I was awakened as from the deepest sleep by a cry wild and horrible. It was followed by shouts of dissonant laughter, unlike the cheering sounds of human mirth. They seemed but the body's convulsion, in which the spirit had no part. I started and listened;--a ceaseless hum of voices wearied my ear.
A recollection of the past came upon me, mixed with a strange uncertainty of my present state. The darkness of midnight was around me; why then was its stillness broken by more than the discords of day? I spoke, in hopes that some attendant might be watching my sick-bed;--no one answered to my call. I half-raised my feeble frame to try what objects I could discern through the gloom. High above my reach, a small lattice poured in the chill night wind; but gave no light that could show aught beyond its own form and position. As I looked fixedly towards it, I perceived that it was grated. "Am I then a prisoner?" thought I. "But it matters not. A narrower cell will soon contain all of poor Ellen that a prison can confine." And, worn out with my effort, I laid myself down with that sense of approaching dissolution, which sinks all human situations to equality.
I closed my eyes, and my thoughts now flew unbidden to that unknown world from which, in the days of levity, they had shrunk affrighted; and to which, even in better times, they had often been turned with effort.
Presently a female voice, as if from the adjoining chamber, began a plaintive song; which now died away, now swelled in mournful caprice, till, as it approached the final cadence, it wandered with pathetic wildness into speech. I listened to the hopeless lamentation;--heard it quicken into rapid utterance, sink into the low inward voice, then burst into causeless energy;--and I felt that I was near the haunt of madness. The shuddering of horror came over me for a moment. But one thought alone has power to darken the departing spirit with abiding gloom. The worst earthly sorrows play over her as a passing shadow, and are gone. "Poor maniac!" thought I, "thou and the genius which now guides and delights mankind will soon alike be as I am."
But why record the feeble disjointed efforts of a soul struggling with her clog of earth? Oh, had my strivings to enter the strait gate been then to begin, where should I, humanly speaking, have found strength for the endeavour? My mind, weakened with my body, could feel, indeed, but could no longer reason; it could keenly hope and fear, but it could no longer exercise over thought that guidance which makes thinking a rational act. Worn out at last with feelings too strong for my frame, I sank to sleep; and, in spite of the dreariest sounds which rise from human misery, slept quietly till morning.
Then the daylight gave a full view of my melancholy abode. Its extent was little more than sufficient to contain the low flock-bed on which I lay. The naked walls were carved with many a quaint device; and one name was written on them in every possible direction, and joined with every epithet of endearment. Well may I remember them; for often, often, after having studied them all, have I turned wearily to study them again.
As I lay contemplating my prison, a step approached the door; the key grated in the lock; and a man of a severe and swarthy countenance stood before me. He came near, and offered me some food of the coarsest kind, from which my sickly appetite turned with disgust; but when he held a draught of milk and water to my lips, I eagerly swallowed it, making a faint gesture of thanks for the relief. The stern countenance relaxed a little. "You are better this morning," said the man.
"I soon shall be so," answered I, with a languid smile.
Without farther conference he was turning to depart; when, recollecting that I should soon need other cares, and shrinking with womanly reluctance from owing the last offices to any but a woman, I detained him by a sign. "I have a favour to beg of you," said I. "I shall not want many."
"Well!" said the man, lingering with a look of idle curiosity.
"When I am gone," said I, "will you persuade some charitable woman to do whatever must be done for me; for I was once a gentlewoman, and have never known indignity."
The man promised without hesitation to grant my request. Encouraged by my success, I proceeded. "I have a friend, too; perhaps you would write to him."
"Oh, yes--who is he?" said the man, looking inquisitively.
"Mr. Maitland, the great West India merchant. Tell him that Ellen Percy died here; and dying, remembered him with respect and gratitude."
The man looked at me with a strong expression of surprise, which quickly gave place to an incredulous smile; then turned away, saying carelessly, "Oh, yes, I'll be sure to tell him;" and quitted the cell.
During that day, my trembling hopes, my solemn anticipations, were interrupted only by the return of the keeper, to bring my food at stated hours. But on the following day, I became sensible of such amendment, that the natural love of life began to struggle with the hopes and the fears of "untried being."
With the prospect of prolonged existence, however, returned those anxieties which, in one form or another, beset every heart that turns a thought earthward. The idea of confinement in such a place of imprisonment, perhaps perpetual, mingled the expectations of recovery with horror. To live only to be sensible to the death of all my affections, of all my hopes, of all my enjoyments!--To retain a living consciousness in that place where was no "knowledge, nor work, nor device."--To look back upon a dreary blank of time, and forward to one unvaried waste!--To pine for the fair face of nature! perhaps to live till it was remembered but as a dream! Gracious heaven! what strength supported me under such thoughts of horror? Language cannot express the fearful anxiety with which I awaited the return of the only person who could relieve my apprehensions.
The moment he appeared, I eagerly accosted him. "Tell me," I cried, "why I am here? surely I am no object for such an institution as this. Mr. and Mrs. Boswell know that my fever was caught in attending their own child."
"To be sure they do," said the man, soothingly.
"Why then have they sent me to such a place as this?"
The man was silent for a moment, and then answered, "Why, what sort of a place do you take it for? You don't think this is a madhouse, do you?" Seeing that I looked at him with surprise And doubt, he added, "This is only an asylum, a sort of infirmary for people who have your kind of fever."
I now perceived that he thought it necessary to humour me as a lunatic. "For mercy's sake," I cried, "do not trifle with me! You may easily convince yourself that I am in perfect possession of my reason; do so, then, and let me be gone. This place is overpowering to my spirits."
"The moment you get well," returned the man coolly, "you shall go. We would not keep you after that, though you would give us ever so much. But I could not be answerable to let you out just now, for fear of bringing back your fever."
With this assurance I was obliged for the present to be contented. Yet a horrible fear sometimes returned, that he would only beguile me with false hope from day to day; and when he next brought my homely repast, I again urged him to fix a time for my release. "I am recovering strength so rapidly," said I, "that I am sure in a few days I may remove."
"Oh, yes!" answered he; "I think in a fortnight at farthest you will be quite well; provided you keep quiet, and don't fret yourself about fancies."
While he spoke, I fixed my eyes earnestly upon him, to see whether I could discover any sign of mental reservation; but he spoke with all the appearance of good faith, and I was satisfied.
My spirits now reviving with my health and my hopes, I endeavoured to view my condition with something more than resignation. "Surely," said I to myself, "it should even be my choice to dwell for a time amidst scenes of humiliation, if here I can find the weapons of my warfare against the stubborn pride of nature and of habit. And whatever be my choice, this place has been selected for me by Him whose will is my improvement. Let me not then frustrate his gracious purpose--let me consider what advantage he intends me in my present state. Alas! why have I so often deferred to seasons of rare occurrence the lessons which the events of the most ordinary life might have taught me?"
Carefully I now reviewed my actions, my sentiments, and my purposes, as they had lately appeared to me in the anticipation of a righteous sentence. What tremendous importance did each then assume! The work, perhaps, of a moment seemed to extend its influence beyond the duration of worlds. The idle word, uttered with scarcely an effort of the will, indicated, perhaps, a temper which might colour the fate of eternity. In a few days I learnt more of myself than nineteen years had before taught me; for the light which gleamed upon me, as it were from another world, was of power to show all things in their true form and colour. I saw the insidious nature, the gigantic strength, the universal despotism of my bosom sin. I saw its power even in actions which had veiled its form; its stamp was upon sentiments which bore not its name; its impression had often made even "the fine gold become dim." Its baleful influence had begun in my cradle, had increased through my childhood, had dictated alike the enmities and the friendships of my youth. It had rejected the counsels of Miss Mortimer; trifled with the affections of Maitland; spurned the authority of my father; and hurried me to the brink of a connexion in which neither heart nor understanding had part. It had embittered the cup of misfortune; poisoned the wounds of treachery; and dashed from me the cordial of human sympathy. It had withheld gratitude in my prosperity; it had robbed my adversity of resignation. It had mingled even with the tears of repentance, while the proud heart unwillingly felt its own vileness; it had urged, I fear, even the labours of virtue, with the hope of earning other than unmerited favour. It had eluded my pursuit, resisted my struggles, betrayed my watchfulness. It had driven me from an imaginary degradation among "mine own people," to desolation, want, and dependence among strangers. When were greater sacrifices extorted by self-denial, that "lion in the way," which has scared so many from the paths of peace? Even the employment which, by an undeserved good fortune, I had obtained, was degraded into slavery by the temper which represented my employer as alike below my gratitude and my indignation; while the pleasure with which pride contemplates its own eminence had blinded me to the awful danger denounced against those who cherish habitual contempt for the meanest of their brethren.
I now saw that even with the despised Mrs. Boswell I had need to exchange forgiveness; since, against the evils which she had inflicted on me, I had to balance a scorn even more galling than injury. Of the injustice of this scorn I became sensible, when I considered that it was directed less against her faults than her understanding--less against the baseness of her means than the insignificance of her ends; since what was at once the excuse and the mitigation of her vices formed the only reason why they were less endurable to me than the craft and the cruelty of politicians and conquerors. When I remembered that a few hours of sickness had sufficed to reduce me in intellect far below even the despised Mrs. Boswell; that a derangement of the animal frame, so minute as to baffle human search, might blot the rarest genius from the scale of moral being; while I shrunk from the harrowing ravings of creatures who could once reason and reflect like myself, I felt the force of the warning which forbids the wise to "glory in his wisdom." I admitted as a principle what I had formerly owned as an opinion, that the true glory of man consists, not in the ingenuity by which he builds systems, or unlocks the secrets of nature, or guides the opinions of a wondering world; but in that capacity of knowing, loving, and serving God, of which all are by nature equally destitute, and which all are equally and freely invited to receive.
The reflections of those few days it would require months to record. They furnished, indeed, my sole business, devotion my sole pleasure. My cell contained no object to divert my attention; and the stated returns of the keeper were the only varieties of my condition. My strength, however, gradually returned. I was able to rise from my bed, and to walk, if the size of my apartment had admitted of walking.
It may well be believed that I counted the hours of my captivity, and I did not fail to remind the keeper daily of his promise. It was not till the day preceding that which he had fixed for my liberation, that I discovered any sign of an intention to retract.
"To-morrow I shall breathe the air of freedom," said I to him, exultingly, while I was taking my humble repast.
"I am sure you have air enough where you are," returned the man.
"Oh, but you may well imagine how a prisoner longs for liberty!"
"You are no more a prisoner than anybody else that is not well I am sure, though I were to let you out, you are not fit to go about yet."
"Though you were to--oh, heaven! you do not mean to detain me still! You will keep your promise with me!"
"Oh, yes," said the man, with that voice of horrible soothing which made my blood run cold; "never fear, you shall get out to-morrow;" and regardless of my endeavours to detain him, he instantly left me.
"You shall get out to-morrow!" I repeated a thousand times, in distressful attempt to convince myself that a promise so explicit could not be broken. Yet the horrible doubt returned again and again. Drops of agony stood upon my forehead as I looked distractedly upon those narrow walls, and thought they might enclose me for ever. "God of mercy," I cried, casting myself wildly on my knees, "wilt Thou permit this? Hast Thou supported me hitherto only to forsake me in my extremity of need? Oh, no! I wrong Thy goodness by the very thought."
Well may our religion be called the religion of hope; for who can remember that "unspeakable gift" which every address to Heaven must recal to the Christian's view, without feeling a trust which outweighs all causes of fear? By degrees I recovered composure, then hope, then cheerfulness; and when, at the keeper's evening visit, I had extorted from him another renewal of his promise, I was so far satisfied as to prepare myself by a quiet sleep for the trials which awaited my waking.
The next morning, a bright sun was gleaming through my grated window; and anxiously I watched the lingering progress of its shadow along the wall. Long, long I listened for the heavy tread of the keeper; thought myself sure that his hour of coming was past; and dreaded that his stay was ominous of evil. When at last I heard the welcome sounds of his approach, and felt that at last the moment of certainty was come, a faintness seized me, and I remained motionless, unable to inquire my doom.
The man looked keenly at the fixed eye, which wanted power to turn from him. "I thought as much," said he, triumphantly. "I'll lay a crown you don't wish to go out to-day."
"Oh, yes, indeed!" I cried, starting up with sudden hope and animation: "I would go this instant!"
The man again examined my face inquisitively. "Eat your breakfast, then," said he, "and put on these clothes I have brought you. I shall come back for you presently."
Language cannot express the rapture with which I heard this promise. Overpowered with emotions of joy and gratitude, I sunk at the feet of the keeper; pouring forth, in the fulness of my heart, blessings made inarticulate by tears. Then, recollecting how my suspicions had wronged him, "Pardon me," I cried, "oh pardon me, that ever I doubted your word. I ought to have known that you were too good to deceive me."
"Hush! quiet!" said the man, knitting his brow, with a frown which forced the blood back chill upon the throbbing heart; and in a moment he was gone.
It was some time before I became composed enough to remember or to execute the command which I had received; but my mysterious apprehensions, my tumults of delight, giving way to sober certainty, I changed my dress, and sat down to await the return of my liberator. Then while I recollected the horrible dread from which I was delivered, the fate from which I seemed to have escaped, gratitude which could not be restrained burst into a song of thanksgiving.
It was interrupted by the return of the keeper, who, without speaking, threw open the door of my cell, and then proceeded to that of the one adjoining. I sprung from my prison, and hurried along a passage, which terminated in the open air.
I presently found myself in a small square court, surrounded by high walls, and occupied by twenty or thirty squalid beings of both sexes. Concluding that I had mistaken my way, I returned to beg the directions of the keeper. "I am busy just now," said he, "so amuse yourself there for a little; the people are all quite harmless."
"Amuse myself!" thought I. "What strange perversion must have taken place in the mind which could associate such a scene and such objects with an idea of amusement!" I had no choice, however; and I returned to the court. I was instantly accosted by several unfortunate beings of my own sex, all at once talking, without coherence and without pause. In some alarm, I was going to retreat, when a little ugly affected-looking man approached; and, with a bow which in any other place would have provoked a smile, desired that he might be allowed the honour of attending me. Little relieved by this politeness, I was again looking towards retreat, when the party was joined by a person of very different appearance from the rest. Large waves of silver hair adorned a face of green old age, and the lines of deep thought on his brow were relieved by a smile of perfect benignity; while his air, figure, and attire were so much those of a gentleman, that I instantly concluded he must be the visitor, not the inhabitant of such a dwelling.
Reproving the intrusion of the rest with an authority from which they all seemed to shrink, he politely offered to attend me; and I accepted of the escort with a feeling of perfect security.
While we walked round the court, my companion conversed as if he believed me also to be a visitor. "I sometimes indulge in a melancholy smile," said he, "on observing how well the characteristics of the sexes are preserved even here. The men, you see, are commonly silent and contemplative, the women talkative and restless. Here, just as in that larger madhouse, the world, pride makes the men surly and quarrelsome, while the ladies must be indulged in a little harmless vanity. Now and then, however, we encroach on your prerogative. The little man, for instance, who spoke to you just now, fancies that every woman is in love with him; and that he is detained here by a conspiracy of jealous husbands." He proceeded to comment upon the more remarkable cases; showing such acquaintance with each, that I concluded him to be the medical attendant of the establishment. This belief inspired me with a very embarrassing desire to convince him of my sanity; and I endured the toil of being laboriously wise, while we moralized together on the various illusions which possessed the people around us, and on the curious analogy of their freaks to those of the more sober madmen who are left at large. Some strutted in mock majesty, expecting that all should do them homage. Some decked themselves with rags, and then fancied themselves fair. Some made hoards of straws and pebbles, then called the worthless mass a treasure. Some sported in unmeaning mirth: while a few ingenious spirits toiled to form baubles, which the rest quickly demolished; and a few miserable beings sat apart, shrinking from companions whom they imagined only evil spirits clothed in human form. In one respect, however, all were agreed. Each scorned or pitied every form of madness but his own. "Let us then," said I, "be of those who pity; since we, too, have probably our points of insanity, though where they lie we may never know till we reach the land of perfection."
"Perfection!" exclaimed my companion; "is not its dawn arisen on the earth! Are not the splendours of day at hand? That glorious light! in which man shall see that his true honour is peace, his true interest benevolence! Yes, it is advancing; and though the perverseness of the ignorant and the base have for a time concealed me here, soon shall the gratitude of a regenerated world call me to rejoice in my own work!"
"Sir!" said I, startled by this speech, which was pronounced with the utmost vehemence of voice and manner.
"Yes!" proceeded he; "the labours of twenty years shall be repaid. Punishment and pain shall be banished from the world. A patriarchal reign of love shall assemble my renovated children around their father and their friend. All government shall cease. All--"
"Silence!" cried a voice of tremendous power; and immediately the keeper stood beside us. He rudely seized the old man's arm, and the flush of animation was instantly blanched by fear. I saw the reverend form of age thus bow before brute violence, and I forgot for a moment that I was powerless to defend. "Inhuman!" I exclaimed: "will you not reverence grey hairs and misfortune?"
Without deigning me a look, the keeper led his captive away; while I followed him with eyes in which the tears of alarm now mingled with those of pity. He presently returned, and sternly commanded me to go with him. Eager as I was for my dismission, I yet trembled while I obeyed. We reached the door of my cell, and though I expected to pass it, I involuntarily recoiled. "Go in!" said the keeper, in a voice of terrible authority.
"Here!" I exclaimed, with a start of agony. "Oh, Heaven! did you not say--did you not promise--"-
"Ay, ay," interrupted the man; "but I must see you a little quieter first. Get in, get in!"
"No, no; I will not! though I perish, I will not!"
A withering smile crossing that dark countenance, he seized me with a force which reduced me to the helplessness of infancy; and regardless of the shriek wrung from me by hopeless anguish, he bore me into the cell, shoot off my imploring hold, and departed. I heard the dreary creaking of the bolt, and I heard no more. I fell down senseless.
When I revived, I found myself supported by the arm of a person who was administering restoratives to me. The first accents to which I was sensible, were those of the keeper; who said, as if in answer to some question, "She has been almost as high this morning as ever."
"So, so!" returned the other. "Well, she'll do for the present, so I must begone. Keep an eye on her, and tell me how she comes on. And harkye, give her a better place--if they don't pay for it, I will. I am sure she is a gentlewoman."
In the hope that I might now effectually appeal to justice or to pity, I made a strong effort to rouse myself; but my compassionate attendant was gone. The keeper, however, who perhaps was severe only from a mistaken sense of duty, had been alarmed into treating me with more caution. He watched me till I was completely revived, and, as soon as I could make the necessary exertion, removed me to a different part of the building.
My new place of confinement, though somewhat larger and better furnished than the first, was equally contrived to prevent all chance of escape. But I quickly discovered that I had, by the change, gained a treasure, which, whoever would estimate, must, like me, be cut off from the sympathies of living beings. A swallow had built her nest in my window. I saw her feed her nurslings day by day. I watched her leaving her nest, and longed for her return. Her twittering awoke me every morning, and I knew the chirp which invited her young to the food she had brought. Their first flight was an event in my life as well as in theirs; for the interests of kindred are scarcely stronger than those which we take in the single living thing, however mean, whose feelings we can make our own.
Meanwhile I learnt from the keeper that the person to whose humanity I owed the improvement in my situation, was the surgeon who attended the institution; and I looked forward to his next visit with all the eagerness of hope. Remembering, however, the dependence he had shown on the keeper's information, I became doubly anxious to remove the impression which I saw was entertained against the soundness of my mind. Alas! I forgot that it is not for the prejudiced eye to detect the almost imperceptible bound which separates soundness of mind from insanity.
"You assure me," said I, one day, to my inexorable gaoler, "that you have no instructions to detain me here, and you promise that I shall be dismissed the moment I am well: tell me how you propose to ascertain my recovery."
"Oh, no fear but I shall know that before you know it your self."
"But what reason have you to doubt that I am already in perfect possession of my senses? I speak rationally enough."
"Oh, ay; I can't say but you have spoken rationally enough these three or four days. They all do that, at times."
"What other proof of my recovery can you expect? Here I have no means of proving it by my actions.
"Well, well. We'll see, one of these days."
"But if it be true that you have no wish to detain me, why must I linger on in this place of horror? Put me to any proof you will. Propose, for instance, the most complicated question in arithmetic to me; and see whether I do not answer it like a rational creature."
"I make no doubt. We have a gentleman here these fourteen years, that works at the counting from morning to night."
"Fourteen years! Good heavens! Oh, try me, for mercy's sake, in any way you please. Think of any experiment that will satisfy yourself; let it only be made quickly."
The man promised, for he always promised--he thought it a part of his duty. It is not to be told with what horror I at last heard that "Oh, yes," which always began the heart-breaking assents addressed to me, as to one whom it were needless and cruel to contradict.
All my anxieties were aggravated by the dread that his promises of release were deceitful like the rest; and that even though he had no longer doubted of my recovery, the jealousy of Mrs. Boswell might have bribed him to detain me. I balanced in my mind the improbability of so daring an outrage with the stories which I had heard of elder brothers removed, and wives concealed for ever. Where much is felt and nothing can be done, it is difficult indeed to fix the judgment.
To relieve my doubts I inquired whether Mr. Boswell knew of my confinement. The keeper could not tell. He only knew that the petition for my admission and the bond for my expenses were signed by Mrs. Boswell alone. This circumstance was quite sufficient to convince me that Mr. Boswell was ignorant of my fate, and I thought if I could find means to make him acquainted with my situation he would undoubtedly accomplish my release. I implored of the keeper to inform him where I was, and he promised, but with that ominous "Oh, yes," which assured me the promise was void.
By degrees, however, I had learnt to bear my disappointments with composure. I must not venture to say that I was becoming reconciled to my condition, I must not even assert that I endured its continuance with resignation,--for how often did my impatience for release virtually retract the submissions which I breathed to heaven! But I had experienced that there are pleasures which no walls can exclude, and hopes which no disappointments can destroy; pleasures which flourish in solitude and in adversity; hopes, which fear no wreck but from the storms of passion. I had believed that religion could bring comfort to the dreariest dwelling. I now experienced that comfort. The friend whom we trust may be dear; the friend whom we have tried is inestimable. Religion, perhaps, best shows her strength when she rules the prosperous, but her full value is felt by the unfortunate alone.
Among my other requests to the keeper, I had entreated that he would allow me the use of that precious book which has diffused more wisdom, peace, and truth than all the works of men. He promised, as he was wont to promise; but weary of a request which was repeated every time he appeared, he at last yielded to my importunity. From that hour an inexhaustible source of enjoyment was opened to me. Devotion had before sometimes gladdened my prison with the visits of a friend; now his written language spoke to my heart, answering every feeling. How different was this solitude from the self-inflicted desolation which I had once endured? Nay, did not the blank of all earthly interests leave me a blessed animation compared with that dread insensibility which had once left me without God in the world?
"This is to be alone! This, this is solitude!"
But while I bore my disappointments with more fortitude, I did not, it will easily be imagined, relax my endeavours after liberty. On certain days the institution was open to the inspection of strangers. On these days I was always furnished with a change of dress, and led out to make part of the show; and my spirit was for the time so thoroughly subdued that I submitted to this exhibition without a murmur, almost without a pang. Circumstances had so far overcome my natural temper, that I more than once appealed to the humanity of those whom a strange curiosity led to this dreariest scene of human woe. But prejudice always confounded my story with those which most of my companions in confinement were eager to tell. I addressed it to an old man; he heard me in silence; then, turning to the keeper, remarked, that it was odd that one fancy possessed us all, the desire to leave our present dwelling. "Ay," said the keeper, "that is always the burden of the song;" and they turned to listen to the ravings of some other object. I told my tale to a youth, and thought I had prevailed, for tears filled his eyes. "Good God!" cried he, instantly flying, from a painful compassion, "to see so lovely a creature lost to herself and to the world!"
The ladies had courage to bear a sight which might shake the strongest nerves, but not to venture upon close conference with me. They shrunk behind their guards, whispering something about the unnatural brightness of my eyes.
My only hope, therefore, rested upon the return of the humane surgeon, and upon the chance that he might find leisure to examine me himself, instead of trusting to the representation of the keeper. Yet, even there, might not prejudice operate against me? I had felt its effects, and had reason to tremble.
The day came which preceded his periodical visit to the department whither I had been removed. It was a stormy one, and heavy rain beat against my grated window. My swallows, who had tried their first flight only the day before, cowered close in their nest, or peeped from its little round opening, as if to watch the return of their mother. They had grown so accustomed to me, that the sight of me never disturbed them. In the pride of my heart I showed them to the keeper when he brought my morning repast. "Who knows," said I, "if the doctor come to-morrow, but they and I may take our departure together." As I spoke, a gust of the storm loosened the little fabric from its hold. I sprung in consternation to the window. The ruin was complete; my treasure was dashed to the ground. Let those smile who can, when I own that I uttered a cry of sorrow; and, renouncing my unfinished meal, threw myself on my bed and wept.
"Help the girl!" exclaimed the keeper. "A woman almost as big as I am crying for a swallow's nest. Well, as I shall answer, I thought you had got quite well almost."
Aware too late of the impression which my ill-timed weakness had given, I did my utmost, at his subsequent visits, to repair my error; but prejudice, even in its last stage of decay, is more easily revived than destroyed, and I saw that he remained at best sceptical.
The day came which was to decide my fate. No lover waiting the sentence of a cautious mistress,--no gamester pausing in dread to look at the decisive die,--no British mother trembling with the Gazette in her hand,--ever felt such anxiety as I did, at the approach of my medical judge. With as much coherence, however, as I could command. I related to him the circumstances to which I attributed my confinement. He heard me with attention, questioned, and cross-examined me. "Have you any objection," said he, "to my making inquiries of Mr. Boswell?"
"None, certainly," said I, "if you cannot otherwise convince yourself that I ought to be set at liberty; else I should be unwilling to add to his domestic discomfort. I am persuaded that he has no part in this cruelty."
The surgeon remained with me long; talking on various subjects, and ingeniously contriving to withdraw my attention from the ordeal which I was undergoing. The keeper, to justify his own sagacity, detailed with exaggeration every instance he had witnessed of my supposed eccentricity. "To this good day," said he, "she'll be crying one minute, and singing the next."
"Mr. Smith," said the doctor, shaking has head gravely, "if you shut up all the women who change their humour every minute, who will make our shirts and puddings?"
He related the transports of my premature gratitude. "By the time you are a little older, Miss Percy," said the doctor, "you will guess better how far sympathy will go; and then you will not run the risk of being thought crazy, by showing more sensibility than other people."
Other instances of my extravagance were not more successful; for the doctor's prejudice had fortunately taken the other side. "You know, Mr. Smith," said he, "that I always suspected this was not a case for your management; and that if I had been in the way when admission was asked for this lady she would never have been here." My departure was therefore authorized; and, at my earnest request, it was fixed for that day.
And who shall paint the rapture of the prisoner, who tells himself, what yet what he scarcely dares believe, "This day I shall be free?" Who shall utter the gratitude which swells the heart of him whom this day has made free? That I was to go I knew not whither,--to subsist I knew not how,--could not damp the joys of deliverance. The wide world was indeed before me; but even that of itself was happiness. The free air,--the open face of heaven,--the unfettered grace of nature,--the joyous sport of animals,--the cheerful toils of man,--sounds of intelligence, and sights of bliss were there; and the wide world was to me, the native land of the exile, lovely with every delightful recollection, and populous with brethren and friends.
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.