From feverish and interrupted sleep Montreville awoke unrefreshed; and the surgeon, when he repeated his visit, again alarmed Laura with representations of her father's danger, and assurances that nothing but the most vigilant attention to his quiet could preserve his life. The anguish with which Laura listened to this sentence she suppressed, lest it should injure her father. She never approached him but to bring comfort; she spoke to him cheerfully, while the tears forced themselves to her eyes; and smiled upon him while her heart was breaking. She felt what he must suffer, should the thought occur to him that he was about to leave her to the world, unfriended and alone; and she never mentioned his illness to him unless with the voice of hope. But of the danger which she strove to disguise, Montreville was fully sensible; and though he forbore to shock her by avowing it explicitly, he could not like her suppress his fears. He would sometimes fervently wish that he could see his child safe in the protection of Mrs Douglas; and sometimes, when Laura was bending over him in the tenderest sympathy, he would clasp her neck, and cry, with an agony that shook his whole frame, "What, oh what will become of thee!"
He seemed anxious to know how long Mrs De Courcy was to remain in town, and inquired every hour whether Montague was not returned. Full well did Laura guess the mournful meaning of these questions. Full well did they remind her, that when the De Courcy family left London, she with her dying father would amidst this populous wilderness be alone. She anticipated the last scene of this sad tragedy; when, amidst busy thousands, a senseless corpse would be her sole companion. She looked forward to its close, when even this sad society would be withdrawn. Human fortitude could not support the prospect; and she would rush from her father's presence, to give vent to agonies of sorrow.
But the piety of Laura could half invest misfortune with the character of blessing; as, the mists that rise. to darken the evening sun are themselves tinged with his glory. She called to mind the gracious assurance which marks the afflicted who suffer not by their own guilt or folly, as the favoured of Heaven; and the more her earthly connections seemed dissolving, the more did she strive to acquaint herself with Him, from whose care no accident can sever. To this care she Fervently committed her father, praying that no selfish indulgence of her grief might embitter his departure; and resolving by her fortitude to convince him that she was able to struggle with the storm from which he was no longer to shelter her.
The day succeeding that on which Montreville was taken ill, had been set apart for a farewell visit to Mrs De Courcy; and Laura's note of mournful apology was answered by a kind visit from Harriet. Unconscious of the chief cause of her father's impatience for Montague's return, Laura wishing to be the bearer of intelligence which she knew would cheer him, inquired anxiously when Miss De Courcy expected her brother. But De Courcy's motions depended upon the spirits of his venerable friend, and Harriet knew not when he might be able to leave Mr Wentworth. It was even uncertain whether for the present he would return to town at all, as in another week Mrs De Courcy meant to set out for Norwood. Laura softened this unpleasing news to her father; she did not name the particular time of Mrs De Courcy's departure, and she suffered him still confidently to expect the return of his favourite.
The next day brought a letter from De Courcy himself, full of affectionate solicitude for the captain's health and spirits, but evidently written in ignorance of the fatal change that had taken place since his departure. In this letter the name of Laura was not mentioned, not even in a common compliment, and Montreville remarked to her this omission. "He has forgotten it," answered Laura; " his warm heart is full of his friend's distress and yours, and has not room for mere ceremony." "I hope," said Montreville emphatically, "that is not the reason." "What is then the reason?" inquired Laura; but Montreville did not speak, and she thought no more of De Courcy's little omission.
Her father, indeed, for the present, occupied almost all her earthly thoughts, and even her prayers rose more frequently for him than for herself. Except during the visits of the surgeon, she was Montreville's sole attendant; and, regardless of fatigue, she passed every night by his bed-side, every day in ministering to his comfort. If, worn out with watching, she dropt asleep, she started again at his slightest motion, and obstinately refused to seek in her own chamber a less interrupted repose. "No!" thought she ; "let my strength serve me while I have duties to perform, while yet my father lives to need my efforts; then may I be permitted to sink to early rest, and the weary labourer, while yet it is but morning, be called to receive his hire."
The desertion of Hargrave, whom she had loved with all the ardour of a warm heart and a fervid imagination, the death of her father so fast approaching, her separation from every living being with whom she could claim friendship or kindred, seemed signals for her to withdraw her affections from a world where she would soon have nothing left to love or to cherish. "And be it so," thought she; "let me no longer grovel here in search of objects which earth has not to offer--objects fitted for unbounded and unchangeable regard. Nor let me peevishly reject what this world really has to give, the opportunity to prepare for a better. This it bestows even on me; and a few childish baubles are all else that it reserves for those who worship it with all their soul, and strength, and mind."
No mortal can exist without forming some wish or hope. Laura hoped that she should live while she could be useful to her father; and she wished that she might not survive him. One other wish she had, and that was for De Courcy's return; for Montreville, whose spirits more than shared his bodily languor, now seldom spoke, but to express his longing for the presence of his favourite. Laura continued to cheer him with a hope which she herself no longer felt; for now three days only remained ere Mrs De Courcy was to quit London. The departure of their friends Laura resolved to conceal from her father, that, believing them to be near, he might feel himself the less forlorn; and this she thought might be practicable, as he had never since his illness expressed any wish to quit his bed, or to see Miss De Courcy when she came.
In Montreville's darkened apartment, without occupation but in her cares for him, almost without rest, had Laura passed a week, when she was one morning summoned from her melancholy charge, to attend a visitor. She entered the parlour. "Mr De Courcy!" she exclaimed, springing joyfully to meet him; "thank Heaven, you are come!" But not with equal warmth did De Courcy accost her. The repulsive look she had given him at parting was still fresh in his recollection; and, with a respectful distant bow, he expressed his sorrow for Captain Montreville's illness. "Oh, he is ill, indeed!" said Laura, the faint hectic of pleasure fading suddenly from her cheek. "Earnestly has he longed for your return; and we feared," said she, with a violent effort suppressing her tears, "we feared that you might not have come till--till all was over." "Surely Miss Montreville," said De Courcy, extremely shocked, "surely you are causelessly alarmed." "Oh no!" cried Laura; "he cannot live!" and no longer able to contain her emotion, she burst into a passion of tears. Forced entirely from his guard by her grief, Montague threw himself on the seat by her. "Dearest of human beings," he exclaimed; "oh that I could shield thee from every sorrow!" But absorbed in her distress, Laura heeded him not; and the next moment, sensible of his imprudence, he started from her side, and retreated to a distant part of the room.
As soon as she was again able to command herself, she went to inform her father of De Courcy's arrival. Though told with the gentlest caution, Montreville heard the news with extreme emotion. He grasped Laura's hand; and with tears of joy streaming down his pale cheeks, said, "Heaven be praised! I shall not leave thee quite desolate." Laura herself felt less desolate; and she rejoiced even for herself, when she once more saw De Courcy seated beside her father. It was only the morning before, that a letter from Harriet had informed her brother of Montreville's illness and of Laura's distress. To hear of that distress, and to remain at a distance, was impossible; and Montague had left Mr Wentworth's within the hour. He had travelled all night; and without even seeing his mother and sister, had come directly to Captain Montreville's lodgings. He was shocked at the death-like looks of Montreville, and still more so at those of Laura. Her eyes were sunk, her lips colourless, and her whole appearance indicated that she was worn out with fatigue and wretchedness. Yet De Courcy felt, that never in the bloom of health and beauty had she been so dear to him, and scarcely could he forbear from addressing her in the accents of compassion and of love. Montreville wishing to speak with him alone, begged of Laura to leave him for a while to De Courcy's care, and endeavour to take some rest. She objected that Montague had himself need of rest, having travelled all night; but when he assured her, that even if she drove him away he would not attempt to sleep, she consented to retire, and seek the repose of which she was so much in want.
When they were alone, Montreville showed De Courcy the warning letter; and related to him the baseness of Warren, and Laura's escape. Montague listened to him with intense interest. He often changed colour, and his lips quivered with emotion; and when her father described the manner in which she had accomplished her escape, he exclaimed with enthusiasm, "Yes, she is superior to every weakness, as she is alive to every gentle feeling." Montreville then dwelt upon her unremitting care of him--on the fortitude with which she suppressed her sorrow, even while its violence was perceptibly injuring her health. "And is it to be wondered at," said he, "that I look forward with horror to leaving this lovely excellent creature in such a world, alone and friendless?" "She shall never be friendless," cried De Courcy. "My mother, my sister, shall be her friends, and I will--" He stopped abruptly, and a heavy sigh burst from him.
Recovering himself, he resumed, "You must not talk so despondingly. You will long live, I trust, to enjoy the blessing of such a child." Montreville shook his head, and remained silent. He was persuaded that De Courcy loved his daughter, and would fain have heard an explicit avowal that he did so. To have secured to her the protection of Montague, would have destroyed the bitterness of death. Had Laura been the heiress of millions, he would have rejoiced to bestow her and them upon De Courcy. But he scorned to force him to a declaration, and respected her too much to make an approach towards offering her to any man's acceptance.
He was at a loss to imagine what reason withheld De Courcy from avowing an attachment which he was convinced that he felt. When he considered his favourite's grave reflecting character, he was rather inclined to believe that he was cautiously ascertaining the temper and habits of the woman with whom he meant to spend his life. But the warmth of approbation with which he mentioned Laura, seemed to indicate that his opinion of her was already fixed. It was possible, too, that De Courcy wished to secure an interest in her regard before he ventured formally to petition for it. Whatever was the cause of Montague's silence, the captain anticipated the happiest consequences from his renewed intercourse with Laura; and he resolved that he would not, by any indelicate interference, compel him to precipitate his declaration. He therefore changed the conversation, by inquiring when Mrs De Courcy was to leave town. Montague answered, that as he had not seen his mother since his return, he did not exactly know what time was fixed for her departure; "but," said he, "whenever she goes, I shall only attend her to Norwood, and return on the instant; nor will I quit you again, till you are much, much better, or till you will no longer suffer me to stay." Montreville received this promise with gratitude and joy; and De Courcy persuaded himself, that in making it he was actuated chiefly by motives of friendship and humanity. He remained with Montreville till the day was far advanced, and then went to take a late dinner in Audley Street.
Next morning, and for several succeeding days, he returned, and spent the greatest part of his time in attending, comforting, and amusing the invalid. He prevailed on his mother to delay her departure, that he might not be obliged immediately to leave his charge. He soothed the little impatiences of disease; contrived means to mitigate the oppressiveness of debility; knew how to exhilarate the hour of ease; and watched the moment, well known to the sickly, when amusement becomes fatigue.
Laura repaid these attentions to her father with gratitude unutterable. Often did she wish to thank De Courcy as he deserved; but she felt that her acknowledgments must fall far short of her feelings and of his deserts, if they were not made with a warmth, which to a man, and to a young man, she revolted from expressing. She imagined, too, that to one who sought for friendship, mere gratitude might be mortifying; and that it might wound the generous nature of Montague to be thanked as a benefactor, where he wished to be loved as an equal. She therefore did not speak of, or but slightly mentioned, her own and her father's obligations to him; but she strove to repay them in the way that would have been most acceptable to herself, by every mark of confidence and good will. Here no timidity restrained her; for no feeling that could excite timidity at all mingled with her regard for De Courcy. But, confined to her own breast, her gratitude became the stronger; and if she had now had a heart to give, to Montague it would have been freely given.
Meanwhile, the spirits of Montreville lightened of a heavy load, by the assurance that, even in the case of his death, his daughter would have a friend to comfort and protect her, his health began to improve. He was able to rise; and one day, with the assistance of Montague's arm, surprised Laura with a visit in the parlour. The heart of Laura swelled with transport when she saw him once more occupy his accustomed seat in the family-room, and received him as one returned from the grave. She sat by him, holding his hand between her own, but did not try to speak. "If it would not make you jealous, Laura," said Montreville, "I should tell you that Mr De Courcy is a better nurse than you are. I have recruited wonderfully since he undertook the care of me--more indeed than I thought I should ever have done." Laura answered only by glancing upon De Courcy a look of heartfelt benevolence and pleasure. "And yet," said Montague, "it is alleged, that no attentions from our own sex are so effectual as those which we receive from the other. How cheaply would bodily suffering purchase the sympathy, the endearments of--" the name of Laura rose to his lips, but he suppressed it, and changed the expression to "an amiable woman." "Is it indeed so?" cried Laura, raising her eyes full of grateful tears to his face. "Oh then, if sickness or sorrow must be your portion, may your kindness here be repaid by some spirit of peace in woman's form--some gentleness yet more feminine than De Courcy's!"
The enthusiasm of gratitude had hurried Laura into a warmth which the next moment covered her with confusion; and she withdrew her eyes from De Courcy's face before she had time to remark the effect of these, the first words of emotion that ever she had addressed to him. The transport excited by the ardour of her expressions, and the cordial approbation which they implied, instantly gave way to extreme mortification. "She wishes," thought he, "that some woman may repay me. She would, then, not only with indifference, but with pleasure, see me united to another; resign me without a pang to some mere commonplace insipid piece of sweetness, and give her noble self to one who could better feel her value."
De Courcy had never declared his preference for Laura; he was even determined not to declare it. Yet to find that she had not a wish to secure it for herself, gave him such acute vexation that he was unable to remain in her presence. He abruptly rose, and took his leave. He soon, however, reproached himself with the unreasonableness of his feelings, and returned to his oft-repeated resolution to cultivate the friendship, without aspiring to the love, of Laura. He even persuaded himself that he rejoiced in her freedom from a passion which could not be gratified without a sacrifice of the most important duties. He had a sister for whom no provision had been made; a mother worthy of his warmest affection, whose increasing infirmities required increased indulgence. Mrs De Courcy's jointure was a very small one; and though she consented for the present to share the comforts of his establishment, Montague knew her too well to imagine that she would accept of any addition to her income, deducted from the necessary expenses of his wife and family. His generous nature revolted from suffering his sister to feel herself a mere pensioner on his bounty, or to seek dear-bought independence in a marriage of convenience; a sort of bargain upon which he looked with double aversion, since he had himself felt the power of an exclusive attachment.
Here even his sense of justice was concerned; for he knew that, if his father had lived, it was his intention to have saved from his income a provision for Harriet. From the time that the estate devolved to Montague, he had begun to execute his father's intention; and he had resolved that no selfish purpose should interfere with its fulfilment. The destined sum, however, was as yet little more than half collected, and it was now likely to accumulate still more slowly; for as Mrs De Courcy had almost entirely lost the use of her limbs, a carriage was to her an absolute necessary of life.
Most joyfully would Montague have relinquished every luxury, undergone every privation, to secure the possession of Laura; but he would not sacrifice his mother's health nor his sister's independence to any selfish gratification; nor would he subject the woman of his choice to the endless embarrassments of a revenue too small for its purposes.
These reasons had determined him against addressing Laura. At their first interview, he had been struck with her as the most lovely woman he had ever beheld: but he was in no fear that his affections should be entangled. They had escaped from a hundred lovely women, who had done their utmost to ensnare them, while she was evidently void of any such design. Besides, Montreville was his old friend, and it was quite necessary that he should visit him. Laura's manners had charmed De Courcy as much as her person. Still, might not a man be pleased and entertained, without being in love? Further acquaintance gradually laid open to him the great and amiable qualities of her mind, and was it not natural and proper to love virtue?--but this was not being in love.
Symptoms at last grew so strong upon poor De Courcy, that he could no longer disguise them from himself; but it was pleasing to love excellence. He would never reveal his passion. It should be the secret joy of his heart; and why cast away a treasure which he might enjoy without injury to any? Laura's love, indeed, he could not seek, but her friendship he might cherish; and who would exchange the friendship of such a woman for the silly fondness of a thousand vulgar minds?
In this pursuit he had all the success that he could desire, for Laura treated him with undisguised regard; and with that regard he assured himself that he should be satisfied. At last this "secret joy," this "treasure of his heart," began to mingle pain with its pleasures; and when called away on his mournful errand to Mr Wentworth, De Courcy confessed, that it was wise to wean himself a little from one whose presence was becoming necessary to his happiness, and to put some restraint upon a passion, which from his toy was become his master. Short absence, however, had only increased his malady; and Laura in sorrow, Laura grateful, confiding, at times almost tender, seized at once upon every avenue to the heart of De Courcy: he revered her as the best, he admired her as the loveliest, he loved her as the most amiable, of human beings. Still he resolved that, whatever it might cost him, he would refrain from all attempt to gain her love; and he began to draw nice distinctions between the very tender friendship with which he hoped to inspire her, and the tormenting passion which he must silently endure. Happily for the success of De Courcy's self-deceit, there was no rival at hand with whose progress in Laura's regard he could measure his own, and he never thought of asking himself what would be his sensations if her very tender friendship for him should not exclude love for another.
A doubt would sometimes occur to him as to the prudence of exposing himself to the unremitting influence of her charms, but it was quickly banished as an unwelcome intruder, or silenced with the plea, that to withdraw himself from Montreville on a sick-bed would outrage friendship and humanity. He had, too, somewhat inadvertently, given his friend a promise that he would not leave him till his health was a little re-established; and this promise now served as the excuse for an indulgence which he had not resolution to forego. After escorting Mrs De Courcy to Norwood, he pleaded this promise to himself, when he returned to London without an hour's delay; and it excused him in his own eyes for going every morning to the abode of Montreville, from whence he had seldom resolution enough to depart, till the return of night drove him away.
Meanwhile, with the health of her father, the spirits of Laura revived; and considering it as an act of the highest self-denial in a domestic man to quit his home--a literary man to suspend his studies--a young man to become stationary in the apartment of an invalid, she exerted herself to the utmost to cheer De Courcy's voluntary task. She sometimes relieved him in reading aloud, an accomplishment in which she excelled. Her pronunciation was correct, her voice varied, powerful, and melodious, her conception rapid and accurate, while the expression of her countenance was an animated comment upon the author.
De Courcy delighted to hear her sing the wild airs of her native mountains, which she did with inimitable pathos, though without skill. Her conversation, sometimes literary, sometimes gay, was always simply intended to please. Yet though void of all design to dazzle, it happened, she knew not how, that in De Courcy's company she was always more lively, more acute, than at other times. His remarks seemed to unlock new stores in her mind; and the train of thought which he introduced, she could always follow with peculiar ease and pleasure. Safe in her preference for another, she treated him with the most cordial frankness. Utterly unconscious of the sentiment she inspired, she had yet an animating confidence in De Courcy's good will; and sometimes pleased herself with thinking, that, next to his mother and sister, she stood highest of women in his regard. No arts of the most refined coquetry could have rivetted more closely the chains of the ill-fated De Courcy; and the gratitude of the unconscious Laura pointed the shaft that gave the death-wound to his peace.
How was it possible for her to imagine, that the same sentiment could produce a demeanour so opposite as De Courcy's was from that of Hargrave? Hargrave had been accustomed to speak of her personal charms with rapture. De Courcy had never made them the subject of direct compliment; he had even of late wholly discontinued those little gallantries which every pretty woman is accustomed to receive. Hargrave omitted no opportunity to plead his passion; and though the presence of a third person of necessity precluded this topic, it restrained him not from gazing upon Laura with an eagerness from which she shrunk abashed. De Courcy had never mentioned love; and Laura observed that when his glance met hers, he would sometimes withdraw his eye with (as she thought) almost womanly modesty. In her private interviews with Hargrave, he had ever approached her with as much vehemence and freedom of speech and manner, as her calm dignity would permit. Privacy made no change in De Courcy's manner, except to render him a little more silent--a little more distant; and to personal familiarity he seemed to be if possible more averse than herself; for if she accidentally touched him, he coloured and drew back.
Some of these circumstances Montreville had remarked, and had drawn from them inferences very different from those of his daughter. He was convinced that the preference of De Courcy for Laura had risen into a passion, which, for some unknown reason, he wished to conceal; and he perceived, by the ease of her behaviour, that Montague's secret was unsuspected by her. Most anxiously did he wish to know the cause of his favourite's silence, and to discover whether it was likely to operate long. In Laura's absence, he sometimes led the conversation towards the subject; but De Courcy never improved the offered opportunity. Partly in the hope of inviting equal frankness, Montreville talked of his own situation, and mentioned the motive of his journey to London. Montague inquired into every particular of the business, and rested not till he had found Mr Baynard's executor, and received from him an acknowledgment that he had in his possession a voucher for the payment of Montreville's fifteen hundred pounds to Warren.
He next, without mentioning the matter to Montreville, called upon Warren, with an intention finally to conclude the business; thinking it impossible that, since the payment of the money was ascertained, he could refuse either to pay the annuity or refund the price of it. But the disdain of Laura yet rankled in the mind of Warren, and he positively refused to bring the affair to any conclusion, declaring, that he would litigate it to the last sixpence he was worth; to which declaration he added an excellent joke concerning the union of Scotch pride with Scotch poverty. At this effrontery the honest blood of De Courcy boiled with indignation, and he was on the point of vowing, that he too would beggar himself rather than permit such infamous oppression; but his mother, his sister, and Laura herself, rose to his mind, and he contented himself with threatening to expose Warren to the disgrace that he merited.
Warren now began to suspect that De Courcy was the cause of Laura's contemptuous reception of his addresses; and enraged at his interference, yet overawed by his manly appearance and decided manner, became sullen, and refused to answer Montague's expostulations. Nothing remained to be done, and De Courcy was obliged to communicate to Montreville the ill success of his negotiations.
Bereft of all hopes of obtaining justice, which he had not the means to enforce, Montreville became more anxiously desirous to regain such a degree of health as might enable him to return home. In his present state such a journey was impracticable, and he was convinced that while he remained pent up in the polluted air of the city, his recovery could advance but slowly. Some weeks must at all events elapse before he could be in a condition to travel; and to accommodate his funds to this prolonged demand upon them, he saw that he must have recourse to some scheme of economy yet more humble than that which he had adopted.
He hoped, if he could recover strength sufficient for the search, to find in the suburbs some abode of purer air, and still more moderate expense than his present habitation. The former only of these motives he mentioned to De Courcy; for though Montreville did not affect to be rich, he never spoke of his poverty. Various circumstances, however, had led De Courcy to guess at his friend's pecuniary embarrassments; and he too had a motive which he did not avow, in the offer which he made to seek a more healthful residence for Montreville.
Unwilling to describe the humble accommodation with which he meant to content himself, or the limited price which he could afford to offer for it, Montreville at first refused De Courcy's services; but they were pressed upon him with such warmth that he was obliged to submit, and Montague lost no time in fulfilling his commission.
He soon discovered a situation that promised comfort. It was in the outskirts of the town; a small flower-garden belonged to the house, the apartments were airy and commodious, the furniture was handsome, and the whole most finically neat. The rent, however, exceeded that of Montreville's present lodgings; and De Courcy knew that this objection would be insurmountable. That Laura should submit to the inelegances of a mean habitation, was what he could not bear to think of; and he determined, by a friendly little artifice, to reconcile Montreville's comfort with his economy. The surgeon had named two or three weeks as the time likely to elapse before Montreville could commence his journey. De Courcy paid in advance above half the rent of the apartments for a month, charging the landlady to keep the real rent a secret from her lodgers.
As far as the author of these memoirs has been able to learn, this was the only artifice that ever Montague De Courcy practised in his life; and it led, as artifices are wont to do, to consequences which the contriver neither wished nor foresaw.
Much to his satisfaction, Montreville was soon settled in his new abode, where De Courcy continued to be his daily visitor. A certain delicacy prevented Laura from endeavouring to procure a reversal of her father's decree, issued in a moment of peevishness, that she should paint no more with a view to mere pecuniary reward. She felt that he had been wrong, and she shrunk from reminding him of it, till her labours should again become necessary. But, desirous of conveying to Mrs De Courcy some token of her remembrance and gratitude, she employed some of the hours which Montague spent with her father, in labouring a picture which she intended to send to Norwood. The subject was the choice of Hercules; and to make her gift the more acceptable, she presented in the hero a picture of De Courcy, while the form and countenance of Virtue were copied from the simple majesty of her own. The figure of Pleasure was a fancied one, and it cost the fair artist unspeakable labour. She could not pourtray what she would have shrunk from beholding--a female voluptuary. Her draperies were always designed with the most chastened decency; and, after all her toil, even the form of Pleasure came sober and matronly from the hand of Laura.
Designing a little surprise for her friends, she had never mentioned this picture to De Courcy; and as she daily stole some of the hours of his visit to bestow upon it, it advanced rapidly. Montague bore these absences with impatience; but Montreville, who knew how Laura was employed, took no notice of them, and De Courcy durst not complain.
Three weeks had glided away since Montreville's removal to his new lodgings, and he remained as much as ever anxious, and as much as ever unable to guess De Courcy's reason for concealing a passion which evidently increased every day. He recollected that Montague had of late never met Laura but in his presence, and he thought it natural that the lover should wish to make his first application to his mistress herself. He had an idea that the picture might be made to assist the denouement which he so ardently desired; and with this view he privately gave orders that when next Mr De Courcy came, he should be ushered into the painting-room, which he knew would be empty, as Laura never quitted him till De Courcy arrived to take her place.
Next morning, accordingly, Montague was shown into the room which he had himself destined for Laura, and, for that reason, supplied with many little luxuries which belonged not to its original furniture. He looked round with delight on the marks of her recent presence. There lay her book open as she had quitted it, and the pencil with which she had marked the margin. It was one which he himself had recommended, and he thought it should ever be dear to him. On a table lay her portfolio and drawing materials: in a corner stood her easel with her picture, over which was thrown a shawl which he had seen her wear.
Not conceiving that she could have any desire to conceal her work, he approached it, and, raising the covering, stood for a moment motionless with surprise. The next, a thousand sensations, vague but delightful, darted through his mind; but before he could give shape or distinctness to any one of them, the step approached that ever roused De Courcy to eager expectation, and letting drop the shawl, he flew towards the door to receive Laura.
With rapture in his eyes but confusion on his tongue, De Courcy paid his compliments, and again turned towards the picture. Laura sprang forward to prevent him from raising the covering. "Is this forbidden, then?" said he. "Oh yes, indeed," said Laura, blushing; "you must not look at it." "Can you be so mischievous," cried De Courcy, a delightful smile playing on his countenance, "as to refuse me such a pleasure?" "I am sure," said Laura, blushing again, and still more deeply, "it could give you no pleasure in its present state." "And I am sure," said De Courcy, ardently, "it would give me more than I have language to express."
De Courcy's eagerness, and the consciousness of her own confusion, made Laura now more unwilling that Montague should discover the cause of both to be his own portrait; and actually trembling with emotion, she said, putting her hand on the shawl to prevent him from raising it, "Indeed, I cannot show you this." "There is my portfolio--look at any thing but this." "And what inference may I draw as to the subject of a picture that Miss Montreville will not show to the most partial, the most devoted, of her friends?" "Any inference," replied Laura, still holding the shawl," that friendship or charity will permit." "And must I not remove this perverse little hand?" said De Courcy, laying his upon it; for all prudence was forgotten in his present emotion. Laura, a little offended at his perseverance, gravely withdrew her hand, and turned away, saying, "Since my wishes have no power, I shall make no other trial of strength." "No power!" cried De Courcy following her; "they have more force than a thousand arms." "Well," said Laura, a little surprised by his manner, but turning upon him a smile of gracious reconciliation, "your forbearance may hereafter be rewarded by a sight of this important picture; but lest you should forfeit your recompense, had we not better remove from temptation?"
She then led the way to the parlour, and De Courcy followed her in a state of agitation that could not be concealed. He was absent and restless. He often changed colour, seemed scarcely sensible of what was addressed to him, or began to reply, and the unfinished sentence died upon his lips. At last, starting up, he pleaded sudden indisposition, and was hurrying away. "Do not go away ill and alone," said Laura, kindly detaining him. "Walk round the garden--the fresh air will relieve you." "No air will relieve me!" said De Courcy, in a voice of wretchedness. "What then can we do for you?" said Laura, with affectionate earnestness. "What can you do for me!" cried De Courcy; "oh nothing, nothing but suffer me to go, while yet I have the power." He then wrung Montreville's hand, and uttering something which his emotion made inarticulate, without venturing a glance towards Laura, he quitted the house, and returned home in a state bordering on distraction.
He shut himself up in his chamber to consider of his situation, if that can be called consideration which was but a conflict of tumultuous feeling. That Laura should have painted his portrait in a group where it held such a relation to her own; that she should keep it concealed in an apartment exclusively appropriated to herself; her alarm lest he should examine it; her confusion, which had at last risen to the most distressing height, from the idea of what De Courcy might infer, should he discover that his own portrait was the cause of so many blushes; the confiding affectionate manner in which she treated him--all conspired to mislead De Courcy. He felt a conviction that he was beloved, and, in spite of himself, the thought was rapture.
But what availed this discovery? Could he forget the justice of his sister's claims, sacrifice to his selfish wishes the comfort of his mother, or wed his half-worshipped Laura to the distresses of an embarrassed fortune? "Oh no!" he cried; "let not my passions involve in disaster all that I love."
Or could he lay open to Laura his feelings and his situation, and sue for her love, even while their union must be delayed. Her attachment, he thought, was yet in its infancy, born of gratitude, fostered by separation from other society, and, for the present, pleasing in its sensations and transient in its nature. But he thought her capable of a love as fervent, as deep-rooted, as that which she inspired; and should he wilfully awaken in her peaceful breast the cravings of such a passion as tortured his own--see her spirits, her vigour of mind, her usefulness, perhaps her health, give way to the sickness of "hope deferred!" No; rather let her return to the indifference in which he found her. Or, should he shackle her with a promise, of which honour might extort a reluctant fulfilment, after the affection that prompted it was perhaps withdrawn from him? Or, should he linger on from day to day in vain endeavours to conceal his affection, dishonourably sporting with the tenderness of the woman he loved, his ill-suppressed feelings every hour offering a hope which must every hour be disappointed? No! the generous heart of De Courcy would sooner have suffered a thousand deaths.
But could he return--could he see again this creature, now more than ever dear to him, and stifle the fondness, the anguish, that would rend his bosom at parting? Impossible! He would see her no more. He would tear at once from his heart every hope, every joy, and dare at once all the wretchedness that awaited him. In an agony of desperation he rang for his servant, ordered his horses, and in an hour was on his way to Norwood, with feelings which the criminal on the rack need not have envied.
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.