As soon as De Courcy was gone, Captain Montreville launched out warmly in his praise. Laura joined in the eulogium; and the next moment forgot that there was such a person in existence, when she read a letter from Mrs Douglas, of which the following was a part:--
"Before this reaches you, Colonel Hargrave will be far on his way to London. It is possible that you may have no interest in this journey; but, lest you should, I wish to prevent your being taken by surprise. Since your departure he has repeatedly visited us; and endeavoured, both directly and indirectly, to discover your address. Perhaps you will think my caution ill timed; but I acted according to my best judgment, in avoiding to comply with his desire. I think, however, that he has elsewhere procured the information he wanted; for his features wore an air of triumph, as he asked my commands for you.
Dear child of my affections, richly endowed as you are with the dangerous gift of beauty, you have hitherto escaped, as if by miracle, from the snares of folly and frivolity. My heart's prayer for you is, that you may be as safe from the dangers that await you in the passions of others, and in the tenderness of your own heart. But, alas! my beloved Laura, distant as I am from you, ignorant as I am of the peculiarities of your situation, I can only pray for you. I fear to express my conjectures, lest I should seem to extort your confidence. I fear to caution, lest I should shock or offend you. Yet let me remind you, that it is easier, by one bold effort, to reject temptation, than to resist its continued allurements. Effectually to bar the access of the tempter may cost a painful effort--to parley with him is destruction. But I must stop. Tears of anxious affection blot what I have written. E. DOUGLAS."
The joyful expectation of seeing Hargrave filled for a time the heart of Laura, and left no room for other thoughts. The first that found entrance was of a less pleasing cast. She perceived that Mrs Douglas suspected Hargrave of the baseness of deliberate seduction: and, with a feeling of indignation, she collected her writing materials, and sat down to exculpate him. But, as she again read her friend's expression of affection, and considered how little the suspicion was remote from the truth, she accused herself of ingratitude and injustice in giving way to any thing like resentment. She thanked Mrs Douglas for her cautions; but assured her that the proposals of Hargrave were honourable, unequivocal, and sanctioned by her father; that they had been rejected by herself; and, therefore, that no motive except that of vindicating him from an unfounded suspicion, should have tempted her to betray, even to her most confidential friend, a secret which she thought a woman bound, both in delicacy and in honour, to keep inviolable. She did not once hint at the cause of her rejecting an offer so splendid, nor, except by the warmth with which she defended her lover, did she show a trace of the inclination which she had so nobly sacrificed to virtue. For though she felt that her story would have raised her in her friend's esteem, she scorned to purchase that advantage at the expense of another, and retained all her aversion to exposing the faults of Hargrave.
Having finished her letter, she returned to the more agreeable subject of contemplation, and began to calculate upon the time when she might expect to see the colonel. Her conclusion was, that he would probably visit her on the following day, and her heart throbbed with delight at the prospect.
But from the dream of joy, Laura soon returned to the more habitual consideration of the line of conduct which it was fit that she should pursue. She saw the folly of committing her happiness to the guardianship of one whose passions were his masters; and while it was her daily prayer that she might not be led into temptation, her conscience revolted from trusting her conduct to the guidance, her virtue to the example, of a man whose principles were doubtful. For Laura's virtue was not of that saint-errant kind that sallies forth in quest of opportunities to signalise itself, and inflames its pride by meditation on the wonders it would achieve, if placed in perilous situations. Distrustful of herself, watchful to avoid occasions of falling, she had no ambition for the dangerous glory of reforming a rake into a good husband. She therefore adhered to her determination that she would not consent to a union with her lover, till by a course of virtuous conduct he had given proof that his offence had been the sudden fault of a moment, not the deliberate purpose of a corrupted heart.
Yet even in this mitigated view, the recollection was poison to the soul of Laura. The painful thought was far from new to her, that the passion of Hargrave was a tribute to her personal charms alone. With such a passion, even were its continuance possible, Laura felt that she could not be satisfied. To be the object of it degraded her in her own eyes. "No, no," she exclaimed, covering her face with her hands, "let me not even legally occupy only the place which the vilest might fill. If I cannot be the friend, the companion, as well as the mistress, better, far better, were it that we should part for ever."
No labour is sufficient to acquaint us fully with our own hearts. It never occurred to Laura that she was, as much as Hargrave, the captive of mere externals; and that his character would never have deceived her penetration, had it been exhibited in the person of a little red-haired man, with bandy legs, who spoke broad Scotch, and smoked tobacco. Till the hour when he had himself dispelled the illusion, the character of Hargrave, such as she chose to imagine it, had been to her a theme of the most delightful contemplation, and to its fascinations she had willingly and entirely resigned herself. The disguise, which was rather the excuse than the cause of her passion, had been dropped in part; yet the passion was as strong as ever. It was, indeed, no longer pleasing, no longer blind, no longer paramount; for her reason, which had before been silent, was now permitted to speak, and though it was unable to conquer, it could control. She anticipated the vehemence with which Hargrave would urge her to shorten the term of his probation, and she feared that she should find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to resist his entreaties. She would not, therefore, expose her prudence to too severe a trial. "Yes," said she, "I will bar the access of the tempter. I will see Hargrave only once, and that shall be to bid him farewell, till the stipulated two years are finished. If he really loves me, his affection will survive absence. If it fail in the trial, I may, though lost to happiness, find in my solitude a peace that never can visit a neglected wife."
This philosophic conclusion was the fruit of her meditations during a restless night; and having worked herself, as she thought, into a temper decorously relentless, she proceeded, with all the consistency of her sex, to adorn her person with a care she had never before bestowed upon it. She arranged every curl for effect; chose a dress which showed to advantage the graceful slope of her shoulders; and heightened the whiteness of her neck and arms, by contrasting it with fillets of jet. Though she was but indifferently pleased with her success, it proved sufficient for her occasions. The day passed away, and Hargrave did not appear. Laura was disappointed, but not surprised; for it was barely possible that he could have reached London on that day. On the succeeding one she thought it likely that he might come; but the succeeding one was equally barren of event.
On the third she was certain that he would arrive; and when breakfast was over, she seated herself in expectation at the window of the front parlour, started if a carriage stopped, and listened to every voice that sounded from below stairs. Half desirous to escape her father's observation, half wishing that her interview with Hargrave should be without witnesses, she persuaded Captain Montreville to go and pay his respects to Mrs De Courcy. Anxiously she waited, conjectured, doubted, reconsulted Mr[s] Douglas's letter. The captain returned--the hours of visiting passed away--and still no Hargrave came.
Unwilling to own, even to herself, the extent of her anxiety and disappointment, Laura talked to her father of his visit, with which he had been highly pleased. He had been amused with Harriet; charmed with Mrs De Courcy; and doubly charmed with Montague, whom he praised as a scholar and a man of sense, as an affectionate brother and a respectful son; and to crown all these commendations, he declared that De Courcy was more than a match for himself at chess.
When they retired for the night, Laura returned to her conjectures on the cause of Hargrave's delay. She considered that he might have been detained on the road, or that he might have found it necessary to make a visit on his way. She had little doubt, that to see her was the object of his journey to London at this unfashionable season. She had none, that he would hurry to her the first moment that it was possible. By degrees, she persuaded herself into an absolute certainty that she would see him on the following day, and on that day she again took her anxious station in the parlour.
She was ashamed to lean over the window, and could not otherwise see who entered the house; but she left the room door a-jar, that she might have warning of his approach, held her breath to distinguish the voices from below, and listened eagerly to every footstep. At last, she imagined that she heard the wished-for inquiry. She was sure some one pronounced her name. A man's step ascended the stair; Laura trembled, and her breath came short. She feared to look up, and leant her face on her hand to conceal her emotion.
The voice of her visitor made her start, and turn her head. It was Warren!
Expectation had been wound up to its highest pitch, and Laura could not instantly recover herself. She paid her compliments with a confusion and trepidation which Warren interpreted in a way most flattering to his vanity. He approached her with a look in which ill-suppressed triumph contended with laboured condescenscion, and spoke to her in a voice that seemed to say, "Pray, endeavour to reassure yourself." But Laura was in no humour to endure his impertinence, and she seized the first opportunity to leave the room.
Captain Montreville soon entered on the business in which he took such painful interest, by inquiring whether any traces had been yet discovered of the sale of his daughter's annuity. Warren, with abundance of regret and condolence, informed him that Williams had as yet been able to discover no mention of the transaction in the books.
This assertion was so far true that Williams had as yet seen no record of the business in question; for which Mr Warren could, if he had chosen, have given a very satisfactory reason. From the moment this gentleman had first seen Laura, he had been determined not wilfully to expedite her departure from London; and therefore he had casually dropped a hint to his solicitor, that, as he was already overwhelmed with a multiplicity of affairs, it was unnecessary to hasten a concern of such trivial importance; and that he might defer inquiring into the sale of the annuity till he was at perfect leisure. Had he insinuated to Williams, that this delay was detaining from his home a man who could ill afford the consequent expense, or that it was alarming a father for the future subsistence of his only child, the man of business would have found leisure to investigate the matter, even if he had subtracted the necessary time from his hours of rest. But the upright Mr Warren had given no such intimation; and in this honourable transaction he was for the present secure from detection, for he knew that business had called his agent to a distance from London.
Captain Montreville knew not what to think. He could not doubt the integrity of Mr Baynard, nor could he imagine to what purpose Warren should deny the transaction; since, if it had really taken place, the vouchers of it must be found among his deceased friend's papers. He was persuaded that to examine the books according to the date of the sale, could be the work of only a few hours; and again he inquired whether the necessary examination had been made. Mr Warren answered, that he could not take it upon him to say that every possible search had yet been made; but his agent, he said, had examined all the most probable records of the concern, and would, on his return to town, make a still more particular scrutiny.
With this unsatisfactory answer Captain Montreville was obliged to content himself. He had only one alternative--either to wait in London the appointment of the person who was to arrange Mr Baynard's papers, or to return to Scotland, and resign all hopes of the annuity. He feared, too, to offend Warren by urging him too strongly, since, even should a voucher of the payment of his £1500 be found, the informality in the deed would still leave room for litigation. No merely personal interest would have induced the high spirit of Montreville to conciliate a man whom he despised as a fool and a coxcomb. For nothing that concerned himself alone, would he have submitted to the trouble and anxiety which he had lately undergone. Ill calculated by nature to struggle with difficulties, he had long been accustomed to let the lesser disasters glide by without notice, and to sink, without effort, under the greater. Disappointed in the woman of his choice, and deprived, by her folly or perverseness, of the domestic pleasures which he loved, his mind had taken a cast of melancholy. Early secluded from society, and tormented by the temper of his wife, he had concentrated all the affections which solitude confined, and caprice rejected, upon one object; and Laura became the passion of his soul. The thought of leaving her destitute, of leaving her sensibility to the scorns, her beauty to the temptations of poverty, was more than he could bear, and it sometimes almost overpowered him. He was naturally inclined to indolence, and as, like all indolent people, he was the creature of habit, his spirits had suffered much from the loss of the woman, who, though too heartless for a friend, and too bitter for a companion, had for twenty years served him as a sort of stimulus. The same force of habit, joined to her improving graces and confirming worth, made Laura daily more dear to him, and he would willingly have given his life to secure her independence and happiness.
Brooding on the obscurity in which she must remain, whom he judged worthy to adorn the highest station-- on the poverty which awaited her during his life--on the want to which his death must consign her--removed from his habitual occupations, and deprived of the wholesome air and exhilarating exercises to which he had been so long accustomed, he allowed his spirits to grow daily more depressed. Along with the idea of the misfortunes which his death would bring upon his darling, the fear of death settled on his mind. The little ailments to which the sedentary are liable, he magnified into the symptoms of mortal disease; and momentary pain seemed to his fancy to foretell sudden dissolution. Montreville was fast sinking into a melancholy hypochondriac.
His daughter's spirits, too, failed under continued expectation, and continued disappointment; for day after day passed on, and still Hargrave came not. Her father's dejection increased her own, and her ill-disguised depression had a similar effect upon him. While, however, Captain Montreville gave way without effort to his feelings, the more vigorous mind of Laura struggled to suppress the sorrow which she saw was contagious. She sometimes prevailed upon her father to seek amusement abroad, sometimes endeavoured to amuse him at home. She read to him, sang to him, exerted all her conversational talent to entertain him; and often, when all was in vain, when he would answer her by forced smiles, languid gestures, or heavy sighs, she would turn aside to wipe the tears from her eyes, then smile, and attempt her task again.
In these labours she had now, it is true, the assistance of an intelligent companion. De Courcy came often; and the captain seemed to receive a pleasure from his visits, which even Laura's efforts could not bestow. The tenderness of his child, indeed, appeared sometimes to overpower him; for when she was exerting herself to divert his melancholy, he would gaze upon her for a while in an agony of fondness, then suddenly desire to be left alone, and dismiss her from his presence. But De Courcy's attentions seemed always welcome. He soothed the irritated mind with respectful assiduities--he felt for its sickly sensibility--and, though ignorant of the cause of Montreville's dejection, found in alleviating it a pleasure, which was more than doubled by the undisguised approbation and gratitude of Laura.
His sister, too, came to visit Miss Montreville, and apologising for her mother, who was unable to accompany her, brought an invitation for the captain and his daughter to dine in Audley Street. Laura, in hopes of amusing her father, prevailed on him to accept the invitation; and an early day was fixed for the visit. She was pleased with the frankness and gaiety of Harriet's manner, and her curiosity was roused by Captain Montreville's praises of Mrs De Courcy.
The day arrived, and Laura prepared to accompany her father, not without trepidation at the thought of entering, for the first time in her life, a room which she expected to find full of strangers. When she had finished dressing, he examined her with triumph, and thought that nothing in nature was so perfect. The thought was legible in his countenance, and Laura, with great simplicity, answered to it as if it had been spoken. "Except to please you," said she, " I wish I had been neither tall nor pretty, for then I should have been allowed to move about without notice." "Then, too," thought she, with a heavy sigh, "I should have been loved for myself, and not have been perhaps forgotten."
Laura was not ignorant of her own beauty, but no human being could less value the distinction. She was aware of the regularity of her features; but as she never used a looking-glass, unless for the obvious purpose of arranging her dress, she was insensible of the celestial charm which expression added to her face. The seriousness and dignity of her manners made it difficult to address her with common-place compliment; and she had accordingly never experienced any effect; of her beauty, but one which was altogether disagreeable to her, that of attracting notice. To being the subject of observation, Laura retained that Caledonian dislike which once distinguished her countrywomen, before they were polished into that glitter which attracts the vulgar, and paid for the acquisition by losing the timidity which, like the aerugo of ancient coin, adds value in the eyes of taste to intrinsic worth, while it shields even baser merit from contempt.
Laura's courage failed her when, throwing open the door of a large room, Mrs De Courcy's servant announced Captain and Miss Montreville. But she revived when she perceived that the company consisted only of the mistress of the house, her son and daughter. Mrs De Courcy's appearance seemed to Laura very prepossessing. She still wore the dress of a widow; and her countenance bore the traces of what is called a green old age; for though the hair that shaded her commanding forehead was silver white, her dark eyes retained their brightness; and though her complexion was pale, it glowed at times with the roses of youth. The expression of her face, which was serious even to solemnity, brightened with a smile of inexpressible benevolence as she received her guests; and even in the difficulty with which she appeared to move, Laura found somewhat interesting. Her air and manners, without a tincture of fashion, spoke the gentlewoman. Her dress, her person, her demeanour, every thing about her, seemed consistently respectable.
The dinner was plain but excellent. The few indispensable pieces of plate were antique and massive; and the only attendant who appeared, seemed to have grown grey in the service of the family. Laura had pleasure in observing, that the reverence with which this old man addressed his lady, softened into affectionate solicitude to please when he attended De Courcy, who, in his turn, seemed to treat him with the most considerate gentleness.
Mrs De Courcy behaved to Laura with distinguished politeness; addressed her often; endeavoured to draw forth her latent powers; and soon made her sensible that the impression she had given, was no less favourable than that which she had received. Montague's conversation had its accustomed effect on Montreville, and the lively Harriet gave spirit to the whole. The evening passed most agreeably; and Laura was sorry when the hour of separation arrived. Mrs De Courcy courteously thanked her for her visit, and begged her to repeat it; but Harriet sportively objected. "No, no," said she, "if you come back, you will not leave a heart among all the household--even old John's seems in danger."
"Well, mamma," continued she, when Laura was gone, "what do you think of my brother's beauty?" "I think," said Mrs De Courcy, "that Montague's praises did her no more than justice. She is the most lovely, the most elegant, woman I ever saw." "She is no doubt beautiful and interesting," returned Harriet "but I must still think she has too much of the buckram of the old school to be elegant." Montague bit his lip, and tried, before he spoke, to ascertain that he was not angry. "You are too severe, Harriet," said Mrs De Courcy. "Miss Montreville's reserve is not stiffness --it is not 'buckram;' it is rather the graceful drapery embellishing what it veils." "Mother," cried Montague grasping her hand, "you have more candour, sense, and taste, than all the misses in England." "Oh! pray except Miss Montreville and the present company," said Harriet, laughing. "She, you know, is all perfection; and I have really candour, sense, and taste enough to admire her more than ever I did any woman, except my little self." De Courcy threw his arm round her-- "I see by that good-natured smile," said he, "that my dear Harriet has at least candour enough to pardon the folly of a wayward brother." And for the rest of the evening he treated her with even more than his usual attentive kindness.
From this day Miss De Courcy frequently accompanied her brother on her [his?] visits to the Montrevilles and Laura was a welcome guest in Audly Street. By degrees Mrs De Courcy and she discovered the real worth of each other's character, and their mutual reserve entirely disappeared. Between Laura and De Courcy, almost from the first hour of their acquaintance there seemed (to use the language of romance) a sympathy of souls--an expression which, if it has any meaning, must mean the facility with which simple, upright, undesigning minds become intelligible to each other. Even the sarcastic Harriet found, in the chaste propriety of Laura's character, something to command respect, and in her gentleness and warmth of heart, something to engage affection; while, in her ideas, which solitude had slightly tinged with romance, though strong sense had preserved them from absurdity, and in her language, which sometimes rose to the very verge of poetry, she found constantly somewhat to interest and amuse.
Meanwhile Montreville's dejection seemed to increase, and Laura's health and spirits, in spite of her efforts to support them, daily declined. Hargrave did not appear, and vainly did she endeavour to account for his absence. She at first conjectured that he had found it impossible to leave Scotland at the time he proposed; but a second letter from Mrs Douglas had mentioned his departure, and repeated the assurance that, however obtained, he had information of Laura's address, since he had undertaken to be the bearer of a letter from a neighbouring gentleman to Captain Montreville.
She next supposed that he had stopped on the road, or quitted it on some errand of business or pleasure; but a newspaper account of a fete champetre, at Lady Bellamer's elegant villa at Richmond, was graced, among other fashionable names, with that of the handsome Colonel Hargrave, nephew and heir of Lord Lincourt, No supposition remained to be made, except the mortifying one, that three months of absence had erased her image from the fickle heart of Hargrave. She, who had herself consigned her lover to a banishment of two years, could not bear that he should voluntarily undergo one of a few weeks. Nay, she had once herself resigned him; but to be herself resigned without effort, was more than she could endure. Her appetite, her sleep forsook her; her ordinary employments became irksome; and even the picture, the price of which was so soon to be necessary, she had not spirits to finish.
But one who was accustomed every night to examine the thoughts and actions of the day, was not likely to remain long a prey to inactive melancholy. Not satisfied with languid efforts in the discharge of duty, she reproached herself for every failure. She upbraided herself as a wicked and slothful servant, who, when the means of usefulness were put within her power, suffered them to remain unimproved; as a rebel who had deserted the service of her rightful master, to bow to the worse than Egyptian bondage of her passions. She accused herself of having given up her love, her wishes, her hopes and fears, almost her worship, to an idol; and no sooner did this thought occur to the pious mind of Laura, than she became resigned to her loss. She even felt grateful--with such gratitude as the wretch feels under the knife which amputates the morbid limb.
Unused to let her self-reproaches pass without improvement, she resolved, by vigorous efforts, to become herself again. She even called in the aid of a decent pride. "Shall I," she cried, "who had vowed to overcome the world--I who have called myself by that glorious name, a Christian, sink from these honours into a love-sick girl? Shall all my happiness, all my duties, the comfort of my father, the very means of his support, be sacrificed to a selfish passion? Or is a love, whose transient duration has proved its degenerate nature, of such value to me, that I must repay it with my whole heart and soul?"
These reflections were not made at once, nor were they at once effectual; but, when made, they were called in as oft as the image of Hargrave intruded unbidden; and constant and regular occupation was again employed to second their operation. The picture was again resorted to; but as it afforded rather an unsocial employment, and as Laura's company was more than ever necessary to her father, it proceeded slowly.
De Courcy was now a daily visitor. Sometimes he brought books, and would spend hours in reading aloud. Sometimes he would amuse the captain and his daughter by experiments in his favourite science. With a gentleness peculiar to himself, he tried to prevent the little annoyances to which hypochondriacs are subject. He invented a hundred little indulgences for the invalid; and no day passed in which Montreville was not indebted for some comfort, or some amusement, to the considerate kindness of De Courcy. At times he would gently rally the captain on his imaginary ailments, and sometimes prevailed on him to take the air in Mrs De Courcy's carriage: though to such a height had fancy worked upon the invalid, that Montague found it impossible to persuade him that he was able to endure the fatigue of walking.
To Laura, De Courcy's behaviour, uniformly respectful and attentive, was sometimes even tender. But accustomed to see love only in the impassioned looks of Hargrave, to hear its accents only in his words of fire, she did not recognise it in a new form; and to consider De Courcy as a lover, never once entered her imagination. Captain Montreville was more clear-sighted; and hence arose much of the pleasure which he took in De Courcy's visits. Not that he was more knowing in the mysteries of love than his daughter, but he took it for granted that no mortal could withstand her attractions; and he was persuaded that Laura would not withhold her heart where she so freely expressed approbation. This opinion was a proof of the justice of the captain's former confession, "that women were creatures he did not understand." Laura had never praised Hargrave. She never shrunk from De Courcy's eye--she never felt embarrassed by his presence--she treated him with the frankness of a sister; and though she reserved her commendations for his absence, she waited only for that, to bestow them with all the warmth which his own merit and his attention to her father could demand.
Meanwhile, Montreville did not by a premature disclosure of his hopes, endanger their completion; and De Courcy continued unconsciously to foster in his bosom a passion that was destined to destroy his peace.
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.