With a feeling of dignity and independence which had forsaken me in my more splendid abode, I took possession of an apartment contrived to serve the double purposes of parlour and bedchamber. "I have done right," thought I, "whatever be the consequences: and these are in the hands of One who has given me the strongest pledge that he will over-rule them for my advantage." Yet, alas for my folly! I was almost the next moment visited by the fear that the advantage might not be palpable to present observation, and that it might belong more to my improvement than to my convenience.
I now felt no reluctance to address Mrs. Murray; and to inquire whether it were still her wish to receive me into her family. One circumstance alone embarrassed me; I plainly perceived that I had already made such an impression upon Henry as his mother was not likely to approve; and it seemed dishonourable to owe my admission into her family to her ignorance of that which she would probably deem sufficient reason to exclude me. I knew the world, indeed, too well to expect that the passion of a youth of twenty, for a girl with a fortune of nine pounds three shillings, was itself likely to be either serious or lasting; but its consequences might be both, if it relaxed industry or destroyed cheerfulness, darkening the sunny morning with untimely shade.
But how could I forewarn my patroness of her danger? Could I tell her, not only that one day's acquaintance with her son had sufficed me to make a conquest, but, which was still less selon les regles, to discover that I had made it? I dared not brave the smile which would have avenged such an absurdity. After some consideration, I took my resolution. I determined to introduce myself the next day to Mrs. St. Clare, who, I imagined, would not long leave her sister-in-law in ignorance of my personal attractions; for I have often observed that we ladies, while we grudge to a beauty the admiration and praise of the other sex, generally make her amends by the sincerity and profuseness of our own.
"And if her description alarm Mrs. Murray," thought I; "if it deter her from admitting me under the roof with her son, what then is to become of me? What will my pretty features do for me then? What have they ever done for me, except to fill my ears with flatteries, and my mind with conceit, and the hearts of others with envy and malice? Maitland, indeed--but no--it was not my face that Maitland loved. Rather to the pride of beauty I owe that wretched spirit of coquetry by which I lost him. And now this luckless gift may deprive me of respectable protection and subsistence. Surely I shall at last be cured of my value for a bauble so mischievous--so full of temptation--so incapable of ministering either to the glory of God or the good of man!" Ah, how easy it is to despise baubles while musing by fire-light in a solitary chamber!
The evening passed in solitude, but not in weariness; for I was not idle. I spent the time in writing to Mrs. Murray, and in giving to my friend Dr. ---- an account of my voyage, and of my disappointment. The hour soon came which I now habitually devoted to the invitation of better thoughts, the performance of higher duties; and thanks be to Heaven, that neither human converse, nor human protection, nor aught else that the worldly can enjoy or value, is necessary to the comfort of that hour!
The next day Murray came early, under pretence of inquiring how I was satisfied with my accommodation; and I was pleased that the mission which he had undertaken to Mrs. St. Clare gave me a pretext for being glad to see him. I know not what excuse he could make for a visit of three hours long; but my plea for permitting it was the impossibility of ordering him away. He left me, however, at last; and, more convinced than ever that his mother would do well to dispense with my services, I went to present myself to Mrs. St. Clare.
Arrived at her house, I was ushered into the presence of a tall, elderly, hard-favoured gentlewoman, who, seated most perpendicularly on a great chair, was employed in working open stitches on a French lawn apron. I cannot say that her exterior was much calculated to dispel the reserve of a stranger. Her figure might have served to illustrate all the doctrines of the acute angle. Her countenance was an apt epitome of the face of her native land--rough, with deep furrow and uncouth prominence, and grim with one dusky uniformity of hue. As I entered, this erect personage rose from her seat, and, therefore, almost necessarily advanced one step to meet me. I offered some apology for my intrusion. From a certain rustle of her stiff lutestring gown, I guessed that the lady made some gesture of courtesy, though I cannot pretend that I saw the fact.
"Mr. Murray, I believe, has been so good as to mention me," said I.
The lady looked towards a chair, and this I was obliged to accept as an invitation to sit down.
"I have been particularly unfortunate in missing Mrs. Murray," said I.
"Hum!" returned the lady, with a scarcely perceptible nod; and a pause followed.
"She left Scotland very unexpectedly."
"I happened, unluckily, to have begun my journey before I learnt that it was unnecessary."
"That was a pity."
"I hope she is not likely to be long absent?"
"Indeed there is no saying."
"Perhaps she may not choose that I should wait her return?"
"Really I can't tell."
Until this hour, I had never known what it was to shrink before the repulse of frozen reserve, for the cordiality which had once been obtained for me by the gifts of nature or of fortune had of late been secured to me by partial affection and Christian benevolence. My temper began to rebel; but struggles with my temper were now habitual with me. I drew a long breath, and renewed my animating dialogue. "May I ask whether, in case Mrs. Murray should not want my services, you think I am likely to find employment here as a governess."
"Indeed I don't know. Few people like to take entire strangers into their families."
"The same recommendation which introduced me to Mrs. Murray I can still command."
A long silence followed, for I had another conflict with my temper; but I was fully victorious before I spoke again.
"I am afraid madam," said I, "that you will not think me entitled to use Mrs. Murray's name with you so far as to beg that, upon her account, if you should hear of any situation in which I can be useful, you will have the goodness to recollect me."
"It is not likely, Miss Percy, that I should hear of anything to suit you. At any rate, I make it a rule never to interfere in people's domestic arrangements."
My patience now quite exhausted, I took my leave with an air, I fear, not less ungracious than that of my hostess, and pursued my lonely way homewards, fully inclined to defer the revolting task of soliciting employment, till I should ascertain that Mrs. Murray's plans made it indispensable.
How often, as I passed along the street, did I start, as my eye caught some slight resemblance to a known face, and sigh over the futility of my momentary hope! He who in the wildest nook of earth possesses one friend, "to whom he may tell that solitude is sweet," knows not how cheerless it is to enter a home drearily secure from the intrusion of a friend. Yet, having now abundance of leisure for reflection, I should have been inexcusable if I had made no use of this advantage; and if, in the single point of conduct which seemed left to my decision, I had acted with imprudence. There was evident impropriety in Murray's visits. To encourage his boyish admiration would have been cruel to him, ungenerous towards Mrs. Murray, and incautious with respect to myself. It was hard, indeed, to resign the only social pleasure within my reach; but was pleasure to be deliberately purchased at the hazard of causing disquiet to the parent, and rebellion in the son--and this, too, by one engaged to exercise self-denial as the mere instrument of self-command? I peremptorily renounced the company of my young admirer; and whoever would know what this effort cost me must reject earnest entreaty, and resist sorrowful upbraiding, and listen to a farewell which is the known prelude to utter solitude.
A dull unvaried week passed away, during which I never went abroad except to church. My landlady, indeed, insisted, that even women of condition might with safety and decorum traverse her native city unattended; and pointed out from my window persons whom she averred to be of that description; but the assured gait and gaudy attire of these ladies made me suspect that she was rather unfortunate in her choice of instances. At last in a mere weariness of confinement, I one day consented to accompany her abroad.
We passed the singular bridge which delighted me with the strangely varied prospect of antique grandeur and modern regularity,--of a city cleft into a noble vista towards naked rock and cultivated plain,--seas busy with commerce, and mountains that shelter distant solitudes. I could scarcely be dragged away from this interesting spot; but my landlady, to whom it offered nothing new, was, soon after leaving it, much more attracted by a little scarlet flag, upon which was printed in large letters, "A rouping in here." This she told me announced a sale of household furniture, which she expressed much curiosity to see; and I suffered her to conduct me down a lane, or rather passage, so narrow as to afford us scarcely room to walk abreast, or light enough to guide us through the filth that encumbered our way. A second notice directed us to ascend a dark winding staircase; leading, as I afterwards learned, to the abodes of about thirty families. We had climbed, I think, about as high as the whispering gallery of St. Paul's, when our progress was arrested by the crowd which the auction had attracted to one of the several compartments into which each floor seemed divided. I recoiled from joining a party apparently composed of the lowest orders of mankind. But my companion averring that in such places she could often make a good bargain, elbowed her way into the scene of action.
While I hesitated whether to follow her, my attention was caught by the beauty of a child, who now half hiding his rosy face on the shoulder of his mother, cast a sidelong glance on the strangers, and now ventured to take a more direct view; while she, regardless of the objects of his curiosity, stood leaning her forehead against the wall in an attitude of quiet dejection. I watched her for a few moments, and saw the tears trickle from her face. So venerable is unobtrusive sorrow, that I could with more ease have accosted a duchess than this poor woman, though her dress denoted her to be one of those upon whom has fallen a double portion of the primeval curse. Her distress, however, did not seem so awe-inspiring to her equals; for one of them presently approaching, gave her a smart slap upon the shoulder, and, in a tone between pity and reproach, inquired, "what ailed her?" The poor woman looked up, wiped the tears from her eyes, and faintly tried to smile. "There's not much ails me," said she; but the words were scarcely articulate.
"Many a one has been rouped out before now," said the other. The reflection was ill-timed; for my poor woman covered her face with her apron, and burst into a violent fit of sobbing. I had now found a person of whom I could more freely ask questions, which, indeed, all seemed eager to answer; and I quickly discovered that Cecil Graham, for so my mourner was called, was the wife of a soldier, whom the first and firmest sentiment of a Highlander had lured from his native glen to follow the banner of his chieftain; that when his regiment had been ordered abroad, she had unwillingly been left behind; that, in the decent abode which Highland frugality had procured for her, she had, by her labour, supported herself and two children; but that, on the night before her rent became due, she had been robbed of the little deposit which was meant to pay it; and that her landlord, after some months of vain delay, had availed himself of his right over the property of his debtor.
"And will he," cried I, touched with a fellow-feeling--"will he drive this poor young woman abroad among strangers! without a home or a friend! God forgive him."
"I do not want for friends, and good friends, madam," said the Highlander, in the strong accent of her country, but with far less of its peculiar pronunciation than disguised the language of her companions; "all the streams of Benarde canna' wash my blood from the laird's himsel'."
"What laird?" inquired I, smiling at the metaphorical language of my new acquaintance. "Eredine himsel', lady; his grandfather and my great-grandmother were sister and brother childer:" meaning as I afterwards found, that these ancestors were cousins.
"And will the laird do nothing for his relation?" said I.
"That's what he would, madam, and that indeed would he" returned Cecil, laying on odd emphasis upon the pronoun, and gesticulating with great solemnity. "He's no' the man to take the child out of the cradle and put out the smoke."
"Why do you not apply to him then?"
"Indeed, lady, I'm no' going to trouble the laird. You see, he might think that I judged he was like bound to uphold me and mine, because Jemmy was away wi' Mr. Kenneth, ye see."
"What then will you do? Will you allow yourself to be stripped of all?"
"If I could make my way home, lady," returned the Highlander, "I should do well enough;--we must not expect to be always full-handed. What I think the most upon is, that they should sell the bit cloth that mysel' span to row us in."
"To roll you in!" repeated I, utterly unable to guess what constituted the peculiar value of this bit of cloth.
"Ay," returned Cecil, "to wind Jemmy and me in, with your leave, when we are at our rest; and a bonnier bit linen ye could na' see. The like of yoursel' might have lain in it, lady, or Miss Graham hersel'."
I could scarcely help smiling at the tears which poor Cecil was now shedding over the loss of this strange luxury, and looked up to find some trace of folly in the countenance of one who, robbed of all her worldly possessions, bestowed her largest regrets upon a fine winding-sheet. But no trace of folly was there. The cool sagacity, indicated by the clear broad forehead and the distinct low-set eyebrow, was enlivened by the sparkle of a quick black eye; and her firm sharply-chiselled face, though disfigured by its national latitude of cheek, presented a strong contrast to the dull vulgarity of feature which surrounded her. When my examination was closed. I inquired how far distant was the home of which she had spoken.
"Did you ever hear of a place they call Glen Eredine?" said Cecil, answering my question by another. "It is like a hundred miles and a bit, west and north from this."
"And how do you propose to travel so far at such a season?"
"If it be the will of the Best, I must just ask a morsel, with your leave, upon the way. I'll not have much to carry--only the infant on my breast, and a pickle snuff I have gathered for my mother. This one is a stout lad-bairn--God save him; he'll walk on's feet a bit now and then."
Though my English feelings revolted from the ease with which my Highlander condescended to begging, I could not help admiring the fortitude with which this young creature, for she did not seem above two-and-twenty, looked forward to a journey over frozen mountains and lonely wilds; which she must traverse on foot, encumbered by two infants, and exposed to the rigour of a stormy season. I stood pondering the means of preventing these evils; and at last asked her "whether the parish would not bestow somewhat towards procuring her a conveyance?"
"What's your will?" said Cecil, as if she did not quite comprehend me; though at the same time I saw her redden deeply.
Thinking she had misunderstood me, I varied the terms of my question.
Cecil's eyes flashed fire. "The poor's box!" said she, breathing short from the effort to suppress her indignation, "Good troth, there's nobody needs even me to the like. The parish, indeed! No, no, we have come to much, but we have no come to that yet." She paused, and tears rose to her eyes. "My dear dog," said she, caressing her little boy, "ye shall want both house and hauld before your mother cast shame upon ye; and your father so far away."
Confounded at the emotion which I had unwittingly occasioned, I apologized as well as I was able, assuring her that I had not the least intention to offend; and that in my country, persons of the most respectable character accounted it no discredit to accept of parish aid. At last, I partly succeeded in pacifying my Highlander. "To be sure," said she, "every place must have its own fashion, and it may come easy enough to the like of them; but it's no' to be thought that people that's come of respected gentles will go to demean themselves and all that belongs them."
I was acknowledging my mistake, and endeavouring to excuse it upon the plea of a stranger's ignorance, when one of the crowd advanced to inform Cecil that her treasured web was then offering for sale; and, so far as I could understand the barbarous jargon of the speaker, seemed to urge the rightful owner to buy it back. Cecil's answer was rather more intelligible. "Well, well!" said she; "if it be ordained, mysel' shall lie in the bare boards; for that pound shall never be broken by me."
"What pound?" inquired I.
"A note that Jemmy willed to his mother," answered Cecil; "and I never had convenience to send her yet."
She spoke with perfect simplicity, as if wholly unconscious of the generous fidelity which her words implied.
I had so long been accustomed to riches that I could not always remember my poverty. In five minutes I had glided through the crowd, purchased Cecil's treasure, restored it to its owner, and recollected that, without doing her any real service, I had spent what I could ill afford to spare.
The time had been when I could have mistaken this impulse of constitutional good nature for an act of virtue; but I had learnt to bestow that title with more discrimination. I was more embarrassed than delighted by the blessings which Cecil, half in Gaelic, half in English, uttered with great solemnity. "Is it enough," asked conscience, "to humour the prejudices of this poor creature, and leave her real wants unrelieved?"--"But can they," replied selfishness, "spare relief to the wants of others, who are themselves upon the brink of want?"--" She is like you, alone in the land of strangers" whispered sympathy.--"She is the object," said piety, "of the same compassion to which you are indebted for life--life in its highest, noblest sense!"--"is it right," urged worldly-wisdom, "to part with your only visible means of subsistence?"--"You have but little to give," pleaded my better reason; "seize then the opportunity which converts the mite into a treasure." The issue of the debate was, that I purchased for poor Cecil the more indispensable articles of her furniture; secured for her a shelter till a milder season might permit her to travel more conveniently; and found my wealth diminished to a sum which, with economy, might support my existence for another week.
Much have I heard of the rewards of an approving conscience, but I am obliged to confess, that my own experience does not warrant my recommending them as motives of conduct. I have uniformly found my best actions, like other fruits of an ungenial climate, less to be admired because they were good, than tolerated because they were no worse. I suspect, indeed, that the comforts of self-approbation are generally least felt when they are most needed: and that no one, who in depressing circumstances enters on a serious examination of his conduct, ever finds his spirits raised by the review. If this suspicion be just, it will obviously follow, that the boasted dignity of conscious worth is not exactly the sentiment which has won so many noble triumphs over adversity. For my part, as I shrank into my lonely chamber, and sighed over my homely restricted meal, I felt more consolation in remembering the goodness which clothes the unprofitable lily of the field, and feeds the improvident tenants of the air, than in exulting that I could bestow "half my goods to feed the poor."
That recollection, and the natural hilarity of temper which has survived all the buffetings of fortune, supported my spirits during the lonely days which passed in waiting Mrs. Murray's reply. At length it came; to inform me, that the state of Captain Murray's health would induce my patroness to shun in a milder climate the chilling winds of a Scotch spring; to express her regrets for my unavailing journey, and for her own inability to further my plans; and, as the best substitute for her own presence, to refer me once more to the erect Mrs. St. Clare. This reference I at first vehemently rejected; for I had not yet digested the courtesies which I already owed to this lady's urbanity. But, moneyless and friendless as I was, what alternative remained? I was at last forced to submit, and that only with the worse grace for my delay.
To Mrs. St. Clare's, then, I went; in a humour which will be readily conceived by any one who remembers the time when sobbing under a sense of injury he was forced to kiss his hand and beg pardon. The lady's mien was nothing sweetened since our last interview. While I was taking uninvited possession of a seat, she leisurely folded up her work, pulled on her gloves, and crossing her arms, drew up into the most stony rigidity of aspect. Willing to despatch my business as quickly as possible, I presented Mrs. Murray's letter, begging that she would consider it as an apology for my intrusion. "I have heard from Mrs. Murray," said my gracious hostess, without advancing so much as a finger towards the letter which I offered. I felt myself redden, but I bit my lip, and made a new attempt.
"Mrs. Murray," said I, "gives me reason to hope that I may be favoured with your advice."
"You are a much better judge of your own concerns, Miss Percy, than I can be."
"I am so entirely a stranger here, madam, that I should be indebted to any advice which might assist me in procuring respectable employment."
"I really know nobody just now that wants a person in your line, Miss Percy." In my line! The phrase was certainly not conciliating. "Indeed I rather wonder what could make my friend Mrs. Murray direct you to me."
"A confidence in your willingness to oblige her, I presume, madam," answered I; no longer able to brook the cool insolence of my companion.
"I should be glad to oblige her," returned the impenetrable Mrs. St. Clare, without discomposing a muscle except those necessary to articulation; "so if I happen to hear of anything in your way I will let you know. In the meantime, it may be prudent to go home to your friends, and remain with them till you find a situation."
"Had it been possible for me to follow this advice, madam, cried I, the scalding tears filling my eyes, "you had never been troubled with this visit."
"Hum! I suppose you have not money to carry you home. Eh?"
I would have retorted the insolent freedom of this question with a burst of indignant reproof, but my utterance was choked; I had not power to articulate a syllable.
"Though I am not fond of advancing money to people I know nothing about," continued the lady, "yet upon Mrs. Murray's account here are five pounds, which I suppose will pay your passage to London."
For more than a year I had maintained a daily struggle with my pride, and I fancied that I had, in no small degree, prevailed. Alas! occasion only was wanting to show me the strength of my enemy. To be thus coarsely offered an alms by a common stranger, roused at once the sleeping serpent. A sense of my destitute state, dependent upon compassion, defenceless from insult; a remembrance of my better fortune; pride, shame, indignation, and a struggle to suppress them all, entirely overcame me. A darkness passed before my eyes; the blood sprang violently from my nostrils; I darted from the room without uttering a word, and, before I was sensible of my actions, found myself in the open air.
I was presently surrounded by persons of all ranks. For the people of Scotland have yet to learn that unity of purpose which carries forward my townsmen without a glance to the right hand or the left; and I know not if ever the indisposition of a court beauty was inquired after in such varied tones of sympathy as now reached my ear. In a few minutes the fresh air had so completely restored me, that the only disagreeable consequence of my indisposition was the notice which it had attracted. I took refuge from the awkwardness of my situation in the only shop which was then within sight, and soon afterwards proceeded unmolested to my lonely home.
There I had full leisure to reconsider my morning's adventure. The time had been when the bare suspicion of a wound would have made my conscience recoil from the probe. The time had been when I would have shaded my eye from the light which threatened to show the full form and stature of my bosom foe; for then, a treacherous will took part against me, and even my short conflicts were enfeebled by relentings towards the enemy. But now the will, though feeble, was honest; and I could bear to look my sin in the face, without fear that lingering love should forbid its extermination. A review of my feelings and behaviour towards Mrs. St. Clare brought me to a full sense of the unsubdued and unchristian temper which they betrayed. I saw that whilst I had imagined my "mountain to stand strong," it was yet heaving with the wreckful fire. I felt, and shuddered to feel, that I had yet part in the spirit of the arch-rebel; and I wept in bitterness of heart, to see that my renunciation of my former self had spared so much to show that I was still the same.
Yet had this sorrow no connexion with the fear of punishment. I had long since exchanged the horror of the culprit who trembles before his judge, for the milder anguish which bewails offence against the father and the friend; and when I considered that my offences would cease but with my life,--that the polluted mansion must be razed ere the incurable taint could be removed, I breathed from the heart the language in which the patriarch deprecates an earthly immortality; and even at nineteen, when the youthful spirit was yet unbroken, and the warm blood yet bounded cheerily, I rejoiced from the soul that I should "not live away." Nor had my sorrow any resemblance to despair. A sense of my obstinate tendency to evil did but rouse me to resolutions of exertion; for I knew that will and strength to continue the conflict were a pledge of final victory.
Considering that humility, like other habits, was best promoted by its own acts, I that very hour forced my unwilling spirit to submission, by despatching the following billet to Mrs. St. Clare:--
"Madam,--Strong, and I confess blamable, emotion prevented me this morning from acknowledging your bounty, for which I am not certainly the less indebted that I decline availing myself of it. I feel excused for this refusal, by the knowledge that circumstances, with which it is unnecessary to trouble you, preclude the possibility of applying your charity to the purpose for which it was offered.
If others should be of opinion, as I now am, that the language of this billet inclined more to the stately than to the conciliating, let them look back to the time when duty, compassion, and gratitude, could not extort from me one word of concession to answer the parting kindness of my mother's friend. And let them learn to judge of the characters of others with a mercy which I do not ask them to bestow upon mine; let them remember that, while men's worst actions are necessarily exposed to their fellow-men, there are few who, like me, unfold their temptations, or record their repentance.
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.