Self Control: A Novel

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THE grey lights of morning shone mild on Glenalbert, as the carriage which was conveying Laura to scenes unknown, wound slowly up the hill. With watery eyes she looked back on the quiet beauties of her native valley. She listened to the dashing of its stream, till the murmur died on her ear. Her lowly home soon glided behind the woods; but its early smoke rose peaceful from amidst its sheltering oaks, till it blended with the mists of the morning; and Laura gazed on it as on the parting steps of a friend. "Oh, vales!" she exclaimed, "where my childhood sported--mountains that have echoed to my songs of praise, amidst your shades may my age find shelter--may your wild-flowers bloom on my grave!" Captain Montreville pressed the fair enthusiast to his breast, and smiled. It was a smile of pity--for Montreville's days of enthusiasm were past. It was a smile of pleasure--for we love to look upon the transcript of our early feelings. But whatever it expressed, it was discord with the tone of Laura's mind. It struck cold on her glowing heart; and she carefully avoided uttering a word that might call forth such another, till, bright gleaming in the setting sun, she first beheld romantic Edinburgh. "Is it not glorious?" she cried, tears of wonder and delight glittering in her eyes; and she longed for its reappearance, when the descent of the little eminence which had favoured their view excluded the city from their sight.

As the travellers approached the town, Laura, whose attention was rivetted by the castle and its rocks, now frowning majestic in the shades of twilight, and by the antique piles that seemed the work of giants, scarcely bestowed a glance on the splendid line of modern buildings along which she was passing; and she was sorry when the carriage turned from the objects of her admiration towards the hotel where Captain Montreville intended to lodge.

Next morning, Laura, eager to renew the pleasure of the evening, proposed a walk; not without some dread of encountering the crowd which she expected to find in such a city. At the season of the year, however, when Laura reached Edinburgh, she had little cause for apprehension. The noble streets through which she passed had the appearance of being depopulated by pestilence. The houses were uninhabited, the window shutters were closed, and the grass grew from the crevices of the pavement. The few well-dressed people whom she saw, stared upon her with such oppressive curiosity as gave the uninitiated Laura a serious uneasiness. At first she thought that some peculiarity in her dress occasioned this embarrassing scrutiny. But her dress was simple mourning, and its form the least conspicuous possible. She next imagined, that to her rather unusual stature she owed this unenviable notice; and, with a little displeasure, she remarked to her father, that it argued a strange want of delicacy to appear to notice the peculiarities of any one's figure; and that, in this respect, the upper ranks seemed more destitute of politeness than their inferiors. Captain Montreville answered, with a smile, that he did not think it was her height which drew such attention. "Well," said she, with great simplicity, "I must endeavour to find food for my vanity in this notice, though it is rather against my doing so, that the women stare more tremendously than the gentlemen."

As they passed the magnificent shops, the windows, gay with every variety of colour, constantly attracted Laura's inexperienced eye; and she asked Montreville to accompany her into one where she wished to purchase some necessary trifle. The shopman observing her attention fixed on a box of artificial flowers, spread them before her; and tried to invite her to purchase, by extolling the cheapness and beauty of his goods. "Here is a charming myrtle sprig, ma'am; and here is a geranium-wreath, the most becoming thing for the hair--only seven shillings each, ma'am." Laura owned the flowers were beautiful. "But I fear," said she, looking compassionately at the man, "you will never be able to sell them all. There are so few people who would give seven shillings for what is of no use whatever." "I am really sorry for that poor young man," said she to her father, when they left the shop. " Tall, robust, in the very flower of his age, how he must feel humbled by being obliged to attend to such trumpery?" "Why is your pity confined to him?" said Montreville; "there were several others in the same situation." "Oh! but they were children, and may do something better by and bye. But the tall one, I suppose, is the son of some weak mother, who fears to trust him to fight his country's battles. It is hard that she should have power to compel him to such degradation; I really felt for him when he twirled those flowers between his finger and thumb, and looked so much in earnest about nothing."

The next thing which drew Laura's attention was a stay-maker's sign. "Do the gentlemen here wear corsets?" said she to Montreville. "Not many of them, I believe," said Montreville; "what makes you inquire?" "Because there is a man opposite who makes corsets. It cannot surely be for women."

Captain Montreville had only one female acquaintance in Edinburgh, a lady of some fashion; and hearing that she was come to town to remain till after the races, he that forenoon carried Laura to wait upon her. The lady received them most graciously, inquired how long they intended to be in Edinburgh; and on being answered that they were to leave it in two days, overwhelmed them with regrets that the shortness of their stay precluded her from the pleasure of their company for a longer visit. Laura regretted it too; but utterly ignorant of the time which must elapse between a fashionable invitation and the consequent visit, she could not help wondering whether the lady was really engaged for each of the four daily meals of two succeeding days.

These days Captain Montreville and his daughter passed in examining this picturesque city--its public libraries, its antique castle, its forsaken palace, and its splendid scenery. But nothing in its singular environs more charmed the eye of Laura than one deserted walk, where, though the noise of multitudes stole softened on the ear, scarcely a trace of human existence was visible, except the ruin of a little chapel which peeped fancifully from the ledge of a rock, and reminded her of the antic gambols of the red deer on her native hills, when, from the brink of the precipice, they look fearless into the dell below.

From this walk Captain Montreville conducted his daughter to the top of the fantastic mountain that adorns the immediate neighbourhood of Edinburgh, and triumphantly demanded whether she had ever seen such a prospect? But Laura was by no means disposed to let Perthshire yield the palm to Lowland scenery. Here, indeed, the prospect was varied and extensive, but the objects were too various, too distant, too gay--they glared on the eye--the interest was lost. The serpentine corn-ridges, offensive to agricultural skill; the school, with its well-frequented gean-tree; the bright green clover fields, seen at intervals through the oak coppice; the church, half hid by its venerable ash trees; the feathery birch, trembling in the breath of evening; the smoking hamlet, its soft colours blending with those of the rocks that sheltered it; the rill, dashing with fairy anger in the channel which its winter fury had furrowed--these were the simple objects which had charms for Laura, not to be rivalled by neat enclosures and whitened villas. Yet the scenes before her were delightful, and had not Captain Montreville's appeal recalled the comparison, she would, in the pleasure which they excited, have forgotten the less splendid beauties of Glenalbert.

Montreville pointed out the road that led to England. Laura sent a longing look towards it, as it wound amid woods and villages and gentle swells, and was lost to the eye in a country which smiled rich and inviting from afar. She turned her eyes where the Forth is lost in the boundless ocean, and sighed as she thought of the perils and hardships of them who "go down to the sea in ships." Montreville, unwilling to subject her to the inconveniences of a voyage, had proposed to continue his journey by land, and Laura herself could not think without reluctance of tempting the faithless deep. The scenery, too, which a journey promised to present, glowed in her fervid imagination with more than nature's beauty. Yet feeling the necessity of rigid economy, and determined not to permit her too indulgent parent to consult her accommodation at the expense of his prudence, it was she who persuaded Montreville to prefer a passage by sea, as the mode of conveyance best suited to his finances.

The next day our travellers embarked for London. The weather was fine, and Laura remained all day upon deck, amused with the novelty of her situation. Till she left her native solitude, she had never even seen the sea, except when, from a mountain top, it seemed far off to mingle with the sky; and to her, the majestic Forth, as it widened into an estuary, seemed itself a "world of waters." But when on one side the land receded from the view, when the great deep lay before her, Laura looked upon it for a moment, and shuddering, turned away. "It is too mournful," said she to her father; "were there but one spot, however small, however dimly described, which fancy might people with beings like ourselves, I could look with pleasure on the gulf between--but here there is no resting place. Thus dismal, thus overpowering, methinks eternity would have appeared, had not a haven of rest been made known to us." Compared with the boundless expanse of waters, the little bark in which she was floating seemed "diminished to a point;" and Laura, raising her eyes to the stars that were beginning to glimmer through the twilight, thought that such a speck was the wide world itself, amid the immeasurable space in which it rolled. This was Laura's hour of prayer, and far less inviting circumstances can recall us to the acts of a settled habit.

Five days they glided smoothly along the coast. On the morning of the sixth they entered the river, and the same evening reached London. Laura listened with something like dismay to the mingled discord that now burst upon her ear. The thundering of loaded carriages, the wild cries of the sailors, the strange dialect, the ferocious oaths of the populace, seemed but parts of the deafening tumult. When they were seated in the coach which was to convey them from the quay, Laura begged her father to prevail on the driver to wait till the unusual concourse of carts and sledges should pass, and heard with astonishment that the delay would be vain. At last they arrived at the inn where Captain Montreville intended to remain till he could find lodgings; and, to Laura's great surprise, they completed their journey without being jostled by any carriages, or overturned by any waggoner--for aught she knew, without running over any children.

Being shown into a front parlour, Laura seated herself at a window, to contemplate the busy multitudes that thronged the street: and she could not help contrasting their number and appearance with those of the inhabitants of Edinburgh. There the loitering step, the gay attire, the vacant look, or the inquisitive glance, told that mere amusement was the object of their walk, if indeed it had an object. Here, every face was full of business--none stared, none sauntered, or had indeed the power to saunter, the double tide carrying them resistlessly along in one direction or the other. Among all the varieties of feature that passed before her, Laura saw not one familiar countenance; and she involuntarily pressed closer to her father, while she thought, that among these myriads she should but for him be alone.

Captain Montreville easily found an abode suited to his humble circumstances; and the day after his arrival, he removed with his daughter to the second floor above a shop in Holborn. The landlady was a widow, a decent orderly-looking person; the apartments, though far from elegant, were clean and commodious. They consisted of a parlour, two bedchambers, and a small room, or rather closet, which Laura immediately appropriated as her painting-room. Here she found amusement in arranging the materials of her art, while Captain Montreville walked to the west end of the town, to confer with his agent on the unfortunate cause of his visit to London. He was absent for some hours; and Laura, utterly ignorant of the length of his walk, and of its difficulties to one who had not seen the metropolis for twenty years, began to be uneasy at his stay. He returned at last, fatigued and dispirited, without having seen Mr Baynard, who was indisposed, and could not admit him. After a silent dinner, he threw himself upon a sofa, and dismissed his daughter, saying that he felt inclined to sleep.

Laura took this opportunity to write to Mrs Douglas a particular account of her travels. She mentioned with affectionate interest some of her few acquaintances at Glenalbert, and inquired for all the individuals of Mrs Douglas's family; but the name of Hargrave did not once occur in her letter, though nothing could exceed her curiosity to know how the colonel had borne her departure, of which, afraid of his vehemence, she had, at their last interview, purposely avoided to inform him.

Having finished her letter, Laura, that she might not appear to repress civility, availed herself of her land-lady's invitation to "come now and then," as she expressed it, "to have a chat;" and descended to the parlour below. On perceiving that Mrs Dawkins was busily arranging the tea equipage, with an air that showed she expected company, Laura would have retreated, but her hostess would not suffer her to go. "No, no, Miss," said she; "I expect nobody but my daughter Kate, as is married to Mr Jones the haberdasher; and you musn't go, for she can tell you all about Scotland; and it is but natural to think that you'd like to hear about your own country, now when you're in a foreign land, as a body may say."

The good woman had judged well in the bribe she offered to her guest, who immediately consented to join her party; and who, perceiving that Mrs Dawkins was industriously spreading innumerable slices of bread and butter, courteously offered to share her toils. Mrs Dawkins thanked her, and accepted her services, adding, "Indeed it's very hard as I should have all them there things to do myself, when I have a grown-up daughter in the house. But, poor thing, it ain't her fault after all, for she never was larnt to do nothing of use."

"That was very unfortunate," said Laura.

"Yes, but it mightn't have been so misfortunate neither, only, you see, I'll tell you how it was. My sister, Mrs Smith, had a matter of 10,000 left her by her husband, and so she took a fancy when July was born as she'd have her called a grand name; and I'm sure an unlucky name it was for her, for many a fine freak it has put into her head. Well, and so as I was saying, she took July home to herself, and had her larnt to paint, and to make fillagree, and play on the piano, and what not; and to be sure we thought she would never do no less than provide for her. But what do you think?--why, two years ago, she ran away with a young ensign, as had nothing in the varsal world but his pay; and so July came home just as she went; and, what was worst of all, she couldn't do no more in the shop nor the day she was born."

"That was hard, indeed," said Laura.

"Wasn't it now?--but one comfort was, I had Kate brought up in another guess-way; for I larnt her plain work and writing, and how to cast accounts; and never let her touch a book, except the prayer-book a-Sundays; and see what's the upshot on't! Why, though July's all to nothing the prettiest, nobody has never made an offer for she, and Kate's got married to a warm man as any in his line hereabouts, and a man as has a house not ten doors off; and besides, as snug a box in the country as ever you seed--so convenient you've no idear. Why, I dare say, there's a matter of ten stagecoaches pass by the door every day."

To all this family history, Laura listened with great patience, wondering, however, what could induce the narrator to take so much trouble for the information of a stranger.

The conversation, if it deserves the name, was now interrupted by the entrance of a young woman, whom Mrs Dawkins introduced as her daughter July. Her figure was short, inclining to embonpoint--her face, though rather pretty, round and rosy; and her whole appearance seemed the antipodes of sentiment. She had, however, a book in her hand, on which, after exchanging compliments with Laura, she cast a languishing look, and said, "I have been paying a watery tribute to the sorrows of my fair namesake." Then pointing out the title-page to Laura, she added, "You, I suppose, have often done so."

It was the tragedy of "The Minister," and Laura, reading the name aloud, said she was not acquainted with it.

"Oh!" cried Mrs Dawkins, "that's the young woman as swears so horridly. No, I dares to say, Miss Montreville never read no such thing. If it an't a shame to be seen in a Christian woman hands--it is. And if she would read it by herself, it would be nothing; but there she goes, ranting about the house like an actress, cursing all aloud, worser than the drunken apple-woman at the corner of the street." 020 "Pray mamma, forbear," said Miss Julia Dawkins, in a plaintive tone; "it wounds my feelings to hear you. I am sure, if Miss Montreville would read this play, she would own that the expressions which you austerely denominate curses, give irresistible energy to the language."

"This kind of energy," said Laura, with a smile, "has at least the merit of being very generally attainable." This remark was not in Miss Julia's line. She had, therefore, recourse to her book, and with great variety of grimace read aloud one of Casimir's impassioned, or, as Laura thought, frantic speeches. The curious contrast of the reader's manner with her appearance, of the affected sentimentality of her air with the robust vulgarity of her figure, struck Laura as so irresistibly ludicrous, that, though of all young ladies she was the least addicted to tittering, her politeness would have been fairly defeated in the struggle, had it not been reinforced by the entrance of Mr and Mrs Jones. The former was a little man, in a snuff-coloured coat and a brown wig, who seemed to be about fifty; the latter was a good-humoured common-place looking woman, of about half that age. Laura was pleased with the cordiality with which Mr Jones shook his mother-in-law by the hand, saying, "Well, mother, I's brought you Kate pure and hearty again, and the little fellow is fine and well, tho'f he be too young to come a wisiting."

As soon as the commotion occasioned by their entrance was over, and Laura formally made acquainted with the lady, Mrs Dawkins began:--"I hopes, Kate, yon han't forgot how to tell about your jaunt to Scotland; for this here young lady staid tea just o' purpose to hear it."

"Oh, that I han't," said Mrs Jones; "I'm sure I shall remember it the longest day I have to live. Pray, Miss," added she, turning to Laura, "was you ever in Glasgow?"

"Never," said Laura; "I have heard that it is a fine city."

"Ay, but I've been there first and last eleven days; and I can say for it, it is really a handsome town, and a mort of good white-stone houses in it. For you see, when Mr Jones married me, he had not been altogether satisfied with his rider, and he thoft as he'd go down to Glasgow himself and do business; and that he'd make it do for his wedding jaunt, and that would be killing two dogs with one stone."

"That was certainly an excellent plan," said Laura.

"Well," continued Mrs Jones, "when we'd been about a week in Glasgow, we were had to dine one day with Mr Mactavish, as supplies Mr Jones with ginghams; and he talked about some grand house of one of your Scotch dukes, and said as how we mustn't go home without seeing it. So we thought since we had come so far, we might as well see what was to be seen."

"Certainly," said Laura, at the pause which was made to take breath, and receive approbation.

"Well, we went down along the river, which, to say truth, is very pretty, tho'f it be not turfed, nor kept neat round the edges, to a place they call Dunbarton, where there is a rock for all the world like an ill-made sugar loaf, with a slice out o' the middle on't; and they told us there was a castle on it--but such a castle!"

"Pray, sister," said Miss Julia, "have you an accurate idea of what constitutes a castle--of the keeps, the turrets, the winding staircases, and the portcullis?"

"Bless you, my dear," returned the traveller, "han't I seen Windsor Castle, and t'others no more like it--no more than nothing at all. Howsoever, we slept that night at a very decent sort of an inn; and Mr Jones thought as we were so comfortable, we had best come back to sleep. So, as the duke's house was but thirty miles off, we thought if we set off early in the morning, we might get back at night. So off we set, and went two stages to breakfast, at a place with one of their outlandish names; and to be sartin, when we got there, we were as hungry as hounds. Well, we called for hot rolls; and, do but think, there wasn't no such thing to be had for love or money."


Mrs Jones paused to give Laura time for the expression of her pity; but she remained silent, and Mrs Jones resumed. "Well, they brought us a loaf as old as St Paul's, and some good enough butter; so, thinks I, I'll make us some good warm toast; for I loves to make the best of a bad bargain. So I bid the waiter bring us the toast stool; but if you had seen how he stared; why, the poor fellor had never heard of no such thing in his life. Then they showed us a huge mountain, as black as a soot-bag, just opposite the window, and said as we must go up there; but, thinks I, catch us at that; for if we be so bad off here for breakfast, what shall we be there for dinner. So my husband and I were of a mind upon it to get back to Glasgow as fast as we could; for though, to be sure, it cost us a power of money coming down, yet, thinks we, the first loss is the best."

"What would I have given," cried Miss Julia, turning up the whites of her eyes, "to have been permitted to mingle my sighs with the mountain breezes!" Mrs Jones was accustomed to her sister's nonsense, and she only shrugged her shoulders. But Mrs Dawkins, provoked that her daughter should be so much more than usually ridiculous before a stranger, said, "Why, child, how can you be so silly--what in the world should you do sighing o' top of a Scotch hill? I dares to say, if you were there you might sigh long enough before you'd find such a comfortable cup of tea as what you have in your hand." Miss Julia disdained reply; but turning to our heroine, she addressed her in a tone so amusingly sentimental, that Laura feared to listen to the purport of her speech, lest the manner and the matter united should prove too much for her gravity; and rising, she apologised for retiring, by saying that she heard her father stir, and that she must attend him.

When two people of very different ages meet tete-a-tete in a room, where they are not thoroughly domesticated, where there are no books, no musical instruments, nor even that great bond of sociality, a fire, it requires no common invention and vivacity to pass an evening with tolerable cheerfulness. The little appearances of discomfort, however, which imperceptibly lower the spirits of others, had generally an opposite effect upon those of Laura. Attentive to the comfort of every human being who approached her, she was always the first to discover the existence and cause of the "petty miseries of life;" but accustomed to consider them merely as calls to exertion, they made not the slightest impression on her spirits or temper. The moment she cast her eyes upon her father, leaning on a table, where stood a pair of candles that but half lighted the room; and on the chimney, where faded fennel occupied the place of a fire, she perceived that all her efforts would be necessary to produce any thing like comfort. She began her operations, by enticing her father out of the large vacant room into the small one, where she intended to work. Here she prepared his coffee, gave him an account of the party below stairs, read to him her letter to Mrs Douglas, and did and said every thing she could imagine to amuse him.

When the efforts to entertain are entirely on one side, it is scarcely in human nature to continue them; and Laura was beginning to feel very blank, when it luckily occurred to her that she had brought her little chessboard from Glenalbert. Away she flew, and in triumph produced this infallible resort. The match was pretty equal. Captain Montreville had more skill, Laura more resource; and she defended herself long and keenly. At last she was within a move of being check-mated. But the move was hers; and the captain, in the heat of victory, overlooked a step by which the fortune of the game would have been reversed. Laura saw it, and eagerly extended her hand to the piece; but recollecting that there is something in the pride of man's nature which abhors being beaten at chess by a lady, she suddenly desisted; and, sweeping her lily arm across the board, "Nay, now," she cried, with a look of ineffable good nature, "if you were to complete my defeat after all my hair-breadth 'scapes, you could not be so unreasonable as to expect that I should keep my temper." "And how dare you," said Captain Montreville, in great good humour with his supposed victory, "deprive me at once of the pleasures of novelty and of triumph?" By the help of this auxiliary, the evening passed pleasantly away; and before another came, Laura had provided for it the cheap luxury of some books from a circulating library.

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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.