Self Control: A Novel

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THE next day, as Captain Montreville sat reading aloud to his daughter, who was busy with her needle, Mr Warren was announced.

Laura, who concluded that he had business with her father, rose to retire; but her visitor, intercepting her, took both her hands, saying, "Pray, Ma'am, don't let me frighten you away." With a constitutional dislike to familiarity, Laura coolly disengaged herself, and left the room without uttering a syllable; but not before Warren had seen enough of her to determine, that if possible he should see her again. He was struck with her extraordinary beauty, which was heightened by the little hectic his forwardness had called to her cheek; and he prolonged his visit to an unfashionable length, in the hope of her return. He went over all the topics which he judged proper for the ear of a stranger of his own sex; talked of the weather, the news, the emptiness of the town, of horses, ladies, cock-fights, and boxing-matches. He informed the captain, that he had given directions to his agent to examine into the state of the annuity; inquired how long Miss Montreville was to grace London with her presence; and was told that she was to leave it the moment her father could settle the business, on account of which alone he had left Scotland. When it was absolutely necessary to conclude his visit, Mr Warren begged permission to repeat it, that he might acquaint Captain Montreville with the success of his agent, secretly hoping that Laura would another time be less inaccessible.

Laura meanwhile thought his visit would never have an end. Having wandered into every room to which she had access, and found rest in none of them, she concluded, rather rashly, that she should find more comfort in the one from which his presence excluded her. That disease of the mind in which, by eager anticipations of the future, many are unfitted for present enjoyment, was new to the active spirit of Laura. The happiness of her life (and spite of the caprices of her mother, it had, upon the whole, been a happy one) had chiefly arisen from a constant succession of regular but varied pursuits. The methodical sequence of domestic usefulness, and improving study, and healthful exercise, afforded calm yet immediate enjoyment; and the future pleasure which they promised was of that indefinite and progressive kind which provokes no eager desires, no impatient expectation. Laura, therefore, had scarcely ever known what it was to long for the morrow; but on this day, the morrow was anticipated with wishful solicitude--a solicitude which banished from her mind even the thoughts of Hargrave. Never did youthful bridegroom look forward to his nuptial hour with more ardour, than did Laura to that which was to begin the realisation of her prospects of wealth and independence. The next day was to be devoted to the sale of her picture. Her father was on that day to visit Mr Baynard at Richmond, whither he had been removed for the benefit of a purer air; and she hoped, on his return, to surprise her beloved parent with an unlooked-for treasure. She imagined the satisfaction with which she should spread before him her newly-acquired riches--the pleasure with which she would listen to his praises of her diligence;--above all, her fancy dwelt on the delight which she should feel in relieving her father from the pecuniary embarrassment in which she knew him to be involved, by a residence in London so much longer than he had been prepared to expect.

That she might add to her intended gift the pleasure of surprise, she was resolved not to mention her plan for to-morrow; and with such objects in contemplation, how could she rest--of what other subject could she speak? She tried to banish it from her mind, that she might not be wholly unentertaining to her father, who, on her account, usually spent his evenings at home. But the task of amusing was so laborious, that she was glad to receive in it even the humble assistance of Miss Julia Dawkins.

This young lady had thought it incumbent on her to assault our heroine with a most violent friendship; a sentiment which often made her sufficiently impertinent, though it was a little kept in check by the calm good sense and natural reserve of Laura. The preposterous affectation of Julia sometimes provoked the smiles, but more frequently the pity, of Laura; for her real good nature could find no pleasure in seeing human beings make themselves ridiculous, and she applied to the cure of Miss Dawkins's foibles, the ingenuity which many would have employed to extract amusement from them. She soon found, however, that she was combating a sort of hydra, from which, if she succeeded in lopping off one excrescence, another was instantly ready to sprout. Having no character of her own, Julia was always, as nearly as she was able, the heroine whom the last read novel inclined her to personate. But as those who forsake the guidance of nature are in imminent danger of absurdity, her copies were always caricatures. After reading Evelino, she sat with her mouth extended in a perpetual smile, and was so very timid, that she would not for the world have looked at a stranger. When Camilla was the model for the day, she became insufferably rattling, infantine, and thoughtless. After perusing the Gossip's Story, she, in imitation of the rational Louisa, suddenly waxed very wise, spoke in sentences, despised romance, sewed shifts, and read sermons. But in the midst of this fit, she in an evil hour opened a volume of the Nouvelle Eloise, which had before disturbed many wiser heads. The shifts were left unfinished, the sermons thrown aside, and Miss Julia returned with renewed impetus to the sentimental. This afternoon her studies had changed their direction, as Laura instantly guessed by the lively air with which she entered the room, saying that she had brought her netting, and would sit with her for an hour. "But do, my dear," added she, "first show me the picture you have been so busy with. Mamma says it is beautiful, for she peeped in at it the other day."

It must be confessed that Laura had no high opinion of Miss Dawkins's skill in painting; but she remembered Moliere's old woman, and went with great good will to bring her performance. "Oh, charming!" exclaimed Miss Julia, when it was placed before her; "the figure of the man is quite delightful; it is the very image of that bewitching creature Tom Jones."

"Tom Jones!" cried Laura, starting back aghast. "Yes, my dear," continued Julia; "just such must have been the graceful turn of his limbs--just such his hair, his eyes, those lips that when they touched her hand, put poor Sophia into such a flutter."

The astonishment of Laura now gave way to laughter, while she said, "Really, Miss Dawkins you must have a strange idea of Tom J ones, or I a very extraordinary one of Leonidas."

"Leonce, you mean, in Delphine," said Julia; "oh! he is a delightful creature too."

"Delphine!" repeated Laura, to whom the name was as new as that of the Spartan was to her companion. "No; I mean this for the Greek general taking his last leave of his wife."

"And I think," said Captain Montreville, approaching the picture, "the suppressed anguish of the matron is admirably expressed, and contrasts well with the scarcely relenting ardour of the hero."

Miss Julia again declared that the picture was charming, and that Leontine, as she was pleased to call him, was divinely handsome; but having newly replenished her otherwise empty head with Fielding's novel, she could talk of nothing else; and turning to Laura, said, "But why were you so offended, that I compared your Leontine to Tom Jones?--Is he not a favourite of yours?"

"Not particularly so," said Laura.

"Oh, why not? I am sure he is a delightful fellow--so generous, so ardent. Come, confess--should you not like of all things to have such a lover?"

"No, indeed," said Laura, with most unusual energy; for her thoughts almost unconsciously turned to one whose character she found no pleasure in associating with that of Fielding's hero.

"And why not?" asked Miss Julia.

"Because," answered Laura, "I could not admire in a lover qualities which would be odious in a husband."

"Oh, goodness!" cried Miss Julia; "do you think Tom Jones would make an odious husband?"

"The term is a little strong," replied Laura; "but he certainly would not make a pleasant yoke-fellow. What is your opinion, sir?" turning to her father.

"I confess," said the captain, "I should rather have wished him to marry Squire Western's daughter than mine. But still the character is fitted to be popular."

"I think," said Laura, "he is indebted for much of the toleration which he receives, to a comparison, with the despicable Blifil."

"Certainly," said Montreville; "and it is unfortunate for the morality of the book, that the reader is inclined to excuse the want of religion in the hero, by seeing its language made ridiculous in Thwackum, and villanous in Blifil. Even the excellent Mr Alworthy excites but feeble interest; and it is not by the character which we respect, but by that in which we are interested, that the moral effect on our minds is produced."

"Oh!" said Miss Julia, who very imperfectly comprehended the captain's observation, "he might make a charming husband without being religious; and then he is so warm-hearted, so generous."

"I shall not dispute that point with you just now," replied Laura, "though my opinion differs materially from yours; but Tom Jones's warmth of heart and generosity do not appear to me of that kind which qualify a man for adorning domestic life. His seems a constitutional warmth, which in his case, and I believe in most others, is the concomitant of a warm temper--a temper as little favourable to gentleness in those who command, as to submission in those who obey. If by generosity you mean the cheerful relinquishing of something which we really value, it is an abuse of the term to apply it to the profusion with which your favourite squanders his money."

"If it is not generous to part with one's money," said Miss Julia, "I am sure I don't know what is."

"The quiet domestic generosity which is of daily use," replied Laura, "is happily not confined to those who have money to bestow, but may appear in any of a thousand little acts of self-denial."

Julia, whose ideas of generosity, culled from her favourite romances, were on that gigantic kind of scale that makes it unfit for common occasions, and therefore in danger of total extinction, was silent for some moments, and then said, "I am sure you must allow that it was very noble in Jones to resolve to bury in his own miserable bosom his passion for Sophia, after he knew that she felt a mutual flame."

"If I recollect right," said Laura, smiling at the oddity of Julia's phrases, "he broke that resolution; and I fancy the merely resolving to do right, is a degree of virtue to which even the most profligate attain many times in their lives."

Miss Dawkins by this time more than half suspected her companion of being a Methodist. "You have such strict notions," said she, "that I see Tom Jones would never have done for you."

"No," said Captain Montreville; "Sir Charles Grandison would have suited Laura infinitely better."

"Oh no, papa!" said Laura laughing ; "if two such formal personages as Sir Charles and I had met, I am afraid we should never have had the honour of each other's acquaintance."

"Then, of all the gentlemen who are mentioned in novels," said Miss Julia, "tell me who is your favourite?--Is it Lord Orville, or Delville, or Valancourt, or Edward, or Mortimer, or Peregrine Pickle, or--" and she ran on till she was quite out of breath, repeating what sounded like a page of the catalogue of a circulating library.

"Really," said Laura, when a pause permitted her to speak, "my acquaintance with these accomplished persons is so limited that I can scarcely venture to decide; but, I believe, I prefer the hero of Miss Porter's new publication--Thaddeus of Warsaw. Truly generous and inflexibly upright, his very tenderness has in it something manly and respectable; and the whole combination has an air of nature that interests one as for a real friend." Miss Dawkins had never read the book, and Laura applied to her father for a confirmation of her opinion. "Yes, my dear," said the captain, "your favourite has the same resemblance to a human character which the Belvidere Apollo has to a human form. It is so like man that one cannot absolutely call it divine, yet so perfect that it is difficult to believe it human."

At this moment Miss Julia was seized with an uncontrollable desire to read the book, which she declared she should not sleep till she had done; and she went to dispatch a servant in quest of it.

Laura followed her down stairs, to ask from Mrs Dawkins the address of some picture-dealer, to whom she might dispose of her performance. Mrs Dawkins said she knew of no such person; but directed Laura to a print shop, the master of which was her acquaintance, where she might get the intelligence she wanted.

On the following morning, as soon as Captain Montreville had set out for Richmond, his daughter, sending for a hackney coach, departed on the most interesting business she had ever undertaken. Her heart fluttered with expectation--her step was buoyant with hope, and she sprang into the carriage with the lightness of a sylph. Stopping at the shop which her landlady recommended, she was there directed to several of the professional people for whom she was inquiring, and she proceeded to the habitation of the nearest. As she entered the house, Laura changed colour, and her breath came quick. She stopped a moment to recover herself, and then followed her conductor into the presence of the connoisseur. Struck with the sight of so elegant a woman, he rose, bowed very low, and supposing that she came to make some addition to her cabinet, threw open the door of his picture-room, and obsequiously hoped that she might find something there worthy of her notice. Laura modestly undeceived him, saying, that she had brought in the carriage which waited for her, a picture which she wished to dispose of. This statement instantly put to flight the servility of her hearer; who, with completely recovered consequence, inquired the name of the artist; and being answered that the picture was not the work of a professional man, wrinkled his nose into an expression of ineffable contempt, and said, "I make it a rule never to buy any of these things--they are generally such vile daubs. However, to oblige so pretty a lady," added he, (softening his contumelious aspect into a leer,) "I may look at the thing, and if it is at all tolerable--" "There is no occasion to give you that trouble," said Laura, turning away with an air which again half convinced the man that she must be a person of consequence. He muttered something of "thinking it no trouble," to which she gave no attention, but hastened to her carriage, and drove to the shop of an Italian.

Laura did not give him time to fall into the mistake of the other, but instantly opened her business; and Mr Sonini was obligingly running himself to lift the picture from the carriage, when it was brought in by Mrs Dawkins's maid, whom Laura had requested to attend her. Having placed the picture, the Italian retreated a few paces to examine the effect, and then said, "Ah! I do see--dis is leetle after de manner of Correggio--very pretty--very pretty, indeed." The hopes of Laura rose high at these encouraging words, but suffered instantaneous depression when he continued, with a shake of his head, "But 'tis too new, quite moderne--painted in dis contri--painter no name--de picture may be all so good as it vil, it never vil sell. Me sorry," added he, reading Laura's look of disappointment, "me sorry displease such bell angela; but cannot buy." "I am sorry for it," said Laura, and, sighing heavily, she curtsied and withdrew.

Her next attempt was upon a little pert-looking man, in a foreign dress and spectacles. "Hum," said he, "a picture to sell--well, let us see't. There, that's the light. Hum--a poor thing enough--no keeping--no costume. Well, Ma'am, what do you please to ask for this?" "I should be glad, sir, that you would fix a price on it." "Hum--well--let me think--I suppose five guineas will be very fair." At this proposal the blood mounted to the cheeks of Laura; and she raised her eyes to examine whether the proposer really had the confidence to look her in the face. But finding his eye steadily fixed on her, she transferred her suspicions from the honesty of the bidder to the merits of her piece, and mildly answering, "I shall not, I believe, be disposed to part with it at that price," she motioned to the servant to carry it back to the coach.

One trial still remained; and Laura ordered her carriage to an obscure street in the city. She was very politely received by Mr Collins--a young man who had himself been an artist, but whom bad health had obliged to relinquish a profession which he loved. "This piece has certainly great merit," said he, after examining it, "and most gladly would I have made the purchase; but my little room is at present overstocked, and, to own the truth to you, the picture is worth more than my wife and four little ones can afford to venture upon speculation, and such is the purchase of the work, however meritorious, of an unknown artist. But if you were to place it in the Exhibition, I have no doubt that it would speedily find a purchaser." The prospect which the Exhibition held forth was far too distant to meet the present exigency, for Laura well knew that her father would find almost immediate occasion for the price of her labours; and with a heavy sigh she returned to her carriage.

What now remained but to return home with the subject of so much fruitless toil? Still, however, she determined to make one effort more, and returned to inquire of the printseller whether he knew any other person to whom she could apply? He had before given his whole list, and could make no addition to it. But observing the expression of blank disappointment which overcast her face, he offered, if she would trust him with the picture, to place it where it would be seen by his customers, and expressed a belief that some of them might purchase it. Laura thankfully accepted the offer; and after depositing with him her treasure, which had lost much of its value in her eyes, and naming the price she expected, she returned home; making on her way as many sombrous reflections on the vanity and uncertainty of all sublunary pursuits, as ever were made by any young lady in her eighteenth year.

She sat down in her now solitary parlour--suffered dinner to be placed before her and removed, without knowing of what it consisted; and when the servant who brought it disappeared, began, like a true heroine, to vent her disappointment in tears. But soon recollecting that though she had no joyful surprise awaiting her father's return, she might yet gladden it with a smiling welcome, she started up from her melancholy posture, bathed her eyes, placed the tea equipage, ordered the first fire of the season to displace the faded fennel in the chimney, arranged the apartment in the nicest order--and had just given to every thing the greatest possible appearance of comfort, when her father arrived.

She had need, however, of all her firmness, and of all the elation of conscious self-control, to resist the contagious depression of countenance and manner with which Captain Montreville accosted her. He had good reason for his melancholy. Mr Baynard, his early acquaintance, almost the only person known to him in this vast city, had that morning breathed his last. All access to his papers was of course at present impossible; and until a person should be chosen to arrange his affairs, it would be impracticable for Captain Montreville to ascertain whether there existed any voucher for the payment of the price of the annuity. Harassed by his repeated disappointments, and unendowed by nature with the unbending spirit that rises in disaster, he now declared to Laura his resolution to remain in London only till a person was fixed upon for the management of Mr Baynard's affairs--to lay before him the circumstances of his case--and then to return to Scotland, and trust to a correspondence for concluding the business.

At this moment nothing could have been further from Laura's wish than to quit London. She was unwilling to forfeit her remaining hope that her picture might find a purchaser, and a still stronger interest bound her to the place which was so soon to be the residence of Hargrave. But she saw the prudence of her father's determination--she felt the necessity of relinquishing a mode of life so unsuitable to his scanty income, and she cheerfully acquiesced in his proposal of returning home. Still some time must elapse before their departure; and she indulged a hope, that ere that time expired, the produce of her labours might lighten their pecuniary difficulties.

Captain Montreville retired early; and Laura, wearied out with the toils and the disappointments of the day, gladly resigned herself to the peaceful sleep of innocence.

Laura was indebted partly to nature, but more to her own exertions, for that happy elasticity of spirit which easily casts off lighter evil, while it readily seizes, and fully enjoys, pleasure of moderate intensity, and of frequent attainment. Few of the lesser sorrows of youth can resist the cheering influence of early morn; and the petty miseries which, in the shades of evening, assume portentous size and colouring, diminish wonderfully in the light of the newly-risen sun. With recovered spirits, and reviving hopes, Laura awoke to joys which the worldly know not--the joys of pious gratitude, of devout contemplation, of useful employment; and so far was her persevering spirit from failing under the disappointments of the preceding day, that she determined to begin a new picture the moment she was settled at Glenalbert, to compose it with more care, and finish it with greater accuracy, than the former; and to try its fate at the Exhibition. She did not think the season of her father's depression a fit one for relating her mortifying adventures, and she found means to amuse him with other topics, till he left her with an intention to call at Portland Street.

He had not been long gone, when Mr Warren's curricle stopped at the door, and the young gentleman, on being informed that the captain was abroad, inquired for Miss Montreville. After paying his compliments like one secure of a good reception, he began--"How could you be so cruel as to refuse me the pleasure of seeing you the other day?--do you know I waited here a devilish long time just on purpose, though I had promised to take the Countess of Bellamer out an airing, and she was off with Jack Villars before I came?"

"I am sorry," said Laura, "that I deprived her ladyship of the pleasure of your company."

"I should not have minded it much, if you had but come at last, though the countess is the prettiest creature in London--curse me if she isn't--the present company always excepted."

"Do you mean the exception for me, or for yourself!" said Laura,

"Oh now, how can you ask such a question? I am sure you know that you are confoundedly handsome."

Laura gravely surveyed her own face in an opposite looking-glass, and then, with the nonchalance of one who talks of the most indifferent thing in nature, replied, "Yes, I think my features are uncommonly regular."

Warren was a little embarrassed by so unusual an answer to what he intended for a compliment. "The girl," thought he, "must be quite a fool to own that she thinks herself so handsome." However, after some consideration, he said, "It is not so much the features, as a certain je ne scai quoi--a certain charm, one does not know well what to call it--that makes you look so divine."

"I should suppose," said Laura, "from the subject you have chosen to amuse me, that the charm, whatever it is, has no great connection with intellect."

Warren hesitated; for he began to have some suspicions that she was laughing at him, in spite of the immoveable gravity of her countenance. "It--it isn't, demme, it isn't so much to amuse you; but when I see a pretty woman, I never can help telling her of it--curse me if I can."

"And do you often find that your intelligence has the advantage of novelty?" said Laura, an arch smile beginning to dimple her cheek.

"No, 'pon honour," replied the beau; "the women are getting so insufferably conceited, they leave one nothing new to tell them."

"But some gentlemen," said Laura, "have the happy talent of saying old things so well, that the want of novelty is not felt." The moment the words had passed her lips, she perceived, by the gracious smile which they produced, that Mr Warren had applied them to himself; and the thought of being guilty of such egregious flattery brought the colour to her face. Any explanation, however, would have been actual rudeness; and while the consciousness of her involuntary duplicity kept her silent, her companion enjoyed her confusion; which, together with the compliment, he interpreted in a way most satisfactory to his vanity, and thankfully repaid with a torrent of praises in his very best style. So little value did Laura affix to his commendations, that she was beginning to find extreme difficulty in suppressing a yawn, when it occurred to her that it might save her father a journey to Portland Street, if she could detain Mr Warren till he arrived. Having made an observation, which has been more frequently made than profited by, that most people prefer talking to listening, she engaged her companion in a description of some of the fashionable places of public resort, none of which she had seen; in which he acquitted himself so much to his own satisfaction, that, before they separated, he was convinced that Laura was one of the most penetrating judicious women of his acquaintance; and having before remarked, that, with the help of a little rouge, and a fashionable riding-habit, she would look better in a curricle than any woman in London, he resolved, that, if it depended on him, her residence in town should not be a short one. In this laudable resolution, he was confirmed by a consideration of the insolence and extravagance of a certain female, to whose place in his establishment he had some vague idea of advancing Miss Montreville, though there was a stateliness about both her and her father which he suspected might somewhat interfere with his designs in her favour. Soon after the captain arrived, he took his leave, having no new intelligence to communicate, nor, indeed, any other purpose in his visit, except that which had been served by his interview with Laura.

As soon as he was gone, Laura went down stairs to beg that Miss Dawkins would accompany her after dinner to the print-shop, to inquire what had been the fate of her picture. More than one person, she was told, had admired it, and expressed a desire to become the owner; but the price had been a formidable obstacle, and it remained unsold. She strove to hope that another day would bring better fortune; but another and another came only to renew her disappointment. Almost every evening did Laura, with Mrs Dawkins or her daughter for an escort, direct her steps to the print-shop, and return from her fruitless walk with fainter and fainter hopes.

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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.