As I tore myself from the remains of my friend, I felt that I had nothing more to lose. My soul, which had so obstinately clung to the earth, had no longer whereon to fix her hold. Words cannot describe the moment when, having assisted in the last sad office of woman, I was led from the chamber of death to wander through my desolate dwelling. Man cannot utter what I felt when I left the grave of my friend, and turned me to the solitary wilderness again.
Yet even the agony of my grief had no likeness to the stern horror which had once overwhelmed my soul. I was in sorrow indeed, but not in despair; I was lonely, but not forsaken. My interests in this scene of things were shaken,--were changed,--but not annihilated; for the world can never be a desert while gladdened by the sensible presence of its Maker; nor life be a blank to one who acts for eternity. The mere effort to become resigned, forbade the listlessness of despair: and even partial success gave some relief from uniformity of anguish. But I was new to the lesson of resignation, and as yet faintly imbued with that spirit which accepts with filial thankfulness the chastisements of a father. The accents of submission were choked by those of sorrow: and when I tried to say, "Thy will be done," I could only bow my head and weep.
It was not till the first bitterness of grief was past, that I recollected all the cause I had to grieve. My first feeling of desolateness was scarcely heightened by the reflection, that I was once more cast upon the world without refuge or means of subsistence. A few days after the death of my friend, her legal heir arrived to assert his rights; and the will by which she had intended to secure in her cottage a shelter for her old servant and myself was too informal to entitle us to resist his more valid claim. The will was written with Miss Mortimer's own hand, and expressed with all the touching solemnity of a last address to the object of strong affection. To resist it, seemed to me an instance of almost impious hardness of heart; and when the heir, fretted perhaps by finding his inheritance fall so far below his expectations, gave me notice, that I must either purchase the remainder of the lease, or, within a month, seek another habitation, I resolved that I would owe nothing to the forbearance of a being so callous?--that I would instantly resign to him whatever the relentless law made his own.
But whither could I go? I was as friendless as the first outcast that was driven forth a wanderer. I had no claim of gratitude, relationship or intimacy on any living being. The few friends of my mother who had visited me after my return from school, I had neglected as persons of a character too grave, and of habits too retiring for the circle in which I desired to move. In that circle, a few months had sufficed to procure me some hundreds of acquaintances; ages probably would not have furnished me with one friend. My own labour, therefore, was now become my only means of obtaining shelter or subsistence; and, foreign as the effort was to all my habits, the struggle must be made. But how was I to direct my attempts? What channel had the customs of society left open to the industry of woman? The only one which seemed within my reach was the tuition of youth; and I felt myself less dependent when I recollected my thorough knowledge of music, and my acquaintance with all other arts of idleness. When, indeed, I considered how small a part of the education of a rational and accountable being I was after all fitted to undertake, I shrank from the awful responsibility of the charge, and I fear pride was still more averse to the task than principle; but there seemed no alternative, and my plan was fixed.
To enter on a state of dependence amidst scenes which had witnessed my better fortunes,--to be recognised in a condition little removed from servitude by those who had seen me at the summit of prosperity,--to meet scorn in the glances of once envious rivals,--and pity in the eye of once rejected lovers, would have furished exercise for more humility than I had yet attained. Almost the first resolution which I formed on the subject was, that the scene of my labours should be far distant from London. Other circumstances in the situation which I was about to seek, I determined not to weigh too fastidiously; for though the most ambiguous praise from a person of fashion is often thought sufficient introduction to the most momentous of trusts, I had seen enough of the world to know, that it would be difficult to obtain the office of a teacher upon the mere strength of my acquaintance with what I pretended to teach; and I was resolved to owe no recommendation to any of those summer friends, by whom I seemed now utterly neglected and forgotten.
To the clergyman, whose compassion my dying friend had claimed for me, I explained my situation and my purpose. He showed me every kindness which genuine benevolence could dictate,--offered to write in my behalf to a married sister settled in a remote part of the kingdom,--and invited me to reside in his family till I found a preferable situation.
Meanwhile, a most unexpected occurrence placed me beyond the reach of immediate want. Among Miss Mortimer's papers was found a sealed packet addressed to me. It enclosed a bank-bill for 300L; and in the envelope these words were written:--
"My dear Ellen,--Use the enclosed sum without scruple and without inquiry, for it is your own. Mine it never was, and none else has any claim upon it. It came into my possession within this hour, from whence you may never know; but I will conceal it till all is over, lest you squander upon the dying that which the living will need.
I instantly conjectured that this sum was the gift of Mr. Maitland. "And yet," said I to myself, "he has no interest in me now, except such as he would take in any one whom he thought unfortunate. Perhaps--if I could see his letters to Miss Mortimer--but I am sure his sentiments are of no consequence to me,--only, if this money be really his, I ought undoubtedly to restore it; and this from no impulse of pride certainly. Is there not a wide difference between humility and meanness?" Persuading myself, that it was quite necessary to ascertain the true owner of the money, I obtained permission to examine the correspondence which my friend had left behind. I found it to contain many letters from Mr. Maitland, but only one in which I was mentioned, otherwise than in the words of common courtesy; and of that one, the tantalizing caution of my friend had spared only title following fragment:--
"I will not be dazzled by your pictures of your young friend's improvement. I consider, that while you are drawing them, she is before you; turning up her transparent cheek, as she used to do, and looking up in your face half sideways through her long black eyelashes, with that air of arch ingenuousness that must tempt you to give her credit for every virtue. I will not allow your partiality to blind me nor yourself to the probability, that all her apparent progress is not real. Ellen has warm passions and a vivid imagination; therefore it is impossible that she should fail to receive a strong impression from events which have changed the whole colour of her fate. But the passions and the imagigination are not the seat of religion. Besides, admitting that she has received a new principle of action, we must recollect, that pride and self-indulgence are not to be cured in an hour; nor can the opposite virtues spring without culture. The principle which guides pur habits may be suddenly changed; and perhaps no means is more frequently employed for this change than severe calamity: but our habits themselves are of slow growth; slowly, the seeds of evil are eradicated; laboriously the good ground is prepared; watered with the dews of heaven, the good seed, in progress that baffles human observation, advances from the feeble germ that scarcely rears itself from the dust, to the mature plant which bringeth forth an hundred fold. So you see, my good friend, I am determined to be wise; to read your encomiums with allowance; and, having painfully escaped from danger, to be cautious how I tempt it again.
"The execution of my present plans must detain me in exile for years to come; otherwise I could dream of a time when, having vanquished the power of that strange girl over my happiness, I might venture to watch over hers, perhaps be permitted to aid her improvement. I think I had some slight influence over her. If it were fit that a social being should waste feeling and affection in dreams, I could dream delightfully of--"
"Of what?" thought I, when I reached this provoking interruption,--and I too began to dream. "Does he still love me?" I asked myself. "Can the grave, wise Mr. Maitland still remember the rosy cheek and the long black eyelashes? Can he do no more than fly from his bane, but long after it still?" In spite of the regulations under which I had laid my heart,--in spite of the sorrow which weighed heavily upon it, the spirit of Ellen Percy fluttered in it for a moment. "But why should I smile at his weakness, though I am myself exempt from that strange whim called love. Yes, certainly, for ever exempt. I have not withstood Maitland to be won by the monkey tricks and mawkish common-place of ordinary men. 'Power over his happiness!' But for this strange coldness of heart, and my own unpardonable folly, I might have made him happy. But that is all over now. Now I can only wish and pray for his happiness. And if it be necessary to his peace that he forget me, I will pray that he may. No one heart on earth will then, indeed, beat warm to me; but the earth and all that it contains will soon pass away."--And I shed some tears, either over the transitory nature of all things here below, or over some reflection not quite so well defined.
Having perused the mutilated letter more than once, and finding my curiosity rather stimulated than gratified by the perusal, I certainly did not relax in the diligence with which I examined my friend's repositories. But I could not discover one line from Mr. Maitland of a later date than six months before the death of Miss Mortimer; and I recollected, that though she regularly received his letters, and affected no mystery in regard to them, she never desired me to read them, but often in my presence destroyed them with her own hand. For the preservation of the fragment I seemed indebted to accident alone; and I more than half suspected, that Mr. Maitland's later correspondence had purposely been concealed from one who formed its principal subject. I wondered at my friend's caution. "Could she know me so little," thought I, "as to fear that I should be infected by this folly of Maitland's?--That I should be won by this involuntary second-hand sort of courtship?--That I should be mean enough to like a man who in a manner rejected me?" But whatever was the motive of Miss Mortimer's caution, she had left no indication of Mr. Maitland's present sentiments towards me; nor any clue by which I could trace to him the source of my unexpected wealth.
Still I scarcely doubted, that I owed my three hundred pounds to the generosity of Maitland, and I often thought of restoring the money to him; since, considering the terms upon which we had parted, few things could be more humiliating for me than to become a pensioner on his bounty. But I was restrained from writing to him, by the fear that, as possibly he had never intended to offer me such a gift, he might consider my addressing him upon the subject as a mere device to obtain the renewal of an intercourse which he had voluntarily renounced.
Besides, Miss Mortimer's bequest furnished my only means of discharging another debt which had long occasioned me more mortification than I could have suffered from any obligation to Mr. Maitland. My degrading debt to Lord Frederick was still unpaid; and my deliverance from absolute and immediate want was less gratifying to me, than the power of escaping from obligation to a wretch who had given proof of such heartless selfishness. I, therefore, resolved to comply with my friend's injunction to use without further inquiry the money which had so providentially been placed within my reach; and the first purpose to which it was devoted, was the repayment of Lord Frederick's loan, with every shilling of interest to which law could have entitled him. The remainder I could not help dividing with Miss Mortimer's old servant; as the poor creature, who had grown grey in the family of my friend, had been deprived of the bequest by which her mistress had intended to acknowledge her services. The purchase of a few decencies which my own wardrobe required, and the expense of a plain grave-stone to mark the resting-place of the best of women, reduced my possessions to thirty pounds. With this provision, which, small as it was, I owed to most singular good fortune, I was obliged to quit the asylum which had sheltered me from my bitterest sorrow, and had witnessed my most substantial joys; the home which was endeared to me by the kindness of a lost friend, --the birth-place of my better being,--the spot which was hallowed by my first worship.
It was on a stormy winter night, I remember it well, that I turned weeping from the door of my only home. All day I had wandered through the cottage; I had sat by my friend's deathbed, and laid my head upon her pillow. I had placed her chair as she was wont to place it; had realized her presence in every well-known spot, and bidden her a thousand and a thousand times farewell. When I left the house, the closing door sounded as drearily as the earth which I had heard rattle on her coffin. It seemed the signal that I was shut out from all familiar sights and sounds for ever. The storm that was beating on me became, by a natural thought, the type of my after life; and when all there seemed darkness, my mind wandered back to the sorrows of the past. I recalled another time, when the wide earth, which lodges and supports her children of every various tribe, and opens at last in her bosom a resting-place for them all, contained no home for me. I remembered a time when I had felt myself alone, though in the presence of the universal Father--destitute, in a world stored with his bounty--desolate, though Omnipotence was pledged to answer my cry. My deliverance from this orphan state, from this disastrous darkness, rushed upon my mind. I thought upon the mighty transformation which had gladdened the desert for me, and made the solitary place rejoice. The cry of thanksgiving burst from my lips, although it died amidst the storm. "Oh Thou!" I exclaimed, "who from pollution didst reclaim--from rebellion didst receive--from despair didst revive me--let but Thy presence be with me, and let my path lead where it will!"
As I passed the village churchyard, I turned to visit the grave of her whom I had lost. The stone had been placed upon it since I had seen it last; and I felt as if the performance of the last duty had made our separation more complete. "And is this all that I can do for thee, my friend?" said I. "Are all the kindly charities cut off between us for ever? Hast thou, who wert so lately alive to the joys and the sorrows of every living thing, no share in all that is done or suffered here? Hast thou, who so lately wert my other soul, no feeling now that owns kindred with any thought of mine? Yes; on one theme, in one employment, we can sympathize still--we can still worship together." Kneeling upon the grave of my last earthly friend, I commended myself to a Heavenly one, and was comforted.
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.