Discipline: A Novel

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Though I resisted all idea of returning, even for an hour, to the control of Mrs. Boswell, it was thought necessary, since I had been confined upon her authority and at her expense, that, before my departure, she should be informed of my recovery, and consequent dismission. After waiting impatiently the return of a message despatched for this purpose, I learnt that Mr. Boswell's house was shut up; the whole family having removed to the country. My kind friend, Dr. ----, however, would not permit this to retard my departure. He undertook for Mrs. Boswell's performance of her engagement; which, he said, he could easily compel, by threatening to expose her conduct. For my part, I had no doubt that she had fled from the fear of detection, and with the design of preventing her husband from discovering the barbarity she had practised; for I knew that it was not the love of rural life, nor even of the fashion, which could have roused Mrs. Boswell to the exertion of travelling fifty miles.

So far as I was concerned, however, her precaution was unnecessary, for she had injured me too seriously to have any return of injury to fear. Nothing short of necessity could have induced me to expose her, while I saw reason to dread that self-deceit might, under the name of justice, countenance the spirit of revenge. The only reason I had to regret her departure was, that I was thus prevented from receiving the money which Mr. Boswell had acknowledged to be my right. Everything else which could be called mine had been sent with me from the house, and was now faithfully restored to me. Feeble indeed must have been the honesty to which my possessions could have furnished a temptation! The whole consisted in a few shillings, and a scanty assortment of the plainest attire. And yet the heir of the noblest domain never looked round him with such elation as I did, when I once more found myself under the open canopy of heaven; nor did ever the "harp and the viol" delight the ear like the sound of the heavy gate which closed upon my departing steps. I paused for a moment to ask myself if all was not a dream, then leant my forehead against the threshold, and wept the thanksgiving I could not utter.

I was roused by an inquiry from the person who was carrying my portmanteau, "whither I chose to have it conveyed?" The only residence which had occurred to me, the only place with which I seemed entitled to claim acquaintance was my old abode at Mrs. Milne's; and I desired the man to conduct me thither.

Though the gladness of my heart disposed me to good humour with every living thing, I could not help observing that my landlady received me coolly. To my inquiry whether my former apartment was vacant, I could scarcely obtain an intelligible reply; and when I requested that, if she could not accommodate me, she would recommend another lodging-house to me, the flame burst forth. She told me "that she had had enough of recommending people she knew nothing about. Mrs. Boswell had very near turned away her sister for recommending me already." I assured the woman that I should have sincerely regretted being the occasion of any misfortune to her sister; and declared that I was utterly unconscious of having done discredit to her recommendation. "It might be so," the landlady said, "but she did not know; it seemed very odd that I had been sent away in a hurry from Mr. Boswell's, and that I had never been heard of from that day to this. To be sure," said she, "it was no wonder that Mrs. Boswell dismissed a person who had brought so much distress and trouble into the family, and almost been the death of both Mr. Boswell and little miss."

"Mr. Boswell! did he catch the infection too?"

"To be sure he did; and so I daresay would the whole house, if you had not been sent away."

I expressed my unfeigned sorrow for the mischief which I had innocently caused; for I was at this moment less disposed to resent impertinence than to sympathize in the joys and sorrows of all human kind.

My landlady's countenance at last relaxed a little; and either won by my good humour, or prompted by her curiosity to discover my adventures during my mysterious disappearance, or by a desire to dispose of her lodgings at a season when they were not very disposable, she told me that I might, if I chose, take possession of my former accommodation. With this ungracious permission I was obliged to comply; for the day was already closing, and my scarcely recovered strength was fast yielding to fatigue.

I was aware, however, that in those lodgings it was impossible for me, with only my present funds, to remain; for humble as were my accommodations, they were far too costly for my means of payment. Mr. Boswell had, indeed, acknowledged himself my debtor for a sum, which, in my situation, appeared positive riches; but my prospect of receiving it was so small, or at least so distant, that I dared not include the disposal of it in any plan for the present. That I might not, however, lose it by my own neglect, I immediately wrote to remind Mr. Boswell of his promise, and to acquaint him whither he might transmit the money. I had no very sanguine hopes that this letter would ever reach the person for whom it was intended; and I was more sorry than surprised, when day after day passed, and brought no answer.

In the mean time I made every exertion to obtain a new situation. I inquired for Mrs. Murray, and found that she was still in England, where she had been joined by her son. I went unwillingly to the house of her repulsive sister, and found, to my great relief, that it was, like half the houses in its neighbourhood, deserted for the season. It was in vain that I endeavoured to procure employment as a teacher. The season was against my success. The town was literally empty; for though this is a mere figure of speech when applied to London, it becomes a matter of fact in Edinburgh. Besides I had no introduction, and I believe there is no place under heaven where an introduction is so indispensable. Without it scarcely the humblest employment was to be obtained. Had I asked for alms I should probably have been bountifully supplied, but the charity which in Scotland is bestowed upon a nameless stranger is not of that kind which "thinketh no evil."

Observing one day in the window of a toy-shop some of those ingenious trifles, in the making of which I had once been accustomed to amuse myself, I offered to supply the shop with as many of them as I could manufacture. The shopman received my proposal coolly. Had I ordered the most expensive articles of his stock, they would probably have been intrusted to me without hesitation; but even he seemed to think that pin-cushions and work-baskets must be made only by persons of unequivocal repute. At last, though he would not intrust me with his materials, he permitted me to work with my own; promising that, if my baubles pleased him, he would purchase them. Even for this slender courtesy I was obliged to be thankful; for I had now, during a week, subsisted upon my miserable fund, and, in spite of the most rigid economy, it was exhausted. The price of my lodging, too, for that week was still undischarged; and it only remained to choose what part of my little wardrobe should be applied to the payment of this debt.

The choice was difficult, for nothing remained that could be spared, without inconvenience; and when it was at length fixed, I was still doubtful how I should employ this last wreck of my possessions. I was strongly tempted to use it in the purchase of materials for the work I had undertaken; because I expected that in this way it might swell into a fund which might not only repay my landlady, but contribute to my future subsistence. But, fallen as I was, I could not condescend to hazard, without permission, what was now, in fact, the property of another; and, humbled as I had been, my heart revolted from owing the use of my little capital to the forbearance of one from whom I could scarcely extort respect. Once more, however, stubborn nature was forced to bow; for, between humiliation and manifest injustice, there was no room for hesitation; and I summoned my landlady to my apartment. "Mrs. Milne," said I, "I can this evening pay what I owe you, and I can do no more. I shall then have literally nothing."

The woman stood staring at me with a face of curious surprise; for this was the first time that I had ever spoken to her of my circumstances or situation. "If you choose to have your money," I continued, "it is yours. If you prefer letting it remain with me for a few days longer, it will procure to me the means of subsistence, and to you the continuance of a tenant for your apartment."

After inquiring into my plan with a freedom which I could ill brook, Mrs. Milne told me, "that she had no wish to be severe upon anybody; and therefore would, for the present, be content with half her demand." This arrangement made, nothing remained except to procure the money; and, for this purpose, I hastened to the place which I had formerly visited on a similar errand.

It was a shop little larger than a closet, dark, dirty, and confused; and yet, I believe, Edinburgh, at that time, contained none more respectable in its particular line. Some women, apparently of the lowest rank, were searching for bargains among the trash which lay upon the counter; while others seemed waiting to add to the heap. All bore the brand of vice and wretchedness. Their squalid attire, their querulous or broken voices, their haggard and bloated countenances, filled me with dread and loathing.

Having despatched my business, I was hastening to depart, when I was arrested by a voice less ungentle than the others. It spoke in a melancholy, importunate half-whisper; but it spoke in the accents of my native land, and I started as if at the voice of a friend. The face of the speaker was turned away from me; her figure, too, was partly concealed by a cloak, tawdry with shreds of what had once been lace. An arm, on which the deathy skin clung to the bones, dragged rather than supported a languid infant. She seemed making a last effort to renew a melancholy pleading. "If it were but the smallest trifle, sir," said she.

"I tell you, woman, I cannot afford it," was the answer. "You have had more than the gown is worth already."

"God help me, then," said the woman, "for I must perish;" and she turned to be gone. The light rested upon her features. Altered as they were, they could not be forgotten. "Juliet! Miss Arnold!" I exclaimed; and the long tale of credulity and ingratitude passed across my mind in an instant. I stood gazing upon her for a moment. Sickness, want and sorrow, were written in her face. I remembered it bright with all the sportive graces of youth and gaiety. The contrast overcame me. "Juliet! dear Juliet!" I cried, and fell upon her neck.

Strong emotion long kept me silent; while she seemed overpowered by surprise. At length she recovered utterance. "Ah, Ellen!" said she, "you are avenged on me now."

"Avenged! oh, Juliet!"

It was then that I remembered the vengeance which I had imprecated upon her head; and it was she who was avenged!

When I again raised my eyes to her face, it was crossed by a feint flush; and she looked down as if with shame upon her wretched attire. "I am sadly changed since you saw me last, Miss Percy," said she.

I could not bear to own the horrible truth of her words. "Let us leave this place," said I. "Come where you may tell me what has caused this wreck."

I offered her my arm, and, with a look of surprise, she accepted it. "Sure," said she, "you must be ashamed to be seen with a person of my appearance."

"Can you imagine," said I, that appearance is in my thoughts at such a moment as this?" and vexed and chilled by this cold attention to trifles, I silently conducted her towards my home.

It was at a considerable distance from the place of our meeting; and the strength of my companion was scarcely equal to the journey. We had not gone far before she stopped, arrested by the breathlessness of consumption. Alarmed, I held out my arms to relieve her from the burden of the infant. Then first a painful suspicion struck a sickness to my heart. I looked at her, then at the child, and feared to ask if it was her own. She seemed to interpret the look, for a blush deepened the hectic upon her cheek. "My boy is not the child of shame, Miss Percy," said she. My breast was lightened of a load--I pressed her arm to me, and again we went on.

We at length reached my lodgings; and, regardless of the suspicious looks which were cast upon us by the people of the house, I led Miss Arnold to my apartment, and shared with her the last refreshment I could command. During our repast, I could not help observing that the change in Miss Arnold's appearance had but partially extended to her manners. She was no sooner a little revived, than she began to find occasions of flattering me upon my improved beauty, which she hinted had become only more interesting by losing the glow of health.

"In one respect, Juliet," said I coldly, "you will find me changed. I have lost my taste for compliments." Then fearing I had spoken with severity, I added more gaily, "Besides, you can talk of me at any time. Now tell me rather why I find you here so far from home, so much--tell me everything that it will not pain you to tell."

Miss Arnold showed no disinclination to enter on her tale. She told me that, in consequence of her intimacy with Lady St. Edmunds, she had, after leaving me, necessarily improved her acquaintance with her Ladyship's niece, Lady Maria de Burgh. A smile of self-complacency crossed her wasted face as she told me that a very few interviews had served to dispel all Lady Maria's prejudices against her. "But to be sure," added she, "Lady Maria is such a fool, that I had no great glory in changing her opinion." I remembered with a sigh the time when this comment would have given me pleasure; but I did not answer; and Miss Arnold went on to relate, that Lady Maria soon pressed her, with such unwearied importunity to become her guest, that the invitation was absolutely not to be resisted without incivility.

Lord Glendower was at that time Lady Maria's suitor; or rather, Miss Arnold said, he talked and trifled in such a way, that her Ladyship was in anxious expectation of his becoming so. "However," continued she, "I soon saw that, had our situations been equal, he might have preferred me to his would-be bride."

She stopped, but I waited in silence the continuation of her story. "You know, Ellen," said she, "it was not to be supposed that I would neglect so splendid a prospect. I had no obligation to Lady Maria which bound me to sacrifice my happiness."

"Happiness!" repeated I involuntarily, while I recollected my humble estimate of Lord Glendower's talents for bestowing it.

Anything, you know, was happiness," said Miss Arnold, "compared with the life of dependence and subjection which I must nave endured with my brother." She went on detailing innumerable circumstances which seemed to lay her under a kind of necessity to encourage Lord Glendower.

"Ay, ay, Juliet," interrupted I, "as Mr. Maitland used to say, we ladies can always make up in the number of our reasons whatever they want in weight."

Miss Arnold seemed to feel some difficulty in proceeding to the next step of her narrative. "At last," said she, hesitating, "it was agreed;--I consented to--to go with Glendower to Scotland."

"To Scotland! Was not Lord Glendower his own master? Could he not marry where he pleased?"

"It was his wish," said Miss Arnold, blushing and hesitating; "and--and you know, Ellen, when a woman is attached--you know--"

"Don't appeal to my knowledge, Juliet, for I never was attached, and never shall be."

A pause followed; and it was only at my request that Miss Arnold went on with her story. "When we arrived here," said she, "I found Glendower's intentions were not what I expected. You may judge of my despair! I knew, though I was innocent, nobody would believe my innocence;--I saw that I was as much undone as if I had been really guilty."

"Oh no, Juliet!" cried I, "there is, indeed, only one step between imprudence and guilt; but that one is the passage from uneasiness to misery, abiding misery. But what did you resolve upon?"

"What could I do, Ellen? A little dexterity is the only means of defence which we poor women possess."

"Any means of defence was lawful," said I rashly, "where all that is valuable in this world or the next was to be defended."

"Certainly," said Miss Arnold. "Therefore, what I did cannot be blamed. I had heard something of the Scotch laws in regard to marriage; and I refused to see Glendower, unless he would at least persuade the people of the lodging-house that I was his wife. Afterwards, I contrived to make him send me a note, addressed to Lady Glendower. The note itself was of no consequence, but it answered the purpose, and I have preserved it. I took care, too, to ascertain that the people about us observed him address me as his wife; and in Scotland this is as good as a thousand ceremonies. Besides, you know, Ellen, a ceremony is nothing. Whatever joins people irrevocably, is a marriage in the sight of God and man."

"Yes," answered I, "provided that both parties understand themselves to be irrevocably bound."

Miss Arnold averted her eye for a moment; then looked up more steadily, and went on with her story. "After this I had no hesitation to accompany him to a shooting lodge, which he had hired, in the Highlands. We were there some months: I am sure I was heartily sick of it. In winter last we came here, and Glendower talked of going to town; but I was not able, nor indeed much inclined to go with him; he has got into such a shocking habit of drinking. So he left me here, promising to come back after I was confined; but he had not been gone above two months, when I saw in a newspaper an account of his marriage with Lady Maria. It came upon me like a thunder-stroke. The shock brought on a premature confinement, and I was long in extreme danger. However, I dictated letters both to Glendower and Lady Maria, asserting my claims, and declaring that, if they were resisted, the law should do me justice. I wrote often before I could obtain an answer; and at last Glendower had the effrontery to write, denying that I had any right over him. He had even the cruelty to allege, that the time of my poor little boy's birth in part refuted my story." Juliet, who had hitherto told her tale with astonishing self-possession, now burst into tears. "As I hope for mercy, Ellen," said she, folding her infant to her breast with all the natural fondness of a mother,--"as I hope for mercy, this boy is Glendower's; and as I truly believe, is his only lawful heir. If I could see him once restored to his rights, I should ask no more."

She soon composed herself, and resumed her disastrous story. Lord Glendower, incensed by her claim, refused to remit her money. She wrote to her brother an account of her situation. He answered, that he had already spent upon her education a sum sufficient, if she had acted prudently, to have made her fortune; that he was not such a fool as to spend more in publishing her disgrace in a court of law, where he was sure no judge would award her five shillings of damages:--that he sent her thirty pounds to furnish a shop of small wares, and desired he might never hear of her more. The money came in time to rescue her from a prison; but the payment of her debts left her penniless. She had subsisted for some tune by the sale of her trinkets and clothes. Lower and lower her resources had fallen; narrower and more narrow had become the circle of her comforts, till she was now completely a beggar.

She had also long struggled with ill health. "This exhausting cough," said she, "and this weakness that makes everything a burden to me, are very disheartening, though I know they are not dangerous." I looked at her, and shuddered. If ever consumption had set its deadly seal upon any face, hers bore the impression.

"What is the matter, Ellen?" said she. "I assure you I am not so ill as I look."

"I hope not," said I, trying to smile.

Evening was now closing; and as I knew that the place which Juliet had for some days called her home was at a considerable distance, I was about to propose sharing my apartment with her for the night; when my landlady, opening my door, desired, in a very surly tone, that I would speak with her. Half guessing the subject of our conference, I followed her out of hearing of my unfortunate companion. In terms which I must rather attempt to translate than record, she inquired what right I had to fill her house with vagrants. With some warmth I resisted the application of the phrase, telling her that the misfortunes of a gentlewoman gave no one a right to load her with suspicion or abuse. "Troth, as for gentility," said the landlady, "I believe you are both much about it. I might have my notion; but I never knew rightly what you were, till I saw the company you keep. A creature painted to the eyes!"

"Painted! The painting of death!"

"Well, well, painted or not painted, send her out of this house; for here she shall stay no longer!"

"Mrs. Milne," said I, scorning the altercation in which I was engaged, "while that apartment is called mine, it shall receive or exclude whomsoever I please." I turned from her, determined to use the right which I had asserted.

"Yours, indeed!" cried the enraged landlady, following me. "It shall not be called yours long then. Either pay for the week you have had it, or else leave it this moment; and don't stay here bringing disgrace upon creditable people that never bore but a good character till now."

I am ashamed to own that the insolence of this low woman overcame my frail temper. "Disgrace!" I began in the tone of strong indignation: but recollecting that I could only degrade myself by the contest, I again turned away in silence.

She now forced herself into my apartment; and, addressing Miss Arnold, commanded her to leave the house instantly. Miss Arnold cast a supplicating look upon me. "I shall never reach home alone," said she.

"There is no need for your attempting it," returned I; "for if you go, I will accompany you."

To this proposal, however, Miss Arnold appeared averse. She showed a strong inclination to remain where she was, and even condescended to remonstrate with the insolent landlady. Had I guessed the reason of this condescension, I might have been saved one of the most horrible moments of my existence. It had no other effect than to increase the impertinence it was meant to disarm; for the "soft answer which turns away wrath" must at least seem disinterested. Disgusted with this scene of vulgar oppression and spiritless endurance, "Come, Juliet," said I, "if I cannot protect you from insolence here, I will attend you home; and since you cannot share my apartment, let me take part of yours."

Miss Arnold still lingered, however, and again made a fruitless appeal to the compassion of Mrs. Milne; but finding her inexorable, she consented to depart.

I threw my purse upon the table. "Mrs. Milne," said I, "after what you have obliged me to hear, I will not put it in your power to insult me by further suspicion. There is the money I owe you."

The landlady, now somewhat softened, followed us to the door, assuring me that it was not to me she made objections. I left her without reply; and, giving Juliet my arm, supported her during a long and melancholy walk.

It was almost dark; and the thoughts of passing unprotected through the streets of a great city filled me with alarm. I breathed painfully, and scarcely dared to speak even in a whisper. Every time that my exhausted companion stopped to gather strength, I shook with the dread that we should attract observation; and when we proceeded, I shrunk from every passenger, as if from an assassin. Without molestation, however, we reached Miss Arnold's abode.

It was in the attic story of a building, of which each floor seemed inhabited by two separate families; and in this respect alone it seemed superior to the dwelling of my poor friend Cecil, who shared her habitation with a whole community. Miss Arnold knocked; and a dirty, wretched-looking woman cautiously opened the door. Presenting me, Miss Arnold began, "I have brought you a lady who wishes to take--" But the moment the woman perceived us, her eyes flashed fury; and she interrupted Miss Arnold with a torrent of invective; from which I could only learn, that my companion, being her debtor, had deceived her as to her means of payment, and that she was resolved to admit her no more. Having talked herself out of breath, she shut the door with a violence which made the house shake.

I turned to the ghastly figure of my companion, and grew sick with consternation. Half bent to the earth, she was leaning against the threshold, as if unable to support herself. "Plead for me, Ellen," said she, faintly. "I can go no farther." In compliance with this piteous request, I knocked again and again; but no answer was returned.

I now addressed myself to Juliet; entreating her to exert herself, and assuring her of my persuasion, that if she could once more reach my lodgings, even the inexorable Mrs. Milne would not permit her to pass the night without a shelter. But the weakness of disease had extended to the mind. Miss Arnold sunk upon the ground. "Oh, I can go no farther!" she cried, wringing her hands, and weeping like an infant. "Go--go home, and leave me, Ellen. I left you in your extremity, and now judgment has overtaken me! Go, and leave me."

It was in vain that I entreated her to have mercy on herself, and on her child; imploring that she would not, by despair, create the evil she dreaded. "Oh, I cannot go, I cannot go," said she; and she continued to repeat, weeping, the same hopeless reply to all that I could urge to rouse her.

The expectation which I had tried to awaken in her was but feeble in my own breast; and I at last desisted from my fruitless importunity. But what course remained for me? Even the poorest shelter I had not the means to procure. We were in a land of strangers; and many a heart open to human sympathies was closed against us. To solicit pity was to provoke suspicion, perhaps to encounter scorn. I myself might return to my inhospitable home, but what would then become of the unfortunate Juliet? While I gazed upon the dying figure before me, and weighed the horrible alternative of leaving her perhaps to perish alone, or remaining with her exposed to all from which the nature of woman most recoils, my spirits failed, and the bitter tears of anguish burst from my eyes. But there are thoughts of comfort which ever hover near the soul, like the good spirits that walk the earth unseen. There is a hope that presses for admission into the heart from which all other hope is fled. "Juliet," said I, "let us commend ourselves to God. It is His will that we should this night have no protection but His own. Be the consequence what it may, I will not leave you."

My unhappy companion answered only by a continuance of that feeble wailing which was now more the effect of weakness than of grief; while I, turning from her, addressed myself to Heaven, with a confidence which they only know who have none other confidence.

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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.