Self Control: A Novel

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It was on a still evening in June, that Laura Montreville left her father's cottage, in the little village of Glenalbert, to begin a solitary ramble. Her countenance was mournful, and her step languid; for her health had suffered from confinement, and her spirits were exhausted by long attendance on the death-bed of her mother. That labour of duty had been lessened by no extrinsic circumstance--for Lady Harriet Montreville was a peevish and refractory patient; her disorder had been tedious as well as hopeless; and the humble establishment of a half-pay officer furnished no one who could lighten to Laura the burden of constant attendance. But Laura had in herself that which softens all difficulty, and beguiles all fatigue--an active mind, a strong sense of duty, and the habit of meeting and of overcoming adverse circumstances.

Captain Montreville was of a family ancient and respectable, but so far from affluent, that at the death of his father, he found his wealth, as a younger son, to consist only of 500, besides the emoluments arising from a lieutenantcy in a regiment of foot. Nature had given him a fine person and a pleasing address; and to the national opinions of a Scottish mother, he was indebted for an education, of which the liberality suited better with his birth than with his fortunes. He was in London negotiating for the purchase of a company, when he accidentally met with Lady Harriet Bircham. Her person was showy, and her manners had the glare, even more than the polish, of high life. She had a lively imagination, and some wit; had read a little,and knew how to show that little to advantage. The fine person of Montreville soon awakened the only sensibility of which Lady Harriet was possessed; and her preference was sufficiently visible in every step of its progress. To be distinguished by a lady of such rank and attractions, raised in Montreville all the vanity of three-and-twenty; and seen through that medium, Lady Harriet's charms were magnified to perfections. Montreville soon was, or fancied himself, desperately in love. He sued, and was accepted with a frankness, to which some stiff advocates for female decorum might give the harsh name of forwardness. Montreville was in love, and he was pleased to call it the candour of a noble mind.

As his regiment was at this time under orders for the West Indies, Lady Harriet prevailed on him to exchange to half pay; and her fortune being only 5000, economy, no less than the fondness for solitude natural to young men in love, induced him to retire to the country with his bride, who had reasons of her own for wishing to quit London. He had been educated in Scotland, and he remembered its wild scenery with the enthusiasm of a man of taste and a painter. He settled, therefore, in the village of Glenalbert, near Perth; and to relieve his conscience from the load of utter idleness at twenty-three, began the superintendence of a little farm. Here the ease and vivacity of Lady Harriet made her for a while the delight of her new acquaintance. She understood all the arts of courtesy; and, happy herself, was for a while content to practise them. The store of anecdote which she had accumulated in her intercourse with the great, passed with her country neighbours for knowledge of the world. To Scottish ears, the accent of the higher ranks of English conveys an idea of smartness, as well as of gentility; and Lady Harriet became an universal favourite.

Those who succeed best in amusing strangers, are not, it has been remarked, the most pleasing in domestic life: they are not even always the most entertaining. Lady Harriet's spirits had ebbs, which commonly took place during her tete-a-tetes with Captain Montreville. Outward attractions, real or imaginary, are the natural food of passion; but sound principles must win confidence, and kindness of heart engage affection. Poor Montreville soon gave a mournful assent to these truths; for Lady Harriet had no principles, and her heart was a mere "pulsation on the left side." Her passion for her husband soon declined; and her more permanent appetite for admiration finding but scanty food in a solitary village, her days passed in secret discontent or open murmurings. The narrowness of her finances made her feel the necessity of economy, though it could not immediately instruct her in the art of it; and Montreville, driven from domestic habits by the turmoil of a household, bustling without usefulness, and parsimonious without frugality, was on the point of returning to his profession, or of seeking relief in such dissipation as he had the means of obtaining, when the birth of a daughter gave a new turn to all his hopes and wishes.

"I should not wish the girl to be a beauty," said he to his friend, the village pastor. "A pretty face is of no use, but to a blind lover;"--and he sighed, as he recollected his own blindness. Yet he was delighted to see that Laura grew every day more lovely. "Wit only makes women troublesome," said he ;--but before Laura was old enough to show the uncommon acutcness of her understanding, he had quite forgotten that he ever applied the remark to her. To amuse her infancy became his chosen recreation; to instruct her youth was afterwards his favourite employment. Lady Harriet, too, early began to seek food for her vanity in the superior endowments of her child, and she forthwith determined that Laura should be a paragon. To perfect her on nature's plan, never entered the head of this judicious matron; she preferred a plan of her own, and scorned to be indebted to the assistance of nature for any part of the perfect structure which she resolved to rear. The temper of Laura, uniformly calm and placid, was by nature slightly inclined to obstinacy. Lady Harriet had predetermined that her daughter should be a model of yielding softness. Laura's spirits were inexhaustible; Lady Harriet thought nothing so interesting as a pensive beauty. Laura was both a reasonable and a reasoning creature: her mother chose that she should use the latter faculty in every instance, except where maternal authority or opinion was concerned. Innumerable difficulties, therefore, opposed Lady Harriet's system; and as violent measures ever occur first to those who are destitute of other resources, she had recourse to so many blows, disgraces, and deprivations, as must have effectually ruined the temper and dispositions of her pupil, if Laura had not soon learnt to look upon the ungoverned anger of her mother as a disease to which she owed pity and concealment. This lesson was taught her partly by the example of her father, partly by the admonitions of Mrs Douglas, wife to the clergyman of the parish.

This lady was in every respect Lady Harriet's opposite. Of sound sense, rather than of brilliant abilities; reserved in her manners, gentle in her temper, pious, humble, and upright; she spent her life in the diligent and unostentatious discharge of Christian and feminine duty; beloved without effort to engage the love, respected without care to secure the praise of man. She had always treated the little Laura with more than common tenderness; and the child, unused to the fascinations of feminine kindness, repaid her attention with the utmost enthusiasm of love and veneration. With her she passed every moment allowed her for recreation; to her she applied in every little difficulty; from her she solicited every childish indulgence. The influence of this excellent woman increased with Laura's age, till her approbation became essential to the peace of her young friend, who instinctively sought to read, in the expressive countenance of Mrs Douglas, an opinion of all her words and actions. Mrs Douglas, ever watchful for the good of all who approached her, used every effort to render this attachment as useful as it was delightful. She gradually laid the foundation of the most valuable qualities in the mind of Laura, by degrees teaching her to know and to love the Author of her being, to adore him as the bestower of all her innocent pleasures, to seek his favour, or to tremble at his disapprobation, in every hour of her life. Lady Harriet had been educated among those who despised or neglected the peculiar tenets of the Christian faith; she never thought of them, therefore, except as giving scope to lively argument. On Mrs Douglas's own mind they had their proper effect; and she convinced Laura that they were not subjects for cavil, but for humble and thankful acceptation.

In as far as the religious character can be traced to causes merely natural, it may be formed by those who obtain over a mind of sensibility and reflection the influence which affection bestows, provided that they be themselves duly impressed with the importance, the harmony, the excellence, of what they teach. Laura early saw the Christian doctrines, precepts and promises, warm the heart, and guide the conduct, and animate the hopes, of her whom she loved best. Sympathy and imitation, the strongest tendencies of infancy, first formed the disposition which reason afterwards strengthened into principle, and Laura grew up a pious Christian.

It is the fashion of the age to account for every striking feature of a character from education or external circumstance. Those who are fond of such speculations may trace, if they can, the self-denying habits of Laura to the eagerness with which her enthusiastic mind imbibed the stories of self-devoting patriots and martyrs, and may find, in one lesson of her preceptress, the tint which coloured her future days. The child had been reading a narrative of the triumphant death of one of the first reformers, and, full of the emulation which the tale of heroic virtue inspires, exclaimed, her eyes flashing through their tears, her little form erect with noble daring, "Let them persecute me, and I will be a martyr." "You may be so now, to-day, every day," returned Mrs Douglas. "It was not at the stake that these holy men began their self-denial. They had before taken up their cross daily; and whenever, from a regard to duty, you resign any thing that is pleasing or valuable to you, you are for the time a little martyr."

In a solitary village, remote from her equals in age and rank, Laura necessarily lived much alone; and in solitude she acquired a grave and contemplative turn of mind. Far from the scenes of dissipation and frivolity, conversant with the grand and the sublime in nature, her sentiments assumed a corresponding elevation. She had heard that there was vice in the world; she knew that there was virtue in it; and, little acquainted with other minds, deeply studious of her own, she concluded that all mankind were, like herself, engaged in a constant endeavour after excellence; that success in this struggle was at once virtue and happiness, while failure included misery as well as guilt. The habit of self-examination, early formed, and steadily maintained, made even venial trespass appear the worst of evils; while, in the labours of duty and the pleasures of devotion, she found joys which sometimes rose to rapture.

The capricious unkindness of her mother gave constant exercise to her fortitude and forbearance, while the principle of charity, no less than the feelings of benevolence, led to frequent efforts of self-denial. The latter virtue became daily more necessary, for mismanagement had now brought her mother's fortune almost to a close; and Captain Montreville, while he felt that he was injuring his child, could not prevail on himself to withhold from Lady Harriet the control of what he considered as her own, especially as her health was such as to afford a plea for indulgence. Laura had reached her sixteenth year, when Mr Douglas was induced, by a larger benefice, to remove to a parish almost twenty miles distant from Glenalbert; and parting with her early friend was the severest sorrow that Laura had ever yet known. Captain Montreville promised that his daughter should often visit the new parsonage; but Lady Harriet's increasing illness long prevented the performance of his promise. After a confinement of many months she died, and was lamented by her husband with that sort of sorrow which it usually costs a man to part with an object which he is accustomed to see, when he knows that he shall see it no more.

It was on the third evening after her mother's funeral, that Captain Montreville prevailed on his daughter to take a solitary walk. Slowly she ascended the hill that overlooked the village, and, stopping near its brow, looked back towards the churchyard, to observe a brown hillock that marked the spot where her mother slept. Tears filled her eyes, as, passing over long intervals of unkindness, she recollected some casual proof of maternal love; and they fell fast as she remembered, that for that love she could now make no return. She turned to proceed;--and the moist eye sparkled with pleasure, the faded cheek glowed with more than the flush of health, when she beheld springing towards her the elegant, the accomplished, Colonel Hargrave. Forgotten was languor--forgotten was sorrow; for Laura was just seventeen, and Colonel Hargrave was the most ardent, the most favoured, of lovers. His person was symmetry itself; his manners had all the fascination that vivacity and intelligence, joined to the highest polish, can bestow. His love for Laura suited with the impetuosity of his character, and for more than a year he had laboured with assiduity and success to inspire a passion corresponding to his own. Yet it was not Hargrave whom Laura loved; for the being on whom she doated had no resemblance to him, except in externals. It was a creature of her imagination, pure as her own heart, yet impassioned as the wildest dreams of fiction--intensely susceptible of pleasure, and keenly alive to pain, yet ever ready to sacrifice the one and to despise the other. This ideal being, clothed with the fine form, and adorned with the insinuating manners, and animated with the infectious love of Hargrave, what heart of woman could resist? Laura's was completely captivated.

Hargrave, charmed with her consummate loveliness, pleased with her cheerful good sense, and fascinated with her matchless simplicity, at first sought her society without thought but of present gratification, till he was no longer master of himself. He possessed an ample fortune, besides the near prospect of a title; and nothing was farther from his thoughts than to make the poor unknown Laura a sharer in these advantages. But Hargrave was not yet a villain, and he shuddered at the thought of seduction. "I will see her only once more," said he, "and then tear myself from her for ever." "Only this once," said he, while day after day he continued to visit her--to watch with delight, and to cherish with eager solicitude, the tenderness which, amidst her daily increasing reserve, his practised eye could distinguish. The passion which we do not conquer, will in time reconcile us to any means that can aid its gratification. "To leave her now would be dishonourable--it would be barbarous," was his answer to his remonstrating conscience, as he marked the glow of her complexion at his approach, the tremor of her hand at his pressure. "I cannot, indeed, make her my wife. The woman whom I marry, must assist in supporting the rank which she is to fill. But Laura is not made for high life. Short commerce with the world would destroy half her witchery. Love will compensate to us for every privation. I will hide her and myself from a censorious world; she loves solitude; and, with her, solitude will be delightful." He forgot that solitude is delightful to the innocent alone.

Meantime, the artless Laura saw, in his highly-coloured pictures of happy love, only scenes of domestic peace and literary leisure; and judging of his feelings by her own, dreamed "not of aught that would have disgraced the loves of angels. Tedious weeks of absence had intervened since their last meeting, and Hargrave's resolution was taken. To live without her was impossible; and he was determined to try whether he had overrated the strength of her affection, when he ventured to hope that to it she would sacrifice her all. To meet her thus unexpectedly filled him with joy, and the heart of Laura throbbed quick as he expressed his rapture. Never had his professions been so ardent; and, softened by sorrow and by absence, never had Laura felt such seducing tenderness as now stole upon her. Unable to speak, and unconscious of her path, she listened with silent rapture to the glowing language of her lover, till his entreaties wrung from her a reluctant confession of her preference. Unmindful of the feeling of humiliation that makes the moment of such a confession of all others the least favourable to a lover's boldness, Hargrave poured forth the most vehement expressions of passion; while, shrinking into herself, Laura now first observed that the shades of evening were closing fast, while their lonely path led through a wood that climbed the rocky hill.

She stopped. "I must return," said she; "my father will be anxious for me at this hour."

"Talk not now of returning," cried Hargrave impetuously; "trust yourself to a heart that adores you. Reward all my lingering pains, and let this happy hour begin a life of love and rapture."

Laura, wholly unconscious of his meaning, looked up in his face with an innocent smile. "I have often taxed you with raving," said she; "now, I am sure, you must admit the charge."

"Do not sport with me, loveliest," cried Hargrave, "nor waste these precious moments in cold delay. Leave forms to the frozen hearts that wait them, and be from this hour mine, wholly and for ever."

Laura threw a tearful glance on her mourning habit. "Is this like bridal attire?" said she; "would you bring your nuptial festivities into the house of death, and mingle the sound of your marriage vow with my mother's dying groans?"

"Can this simplicity be affected?" thought Hargrave. "Is it that she will not understand me?" He examined her countenance. All there was candour and unsuspecting love. Her arm rested on his with confiding pressure, and for a moment Hargrave faltered in his purpose. The next, he imagined that he had gone too far to recede; and clasping her to his breast with all the vehemence of passion, he urged his suit in language yet more unequivocal. No words can express her feelings, when, the veil thus rudely torn from her eyes, she saw her pure, her magnanimous Hargrave, the god of her idolatry, degraded to a sensualist, a seducer. Casting on him a look of mingled horror, dismay, and anguish, she exclaimed, "Are you so base?" and freeing herself, with convulsive struggle, from his grasp, sank without sense or motion to the ground.

As he gazed on the death-pale face of Laura, and raised her lifeless form from the earth, compassion, which so often survives principle, overpowered all Hargrave's impetuous feelings; and they were succeeded by the chill of horror, as the dreadful idea occurred to him, that she was gone for ever. In vain he chafed her cold hands, tried to warm her to life in his bosom, bared hers to the evening breeze, and distractedly called for help; while with agony, which every moment increased, he remembered that no human help was near. No sign of returning life appeared. At last he recollected, that in their walks they had at some distance crossed a little stream, and, starting up with renovated hope, he ran to it with the speed of lightning; but the way, which was so short as he passed it before, now seemed lengthened without end. At last he reached it; and filling his hat with water, returned with his utmost speed. He darted forward till he found himself at the verge of the wood, and then first perceived that he had mistaken the path. As he retraced his steps, a thousand times he cursed his precipitancy, in not having with more caution ascertained the sentiments of his mistress, ere he permitted his licentious purpose to be seen. After a search, prolonged by his own frantic impatience, he arrived at the spot where he left her; but no Laura was there. He called wildly on her name --he was answered by the mountain echo alone. After seeking her long, a hope arose that she had been able to reach the village; and thither he determined to return, that, should his hope prove groundless, he might at least procure assistance in his search.

As he approached the little garden that surrounded Captain Montreville's cottage, he with joy perceived a light in the window of Laura's apartment; and never, in the most cheerful scenes, had he beheld her with such delight as he did now, when every gesture seemed the expression of unutterable anguish. He drew nearer, and saw despair painted on her every feature; and he felt how tender was the love that could thus mourn his degeneracy, and its own blighted hopes. If she could thus feel for his guilt, the thought irresistibly pressed on his mind, with what bitterness would she feel her own. Seduction, he perceived, would with her be a work of time and difficulty; while, could he determine to make her his wife, he was secure of her utmost gratitude and tenderness. The known honour, too, of Captain Montreville, made the seduction of his daughter rather a dangerous exploit; and Colonel Hargrave knew, that in spite of the licence of the times, should he destroy the daughter's honour, and the father's life, he would no longer be received, even in the most fashionable circles, with the cordiality he could at present command. The dignified beauty of Laura would grace a coronet, and more than excuse the weakness which raised her to that distinction--his wife would admired and followed, while all her affections would be his alone. In fancy he presented her glittering with splendour, or majestic in unborrowed loveliness, to his companions; saw the gaze of admiration follow wherever she turned; and that thought determined him. He would go next morning, and in form commence honourable lover, by laying his pretensions before Captain Montreville. Should Laura have acquainted her father with the adventures of the evening, he might feel some little awkwardness in his first visit; but she might perhaps have kept his secret; and, at all events, his generous intentions would repair his offence. Satisfied with himself, he retired to rest, and enjoyed a repose that visited not the pillow of the innocent Laura.

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This presentation of Self Control: 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.