Discipline: A Novel

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By some untoward fate, the government of husbands generally falls into the hands of those who are not likely to bring the art into repute. Women of principle refuse the forbidden office; women of sense steadily shut their eyes against its necessity in their own case; warm affection delights more in submission than in sway; and against the influence of genius an ample guard is provided in the jealousy of man. Mrs. Boswell being happily exempt from any of these disqualifications, did her best to govern her husband. There was nothing extraordinary in the attempt, but I was long perplexed to account for its success, for Mr. Boswell was not a fool. The only theory I could ever form on the subject was, that being banished during his exile in the colony from all civilized society, having little employment, and none of the endless resource supplied by literary habits, Mr. Boswell had found himself dependent for comfort and amusement upon his wife. She, on her part, possessed one qualification for improving this circumstance to the advancement to her authority; she was capable of a perseverance in sullenness, which no entreaties could move, and no submissions could mollify. She had, besides, some share of beauty; and though this was of course a very transient engine of conjugal sway, she gained perhaps as much from the power of habit over an indolent mind, as she lost by the invariable law of wedlock. Finally, where authority failed, Mrs. Boswell could have recourse to cunning. A screw will often work where more direct force is useless; and whatever understanding Mrs. Boswell possessed was of the tortuous kind. All her talents for rule, however, were exerted upon Mr. Boswell. Her child, her servants, any body who would take the trouble, performed the same office for herself. Except when she was capriciously seized with a fit of what she thought firmness, clamour or flattery were all-prevailing with her.

The very first evening which I spent in her house, furnished me with a specimen of her habits. "Will you begin French with Jessie to-morrow?" said she to me, with one of her most complaisant simpers.

"I should think, my darling," said Mr. Boswell, not much in the tone of a master, "that, it you please, it may be as well to exercise her a little more in English first."

"She can leant that at any time," said Mrs. Boswell, dismissing her smiles.

"Don't you think she had better begin with what is most necessary?" said the husband.

"We can't be losing Miss Percy's time with English," returned the wife, without deigning to turn her eyes or her head.

Mr. Boswell paused to recruit his courage; and then said meekly, "I dare say Miss Percy will not consider her time as lost in teaching anything you may think for the child's advantage."

"Certainly not," answered I; for Mr. Boswell spoke with a look of appeal to me.

Mrs. Boswell sat silent for five minutes, settling all the rings upon all her fingers. "Any body can hear the child read," said she, at last, without altering her tone or a muscle of her face.

"But Miss Percy's language and pronunciation are such admirable models, that--" Mr. Boswell stopped short, arrested by symptoms which I had not yet learned to discern. The lady uttered not another syllable, nor did she once raise her eyes till we were about to retire for the night.

"Shall I then give Miss Jessie a lesson in English grammar to-morrow morning?" said I, addressing myself to Mr. Boswell; merely from a feeling that the father had a right to direct the education of his child.

"As--as you think best--as you please," answered Mr. Boswell hesitatingly; and casting towards his spouse a glance of timid inquiry, which she did not answer even by a look.

I attended her to her bedchamber, where to my great surprise she drew me in and hastily locked the door; leaving Mr. Boswell, who was following close behind, to amuse himself in the lobby. She then seated herself: and, with all the coolness in the world, began talking to me of negroes, gold dust, and ivory. Presently Mr. Boswell came, and gently requested admission. Of this request the lady took no notice whatever. Some time afterwards the summons was repeated, but still without effect. "I am afraid I exclude Mr. Boswell," said I, rising and wishing her good night. "Oh never mind," said the lady, nodding her head, and endeavouring to look arch. Again I offered to go, but she would not allow me to move; and as she had put the key of the room-door into her pocket, I had no means of retreat. At last Mr. Boswell, hopeless of effecting a lodgment in his own apartment, retired to another; and as soon as the lady had, by listening, ascertained this fact, she opened the door and permitted me to depart.

For four days Mrs. Boswell never honoured her lord with the slightest mark of her notice. When he addressed her, whether in the tone of remark or of conciliation, she gave no sign of hearing. She would not even condescend to account for her behaviour by seeming out of humour; for to me she was all smiles and courtesy; and towards poor Mr. Boswell she merely assumed an air of unconquerable nonchalance. It was in vain that he acceded to his lady's plan for her daughter's studies. The obdurate fair was not so to be mollified. At length, on the fifth morning, she deigned to acknowledge his presence by a short and sullen answer to some trifle which he uttered. His restoration to favour, however, went on with rapid progression; and before evening the pair were upon the most gracious footing imaginable. Being now admitted behind the scenes, I was perfectly aware of the reason of this change. Mrs. Boswell wanted money.

Indeed I was early made a sort of confidante; that is to say, Mrs. Boswell told me all her likings and dislikes, all her husband's faults, and all her grounds of quarrel with his relations and her own. She unfolded to me, besides, many ingenious devices for managing Miss Jessie, for detecting the servants, and for cajoling Mr. Boswell. I must own I never could discover the necessity for these artifices; but there is pleasure in every effort of understanding, and I verily believe these tricks afforded the only exercise of which Mrs. Boswell's was capable.

It is not to be told with what disgust I contemplated this poor woman's character. Her uniform selfishness, her pitiful cunning, her feeble stratagems to compass baby ends, filled me with unconquerable contempt; a contempt which, indeed, I scarcely strove to repress. I imagined it to be the natural stirring of an honourable indignation. I often repeated to myself, that "I would willingly serve the poor creature if I could." I always behaved to her with such a show of deference as our mutual relation demanded, and thus concealed from myself "what spirit I was of." To forgive substantial injury is sometimes less a test of right temper than to turn an eye of Christian compassion upon the dwarfish distortion of a mind crippled in all its nobler parts.

But of all Mrs. Boswell's perversions, the most provoking was her mischievous interference with my pupil. Either from jealousy of my influence, or from the mere habit of circumvention, a sort of intriguing was carried on, which the folly of the mother and the simplicity of the child constantly forced upon my notice. Some indulgence was bestowed, which was to be kept profoundly secret from the governess; or some neglected task was to be slily performed by proxy. If the child was depressed by a sense of my disapprobation, she was to be comforted with gingerbread and sugar-plums; and then exhorted to wash her mouth, that Miss Percy might not discover this judicious supply of consolation.

I believe it is a mistake to suppose that we are not liable to be angry with those whom we despise. I know I was often so much irritated by the petty arts of Mrs. Boswell, that necessity alone detained me under her roof. I was the more harassed by her folly, because, duty apart, I had become extremely interested in the improvement of my young charge. The eleve of such a mother was, of course, idle, sly, and self-willed; but Jessie was a pretty, playful creature, with capacity enough to show that talents are not hereditary, and such a strength of natural kindliness as had outlived circumstances the most unfavourable to its culture. This latter quality is always irresistible; and it was more particularly so to an outcast like myself, who had no living thing to love or trust.

But for this child, indeed, Mr. Boswell's house would have been to me a perfect solitude. Mrs. Boswell was utterly incapable of anything that deserved the name of conversation. Six pages a week of a novel, or of the Lady's Magazine, were the utmost extent of her reading. She did nothing; therefore we could have no fellowship of employment. She thought nothing; therefore we could have no intercourse of mind. All her subjects of interest were strictly selfish; therefore we could not exchange sympathies. Either her extreme indolence, or a latent consciousness of inferiority, made her averse to the society of her equals in rank. Her ignorance or disregard of all established courtesies had banished from her table every guest, except one old maiden relative, whose circumstances obliged, and whose meanness inclined, her to grasp at the stinted civilities of Mrs. Boswell. To extort even the slightest attention from Mr. Boswell was, as I soon found, an unpardonable offence. Thus, though once more nominally connected with my fellow-creatures, I was, in fact, as lonely as when I first set foot upon a land where every face was new and every accent was strange to me.

In the many thoughtful hours I spent, what lessons did not my proud spirit receive! All the comforts which I drew from human converse or human affection I owed to a child. For my subsistence I depended upon one of the most despicable of human beings. But my self-knowledge, however imperfect, was now sufficient to render me satisfied with any circumstances which tended to repress my prevailing sin; a temper from which I even then endeavoured to forbode final, though, alas! far-distant victory.

Almost the only worldly interest or pleasure which remained for me to forego, I found myself obliged to sacrifice to my new situation. I could not introduce my pupil to the lowly habitation of my Highland friend; and I was too completely shackled to go abroad alone. Thus ended my expectations of reading Ossian in the original; and, what was perhaps a greater disappointment, thus perished my hopes of surprising Mr. Maitland--if Maitland and I were ever again to meet. That we should meet I believe I entertained an undefined conviction; for I often caught myself referring to his opinions, and anticipating his decision. Unfortunately this belief had no rational foundation: it was merely the work of fancy, which, wandering over a world that to me had been desolated, could find no other resting-place.

Though I had no longer leisure to pursue my Gaelic studies, I could not entirely relinquish my interest in Cecil Graham; and I seized an hour to visit and bid her farewell one morning while Mrs. Boswell and my pupil were gone to purchase toys.

When I entered Cecil's apartment she was kneading oat-cakes upon the only chair which it contained, the litter upon her table not leaving space for such an operation; but on seeing me she threw aside the dough, and pulling down a ragged stocking from a rope that stretched across the room she wiped the chair, and very cordially invited me to sit down. "Don't let me interrupt you, Cecil," said I.

"Oh, it's no interruption, lady," returned Cecil. "I'm sure ye have a lucky foot; and I was feared that I was no' to see you again, 'at I was."

"Why did not you come and visit me then, Cecil?"

"'Deed lady, I was at your lodging one day; and they told me you were away, and where you were gone to; and I went two or three times and sat with the childer' upon the step of the door to see if you would, may be, come out; but I never had luck to see you."

"Why did yon not inquire for me?"

"I'se warrant, lady," said Cecil, with a smile of proud humility, "they might have thought a wonder to see the like of me inquiring for you. But much thought have I had about you. They say 'cold is the breath of strangers;' but troth, if you like to believe me, my heart warmed to you whenever I saw you first."

"Truly, Cecil, I like very much to believe you; for there are not many hearts that warm to me."

"I'se tell you, lady, the last time I saw you, ye were no like yoursel'; ye were as white's canna; and I just thought that, may be, an ill ee, with your leave, had taken you."

"Does an evil eye injure the complexion of any body except the owner, think you, Cecil?" said I.

"An eye will split a stone, as they'll say in Glen Eredine," said Cecil, shaking her head very gravely. "But I have something, if you would please to accept; she hit mysel' just on the coat, with your leave, one night going through under the face of Benarde." While she spoke she was searching about her bed, and at length produced a small stone shaped somewhat like a gun flint. "Now," proceeded she, "ye'll just sew that within the lining of your stays, lady; or, with your leave, in the band of your petticoat; and there'll nobody can harm you."

"Thank you, Cecil. But if I rob you of this treasure, who knows how far your own good fortune may suffer?"

"Oh laogh mo chridhe," cried Cecil, affectionately, "it's good my part to venture anything for your sake; and if it just please Providence to keep us till we be at Glen Eredine, I'll, may be, get another."

I could not help smiling at Cecil's humble substitute for the care of Providence, and inwardly moralizing upon the equal inefficacy of others which are in more common repute. But as a casual attempt to correct her superstition would have been more likely to shake her confidence in myself than in the elfin arrow, I quietly accepted of her gift; inquiring when she would be in a situation to replace it.

"I don't know, lady," answered Cecil, with a sigh. "The weather's clear and bonny, and I am wearying sore for home; but-- but I'm half feared that Jemmy might no be easy, ye see, when he heard that I was at Eredine."

"How should it make your husband uneasy to hear that you were at home?"

"I don't know," said Cecil, looking down with a faint smile, and stopped; then sighing deeply, she proceeded, relieving her embarrassment by twisting the string of her apron with great industry. "Ye see, lady, I have a friend in Glen Eredine,--I--I--"

"So much the better, Cecil. That cannot surely be an objection to your going thither."

"I mean,--I would say, a lad like that--I should have married, if it had been so ordered." Cecil stopped, and sighed again.

"And do you think your husband would scruple to trust you, Cecil?" said I.

Her embarrassment instantly vanished, and she looked up steadily in my face. "No, no, lady!" said she, "I'll never think such a thought of him. He's no' so ill-hearted. But he would think that I might be dowie there, and he so far away; for it's a sore heart to me that the poor lad has never been rightly himsel' since my father bade marry Jemmy. And he'll no be forbidden to stand and look after me, and to make of little Kenneth there, and fetch hame our cows at night. And ever since my father died, he'll no be hindered to shear my mother's peats, although I have never spoken one word to him, good or bad, since that day that--"

Cecil paused, and drew her sleeve across her eyes. "It was so ordered," said she, "and all's for the best."

"Yes, but, Cecil, were not you a little hard-hearted, to forsake such a faithful lover?"

"Ochone! lady, what could I do? It was well kent he was no fitting for me. His forbeers were but strangers, with your leave; and though I say it, I'm sib to the best gentles in the land. So you see my father would never be brought in."

"And you dutifully submitted to your father!" said I, my heart swelling as I contrasted the filial conduct of this untutored being with my own.

"Woe's me, lady,--I was his own;--he had a good right that I should do his bidding. And besides that, I knew that Robert was no ordained for me;--well knew I that,--that I knew well." And while I was musing upon my ill-fated rebellion, Cecil kept ringing changes upon these words; for she would rather have repeated the same idea twenty times, than have allowed of a long pause in conversation where she was the entertainer.

"How did you discover," I inquired at length, "that there was a decree against your marrying Robert?"

"I'se tell you, lady," answered Cecil, lowering her voice; "we have a seer in Glen Eredine; and he was greatly troubled with me plainly standing at Jemmy's left hand. And first he saw it in the morning, and always farther up in the day, as the time came near. So he had no freedom in his mind but to tell me. Well, when I heard it, I fell down just as I had been shot; for I knew then what would be. But we must all have our fortune, lady. No' that I'm reflecting; for Jemmy's a good man to me; and an easy life I have had with him."

"That is no more than you deserve, Cecil. A dutiful daughter deserves to be a happy wife."

"Well, now, that's the very word that Miss Graham said, when she was that humble as to busk my first curch with her oun hand; ay, that's what she did; and when she saw me sobbing as my heart would break, hersel' laid her oun arm about my neck; and, says she, just as had I been her equal, 'My dear Cecil,' says she. The Lord bless her! I thought more of these two words, than of all the good plenishing she gave me. But for a' that, I had a sorrowful time of it at the first; and a sorrowfuller wedding was never in Glen Eredine, altho' Mr. Henry was the best man himsel'; for you see, Jemmy's his foster-brother."

"The best man? Cecil; I do not understand you. I should have thought the bridegroom might be the most important personage for that day at least."

Cecil soon made me comprehend, that she meant a brideman; whose office, she said, was to accompany the bridegroom when he went to invite guests to his wedding, and to attend him when he conducted his bride to her home. She told me, that, according to the custom of her country, her wedding was not celebrated till some weeks after she had taken the vows of wedlock; the Highland husband once secure of his prize, prudently postponing the nuptial festivities and the honey-moon, till the close of harvest brought an interval of leisure. Meanwhile, the forsaken lover, whose attachment had become respectable by its constancy, as well as pitiable by its disappointment, was removed from the scene of his rival's success by the humanity of Henry Graham, who contrived to employ him in a distant part of the country. But, in the restlessness of a disordered understanding, poor Robert left his post; wandered unconsciously many a mile; and reached his native glen on the day of Cecil's wedding.

By means of much rhetoric and gesticulation upon Cecil's part, and innumerable questions upon mine, I obtained a tolerably distinct idea of the ceremonial of this wedding. Upon the eventful morning, the reluctant bride presided at a public breakfast, which was attended by all her acquaintance, and honoured by the presence of "the laird himsel'." I will not bring discredit upon the refinement of my Gael, by specifying the materials of this substantial repast, as they were detailed to me with naive vanity by Cecil; but I may venture to tell, that, like more elegant fetes of the same name, it was succeeded by dancing. "I danced with the rest, said Cecil, "tho', with your leave, it made my very heart sick; and many a time I thought, oh, if this dancing were but for my lykwake." The harbingers of the bridegroom, (or, to use Cecil's phrase, the send,) a party of gay young men and women, arrived. Cecil, according to etiquette, met them at the door, welcomed, and offered them refreshments; then turned from them, as the prisoner from one who brings his death-warrant, struggling to gather decent fortitude from despair.

At last the report of a musket announced the approach of the bridegroom; and it was indispensable that the unwilling bride should go forth to meet him. "The wind might have blawn me like the withered leaf," said Cecil, "I was so powerless; but Miss Graham thought nothing to help me with her oun arm. Jemmy and I may be lucky, continued she, with a boding sigh; but I am sure it was an unchancy place where we had luck to meet;--just where the road goes low down into Dorch'thalla; the very place were Kenneth Roy, that was the laird's grandfather, saw something that he followed for's ill; and it beguiled him over the rock, where he would have been dashed in pieces though he had been iron. The sun never shines where he fell, and the water's aye black there. Well, it was just there that Jemmy had luck to get sight of us; so then, ye see, he ran forward to meet me, as the custom is in our country. Oh, I'll never forget that meeting!" Cecil stopped, shuddering with a look of horror, which I dared not ask her to explain, "He took off his bonnet," she continued, "to take, with your leave, what he never took off my mouth before; but,--oh, I'll never forget that cry! It was like something unearthly. 'Cecil! Cecil!' it cried; and when I looked up, there's Robert, just where the eagle's nest was wont to be; he was just setting back's foot, as he would that moment spring down."

"Did you save him?"

"I, lady! I could not have saved him though he had lighted at my foot. I could do nothing but hide my eyes; and my hands closed so hard, that the nails drew the very blood!"

"Dreadful!" I exclaimed, Cecil's infectious horror making the scene present to me,--"could nobody save him?"

"Nobody had power to do aught," answered Cecil, "save Mr. Henry, that's always ready for good. He spoke with a voice that made the craigs shake again; and they that saw his eyes, saw the very fire, as he looked steadily upon Robert, and waved him back with's arm. So then the poor lad was not so unsensible, but he knew to do his bidding, for they're no born that dare gainsay him. And then Mr. Henry round by the foot of the craig, and up the hill as he'd been a roe; and he caused Robert go home with him to the Castle, and caused keep him there, because he could no settle to work. No' that he's unsensible, except when a notion takes him. There's a glen where we were used to make carkets when we were herds; and he'll no let the childer' pluck so much as a gowan there; and ever since the lightning tore the great oak, he'll sit beside her sometimes the summer's day, and calls her always 'Poor Robert.'"

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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.