Mrs Douglas observed with satisfaction the improved stature and increasing gracefulness of her young favourite; but she remarked, with painful interest, that the hectic of pleasure which tinged the cheek of Laura at their meeting faded fast to the hue of almost sickly delicacy. She soon noticed that an expression, as of sudden torture, would sometimes contract for a moment the polished forehead of Laura; that it was now succeeded by the smothered sigh, the compressed lip, the hasty motion that spoke strong mental effort, now subsided into the languor of deep unconquered melancholy. Such depression Mrs Douglas could not attribute to the loss of a mother whose treatment furnished more occasions of patience than of gratitude; and she anxiously longed to discover its real cause. But it was soon evident that this was a secret which Laura had no intention to disclose. A glance from the inquiring eye of Mrs Douglas at once recalled her to constrained cheerfulness, and the presence of Captain Montreville seemed always to put her entirely upon her guard. While he was in the room, she talked, read aloud, or played with the children, as if determined to be amused; but as soon as he retired, she relapsed, like one wearied with effort, into languor and melancholy, till recalled to herself by the scrutinising looks of Mrs Douglas.
Even in their most private conversations, the name of Hargrave never passed her lips. Months, indeed, had elapsed since Laura could have pronounced that name without painful emotion--to utter it now was become almost impossible. She felt that she had no right to publish, while she rejected, his addresses; and she felt an invincible repugnance to expose even his failings, but much more his vices, to the censure of the respectable Mrs Douglas. Soon after she first saw Hargrave, she had written to her friend a warm eulogium of his fine person, captivating manners, and elegant accomplishments. Mrs Douglas, in reply, had desired to hear more of this phoenix; but before Laura again found leisure to write, she was no longer inclined to make Hargrave her subject, and her friend had desisted from fruitless inquiries.
Mrs Douglas had lately had an opportunity of judging for herself of the colonel's attractions; and so great did they appear to her, that it was with extreme astonishment she heard of his late disappointment from Captain Montreville, who did not feel his daughter's delicacy on the subject. This communication served only to increase her perplexity as to the cause of Laura's depression; yet she felt herself relieved from the apprehension that hopeless love for Hargrave was wasting the health and peace of her dear Laura. Still, however, she continued to watch that expressive countenance, to weigh every word that might tend to unfold the enigma. In vain; Laura studiously avoided all approach to an explanation. Mrs Douglas's anxiety now increased to a painful extreme. She felt how necessary to female inexperience is the advice of a female --how indispensable to feminine sorrows are the consolations of feminine sympathy; and she resolved that no false delicacy should withhold her from offering such relief as she might have power to bestow.
One morning after the gentlemen had left them alone together, Mrs Douglas, meditating on the best means of introducing the subject she had so much at heart, had fallen into a long silence, when, looking up, she perceived that Laura had let fall her work, and was sitting with her eyes fixed, and her arms dropped, in the attitude of one whose thoughts had no connection with present objects. At the heavy sigh with which Mrs Douglas surveyed her, she started, and was rousing her attention to some indifferent subject, when Mrs Douglas, kindly taking her hand, said, "My dear child, whatever may be necessary with others, I beseech you to be under no constraint with me. I am far from wishing to intrude into your confidence, but do not add the pain of constraint to anguish that already seems so oppressive,"
Large tears stole from under Laura's downcast eyelids; but she spoke not. Mrs Douglas continued-- "If my best advice, my most affectionate sympathy, cau be of use to you, I need not say you may command them."
Laura threw herself into the arms of her friend, and for some moments sobbed with uncontrolled emotion; but soon composing herself, she replied, "If advice could have profited, if consolation could have reached me, where should I have sought them unless from you, respected friend of my youth; but the warning voice of wisdom comes now too late, and even your sympathy would be bestowed in vain."
"Heaven forbid that my dearest Laura should be beyond the reach of comfort. That is the lot of guilt alone."
"I am grateful to Heaven," said Laura, "that I have been less guilty than imprudent. But, my best friend, let us quit this subject. This wretchedness cannot, shall not last. Only let me implore you not to notice it to my father. You know not what horrors might be the consequence."
Mrs Douglas shook her head. "Ah, Laura !" said she, "that path is not the path of safety in which you would elude a father's eye." Laura's glance met that of her friend, and she read suspicion there. The thought was so painful to her that she was on the point of disclosing all; but she remembered that the reasons which had at first determined her to silence were not altered by any one's suspicions, and she restrained herself. Colonel Hargrave had cruelly wronged and insulted her--she ought therefore to be doubly cautious how she injured him. Sympathy, in her case, she felt, would be a dangerous indulgence; and, above all, she shrunk with horror from exposing her lover, or his actions, to detestation or contempt. "Perhaps the time may come," said she, pursuing her reflections aloud, "when you will be convinced that I am incapable of any clandestine purpose. At present your compassion might be a treacherous balm to me, when my best wisdom must be to forget that I have need of pity."
Mrs Douglas looked on the open candid countenance of Laura, and her suspicions vanished in a moment; but they returned when her young friend reiterated her entreaties that she would not hint the subject to her father. Laura was, however, fortified in her resolutions of concealment, by an opinion she had often heard Mrs Douglas express, that the feelings of disappointed love should by women be kept inviolably secret. She was decisively giving a new turn to the conversation, when it was interrupted by the entrance of the gentlemen; and Mrs Douglas, a little hurt at the steadiness of her young friend, more than half determined to renew the subject no more.
A letter lay on the table which the post had brought for Captain Montreville; he read it with visible uneasiness, and immediately left the room. Laura perceived his emotion, and, ever alive to the painful subject nearest her heart, instantly concluded that the letter brought a confession from Hargrave. She heard her father's disordered steps pacing the apartment above, and earnestly longed, yet feared, to join him. Anxiety at length prevailed, and she timidly approached the door of Captain Montreville's chamber. She laid her hand upon the lock; paused again, with failing courage, and was about to retire, when her father opened the door. "Come in, my love," said he ; "I wish to speak with you." Laura, trembling, followed him into the room. "I find," said he, "we must shorten our visit to our kind friends here and travel homewards. I must prepare," continued he, and he sighed heavily, "I must prepare for a much longer journey."
Laura's imagination took the alarm, and, forgetting how unlikely it was that Captain Montreville should disclose such a resolution to her, she thought only of his intending to prepare for a journey whence there is no return, before he should stake his life against that of Hargrave. She had not power to speak, but, laying her hand on her father's arm, she cast on him a look of imploring agony. "Do not be alarmed, my love," said he; "I shall in a few days carry your commands to London; but I do not mean to be long absent."
Laura's heart leapt light. "To London, sir!" said she, in a tone of cheerful inquiry.
"Yes, my dear child, I must go, and leave you alone at home--while yet I have a home to shelter you. Had you resembled any other girl of your age, I should have said no more of this, but I will have no concealments from you. Read this letter."
It was from Captain Montreville's agent, and briefly stated, that the merchant in whose hands he had lately vested his all, in an annuity on his daughter's life, was dead; and that, owing to some informality in the deed, the heirs refused to make any payment. Having read the letter, Laura continued for some moments to muse on its contents, with her eyes vacantly fixed on the civil expression of concern with which it concluded. "How merciful it is," she exclaimed, "that this blow fell not till my mother was insensible of the stroke!" "For myself," said Captain Montreville, "I think I could have borne it well; but this was the little independence I thought I had secured for you, dear darling of my heart; and now--" The father's lip quivered, and his eyes filled; but he turned aside, for he could be tender, but would not seem so.
"Dearest father," said Laura, "think not of me. Could you have given me millions, I should still have been dependent on the care of Providence, even for my daily bread. My dependence will now only be a little more perceptible. But perhaps," added she, cheerfully, "something may be done to repair this disaster. Warren's heirs will undoubtedly rectify this mistake, when they find it has been merely accidental. At all events, a journey to London will amuse you; and I shall manage your harvest so actively in your absence!"
Captain Montreville had, from Laura's infancy, been accustomed to witness instances of her fortitude, to see her firm under unmerited chastisement, and patient under bodily suffering; but her composure on this occasion so far surpassed his expectations, that he was inclined to attribute it less to fortitude than to inconsideration. "How light-hearted is youth!" thought he, as he quitted her. "This poor child has never seen the harsh features of poverty, but when distance softened their deformity, and she now beholds his approach without alarm." He was mistaken. Laura had often taken a near survey of poverty. She had entered the cabins of the very poor; seen infancy squalid, and youth spiritless; manhood exhausted by toil, and age pining without comfort. In fancy she had substituted herself in the place of these victims of want; felt by sympathy their varieties of wretchedness; and she justly considered poverty among the heaviest of human calamities. But she was sensible that her firmness might support her father's spirits, or her weakness serve to aggravate his distress; and she wisely pushed aside the more formidable mischief, which she could not surmount, to attend to the more immediate evil, which she felt it in her power to alleviate.
The moment she was alone, Laura fell on her knees. "Oh, Heavenly Providence!" she cried, "save, if it be thy will, my dear father's age from poverty, though, like my great master, I should not have where to lay my head." She continued to pray long and fervently for spirits to cheer her father under his misfortune, and for fortitude to endure her own peculiar sorrow, in her estimation so much more bitter.
Having implored the blessing of Heaven on her exertions, she next began to practise them. She wandered out to court the exhilarating influence of the mountain air; and studiously turning her attention to all that was gay, sought to rouse her spirits for the task she had assigned them. She was so successful, that she was that evening the life of the little friendly circle. She talked, sang, and recited; she exerted all the wit and vivacity of which she was mistress; she employed powers of humour which she herself had scarcely been conscious of possessing. Her gaiety soon became contagious. Scarcely a trace appeared of the anxious fears of Mrs Douglas, or the parental uneasiness of Captain Montreville, and fewer still of the death-stroke which disappointed confidence had carried to the peace of poor Laura. But when she retired to the solitude of her chamber, her exhausted spirits found relief in tears. She felt that long to continue her exertion would be impossible; and, in spite of reason, which told of the danger of solitude, anticipated with pleasure the moment when total seclusion should leave her free to undisguised wretchedness.
Laura was not yet, however, destined to the hopeless task of combating misplaced affection in entire seclusion. On the following morning she found a stranger at the breakfast table. He seemed a man of information and accomplishments. An enthusiast in landscape, he was come to prosecute his favourite study amidst the picturesque magnificence of Highland scenery; and the appearance and manners of a gentleman furnished him with a sufficient introduction to Highland hospitality. Relieved by his presence from the task of entertaining, Laura scarcely listened to the conversation, till the stranger, having risen from table, began to examine a picture which occupied a distinguished place in Mrs Douglas's parlour. It was the work of Laura, who was no mean proficient. She had early discovered what is called a genius for painting; that is to say, she had exercised much of her native invention and habitual industry on the art. Captain Montreville added to his personal instructions every facility which it was in his power to bestow. Even when her performances had little in them of wonderful but their number, her acquaintance pronounced them wonderful; and they obtained the more useful approbation of a neighbouring nobleman, who invited her to copy from any part of his excellent collection. Her progress was now, indeed, marvellous to those who were new to the effects of unremitting industry, guided by models of exquisite skill. Having long and sedulously copied from pieces of acknowledged merit, she next attempted an original; and having with great care composed, and with incredible labour finished, her design, she dedicated to Mrs Douglas the first fruits of her improved talents, in the picture which the stranger was now contemplating. Willing that her young friend should reap advantage from the criticisms of a judicious artist, Mrs Douglas encouraged him to speak freely of the beauties and defects of the piece. After remarking that there was some skill in the composition, much interest in the principal figure, and considerable freedom in the touch, he added, "If this be, as I suppose, the work of a young artist, I shall not be surprised that he one day rise both to fame and fortune."
Mrs Douglas was about to direct his praise to its rightful owner, but Laura silenced her by a look. The stranger's last expression had excited an interest which no other earthly subject could have awakened. Her labours might, it appeared, relieve the wants or increase the comforts of her father's age; and with a face that glowed with enthusiasm, and eyes that sparkled with renovated hope, she eagerly advanced to question the critic as to the value of her work. In reply, he named a price so far exceeding her expectations, that her resolution was formed in a moment. She would accompany her father to London, and there try what pecuniary advantage was to be derived from her talent.
On a scheme which was to repair all her father's losses, prudence had not time to pause; and feeling company a restraint on her pleasure, Laura ran to her apartment, rather to enjoy than to reconsider her plan. Having spent some time in delightful anticipation of the pleasure which her father would take in the new team and thrashing-mill with which she would adorn his farm, and the comfort he would enjoy in the new books and easy sofa with which her labours would furnish his library, she recollected a hundred questions that she wished to ask the stranger, concerning the best means of disposing of her future productions, and she ran down stairs to renew the conversation. But the parlour was empty, the stranger was gone. No matter. No trifle could at this moment have discomposed Laura; and with steps as light as a heart from which, for a time, all selfish griefs were banished, she crossed the little lawn in search of her father.
The moment she overtook him, locking her arm in his, and looking smilingly up in his face, she began so urgent an entreaty to be admitted as the companion of his journey, that Captain Montreville, with some curiosity, inquired what had excited in her this sudden inclination to travel? Laura blushed and hesitated; for though her plan had, in her own opinion, all the charms which we usually attribute to the new-born children of our fancy, she felt that an air of more prudence and forethought might be requisite to render it equally attractive in the eyes of Captain Montreville. She exerted, however, all the rhetoric she could at that moment command, to give her scheme a plausible appearance. With respect to herself, she was entirely successful; and she ventured to cast a look of triumphant appeal on her father. Captain Montreville, unwilling to refuse the request of his darling, remained silent; but at the detail of her plan, he shook his head. Now, to a projector of eighteen, a shake of the head is of all gestures the most offensive; and the smile which usually accompanies it, miserably perverts the office of a smile. Tears, half of sorrow, half of vexation, forced their way to the eyes of Laura, and she walked silently on, without courage to renew the attack, till they were joined by Mrs Douglas.
Disconcerted by her ill success with her father, Laura felt little inclination to subject her scheme to the animadversions of her friend ; but Captain Montreville, expecting an auxiliary, by whose aid he might conquer the weakness of yielding without conviction, called upon Mrs Douglas, in a manner which showed him secure of her reply, to give her opinion of Laura's proposal. Mrs Douglas, who had heard, with a degree of horror, of the intention to consign Laura to solitude in her present state of suppressed dejection, and who considered new scenes and new interests as indispensable to her restoration, interpreting the asking looks of the fair petitioner, surprised Captain Montreville by a decided verdict in her favour. Rapturously thanking her advocate, Laura now renewed her entreaties with such warmth, that her father, not possessed of that facility in refusing which results from practice, gave a half-reluctant acquiescence. The delight which his, consent conveyed to Laura, which sparkled in her expressive features, and animated her artless gestures, converted his half-extorted assent into cordial concurrence; for to the defects of any scheme that gave her pleasure he was habitually blind.
In the course of the evening, Captain Montreville announced, that in order to give his daughter time to prepare for her journey, it would be necessary for them to return to Glenalbert on the following morning.
While Mrs Douglas was assisting Laura to pack up her little wardrobe, she attempted to break her guarded silence on the subject of Hargrave, by saying, "I doubt this same journey of yours will prevent Colonel Hargrave from trying the effects of perseverance, which I used to think the most infallible resort in love, as well as in more serious undertakings."
Laura began a most diligent search for something upon the carpet.
"Poor Hargrave!" Mrs Douglas resumed; "he is a great favourite of mine. I wish he had been more successful."
Laura continued industriously cramming a band-box.
"All these gowns and petticoats will crush your new bonnet to pieces, my dear."
Laura suddenly desisted from her employment, rose, and turning full towards Mrs Douglas, said, "It is unkind, it is cruel, thus to urge me, when you know that duty more than inclination keeps me silent."
"Pardon me, my dear Laura," said Mrs Douglas; "I have no wish to persecute you; but you know I was ignorant that Colonel Hargrave was our interdicted subject."
She then entered on another topic; and Laura, vexed at the partial disclosure she had inadvertently made, uneasy at being the object of constant scrutiny, and hurt at being obliged to thwart the habitual openness of her temper, felt less sorry than relieved as she sprang into the carriage that was to convey her to Glenalbert. So true is it that concealment is the bane of friendship.
Other interests, too, quickened her desire to return home. She longed, with a feeling which could not be called hope, though it far exceeded curiosity, to know whether Hargrave had called or written during her absence; and the moment the chaise stopped, she flew to the table where the letters were deposited to wait their return. There were none for her. She interrupted Nanny's expression of joy at the sight of her mistress, by asking who had called while they were from home. "Nobody but Miss Willis." Laura's eyes filled with tears of bitterness. "I am easily relinquished, " thought she, "but it is better that it should be so;" and she dashed away the drops as they rose.
She would fain have vented her feelings in the solitude of her chamber; but this was her father's first return to a widowed home, and she would not leave him to its loneliness. She entered the parlour. Captain Montreville was already there; and cheerfully welcoming him home, she shook up the cushion of an elbow-chair by the fireside, and invited him to sit. "No, love," said he, gently compelling her; "do you take that seat; it was your mother's." Laura saw his lip quiver, and suppressing the sob that swelled her bosom, she tenderly withdrew him from the room, led him to the garden, invited his attention to her new-blown carnations, and gradually diverted his regard to such cheerful objects, that, had Captain Montreville examined what was passing in his own mind, he must have confessed that he felt the loss of Lady Harriet less as a companion than an antagonist. She was more a customary something which it was unpleasant to miss from its place, than a real want which no substitute could supply. Laura's conversation, on the contrary, amusing without effort, ingenious without constraint, and rational without stiffness, furnished to her father a real and constant source of enjoyment; because, wholly exempt from all desire to shine, she had leisure to direct to the more practicable art of pleasing, those efforts by which so many others vainly attempt to dazzle.
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.