Sidney's overtures cost me some hesitation. They were unquestionably disinterested; and they were made with a plainness rather prepossessing to one who had so lately experienced the hollowness of more flowery profession. Nothing could be objected to his person, manners, or reputation. Miss Mortimer's ill health rendered the protection I enjoyed more than precarious. Honourable guardianship, and plain sufficiency, offered me a tempting alternative to labour and dependence. But I was not in love; and as I had no inclination to marry, I had leisure to see the folly of entering upon peculiar and difficult duties, while I was yet a novice in those which are binding upon all mankind. Sidney had, indeed, by that natural and involuntary hypocrisy which assumes for the time the sentiments of a beloved object, convinced me that he was of a religious turn of mind; and from his avowed heresies I made no doubt of being able to reclaim him; but he wanted a certain masculine dignity of character, which had, I scarcely knew how, become a sine qua non in my matrimonial views. These things considered, I decided against Sidney; and it so happened that this decision was formed in an hour after I had received a long and friendly letter from Mr. Maitland.
Now this letter did not contain one word of Maitland's former avowal; nor one insinuation of affection, which might not, with equal propriety, have been expressed by my grandmother. But it spoke a strong feeling for my misfortunes; a kindly interest in my welfare; it represented the duties and the advantages of my new condition; and reminded me, that, in so far as independence is attainable by man, it belongs to every one who can limit his desires to that which can be purchased by his labour.
"I see no advantage in being married," said I, rousing myself from a reverie into which I had fallen after the third reading of my letter. "Mr. Maitland can advise me as well as any husband could; and in ten or a dozen years hence, I might make myself very useful to him too. I might manage his household, and amuse him; and there could be nothing absurd in that after we were both so old."
"Not quite old enough for that sort of life, I am afraid," said Miss Mortimer, smiling. "If, indeed, Mr. Maitland were to marry, the woman of his choice would probably be an invaluable protector to you."
"Oh, he won't marry. I am sure he will not; and I wonder, Miss Mortimer, what makes you so anxious to dispose of all your favourites? For my part, I hate to hear of people being married."
I thought there was meaning in Miss Mortimer's half suppressed smile; but she did not raise her eyes, and only answered good-humouredly, that, "indeed, all her matrimonial plans for the last twenty years had been for others."
Some expressions of curiosity on my part now drew from Miss Mortimer a narrative of her uneventful life; which, as it is connected with the little I know of Mr. Maitland's, and with the story of my mother's early days, I shall give in my own words:--
Miss Mortimer and my mother were hereditary friends. Their fathers fought side by side,--their mothers became widows together. Together the surviving parents retired to quiet neglect, and mutually devoted themselves to the duties which still remained for them. Those which fell to the lot of Mrs. Warburton were the more difficult; for, while a moderate patrimony placed the only child of her friend above dependence, it was her task to reconcile to poverty and toil the high spirits of a youth of genius; and to arm, for the rude encounters of the world, a being to whom gentleness made them terrible, to whom beauty increased their danger.
The splendid progress of young Warburton's education had been the boast of his teachers,--the delight of his parents,--the pride, the only pride of his sister's heart. But his father's death blasted the fair prospect. The widow's pittance could not afford to her son the means of instruction; and from the pursuit of knowledge,--the pleasures of success,--and the hopes of distinction,-- poor Warburton unwillingly turned to earn, by the toil of the day, the support which was to fit him for the toil of the morrow. Disgusted and desponding, he yet refrained from aggravating by complaint the sorrows of his mother and his sister. To Miss Mortimer, the companion of his childhood, he mourned his disappointed ambition, and was heard with sympathy; he deplored the failure of hopes more interesting, and won something more than pity.
In the counting-house, which was the scene of his cheerless labour, he found, however, a friend; and Maitland, though nearly seven years younger than he, gained first his respect, and then his affection.
Maitland, while thus in age a boy, was a tall, vigorous, hardy mountaineer. His nerves had been braced by toilsome exercise and inclement skies; his strong mind had gained power under a discipline which allowed no other rest than change of employment. He had left his native land, and renounced his paternal home, in compliance with the will of his parents and the caprice of his uncle, who, upon these conditions, offered him the reversion of a splendid affluence. His country he remembered with the virtuous partiality which so strongly distinguishes and so well becomes her children. Of his paternal home he seldom spoke. Silent and shy, he escaped the smile of vulgar scorn, which would have avenged the confession that the bribes of fortune poorly repaid the endearments of brethren and friends; that all the charms of spectacle and song could not please like the rude verse which first taught him the legends of a gallant ancestry; that all the treasures of art he would have gladly exchanged for permission to bend once more from the precipice which no foot but his had ever dared to climb, or linger once more in the valley whose freshness had rewarded his first infant adventure. Curiosity is feeble in the busy and the gay. No one asked, no one heard the story of Maitland's youth; and Warburton alone knew the full cost of a sacrifice too great and too painful to be made a theme with strangers. Maitland the elder, retaining his national prejudice in favour of a liberal education, permitted his nephew to pursue and enlarge his studies under the inspection of a man of sense and learning: designing to send him at a proper age to the university. Meanwhile he required him to spend a few hours daily in attendance upon his future profession.
In Maitland, young as he was, Warburton found a companion who could task his mind to its full strength. In classical acquirements, Maitland was already little inferior to his friend; and if he had less imagination, he had more acuteness and sagacity. Enduring in quiet scorn the derision which his provincial accent excited in the sharers of his humbler lessons, he was pleased to find in Warburton manners more congenial with his own habits. The young scholars had subjects of mutual interest, in which the others could not sympathise. The few hours which Maitland spent daily in the counting-house, alone broke the dull monotony of Warburton's labour; and Warburton alone listened with the enthusiasm which unlocks the heart, to Maitland's descriptions of his native scenes, of torrents roaring from the precipice, and woods dishevelled by the storm. They became friends, and Warburton confided his lost hopes, and bewailed the untimely close of his attainments. The hardier mind of Maitland suggested a remedy for the evil. He advised his friend to earn by severer toil, and to save by stricter parsimony, a fund which might in time afford the advantage of a college life. From that hour he himself gave the example of the toil and the parsimony which he recommended. He abridged his rest, he renounced his recreations, for the drudgery of translating for a bookseller. The allowance which he had been accustomed to spend, he hoarded with a miser's care. He was invited to share the pleasures of his companions, and resolutely refused. He listened to hints of his penurious temper, and deigned no other answer than a smile. But, when he was better known, few were so unprincipled as to find in him the subject of a jest, and fewer still so daring as to betray their scorn; for Maitland possessed, even then, qualities which ensure command--integrity which no bribe could warp--decision which feared no difficulty--penetration which admitted of no disguise. After two years of silent perseverance, he presented to his friend the fruits of his self-denial, and was more than recompensed when Warburton accompanied him to Oxford.
It was a few months before the completion of this arrangement, that Mr. Percy, taking shelter from a shower in a parish church at the hour of morning prayer, was captivated by the beauty, the modesty, and the devotion of Frances Warburton. He followed her home; obtained an introduction; and soon made proposals, with little form and much liberality. Frances shrunk from her new lover; for a difference of thirty years in their ages was the least point of their dissimilarity. The lover, sensible of no disparity but such as a settlement might counterbalance, enlarged his offers. He would have scorned to let any expectation outgo his liberality. He promised competence for life to her mother, and Frances faltered in her refusal. Mrs. Warburton did not use direct persuasion; but she sometimes lamented to her daughter that poverty should mar the promise of her Edmund's genius. "Had he but one friend," said she, "even one to encourage or assist him, he would yet be the glory of my old age."--"He shall have a friend," returned the weeping Frances;--and she married Mr. Percy.
But the sacrifice was unavailing. Young Warburton was not destined to need such aid as riches can give, nor to retain such advancement as riches can buy. His constitution, already broken by confinement, was unequal to his more willing exertions; yet, insensible to his danger, he pursued his enticing bane; rejected the friendly warning which told him that he was labouring his life away; and was one morning found dead in his study; the essay lying before him which was that day to have introduced him to fame and fortune.
Miss Mortimer and her friend, suffering together, became the more endeared to each other. My mother, indeed, had found a new object of interest; and she transferred a part, perhaps too large a part, of her widowed affections to her child. Miss Mortimer raised hers to a better world; and recalled them to this fleeting scene no more.
Maitland, defended from the dangers of a university by steady principles and habits of application, passed safely, even at Oxford, the perilous years between boyhood and majority; then turned his attention to studies more peculiarly belonging to his intended profession. He visited the greatest commercial cities upon the Continent; conversed with the most enlightened of their merchants; and, far from limiting his inquiries to the mere means of gain, he embraced in his comprehensive mind all the mutual relations and mutual benefits of trading nations. At the age of twenty-five he returned home, to take a principal share in the direction of one of the greatest mercantile houses in Britain. Before he was thirty, the death of his uncle had put him in possession of a noble independence, and left him chief partner in a concern which promised to realize the wildest dreams of avarice. But the love of wealth had no place in Maitland's soul. A small part of his princely revenue sufficed for one whose habits were frugal, whose pleasures were simple, whose tastes were domestic. The remainder stole forth in many a channel; like unseen rills, betraying its course only by the riches which it brought.
Awake, as he ever was, to the claims of justice and humanity, it was not personal interest that could shield the slave trade from the reprobation of Maitland. He conquered his retiring nature, that, in the senate of his country, he might lend his testimony against this foulest of her crimes; and when that senate stilled the general cry with a poor promise of distant reform, he blushed for England and for humankind. Somewhat of the same honest shame he felt at the recollection that he was himself the proprietor of many hundreds of his fellow-creatures; and when he found that his public exertions in their cause did not avail, he braved the danger of a pestilent climate to mitigate the evil which he could not cure, and to gain, by personal investigation, knowledge which might yet be useful in better times.
Such was Maitland. I dwell upon his character with mingled pleasure and regret: pleasure, perhaps, not untainted with womanly vanity; regret, that when I might have shared the labours, the virtues, the love of this noble soul, a senseless vanity made me cold to his affection,--a mean coquetry wrecked me in his esteem! I might once indeed have bound him to me for ever; but it was now plain that he had cast off his inglorious shackles. Although I answered his letter, he showed no intention of continuing our correspondence, and to Miss Mortimer he noticed me only as a common friend; nor did he ever mention his return to Britain as likely to take place before the lapse of many years.
Warned by the consequences of my past folly, and beginning now to act, however imperfectly, by the only rule which will ever lead us to uniform justice, I had no sooner formed my resolution in regard to Sidney, than I gave him an opportunity of learning my sentiments. I will not deny that this cost me an effort, for I was afraid of losing a pleasant acquaintance; and besides, as the young gentleman was sentimentally in love, his little anxieties and tremors were really, in spite of myself, amusing. But vanity, though unconquerably rooted in me by nature and habit, was no longer overlooked as a venial error. I struggled against it, as a part of that selfish, earth-born spirit, which was altogether inconsistent with my new profession, and which, except at the moment of temptation, seemed now too despicable to bias the actions even of an infant. Sidney was a man of sense; and therefore, by a very few efforts of firmness and common honesty, I made him my friend, while I convinced him that he could be nothing more.
Nor did the explanation occasion even a temporary suspension of our intercourse. He had an excellent chemical library, and a tolerable apparatus. By means of these, and a degree of patience not to be expected from any man but a lover, he contrived to initiate me into the first rudiments of a science, which has no detriment except its unbounded power of enticing those who pursue it. By informing me what I might read with advantage, he saved me the time which I might have lost in making the discovery for myself; and though he had not always leisure to watch my progress, he could direct me what to attempt. After all, it must be confessed that my attainments in chemistry were contemptible; but even this feeble beginning of a habit of patient inquiry was invaluable. Besides, in the course of my experiments, I made a discovery infinitely more important to me than that of latent heat or galvanism; namely, that the prospect of exhibition is not necessary to the interest of study.
Nothing is more important in its issue, nothing more dull in the relation, than a life of quiet and regular employment. A narrative of my first year's residence with Miss Mortimer would be a mere detail of feelings and reflections, mixed with confessions of a thousand instances of rashness, impatience, and pride. My original blemishes were still conspicuous enough to establish my identity; yet one momentous change had taken place, for those blemishes were no longer unobserved or wilful. I had become more afraid of erring than of seeing my error,--more anxious to escape from my faults than from my conscience. Not that her rebukes were become more gentle: on the contrary, an unutterable sense of depravity and ingratitude was added to my self-accusings; for, in receiving the forgiveness of a father, I had awakened to the feelings of a child, and in every act of disobedience I sinned against all the affections of my soul. Let it not be objected to religion, if my judgment was disproportioned to the force of sentiments like these; and if, though no devotion can be extravagant in its degree, mine was sometimes indiscreet in its expression. The fault lay in my education, not in my faith. Christianity justly claims for her own "the spirit of a sound mind;" but that spirit dwells most frequently with those whose devout feelings have been accustomed to find their chief vent in virtuous actions.
My walk happened one day to lead near a dissenting chapel; and the eagerness to hear which characterises recent converts made me join the multitude who thronged the entrance. "The truth," thought I, "is despised by the gay and the giddy; but to me it shall be welcome, come whence it will." Was there nothing pharisaical in the temper of this welcome? In spite, however, of the liberality for which I was applauding myself, my expectations were influenced by my early prejudices; and I presupposed the preacher, zealous indeed, but loud, stern, and inelegant. Surprise, therefore, added force to my impressions. The unadorned pulpit was occupied by a youth not yet in his prime, nor destined, as it seemed, ever to reach that period. The bloom of youth had given place in his countenance to a wandering glow, that came and went with the mind's or the body's fever. His bright blue eyes--now cast down in humility, now flashing with rapturous hope--had never shone with less gentle fires. His manner had the mild seriousness of entreaty,--his composition the careless vigour of genius; or rather the eloquence of one who, feeling the essential glory of truth, thinks not of decking her with tinsel.
Reasoning must convince the understanding, and a power which neither human reasoning nor human eloquence can boast must bend the will to goodness; but that which comes from the heart will, for a time at least, reach the heart. Mine was strongly moved. I abhorred the coldness of my ordinary convictions; and, compared with what I now felt, disparaged the impression of regular instruction. I forgot, or I had yet to learn, that the genuine spirit of the Gospel is described as the "spirit of peace," not of rapture; that the heavenly weapon is not characterized as dazzling us with its lustre, but as "bringing into captivity every thought." Feeling an increase of heat, I rashly inferred that I had received an accession of light; and immediately resolved to join the favoured congregation of a pastor so useful.
My recollection of the prejudice which confounds in one undistinguishing charge of fanaticism many thousands of virtuous and sober-minded persons rather strengthened that resolution; for fire and fagot are not the only species of persecution which arms our natural feelings on the side of the suffering cause. I gloried in the thought of sharing contempt for conscience-sake; and longed, with more, it must be owned, of zeal than of humility, to enter upon this minor martyrdom.
That very evening I announced my purpose to my friend, in a tone of premature triumph. Miss Mortimer was so habitually averse to contradicting, that I was obliged to interpret into dissent the grave silence in which she received my communication. Dissent I might have borne, but not such dissent as barred all disputation; and I entered on a warm defence of my sentiments, as if they had been attacked. Miss Mortimer waited the subsiding of that part of my warmth which belonged to mere temper, then gave a mild but firm opinion. "It has been allowed," she told me, "by an author of equal candour and acuteness, that 'there is, perhaps, no establishment so corrupt as not to make the bulk of mankind better than they would be without it.' Our countenance, therefore," she said, "to the establishment of the country in which we lived was a debt we owed to society; unless, indeed, the higher duty which we owed to God were outraged by the doctrines of the national church. As for mere form, it had always," she said, "appeared to her utterly immaterial, except as it served to express or to strengthen devotion; therefore, it seemed unnecessary to forsake a ritual which had been found to answer these purposes. If the ordinances, as administered by our church, were less efficacious to me than they had been to others, she would wish me to examine whether this were not owing to some unobserved error in my manner of using them; but if, after dilligent attention, humble self-examination, and earnest prayer for guidance, I continued to find the national worship unsuitable to my particular case, she might regret, but she could not condemn, my secession; since I should then be not only privileged, but bound, to forsake her communion."
The time was not long past, since even this mild resistance would have only confirmed me in a favourite purpose; but I was becoming less confident in my own judgment, and Miss Mortimer's consistent worth had established an influence over me beyond even that to which my obligations entitled her. Though her natural abilities were merely respectable, her opinions upon every point of duty had such precision and good sense that, without being aware of it, I leant upon her judgment of right and wrong, as naturally as the infant trusts his first unsteady steps to his mother's sustaining hand. She prevailed upon me to pause ere I forsook the forms in which my fathers had worshipped; and though her own principle has since connected me with a church of simpler government and ritual, I have never seen reason to repent of the delay.
And now, deprived as I was of all the baubles which I had once imagined necessary to comfort, almost to existence, I was nearer to happiness than I had ever been while in the full enjoyment of all that pleasure, wealth, and flattery can bestow; for I now possessed all the materials of such happiness as this state of trial admits,--good health, constant employment, the necessaries of this life, and the steady hope of a better. And let the lover of pleasure, the slave of Mammon, the sage who renounces the light of heaven for the spark which himself has kindled, smile in scorn whilst I avow, that I at times felt rapture, compared with which their highest triumph of success is tame. I can bear the smile, for I know that they are compelled to mingle it with a sigh; that they envy the creature whom they affect to scorn; and wish-- vainly wish, that they could choose the better part.
The bitter drop which is found in every cup was infused into mine by the increasing illness of Miss Mortimer; and by a strong suspicion, that poverty aggravated to her the evils of disease. This latter circumstance, however, was conjectural; for Miss Mortimer, though confidingly open with me upon every other subject, was here most guarded. From the restraint visibly laid upon inclinations which I knew to be liberal in the extreme,-- from my friend's obstinate refusal to indulge in any of the little luxuries which sickness and debility require,--from many trifles which cannot evade the eye of an inmate, I began to form conjectures, which I soon accidentally discovered to be but too well founded. A gentleman happened to make a visit of business to Miss Mortimer one day when she was too much indisposed to receive him, and he incautiously committed to me a message for her, by which I discovered that her whole patrimony had been involved in the ruin of my father; that, except the income of the current year, which she had fortunately rescued a few weeks before the wreck, she had lost all; that while she made exertions beyond her strength to seek and to comfort me, while she soothed my sullen despair, she was herself shrinking before the gaunt aspect of poverty; and that while she contrived for me indulgences which she denied to herself, her generous soul abhorred to divulge what might have rendered my feeling of dependence more painful.
When the certainty of all this burst upon me, I felt as if I had been in some sort responsible for the injury which my father had inflicted, and, overwhelmed with a sense of most undeserved obligation, I almost sunk to the ground. The moment I recovered myself I flew to my friend, and with floods of tears, and the most passionate expressions of gratitude, I protested that I would no longer be a burden upon her generosity, and besought her to consider of some situation in which I might earn my subsistence. But Miss Mortimer resisted my proposal upon grounds which I felt it impossible to dispute. "I cannot spare you yet, my dear child," said she. "I have been assured that in a very few months you must be at liberty; but you will not leave me yet!--you will not leave me to die alone."
This was the first intimation which I had received of the inevitable fate of one, whose gentle virtues and unwearied kindness had centered in herself all my widowed affections, and it wholly overpowered the fortitude which not an hour before I had thought invincible. I hurried from human sight, while I mingled with bitter cries a passionate entreaty, that I might suffer anything rather than the loss of my only friend. We often ask in folly, but we are answered in wisdom. The decree was gone forth, and no selfish entreaties availed to detain the saint from her reward. When the first emotions were past, I saw, and confessed, that a petition such as mine, clothed in whatever language, was wanting in the very nature of prayer, which has the promise of obtaining what we need, not of extorting what we desire.
In the present situation of my friend, it was impossible for me to forsake her; yet I could not endure to feel myself a burden upon the little wreck which the misfortunes or imprudence of my family had left her. Hour after hour I pondered the means of making my labour answer to my subsistence. But here my early habits were doubly against me. Accustomed to seek in trifling pastimes relaxation from employment scarcely less trifling, perseverance in mere manual industry was to me almost impossible. Habituated to confound the needful with the desirable, I had no idea how large a proportion of what we think necessary to the decencies of our station belongs solely to the wants of our fancy. My highest notion of economy in dress went no farther than the relinquishing of ornament; therefore, all my little works of ingenuity were barely sufficient to supply my own wardrobe, and another channel of expense which I had of late learnt to think at least as necessary. I saw no means, therefore, of escaping my dependence upon Miss Mortimer. Yet it made me miserable to think that for my sake she must deny herself the necessaries of decaying life.
My heart gave a bound as my eye chanced to be caught by the sparkle of my mother's ring, and I recollected that its value might relieve my unwilling pressure upon my friend. But when I had looked at it till a thousand kindly recollections rose to my mind, my courage failed; and I thought it impossible to part with the memorial of my first and fondest attachment. Again my obligations to Miss Mortimer,--the rights of my mother's friend,--the dread of subtracting from the few comforts of a life which was so soon to close, upbraided my reluctance to sacrifice a selfish feeling; but a casuistry, which has often aided me against disagreeable duty, made me judge it best to act deliberately; and thus to defer indefinitely what I could neither willingly do, nor peacefully leave undone.
My decision, however, was hastened by one of those accidents which, I am ashamed to say, have determined half the actions of my life. The next morning, as I was reading to Miss Mortimer in her ground parlour, a woman came to the window offering for sale a basket of beautiful fruit. Fruit had been recommended as a medicine to my friend. I fancied, too, though perhaps it was only fancy, that she looked wistfully at it; and when she turned away without buying any, the scalding tears rushed to my eyes. Hastily producing the money which I had privately received for some painted screens, I heaped all the finest fruit before Miss Mortimer; and when, in spite of her mild remonstrances, I had laid out almost my whole fortune, I was seized with a sudden impatience to visit London; and thither I immediately went, promising to return before night.
I began any journey with a heavy heart. A stage-coach, the only conveyance suited to my circumstances, was quite new to me; and I shrank with some alarm from companions, much like those usually to be met with in such vehicles, vulgar, prying, and communicative. Finding, however, that they offered me no incivility, I re-assured myself; and began to consider what price I was likely to obtain for my ring, and how I might best present my offering to Miss Mortimer. The first of these points I settled more agreeably to my wishes than to truth; the second was still undetermined when the coach stopped. Then I first recollected, that, with my usual inconsiderateness, I had not left myself the means of hiring a conveyance through the town. I had, therefore, no choice but to walk alone in some of the most crowded streets of the city.
And now I had some cause for the alarm that seized me, for I was more than once boldly accosted; and, ere I reached the shop where I intended to offer my ring, I was so thoroughly discomposed that I entered without observing an equipage of the De Burghs at the door.
The shop was full of gay company; but one figure alone fixed my attention. It was that of my heartless friend. I recoiled like one who treads upon a serpent. My first impulse was to fly; but ere I had time to retreat a deadly sickness arrested my steps; and I stood motionless and crouching towards the earth, as if struck by the power of the basilisk. A person belonging to the shop, who came to inquire my commands, seeing me, I suppose, ready to sink, offered me a chair; upon which I unconsciously dropped, still unable to withdraw my gaze from my apostate friend. Presently I almost started from my seat as her eye met mine. Her deepening colour alone told me that she recognised me; for she instantly turned away.
Indignation now began to displace the stupor which had seized me. "Shall I let this unfeeling creature see," thought I, "that she has power to move thus? Or shall I tamely slink away, as if it were I who should dread the glance of reproach?--as if it were I who had stabbed the heart which trusted me?" My breast swelling with pain, pride, and resentment, I arose; and walking across the shop with steps as stately as if I had been about to purchase all the splendours it contained, I began to transact the business which brought me thither. My attention, however, was so much pre-occupied, that I was scarcely sensible of surprise when the jeweller named five-and-twenty pounds as the price of my ring; a sum less than one-third of what I had expected.
I now perceived that Miss Arnold accompanied Lady Maria de Burgh. They talked familiarly together, and I was probably their subject; for Lady Maria stared full upon me, though her companion did not venture another glance towards the spot where I stood. Not satisfied with her arrogant scrutiny Lady Maria, as if curious to know whether I were the buyer or the seller, made some pretence for approaching close to me, though without any sign of recognition. I had a hundred times abjured my enmity to Lady Maria. I had wept over it as ungrateful, unchristian. In cool-blooded solitude I had vowed a hundred times that, having been forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents, I would never more wrangle for trifles with my fellow-servants. But when I was fretted with the insults of strangers, and sore with the unkindness of my early friend, when perhaps my pride was wounded by the circumstances in which she was about to detect me, her ladyship's little impertinence, attacking me on the weak side, stirred at once the gall of my temper. Suspending a bargain which, indeed, I did not wish her to witness, "Pray," said I to the shopman, "attend in the first place to that lady's business; if indeed she has any except to pry into mine."
Lady Maria, who knew by experience that she was no match for me in a war of words, muttered something, and retreated, tossing her pretty head with disdain. Eager to be gone, I closed the offer which had been made for my ring; and after delays which I thought almost endless, had received my money, and was about to depart, when Miss Arnold, who was in close conversation with her companion, in a distant part of the shop, suddenly advanced, as if with an intention to accost me. I was breathless with agitation and resentment. "I will be cool, scornfully cool," thought I; "I will show her that I can forget all my long-tried affection, and remember only--" I turned away, and remembrance wrung tears from me. But the formal effrontery with which she addressed me restored in a moment my fortitude and my indignation. She excused herself for not speaking to me sooner, by asserting that she "really had not observed me."
Scorning the paltry falsehood, "That is no wonder, Miss Arnold," answered I, "for I am much lessened since you saw me last."
I was moving away, but Miss Arnold, who had probably received her instructions, detained me. "Do stay a few minutes," said she, coaxingly, "I have a great deal to say to you. Lady Maria will be here for an hour, for she and Glendower are choosing their wedding finery; so if you lodge any way hereabouts, I can take the carriage and set you down."
The days of my credulous inadvertence were past; and, at once perceiving the drift of this proposal, I answered, with ineffable scorn, "If you or Lady Maria have any curiosity to know my present situation, you maybe gratified without hazarding your reputation by being seen with a runaway. I live with Miss Mortimer."
I think Miss Arnold had the grace to blush, but I did not wait to examine. I hurried away, threw myself into the first hackney coach I could find, and returned home exhausted and dispirited. I was dissatisfied with myself. The time had been when I should have thought the impertinence of a rival, the cool effrontery and paltry cunning of Miss Arnold sufficient justification of any degree of resentment or contempt; but now I needed only the removal of temptation to remind me how unsuitable were scorn and anger to the circumstances of one who was herself so undeservedly, so lately, and still so imperfectly reclaimed. I firmly resolved that if ever I should again meet Miss Arnold, or her new protectress, I should treat them with that cool, guarded courtesy which is the unalienable right of all human kind. The strength of this resolution was not immediately tried. All my resentments had time to subside before I again saw or heard of my false friend.
Indeed, my seclusion now became more complete than ever, for Miss Mortimer's malady, the increase of which she had hitherto endeavoured to conceal from me, suddenly became so severe as to baffle all disguise. Yet it was no expression of impatience which betrayed her. For four months I scarcely quitted her bedside, by day or by night. During this long protracted season of suffering, neither cry nor groan escaped her. The approach of death she watched more in the spirit of the conqueror than the victim; yet she expressed her willingness to linger on till suffering should have extinguished every tendency to self-will, and helplessness should have destroyed every vestige of pride. Her desire was granted. Her trials brought with them an infallible token that they came from a Father's hand, for her character, excellent as it had seemed, was exalted by suffering; and that which in life was lovely, was in death sublime.
At last the great work was finished. Her education for eternity was completed; and, from the severe lessons of this land of discipline, she was called to the boundless improvement, the intuitive knowledge, the glorious employments of her Father's house. One morning, after more than ordinary suffering, I saw her suddenly relieved from pain; and, grasping at a deceitful hope, I looked forward to no less than years of her prolonged life. But she was not so deceived. With pity she beheld my short-sighted reasoning. "Dear child," said she, "must that sanguine spirit cheat thee to the end? Think not now of wishing for my life, pray rather that my death may profit thee." She paused for a moment, and then added emphatically, "Do you not every morning pray for a blessing on the events which that day will produce?"
Long as I had anticipated this sentence, it was more than I could bear. "This day! this very day!" I cried. "It cannot-- it shall not be. It is sinful in you thus to limit your days! This very day! oh, I will not believe it;" and I threw myself upon my friend's death-bed in an agony which belied my words.
She gently reproved my vehemence. "Ellen, my dear Ellen, my friend, my comforter, how can you lament my release? Your affection has been a blessing in my time of trial, will you let it disturb the hour of my rejoicing? Had I been necessary to you, my child, I hope I could have wished for your sake to linger here; but 'one thing'--only one--'is needful.' That one you have received: and when the light of heaven has risen upon you, can you mourn that one feeble spark is darkened?"
The physicians, whom I sent in haste to summon, came only to confirm her prediction. She forced them to number the hours she had to live, and heard with a placid smile that the morning's sun would rise in vain for her. She bade farewell to them and to her attendants, bestowing, with her own hand, some small memorial upon each; then gently dismissed all, except myself and the hereditary servant who had grown old with her, and who now watched the close of a life which she had witnessed from its beginning. "I saw her baptism," said the faithful creature to me, the big tears rolling down her furrowed face, "and now--but it is as the Lord will."
By my dying friend's own desire she was visited by the clergyman upon whose ministry she had attended; and with him she conversed with her accustomed serenity, directing his attention to some of her own poor, who were likely to become more destitute by her loss, and affectionately commending to his care the unfortunate girl whom her death was to cast once more friendless upon the world.
While he read to her the office for the sick, she listened with the steady attention of a mind in its full strength. When he came to the words, "Thou hast been my hope from my youth!"--"Yes!" said she, "He has indeed been my hope from my youth. He blessed the prayers and the labours of my parents, so that I never remember a time when I could rest in any other trust; yet, till now, I never knew that hope in its full strength and brightness." Then laying her hand, now chill with the damps of death, upon my arm, she said, with great energy, "Ellen, I trust I can triumphantly appeal to you whether our blessed faith brings not comfort unspeakable; but how strong, how suitable, how glorious its consolations are, you will never know, till, like me, you are bereft of all others, and, like me, find them sufficient, when all others fail."
Towards evening her voice became feeble, she breathed with pain, and all her bodily powers seemed to decay. But that which was heaven-born was imperishable. The love of God and man remained unshaken. Complaining that her mind was grown too feeble to form a connected prayer, she bade me repeat to her the triumphant strains in which David exults in the care of the Good Shepherd. When I had ended, "Yes," said she; "He knows how to comfort me in the dark valley, for He has trod it before me; and what am I that I should die amidst the cares of kind friends, and he amidst the taunts of his enemies! Ellen, your mind is entire: thank Him, thank Him fervently for me, that I am mercifully dealt with."
As I knelt down to obey her, she laid her hand upon my head, as if to bless me. At first, she repeated after me the expressions which pleased her, afterwards single words, then, after a long interval, the name of Him in whom she trusted. When I rose from my knees, her eyes were closed--the hand which had been lifted in prayer was sunk upon her breast. A smile of triumph lingered on her face. It was the beam of a sun that had set. The saint had entered into rest.
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.