Discipline: A Novel

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My friend's letter cost me a whole night's repose. I could not read without emotion the expressions of an affection so ill repaid,--an affection now lost to me for ever. A thousand instances of my ingratitude forced themselves upon my recollection; and who can tell the bitterness of that pity which we feel for those whom we have injured, when we know that our pity can no longer avail? The mild form of Miss Mortimer perpetually rose to my fancy. I saw her alone in her solitary dwelling, suffering pain which was unsoothed by the voice of sympathy, and weakness which no friend was at hand to sustain. I saw her weep over the wounds of my unkindness, and bless me, though "the iron had entered into her soul!"--"But she shall not weep,--she shall not be alone and comfortless," I cried, starting like one who has taken a sudden resolution: "I will go to her. I will show her that I am not altogether thankless. I will spend whole days with her. I will read to her,--sing to her,--amuse her a thousand ways. To-morrow I will go--no--to-morrow I am engaged at Lady G.'s,--how provoking! and the day after, we must dine with Mrs. Sidney,--was ever anything so unfortunate? However, some day soon I will most certainly go." So with this opiate I lulled the most painful of my self-upbraidings.

That part of the letter which related to my chosen associates was not immediately dismissed from my mind. Had no accident awakened my suspicions, I should have indignantly rejected my friend's insinuations, or despised them as the sentiments of a narrow-minded though well-intentioned person; but now, my own observation coming in aid of her remonstrances, I was obliged to own that they were not wholly unfounded. I received them, however, as a bon vivant does the advice of his physician. I was convinced that it was advisable to restrain my intimacy with Lady St. Edmunds; I resolved to be less frank in communicating my sentiments, less open in regard to my affairs; and this resolution held, till the next time it was exposed to the blandishments of Lady St. Edmunds. As to Miss Arnold, her faults, like my own, I could review only to excuse them; or rather, they entered my mind only to be banished by some affectionate recollection. Whatever has long ministered to our gratification, is at last valued without reference to its worth; and thus I valued Juliet. In short, "I could have better spared a better" person. But amidst my present "compunctious visitings," I thought of atoning for my former rebellions by one heroic act of submission. I resolved that, in compliance with Miss Mortimer's advice, I would refrain from urging my father to detain Miss Arnold as an inmate of the family. I was, however, spared this effort of self-command. The termination of Miss Arnold's visit was never again mentioned, either by herself, or by my father. In fact, she had become almost as necessary to him as to me; and I have reason to believe, that he was very little pleased with Miss Mortimer's interference on the subject.

But the more serious part of my friend's letter was that which disquieted me the most. The darkness of midnight was around me. The glittering baubles which dazzled me withdrawn for a time, I saw, not without alarm, the great realities which she presented to my mind. I could not disguise from myself the uselessness of my past life; and I shrank under a confused dread of vengeance. A sense of unworthiness wrung from me some natural tears of remorse; a sense of danger produced some vague desires of reformation; and this, I fancied, was repentance. How many useless or poisonous nostrums of our own compounding do we call by the name of the true restorative!

But though false medicines may assume the appellation, and sometimes even the semblance of the real, they cannot counterfeit its effects. The cures which they perform are at best partial or transient,--the true medicine alone gives permanent and universal health. I passed the night under the scourge of conscience; and the strokes were repeated, though at lengthening intervals, for several days. I was resolved, that I would no longer be an unprofitable servant; that I would devote part of my time and my fortune to the service of the Giver; that I would earn the gratitude of the poor,--the applauses of my own conscience,--the approbation of Heaven! Of the permanence of my resolutions,--of my own ability to put them in practice,--it never entered my imagination to doubt. I remembered having heard my duties summed up in three comprehensive epithets, "sober, righteous, and godly." To be "righteous" was, I thought, an injunction chiefly adapted to the poor. In the limited sense which I affixed to the command, the rich had no temptation to break it; at all events I did not,--for I defrauded no one. "Godly," I certainly intended one day or other to become; but for the present I deferred fixing upon the particulars of this change. It was better not to attempt too much at once,--so I determined to begin by living "soberly." I would withdraw a little from the gay world in which I had of late been so busy. I would pass more of my time at home. I would find out some poor but amiable family, who had perhaps seen better days. I would assist and comfort them; and, confining myself to a simple neatness in my dress, would expend upon them the liberal allowance of my indulgent father. I was presently transported by fancy to a scene of elegant distress, and theatrical gratitude, common enough in her airy regions, but exceedingly scarce upon the face of this vulgar earth. The idea was delightful. "Who," cried I, "would forfeit the pleasures of benevolence for toys which nature and good sense can so well dispense with? And, after all, what shall I lose by retreating a little from a world where envy and malice are watchful to distort the veriest casualties into the hideous forms upon which slander loves to scowl! No doubt, Lady Maria's malice will find food in my new way of life,--but no matter, I will despise it." It is so easy to despise malice in our closets! "Mr. Maitland," thought I, "will approve of my altered conduct;" and then I considered that retirement would allow me to make observations on the "interest" which I had excited in Mr. Maitland; for, in the present sobered state of my mind, I thought of making observations rather than experiments.

Circumstances occurred to quicken the ardour with which vanity pursued those observations. Maitland had hitherto been content to perform the duties of a quiet citizen. Secure of respect, and careless of admiration, he had been satisfied to promote by conscientious industry his means of usefulness, and, with conscientious benevolence, to devote those means to their proper end. With characteristic reserve, he had withdrawn even from the gratitude of mankind. He had been the unknown, though liberal benefactor of unfriended genius. He had given liberty to the debtor who scarcely knew of his existence; and had cheered many a heart which throbbed not at the name of Maitland. But now the name of Maitland became the theme of every tongue; for, in the cause of justice, he had put forth the powers of his manly mind; and orators, such as our senates must hope no more to own, had hung with warm applause, or with silent rapture, upon the eloquence of Maitland! Himself a West India merchant, and interested, of course, in the continuation of the slave-trade, he opposed, with all the zeal of honour and humanity, this vilest traffic that ever degraded the name and the character of man. In the senate of his country he lifted up his testimony against this foul blot upon her fame,--this tiger-outrage upon fellow-man,--this daring violation of the image of God. Alas! that a more lasting page than mine must record, that the cry of the oppressed often came up before British senates, ere they would deign to hear! But, amidst the tergiversation of friends, and the virulence of foes, some still maintained the cause of justice. They poured forth the eloquence which makes the wicked tremble, and the good man exult in the strength of virtue. The base ear of interest refused indeed to hear; but the words of truth were not scattered to the winds. All England, all Europe, caught the inspiration; and burnt with an ardour which reason and humanity had failed to kindle, till they borrowed the eloquence of Maitland.

And now his praise burst upon me from every quarter. Those who affected intimacy with the great, retailed it as the private sentiment of ministers and princes. The newspapers panegyrised him; and fashion, rank, and beauty, crowded round the happy few who could give information concerning the age, manners, and appearance of Mr. Maitland. Not all his wisdom, nor all his worth, could ever have moved my vain mind so much as did these tributes of applause from persons unqualified to estimate either. When I heard admiration dwell upon his name, my heart bounded at the recollection of the "interest" which he had expressed in me; and again I wondered whether that interest were love? I would have given a universe to be able to answer "yes." To see the eye which could penetrate the soul hang captive on a glance of mine!--to hear the voice which could awe a senate falter when it spoke to me!--to feel the hand which was judged worthy to hold the helm of state tremble at my touch!--the very thought was inspiration. Let not the forgiving smile which belongs to the innocent weakness of nature be lavished on a vice which leads to such cold, such heartless selfishness. Let it rather be remembered that avarice, oppression, cruelty, all the iron vices which harden the heart of man, are not more rigidly selfish, more wantonly regardless of another's feelings, than unrestrained, active vanity.

Meanwhile, Mr. Maitland allowed me abundant opportunities for observation. Instead of withdrawing from us after Miss Mortimer's departure, as I feared he would, he visited us more frequently than ever. He sometimes breakfasted with us in his way to the city; often returned when the House adjourned in the evening; and in short seemed inclined to spend with us the greater part of his few abstemious hours of leisure. Yet even my vanity could trace nothing in his behaviour which might explain this constant attendance. On the contrary, his manner, often cold, was sometimes even severe. He was naturally far from being morose; and often casting off the cares of business, he would catch infectious spirits from my lightness of heart; yet even in those moments, somewhat painful would not unfrequently appear to cross his mind, and he would turn from me as if half in sorrow, half in anger. I could perceive that he listened with interest when I spoke; but that interest seemed of no pleasing kind. He often, indeed, looked amused, but seldom approving: and if once or twice I caught a more tender glance, it was one of such mournful kindness as less resembled love than compassion.

All this was provokingly unsatisfactory. I found that it was vain to expect discoveries from observation; I was obliged to have recourse to experiment; and it is not to be imagined what tricks I practised to steal poor Maitland's fancied secret. So mean is vanity! and so little security have they who submit to its power, that they may not stoop to faults the most remote from their natural tendencies. I flourished the arm of which he had praised the beauty, that I might watch whether his gaze followed it in admiration. I was laboriously "graceful;" and sported my "naif sensibility" till it was anything but naif. I obtruded my "lovely singleness mind," till, I believe I should have become a disgusting mass of affectation, had it not been for the manly plainness of Mr. Maitland. He at first appeared to look with surprise upon my altered demeanour; then fairly showed me by his manner that he detected my little arts, and that he was alternately grieved to find me condescending to plot, and angry that I could plot no better. "That certainly is the finest arm in England," whispered he one evening when I had been leaning upon it, exactly opposite to him, for five minutes, "so now you may put on your glove. Nay, instead of frowning, you should thank me for that blush; for though pride and anger may have some share in it, it is not unbecoming, since it is natural." I was sullen for a little, and muttered something about "impertinence,"--but I never flourished my arm again.

"Lady Maria de Burgh is certainly the most beautiful girl in London," said I to Miss Arnold one day when the subject was in debate. This was a fit of artificial candour; for I had observed, that Maitland detested all symptoms of animosity; and I appealed to him, in hopes that he would at least except me from his affirmative. "Yes," returned he, directing, by one flash of his eloquent eye, the warning distinctly to me, "Yes; but she reminds me of the dog in the fable. Nature has given her beauty enough; but she grasps at more, and thus loses all."

Affectation seemed likely to be as unavailing as watchfulness; yet, the longer my search lasted, the more eager it became. Whatever occupies attention long, will occupy it much; and, in my vain investigation, I often endured the anxiety of the philosopher, who, having sailed to the antipodes to observe the transit of Venus, saw, at the critical hour, a cloud rise to obstruct his observations. "How shall I fathom the heart of that impenetrable being?" exclaimed I to my confidante one day, when, in pursuance of my new plan of soberness and charity, I sat learning to knit a child's stocking at the rate of a row in the hour.

"Bless me, Ellen," returned Miss Arnold, "what signifies the heart of a musty old bachelor?"

"I don't know what you call old, Juliet; but, in my opinion, I should be more than woman, or less, if I could suspect my power over such a man as Maitland, and not wish to ascertain the point."

"I do not believe," returned Juliet, "that any woman upon earth has power over him,--a cold, cynical, sarcastic--"

"You forget," interrupted I, "that he has owned a strong interest in me;" for, in the soft hour of returning confidence, I had showed his billet to my friend.

"Yes," answered Miss Arnold, "that is true; but don't you think he may once have been a lover of your mother's, and that on her account--"

"My mother's!" cried I. "Ridiculous! impossible! Maitland must have been a mere child when my mother married."

"Let me see," said Miss Arnold, with calculating brow, "your mother, had she been alive, would now have been near forty."

"And Maitland, I am sure, cannot be more than two-and-thirty."

"Is he not?" said Miss Arnold, who had ventured as far as she thought prudent. Silence ensued; for I was now in no very complacent frame. Miss Arnold was the first to speak. "Perhaps," said she, "Mr. Maitland only wishes to conceal his own sentiments till he makes sure of yours,--perhaps he would be secure of success before he condescends to sue."

"If I thought the man were such a coxcomb," cried I, "I would have no mercy in tormenting. I detest pride."

"If I have guessed right," pursued Miss Arnold, "a little fit of jealousy would do excellently well to prove him, and punish him at the same time; I am sure he deserves it very well, for making so much mystery of nothing."

"But," said I, for experience had begun to teach me some awe for Maitland's penetration, "what if he should see through our design, and only laugh at us and our manoeuvring?"

"Oh!" as for that," returned Juliet, "choose his rival well, and there is no sort of danger. A dull, every-day creature, to be sure, would never do: but fix upon something handsome, lively, fashionable, and it must appear the most natural thing in the world. By the bye, did he ever seem to suspect any one in particular?"

"What! don't you remember that, in his note, he speaks with tolerably decent alarm of Lord Frederick?"

"Oh! true," returned Miss Arnold, "I had forgotten. Well, do you think you could pitch upon a better flirt?"

"He might answer the purpose well enough," returned I, "if we know how to bring Maitland and him together; but you know he does not visit here since his foolish old father thought fit to interfere."

"That may be easily managed," replied Juliet. "The slightest hint from you would bring him back."

I had once determined to listen with caution to Miss Arnold's advice, where Lord Frederick was concerned; but now her advice favoured my inclination; and that which ought to have made me doubly suspicious of her counsels, was the cause why I followed them without hesitation. The hint to Lord Frederick was given at the first opportunity, and proved as effectual as its instigator had foretold. Still, however, some contrivance was necessary to bring the rivals together; for the man of fashion and the man of business seldom paid their visits at the same hour. At length I effected an interview; and never was visitor more partially distinguished than Lord Frederick. We placed ourselves together upon a sofa, apart from the rest of the company, and forthwith entered upon all the evolutions of flirtation; for I whispered without a secret, laughed without a joke, frowned without anger, and talked without discretion.

It was Miss Arnold's allotted province to watch the effect of these fooleries upon Maitland; but I could not refrain from sharing her task, by stealing at times a glance towards him. These glances animated my exertions; for I was almost sure that he looked disturbed; and fancied, more than once, that I saw his colour change. But if he was uneasy at witnessing Lord Frederick's success, he did not long subject himself to the pain; for, after having endured my folly for a quarter of an hour, without offering it the least interruption, he took a very frozen leave, and departed. I laughed at his coldness; convinced, as I now was, that it was only the pettishness of jealousy. Miss Arnold, however, gently insinuated a contrary opinion. "She might, indeed, be mistaken,--she could not pretend to my talent for piercing disguise; but she must confess, that Maitland had succeeded in concealing from her every trace of emotion." It may easily be imagined, that this opinion, however seasoned with flattery, and however cautiously expressed, was not very agreeable to me. To dispel my friend's doubts, rather than my own, I proposed a second trial; but some time elapsed before that trial could be made. In the meanwhile, Lord Frederick failed not to profit by his recent admission. His visits even became so frequent, that, dreading an altercation with my father, I began to wish that I had been more guarded in my invitation.

But this did not prevent me from re-acting my coquetry the next time that the supposed rivals met in my presence.

Our experiments, however, were brought to a close by a disclosure of my father's. "Miss Percy," said he one day, taking his posture of exhortation, "I think Lord Frederick de Burgh seems to wait upon you every day. Now, after what has passed, this is indiscreet; and, therefore, it is my desire that you give him no encouragement to frequent my house. I would have put a stop to the thing at once, but I can perceive that you don't care for the puppy; and Maitland, who is a very sharp fellow, makes the very same observation."

Now, I knew that this was Mr. Percy's method of adopting the stray remarks which he judged worthy to be fathered by himself; and I fully understood, that all my laboured favour to Lord Frederick had failed to impose upon Maitland. What could be more vexations? I had no resource, however, except, like the fox in the fable, to despise what was unattainable. I vowed that I would concern myself no more with a person who was too wise to have the common feelings of humanity. I assured my confidante that his sentiments were a matter of perfect indifference to me. I hope, for my conscience' sake, that this was true, for I repeated it at least ten times every day.

Meanwhile, in the ardour of my investigation, I had, from time to time, deferred my purposed visit to Miss Mortimer. My heart had not failed to reproach me with this delay; but I had constantly soothed it with promises for to-morrow,--to-morrow, that word of evil omen to all purposes of reformation! At last, however, I was resolved to repair my neglect; for the day after Maitland's quick-sightedness happened to be Sunday; and how could the Sabbath be better employed than in a necessary and pious work? It is no new thing to see that day burdened with the necessity of works which might as well have belonged to any other. Instead, therefore, of going to hear a fashionable preacher, I ordered my carriage to ----.

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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.