Scarcely had Hargrave quitted Laura, when her senses began to return, and with them an indefinite feeling of danger and alarm. The blood gushing from her mouth and nostrils, she quickly revived to a full sense of her situation, and instinctively endeavoured to quit a spot now so dark and lonely. Terror gave her strength to proceed. Every path in her native woods was familiar to her; she darted through them with what speed she could command; and, reckless of all danger but that from which she fled, she leapt from the projecting rocks, or gradually descended from the more fearful declivities, by clinging to the trees which burst from the fissures; till, exhausted with fatigue, she reached the valley, and entered the garden that surrounded her home. Here, supported no longer by the sense of danger, her spirits utterly failed her; and she threw herself on the ground, without a wish but to die.
From this state she was roused by the voice of her father, who, on the outside of the fence, was inquiring of one of the villagers, whether she had been seen. Wishing, she scarcely knew why, to escape all human eyes, she rose, and without meeting Captain Montreville, gained her own apartment. As she closed her door, and felt for a moment the sense of security which every one experiences in the chamber which he calls his own--"Oh!" cried she, "that I could thus shut out the base world for ever!"
There was in Laura's chamber one spot, which had in her eyes something of holy, for it was hallowed by the regular devotions of her life. On it she had breathed her first infant prayer. There shone on her the eastern sun, as she offered her morning tribute of praise. There first fell the shades of evening that invited her to implore the protection of her God. On that spot she had so often sought consolation, so often found her chief delight, that it was associated in her mind with images of hope and comfort; and springing towards it, she now almost unconsciously dropped upon her knees. While she poured forth her soul in prayer, her anguish softened into resignation; and with the bitter tears of disappointment, those of gratitude mingled, while she thanked Him who, though he had visited her with affliction, had preserved her from guilt.
She rose, composed although wretched, resigned although hopeless; and when summoned to supper, had sufficient recollection to command her voice, while she excused herself on the plea of a violent headache. Left to herself, she passed the sleepless nright, now in framing excuses for her lover, now in tormenting reflections on her mistaken estimate of his character; and in bitter regrets that what seemed so excellent should be marred with so foul a stain. But Laura's thoughts were so habitually the prelude to action, that, even in the severest conflict of her powers, she was not likely to remain long in a state of ineffective meditation. "What ought I now to do?' was a question which, from childhood, Laura had every hour habitually asked herself; and the irresistible force of the habit of many years, brought the same question to her mind when she rose with the dawn.
With a heavy heart she was obliged to confess, that delicacy, no less than prudence, must forbid all future intercourse with Hargrave. But he had for some time been a constant visitor at the cottage, till excluded by the increasing illness of Lady Harriet. He might now renew his visits, and how was it possible to prevent this? Should she refuse to see him, her father must be made acquainted with the cause of such a refusal, and she could not doubt that the consequences would be such as she shuddered to think of. She groaned aloud as the horrid possibility occurred to her, that her father might avenge her wrongs at the expense of his virtue and his life--becoming for her sake a murderer, or fall by a murderer's hand. She instantly resolved to conceal for ever the insult she had received; and to this resolution she determined that all other circumstances should bend. Yet should she receive Colonel Hargrave as formerly, what might he not have the audacity to infer? How could she make him fully sensible of her indignant feelings, yet act such a part as might deceive the penetration of her father? Act a part! deceive her father! Laura's thoughts were usually clear and distinct; and there was something in this distinct idea of evasion and deceit that sickened her very soul. This was the first system of concealment that had ever darkened her fair and candid mind; and she wept bitterly when she convinced herself that from such conduct there was no escape.
She sat, lost in these distressing reflections, till the clock struck the hour of breakfast; then recollecting that she must not suffer her appearance to betray her, she ran to her glass, and, with more interest than she had perhaps ever before felt in the employment, proceeded to dress her countenance to advantage. She bathed her swollen eyes, shaded them with the natural ringlets of her dark hair, rubbed her wan cheeks till their colour returned, and then entered the parlour with an overacted gaiety that surprised Captain Montreville. "I scarcely expected," said he, "to see you so very animated, after being so ill as to go to rest last night, for the first time in your life, without your father's blessing."
Laura, instantly sensible of her mistake, colouring, stammered something of the cheering influence of the morning air; and then meditating on a proper medium in her demeanour, sank into so long a silence, that Captain Montreville could not have failed to remark it, had not his attention been diverted by the arrival of the newspaper, which he continued to study till breakfast was ended, when Laura gladly retired to her room.
Though the understanding of Laura was above her years, she had not escaped a mistake common to the youth of both sexes, when smarting under a recent disappointment in love--the mistake of supposing, that all the interest of life is, with respect to them, at an end, and that their days must thenceforth bring only a dull routine of duties without incitement, and of toils without hope. But the leading principle of Laura's life was capable of giving usefulness even to her errors; and the gloom of the wilderness through which her path seemed to lie, only brightened, by contrast, the splendour that lay beyond. "The world," thought she, "has now nothing to offer that I covet, and little to threaten that I fear. What then remains but to do my duty, unawed by its threatenings, unbribed by its joys? Ere this cloud darkened all my earthly prospects, I was not untaught, though I had too much forgotten the lesson, that it was not for pastime I was sent hither. I am here as a soldier, who strives in an "enemy's laud; as one who must run, must wrestle, must strain every nerve, exert every power, nor once shrink from the struggle till the prize is my own. Nor do I live for myself alone. I have a friend to gratify--the poor to relieve--the sorrowful to console--a father's age to comfort--a God to serve. And shall selfish feeling disincline me to such duties as these? No: with more than seeming cheerfulness I will perform them all. I will thank Heaven for exempting me from the far heavier task of honouring and obeying a profligate."
A profligate! Must she apply such a name to Hargrave! The enthusiasm of the moment expired at the word, and the glow of virtuous resolution faded to the paleness of despondence and pain.
From a long and melancholy reverie, Laura was awakened by the sound of the garden gate, and she perceived that it was entered by Colonel Hargrave. Instinctively she was retreating from the window, when she saw him joined by her father; and, trembling lest candour was about to confess, or inadvertence to betray, what she so much wished to conceal, she continued with breathless anxiety to watch their conference.
Though Colonel Hargrave was certainly one of the best bred men in the kingdom, and, of consequence, entirely free from the awkwardness of mauvaise honte, it must be confessed that he entered the presence of the father of Laura with rather less than his accustomed ease; but the cordial salutation of Captain Montreville banishing all fear that the lady had been too communicative, our lover proceeded, without any remaining embarrassment, to unfold the purpose of his visit. Nor could any one have conjectured, from the courtly condescension of the great man, that he conceived he was bestowing a benefit; nor from the manly frankness of the other, that he considered himself as receiving a favour. Not but that the colonel was in full possession of the pleasures of conscious generosity and condescension. So complete, indeed, was his self-approbation, that he doubted not but his present magnanimous resolve would efface from the mind of Laura all resentment for his offence. Her displeasure, he thought, would be very short-lived, if he were able to convince her that his fault was not premeditated. This he conceived to be an ample excuse, because he chose to consider the insult he had offered, apart from the base propensities, the unbridled selfishness, which it indicated. As Laura had so well concealed his indiscretion, he was too good a politician himself to expose it; and he proceeded to make such offers in regard to settlements, as suited the liberality of his character.
Captain Montreville listened with undisguised satisfaction to proposals apparently so advantageous to his beloved child; but, while he expressed his entire approbation of the colonel's suit, regard to feminine decorum made him add, "that he was determined to put no constraint on the inclinations of his daughter." The colonel felt a strong conviction that no constraint would be necessary; nevertheless, turning a neat period, importing his willingness to resign his love, rather than interfere with the happiness of Miss Montreville, he closed the conference, by entreating that the captain would give him an immediate opportunity of learning his fate from the lips of the fair Laura herself.
Laura had continued to follow them with her eyes, till they entered the house together; and the next minute Captain Montreville knocked at her door.
"If your headache is not quite gone," said he, with a significant smile, "I will venture to recommend a physician. Colonel Hargrave is waiting to prescribe for you; and you may repay him in kind, for he tells me he has a case for your consideration."
Laura was on the point of protesting against any communication with Colonel Hargrave; but instantly recollecting the explanation that would be necessary, "I will go to him this instant," she exclaimed, with an eagerness that astonished her father.
"Surely, you will first smooth these reddish locks of yours," said he, fondly stroking her dark auburn hair. "I fear so much haste may make the colonel vain."
Laura coloured violently; for, amidst all her fears of a discovery, she found place for a strong feeling of resentment, at the easy security of forgiveness that seemed intimated by a visit so immediately succeeding the offence. Having employed the few moments she passed at her toilette in collecting her thoughts, she descended to the parlour, fully resolved to give no countenance to the hopes her lover might have built on her supposed weakness.
The colonel was alone, and, as she opened the door, eagerly advanced towards her. "My adored Laura," cried he, "this condescension--" Had he staid to read the pale but resolute countenance of his "adored" Laura, he would have spared his thanks for her condescension.
She interrupted him. "Colonel Hargrave," said she, with imposing seriousness, "I have a request to make to you. Perhaps the peace of my life depends upon your compliance."
"Ah, Laura! what request can I refuse, where I have so much to ask?"
"Promise me, that you will never make known to my father--that you will take every means to conceal from him the--" (she hesitated) "the--our meeting last night," she added, rejoiced to have found a palliative expression for her meaning.
"Oh! dearest Laura! forget it; think of it no more."
"Promise--promise solemnly. If indeed," added she shuddering, while an expression of sudden anguish crossed her features, "if indeed promises can weigh with such a one as you."
"For pity's sake, speak not such cutting words as those."
"Colonel Hargrave, will you give me your promise?"
"I do promise--solemnly promise. Say but that you forgive me."
"I thank you, sir, for so far ensuring the safety of my dear father, since he might have risked his life to avenge the wrongs of his child. You cannot be surprised, if I now wish to close our acquaintance, as speedily as may be consistent with the concealment so unfortunately necessary."
Impatient to conclude an interview which tasked her fortitude to the utmost, Laura was about to retire. Havgrave seized her hand. "Surely, Laura, you will not leave me thus? You cannot refuse forgiveness to a fault caused by intemperate passion alone. The only atonement in my power I now come to offer: my hand--my fortune--my future rank."
The native spirit and wounded delicacy of Laura flashed from her eyes, while she replied, "I fear, sir, I shall not be suitably grateful for your generosity, while I recollect the alternative you would have preferred."
This was the first time that Laura had ever appeared to her lover other than the tender, the timid girl. From this character she seemed to have started at once into the high-spirited, the dignified woman; and with a truly masculine passion for variety, Hargrave thought he had never seen her half so fascinating. "My angelic Laura," cried he, as he knelt before her, "lovelier in your cruelty, suffer me to prove to you my repentance, my reverence, my adoration--suffer me to prove them to the world, by uniting our fates for ever."
"It is fit the guilty should kneel," said Laura, turning away, "but not to their fellow mortals. Rise, sir; this homage to me is but mockery."
"Say, then, that you forgive me; say that you will accept the tenderness, the duty of my future life." "What! rather than control your passions, will you now stoop to receive as your wife her whom so lately you thought vile enough for the lowest degradation? Impossible!--yours I can never be. Our views, our principles, are opposite as light and darkness. How shall I call Heaven to witness the prostitution of its own ordinances? How shall I ask the blessing of my maker on my union with a being at enmity with him?"
"Good Heavens, Laura, will you sacrifice to a punctilio, to a fit of Calvinistic enthusiasm, the peace of my life, the peace of your own? You have owned that you love me; I have seen it--delighted seen it a thousand times--and will you now desert me for ever?"
"I do not act upon punctilio," returned Laura calmly --"I believe I am no enthusiast. What have been my sentiments is now of no importance--to unite myself with vice would be deliberate wickedness--to hope for happiness from such an union would be desperate folly."
"Dearest Laura, bound by your charms, allured by your example, my reformation would be certain, my virtue secure."
"Oh, hope it not! Familiar with my form, my only hold on your regard, you would neglect, forsake, despise me; and who should say that my punishment was not just?"
"And will you then," cried Hargrave, in an agony, "will you then cast me off for ever? Will you drive me for ever from your heart?"
"I have now no choice. Leave me--forget me--seek some woman less fastidious; or rather endeavour, by your virtues, to deserve one superior far. Then honoured, beloved, as a husband, as a father--" The fortitude of Laura failed before the picture of her fancy, and she was unable to proceed. Determined to conceal her weakness from Hargrave, she broke from him, and hurried towards the door; but melting into tenderness at the thought that this interview was perhaps the last, she turned. "Oh, Hargrave!" she cried, clasping her hands as in supplication, "have pity on yourself--have pity on me; forsake the fatal path on which you have entered, that, though for ever torn from you here, I may yet meet you in a better world."
She then darted from the room, leaving her lover in dumb amazement, at the conclusion of an interview so different from his expectations. For the resentment of Laura he had been prepared; but upon her determined refusal he had never calculated, and scarcely could he now admit its reality. Could he give her credit for the professed motive of her rejection? Colonel Hargrave had nothing in himself that made it natural for him to suppose passion sacrificed to reason and principle. Had he then deceived himself? had she never really loved him?--the suggestion was too mortifying to be admitted. Had resentment given rise to her determination? She had spoken from the first with calmness--at last with tenderness. Was all this but a scene of coquetry, designed to enhance her favours? The simple, the noble, the candid Laura, guilty of coquetry?--impossible!
While these thoughts darted with confused rapidity through his mind, one idea alone was distinct and permanent--Laura had rejected him. This thought was torture. Strong resentment mingled with his anguish; and to inflict, on the innocent cause of it, pangs answering to those he felt, would have afforded to Hargrave the highest gratification. Though his passion for Laura was the most ardent of which he was capable, its effects, for the present, more resembled those of the bitterest hatred. That she loved him, he would not allow himself to doubt; and, therefore, he concluded that neglect would inflict the surest, as well as the most painful, wound. Swearing that he would make her feel it at her heart's core, he left the cottage, strode to the village inn, surlily ordered his horses, and in a humour compounded of revenge, impatient passion, and wounded pride, returned to his quarters. His scheme of revenge had all the success that such schemes usually have or deserve; and while, for one whole week, he deigned not, by visit or letter, to notice his mistress, the real sufferings which he inflicted did not exactly fall on her for whom he intended the pain.
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.