Self Control: A Novel

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CAPTAIN MONTREVILLE and his daughter were engaged in a friendly contest on the subject of a companion for the picture, when De Courcy made his visit. Though, as he entered the room, something unfashionably like a blush visited his face, his manner was free from rustic embarrassment. "I believe," said he, advancing towards Captain Montreville, "I must apologise for the intrusion of a stranger. My person must have outgrown your recollection. My name, I hope, has been more fortunate. It is De Courcy."

"The son, I presume, of Major De Courcy," said Montreville, cordially extending his hand to him. "Yes," replied Montague, heartily taking the offered hand ; "the same whose childhood was indebted to you for so many of its pleasures."

"My old friend Montague!" cried the captain; "though your present form is new to me, I remember my lovely little noble-spirited play-fellow with an interest which I have never felt in any other child except this girl."

"And who knows," said De Courcy, turning to Laura with a smile, "who knows what cause I may find to rue that Miss Montreville is past the age when I might have repaid her father's kindness by assiduities to her doll?"

"That return," said Laura, colouring, as she recollected her late champion, "would not have been quite so arduous as the one you have already made. I hope you have had no further trouble with those rude people?"

"No, madam," answered De Courcy, "nor did I expect it; the spirits that are so insolent where they dare, are submissive enough where they must." Laura now explained to her father her obligation to De Courcy; and the captain having thanked him for his interference, the conversation took a general turn.

Elated as he was with the successful industry and genius of his child, and pleased with the attentions of the son of his friend, the spirits of Montreville rose higher than they had ever done since his arrival in London. Won by the happy mixture of familiarity and respect, of spirit and gentleness, which distinguished the manners of De Courcy, the captain became cheerful and Laura almost talkative: the conversation rose from easy to animated, from animated to gay; and two hours had passed before any of the party was aware that one-fourth of that time was gone. Laura's general reserve with strangers seemed to have forsaken her while she conversed with De Courcy.

But De Courcy was not a stranger. By character she knew him well. Hargrave had mentioned to her his intimacy with De Courcy. Nay, De Courcy had, at the hazard of his life, saved the life of Hargrave. Laura had heard her lover dwell with the eloquence of gratitude upon the courage, the presence of mind, with which (while others, confounded by his danger, or fearing for their own safety, left him to perish without aid) De Courcy had seized a fisher's net, and, binding one end of it to a tree, the other to his body, had plunged into the water, and intercepted Hargrave, just as the stream was hurrying him to the brink of a tremendous fall. "All struggle was in vain," had Hargrave said to the breathless Laura; "but for that noble fellow, that minute would have been my last, and I should have died without awakening this interest so dear to my heart." "I wish I could see this De Courcy!" had Laura fervently exclaimed. "Heaven .forbid!" had been the hasty reply, "for your habits, your pursuits, your sentiments, are so similar, that he would gain without labour, perhaps without a wish, the heart that has cost me such anxious toil." A recollection of this dialogue stole into the mind of Laura as De Courcy was expressing an opinion which, though not a common one, coincided exactly with her own. For a moment she was absent and thoughtful; but De Courcy continued the conversation, and she resumed her gaiety.

When unwillingly at last he rose to take his leave, Captain Montreville detained him while he made some friendly inquiries into the history of the family for the last twenty years. As the questions of the captain, however, were not impertinently minute, nor the answers of De Courcy very copious, it may not be improper to supply what was wanting in the narrative.

Major De Courcy was the representative of a family who could trace their descent from the times of the Conqueror, an advantage which they valued above the hereditary possessions of their fathers; and if an advantage ought to be estimated by its durability, they were in the right; for the former, of necessity, was improved by time; the latter seemed tending towards decline. Frederick De Conrcy was suffered to follow his inclinations in entering the army; because that was the profession the most suitable to the dignity of an ancient house. That it was of all professions the least likely to improve his fortune, was a consideration equally despised by his father and by himself. When he attained his seventeenth year, a commission was purchased for him. Stored with counsels sufficient, if he followed them, to conduct him to wisdom and happiness, and with money sufficient to make these counsels of no avail, he set out from his paternal home to join his regiment. Thus was De Courcy, in his dangerous passage from youth to manhood, committed to the guidance of example, and the discretion belonging to his years; fortified, indeed, by the injunctions of his parents, and his own resolutions, never to disgrace his descent. But this bulwark, he soon found, was too weak to resist the number and variety of the weapons which attacked him. The shafts of ridicule assailed him; his own passions took up arms; his pride itself turned against him. Unable to resist with vigour, he ceased to resist at all; and was hurried into every folly in which his companions wished for the assistance of his purse, or for the countenance of his example.

His father's liberal allowance was soon insufficient to supply his extravagance. He contracted debts. After severe but well-merited reproof, his father paid them; and De Courcy promised amendment. A whole week of strict sobriety ensued; and the young soldier was convinced that his resolution was immutable. And so he would probably have found it, if now, for the first time since man was made, temptation had become weaker by victory, or virtue stronger by defeat. But though he had tasted the glittering bait of folly, and though he at times confessed its insipidity, the same lure again prevailed, and De Courcy was again entangled in pecuniary embarrassments. What was to be done? His father had declared his irrevocable determination no further to injure the interests of his younger children by supplying the prodigality of the eldest. By the advice of a veteran in profusion, De Courcy had recourse to Jews. As it was in his father's power to disinherit him, it was necessary to conceal these transactions; and the high spirit of Frederick was compelled to submit to all the evasions, embarrassments, and wretchedness, that attend a clandestine course of action.

Often did he illustrate the trite observation that no life is more remote from happiness than a life of pleasure. The reward of all his labour was satiety; the wages of all his self-reproach were the applauses of the thoughtless for his spirit--the lamentations of the wise, that an honourable mind should be so perverted. In his twenty-second year his father's death left him at liberty to pay his old debts, and to contract new. That which has preserved the virtue of many young men, prevented the total ruin of De Courcy. He became attached to a virtuous woman; and influenced much by inclination, more by the wishes of her friends, she married him.

Mrs De Courcy brought no dower except the beauty which had captivated her husband, the sweetness which prolonged her power, and the good sense which made that power useful. She therefore did not think herself entitled to remonstrate very warmly on the negligence that appeared in the conduct of her husband's affairs and it was not till after she became a mother that she judged it proper to interfere. Her gentle remonstrances however, produced little effect beyond promises and vague resolutions, that at some "convenient season" the major would examine into the real state of his fortune.

Accident at last befriended her endeavours. Soon after the birth of her second child (a daughter), a demand was made on De Courcy for a debt which he had not the means of discharging. He could not apply to the Jew; for he had solemnly pledged his word to Mrs De Courcy that he would never more have recourse to that ruinous expedient. He was discussing with his wife the possibility of procuring the money by a new mortgage, while Montague, then a child of four years old, was playing in the room. Struck by the melancholy tone of his mother's voice, the child forsook his play, and taking hold of her gown, looked anxiously from one mournful face to the other. "I am as averse to it as you can be, my dear," said the major, "but there is no other way of raising the money." "Wait till I am a man, papa," said the child, "and then Betty says I shall have a good two thousand pounds a-year, and I will give it all to you. And here," added he, searching his little pocket, "here is my pretty shilling that Captain Montreville gave me; take it, and don't look sorry any more." Mrs De Courcy passionately loved this child. Overcome by the feeling of the moment, she clasped him in her arms. "My poor wronged child!" she exclaimed, and burst into tears.

These were the first words of bitterness which Major De Courcy had ever heard from her lips; and overcome by them, and by her tears, he gave her a hasty promise, that he would that very hour begin the examination of his affairs. Sensible of her advantage, she permitted not his purpose to slumber, but persuaded him into a full inquiry into the extent of his debts; and in order to remove him from future temptation, she prevailed on him to sell his commission, and reside at his paternal Norwood.

After selling so much of his estate as to clear the remainder from all incumbrance, he found his income diminished to little more than a third of its original extent. His family pride reviving at the sight of the halls of his fathers, and a better affection awakening in his intercourse with the descendants of those whom his ancestors had protected, he determined to guard against the possibility of Norwood and its tenants being transferred to strangers, and entailed the remainder of his property on Montague De Courcy, in the strictest forms of English law. For Mrs De Courcy he made but a slender provision. For his daughter he made none; but he determined to save from his income a sum sufficient to supply this deficiency. He was still a young man, and never thought of doubting whether he might live long enough to accomplish his design, or whether the man who had found an income of 2000 a-year too small for his necessities, might be able to make savings from one of 800. In spite of the soberness of the establishment, which during the novelty of his reform he allowed Mrs De Courcy to arrange, he continued to find uses for all the money he could command. His fields wanted enclosing; his house needed repairs; his son's education was an increasing expense; and he died while Montague was yet a boy, without having realised any part of his plans in favour of his daughter.

He left the highest testimony to the understanding and worth of Mrs De Courcy, by making her the sole guardian of his children; and the steady rectitude and propriety of her conduct justified his confidence. Aware of the radical defect of every mode of education that neglects or severs the domestic tie, yet convinced that the house where he was master, and the dependents whom he could command, were dangerous scenes and companions for a youth of Montague's spirit, she committed him to the care of a clergyman, whose residence was a few miles distant from Norwood, and who also took charge of four other boys of about the same age.

This gentleman was admirably fitted for his trust; for he had a cultivated understanding, an affectionate heart, sound piety, and a calm but inflexible temper. Add to which, he had travelled, and in his youth associated much with men of rank, and more with men of talents; though, since he had become a pastor, the range of his moral observation had been narrowed to the hearts of a few simple villagers, which were open to him as to their father and their friend. The boys studied and played together; but they had each a separate apartment; for Mr Wentworth had himself been educated at a public school, and never recollected without shuddering, the hour when his youthful modesty first had shrunk from sharing his bed with a stranger, and when the prayer for his parents, which he was mingling with his tears, had been disturbed by the jokes of a little rabble.

Every Saturday did Montague bend his joyful course homewards, regardless of summer's heat or winter storms. Every Sunday did his mother spend in mixing the lessons of piety with the endearments of love; in striving to connect the idea of a superintending God with all that is beautiful, all that is majestic in nature. As her children grew up, she unfolded to them the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, so sublime, so consolatory, so suitable to the wants of man. Aware how much occasion favours the strength of impressions, she chose the hour of strong remorse on account of a youthful fault, while the culprit yet trembled before the offended majesty of heaven, to explain to her son the impossibility that repentance should of itself cancel errors past, or that the great Lawgiver should accept a few ineffectual tears, or a tardy and imperfect obedience, as a compensation for the breach of a law that is perfect. When she saw that the intended impression was made, she spoke of the great atonement that once was offered, not to make repentance unnecessary, but to make it effectual; and from that time, using this as one of the great landmarks of faith, she contributed to render it in the mind of De Courcy a practical and abiding principle. The peculiar precepts of Christianity she taught him to apply to his actions, by applying them herself; and the praise that is so often lavished upon boldness, dexterity, and spirit, she conscientiously reserved for acts of candour, humility, and self-denial.

Her cares were amply rewarded, and Montague became all that she wished him to be. He was a Christian from the heart, without being either forward to claim, or ashamed to own, the distinction. He was industrious in his pursuits, and simple in his pleasures. But the distinctive feature of his character was the total absence of selfishness. His own pleasure or his own amusement he never hesitated to sacrifice to the wishes of others; or, to speak more correctly, he found his pleasure and amusement in theirs. Upon the whole, we do not say that Montague De Courcy had no faults, but we are sure he had none that he did not strive to conquer. Like other human beings, he sometimes acted wrong; but we believe he would not deliberately have neglected a known duty to escape any worldly misfortune; we are sure he would not deliberately have committed a crime to attain any earthly advantage.

Desirous that her darling should enjoy the benefits of the most liberal education, yet afraid to trust him to the temptations of an English university, Mrs De Courcy went for some years to reside in Edinburgh during the winter; in summer she returned with her family to Norwood. To his private studies, and his paternal home, Montague returned with ever new delight; for his tastes and his habits were all domestic. He had no ambitious wishes to lure him from his retreat, for his wants were even more moderate than his fortune. Except in so far as he could make it useful to others, he had no value for money, nor for any thing that money could buy, exclusive of the necessaries of life, books, and implements of chemistry. The profession which he had chosen was that of improving and embellishing his estate; and in the tranquil pleasures of a country gentleman, a man of taste, a classical scholar, and a chemist, he found means to occupy himself without injury to his health, his morals, or his fortune. His favourite amusements were drawing and physiognomy; and, like other favourites, these were sometimes in danger of making encroachments, and advancing into the rank of higher concerns. But this he prevented by an exact distribution of his time, to which he resolutely adhered.

With his mother and his sister he lived in the most perfect harmony, though the young lady had the reputation of a wit, and was certainly a little addicted to sarcasm. But she was in other respects amiable, and incapable of doing any thing to offend her brother, whose indignation, indeed, never rose unless against cruelty, meanness, or deceit.

De Courcy had just entered his twenty-fifth year, when a rheumatic fever deprived his mother of the use of her limbs; and forsaking all his employments, he had quitted his beloved Norwood to attend her in London, whither she had come for the benefit of medical advice. He had been but a few days in town when he met with Miss Montreville, and the impression which her beauty made, the second interview tended to confirm.

Montague had never, even in imagination, been in love. The regulation of his passions, the improvement of his mind, and the cafe of his property, had hitherto left him no leisure for the tender folly. He had scarcely ever thought of a young woman's face, except with a reference to Lavater's opinion, nor of her manners, except to wonder how she could be so obtrusive. But in contemplating Laura's face, he forgot the rules of the physiognomist; and in the interesting reserve of her manners, he found continually something to desire. If, at the close of his visit, he was not in love, he was at least in a fair way for being so. He was assailed at once by beauty, grace, good sense, and sweetness; and to these Laura added the singular charm of being wholly insensible to their effects upon the beholder. No side-glance was sent in search of admiration; no care was taken to compose her drapery; no look of triumph accompanied her judicious remarks; no parade of sensibility disgraced her tenderness. Every charm was heightened by a matchless absence of all design; and against this formidable battery had poor De Courcy to make his stand, just at the inauspicious hour when, for the first time in his life, he had nothing else to do.

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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.