Cecil's tale, which included all the evening festivities,--the ball,--the throwing of the stocking, and the libation of whisky, which was dashed over the married pair, detained me so long, that Mrs. Boswell and my pupil were at home an hour before me. Mrs. Boswell, however, received me with her usual simper; and suffered the evening to arrive before she began to investigate, with great contrivance and circumlocution, the cause of my unusual absence. Though provoked at her useless cunning, I readily told her where I had been. But, though the lady had taken me into high favour, and made me the depository of fifty needless secrets, I saw that she did not believe a word of my statement; for Mrs. Boswell was one of the many whose defects of the head create a craving for a confidant, while those of the heart will never allow them to confide. Perceiving that my word was doubted, I disdained further explanation, and suffered Mrs. Boswell to hint and soliloquize without deigning reply.
The little dingy cloud, which scarcely added to their accustomed dulness, was beginning to settle on the features of my hostess, when another attack was made upon her good-humour. My pupil, in a romping humour which I could not always restrain, pulled out the comb that confined my hair; which unfortunately extorted from Mr. Boswell a compliment on its luxuriance and beauty. Now Mrs. Boswell's chevelure happened to have an unlucky resemblance to that of a dancing-bear; a circumstance which I verily believe her poor husband had forgotten, when he incautiously expressed admiration of auburn curls. The lady's face was for once intelligible; her lips grew actually livid; and for some moments she seemed speechless. At last she broke forth. "Her hair may well be pretty," said she; "I am sure it costs her pains enough."
With a smile, more I fear of sarcasm than of good-humour, I thanked her for helping me to some merit, where I was ignorant that I could claim any. Mrs. Boswell, either fearing to measure her powers of impertinence with mine, or finding sullenness the most natural expression of her displeasure, made no reply; but sat for a full hour twisting the corner of her pocket-handkerchief, without raising her eyes, or uttering a syllable. At last, she suddenly recovered her spirits; and for the rest of the evening was remarkably gracious and entertaining.
I was not yet sufficiently acquainted with Mrs. Boswell to perceive anything ominous in this change. The next day, however, while I was alone with my pupil, the child began to frolic round me with a pair of scissors in her hand; making a feint, as if in sport, to cut off my hair. A little afraid of such a plaything, I desired her to desist; speaking to her, as I always did, in a tone of kindness. "Would you be very sorry," said she, clasping her arms round my neck, and speaking in a half whisper, "very, very sorry if all your pretty curls were cut off?"
"Indeed, Jessie," answered I, smiling, "I am afraid I should; more sorry than the matter would deserve."
"Then," cried the child, throwing away the scissors, "I won't never cut off your hair; not though I should be bid a thousand thousand times."
"Bid!" repeated I, thrown off my guard by astonishment; "who could bid you do such a thing?
"Ah! I must not tell you that, unless you were to promise upon your word--"
"No," interrupted I. "Do not tell me. Be honourable in this at least. And another time, if you wish to injure me, do so openly. I will endure all the little evil in your power to inflict, rather than you should grow up in the habits of cunning."
That a mother should thus lay a snare for the rectitude of her child, must have appeared incredible, could the fact have admitted of a doubt. I had still too many faults myself to look with calmness upon those of others; and I was seriously angry. "How is it possible," thought I, "to form in this child the habits of rectitude, while I am thus provokingly counteracted; and useless as I am compelled to be, how can I endure to receive the bread of dependence from a creature whose mischief has neither bound nor excuse, except in the weakness of her understanding?" In the height of my indignation, I resolved to upbraid Mrs. Boswell with her baseness and folly, and then resign my hopeless task. But I had so often and so severely smarted for acting under irritation, that the lesson had at length begun to take effect; and I recollected that it might be wise to defer my remonstrances till I could suppress a temper which was likely to render them both imprudent and useless. I fear my forbearance was somewhat aided by considering the consequences of renouncing my present situation. However, when I was cool, I conducted my reproofs with what I thought great address. I hid my offending ringlets under a cap, and never more exposed them to the admiration of Mr. Boswell. It would have been mere waste of oratory to harangue to Mrs. Boswell upon the meanness of artifice; and rather uncivil, all things considered, to talk to her of its inseparable connexion with folly; but I represented to her, that the time might come when her daughter would turn against her the arts which she had taught. A fool can never divest an argument of its reference to one particular case. "If she should cut off my hair," said the impracticable Mrs. Boswell, "I shan't care much, for wigs are coming into fashion."
"But if even in trifles she learn to betray, how can you be sure that, in the most important concerns of life, she will not play the traitress?
"Oh no fear," cried Mrs. Boswell, nodding her head as she always did when she meant to look sagacious; "I shall be too knowing for her, I warrant."
"A blessed emulation!" thought I.
Our dialogue was interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Boswell, whose features seemed animated by some incipient scheme. He took his place beside his mate, and forthwith began to toy and flatter; looking, however, as if he would fain have ventured to change the subject. At length the secret came forth. He had met a college companion, with whom he had a great inclination to dine that day. Mrs. Boswell said nothing; but she looked denial. Mr. Boswell sat silent for a little, and then renewed his manoeuvres. The praises of a favourite cap soothed the lady into quiescence; for good-humour is too lively a term to express the more amiable turns of Mrs. Boswell's temper. The petitioner seized the favourable moment. "I should really like to dine with poor Tom Hamilton to-day," said he.
"Poor fiddlesticks!" returned the polite wife. "What have you to do dining with Tom Hamilton?"
"I don't know, my love: we have not met for twenty years; and he pressed me so much to come and talk over old stories, that--that I was obliged to give him a kind of half-promise."
"Nonsense!" quoth the lady, with a decisive tone and aspect: and poor Mr. Boswell, with a sigh of resignation, moved his chair towards the fire-place, and began, to draw figures in the ashes.
"Whether this operation assisted his courage, I know not; but, in about ten minutes, he told me, in a half-whisper, "that if I would entertain Mrs. Boswell, he rather thought he would dine with Tom Hamilton."
"And why should you not? For a husband to go out, it is sufficient that he wills it," said I: parodying a maxim which was at that time the watchword of more important revolt. I fancy the smile which accompanied my words was, for the moment, more terrific to Mr. Boswell than his lady's frown, for he instantly left us; and having secured his retreat beyond the door, put his head back into the room, saying, with a farewell nod, and a voice of constrained ease. "Au revoir, my darling! I dine with Hamilton."
"Why, Mr. Boswell!" screamed the wife, in a tone between wrath and amazement; but the rebel was beyond recal.
The lady was forthwith invested with an obstinate fit of the sullens. Considering me as the cause of her husband's misconduct, she suffered dinner and some succeeding hours to pass without deigning me even a look or a word. My forte, certainly, was not submission; therefore, after speaking to her once or twice without receiving an answer, I made no further effort to soothe her, but amused myself with reading, work, or music, exactly as if Mrs. Boswell's chair had been vacant. She made several attempts to disturb my amusement: she spilled the ink upon my clothes. But though she made no apology, I assured her, with wicked good-humour, that a farthing's worth of spirit of salt would repair the disaster. She beat poor Fido; yet oven this did not provoke me to speak. She could not make me angry; because, by showing me that such was her purpose, she engaged my pride to disappoint her. Left to itself, her temper at last made a tolerable recovery; or, rather, she spared me, that she might discharge its full venom upon Mr. Boswell.
At a late hour the culprit returned; fortified, as it appeared, by a double allowance of claret, but in high spirits and good-humour. Forgetting that he was in disgrace, he walked as directly as he could towards his offended fair; and, with a look of stupid kindness, offered her his hand. The lady flounced away with great disdain. "Come now, my darling," stammered the husband, coaxingly; "don't be cross. Be a good girl, and give me a kiss."
"Brute!" replied the judicious wife, giving him a push, which, with the help of the extra bottle, made him stagger to the other side of the room. There he placed himself beside me; protesting that I was a sweet, lovely, good-humoured creature, and that he was sure I had never been out of temper in my life; with many other equally well-turned compliments. This was the consummation of his misdeeds. Mrs. Boswell pulled the bell till the wire broke. "Put that creature to bed," said she to the servant; "don't you see he's not fit to be any where else?" Mr. Boswell was not so much intoxicated as to be insensible to this indignity, which he angrily resisted; while, shocked and disgusted beyond expression, I escaped from the scene of this disgraceful altercation.
The next day Mrs. Boswell had recourse, as usual, to silent sullenness; to which she added another mode of tormenting. She constantly held her handkerchief to her eyes, and affected to shed tears. All this, however, was reserved for Mr. Boswell's presence, as she soon discovered that it was needless to waste either anger or sensibility upon me. Lest her distress should not sufficiently aggravate the culprit's self-reproach, she pretended that her health was affected by her feelings. It was always one of her Lilliputian ambitions to obtain the reputation of a feeble appetite. But now this infirmity increased to such a degree, that Mrs. Boswell absolutely could not swallow a morsel; nor, which was much worse, could she see food tasted by another without demonstrations of loathing. Nevertheless, she regularly appeared at table; and, for three days, every meal was disquieted by the landlady's disgust at our voracity.
Poor Mr. Boswell, now completely quelled, did what man could do to restore peace and appetite. He coaxed, entreated, and offered her, I believe, all the compounds recorded in all the cookery books; but in vain. Deaf as the coldest damsel of romance to the prayer of offending love was Mrs. Boswell. She retained her youthful passion for sweetmeats; and her good-natured husband came one morning into her dressing-room fraught with such variety of confections, that I was surprised at the self-command with which she refused them all. I could not help laughing to see him court the great baby with sugar-plums; she answering, like any other spoilt child, only by twisting her face, and thrusting forward her shoulder; nor was my gravity at all improved when Fido, making his way into some concealment, drew forth the remains of a portly sirloin.
Mr. Boswell looked as if he would fain have joined in my laugh; but he foresaw the coming storm, and prudently effected his retreat. Mrs. Boswell's face grew livid with rage. She snatched the poker; and would have struck the poor animal dead, had I not arrested her arm. "Stop, woman!" said I, in a voice at which I myself was almost startled; "degrade yourself no further." It it not the rage of such a creature as Mrs. Boswell that can resist the voice of stern authority. Her eye fixed by mine as by the gaze of a rattle-snake, she timidly laid aside her weapon; and shrunk back, muttering that she did not mean to hurt my dog.
From that time Mrs. Boswell discovered a degree of enmity towards the poor animal, which I could not have imagined even her to feel towards anything less than a moral agent. Not that she avowed her antipathy; but I now knew her well enough to detect it even in the caresses which she bestowed on him. She was constantly treading on him, scalding him, tormenting him in every possible way, all by mere accident; and if I left him within her reach, I was sure to be recalled by his howlings. The poor animal cowered at the very sight of her. At last he was provoked to avail himself of his natural means of defence; and one evening, when she had risen from her sofa on purpose to stumble over him, he bit her to the bone.
The moment she recovered from the panic and confusion which this accident occasioned, she insisted upon having the animal destroyed, upon the vulgar plea, that, if he should ever go mad, she must immediately be affected with hydrophobia. Pitying her uneasiness, I at first tried to combat this ridiculous idea; but I soon found that she was determined to resist conviction. "All I said might be true, but she had heard of such things; and, for her part, she should never know rest or peace, while the life of that animal left the possibility of such a horrible catastrophe." At last I was obliged to tell her peremptorily that nothing should induce me to permit the destruction of my poor old favourite,-- the relic of better times, the last of my friends. I humoured her folly, however, so far as to promise that I would find a new abode for him on the following day. Mrs. Boswell was relentlessly sullen all the evening; but I was inflexible.
The only way which occurred to me of disposing of poor Fido was to commit him to the care of Cecil Graham, at least till she should leave Edinburgh. In the morning, therefore, I prepared for a walk, intending to convey my favourite to his new protectress. My pupil was, as usual, eager to accompany me; and when I refused to permit her, she took the course which had often led her to victory elsewhere, and began to cry bitterly. This, however, was less effectual with me than with her mother. I persisted in my refusal; telling her that her tears only gave me an additional motive for doing so, since I loved her too well to encourage her in fretfulness and self-will. Mrs. Boswell, however, moved somewhat by her child's lamentations, but more by rivalry towards me, soothed and caressed the little rebel; and finally insisted that I should yield the point. Angry as I was, I commanded my temper sufficiently to let the mother legislate for her child; and submitted in silence. But when we were about to set out, Fido was nowhere to be found. After seeking him in vain, I would have given up my expedition; but Mrs. Boswell would not suffer Jessie to be disappointed, so we departed.
I found Cecil's apartment vacant, and all its humble furniture removed. I comprehended that she had returned to her native wilds; and I felt that the connexion must be slight indeed which we can without pain see broken for ever! She was gone, and had not left among the thousands, whose hum even now broke upon my ear, one being who would bestow upon me a wish or a care. "Poor feeble Ellen!" said I to myself, as I dashed the tears from my eyes, "where foundest thou the disastrous daring which could once renounce the charities of nature, and spurn the intercourse of thy kind?"
A natural feeling leading me to inquire into the particulars of Cecil's departure, I made my way to an adjoining apartment, which was occupied by another family.
On my first entrance, the noisome atmosphere almost overcame me; and, unwilling to expose my little charge to its effects, I desired her to remain without, and wait my return; but her morning's lesson of disobedience had not been lost, and I presently found her at my side.
In answer to my inquiries, the people of the house told me that Cecil had been gone for several days; but as to the particulars of her fate, they showed an ignorance and unconcern scarcely credible in persons who had lived under the same roof. Disgusted with all I saw, I was turning away; when a groan, which seemed to issue from a darker part of the room, drew my steps towards a wretched bed, where lay a young woman in the last stage of disease. I had inquired whether she had any medical assistance, and been answered that she had none,--I had bent over her for some minutes, touched the parched skin, and tried to count the fluttering pulse--before, my eye accommodating itself to the obscurity, I perceived the unconscious gaze and flushed cheek which indicate delirious fever. I turned hastily away; but more serious alarm took possession me, when I observed that my pupil had followed me close to the bedside, and in childish curiosity was inhaling the very breath of infection. I instantly hurried her away, and returned home.
Though expecting that Mrs. Boswell would throw upon me the blame which more properly belonged to herself, I did not hesitate to acquaint her with this accident; begging her to advise with the family surgeon whether any antidote could still be applied. But Mrs. Boswell was touched with a more lively alarm than poor Jessie's danger could awaken. "Bless me!" she cried, "did you touch the woman? Pray don't come near me. Campbell! get me ever so much vinegar. Pray go away, Miss Percy. I would not be near a person that had the fever for the whole world."
"Were every one of your opinion, madam," said I, "a fever would be almost as great a misfortune as infamy itself; but since you are so apprehensive, Jessie and I will remain above stairs for the rest of the day."
At the door of my apartment I found poor Fido extended, stiff and motionless. Startled by somewhat unnatural in his posture, I called to him. The poor animal looked at me, but did not stir. "Fido!" I called again, stooping to pat his head. He looked up once more; wagged his tail; gave a short low whine; and died.
Many would smile were I to describe what I felt at that moment; and yet I believe there are none who could unmoved lose the last memorial of friend and parent, or part unmoved with the creature which had sported with their infancy, and grown old beneath their care. Fido was my last earthly possession. Besides him I had nothing. I thank Heaven that the greater part of my kind must look back to the deprivations of early childhood, ere they can know what a melancholy value this single circumstance gives to what is in itself of little worth.
My feelings took a new turn, when it suddenly occurred to me that my poor old favourite owed his death not to disease, but to poison. His appearance, as well as the suddenness of his death, confirmed the suspicion. Strong indignation already working in my breast, I hastened to question the servants. They all denied the deed; but with such reservations, as showed me that they at least guessed at the perpetrator. Breathless with resentment, and with a vain desire to vent it all, yet to vent it calmly, I entered Mrs. Boswell's apartment, and steadily questioned her upon the fact. Mrs. Boswell forgot her late alarm, or rather my flashing eye was for a moment an over-match for the fever. She changed colour more than once: but she answered me with that forced firmness of gaze, which often indicates determined falsehood. "She could not imagine who could do such a thing. She could not believe that the animal was poisoned. She did not suppose that any of the servants would venture. In short she was persuaded that Fido died a natural death."
"That shall be examined into," said I, still looking at her in stern inquiry. Again she changed colour, and resumed her denials, but with a more restless and evasive aspect. Presently my glance followed hers to some papers which lay upon the table. I saw her as if by accident cover them with her hand, then dexterously throw them upon the ground; and she was just endeavouring to conceal them with her foot, when I snatched up one of them. I observed that it had been the envelope of a small parcel; and turning the reverse, saw that it was marked with the word "arsenic."
Dumb for a moment with unutterable scorn, I merely presented the paper to Mrs. Boswell, and hearing her stammer out some lying explanation, turned in disgust away. But indignation again supplied me with words. "Find another instructor for your child, Mrs. Boswell," said I; "I will no longer tell her to despise treachery, and falsehood, and cruelty, lest I teach her to scorn her mother."
Then without waiting reply, I left the room.
"Dost thou well to be angry?" said my conscience, as soon as she had time to speak. I answered, as every angry woman will answer, "Yes. I do well to be angry. Vile were the spirit that would not stir against such inhuman baseness!" This was well spoken,--perhaps it was well felt. Yet I would advise all lofty spirits to be abstemious in their use of noble indignation. It borders too nearly on their prevailing sin.
I soon recollected that I renounced my only means of support; but it is a feeble passion which cannot justify its own acts.
"Better so," said I, "than receive the bread of dependence from one whom I ought to despise; or cling to an office in which I can perform nothing."
I began, however, to look with some uneasiness to the consequences of my rashness. I had neither home, property, nor friends. That which gives independence--the only real independence--to the poorest menial, was wanting to me; for I had neither strength for bodily labour, nor resolution to endure want. Nor could I claim the irresistible consolation of tracing, in the circumstances of my lot, the arrangements of a Father's wisdom. My own temerity had shaped my fate. My own impatience of human wickedness and folly was about to cut me off from human support; and I, who had no forbearance for the weakness of my brethren, was about to try what strength was in myself.
All this might perhaps pass darkly through my mind, but was not permitted to take a determinate form. The sin, whatever it be, which easily besets us, is to each of us the arch-deceiver. It is the first which the Christian renounces in general, the last which he learns to detect in its particulars. I had resolved to call my self-will "virtuous indignation;" for indeed my ruling frailty has had, in its time, as many styles and titles as any ruler upon earth, though seldom like them designated by its Christian name.
It was an obvious escape from examining the past, to anticipate the future. I had some experience of the difficulties which awaited me; and knew how little my merits, such as they were, would avail towards the advancement of an unfriended stranger. Yet the fearless buoyancy of my temper supported me. I had now spent in Mrs. Boswell's family three months of weariness and drudgery, for which I had received no remuneration; I concluded, of course, that she was my debtor for some return, however small. Upon this sum I expected to subsist till some favourable change should take place in my situation. How or whence this change should come, I fancy I should have been puzzled to divine; so I was content with assuring myself that come it certainly would.
At the beginning of my connexion with Mrs. Boswell, I had, with more politeness than prudence, submitted the recompence of my services to her decision. From that time she seemed to have forgotten the subject; and delicacy, or perhaps pride, forbade me to bring it to her recollection. It was now absolutely necessary to surmount this feeling; but it was surmounted in vain. Mrs. Boswell reminded me, that I had stipulated for protection only and declared, that she understood me as engaged to serve her without any other reward. Confounded as I was at her meanness and effrontery, I yet retained sufficient command of temper to address a civil appeal to a faculty which, in Mrs. Boswell's mind, was an absolute blank; but argument was vain, and my only resource was an application to Mr. Boswell.
Well knowing that his lady's presence would give a fatal bias to the scales of justice, I requested to speak with him in private. Unwilling to shock him by a detail of his wife's baseness, I assigned no reason for the resolution which I announced of quitting his family. I merely submitted to his arbitration the misunderstanding which had arisen in regard to the terms of my servitude. I had reason to be flattered by the regret, perhaps I might rather say dismay, with which the good man heard of my intended removal. With every expression of affectionate and fatherly regard he entreated me to reconsider my purpose. He assured me, that it was the first wish of his heart that his child should resemble me; he said, that he could neither hope nor even desire to see another obtain such influence as I had already gained over her; and that all his prospects of comfort depended on the use of this influence. "I need not affect to disguise from you, my dear Miss Percy," said he, "that Mrs. Boswell, however willing, is not likely to assist much in forming Jessie's temper and manners. The variableness of her spirits--"
"Spirits!" repeated I, involuntarily.
"Well," resumed Mr. Boswell, with a heavy sigh, "perhaps I should rather have said temper. But whatever it be, the more useless it makes her to Jessie, and the more vexatious to me, the more have we both need of that delightful gaiety, that blessed sweetness which breathes peace and cheerfulness wherever you come. Dear Miss Percy, say that you will remain with my girl, that you will teach her to be as delightful as yourself, and you will repay me for ten of the most comfortless years that ever a poor creature spent."
Somewhat embarrassed by this strange sort of confidence, I answered, that were I to accept the trust he offered I should only disappoint his expectations, since all my influence with my pupil was as nothing compared with that which was thrown into the opposite scale. I therefore renewed my request, that he would enable me immediately to relinquish my charge.
Mr. Boswell employed all his rhetoric to change my resolution, but I was inflexible. "Well, well!" said he at last, with a sigh and a shrug, "I see how it is. The same confounded nonsense that has driven every comfort from my doors for these ten years past is driving you away too. Well, well! Hang me if I can help it. A man must submit to anything for the sake of peace."
"Undoubtedly," said I, suppressing a smile; "while he finds that he actually reaps that fruit from has submission."
"Why as to that I can't say much. But bad as matters are, they might be worse if I were as determined to have my own way as my wife is. I have tried it once or twice, indeed; but--really her perseverance is most wonderful!" Mr. Boswell pursued the subject at great length; labouring to convince me, or rather to convince himself, that where submission was unattainable on the one side the defect ought to be supplied by the other; always inferring, from the necessary unhappiness of his situation, that I ought not, by my departure, to deprive him of his only remaining comfort. All he could obtain, however, was my consent to continue in his family for a few days longer. In return, he promised the full discharge of my claim upon Mrs. Boswell, as soon as he should find means to dispose of such a sum peaceably; that is, as soon as he could by stealth abstract so much of his own property.
I suppose the pleasures of complaint increase in proportion to the folly and impropriety of complaining. I never could otherwise account for the frequent lamentations over the perfidy of lovers and the obduracy of parents; nor imagine any other reason why Mr. Boswell, having once entered on the subject of his conjugal distresses, returned to it on every possible occasion. In his wife's presence it was recalled to my recollection by cautious hints, and by significant sighs and looks. In her absence the theme seemed inexhaustible.
The embarrassment inflicted on me by this continual reference to a secret was increased, when I perceived that Mrs. Boswell, whose jealousy in this instance supplied her want of penetration, suspected some intelligence between her husband and myself. She was now, indeed, under a stubborn fit of taciturnity; but I had at last learnt to read a countenance which never forsook its stony blank, except to express some modification of malevolence. I alarmed Mr. Boswell into more caution; but when the lady's suspicions once were roused, it was not in the most guarded prudence, nor in the most open simplicity of conduct, to lull them.
Unfortunately Mr. Boswell and I soon found a more legitimate subject of sympathy. The very day after her ill-fated visit to the abode of disease, poor Jessie showed symptoms of infection; and before the week expired was pronounced to be in extreme danger. The mother, on this occasion, showed a degree of anxiety which was wonderful in Mrs. Boswell. She sent for nurse after nurse, and for doctors innumerable. She made diligent inquiry after a fortune-teller, to unveil the fate of her child; and she actually shed tears when the fire emitted a splinter which she called a coffin. Stronger minds than Mrs. Boswell's become superstitious when their most important concerns depend upon circumstances over which they have no control. Finally, she questioned every member of the family concerning the best cure for a fever, and insisted that all their prescriptions should be applied. Fortunately, however, no consideration could prevail upon her to superintend the application. To approach the infected chamber, she would have thought nothing less than felo de se;--therefore the poor little sufferer was spared many unnecessary torments.
Mrs. Boswell carried her dread of infection so far, that she would told no direct communication with any one who entered the sick room, and she positively forbade her husband to approach his suffering child. But to this interdiction the father could not submit; his visits were stolen, indeed, but they were frequent, and he evinced on these occasions a sensibility which could scarcely have been expected from the easy indifference of his general temper. Often, while others were at rest, did the father hang over the sick bed of his child, offer the draught to her parched lips, and shed upon her altered face the tear of him who trembles for his only hope.
To his kindness and his sorrow she was alike insensible. Her fondness for me seemed the only recollection which her delirium had spared. She would accept of no sustenance except from my hand. If I was withdrawn from her sight her eye wandered in restless search of something desired, though when I appeared it often fixed on me with a heart-breaking vacancy of gaze. Thus circumstanced, I could no longer think of deserting her; indeed I never quitted her even for an hour, and when wearied out I sunk to sleep it was only to start again at her slightest summons. These attentions, which I must have been a savage to withhold, extorted from Mr. Boswell the warmest expressions of gratitude;--gratitude, which springs so readily in every human heart, yet so rarely takes root there, and so very rarely becomes fruitful.
"God reward thee, blessed creature!" said he once, when late in the night we were separating at the door of the sick-room, where he had been sharing the vigils of the nurse and me. "My child's own mother forsakes her, whilst you!--God reward you."
As he spoke he clasped my hand between his, and fervently pressed his lips to my forehead. But I started with a confusion like that of detected guilt, when I perceived at a little distance the half-concealed face of Mrs. Boswell, scowling malignity and detection. Whilst I stood for a moment in motionless expectation of what was to follow, she darted forward, undressed as she was, her lip quivering, her face void of all colour except a line of strong scarlet bordering her eyelids. "Mighty well!" cried she, in accents half choked by something between an hysterical giggle and a sob. "Mighty well, indeed! I knew how it was! I have seen it all well enough. But I'm not such a fool as you think! I won't endure it--that I won't."
Provoked by the recollection that this degrading remonstrance was uttered within hearing of a domestic, I looked towards Mr. Boswell for defence: but seeing him cower like a condemned culprit, I was obliged to answer for myself. "What will you not endure, madam?" said I. "Your own preposterous fancy?--I know of nothing else that you have to endure."
Mrs. Boswell's natural cowardice always took part against her with a resolute antagonist. "I am sure," said she, whimpering between fear and wrath, "I don't want to have any words with you, Miss Percy--only I wish--I am sure it would be very obliging if you would go quietly out of this house--and not stay here enticing other people's husbands--"
At this coarse accusation the indignant blood rose to my forehead. But the provocation was great enough to remind me that this was a fit occasion of forbearance, and I subdued my voice and countenance into stern composure, while I said, "Woman! I would answer you, were I sure of speaking only what a Christian ought to speak." Then turning from her, I took refuge from further insult in the apartment which I knew she did not dare to approach.
There I sat down to consider what course I should pursue. I had been insolently forbidden the house, and every moment that remained in it might subject me to new affront. The very attendants in the sick-room could with difficulty restrain the merriment excited by Mrs. Boswell's ridiculous attack, and I felt as if the impertinence of their half-suppressed smiles was partly directed against me. They had heard my dismission, and every instant that I delayed to avail myself of it seemed a new degradation. The most rooted passion of my nature, therefore, urged my immediate departure, but I had now learned to lend a suspicious ear to its suggestions. "I shall never be humble," thought I, "if I resist every occasion of humiliation;" and when I looked upon the altered countenance of my poor little charge, I could have endured anything rather than have withdrawn its last comfort from her ebbing life. I resumed my place by her side, resolved never voluntarily to quit her while my cares could administer to her relief.
My task was now of short duration. The very next day the physician informed me that the crisis of the disorder was at hand, and that an hour which he named would either bring material amendment, or lasting release from suffering. I entreated that the anxiety of the parents might not be aggravated by a knowledge of this circumstance, and undertook myself to watch the event of the critical hour.
The day passed in silent suspense. Mrs. Boswell did not dare to approach me, and she contrived, by what means I know not, to keep her husband away. I was truly thankful to be thus spared from contest, for I had begun to feel the consequences of breathing the polluted air of confinement. A heavy languor was upon me. My eyes turned pained from the light. I was restless, yet I moved uneasily, for my limbs seemed burdened beyond their strength. In vain I tried to struggle against these harbingers of disease. Infection had done its work, and my disorder increased every hour. The physician, at his evening visit, observing my haggard looks, desired that I should immediately endeavour to obtain some rest. But to sleep during the hour that was to decide poor Jessie's fate I should at any time have found impossible. I watched her till the appointed time was past; saw her drop into the promised sleep; sat motionless beside her during the anxious hours of its continuance; and, with a joy which brightened even the progress of disease, beheld her lifting upon me once more the eye of intelligence, and beaming upon me once more the smile of ease.
Thinking only of the joyful news I had to tell, I ran to inquire for Mr. Boswell. He was in his dressing-room, and thither I hastened to seek him. I entered, and told my tale I know not how. "Thank God!" the father tried to say, but could not. He burst into tears. The first words he spoke blessed me for having saved his child; the next expressed his eager wish to see her. We were leaving the dressing-room together when we met Mrs. Boswell. Her face growing livid with rage, and her voice sharpening to something like the scream of a Guinea fowl, she exclaimed, "Well! if this is not beyond everything! To go into his very room! You are a shameless, abominable man, Mr. Boswell. But I will be revenged on you--that I will."
"I went into Mr. Boswell's room, madam," interrupted I, calmly, "to tell him that his daughter is out of immediate danger; and I was just going to convey the same news to you."
"Oh! no doubt but you'll be clever enough to find some excuse. But I don't wish to have anything to say to you, Miss Percy,--only I tell you civilly, go away out of my house. I am sure the house is my own; and it is very hard if I can't--so go this moment, I tell you--"
She had gone too far. The mildest spirits are, when roused, the most tremendous; and Mr. Boswell's was, for the moment, completely roused. Seizing her with a grasp, which made me tremble, "Speak that again at your peril, Mrs. Boswell," said he. "Her stay depends upon herself, whilst I have a roof to shelter her." Then, throwing her from him, he passed on, whilst I shuddered at perceiving that his grasp had wrung the blood-drops from her fingers. The poor creature, terrified by this first instance of violence, stood gazing after him in trembling silence. "Compose yourself, Mrs. Boswell," said I, as soon as he was out of hearing; "I will immediately begone. I stayed only for the sake of poor Jessie; now nothing would tempt me to remain here another hour."
Spent with the exertion which I had made, I could scarcely reach my chamber. I immediately began to collect my little property for removal; but before my preparations, trifling as they were, could be finished, my strength failed, and I sunk upon my bed.
A strange confusion seemed now to seize me. Black shadows swam before my eyes, succeeded by glares of bloody light. Then hideous phantoms crowded round me, till my very breathing was oppressed by their numbers; and one of them, more frightful than the rest, laid on my forehead the weight of his fiery hand. Then came a confused hope that all was but a frightful dream, from which I struggled to rouse myself. I spoke as if my own voice could dispel the terrible illusion. I endeavoured to rise, that I might shake off this dreadful sleep. In an instant I was on the brink of a fearful precipice, from which I shrunk in vain. Hands invisible hurried me down the fathomless abyss.
Again I perceived that these horrors were illusory. I strove to convince myself that I was indeed in my own chamber, surrounded by objects familiar to my sight. My mind rallied its last strength, to recal the remembrance of my situation. Along with this, a dark suspicion of the truth stole upon me.
"Merciful heaven!" I cried, "are my senses indeed wandering; and must I be driven forth homeless, while fever is raging in my brain! Forbid it! oh, forbid it!"
By a violent effort I flung myself on my knees. With an earnestness which hastened the dreaded evil, I supplicated an escape from this worst calamity, and implored that the body might perish before the spirit were darkened. But ere the melancholy petition was closed, its fervour had wandered into delirium.
A time passed which I have no means to measure, and I saw a female form approach me. She seemed alternately to wear the aspect of my mother and of Miss Mortimer; yet she rejected my embrace; and when I called her by their names, she answered not. She clothed me in what seemed the chill vestments of the grave; she hurried me through the air with the rapidity of light; then consigned me to two dark and fearful shapes; and again I was hurried on.
At last the breath of heaven for a moment cooled my throbbing brow. I looked up and saw that I was in the hands of two persons of unknown and rugged countenance. They lifted me into a carriage. It drove off with distracting speed.
The succeeding days are a blank in my being.
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.