THE next morning, while Montreville and his daughter were expecting with some anxiety the arrival of their daily visitor, a note was brought which De Courcy had left in Audley Street, to be delivered after his departure. Though nearly illegible, from the agitation in which it was written, it contained nothing but the simple information that he had been suddenly obliged to leave London. It assigned no reason for his journey--it fixed no period for his absence; and Montreville endeavoured to hope that his return would not be distant. But day after day passed heavily on, and De Courcy came not. Montreville again began to feel himself a solitary deserted being; again became dejected; again became the victim of real debility and fancied disease.
All Laura's endeavours failed to animate him to cheerfulness, or rouse him to employment. If he permitted her to remain by him, he seemed rather to endure than to enjoy her presence, repressed with a languid monosyllable her attempts at conversation, or passed whole hours in listless silence. Laura, who forboded the worst consequences from the indulgence of this depression, endeavoured to persuade him that he might now safely attempt a voyage to Scotland, and predicted beneficial effects from the sea air. But Montreville answered her with displeasure, that such an exertion would certainly destroy him, and that those who were themselves in high health and spirits, could not judge of the feelings, nor sympathise with the weakness, of disease. The reproach had no more justice than is usual with the upbraidings of the sickly; for Laura's spirits shared every turn of her father's, though her stronger mind could support with grace the burden that weighed his to the earth. She desisted, however, from a subject which she saw that for the present he would not bear, and confined her endeavours to persuading him to undertake some light occupation, or to walk in the little garden that belonged to the house. But even in these attempts she was commonly defeated; for Montreville would make no exertion, and the winter wind, now keen and biting, pierced through his wasted form.
None but they who have made the melancholy experiment, can tell how cheerless is the labour of supporting the spirit that will make no effort to sustain itself, of soliciting the languid smile, offering the rejected amusement, or striving, with vain ingenuity, to enliven the oft-repulsed conversation. They only know who have tried it, what it is to resist contagious depression--to struggle against the effects of the complaining voice, the languid motion, the hopeless aspect; what it is to suppress the sympathetic sigh, and restrain the little sally of impatience, so natural to those whose labours are incessant, yet unavailing. Such were the tasks that Laura voluntarily prescribed to herself. Incited by affection, and by strong sense of duty, she soothed the fretful humour, prompted the reluctant exertion, fanned the expiring hope, and seized the favourable moment to soften by feminine tenderness, or exhilarate by youthful gaiety.
Many motives may lead to one great effort of virtue. The hope of reward, the desire of approbation, a sense of right, the natural benevolence which still affords a faint trait of the image in which man was made, all, or any of these, may produce single, or even oft-repeated, acts deserving of praise; but one principle alone can lead to virtuous exertions persevering and unremitting, though without success. That principle was Laura's; and even while her endeavours seemed unavailing, she was content to employ all her powers in the task selected for her by the bestower of them.
Montreville often reproached himself for the untimely burden which he was laying on the young heart of his daughter; but he could make no effort to lighten it, and self-reproach served only to embitter the spirit which it failed of stimulating to exertion. Fretful and impatient, yet conscious of his injustice, and unwilling that Laura should observe it, he would often dismiss her from her attendance, and spend whole hours in solitary gloom. These hours Laura devoted to her picture, stealing between whiles, on tiptoe, to the door of her father's apartment, to listen whether he was stirring; and sometimes venturing to knock gently for admittance.
The picture, which was far advanced when De Courcy left town, soon received the finishing touches; and Laura lost no time in transmitting it to Norwood. She wrote an affectionate letter to Harriet; in which, after thanking her for all her kindness, she offered her gift, and added, that to give her work a value which it would not otherwise have possessed, she had introduced the portrait of De Courcy; and that, glad of an opportunity of associating the remembrance of herself with an object of interest, she had admitted her own resemblance into the group. She apologised for the appearance of conceit which might attend her exhibiting her own form under the character of Virtue, by relating, with characteristic simplicity, that she had determined on her subject, chosen and half-finished her Hercules, before she designed the figures of his companions; that she had afterwards thought that her memorial would be more effectual if it contained the portrait of the giver. "And you know," added she, "it would have been impossible to mould my solemn countenance into the lineaments of Pleasure."
In the singleness of her heart, it never occurred to Laura, that any thing in the mutual relation of the figures of her piece stood in need of explanation. Had Hargrave furnished the model for her hero, she would probably have been a little more quick-sighted. As it was, she felt impatient to show the De Courcy family, not excepting Montague himself, that she was not forgetful of their kindness; and she chose a day, when the influence of bright sunshine a little revived the spirits of Montreville, to leave him for an hour, and accompany the picture to the shop of the obliging print-seller, that it might be packed more skilfully than by herself.
After seeing it safely put up, she gave the address to Wilkins, who immediately exclaimed, "So, ma'am, you have found out the secret that you would not let me tell you!" "What secret?" inquired Laura. "The name of the gentleman, ma'am, that bought your pictures." "Was it De Courcy, then?" "Yes, ma'am; though to be sure it mightn't be the same. But I suppose you'll know him, ma'am. A tall pleasant-looking gentleman, ma'am. The pictures were sent home to Audley Street." Laura's countenance brightened with satisfaction, and she suffered her informer to proceed. "I am sure," continued he, "I managed that business to the very best of my power, and, as one may say, very dexterously." "Was there any occasion for management?" inquired Laura. "Oh, yes! ma'am; for when he seemed very much taken with the first one, then I told him all about you just as I had it all from Mrs Dawkins, and how you were so anxious to have it sold; and then he said he'd have it, and paid the money into my hands; and then I told him how you looked the first day you brought it here, and that you were just ready to cry about it; and then he said he must have a companion to it."
The flush both of pride and vexation, for once stained the transparent skin of Laura. Yet it was only for a moment; and her next feeling was pleasure at the confirmation of the benevolent character with which her imagination had invested De Courcy. He had purchased her work when she was quite unknown to him, only, as she thought, from a wish to reward industry; and because he had been led to believe that the price was an object to the artist. Had another been the purchaser, she might have allowed something for the merit of the piece; but Laura was not yet cured of first imagining characters, and then bending facts to suit her theory. Sooner than bate one iota from De Courcy's benevolence, she would have assigned to her picture the rank of a sign-post.
She now remembered, that in her visits to Audley Street she had never seen her works; and in her approbation of the delicacy which prompted De Courcy to conceal that she was known to him as an artist, she forgot the little prejudice which this concealment implied. De Courcy, indeed, was himself unconscious that he entertained any such prejudice. He applauded Laura's exertions; he approved of the spirit that led a young woman of family to dare, in spite of custom, to be useful. Yet he could not help acting as if she had shared the opinion of the world, and been herself ashamed of her labours. But this was a shame that Laura knew not. She wished not indeed to intrude on the world's notice. Her choice was peaceful obscurity. But if she must be known, she would have far preferred the distinction earned by ingenious industry, to the notoriety which wealth and luxury can purchase.
On her return home, she found her father reading a letter which he had just received from De Courcy. It seemed written in an hour of melancholy. The writer made no mention of returning to town; on the contrary, he expressed a hope that Montreville might now be able to undertake a journey to Scotland. He besought the captain to remember him, to speak of him often, and to write to him sometimes; and ended with these words--"Farewell, my friend; the dearest of my earthly hopes is, that we may one day meet again, though years, long years, must first intervene."
"So ends my last hope," said Montreville, letting his head sink mournfully on his breast; "De Courcy comes not, and thou must be left alone and unprotected."
"The protection of so young a man," said Laura, avoiding to answer to a foreboding which she considered merely as a symptom of her father's disease, "might not perhaps have appeared advantageous to me in the eyes of those who are unacquainted with Mr De Courcy."
"It would have given comfort to my dying hour," said Montreville, "to consign thee to such a guardian—such a husband."
"A husband!" cried Laura, starting, and turning pale. "Heaven be praised, that Mr De Courcy never harboured such a thought!"
Montreville looked up in extreme surprise, and inquired the reason of her thankfulness. "Oh, sir!" she replied, "we owe so much to Mr De Courcy's friendship, that I should have hated myself for being unable to return his affection; and pity would it have been that the love of so amiable a being should have been bestowed in vain."
Montreville fixed his eyes upon her, as if to seek for further explanation, and continued to gaze on her face, when his thoughts had wandered from the examination of it. After some minutes of silence, he said, "Laura, you once rejected an alliance, splendid beyond my hopes, almost beyond my wishes, and that with a man formed to be the darling of your sex; and now you speak as if even Montague De Courcy would have failed to gain you. Tell me, then, have you any secret attachment? Speak candidly, Laura; you will not always have a father to confide in."
Deep crimson dyed the cheeks of Laura ; but, with the hesitation of a moment, she replied--"No, sir, I have no wish to marry. I pretend not to lay open my whole heart to you; but I may with truth assure you, that there is not at this moment a man in being with whom I would unite myself. I know you would not be gratified by extorted confidence."
"No, Laura," said Montreville, "I ask no more than you willingly avow. I confide, as I have always done, == in your prudence and integrity. Soon, alas! you will have no other guides. But it was my heart's wish to see you united to a man who could value and protect your worth--of late, more especially, when I feel that I so soon must leave you."
"My dearest father," said Laura, throwing her arm affectionately round his neck, "do not give way to such gloomy forebodings. Your spirits are oppressed by confinement--let us but see Glenalbert again, and all will be well."
"I shall never see Glenalbert," said Montreville; "and left alone in such a place as this, without money, without friends, without a home, where shall my child find safety or shelter?"
"Indeed, sir," said Laura, though a cold shuddering seized her, "your fears have no foundation. Only yesterday Dr Flint told me that your complaints were without danger, and that a little exercise would make you quite strong again."
Montreville shook his head. "Dr Flint deceives you, Laura," said he; you deceive yourself."
"No, indeed," said Laura, though she trembled; "you look much better--you are much better. It is only these melancholy thoughts that retard your recovery. Trust yourself--trust me, to the providence that has hitherto watched over us."
"I could die without alarm," said Montreville; "but to leave thee alone and in want--oh! I cannot bear it."
"Should the worst befall," said Laura, turning pale as alabaster, "think that I shall not be alone; I shall not want, for--" her voice failed, but she raised her eyes with an expression that filled up the ennobling sentiment.
"I believe it, my love," said Montreville ; "but you feel these consolations more strongly than I do. Leave me for the present; I am fatigued with speaking, and wish to be alone."
Laura retired to her own room, and endeavoured herself to practise the trust which she recommended to her father. Her meditations were interrupted by the entrance of her landlady, Mrs Stubbs, who, with many curtsies and apologies, said that she was come to present her account. Laura, who always had pleasure in cancelling a debt the moment it was incurred, and who conceived no apology to be necessary from those who came to demand only their own, received her landlady very graciously, and begged her to be seated, while she went to bring her father's purse. Mrs Stubbs spread her bills upon the table; and Laura, after examining them, was obliged to ask an explanation.
"Why, ma'am," returned the landlady, "there are fourteen guineas for lodgings for six weeks, and £10, 15s. for victuals and other articles that I have furnished. I am sure I have kept an exact account."
"I understood," said Laura, "that we were to have the lodgings for a guinea and a half a-week, and--"
"A guinea and a half!" cried the landlady, colouring with wrath at this disparagement of her property. "Sure, miss, you did not think to have lodgings such as these for a guinea and a half a-week. No, no--these lodgings have never been let for less than four guineas, and never shall, as long as my name is Bridget."
Laura mildly pleaded her ignorance of those matters, and urged De Courcy's information as an excuse for her mistake. "To be sure, ma'am," said the now pacified Mrs Stubbs, "nobody that know'd any thing of the matter would expect to have such rooms for less than four guineas, and that was what the gentleman said when he took them; so he paid me two guineas and a half advance for four weeks, and charged me not to let you know of it; but I can't abide them secret doings; and, besides, if I take only a guinea and a half from you, where was I to look for the rest of my rent for the last fortnight--for the young gentleman seems to have taken himself off?"
Laura suffered her loquacious hostess to proceed without interruption, for her thoughts were fully occupied. She had incurred a debt greater, by five guineas, than she had been prepared to expect; and this sum was, in her present circumstances, of great importance. Yet her predominant feeling was grateful approbation of De Courcy's benevolence; nor did her heart at all upbraid him with the consequences of his well-meant deception. "Kind, considerate De Courcy," thought she; "he had hoped that ere now we should have ceased to need his generosity, and even have been removed from the possibility of discovering it."
Recollecting herself, she paid the landlady her full demand; and, dismissing her, sat down to examine what remained of her finances. All that she possessed she found amounted to no more than one guinea and a few shillings; and dropping the money into her lap, she sat gazing on it in blank dismay.
The poverty whose approach she had so long contemplated with a fearful eye, had now suddenly overtaken her. Husbanded with whatever care, the sum before her could minister only to the wants of a few hours. In her present habitation it would scarcely purchase shelter for another night from the storm which a keen winter wind was beginning to drive against her window. An immediate supply, then, was necessary; but where could that supply be found? It was too late to resort to the earnings of her own genius. Painting was a work of time and labour. No hasty production was likely to find favour amidst the competition of studied excellence. Even the highest effort of her art might long wait a purchaser; and tears fell from the eyes of Laura, while she reflected that, even if she could again produce a Leonidas, she might never again find a De Courcy.
To borrow money on the captain's half-pay was an expedient which Laura had always rejected, as calculated to load their scanty income with a burden which it could neither shake off nor bear. But even to this expedient she could now no longer have recourse; for Montreville had assured her, that, in his present state of health, it would be impossible to mortgage his annuity for a single guinea.
She might raise a small supply by stripping her beloved Glenalbert of some of its little luxuries and comforts; but long before this revolting business could be transacted, she must be absolutely penniless. Nor did she dare, without consulting her father, to give orders for dismantling his home. And how should she inform him of the necessity for such a sacrifice? Weakened both in body and in mind, how would he endure the privations that attend on real penury? His naturally feeble spirits, already crushed to the earth, his kindly temper already, by anxiety and disappointment, turned to gall, his anxieties for his child alarmed even to anguish, how could he bear to learn that real want had reached him--had reached that dear child, the dread of leaving whom to poverty was poisoning the springs of life within him! "He thinks he is about to leave me," cried she, "and shall I tell him that I must owe to charity even the sod that covers him from me? No; I will perish first;" and, starting from her seat, she paced the room in distressful meditation on the means of concealing from her father the extent of their calamity.
She determined to take upon herself the care of their little fund, under pretence that the trouble was too great for Montreville. He had of late shown such listless indifference to all domestic concerns, that she hoped he might never inquire into the extent of his landlady's demand, or that his inquiries might be eluded. It seemed a light thing in Laura's eyes to suffer alone; or rather, she thought not of her own sufferings, could she but spare to her father the anguish of knowing himself and his child utterly destitute. She judged of his feelings by her own; felt, by sympathy, all the pangs with which he would witness wants which he could not supply; and she inwardly vowed to conceal from him every privation that she might endure, every labour that she might undergo.
But, void of every resource, far from every friend, destitute amid boundless wealth, alone amid countless multitudes, whither should she turn for aid, or even for counsel? "Whither," cried she, dropping on her knees, "except to Him who hath supplied me in yet more urgent want, who hath counselled me in yet more fearful difficulty, who hath fed my soul with angels' food, and guided it with light from heaven?" Laura rose from her devotions, more confiding in the care of Providence, more able to consider calmly of improving the means which still remained within her own power.
Before she could finish and dispose of a picture, weeks must elapse for which she could make no provision. To painting, therefore, she could not have immediate recourse. But sketches in chalk could be finished with expedition; the print-seller might undertake the sale of them; and the lowness of the price might invite purchasers. Could she but hope to obtain a subsistence for her father, she would labour night and day, deprive herself of recreation, of rest, even of daily food, rather than wound his heart by an acquaintance with poverty. "And since his pride is hurt by the labours of his child," said she, "even his pride shall be sacred. He shall never know my labours." And--so frail are even the best!--an emotion of pride swelled the bosom of Laura at the thought that the merit of her toils was enhanced by their secrecy.
The resolutions of Laura were ever the immediate prelude to action; and here was no time for delay. She again looked mournfully upon her little treasure, hopelessly re-examined the purse that contained it; again, with dismay, remembered that it was her all; then, hastily putting it into her pocket, she drew her portfolio towards her, and began to prepare for her work with the hurry of one to whom every moment seems precious. Invention was at present impossible; but she tried to recollect one of her former designs, and busied herself in sketching it till the hour of dinner arrived. She then went to summon her father from his chamber to the eating-room. "This day," thought she, "I must share his precarious sustenance--hereafter I shall be more provident. And is this then, perhaps, our last social meal?" and she turned for a moment from the door, to suppress the emotion that would have choked her utterance. "Come in, my dear," cried Montreville, who had heard her footstep; and Laura entered with a smile. She offered her arm to assist him in descending to the parlour. "Why will you always urge me to go down stairs, Laura," said he; "you see I am unequal to the fatigue." "I shall not urge you to-morrow," answered Laura; and Montreville thought the tears which stood in her eyes were the consequence of the impatient tone in which he had spoken.
During the evening, Laura avoided all mention of restoring the purse to her father, and he appeared to have forgotten its existence. But by no effort could she beguile those cheerless hours. Her utmost exertions were necessary to maintain the appearance of composure; and De Courcy's letter seemed to have consummated Montreville's feelings of solitude and desolation. Wilfully, and without effort, he suffered his spirits to expire. His whole train of thinking had become habitually gloomy. He was wretched, even without reference to his situation, and the original cause of his melancholy was rather the excuse than the reason of his depression. But this only rendered more hopeless all attempts to cheer him; for the woes of the imagination have this dire pre-eminence over such as spring from real evils, that, while these can warm at times in benevolent joy, or even brighten for a moment to the flash of innocent gaiety, the selfishness of the former, chequered by no kindly feeling, reflects not the sunny smile; as the dark and noisome fog drinks in vain the beam of heaven.
Montreville, when in health, had been always and justly thought a kind-hearted, good-natured man. He had been a most indulgent husband, an easy master, and a fond father. He was honourable, generous, and friendly. Those who had witnessed his patient endurance of Lady Harriet's caprice had given his philosophy a credit which was better due to his indolence: for the grand defect of Montreville's character was a total want of fortitude and self-command; and of these failings he was now paying the penalty. His health was injured by his voluntary inaction, his fancy aggravated his real disorder, and multiplied to infinity his imaginary ailments. He had habituated his mind to images of disaster, till it had become incapable of receiving any but comfortless and doleful impressions.
After spending a few silent hours without effort towards employment or recreation, he retired for the night; and Laura experienced a sensation of relief, as, shutting herself into her apartment, she prepared to resume her labours. After every other member of the family had retired to rest, she continued to work till her candle expired in the socket; and then threw herself on her bed to rise again with the first blush of dawn. Montreville had been accustomed to breakfast in his own room; Laura therefore found no difficulty in beginning her system of abstemiousness. Hastily swallowing a few mouthfuls of dry bread, she continued her drawing, till her father rang for his chocolate. She was fully resolved to adhere to this plan, to labour with unceasing industry, and to deny herself whatever was not essential to her existence.
But neither hard fare, nor labour, nor confinement, could occasion to Laura such pain as she suffered from another of the necessities of her situation. Amidst her mournful reflections, it had occurred to her, that unless she would incur a debt which she could not hope to discharge, it would be necessary to dismiss the surgeon who attended her father. All her ideas of honour and integrity revolted from suffering a man to expend his time and trouble, in expectation of a return which she was unable to make. She was besides convinced that in Montreville's case medicine could be of no avail. But she feared to hint the subject to her father, lest she should lead to a discovery of their present circumstances; and such was her conviction of the feebleness of his spirits, and such her dread of the consequences of their increased depression, that all earthly evils seemed light compared with that of adding to his distress. Laura perhaps judged wrong; for one real evil sometimes ameliorates the condition, by putting to flight a host of imaginary calamities, and by compelling that exertion which makes any situation tolerable. But she trembled for the effects of the slightest additional suffering upon the life or the reason of her father; and she would have thought it little less than parricide to add a new bruise to the wounded spirit. On the other hand, she dreaded that Montreville, if kept in ignorance of its real cause, might consider the desertion of his medical attendant as an intimation that his case was hopeless, and perhaps become the victim of his imaginary danger.
She knew not on what to resolve. Her distress and perplexity were extreme; and if any thing could have vanquished the stubborn integrity of Laura, the present temptation would have prevailed. But no wilful fraud could be the issue of her deliberations, who was steadily convinced that inflexible justice looks on to blast with a curse even the successful schemes of villany, and to shed a blessing on the sorrows of the upright. She would not even for her father incur a debt which she could never hope to pay; and nothing remained but to consider of the best means of executing her painful determination.
Here a new difficulty occurred, for she could not decline the surgeon's further attendance without offering to discharge what she already owed. In the present state of her funds, this was utterly impossible; for though, at her instigation, his bill had been lately paid, she was sure that the new one must already amount to more than all she possessed. How to procure the necessary supply, she knew not; for even if she could have secured the immediate sale of her drawings, the price of her daily and nightly toil would scarcely suffice to pay for the expensive habitation which she durst not propose to leave, and to bribe the fastidious appetite of Montreville with dainties, of which he could neither bear the want nor feel the enjoyment.
Once only, and it was but for a moment, she thought of appealing to the humanity of Dr Flint, of unfolding to him her situation, and begging his attendance upon the chance of future remuneration. But Laura was destined once more to pay the penalty of her hasty judgments of character. On Montreville's first illness, Dr Flint had informed Laura, with (as she thought) great want of feeling, of her father's danger. He was a gaunt, atrabilious, stern-looking man, with a rough voice, and cold repulsive manners. He had, moreover, an uninviting name; and though Laura was ashamed to confess to herself that such trifles could influence her judgment, these disadvantages were the real cause why she always met Dr Flint with a sensation resembling that with which one encounters a cold, damp, north-east wind. To make any claim upon the benevolence of a stranger--and such a stranger! It was not to be thought of. Yet Laura's opinion, or rather her feelings, wronged Dr Flint. His exterior, it is true, was far from prepossessing. It is also true, that, considering Montreville's first illness as the effect of a very unpardonable levity on the part of Laura, he had spoken to her on that occasion with even more than his usual frigidity. Nor did he either possess or lay claim to any great share of sensibility, but he was not destitute of humanity; and had Laura explained to him her situation, he would willingly have attended her father without prospect of recompense. But Laura did not put his benevolence to the test. She suffered him to make his morning visit and depart, while she was considering of a plan which appeared little less revolting.
Laura knew that one of the most elegant houses in Grosvenor Street was inhabited by a Lady Pelham, the daughter of Lady Harriet Montreville's mother by a former marriage. She knew that, for many years, little intercourse had subsisted between the sisters, and that her father was even wholly unknown to Lady Pelham. But she was ignorant that the imprudence of her mother's marriage served as the excuse for a coldness which had really existed before it had any such pretext.
With all her Scottish prejudice in favour of the claims of kindred (and Laura in this and many other respects was entirely a Scotch woman), she could not, without the utmost repugnance, think of applying to her relation. To introduce herself to a stranger whom she had never seen--to appear not only as an inferior, but as a supplicant, a beggar! Laura had long and successfully combatted the innate pride of human nature, but her humility almost failed under this trial. Her illustrious ancestry, the dignity of a gentlewoman, the independence of one who can bear to labour and endure to want, all rose successively to her mind; for pride can wear many specious forms. But she had nearer claims than the honour of her ancestry--dearer concerns than her personal importance; and when she thought of her father, she felt that she was no longer independent.
Severe was her struggle, and bitter were the tears which she shed over the conviction that it was right that she should become a petitioner for the bounty of a stranger. In vain did she repeat to herself that she was a debtor to the care of providence for her daily bread, and was not entitled to choose the means by which it was supplied. She could not conquer her reluctance; but she could act right in defiance of it. She could sacrifice her own feelings to the comfort of her father--to a sense of duty. Nay, upon reflection, she could rejoice that circumstances compelled her to quell that proud spirit with which, as a Christian, she maintained a constant and vigorous combat.
While these thoughts were passing in her mind, she had finished her drawing; and impatient to know how far this sort of labour was likely to be profitable, she furnished her father with a book to amuse him in her absence; and, for the first time since they had occupied their present lodgings, expressed a wish to take a walk for amusement. Had Montreville observed the blushes that accompanied this little subterfuge, he would certainly have suspected that the amusement which this walk promised was of no common kind; but he was in one of his reveries, hanging over the mantelpiece, with his forehead resting on his arm, and did not even look up while he desired her not to be long absent. She resolved to go first to Lady Pelham, that coming early she might find her disengaged, and afterwards to proceed to the print-shop.
The wind blew keen across the snow as Laura began her reluctant pilgrimage. Her summer attire, to which her finances could afford no addition, ill defended her from the blast. Through the streets of London she was to explore her way unattended. Accustomed to find both safety and pleasure in the solitude of her walks, she was to mix in the throngs of a rude rabble, without protection from insult. But no outward circumstances could add to the feelings of comfortless dismay with which she looked forward to the moment, when, ushered through stately apartments into the presence of self-important greatness, she should announce herself a beggar. Her courage failed--she paused, and made one step back towards her home. But she recalled her former thoughts. "I have need to be humbled," said she; and again proceeded on her way.
As she left the little garden that surrounded her lodging, she perceived an old man who had taken shelter by one of the pillars of the gate.
He shivered in the cold, which found easy entrance through the rags that covered him, and famine glared from his hollow eye. His grey hair streamed on the wind, as he held out the tattered remains of a hat, and said, "Please to help me, lady--I am very poor." He spoke in the dialect of her native land, and the accents went to Laura's heart; for Laura was in the land of strangers. She had never been deaf to the petitions of the poor, for all the poor of Glenalbert were known to her; and she knew that what she spared from her own comforts, was not made the minister of vice. Her purse was already in her hand, ere she remembered that to give was become a crime.
As the thought crossed her, she started like one who had escaped from sudden danger. "No, I must not give you money," said she, and returned the purse into her pocket, with a pang that taught her the true bitterness of poverty. "I am cold and hungry," said the man, still pleading, and taking encouragement from Laura's relenting eye. "Hungry!" repeated Laura; "then come with me, and I will give you bread;" and she returned to the house to bestow on the old man the humble fare which she had before destined to supply her own wants for the day, glad to purchase by a longer fast the right to feed the hungry.
"In what respect am I better than this poor creature," said she to herself, as she returned with the beggar to the gate, "that I should offer to him with ease, and even with pleasure, what I myself cannot ask without pain? Surely I do not rightly believe that we are of the same dust!--the same frail, sinful, perishable dust!"
But it was in vain that Laura continued to argue with herself. In this instance she could only do her duty; she could not love it. Her heart filled, and the tears rose to her eyes. She dashed them away; but they rose again.
When she found herself in Grosvenor Street, she paused for a moment. "What if Lady Pelham should deny my request?--dismiss me as a bold intruder? Why, then," said Laura, raising her head, and again advancing with a firmer step, "I shall owe no obligation to a stranger."
She approached the house--she ascended the steps. Almost breathless she laid her hand upon the knocker. At that moment she imagined her entrance through files of insolent domestics, into a room filled with gay company. She anticipated the inquisitive glances; shrunk in fancy from the supercilious examination; and she again drew back her hand. "I shall never have courage to face all this," thought she. While we hesitate, a trifle turns the scale. Laura perceived that she had drawn the attention of a young man on the pavement, who stood gazing on her with familiar curiosity; and she knocked, almost before she was sensible that she intended it.
The time appeared immeasurable till the door was opened by a maid-servant. "Is Lady Pelham at home?" inquired Laura, taking encouragement from the sight of one of her own sex. "No, ma'am," answered the maid, "my lady is gone to keep Christmas in ----shire, and will not return for a fortnight." Laura drew a long deep breath, as if a weight had been lifted from her breast; and suppressing an ejaculation of "Thank Heaven!" sprang in the lightness of her heart at one skip from the door to the pavement.
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.