Discipline: A Novel

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From long and dangerous faintings I revived almost to frenzy. I shed no tears. These are the expression of a milder form of suffering. One horrible image filled my soul; one sense of anguish so strong, so terrible, that every other feeling, every faculty of mind and body, was benumbed in its grasp. Vainly did my awful duties summon me to their performance. I was incapable of action, almost of thought. My eye wandered over surrounding objects, but saw them not. The words which were spoken to me conveyed no meaning to my mind.

At length the form of my early friend seemed to flit before me. She spoke, and though I could not follow the meaning of her words, the sounds were those of kindness. The familiar voice, long associated with so many kindly thoughts, reached the heart, waking a milder tone of feeling; and resting my throbbing head upon her breast, I found relief in a passionate burst of tears. Little did I think how small was the share which friendship or compassion could claim in this visit of my friend to the house of mourning! Little did I guess that its chief motive was to rescue the gifts of my prodigality from being confounded with the property of a bankrupt!

She did not long remain with me; for friends more sympathizing than she are soon weary of witnessing the unrestrained indulgence of grief. Yet she did not leave me abruptly. She was so much accustomed to follow the smooth path of conciliation, that she continued to pursue it even when it no longer promised advantage; and she satisfied me with some plausible excuse for going, and with a promise of speedy return.

The tears which for many hours I continued to shed relieved my oppressed spirit, and by degrees I awoke to a full sense of my altered state. From the proudest security of affluence, from a fearless confidence in myself and in all around me, one fatal stroke had dashed me for ever. A darker storm had burst upon me, and wrought a ruin more deep, more irretrievable. What could be added to those horrors, except that conscience should rise in her fury to remind me that, when my presence might have soothed my father's sorrows, I had been absent with an injurious purpose; and that the arrows of misfortune had been rendered mortal by the rebellion of his child? This last incurable pang the mercy of heaven has saved me. I learned that my father died ignorant of my intended flight.

Miss Arnold, I found, had quitted our house for that of her brother as soon as our last and worst disaster was discovered by the domestics. Of all the summer friends who had amused my prosperity, not one approached to comfort my affliction.

The remains of my unfortunate father still lay near me; and, unable to overcome my horror of passing the chamber of death, I remained entirely secluded in my apartment. The first intruder upon this seclusion was the person who came to seal my father's repositories of papers and money. Having performed his office elsewhere, he entered my apartment with little ceremony; and, telling me that he understood my father had entrusted me with jewels of value, informed me that it was necessary to prevent access to them for the present. Accustomed as I was to receive all outward testimonies of respect, the intrusion of a stranger at such a time appeared to me a savage outrage.

Insulted as I thought, and persecuted in my only place of refuge, I became desirous to quit my dismal abode. I imagined that whatever impropriety there might be in the continuance of Juliet's residence in my desolate habitation, there could be no reason deter me from taking refuge with my friend--my gentle, my affectionate friend, who had ever rejoiced in my prosperity, and gloried in my accomplishments, and loved even my faults. Checking the tears which gushed from my eyes at the thought that a father's roof must shelter me no more, I announced my intention to my friend in a short billet:--"Come to me, dearest Juliet," I said; "come and take me from this house of misery. I only stipulate that you will not ask me to join your brother's family circle. I wish to see no human being except yourself; for who is there left me to love but you? Your own ELLEN PERCY."

The servant whom I despatched with this note brought back for answer, that Miss Arnold was not at home. I had been accustomed to find every one, but especially Miss Arnold, ever ready to attend my pleasure; and even the easiest lessons of patience were yet new to the spoiled child of prosperity. My little disappointment was aggravated by the cautiousness with which the unfortunate watch for instances of coldness and neglect. "Not at home! Ah," thought I, "what pleasure should I have found in idle visiting or amusement, while she was wretched?" Still I never doubted, that the very hour of her return would bring her to welcome and to comfort her desolate friend. I waited impatiently,--listened to every sound; and started at every footstep which echoed through my dreary dwelling. But the cheerless evening closed in, and brought no friend. I passed the hours, now in framing her excuse, now in reproaching her unkindness, till the night was far spent; then laid my weary head upon my pillow, and wept myself to sleep.

The morning came, and I rose early, that I might be ready to accompany my friend without delay. But I took my comfortless meal alone. Alone I passed the hour in which Juliet and I had been accustomed to plan the pastime of the day. The hour came at which my gay equipage was wont to attend our call. Just then I heard a carriage stop at the door, and my sad heart gave one feeble throb of pleasure; for I doubted not that Juliet was come. It was the hearse which came to bear my father to his grave. Juliet, and all things but my lost father, were for a time forgotten.

But as the paroxysm of sorrow subsided, I again became sensible to this unkind delay. My billet had now been so long despatched without obtaining a reply even of cold civility, that I began to doubt the faithfulness of my messenger. I refused to believe that my note had ever reached Miss Arnold; and I endeavoured to shut my eyes against the indifference which even in that case was implied in her leaving me so long to solitary affliction. I was going once more to summon the bearer of my melancholy billet, that I might renew my inquiries in regard to its delivery, when the long expected answer was at length brought to me. I impatiently tore it open, anxious to learn what strong necessity had compelled my friend to substitute for her own presence this colder form of welcome. No welcome, even of the coldest form, was there. With many expressions of condolence, and some even of affection, she informed me of her sorrow "that she could not receive my visit. I must be aware," she said, "that one whose good name was her only dowry should guard the frail treasure with double care. Grieved as she was to wound me, she was obliged to say, that the publicity of my elopement appeared to her brother an insuperable bar to the continuance of our intimacy. Resistance to his will," she said, "was impossible, even if that will had been less reasonable than, with grief, she confessed it to be. But though she must withhold all outward demonstrations of regard, she would ever remain my very grateful and obedient servant."

I sat motionless as the dead, whilst I deciphered these inhuman words. The icebolt had struck me to the heart. For a time I was stunned by the blow, and a dull stupor overpowered all recollection.

But the transport of passion quickly subsided into despair.

No ray of consolation cheered me. The world, which had so lately appeared bright with pleasure,--the worthy habitation of beings benevolent and happy, was now involved in the gloom, and peopled with the unsightly shapes of darkness. While my mind glanced towards the selfishness of Lord Frederick, and the treachery of Lady St. Edmunds,-while it dwelt upon the desertion of her who, for seven years, had shared my heart and all else that I had to bestow, the human kind appeared to me tainted with the malignity of fiends, and I alone born to be the victim of their craft--the sport of their cruelty!

From the stupor of despair, I was roused by the entrance of the stranger who had before intruded. In the jealous reserve of an anguish too mighty to be profaned by exposure, I rose from my dejected posture; and, with frozen steadiness, inquired, "what new indignity I had now to bear?" The stranger, awed as it seemed by something in my look and manner, informed me, not without respectful hesitation, that he was commissioned by the creditors to tell me I know not what of forms and rights, of willingness to allow me all reasonable accommodation, and such property as I might justly claim, and to remind me of the propriety of appointing a friend to watch over my further interests. One word only of the speech was fitted to arrest my attention. "Friend!" I repeated, with a smile such as wrings the heart more than floods of womanly tears. "Any one may do the office of a friend! Ay, even one of those kindly souls who drove my father to desperation,-- who refused him the poor boon of delay, when delay might have retrieved all! Any of them can insult and renounce me. This is the modern office of a friend, is it not?"

The stranger, gazing on me with astonishment, proceeded to request, that I would name an early day for removing from my present habitation; since the creditors only waited for my departure to dismiss the servants, and to bring my father's house, with all that it contained, to public sale. He added, that he was commissioned by them to present me with a small sum for my immediate occasions.

To be thus forcibly expelled from the home, where, till now, I could command; to be offered as an alms a pittance from funds which I had considered as my hereditary right; to be driven forth to the cold world with all my wounds yet bleeding, stung me as instances of severe injustice and oppression. My spirit, sore with recent injury, writhed under the rude touch.

I pulled the bell violently, and gave orders that a hackney-coach should be procured for me. I ordered the carriage to an obscure street in the city; a narrow, dark, and airless lane. I had once in my life been obliged to pass through it, and it had impressed my mind as a scene of all that is dismal in poverty and confinement This very impression made me now choose it for my abode; and I felt a strange and dreary satisfaction in adding this consummation to the horrors of my fate. As the carriage proceeded, I became sensible to the extreme disorder of my frame. Noise and motion were torture to nerves already in the highest state of irritation. Fever throbbed in every vein, and red flashes of light seemed to glare before my heavy eyes.

When the carriage reached the place of its destination, the coachman again applied to me for instructions; and I directed him to stop at any house where lodgings could be obtained. After several ineffectual inquiries, he drew up to the door of a miserable shop, where he was told that a single room was to be hired. "Would you please to look into my little place yourself, madam?" said a decent-looking woman, who advanced to meet me. "It is clean, though, it be small, and I should be very happy that it would suit."

"Anything will suit me," answered I.

"You ma'am!" cried the woman in a tone of extreme surprise; then placing herself just opposite to me, she seemed hesitating whether or not she should allow me to pass. Indeed the contrast of my appearance with the accommodation which I sought might well have awakened suspicion. My mourning, in the choice of which I had taken no share, was in material the most expensive, and in form of the highest fashion. The wildness of despair was probably impressed on my countenance; and my tall figure, lately so light and so elastic, bent under sickness and dejection. The woman surveyed me with a curiosity, which in better days I would have ill endured; but perceiving me ready to sink to the ground, she relaxed her scrutiny, while she offered me a seat, which I eagerly accepted. She then went to the door, upon pretence of desiring the coachman to wait till I should ascertain whether her lodgings were such as I approved; and they entered on a conversation in which I heard my own name repeated. When she returned to me, she poured forth a torrent of words, the meaning of which I was unable to follow, but which seemed intended to apologize for some suspicion. Never imagining that my character could be the cause of hesitation, I fancied that the poor woman doubted of my ability to pay for my accommodation; and drawing out my purse. I put into her hands all that remained of an affluence which had so lately been the envy of thousands. "It is but a little," said I, "but it will out-last me."

I now desired to be shown to my apartment; and laboriously followed my landlady up a steep miserable stair, into a chamber, low, loose, and gloomy. In a sort of recess, shaded by a patched curtain of faded chintz, stood a bed, which, only a few days before, no degree of fatigue could have induced me to occupy. Worn out, and heart-broken as I was, I yet recoiled from it for a moment: "But it matters not," thought I; "I shall not occupy it long;" so I laid myself down without undressing, and desired that I might be left alone.

I was now, indeed, alone.

My ceaseless brooding over injury and misfortune was only varied by the dreary consolation that all would soon be lost in the forgetfulness of the grave.

And could a rational and immortal creature turn on the grave a hope in which religion had no part? Could a being, formed for hope and for enjoyment, lose all that the earth has to offer, without reaching forward an eager grasp towards joys less transient? When the meteors which I had so fondly pursued were banished for ever, did no ray from the Fountain of Light descend to cheer my dark dwelling?--No. They who have tasted that the Lord is good, return in their adversity with double eagerness to taste his goodness. But I had lived without God in my prosperity, and my sorrow was without consolation. I had forgotten Him who filleth heaven and earth,--and the heavens and the earth were become one dreary blank to me. The tumult of feeling, indeed, unavoidably subsided; but it was into a calm,--frozen, stern, and cheerless as the long night-calm of a polar sea.

From the supineness of sickness and despair, I was at last forced to momentary exertion. My landlady renewed her entreaties that I would send for my friends; enforcing her request by informing me that my little fund was nearly exhausted. Disturbed with her importunity, and careless of providing against difficulties from which I expected soon to escape, I commanded her to desist. But my commands were no longer indisputable. The woman probably fearing, from the continuance of my disorder, that my death might soon involve her in trouble and expense, persisted in her importunity. Finding me obstinately determined to persevere in concealment, she proceeded to hint not obscurely, that it would be necessary to consider of some means of supply, or to provide myself with another abode. Only a few days were past since an insinuation like this would have driven me indignant from a palace; but now the depression of sickness was added to that of sorrow, and I only answered, that when I could no longer repay her trouble, I would release her from it.

Dissatisfied, however, with an assurance which she foresaw that I might be unable to fulfil, the widow proceeded to inquire whether I retained any property which could be converted into money; and mentioned a ring which she observed me to wear. Dead as I was to all earthly affection, I firmly refused to part with this ring, for it had been my mother's. I had drawn it a hundred times from her slender hand, and she thought it best employed as a toy for her little Ellen, while yet its quickly shifting rays made its only value to me. "No!" said I, as the woman urged me to dispose of it, "this shall go with me to the grave, in memory that one heart had human feeling towards me." The landlady, however, venturing a tedious remonstrance against this resolution, the dying fire again gave a momentary flash. "Be silent," I cried. "Speak to me no more till I am penniless; then tell me so at once, and I will that instant leave your house, though I die at the threshold!" Highly offended by this haughty command, the woman immediately retired, leaving me for the rest of that day in total solitude.

An evil was now ready to fall upon me, for which I was wholly unprepared either by experience or reflection. Unaccustomed as I was to approach the abodes of poverty, the very form of want was new to me; and since I had myself been numbered with the poor, my thoughts had chiefly dwelt upon my past misfortunes, or taken refuge from the anticipation of future distress in the prospect of dissolution. But, in spite of my wishes and my prophecies, abstinence, and the strength of my constitution, prevailed over my disorder. My heavy eyes were this night visited by a deep and refreshing sleep, from which I awoke not till a mid-day sun glanced through the smoke a dull ray upon the chimney crags that bounded my horizon.

I looked up with a murmur of regret that I was restored to consciousness. "Why," thought I, "must the flaring light revisit those to whom it brings no comfort?" and I closed my eyes in thankless impatience of my prolonged existence. Oh, where is the human physician, whose patience would endure to have his every prescription questioned, and vilified, and rejected! whose pitying hand would offer again and again the medicine which in scorn we dash from our lips!--No! Such forbearance dwells with one Being alone; and such perverseness we reserve for the infallible Physician.

I presently became sensible that my fever had abated. With a deep feeling of disappointment I perceived that death had eluded my desires; and that I must return to the thorny and perplexing path where the serpent lurked to sting, and tigers prowled to prey. While my thoughts were thus engaged, a footstep crossed my chamber; but, lost in my gloomy reverie, I suffered it, ere I raised my eyes, to approach close to my bed. I was roused by a cry of strong and mingled feeling. "Miss Mortimer!" I exclaimed; but she could not speak. She threw herself upon my bed, and wept aloud. The voice of true affection for a moment touched my heart; but I remembered that the words of kindness had soothed only to deceive; and stern recollection of my wrongs steeled me against better thoughts.

"Why are you come hither, Miss Mortimer?" said I, coldly withdrawing myself from her arms.

"Unkind Ellen!" returned my weeping friend; "could I know that you were in sorrow and not seek you? May I not comfort,--or, if that cannot be, may I not mourn with you?"

"I do not mourn--I want no comfort--leave me."

"Oh, say not so, dearest child. You are not forbidden to feel. Let us weep together under the chastisement, and trust together that there is mercy in it."

"Mercy! no. I have been dashed without pity to the earth, and there will I lie till it open to receive me." Miss Mortimer gazed on me in sorrowful amazement; then, wringing her hands as in sudden anguish, "Oh, Heaven!" she cried, "is this my Ellen?--Is this the joyous spirit that brought cheerfulness wherever it came?--Is this the face that was bright with life and pleasure? Loveliest, dearest, how hast thou lost the comfort which belongs even to the lowest of mankind,--the hope which is offered even to the worst of sinners?"

"Leave me, Miss Mortimer!" I cried, impatient of the self-reproach which her sorrow awakened in my breast. "I wish only to die in peace. Must even this be denied me?"

"Ellen, my beloved Ellen, is this what you call peace?--Oh, Thou who alone canst, deign to visit this troubled soul with the peace of thy children!" Miss Mortimer turned from me, and ceased to speak; but I saw her wasted hand lifted as in prayer, and her sobs attested the fervency of the petition. After a short silence, making a visible effort to compose herself, she again addressed me. "Do not ask me to leave you, Ellen," said she. "I came hither, resolved not to return without you. If you are too weak to-day for our little journey, I will nurse you here. Nay, you must not forbid me. I will sit by you as still as death. Or, make an effort, my love, to reach home with me, and I will not intrude on you for a minute. You shall not even be urged to join my solitary meals. It will be comfort enough for me to feel that you are near."

I could not be wholly insensible to an invitation so affectionate; but I struggled against my better self, and pronounced a hasty and peremptory refusal. Miss Mortimer looked deeply grieved and disappointed; but hers was that truly Christian spirit whose kindness no ingratitude could discourage, whose meekness no perverseness could provoke. She might have checked the untoward plant in its summer pride; but the lightning had scathed it, and it was become sacred in her eyes.

Sparing the irritability of the wounded spirit, she forbore to fret it by further urging her request. The voice of kindness, which I had expected never more to hear, stirred in my breast a milder nature; and as my eye followed the feeble step of Miss Mortimer, and read her wasted countenance, my heart smote me for my resistance to her love. "She has risen from a sick-bed to seek me," thought I: "me, renounced as I have been by all mankind,--bereft as I am of all that allured the perfidious. Surely this is not treachery."

My reverie was suddenly interrupted by poor Fido, who made good his entrance as Miss Mortimer left the room; and instantly began to express, as he could, his recognition of his altered mistress. The sight of him awakened at once a thousand recollections. It recalled to my mind my former petulant treatment of my mother's friend, her invariable patience and affection, and the remorse excited by our separation. My mother herself rose to my view, such as she was when Fido and I had gamboled together by her side,--such as she was when sinking in untimely decay. I felt again the caress which memory shall ever hold dear and holy. I saw again the ominous flush brighten her sunken cheek; knelt once more at her feet to pray that we might meet again; and heard once more the melancholy cry which spoke the pang of a last farewell. The stubborn spirit failed. I threw my arms round my mother's poor old favourite, and melted into tears.

Miss Mortimer did not leave me long alone. She returned to bring me refreshment better suited to my past habits and present weakness than to her own very limited finances. As she entered, I hastily concealed my tears: but when her accents of heartfelt affection mingled in my soul with the recollections which were already there, the claim of my mother's friend grew irresistible. A half confession of my late ingratitude rose to my lips; but that to which Ellen, the favoured child of fortune, might have condescended as an instance of graceful candour, seemed an act of meanness in Ellen, fallen and dependent. I pressed Miss Mortimer's hand between mine. "My best, my only friend!" said I; and Miss Mortimer asked no more! It was sufficient for the generous heart that its kindness was at last felt and accepted.

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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.