Discipline: A Novel

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The news of my father's misfortune no sooner reached Miss Mortimer's retirement, than she made an exertion beyond her strength, that she might visit and comfort me. At my father's house, she learnt that I was gone no one knew whither; but the conveyance which I had chosen enabled her at last to trace my retreat, and she lost not a moment in following me thither. There, with all the tenderness of love, and all the perseverance of duty, she watched over my returning health; nor ever quitted me by night or by day till I was able to accompany her home.

It was on a golden summer morning that we together left my dreary lurking-place. My friend sought to cheer my mind by calling my attention to the bright and busy scene. But the smile which I called up to answer her cares, came not from the heart. Cold and undelighted I turned from the view. "To what end," thought I, "should this prison-house be so adorned? this den of the wretched and the base!" So dismal a change had a few weeks wrought upon this goodly frame of things to me.

When we had reached the cottage, and Miss Mortimer, with every testimony of affection had welcomed me home, she led me to the apartment which was thenceforth to be called my own. It was the gayest in my friend's simple mansion.

On one side of my window were placed some shelves containing a few volumes of history, and the best works of our British essayists and poets; on the other was a chest of drawers, in which I found all the more useful part of my own wardrobe, secured to me by the considerate attention of Miss Mortimer. My friend rigidly performed her promise of leaving my time wholly at my own command. She told me the hours at which her meals were punctually served, giving me to understand that when I did not choose to join them, no warning or apology was necessary; since, if I did not appear in the family-room, I should be waited upon in my own. "Wearied out by an exertion to which my strength was yet scarcely equal, I laid myself on a bed more inviting than the last which I had pressed, and soon dropped asleep.

The evening was closing, when I was awakened by a strain of music so soft, so low, that it seemed at first like a dream of the songs of spirits. I listened, and distinguished the sounds of the evening hymn. It was sung by Miss Mortimer; and never did humble praise--never did filial gratitude--find a voice more suited to their expression. The touching sweetness of her notes, heightened by the stillness of the hour, roused an attention little used of late to fix on outward things.

The strain had ceased, and my thoughts returned to my own melancholy fate. To escape from tormenting recollection, or rather in the mere restlessness of pain, I opened a book which lay upon my table. It was my mother's Bible. The first page was inscribed with her name, and the date of my birth, written with her own hand. Below, my baptism was recorded in the following words:-- "This eleventh of January, 1775, I dedicated my dearest child to God. May He accept and purify the offering, though it be with fire!"

As I read these lines, the half prophetic words of my mother's parting blessing flashed on my recollection. "Oh, my mother!" I cried, "couldst thou have foreseen how bitter would be my 'chastisement,' couldst thou have known, that the 'fire' would consume all, would not thy love have framed a far different prayer? Yes! for thou hadst a fellow-feeling in every suffering, and how much above all in mine!"

I proceeded to look for some further traces of a hand so dear. The book opened of itself at a passage to which a natural feeling had often led the parent who was soon to forget even her child in the unconsciousness of the grave; and a slight mark in the margin directed my eye to this sentence: "Can a mother forget her sucking babe, that she should not have compassion upon the son of her womb? Yea, she may forget, yet will not I forget thee."

These words had often been read in my hearing, when my wandering mind scarcely affixed a meaning to them; or when their touching condescension was lost upon the proud child of prosperity. But now their coincidence with the previous current of my thoughts seized at once my whole attention. I started as if some strange and new discovery had burst upon my understanding. Again I read the passage, and with a care which I had never before bestowed on any part of the book which contains it. "Is this," I inquired, "an expression of the divine concern in each individual of human kind?--No. It seems merely a national promise, Yet, my mother has regarded it in another light; else why has she marked it so carefully?"

"Does the Great Spirit," thought I, "indeed watch over us? Does he work all the changes of this changeful world? Does He rule with ceaseless vigilance,--with irresistible control, whatever can affect my destiny?--Can this be true?--If it be even possible, by what strange infatuation has it been banished from my thoughts till now? But it cannot be so. A man's own actions often mould his destiny; and if his actions be compelled by an extraneous energy, he is no more than a mere machine. The very idea is absurd." And thus, to escape from a sense of my own past insanity, I entered a labyrinth where human reason might stray for ever,

          "And find no end, in wandering mazes lost."

As soon as it was day I arose; and, with the eagerness of one who would escape from suspense, I resorted to the book which had so lately arrested my regard. I no longer glanced over its pages in careless haste; for it offered my only present lights upon the questions, interesting by their novelty as well as by their importance--whether I had been guilty of the worse than childish improvidence, which, in attending to trifles, overlooks the capital circumstance? or whether the Creator, having dismissed us like orphans into a fatherless world, is regardless of our improvement, and deaf to our cry? My impatience of doubt made me forget, for a time, that the very fact which confers upon Scripture its authority, supposes a divine interference in human concerns. The great truth, however, shone forth in every page. All spoke of a vigilant witness, a universal, a ceaseless energy. Nor was this all. I could scarcely open the book without finding somewhat applicable to my own character or situation; I was, therefore, no longer obliged to compel my attention, as to the concerns of a stranger; it was powerfully attracted by interests peculiarly my own.

My search, however, produced nothing to elate. I read of benefits which I had forgotten; of duties which I had neglected; of threatenings which I had despised. The "first and great commandment," directed every affection of my soul to Him who had scarcely occupied even the least of my thoughts. The most glorious examples were proposed to my imitation, and my heart sank when I compared them with myself. A temper of universal forbearance, habits of diligent benevolence, were made the infallible marks of a character which I had no right to claim.

By degrees, something of my real self was opened to my sight. The view was terrible; but, once seen, I vainly endeavoured to avert my eye. At midnight, and in the blaze of day, in the midst of every employment, in defiance of every effort, my offences stood before me. With the sense of guilt, came the fear before which the boldest spirit fails. I saw the decree already executed which took from me the "talent buried in the earth;" but the stroke which had deprived me of all, seemed only a prelude to that more awful sentence which consigns the unprofitable servant to "outer darkness." I saw that I had need of mercy which I had not deserved, and which I had no words to ask. How little do they know of repentance who propose to repay with it, at their own "convenient season," the pleasures which they are at all hazards determined to seize!

Meanwhile, though my misfortunes could not be banished from my mind, they no longer held their sullen reign alone. New interests had awakened in my breast; new fears; new regrets. I felt that there is an evil greater than the loss of fame, of fortune, or of friends; that there is a pang compared with which sorrow is pleasure. This anguish I endured alone. The proud spirit could pour into no human ear the language of its humiliation and its dread. I suffered Miss Mortimer to attribute to grief the dejection which at times overpowered me; to impatience of deprivation, the anxious disquiet of one who is seeking rest, and finding none. Yet I no longer shunned her society. I sought relief in the converse of a person rich in the knowledge in which I was wanting, impressed with the only subjects which could interest me now.

From the first month of my residence with Miss Mortimer I may date a new era of my existence. My mind had received a new impulse, and new views had opened to me of my actions, my situation, and my prospects. An important step had been made towards a change in my character. But still it was only a step. The tendencies of nature, strengthened by the habits of seventeen years, remained to be overcome, and this was not the work of a month, or a year. I was not, however, of a temper long to endure the sense of helpless misery. Encouraged by the promises which are made to the repentant, and guided now by the example which I had once overlooked or ridiculed, I resolved to associate myself as much as possible, in Miss Mortimer's acts of devotion and of charity. I joined in her family worship,--I visited her pensioners, --and industriously assisted her in working for the poor; an employment to which she punctually devoted part of her time. Little did I then suspect how much the value of the same action was varied by our different motives. She laboured to please a father;--I to propitiate a hard Master. She was humbly offering a token of gratitude,--I was poorly toiling for a hire.

The activity of my mind had hitherto been so unhappily directed, that it now revolted from every impulse, except such as was either pleasurable or of overwhelming force. Besides, although nothing be more sublime than a life of charity and self-denial in the abstract, nothing is less so in the detail. I was unused to difficulty, and therefore submitted with impatience to difficulties which my own inexperience rendered more numerous. Poverty I had known only as she is exhibited in the graceful draperies of tragedy and romance; therefore I met her real form in all its squalor and loathsomeness, with more I fear, of disgust than of pity. My imaginary poor had all been innocent and grateful. Short experience in realities corrected this belief; and when I found among the real poor the vices common to mankind, added to those which peculiarly belong to a state of dependence,--when I found them selfish, proud, and sensual, as well as cunning and improvident,-- I almost forgot that alms were never meant as a tribute to the virtues of man; and that it is absurd to pretend compassion for the bodily necessities of our fellow-creature, while we exercise none towards the more deplorable wants of his mind. Not knowing, however, what spirit I was of, I called my impatience of their defects a virtuous indignation; and witnessed, with something like resentment, the moderation of Miss Mortimer, who always viewed mental debasement as others do bodily decrepitude, with an averseness which inclined her to withdraw her eye, but with a pity which stretched forth her hand to help. Yet when I beheld the ignorance, the miseries, the crimes of beings in whom I had now, in some degree, learnt to reverence the character of immortality, how did I lament, that, with respect to them, I had hitherto lived in vain! How did I reproach myself, that, while thousands of sensitive and acceptable creatures were daily within the sphere of my influence, that influence had served only to deepen, with additional shades, the blackness of human misery and of human guilt.

Accident served to heighten this self-upbraiding. One day when Miss Mortimer, with the assistance of my arm, was walking round her garden, she observed a meagre, barefooted little girl; who, reaching her sallow hand through the bars of the wicket, asked alms in a strong Caledonian accent. My friend, who never dismissed any supplicant unheard, patiently inquired into a tale which was rendered almost unintelligible by the uncouth dialect and national bashfulness of the narrator. All that we could understand from the child was, that she was starving, because her father was ill, and her mother prevented from working, by attendance upon an infant who was dying of the small-pox. Miss Mortimer, who always conscientiously endeavoured to ascertain that the alms which she subtracted from her own humble comforts were not squandered in profligacy, accepted of my offer to examine into the truth of this story; and I accompanied the child to the abode of her parents.

After the longest walk which I had ever taken, my conductress ushered me into a low dark apartment in the meanest part of Greenwich. Till my eye was accommodated to the obscurity, I could very imperfectly distinguish the objects which surrounded me; and for some minutes after leaving the gladdening air of heaven, I could scarcely breathe the vapour stagnant in the abode of disease and wretchedness. The little light which entered through a window half filled with boards fell upon a miserable pallet, where lay the emaciated figure of a man; his face ghastly wan, till the exertion of a hollow cough flushed it with unnatural red; and his eye glittering with the melancholy brightness which indicates hopeless consumption.

Upon a low stool, close by the expiring embers, sat a woman, vainly trying to still the hoarse cry of an infant. On my entrance, she started up to offer me the only seat which her apartment contained; and the poor Scotchman, with national courtesy to a superior, would have risen to receive me,--but he was unable to move without help. His wife, that she might be at liberty to assist him, called upon the little girl to take charge of her brother. Startled at seeing an infant committed to such care, I thoughtlessly offered my services; and held out my arms for the child. The mother, evidently pleased with what she seemed to regard as condescension, and not aware that the being whom she was fondly caressing could be an object of disgust to others, held the child towards me; but at the first glance I recoiled, with an exclamation of horror, from a creature who scarcely retained a trace of human likeness. That dreadful plague, which the most fortunate of discoveries now promises to banish from the earth, had disguised, or rather concealed, every feature; and, deprived of light, of nourishment, and rest, the sufferer scarcely retained the power to express its misery in a hoarse and smothered wailing. The poor woman, sensibly hurt by my expression of disgust, shed tears, while she reminded me of the evanescent nature of beauty, and enumerated all the charms of which a few days had deprived her boy. I had wounded where I came to heal; and all my address could scarcely atone for an error, that increased the difficulties which my errand already found in the decent reserve of spirits unsubdued to beggary, and in a dialect which I could very imperfectly comprehend.

What I at length learnt of the story of these poor people may be told in a few words; the man was a gardener, who had been allured from his country by the demand in England for Scotchmen of his trade. Unable to procure immediate employment, he and his family had suffered much difficulty; till, encouraged by the name of a countryman, they had applied to Mr. Maitland. By his interest, the man had obtained the situation of under-gardener in Mr. Percy's villa at Richmond.

I started at the name of my father, but having been often deceived, I was become cautious; and, without betraying myself, asked whether they had ever seen Miss Percy. The woman answered that they had not; having entered on their service the same day that their master's family removed to town. The evil influence of Miss Percy, however, had blasted all their hopes and comforts. She had given peremptory orders that some delicate exotics should be forced into flower to adorn an entertainment. Poor Campbell, deputed to take care of them, watched them all night in the hot-house; then walked two miles to his lodging through a thick drift of snow; breathed ever afterwards with pain; struggled against disease; wrought hard in the sharp mornings and chilly evenings of spring; and, when my father could no longer repay his services, was dismissed to die, unheeded by a mistress equally selfish in the indulgence of her sorrow as in the thoughtlessness of her prosperity.

As I listened to this tale, I found it confirmed by circumstances which admitted not of doubt. While I looked on the death-struck figure of poor Campbell, saw the misery that surrounded me, and felt that it was my work, my situation was more pitiable than that of any mortal, except him who can see that he has done irreparable injury, yet see it without a pang. When I recovered utterance, I inquired whether Campbell had any medical assistance?--a needless question; he had not wherewith to purchase food, much less medicine.--"But if I were once able, madam," said he, "to earn what would be our passage home, I should soon be well,--the air in Scotland is so pure, and breathes so pleasantly!"--"You shall get home, cost what it will," cried I, and instantly delivered the whole contents of my purse; without considering that it could scarcely be called mine, and that it could be replenished only from the scanty store of her whose generosity would fain, if possible, have made me forget that I was no longer the rich Miss Percy.

Ignorant as I was of Greenwich and its inhabitants, I next undertook to find medical advice. By inquiring at a shop, I obtained the address of a Mr. Sidney, to whom I immediately repaired. He was a young man of a very prepossessing appearance, tall and handsome enough for a hero of romance. Will it be believed that, in spite of the humbling sense of guilt which in that hour was strong upon me, my besetting weakness made me observe with pleasure the surprise and admiration with which my appearance seemed to fill this stranger? But vanity, though powerful in me, was no longer unresisted. I pulled my bonnet over my face; nor once again looked up while I conducted Sidney to the abode of his new patient.

I cannot express the horror which I felt, when, after examining the situation of the poor man, Sidney informed me, in a whisper, that no aid could save his life. I turned faint; and, to save myself from sinking to the ground, retreated to the door for air. At that moment, I overheard Sidney ask, "Who is that angel?" and the term, applied to one who was little less than a murderer, sharpened the stab of conscience. I hastily turned to proclaim my name, and submit myself to the execrations of this injured family; but I wanted courage for the confession, and the words died upon my lips.

The disfigured infant next engaged Sidney's attention. He discovered that the mother had, according to what I have since found to be the custom of her country, aggravated the dreadful disease, by loading her unhappy child with all the clothes she could command, and carefully defending him from the fresh air. She had even deprived herself of food, that she might procure ardent spirits, which she compelled the hapless being to swallow; to drive, as she expressed it, "the small-pox from his heart." Yet this poor woman, so ignorant of the treatment of the most common disorder, possessed, as I afterwards found, a knowledge of the principles of religion, and an acquaintance with the scope of its doctrines and precepts, which, at that time, appeared to me very wonderful in a person of her rank. They are, however, less surprising to me since I became a denizen of Scotland.

But to close a tale, on which its strong impression on my mind has perhaps made me dwell too long, the boy, by means of better treatment, recovered; his father's disease was beyond the reach of human skill. One day, while I was in the act of holding a cordial to his lips, he fell back; and, with a momentary struggle, expired. The little ingenious works which I had been taught at school, were, for the first time, employed by me to a useful purpose, when his widow and children were enabled, by the sale of them, to procure a passage to Scotland.

I cannot express the effect which this incident had upon my mind. A new load of guilt seemed to oppress me. I perceived that actions and habits might have tendencies unsuspected by the agent; that the influence of a fault,--venial, perhaps, in the eyes of the transgressor,--might reach the character and fate of those who are not within the compass of his thoughts; and, therefore, that the real evil of sin could be known only to Him, by whom effects which as yet exist not are traced through their eternal course. Thus a fearful addition of "secret sins" was made to all those with which conscience could distinctly charge me.

It is true I had resolved upon a better course of life; but my resolutions were very partially kept; nor, had it been otherwise, could present submission atone for past disobedience. Even my best actions, when weighed in the right balance, were "found wanting," and rather in need of forgiveness than deserving of reward. My best efforts seemed but the sacrifice of the ignorant Indian, who vows to his god an ingot of gold, and then gilds a worthless offering to defraud him. Nor had they, in truth, one vestige of real worth, void as they still were of that which gives a value to things of small account. It is the fire from heaven which distinguishes the acceptable sacrifice.

Who that had seen me under the depression which these convictions occasioned could have imagined that I had entered on "ways of pleasantness," and "paths of peace?" Anxious and fearful,--seeking rest, and finding none, because remaining pride prevented me from seeking it where alone it was to be found,-- I struggled hard to escape the convictions which were forced upon my conscience. I opposed to the truths of religion a hundred objections which had never before occurred to me, only because the subject was new to my thoughts; and I recollected an infinity of the silly jests, and ridiculous associations, by which unhappy sinners try to hide from themselves the dignity of that which they are predetermined to despise. I remember, with amazement, Miss Mortimer's patience in replying to the oft-refuted objection; oft-refuted, I say, because I am certain that far more ingenuity than I can boast would be necessary to invent, upon this subject, a cavil which has not been answered again and again. Far from desiring me, however, to rely upon "her authority, she recommended to me such books as she thought likely to secure my rational assent to the truth; carefully reminding me, at the same time, that they could do no more, and that mere rational assent fell far short of that faith to which such mighty effects are ascribed. The direct means of obtaining a gift, she said, was to ask it; and faith she considered as a gift.

"To what purpose," said I to her, one day, after I had laboured through Butler's Analogy, and Macknight's Truth of the Gospel History,--"to what purpose should I perplex myself with these books, when you own that some of the best Christians you have ever known were persons who had never thought of reasoning upon the evidences of their faith?"--"Because, my dear," answered Miss Mortimer, "the exercise of your highest natural faculties upon your religion is calculated to fix it in your mind, and endear it to your affections. It is true, that piety as pure and as efficient as any I ever knew, I have witnessed in persons who had no leisure, and perhaps no capacity, for reasoning themselves into a conviction of the historical truth of Christianity. The author of faith is not bound to any particular method of bestowing his gift. He may, and I believe often does, compensate for the means which he withholds; but this gives no ground to suppose that he will make up for those which we neglect."

Through Miss Mortimer's persuasion I steadily persevered in this line of study; and, if my understanding possesses any degree of soundness or vigour, it is to be attributed to this discipline. My education, if the word signify learning what is afterwards to be useful, was now properly beginning, and every day added something to my very slender stock of information. My friend, who was herself no mean proficient in general literature, encouraged me to devote many of my leisure hours to books of instruction and harmless entertainment; and our evenings were commonly enlivened by reading history, travels, or criticism.

The manufacture of a variety of ingenious trifles now became useful by ministering to my own wants and those of others,--the share I took in Miss Mortimer's charitable employments,--hours of devotion and serious study, reading, and often writing abstracts of what I read,--left no portion of my time for weariness. But had I been deprived of all bodily employment, the very condition of my mind precluded ennui; I was full of one concern of overwhelming importance. At one time, the truth shone upon me, gladdening me to rapture with its brightness; at another, error darkened my sinking soul, and I was eager in my search for light. Alas! our infirmity loads with many a cloud the dawning even of that true light, which "shineth more and more unto the perfect day." The natural warmth of my temper, and my long-confirmed habit of yielding to all its impulses, often hurried me into little superstitious austerities, needless scruples, and vehement disputes, which, had they been exposed to common eyes, would have drawn upon me the derision of some, and the suspicion of others; but fortunately Miss Mortimer had few visitors, and my foibles were little seen, except by one who could discover errors in religious judgment, without imputing them either to fanaticism or hypocrisy.

My altercations, for discourse in which passion is permitted to mingle cannot deserve the name of argument, were chiefly carried on with Sidney; who, from the time of his assistance to the Campbells, had become a frequent guest at Miss Mortimer's. His dispositions were amiable, his character unblemished; but his opinions upon some lesser points of doctrine differed widely from mine. This he happened one day accidentally to betray; and I, with the rashness which inclines us to fancy all lately-discovered truths to be of equal importance, combated what I considered as his fatal heresy. Sidney, with great good-humour, rather excited me to speak; perhaps for the same reason as he taught his dog to quarrel with him for his glove.

Miss Mortimer never took part in our disputations, not even by a look. "How can you," said I to her one day, when he had just left us, "suffer such opinions to be advanced without contradiction?"

"I am afraid of losing my temper," answered she, with an arch smile; "and that I am sure is forbidden in terms more explicit than Mr. Sidney's heresy."

"And would you have me," cried I, instantly sensible of the implied reproof, "seem to approve what I know to be false?"

"No, my dear," returned Miss Mortimer; "but perhaps you might disapprove without disputing; and I think it is not obscurely hinted by the highest authority, that the modest example of a Christian woman is likely to be more convincing than her arguments. Besides, though we are most zealous in our new opinions, we are most steady in our old ones; therefore I believe that, upon consideration, you will see it best to ensure your steadiness for the present, and to husband your zeal for a time when it will be more likely to fail."

When I was cool, I perceived that my friend was in the right; and, by a strong effort, I thenceforth forbore my disputes with Sidney; to which forbearance it probably was owing, that he soon after became my declared admirer.

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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.