I imagine that such of my readers as are still in their teens, and of course expect to find Cupid in ambush at every corner, will now smile sagaciously, and pronounce, "that poor Ellen was certainly in love." If so, I must unequivocally assert, that, in this instance, their penetration has failed them. Maitland had piqued my vanity, he had of late interested my curiosity; his conversation often amused me, and the more I was accustomed to it, the more it pleased. It is said, that they who have been restored to sight find pleasure in the mere exercise of their newly regained faculty, without reference to its usefulness, or even to the beauty of the objects they behold; so I, without a thought of improving by Maitland's conversation, and with feeble perceptions of its excellence, was pleased to find in it occupation for faculties, which, but for him, might have slumbered inactive. I had a sort of filial confidence in his good will, and a respect approaching to reverence for his abilities and character. But this was all; for amidst all my follies, I had escaped that susceptibility which makes so many young women idle, and so many old ones ridiculous.
Lest, however, my assertion seem liable to the suspicion which attaches to the declarations of the accused, I shall mention an irrefragable proof of its truth. In less than twelve hours after Maitland had taken his final leave, I was engaged in an animated flirtation with Lord Frederick de Burgh. It is true, that for some days I used to start when the knocker sounded at the usual hour of Maitland's visit, and to hear with a vague sensation of disappointment some less familiar step approach. It is true, that I loved not to see his seat occupied by others, and that I never again looked towards the spot where he finally disappeared from my sight, without feeling its association with something painful. But I suppose it may be laid down as a maxim, that no woman who is seriously attached to one man will trifle, con spirito, with another; and my flirtations with Lord Frederick were not only continued, but soon began to threaten a decisive termination.
In spite of my father's remonstrance, Lord Frederick's daily visits were continued; for how could I interdict them after his Lordship had said, nay sworn, that I must admit him, or make London a desert to him? We also met often at the house of Lady St. Edmunds, where, after Maitland's departure, I became a more frequent guest than ever. Placable as Miss Arnold had hitherto found me, I could not immediately forgive her discovery to Maitland; land; for, willing to throw from myself the blame of losing him, I more than half ascribed his desertion to her interference. In resentment against one favourite, I betook myself with more ardour to the other; with whom I spent many an hour, more pleasant, it must be owned, than profitable.
Lady St. Edmunds had a boudoir to which only her most select associates were admitted. Nothing which taste could approve was wanting to its decoration,--nothing which sense desires could be added to its luxury. In this temple of effeminacy, Lady St. Edmunds and I generally passed our morning hours, and it usually happened that Lord Frederick joined the party.
As Lady St. Edmunds was no restraint upon me, her presence in our coterie was rather advantageous to Lord Frederick, banishing the reserve of a tete-a-tete, and allowing him constantly to offer gallantries too indirect to provoke repulse, yet too pointed to be overlooked. Indeed, such attentions from him were now become so habitual to me, that I accepted of them as things of course, without consideration either of motive or consequence. They amused and flattered me; and amusement and flattery were the sum of my desires.
Things were in this train when, one morning, the usual party being met in the boudoir, Lady St. Edmunds was called away to receive a visitor. She went without ceremony, for she never reminded me of our difference of rank by any of those correct formalities by which the great are accustomed to distance their inferiors. She gaily enjoined Lord Frederick to entertain me; and he accepted of the office with a look which prompted me, I know not why, to move hastily towards a harp, on which I struck some chords. Lord Frederick stopped me, addressing me so much more seriously than he had ever done before, that, in my surprise, I suffered him to proceed without interruption. In the warmest phrase of passion he besought me to tell him how long I meant to continue his lingering probation, and protested that he was no longer able to endure my delays. He fell upon his knees, and talked of as many cruelties, racks, and tortures, as would have furnished the dungeons of the Inquisition; yet still the drift of his rhetoric seemed to be only this, that he had now been for a very competent time the martyr of my charms, and therefore was entitled to claim his reward.
Though somewhat alarmed, I still tried to laugh off the attack, telling him that he had changed his manner much to the worse, since gravity in him seemed the most preposterous thing in nature. "Was it possible," Lord Frederick inquired, with a tragedy exclamation, "that I could thus punish him for a disguise of gaiety which he had assumed only to mislead indifferent eyes, but which he was certain had never deceived my penetration?" And then he boldly appealed to my candour, "whether I had ever for a moment misunderstood him?" Too much startled and confounded to persevere in my levity, I replied in the words of simple truth, "that I never bestowed any consideration upon his meaning, since my father had settled the matter."
Lord Frederick poured forth all the established forms of abuse against parental authority; execrating, in a most lover-like manner, the idea of subjecting the affections to its control, and protesting his belief that I had too much spirit to sacrifice him to such tyranny. Piqued at my lover's implied security, I answered, "that I had no inclination to resist my father's will; and that so long as he did not require me to marry any man who was particularly disagreeable to me, I should very willingly leave a negative in his power." Lord Frederick struck his hand upon his forehead, and raised his handkerchief to his eyes, as if to conceal extreme agitation. "Cruel, cruel, Miss Percy!" he cried, "if such are indeed your sentiments,--if you are indeed determined to submit to the decision of your inhuman father, why--why did you, with such barbarous kindness, restore the hopes which he had destroyed? Why did you, in this very room, allow me to hope that you would reward my faithful love,--that you would fly with me to that happy land where marriage is still free!"
My masquerade folly thus recalled to my recollection, the blood rushed tumultuously to my face and bosom. Unable to repel the charge, and terrified by this glimpse of the shackles which my imprudence had forged for me, I stammered out, that, "whatever I might have said in a thoughtless moment, I was sure that no friend of Lord Frederick's or mine would advise either of us to so rash a step."
No friend of mine," returned Lord Frederick, using the gestures of drying his fine blue eyes, "shall ever again be consulted. Could I have foreseen your cruel treatment, never would I have put it in the power, even of my nearest relative, to injure you by publishing the hopes you had given."
The hint, conveyed in these words, was not lost upon me. I concluded, that Lord Frederick had thought himself authorized to talk of the encouragement he had received. Our sense of impropriety is rarely so just as to gain nothing from anticipating the judgment of our fellow-creatures; and the levity which I had practised as an innocent trifling, took a very different form, when I saw it by sympathy, in the light in which it might soon be seen by hundreds. The folly into which I had been seduced by malice, vanity, and the love of amusement, would stand charactered in the world's sentence, as unjustifiable coquetry. Viewed in its consequences, as ruinous to the peace of a heart that loved me, I myself scarcely bestowed upon it a gentler name.
Confused, perplexed, and distressed, not daring to meet the eye of the man whom I had injured, I sat looking wistfully towards the door, more eager to escape from my present embarrassment than able to provide against the future. Lord Frederick instantly saw his advantage. "I have wronged you, my heavenly Ellen," he cried, throwing himself in rapture at my feet. "I see that, upon reflection, you will yet allow my claim. How could I suspect any dear, generous Miss Percy of trifling with the fondest passion that ever warmed a human breast!"
I involuntarily recoiled, for I had never been less tenderly disposed posed towards Lord Frederick than at that moment. "Really, my lord," I said, "even if I could return all this enthusiasm, which indeed I cannot, I should give a poor specimen of my generosity by consenting to involve you in difficulties which might be the consequence of disobliging my father."
Lord Frederick cursed wealth in the most disinterested manner imaginable,--swore that "the possession of his adorable Ellen was all he asked of Heaven,"--and fervently wished, that "the splendour of his fortune, and the humbleness of mine, had given him an opportunity of proving how lightly he prized the dross when put in balance with my charms." Though the loftiness of this style was too incongruous with Lord Frederick's general manner to excite no surprise, I must own, that it awakened not one doubt of his sincerity,--for what will not vanity believe? The more credit I gave his generosity, the more did I feel the injustice of my past conduct, yet the more painful it became to enter upon explanation; and I was not yet practised enough in coquetry to suppress the embarrassment which faltered on my tongue, as I told Lord Frederick, that "I was sorry--very sorry, and much astonished; and that I had never suspected him of allowing such a romantic fancy to take possession of his mind; that my father's determination must excuse me to his lordship and to the world, for refusing to sanction his hopes."
Lord Frederick, in answer, vehemently averred, that his hopes had no connexion with my father's decision, since, after that decision, he had been permitted to express his passion without repulse. He again referred to my half consent at the masquerade. Finally, he once more appealed to myself, whether, all these circumstances considered, his hopes deserved to be called presumptuous.
During this almost unanswerable appeal, I had instinctively moved towards the door; but Lord Frederick placed himself so as to intercept my escape. Terrified, and revolting from the bonds which awaited me, yet conscious that I had virtually surrendered my freedom,--eager to escape from an engagement which yet I had not the courage to break,--I began a hesitating, incoherent reply; but I felt like one who is roused from the oppression of night-mare, when it was interrupted by the entrance of Lady St. Edmunds. I almost embraced my friend in my gratitude for this fortunate deliverance; but I was too much disconcerted to prolong my visit; and, taking a hasty leave, I returned home.
I had so long been accustomed to find relief from every difficulty in the superior ingenuity of Miss Arnold, that my late resentment, which had already begun to evaporate, entirely gave way to my habitual dependence upon her counsels. Not that I, at the time, acknowledged this motive to myself. Far from it. I placed my renewed confidence solely to the credit of a generous placability of nature; for when any action of mine claimed kindred with virtue, I could not afford to inquire too seriously into its real parentage. However, I took an early opportunity of acquainting Juliet with my dilemma. But my friend's readiness of resource appeared now to have forsaken her. She protested that "no surprise could exceed hers; that she bad never suspected Lord Frederick of carrying the matter so far." She feared "that, however unjustly, he might consider himself as aggrieved by a sudden rupture of our intimacy; hinted how much the affair might be misrepresented by the industrious malice of Lady Maria; and lamented that, on such occasions, a censorious world was but too apt to take part with the accuser. But then, to be sure, every thing must be ventured rather than disobey my father: she would be the last person to advise me to a breach of duty, though she had little doubt that it would be speedily forgiven."
In short, all my still in cross-examination was insufficient to discover whether Miss Arnold thought I should dismiss Lord Frederick, or fly with him to Scotland; or, taking that middle course so inviting to those who waver between the right and the convenient, endeavour to keep him in suspense till circumstances should guide my decision.
The opinion "of Lady St. Edmunds was much more explicitly given. She insisted that an overstrained delicacy made me trifle with the man whom I really preferred. She laughed at my denials; asserting that it was impossible I could be such a little actress as to have deceived all my acquaintance, not one of whom entertained a doubt of my partiality for Lord Frederick. One exception to this position I remembered with a sigh; but he who best could have read my heart, and most wisely guided it, was already far on his way to another hemisphere. In vain did I protest my indifference towards all mankind. Lady St. Edmunds, kissing my cheek, told me she would save my blushes, by guessing for me what I had not yet confessed to myself.
"Well!" cried I, a little impatiently, "if I am in love with Lord Frederick, I am sure I don't wish to marry him. I cannot be mistaken upon that point. Some time ago, I should not much have cared; but now, indeed I would rather not."
"Why should you be more reluctant now than formerly," inquired Lady St. Edmunds, looking me intently in the face, "unless you have begun to prefer another?"
"Oh, not at all," answered I, with great simplicity; "I prefer nobody in particular. But of late I have sometimes thought that, if I must marry, I would have a husband whom I could respect,--whom all the world respected; one who could enlighten and convince, ay, and awe other men; one who need only raise his hand to silence an assembled nation; one whose very glance--"I stopped, and the glow which warmed my cheek deepened with an altered feeling; for a smile began to play upon the lip of Lady St. Edmunds, and where is the enthusiasm that shrinks not from a smile? My friend, laughing, asked which of the heroes of romance I chose to have revived for my mate. "But," added she, shaking her head, "when Orondates makes his appearance, we must not let Frederick tell tales; for constancy and generosity were indispensable to a heroine in his time."
Seeing me look disconcerted, she paused; then throwing her white arm round my neck, "My dearest Ellen," said she, "let me 111 candidly own that your treatment of poor De Burgh is not quite what I should have expected from you. But," continued she, with a tender sigh, "had you been all that my partiality expected, you must have become too--too dear to me! You would have wiled my heart away from all living beings."
"Dear Lady St. Edmunds," cried I, clasping her to my breast, "tell me what you expect from me now, and trust me I will never disappoint you."
"My charming girl!" exclaimed Lady St. Edmunds, "far be it from me to dictate to you. Let your own excellent heart and understanding be your counsellors."
"Indeed," returned I, "it would be an act of real charity to decide for me. I am so terribly bewildered. I would not for the world act basely to Lord Frederick; and I rather think that before he began to teaze me about marrying him, I liked him better than anybody--that is, than any man--almost. But then when I think of my father--and I love him so dearly, and he has no other child--no one to love him but only me! Indeed I cannot bear to thwart him."
"My dear Ellen," said Lady St. Edmunds, "I believe your father to be a very worthy old gentleman, and I have a great respect for him; but, indeed, his cause could not be committed to worse hands than mine; for I can see no earthly business that he has to interfere in the matter. It is not he who is to be married. For my own part, I married in very spite of my father; and if I live till my children are marriageable, I shall assuredly be reasonable enough to let them be happy in their own way."
For a while, I defended the parental right, or rather the natural sentiment which still remained to restrain my folly;--but the proper foundation of filial duty, of all duty, was wanting in my mind, and therefore the superstructure was unstable as the vapour curling before the breeze. By frequent argument, by occasional reflections, and by dexterous confounding of truth and falsehood, Lady St. Edmunds so far darkened my moral perceptions, that Lord Frederick's claim seemed to outweigh that of my father. Nor was the task hard; for honour and humanity are sounds more soothing to human pride than the harsh name of submission.
Lord Frederick himself meanwhile watched vigilantly over his own interests, and was abundantly importunate and encroaching.
Thus goaded on every side, without steadiness to estimate the real extent of my difficulties, or resolution to break through them, having no special dislike to Lord Frederick, nor any conscious preference for another, I sanctioned in weakness the claims which I had conferred in folly. I gave my lover permission to believe that I would soon reward his constancy; if it can be called reward to obtain a wife, whose violation of her early ties gives the strongest pledge that she will disregard those which are new.
Still a lingering reluctance, the constitution of my sex, and the expiring struggles of duty, made me defer, from time to time, the performance of my engagement. But I was hurried at last into its fulfilment, by one of those casualties which are allowed to decide the most important concerns of the thoughtless and unprincipled. My father one day surprised Lord Frederick at my feet; and, glad perhaps of an opportunity to mark his contempt for the artificial distinctions of society, as well as justly indignant at the disregard shown to his injunctions, he dismissed my lover from the house, in terms more decided than courtly.
As my father had four stout footmen to enforce his commands, his lordship had no choice but acquiescence. He therefore retired; and my father, raising his foot to the panel of the room door, shut it with a force that made the house shake. His sense of dignity for once giving way to indignation, my father, instead of taking his well-known posture of exhortation with his back to the fire, walked up to me, and strongly grasping my hand, exclaimed, "What the d--l do you mean, Ellen Percy? Did not I tell you, I wouldn't have this puppy of a lord coming here a fortune-hunting? Don't I know the kidney of you all? Don't I know, that if you let a fellow chatter nonsense to you long enough, he is sure of you at last?--Look you, Ellen Percy, let me have no more of this. I can give you three hundred thousand pounds, and I have a scheme in my head that may make it twice as much;--and I'll have your eldest son called John Percy, ay, and his son after him; and you shall marry no proud, saucy, aristocratical beggar, to look down upon the man who was the making of him; d--n me, if you do, Ellen Percy." Then throwing my arm from him, with a vehemence that made me stagger, he quitted the room.
No inference should have been drawn from my father's hasty words, except that, being spoken in anger, they could not convey his permanent sentiments; but I pondered them until I discovered that they clearly foretold my being sacrificed to some ugly, old, vulgar, ignorant, gouty, purse-proud, blinking-eyed, bandy-legged, stock-jobbing animal, with a snuff-coloured coat, a brown wig, and a pen behind his ear. No wonder if the assured prospect of such outrage redoubled mine ire!
But it had not yet reached its consummation. At dinner, Miss Arnold happened to mention a public breakfast, to which Lady B---- had invited us for the following morning. My father, who was far from affecting privacy in his injunctions or reproofs, informed me, without circumlocution, that I should go neither to Lady B----'s nor any where else, till I gave him my word of honour that I would have no intercourse with Lord Frederick de Burgh. "I must stay at home, then." said I, with an air of surly resolution; "for there is to be a ball after the breakfast, and I have promised to dance with Lord Frederick."
"Eat your breakfast at home then, Miss Percy," said my father: "and no fear but you shall have as good a one as any Lady B---- in the land."
Great was my disappointment at this sentence; for I had procured for the occasion a dress upon which Lady Maria de Burgh had fixed her heart, when there was no longer time to make another robe with similar embroidery. But my wrath scorned to offer entreaty or compromise; and, leaving the table, I retreated to my chamber, seeking sullen comfort in the thought that I might soon emancipate myself from thraldom. In the course of the evening, however, Miss Arnold, whose influence with my father had of late increased surprisingly, found means to obtain a mitigation of his sentence; but the good humour which might have been restored by this concession, was banished by an angry command to refrain from all such engagements with Lord Frederick for the future.
The next morning, while we were at breakfast (for a public breakfast by no means supersedes the necessity of a private one) my father received a letter, which he read with visible discomposure; and, hastily quitting his unfinished meal, immediately left the house. I was somewhat startled by his manner, and Miss Arnold appeared to sympathize still more deeply in his uneasiness; but the hour of dressing approached, and, in that momentous concern, I forgot my father's disquiet.
The fete passed as fetes are wont to do. Every one wore the face of pleasure, and a few were really pleased. The dancing began, and I joined in it with Lord Frederick. Among the spectators who crowded round the dancers, were Lady Maria de Burgh and her silly Strephon, Lord Glendower. I at first imagined that she declined dancing, because the lady who was first in the set was one of whom she might have found it difficult to obtain precedence; but, just as it was my turn to begin, she advanced and took her station above me. Provoked by an impertinence which I ought to have despised, I remonstrated against this breach of ball-room laws. Lady Maria answered, with a haughty smile, that she rather conceived she had a right to dance before me. In vain did Lord Frederick interfere. In vain did I angrilv represent, that the right claimed by her ladyship ceased after the dance was begun. How could Lady Maria yield while the disputed dress was full in her eye? At last, seeing that the dance was suspended by our dispute, I proposed to those who stood below me, that, rather than allow such an infringement of our privileges, we should sit down. They, however, had no inclination to punish themselves for the ill-breeding of another; and I, scorning to yield, indignantly retired alone.
Lord Frederick followed me, as usual; and--but why should I dwell upon my folly? Remaining displeasure against my father, a desire to have revenge and precedence of Lady Maria, overcame for an hour my reluctance to the fulfilment of my ill-starred engagement; and in that hour, Lord Frederick had obtained my consent to set out with him the very next morning for Scotland. Such are the amiable motives that sometimes enter into what is called a love-match!
To prevent suspicion, and by that means to delay pursuit, it was agreed, that Lady St. Edmunds should be made acquainted with our design; that she should call for me early, and convey me in her carriage to Barnet, where she was to resign me to the guardianship of my future lord. Miss Arnold I determined not to trust; because she had of late been accustomed to beg, with a very moral shake of the head, that I would never confide an intended elopement to her, lest she should feel it a duty to acquaint my father with my purpose.
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.