sacrifice overpowered me so completely, that the last words were choked with sobs. Miss Mortimer seemed at first to hesitate whether she should not accept of my offer; but, after a few moments' reflection, "No, Ellen," said she, "I will not cause you so cruel a disappointment; for surely--surely this masquerade has seized upon a most disproportionate share of your wishes. You must soon be left to your own discretion; and why should I impose an unavailing hardship? Go then, my love, and be as happy as you can."
My heart leapt light at this concession. "Dear, good, kind Miss Mortimer," cried I, kissing her cheek, "do not be afraid of me. I assure you, I shall be more discreet and prudent this evening than ever I was in my life."
Miss Mortimer gave me an April smile. "This is not much like the garb of discretion," said she, looking at my dress, which indeed approached the utmost limit of fashionable allurement. "It seems time that I should cease to advise, else I should beg of you to make some little addition to your dress. You may meet with people, even at a masquerade, who think that no charm can atone for any defect of modesty; and I should imagine, that your spirit would scarcely brook the remarks they might make."
"I am sure," said I, with a blush which owed its birth as much to pique as to shame, "I never thought of being immodest, nor of anything else, except to look as well as I could; but if it will please you, I shall get a tucker, and let you cover me as much as you will."
Miss Mortimer good-naturedly accepted this little office; saying, while she performed it, "it is a good principle in dress, that the chief use of clothing is concealment. I am persuaded, that you would never offend in this point, were you to remember, that if ever an exposed figure pleases, it must be in some way in which no modest woman would wish to please."
Meanwhile Miss Arnold, who was even more impatient than myself to be gone, had ordered the carriage to the door. Miss Mortimer took leave of me with a seriousness of manner approaching to solemnity; and we departed. The moment we were alone, Juliet proposed to undo Miss Mortimer's labours, declaring that "they had quite made a fright of me." Fortunately for such a world as this, the most questionable principle may produce insulated acts of propriety. My pride for once espoused the right side. "Forbear, Juliet!" cried I, indignantly. "Would you have people to look at me as they do at the very outcasts of womankind,--some with pity, some with scorn?"
Miss Arnold's "hour" had elapsed long before the concourse of carriages would allow us to alight at Lady St. Edmunds' door. On my first entrance, I was so bewildered by the confusion of the scene, and the grotesque figures of the masks, that I could scarcely recognise the mistress of the revels, although we had previously concerted the dress which she was to wear. She presently, however, relieved this dilemma, by addressing me in character; though she was, or pretended to be, unable to penetrate my disguise. The tinge of seriousness which Miss Mortimer had left upon my spirits being aided by the alarm created by so many unsightly shapes, I determined not to quit Lady St. Edmunds' side during the evening; and was just going to tell her my name in a whisper, when I was accosted by a Grand Signior, whom, in spite of his disguise, I thought I discovered to be Lord Frederick de Burgh. I was somewhat surprised at this coincidence in our characters, as I had kept that in which I intended to appear a profound secret from all but Miss Arnold, who protested that she had never breathed it to any human being. Lord Frederick, however, for I was convinced that it was he, addressed me as a stranger; and, partly from the vanity of pleasing in a new character, I answered in the same strain. We were speedily engaged in a conversation, in the course of which a conviction of our previous acquaintance placed me so much at ease with my Turk, that I felt little disturbance, when, on looking round, I perceived that our matron had mingled with the crowd, leaving Miss Arnold and me to his protection. I proposed, however, to my friend, that we should go in search of Lady St. Edmunds; and, still attended by our Grand Signior, we began our round.
And here let me honestly confess, that my pastime very poorly compensated the concealment, anxiety, and remorse which it had already cost me. Even novelty, that idol of spoilt children, could scarcely defend me from weariness and disgust. In the more intellectual part of my anticipated amusement I was completely disappointed; for the attempts made to support character were few and feeble. The easy flow of conversation, which makes even trifles pass agreeably, was destroyed by the supposed necessity of being smart; and the eloquence of the human eye, of the human smile, was wanting to add interest to what was vapid, and kindliness to what was witty. Lord Frederick, indeed, did what he could to enliven the scene. He pointed out the persons whom he knew through their disguises; and desired me to observe how generally each affected the character which he found the least attainable in common life. "That," said he, "is Glendower in the dress of a conjuror. That virgin of the sun is Lady B----, whose divorce-bill is to be before the House to-morrow. That Minerva is Lady Maria de Burgh; and that figure next to her is Miss Sarah Winterfield, who has stuck a flaxen wig upon her grizzled pate that she may for once pass for a Venus."
"If am to judge by your rule," said I, "you must be content to be taken for some Christian slave, snatching a transitory greatness."
"You guess well, fair Fatima; I am indeed a slave; and these royal robes are meant to conceal my chains from all but my lovely mistress."
"Why then do you confess them so freely to me?"
"Because I am persuaded that this envious mask conceals the face of my sultana."
"No, no; by your rule I must be some stern old gouvernante, who have locked up your sultana, and come to seize the pleasures which I deny to her." "Oh! here my rule is useless; for, from what I see, I can guess very correctly what is concealed. For instance, there is first a pair of saucy hazel eyes, sparkling through their long fringes. Cheeks of roses--"
"Nay, not common vulgar country roses--but living and speaking, like the roses in a poet's fancy."
"Well, that's better, go on."
"A sly, mischievous dimple, that, Parthian-like, kills and is fled."
"You can guess flatteringly, I see."
"Yes; and truly too. Nature would never mould a form like this, and leave her work imperfect; therefore there is but one face that can belong to it; and that face is--Miss Percy's."
"And I think nature would never have bestowed such talents for flattery without giving a corresponding dauntlessness of countenance; and that I am persuaded belongs only to Lord Frederick De Burgh."
My attention was diverted from the Sultan's reply by a deep low voice, which, seemingly close to my ear, pronounced the words, "Use caution; you have need of it." I started, and turned to see who had spoken; but a crowd of masks were round us, and I could not distinguish the speaker. I applied to Miss Arnold and the Turk, but neither of them had observed the circumstance. I was rather inclined to ascribe it to chance, not conceiving that any one present could be interested in advising me; yet the solemn tone in which the words were uttered, uniting with the impression which, almost unknown to myself, Miss Mortimer's averseness to my present situation had left upon my mind, I again grew anxious to find protection with Lady St. Edmunds.
Being now a little more in earnest in my search, I soon discovered the object of it, and I immediately made myself known to her. Lady St. Edmunds appeared to receive the intelligence with delighted surprise, and reproached me kindly with having concealed myself so long; then suddenly transferred her reproaches to herself for having, even, for a moment, overlooked my identity, "since, however disguised, my figure remained as unique as that of the Medicean Venus." I can smile now at the simplicity with which I swallowed this and a hundred other absurdities of the same kind. A superior may always apply his flattery with very little caution, secure that it will be gratefully received; and the young are peculiarly liable to its influence, because their estimate of themselves being as yet but imperfectly formed, they are glad of any testimony on the pleasing side.
I kept my station for some time between Lady St. Edmunds and Lord Frederick, drinking large draughts of vanity and pleasure, till Miss Mortimer and my unknown adviser were alike forgotten. A group of Spaniards having finished a fandango, the Countess proposed that Lord Frederick and I should succeed them in a Turkish dance. A faint recollection crossed my mind of the disgust with which I had read a description of this Mahometan exhibition, so well suited to those whose prospective sensuality extends even beyond the grave. I refused, therefore, alleging ignorance as my excuse; but, as I had an absolute passion for dancing, I offered to join in any more common kind of my favourite exercise. Lady St. Edmunds, however, insisted that, unless in character, it would be awkward to dance at all; and that I might easily copy the Turkish dances which I had seen performed upon the stage. These had, so far as I could see, no resemblance to the licentious spectacles of which I had read, excepting what consisted in the shameless attire of the performers, in which I sincerely believe that the Christian dancing-women have pre-eminence. Blessed be the providential arrangements which make the majority of woman-kind bow to the restraints of public opinion! Hardened depravity may despise them, piety may sacrifice them to a sense of duty: but, in the intermediate classes, they hold the place of wisdom and of virtue. They direct many a judgment which ought not to rely on itself; they aid faltering rectitude with the strength of numbers; for, degenerate as we are, numbers are still upon the side of feminine decorum. Had I been unmasked, no earthly inducement would have made me consent to this blamable act of levity; but, in the intoxication of spirits which was caused by the adulation of my companions, the consciousness that I was unknown to all but my tempters induced me to yield, and I suffered Lord Frederick to lead me out, Yet, concealed, as I fancied myself, I performed with a degree of embarrassment which must have precluded all grace; though this embarrassment only served to enhance the praises which were lavished on me by Lord Frederick.
When the dance was ended, and I was going eagerly to rejoin Lady St. Edmunds, I looked round for her in vain; but Miss Arnold, with an acquaintance who had joined her, waited for me, and once more we set out in search of our erratic hostess. In the course of our progress, we passed a buffet spread with wines, ices, and sherbets. Exhausted with the heat, occasioned by the crowd, my mask, and the exercise I had just taken, I was going to swallow an ice; when Lord Frederick, vehemently dissuading me from so dangerous a refreshment, poured out a large glass of champagne, and insisted upon my drinking it. I had raised it to my lips, when I again heard the same low solemn voice which had before addressed me. "Drink sparingly," it said, "the cup is poisoned." Looking hastily round, I thought I discovered that the warning came from a person in a black domino; but in his air and figure I could trace nothing which was familiar to my recollection. My thoughts, I know not why, glanced towards Mr. Maitland; but there was no affinity whatever between his tall athletic figure, and the spare, bending, diminutive form of the black domino.
No metaphorical meaning occurring to my mind, the caution of the mask appeared so manifestly absurd, that I concluded it to be given in jest; and, with a careless smile, drank the liquor off. Through my previous fatigue, it produced an immediate effect upon my spirits, which rose to an almost extravagant height. I rattled, laughed; and, but for the crowd, would have skipped along the chalked floors, as I again passed from room to room in quest of Lady St. Edmunds. Our search, however, was vain. In none of the crowded apartments was Lady St. Edmunds to be found.
In traversing one of the lobbies, we observed a closed door; Lord Frederick threw it open, and we entered, still followed by Miss Arnold and her companion. The room to which it led was splendidly furnished. Like the rest of those we had seen, it was lighted up, and supplied with elegant refreshments. But it was entirely unoccupied, and the fresh coolness of the air formed a delightful contrast to the loaded atmosphere which we had just quitted. Having shut out the crowd, Lord Frederick, throwing himself on the sofa by my side, advised me to lay aside my mask; and the relief was too agreeable to be rejected. He himself unmasked also, and, handsome as he always undoubtedly was, I think I never saw him appear to such advantage. While Miss Arnold and her companion busied themselves in examining the drawings which hung round the room, Lord Frederick whispered in my ear a hundred flatteries, seasoned with that degree of passion, which, according to the humour of the hour, destroys all their power to please, or makes them doubly pleasing. If I know myself, I never felt the slightest spark of real affection for Lord Frederick; yet, whether it was that pleased vanity can sometimes take the form of inclination, or whether, to say all in Miss Mortimer's words, "having ventured upon the tempter's own ground, better spirits had forsaken me." I listened to my admirer with a favour different from any which I had ever before shown him.
I even carried this folly so far as to suffer him to detain me after Miss Arnold and her companion had quitted the room, although I began to suspect that I could already discern the effects of the wine which, from time to time, he swallowed freely. Not that it appeared to affect his intellects; on the contrary, it seemed to inspire him with eloquence; for he pleaded his passion with increasing ardour, and pursued every advantage in my sportive opposition, with a subtlety which I had never suspected him of possessing. He came at length to the point of proposing an expedition to Scotland, urging it with a warmth and dexterity which I was puzzled how to evade. In this hour of folly, I mentally disposed of his request among the subjects which might deserve to be reconsidered. Meantime, I opposed the proposal with a playful resistance, which I intended should leave my sentence in suspense, but which I have since learnt to know that lovers prefer to more direct victory. Lord Frederick at first affected the raptures of a successful petitioner; and though I contrived to set him right in this particular, his extravagance increased, till I began to wish for some less elevated companion. He was even in the act of attempting to snatch a kiss,--for a lord in the inspiration of champagne is not many degrees more gentle or respectful than a clown,--when the door flew open, and admitted Lady Maria de Burgh, Mrs. Sarah Winterfield, and my black domino.
Our indiscretions never flash more strongly upon our view than when reflected from the eye of an enemy. All the impropriety of my situation bursting upon me at once, the blood rushed in boiling torrents to my face and neck; while Mrs. Sarah, with a giggle, in which envy mingled with triumphant detection, exclaimed, "Bless my heart! we have interrupted a flirtation!"--"A flirtation!" repeated Lady Maria, with a toss expressive of ineffable disdain; while I, for the first time, shrinking from her eye, stood burning with shame and anger. Lord Frederick's spirits were less fugitive:--"Damn it!" cried he impatiently, "if either of you had a thousandth part of this lady's charms, you might expect a man sometimes to forget himself; but I'll answer for it, neither of you is in any danger. Forgive me, I beseech you, dear Miss Percy," continued he, turning to me: "if you would not make me the most unhappy fellow in England, you must forgive me." But I was in no humour to be conciliated by a compliment, even at the expense of Lady Maria. "Oh! certainly, my lord," returned I, glancing from him to his sister; "I can consider impertinence and presumption only as diseases which run in the family." I tried to laugh as I uttered this sally; but the effort failed, and I burst into tears.
Lord Frederick, now really disconcerted, endeavoured to soothe me by every means in his power; while the two goddesses stood viewing us with shrugs and sneers, and the black domino appeared to contemplate the scene with calm curiosity. More mortified than ever by my own imbecility, I turned from them all, uttering some impatient reflection on the inattention of my hostess. "She will not be so difficult of discovery now," said the black domino, sarcastically; "you will find her with your convenient friend in the great drawing-room." I followed the direction of my mysterious inspector, and found Lady St. Edmunds, as he had said, in company with Miss Arnold.
Angrily reproaching my friend with her unseasonable desertion, and even betraying some displeasure against the charming Countess, I announced my intention of returning home immediately. Lady St. Edmunds endeavoured to dissuade me, but I was inflexible, and at last Lord Frederick, who still obsequiously attended me, offered to go and inquire for my carriage. "I commit my sultana to you," said he, with an odd kind of emphasis, to his aunt. She seemed fully inclined to accept the trust; for she assailed my ill-humour with such courteous submissions, such winning blandishments, such novel remark, and such amusing repartee, that, in spite of myself, I recovered both temper and spirits.
Such was the fascination which she could exercise at pleasure, that I scarcely observed the extraordinary length of time which Lord Frederick took to execute his mission. I was beginning however, to wonder that he did not return, when I was once more accosted by the black domino. "Infatuated girl!" said he, in the low impressive whisper, to which I now began to listen with alarm, "whither are you going?"
"Home," returned I, "where I wish I had been an hour ago." "Are you false as well as weak?" rejoined the mask. "You are not destined to see home this night."
"Not see home!" repeated I, with amazement. "What is it you mean,--or have you any meaning beyond a teasing jest?"
"I know," replied the mask, "that the carriage waits which conveys you to Scotland."
I started at the odd coincidence between the stranger's intelligence and my previous conversation with Lord Frederick. Yet a moment's consideration convinced me, that his behaviour either proceeded from waggery or mistake. "Get better information," said I, "before you commence fortune-teller. It is my father's carriage and servants that wait for me."
The mask shook his head, and retreated without answering. I inquired of Lady St. Edmunds whether she knew him, but she was unacquainted with his appearance. I was just going to relate to her the strange conversation which he had carried on with me in an under-voice, when Lord Frederick returned to tell me, that the carriage was at the door; adding, that he feared he must hasten me, lest it should be obliged to drive off.
My foot was already on the step of the carriage, when I suddenly recoiled:--
"This is not our carriage!" cried I.
"It is mine, which is the same thing," said Lord Frederick.
"No, no! it is not the same," said I, with quickness; the warning of the black domino flashing on my recollection. "I should greatly prefer going in my own.
"I fear," returned Lord Frederick, "that it will be impossible for yours to come up in less than an hour or two."
I own, I felt some pleasure on hearing him interrupted by the voice of my strange adviser. "If Miss Percy will trust to me," said he, "I shall engage to place her in her carriage, in one-tenth part of that time."
"Trust you!" cried Lord Frederick, very angrily.--"And who are you?"
"Miss Percy's guard for the present," answered the mask dryly.
"Her guard!" exclaimed Lord Frederick. "From whom?"
"From you, my lord, if you make it necessary," retorted the stranger.
"Oh, mercy!" interrupted Miss Arnold, "here will be a quarrel:-- do, for heaven's sake, Ellen, let us be gone."
"Do not alarm yourself, young lady," said the stranger, in a sarcastic tone; "the dispute will end very innocently. Miss Percy, let me lead you to your carriage; or, if you prefer remaining here while I go in search of it, for once show yourself firm, and resist every attempt to entice you from this spot."
I embraced the latter alternative, and the stranger left us. The moment he was gone, Miss Arnold began to wonder who the impudent officious fellow could be, and to inquire whether we were to wait his pleasure in the lobby for the rest of the night. She protested her belief, that I had been infected by that precise old maid Miss Mortimer; and could by no means imagine what was my objection to Lord Frederick's carriage. I coldly persisted in preferring my own, though my suspicions were staggered by the readiness with which Lord Frederick appeared to acquiesce my decision. Notwithstanding his impatience at the stranger's first interference, he now treated the matter so carelessly that my doubts were fast giving ground, when the black domino returned, followed by one of my servants, who informed me that my carriage was now easily accessible.
Leaving Lord Frederick to Miss Arnold, I gave my hand to my mysterious guardian; and, curiosity mingling with a desire to show some little return of civility, I inquired whether he would allow me to set him down. The stranger declined; but, offering to escort me home, took his place by my side; giving orders to a servant in a plain but handsome livery, that has chariot should follow him to Mr. Percy's.
During our drive, I was occupied in endeavouring to discover the name of my unknown attendant, and the means by which he had gained his intelligence. Upon the first point he was utterly impracticable. Upon the second, he frankly declared, that having no business at the masquerade, except to watch me and those with whom I appeared connected for the evening, he had, without difficulty, traced all our motions; but why he had chosen such an office he refused to discover. When he again mentioned the intended expedition to Scotland, Miss Arnold averred that she was lost in astonishment, and asserted her utter incredulity. I too expressed my doubts; alleging that Lord Frederick could not believe me weak enough to acquiesce in such an outrage. "As I have not the honour of Miss Percy's acquaintance," returned the stranger, drily, "I cannot determine whether a specious flatterer had reason to despair of reconciling her to a breach of propriety." The glow of offended pride rose to my cheek: but the carriage stopped, and I had no time to reply, for the stranger instantly took his leave.
As soon as he was gone, Miss Arnold grew more fervent in her expressions of wonder at his strange conduct, and his more strange discovery, of which she repeated her entire disbelief. I had no defined suspicion of my friend, nor even any conviction of Lord Frederick's intended treachery; but I perceived that there was something in the events of the night which I could not unravel; and, weary and bewildered, I listened to her without reply.
We were about to separate for the night, when a servant brought me a note which, he said, he had found in the bottom of the carriage. It was not mine; it belonged to the stranger. "Oh now!" cried Miss Arnold, eagerly advancing to look at it, "we shall discover the mystery." But I was not in a communicative humour; so, putting the note in my pocket, I bade her good night more coldly than I had ever done before, and retired to my chamber.
The note was addressed to a person known to me only by character; but one whose name commands the respect of the wise, and the love of the virtuous. The hand-writing, I thought, was that of Mr. Maitland. This circumstance strongly excited my curiosity. But, could I take a base advantage of the accident which empowered me to examine a paper never meant for my inspection? The thing was not to be thought of, and I turned my reflections to the events of the evening.
I was glad to revert from these tormenting thoughts, to my speculations concerning the black domino. I was unable to divine the motive which could induce a stranger to interest himself in my conduct. I fancied, indeed, that I recognised Mr. Maitland's hand-writing; and thought for a moment that he might have instigated my mysterious protector. But what concern had Mr. Maitland in my behaviour? What interest could I possibly have excited in the composed, stately, impracticable Mr. Maitland? Besides, I was neither sure that he really was the writer of the note, nor that its contents had any reference to me. I again carefully examined the address, but still I remained in doubt. There could be no great harm, I thought, in looking merely at the signature. I threw the cautious glance of guilt round the room, and then ventured to convince myself. Before I could restore the note to its folds, I had undesignedly read a few words which roused my eager curiosity. Almost unconscious of what I was doing, I finished the sentence which contained them.
The note was as follows:—
"My dear sir,--Our worthy friend, Miss Mortimer, has just now sent to beg that I will follow her young charge to Lady St. E.'s masked ball, whither she has been decoyed by that unprincipled woman. I fear there is some sinister purpose against this poor thoughtless girl. But it is impossible for me to go. The great cause which I am engaged to plead to-morrow must not be postponed to any personal consideration. Will you then undertake the office which I must refuse? Will you watch over the safety of this strange being, who needs an excuse every moment, and finds one in every heart? She must not, and shall not, be entrapped by that heartless Lord F. He cannot love her. He may covet her fortune--perhaps her person too, as he would covet any other fashionable gewgaw; but he is safe from the witchery of her naif sensibility, her lovely singleness of mind. I enclose the description which has been sent me of her dress. Should another wear one similar, you will distinguish Miss Percy by a peculiar elegance of air and motion. She is certainly the most graceful of women. Or you may know her by the inimitable beauty of her arm. I once saw it thrown round her father's neck. My dear friend, if you are not most particularly engaged, lose not a moment. She is already among these designing people. I have told you that I am interested in her, for the sake of Miss Mortimer; but I did not express half the interest I feel.
In spite of the checks of conscience, I read this billet with exultation. I skipped before my looking-glass; and, tossing back the long tresses which I had let fall on my shoulders, surveyed with no small complacency the charms which were acknowledged by the stoical Mr. Maitland. Then I again glanced over some of his expressions, wondering what kind of interest it was that he had "left half told." Was it love? thought I. But when I recollected his general manner towards me, I was, in spite of vanity and the billet, obliged to doubt. I resolved, however, to ascertain the point; "and if he be really caught," thought I, "what glorious revenge will I take for all his little sly sarcasm!" To play off a fool was nothing; that I could do every day. But the grave, wise Mr. Maitland would be so divertingly miserable, that I was in raptures at the prospect of my future amusement.
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.