Laura had it now in her power to discharge her debt to the surgeon, and she was resolved that it should immediately be paid. When, therefore, he called in the morning to make his daily visit, she met him before he entered Montreville's chamber, and requested to speak with him in the parlour.
She began by saying, she feared that medicine could be of little use to her father, to which Dr Flint readily assented, declaring, in his dry way, that generous food and open air would benefit him more than all the drugs in London. Laura begged him to say explicitly so to the captain, and to give that as a reason for declining to make him any more professional visits. She then presented him with a paper containing four guineas, which she thought might be the amount of his claim. He took the paper, and deliberately unfolding it, returned one half of its contents, saying, that his account having been settled so lately, the new one could not amount to more than the sum he retained. Laura, who having now no favour to beg, no debt that she was unable to pay, was no longer ashamed of her poverty, easily opened to Dr Flint so much of her situation as was necessary to instruct him in the part he had to act with Montreville. He made no offer to continue his visits, even as an acquaintance, but readily undertook all that Laura required of him, adding, "Indeed, Miss Montreville, I should have told your father long ago that physic was useless to him, but whimsical people must have something to amuse them, and if he had not paid for my pills, he would for some other man's." He then went to Montreville; and finding him in better spirits than he had lately enjoyed, actually succeeded in persuading him, for that day at least, that no new prescription was necessary, and that he could continue to use the old one without the inspection of a surgeon.
Laura's mind was much relieved by her having settled this affair to her wish; and when the doctor was gone, she sat down cheerfully to her drawing. Her meeting with Hargrave had lightened her heart of a load which had long weighed upon it more heavily than she was willing to allow, and, spite of poverty, she was cheerful.
"I have now only hunger and toil to endure," thought she, smiling as gaily as if hunger and toil had been trifles; "but light will be my labours, for by them I can in part pay back my debt of life to my dear kind father. I am no more forlorn and deserted, for he is come who is sunshine to Laura's soul. The cloud that darkened him has passed away, and he will brighten all my after life. Oh, fondly beloved! with thee I would have been content to tread the humblest path; but if we must climb the steeps, together we will court the breeze, together meet the storm. No time shall change the love I bear thee. Thy step, when feeble with age, shall still be music to Laura's ear. When the lustre of the melting eyes is quenched, when the auburn ringlet fades to silver, dearer shalt thou be to me than in all the pride of manly beauty. And when at last the dust shall cover us, one tree shall shelter our narrow beds, and the wind that fans the flowers upon thy grave, shall scatter their fallen leaves upon mine."
Casting these thoughts into the wild extempore measures which are familiar to the labourers of her native mountains,* Laura was singing them to one of the affecting melodies of her country, her sweet voice made more sweet by the magic of real tenderness, when the door opened, and Hargrave himself entered.
He came, resolved to exert all his influence, to urge every plea which the affection of Laura would allow him, in order to extort her consent to their immediate union; and he was too well convinced of his power to be very diffident of success. Laura ceased her song, in as much confusion as if her visitor had understood the language in which it was composed, or could have known himself to be the subject of if. He had been listening to its close, and now urged her to continue it, but was unable to prevail. He knew that she was particularly sensible to the charms of music. He had often witnessed the effect of her own pathetic voice upon her feelings, and he judged that no introduction could be more proper to a conference in which he intended to work upon her sensibility. He therefore begged her to sing a little plaintive air with which she had often drawn tears from his eyes. But Laura knew that, as her father was still in bed, she could not without rudeness avoid a long tete-a-tete with Hargrave, and therefore she did not choose to put her composure to any unnecessary test. She excused herself from complying with his request, but, glad to find any indifferent way of passing the time, she offered to sing, if he would allow her to choose her own song, and began a lively air, which she executed with all the vivacity that she could command. The style of it was quite at variance with Hargrave's present humour and design. He heard it with impatience, and scarcely thanking her, said, "Your spirits are high this morning, Miss Montreville."
"They are, indeed," replied Laura, gaily; "I hope you have no intention to make them otherwise."
"Certainly not; though they are little in unison with my own. The meditations of a restless, miserable night, have brought me to you."
"Is it the usual effect of a restless night to bring you abroad so early the next morning?" said Laura, anxious to avoid a trial of strength in a sentimental conference.
"I will be heard seriously," said Hargrave, colouring with anger, "and seriously, too, I must be answered."
"Nay," said Laura, "if you look so tremendous, I shall retreat without hearing you at all."
Hargrave, who instantly saw that he had not chosen the right road to victory, checked his rising choler. "Laura," said he, "you have yourself made me the victim of a passion ungovernable, irresistible; and it is cruel, it is ungenerous, in you to sport with my uneasiness."
"Do not give the poor passion such hard names," said Laura, smiling. "Perhaps you have never tried to resist or govern it."
"As soon might I govern the wind," cried Hargrave, vehemently, "as soon resist the fires of Heaven. And why attempt to govern it?"
"Because," answered Laura, "it is weak, it is sinful, to submit unresistingly to the bondage of an imperious passion."
"Would that you, too, would submit unresistingly to its bondage!" said Hargrave, delighted to have made her once more serious. "But if this passion is sinful," continued he, "my reformation rests with you alone. Put a period to my lingering trial. Consent to be mine, and hush all these tumults to rest."
"Take care how you furnish me with arguments against yourself," returned Laura, laughing. "Would it be my interest, think you, to lull all these transports to such profound repose?"
"Be serious, Laura, I implore you. Well do you know that my love can end only with my existence; but I should no longer be distracted with these tumultuous hopes and fears, if--"
"Oh!" cried Laura, interrupting him, "hope is too pleasing a companion for you to wish to part with that; and," added she, a smile and a blush contending upon her cheek, "I begin to believe that your fears are not very troublesome."
"Ah, Laura!" said Hargrave, sorrowfully, "you know not what you say. There are moments when I feel as if you were already lost to me; and the bare thought is distraction. Oh, if you have pity for real suffering," continued he, dropping on his knees, "save me from the dread of losing you; forget the hour of madness in which I offended you. Restore to me the time when you owned that I was dear to you. Be yet more generous, and give me immediate, unalienable right to your love."
"You forget, Colonel Hargrave," said Laura, again taking sanctuary in an appearance of coldness; "you forget that six months ago I fixed two years of rectitude as the test of your repentance, and that you were then satisfied with my decision."
"I would then have blessed you for any sentence that left me a hope, however distant; but now the time when I may claim your promise seems at such a hopeless distance. Oh, Laura, let me but prevail with you, and I will bind myself by the most solemn oaths to a life of unsullied purity!"
"No oaths," replied Laura with solemnity, "can strengthen the ties that already bind you to a life of purity. That you are of noble rank calls you to be an example to others; and the yet higher distinction of an immortal spirit bids you strive after virtues that may never meet the eye of man. Only convince me that such are the objects of your ambition, and I shall no longer fear to trust with you my improvement and my happiness."
As she spoke, unusual animation sparkled in her eyes, and tinged her delicate cheek with brighter colouring. "Lovely, lovely creature!" cried Hargrave, in transport, "give but thyself to these fond arms, and may Heaven forsake me if I strive not to make thee blest beyond the sweetest dreams of youthful fancy."
"Alas!" said Laura, "even your affection would fail to bless a heart conscious of acting wrong."
"Where is the wrong," said Hargrave, gathering hope from the relenting tenderness of her voice, "where is the wrong of yielding to the strongest impulse of nature; or, to speak in language more like your own, where is the guilt of submitting to an ordinance of Heaven's own appointment?"
"Why," replied Laura, "will you force me to say what seems unkind? Why compel me to remind you that marriage was never meant to sanction the unholy connection of those whose principles are discordant?"
"Beloved of my heart," said Hargrave, passionately kissing her hand, "take me to thyself, and mould me as thou wilt. I swear to thee, that not even thine own life shall be more pure, more innocent than mine. Blest in thy love, what meaner pleasure could allure me? Oh, yield then, and bind me for ever to virtue and to thee!"
Laura shook her head. "Ah, Hargrave!" said she with a heavy sigh, "before you can love and practise the purity which reaches the heart, far other loves must warm, far other motives inspire you!"
"No other love can ever have such power over me," said Hargrave with energy. "Be but thou and thy matchless beauty the prize, and every difficulty is light, every sacrifice trivial."
"In little more than a year," said Laura, "I shall perhaps ask some proofs of the influence you ascribe to me; but till then--"
"Long, long before that time," cried Hargrave, striking his forehead in agony, "you will be lost to me for ever;" and he paced the room in seeming despair.
Laura looked at him with a pity not unmixed with surprise. "Hear me for a moment," said she, with the soothing voice and gentle aspect which had always the mastery of Hargrave's feelings, and he was instantly at her side, listening with eagerness to every tone that she uttered, intent on every variation of her countenance.
"There are circumstances," she continued, her transparent cheek glowing with brighter beauty, tears in her downcast eyes trembling through the silken lashes--"there are circumstances that may change me, but time and absence are not of the number. Be but true to yourself, and you have nothing to fear. After this assurance, I trust it will give you little pain to hear, that, till the stipulated two years are ended, if we are to meet, it must not be without witnesses."
"Good Heavens! Laura, why this new, this intolerable restriction? What can induce you thus wilfully to torment me?"
"Because," answered the blushing Laura, with all her natural simplicity, "because I might not always be able to listen to reason and duty rather than to you."
"Oh that I could fill thee with a love that should for ever silence the cold voice of reason!" cried Hargrave, transported by her confession; and no longer master of himself, he would have clasped her in his arms. But Laura, to whose mind his caresses ever recalled a dark page in her story, recoiled as from pollution, the glow of ingenuous modesty giving place to the paleness of horror.
No words envenomed with the bitterest malice could have stung Hargrave to such phrensy as the look and the shudder with which Laura drew back from his embrace. His eyes flashed fire, his pale lips quivering with passion, he reproached her with perfidy and deceit; accused her of veiling her real aversion under the mask of prudence and principle; and execrated his own folly in submitting so long to be the sport of a cold-hearted, tyrannical, obdurate woman. Laura stood for some minutes gazing on him with calm compassion. But displeased at his groundless accusations, she disdained to soothe his rage. At last, weary of language which for the present expressed much more of hatred than of love, she quietly moved towards the door. "I see you can be very calm, madam," said Hargrave, stopping her; "and I can be as calm as yourself," added he, with a smile like a moonbeam on a thunder cloud, making the gloom more fearful.
"I hope you soon will be so," replied Laura coldly. "I am so now," said Hargrave, his voice half choked with the effort to suppress his passion. "I will but stay to take leave of your father, and then free you for ever from one so odious to you."
"That must be as you please, sir," said Laura, with spirit; "but for the present I must be excused from attending you." She then retired to her own chamber, which immediately adjoined to the painting-room; and with tears reflected on the faint prospect of happiness that remained for the wife of a man whose passions were so ungovernable. Even the ardour of his love, for which vanity would have found ready excuse in many a female breast, was to Laura subject of unfeigned regret, as excluding him from the dominion of better motives and from the pursuit of nobler ends.
Hargrave was no sooner left to himself than his fury began to evaporate. In a few minutes he was perfectly collected, and the first act of his returning reason was to upbraid himself with his treatment of Laura. "Is it to be wondered that she shrinks from me," said he, the tears of self-reproach rising to his eyes, "when I make her the sport of all my frantic passions? But she shall never again have cause to complain of me. Let but her love this once excuse me, and henceforth I will treat her with gentleness like her own."
There is no time in the life of man so tedious as that which passes between the resolution to repair a wrong, and the opportunity to make the reparation. Hargrave wondered whether Laura would return to conduct him to her father; feared that she would not--hoped that she would--thought he heard her footstep--listened--sighed--and tried to beguile the time by turning over her drawings.
Almost the first that met his eye was a sketch of features well known to him. He started, and turned pale. He sought for a name upon the reverse; there was none, and he again breathed more freely. "This must be accident," said he; "De Courcy is far from London--yet it is very like;" and he longed more than ever for Laura's appearance. He sought refuge from his impatience in a book which lay upon the table. It was the Pleasures of Hope, and marked in many parts of the margin with a pencil. One of the passages so marked was that which begins,
"Thy pencil traces on the lover's thought
Some cottage home, from towns and toil remote,
Where love and lore may claim alternate hours," &c.
And Hargrave surrendered himself to the pleasing dream that Laura had thought of him, while she approved the lines. "Her name, written by her own snowy fingers, may be here," said he, and he turned to the title-page, that he might press it, with a lover's folly, to his lips--the title-page was inscribed with the name of Montague De Courcy.
The glance of the basilisk was not more powerful. Motionless he gazed on the words, till all the fiends of jealousy taking possession of his soul, he furiously dashed the book upon the ground. "False, false syren--!" he cried, "is this the cause of all your coldness--your loathing?" And without any wish but to exclude her for ever from his sight, he rushed like a madman out of the house.
He darted forward, regardless of the snow that was falling on his uncovered head, till it suddenly occurred to him that he would not suffer her to triumph in the belief of having deceived him. "No," said he, "I will once more see that deceitful face; reproach her with her treachery; enjoy her confusion, and then spurn her from me for ever."
He returned precipitately to the house; and, flying up stairs, saw Laura, the traces of melancholy reflection on her countenance, waiting for admission at her father's door. "Madam," said he, in a voice scarcely articulate, "I must speak with you for a few minutes." "Not for a moment, sir," said Laura, laying her hand upon the lock." Yes, by Heaven, you shall hear me!" cried Hargrave; and rudely seizing her, he forced her into the painting-room, and bolted the door.
"Answer me," said he fiercely, "how came that book into your possession?" pointing to it as it still lay upon the floor. "Whence have you this infernal likeness? Speak!"
Laura looked at the drawing, then at the book, and at once understood the cause of her lover's phrensy. Sincere compassion filled her heart, yet she felt how unjust was the treatment which she received; and with calm dignity said, "I will answer all your questions, and then you will judge whether you have deserved that I should do so."
"Whom would not that face deceive?" said Hargrave, gnashing his teeth in agony. "Speak, sorceress--tell me, if you dare, that this is not the portrait of De Courcy--that he is not the lover for whom I am loathed and spurned!"
"That is the portrait of De Courcy," replied Laura, with the simple majesty of truth. "It is the sketch from which I finished a picture for his sister. That book, too, is his," and she stooped to lift it from the ground.
"Touch not the vile thing!" cried Hargrave, in a voice of thunder. With quiet self-possession, Laura continued, "Mr De Courcy's father was, as you know, the friend of mine. Mr De Courcy himself was, when an infant, known to my father; and they met, providentially met, when we had great need of a considerate friend. That friend Mr De Courcy was to us, and no selfish motive sullied his benevolence; for he is not, nor ever was, nor, I trust, ever will be, known to me as a lover!"
The voice of sober truth had its effect upon Hargrave, and he said, more composedly, "Will you then give me your word that De Courcy is not, nor ever will be, dear to you?"
"No!" answered Laura, "I will not say so, for he must be loved wherever his virtues are known; but I have no regard for him that should disquiet you. It is not such," continued she, struggling with the rising tears, "it is not such as would pardon outrage, and withstand neglect, and humble itself before unjust aspersion."
"Oh, Laura!" said Hargrave, at once convinced and softened, "I must believe you, or my heart will burst."
"I have a right to be believed," returned Laura, endeavouring to rally her spirits. "Now, then, release me, after convincing me that the passion of which you boast so much is consistent with the most insolent disrespect, the most unfounded suspicion." But Hargrave was again at her feet, exhausting every term of endearment, and breathing forth the most fervent petitions for forgiveness.
Tears, which she could no longer repress, now streamed down Laura's cheeks, while she said, "How could you suspect me of the baseness of pretending a regard which I did not feel, of confirming engagements from which my affections revolted?" Hargrave, half wild with the sight of her tears, bitterly reproached himself with his injustice; vowed that he believed her all perfection; that, with all a woman's tenderness, she possessed the truth and purity of angels; and that, could she this once pardon his extravagance, he would never more offend. But Laura, vexed and ashamed of her weakness, insisted on her release in a tone that would be obeyed, and Hargrave, too much humbled to be daring, unwillingly suffered her to retire.
In the faint hope of seeing her again, he waited till Montreville was ready to admit him; but Laura was not with her father, nor did she appear during the remainder of his visit. Desirous, to know in what light she had represented their affairs, in order that his statement might tally with hers, he again avoided the subject, resolving that next day he should be better prepared to enter upon it. With this view, he returned to Montreville's lodgings early in the next forenoon, hoping for an opportunity to consult with Laura before seeing her father. He was shown into the parlour, which was vacant. He waited long, but Laura came not. He sent a message to beg that she would admit him, and was answered that she was sorry it was not in her power. He desired the messenger to say that his business was important, but was told that Miss Montreville was particularly engaged. However impatient, he was obliged to submit. He again saw Montreville without entering upon the subject so near his heart; and left the house without obtaining even a glimpse of Laura.
The following day he was equally unsuccessful. He indeed saw Laura, but it was only in the presence of her father, and she gave him no opportunity of addressing her particularly. Finding that she adhered to the resolution she had expressed, of seeing him no more without witnesses, he wrote to her, warmly remonstrating against the barbarity of her determination, and beseeching her to depart from it, if only in a single instance. The billet received no answer, and Laura continued to act as before.
Fretted almost to fever, Hargrave filled whole pages with the description of his uneasiness, and complaints of the cruelty which caused it. In conclusion, he assured Laura that he could no longer refrain from confiding his situation to her father; and entreated to see her, were it only to learn in what terms she would permit him to mention their engagement. This letter was rather more successful than the former; for though Laura made no reply to the first part, she answered the close by a few cautious lines, leaving Hargrave, excepting in one point, at full liberty as to his communications with her father.
Thus authorised, he seized the first opportunity of conversing with Montreville. He informed him that he had reason to believe himself not indifferent to Laura; but that, some of his little irregularities coming to her knowledge, she had sentenced him to a probation which was yet to continue for above a year. Though Hargrave guarded his words so as to avoid direct falsehood, the conscious crimson rose to his face as he uttered this subterfuge. But he took instant refuge in the idea that he had no choice left; and that, if there was any blame, it in fact belonged to Laura, for forcing him to use concealment. He did yet more. He erected his head, and planted his foot more firmly, as he thought, that what he dared to do he dared to justify, were he not proud to yield to the commands of love, and humanely inclined to spare the feelings of a sick man. He proceeded to assure Montreville, that though he must plead guilty to a few youthful indiscretions, Laura might rely upon his constancy and fidelity. Finally, addressing himself to what he conceived to be the predominant failing of age, he offered to leave the grand affair of settlements to Montreville's own decision; demanding only in return, that the father would use his interest, or even his authority, if necessary, to obtain his daughter's consent to an immediate union.
Montreville answered, that he had long desisted from the use of authority with Laura, but that his influence was at the colonel's service; and he added, with a smile, that he believed neither would he very necessary.
In consequence of this promise, Montreville sought an opportunity of conversing on this subject with his daughter; but she showed such extreme reluctance to enter upon it, and avoided it with such sedulous care, that he could not immediately execute his design. He observed, too, that she looked ill, that she was pale and languid. Though she would not confess any ailment, he could not help fearing that all was not right; and he waited the appearance of recovered strength, ere he should enter on a topic which was never heard by her without strong emotion. But Laura looked daily more wretched. Her complexion became wan, her eyes sunk, and her lips colourless.
Hargrave observed the change, and, half persuaded that it was the effect of his own capricious behaviour at their last interview, he became more anxious for a private conference, in which his tenderness might soothe her to forgetfulness of his errors. When she was quitting the room, he often followed her to the door, and entreated to be beard for a single minute. But the utmost he could obtain was a determined "I cannot," or a hasty "I dare not," and in an instant she had vanished.
Indeed, watching and abstinence, though the chief, were not the only causes of Laura's sickly aspect. Hargrave's violence had furnished her with new and painful subjects of meditation. While yet she thought him all perfection, he had often confessed to her the warmth of his temper, with a candour which convinced her (anxious as she was to be so convinced) that he was conscious of his natural tendency, and vigilantly guarded it from excess; consequently, that to the energy of the passionate he united the justice of the cool. She had never witnessed any instance of his violence; for since their first acquaintance, she had herself, at least while she was present, been his only passion. All things unconnected with it were trivial in his estimation; and till the hour which had roused her caution, she had unconsciously soothed this tyrant of his soul with perpetual incense, by proofs of her tenderness, which, though unobserved by others, were not lost upon the vanity of Hargrave. Successful love shedding a placid gentleness upon his really polished manners, he had, without intention to deceive, completely misled Laura's judgment of his character. Now he had turned her eyes from the vision, and compelled her to look upon the reality; and with many a bitter tear she lamented that ever she suffered her peace to depend upon an union which, even if accomplished, promised to compensate transient rapture with abiding disquiet.
But still fondly attached, Laura took pleasure in persuading herself that a mere defect of temper was not such a fault as entitled her to withdraw her promise; and having made this concession, she soon proceeded to convince herself, that Hargrave's love would make ample amends for occasional suffering, however severe. Still she assured herself that if, at the stipulated time, he produced not proofs of real improvement, much more if that period were stained with actual vice, she would, whatever it might cost her, see him no more. She determined to let nothing more shorten his probation, nor to be satisfied without the strictest scrutiny into the manner in which it had been spent.
Aware of the difficulty of withstanding the imploring voice, the pleading eyes of Hargrave, she would not venture into temptation for the mere chance of escape; and adhered to her resolution of affording him no opportunity to practise on her sensibility. Nor was this a slight exercise of self-denial, for no earthly pleasure could bring such joy to Laura's heart as the assurance, however oft repeated, that she was beloved. Yet, day after day, she withstood his wishes and her own; and generally spent the time of his visits in drawing.
Meanwhile, her delicate face and slender form gave daily greater indications of malady. Montreville, extremely alarmed, insisted upon sending for medical advice; but Laura, with a vehemence most unusual to her, opposed this design, telling him, that if he persisted in it, vexation would cause the reality of the illness which at present was merely imaginary.
The captain was however the only member of the family who did not conjecture the true cause of Laura's decay. The servant who attended her reported to her mistress, that the slender repast was always presented, untouched by Laura, to her father; that her drink was only water, her fare coarse and scanty; and that often a few' morsels of dry bread were the only sustenance of the day. Mrs Stubbs, who entertained a suitable contempt for poverty, was no sooner informed of these circumstances, than she recollected with indignation the awe with which Laura had involuntarily inspired her, and determined to withdraw part of her misplaced respect. But Laura had an air of command, a quiet majesty of demeanour, that seemed destined to distance vulgar impertinence; and Mrs Stubbs was compelled to continue her unwilling reverence. Determined, however, that though her pride might suffer, her interest should not, she dropped such hints as induced Laura to offer the payment of the lodgings a week in advance, an offer which was immediately accepted. In spite of Laura's utmost diligence, this arrangement left her almost penniless. She was obliged, in that inclement season, to give up even the comfort of a fire, and more than once passed the whole night in labouring to supply the wants of the following day.
In the meantime, Hargrave continued to pay his daily visits, and Laura to frustrate all his attempts to speak with her apart. His patience was entirely exhausted, he urged Montreville to the performance of his promise, and Montreville often approached the subject with his daughter; but she either evaded, or begged with such pathetic earnestness to be spared a contest which she was unable to bear, that, when he looked on the sickly delicacy of her frame, he had not courage to persecute her further. Convinced, however, that Laura's affections were completely engaged, he became daily more anxious that she should not sacrifice them to what he considered as mistaken prudence; especially since Hargrave had dropped a hint, which, though not so intended, had appeared to Montreville to import, that his addresses, if rejected in the present instance, would not be renewed at the distant date to which Laura chose to postpone them.
The father's constant anxiety for the health and happiness of his child powerfully affected both his strength and spirits, and he was soon more languid and feeble than ever. His imagination, too, betrayed increased symptoms of its former disease, and he became more persuaded that he was dying. The selfishness of a feeble mind attended his ailments, and he grew less tender of his daughter's feelings, less fearful to wound her sensibility. To hints of his apprehensions for his own life, succeeded direct intimations of his conviction that his end was approaching; and Laura listened, with every gradation of terror, to prophetic forebodings of the solitude, want, and temptation, to which she must soon be abandoned.
Pressed by Hargrave's importunities, and weary of waiting for a voluntary change in Laura's conduct towards her lover, Montreville at last resolved that he would force the subject which she was so anxious to shun. For this purpose, detaining her one morning in his apartment, he entered on a melancholy description of the perils which await unprotected youth and beauty; and explicitly declared his conviction, that to these perils he must soon leave his child. Laura endeavoured, as she was wont, to brighten his dark imagination, and to revive his fainting hope. But Montreville would now neither suffer her to enliven his prospects, nor to divert him from the contemplation of them. He persisted in giving way to his dismal anticipations, till, spite of her efforts, Laura's spirits failed her, and she could scarcely refrain from shedding tears.
Montreville saw that she was affected; and fondly putting his arm round her, continued, "Yet still, my sweet Laura, you, who have been the pride of my life, you can soften to me the bitterness of death. Let me but commit you to the affection of the man whom I know that you prefer, and my fears and wishes shall linger no more in this nether world."
"Oh, sir," said Laura, "I beseech, I implore you to spare me on this subject." "No!" answered Montreville; "I have been silent too long. I have too long endangered your happiness, in the dread of giving you transient pain. I must recur to--"
"My dear father," interrupted Laura, "I have already spoken to you on this subject--spoken to you with a freedom which I know not where I found courage to assume. I can only repeat the same sentiments; and indeed, unless you were yourself in my situation, you cannot imagine with what pain I repeat them."
"I would willingly respect your delicacy," said Montreville, "but this is no time for frivolous scruples. I must soon leave thee, child of my affections! My eyes must watch over thee no more; my ear must be closed to the voice of thy complaining. Oh, then, give me the comfort to know that other love will console, other arms protect thee."
"Long, long," cried Laura, clasping his neck, "be your affection my joy--long be your arms my shelter. But, alas! what love could console me under the sense of acting wrong--what could protect me from an avenging conscience?"
"Laura, you carry your scruples too far. When I look on these wan cheeks and lustreless eyes, you cannot conceal from me that you are sacrificing to these scruples your own peace, as well as that of others."
"Ah, sir!" said Laura, who from mere despair of escape gathered courage to pursue the subject, "what peace can I hope to find in a connection which reason and religion alike condemn?"
"That these have from childhood been your guides, has ever been my joy and my pride," returned Montreville; "but in this instance you forge shackles for yourself, and then call them the restraints of reason and religion. It were absurd to argue on the unreasonableness of preferring wealth and title, with the man of your choice, to a solitary struggle with poverty, or a humbling dependence upon strangers. And how, my dear girl, can any precept of religion be tortured into a restriction on the freedom of your choice?"
"Pardon me, sir; the law which I endeavour to make my guide is here full and explicit. In express terms it leaves me free to marry whom I will, but with this grand reservation, that I marry 'only in the Lord'--'that I marry no one who is not in heart and life a Christian;' for it cannot be thought that this limitation refers only to a careless assent to the truth of the gospel, shedding no purifying influence on the heart and life. And can I hope for happiness in a wilful defiance of this restriction?"
"If I could doubt," said Montreville, avoiding a reply to what was unanswerable--"if I could doubt that an union with Colonel Hargrave would conduce to your happiness, never should I thus urge you. But I have no reason to believe that his religious principles are unsound, though the follies incident to his sex, and the frailty of human nature, may have prevailed against him."
"My dear sir," cried Laura impatiently, "how can you employ such qualifying language to express what my soul sickens at. How can my father urge his child to join to pollution this temple (and she laid her hand emphatically on her breast) which my great Master has offered to hallow as his own abode? No! the express command of Heaven forbids the sacrilege, for I cannot suppose that when man was forbidden to degrade himself by an union with vileness, the precept was meant to exclude the sex whose feebler passions afford less plea for yielding to their power."
"Whither does this enthusiasm hurry you?" said Montreville, in displeasure. "Surely you will not call your marriage with Colonel Hargrave an union with vileness."
"Yes!" returned Laura, all the glow of virtuous animation fading to the paleness of anguish; "if his vices make him vile, I must call it so."
"Your language is as much too free, Laura, as your notions are too rigid. Is it dutiful, think you, to use such expressions in regard to a connection which your father approves? Will you call it virtue to sport with your own happiness, with the peace of a heart that doats upon you, with the comfort of your dying parent?"
"Oh, my father!" cried Laura, sinking on her knees, "my spirit is already bowed to the earth--do not crush it with your displeasure. Rather support my feeble resolution, lest, knowing the right, I should not have power to choose it."
"My heart's treasure," said Montreville, kissing the tears from her eyes, "short is ever my displeasure with thee; for I know that though inexperience may mislead thy judgment, no pleasure can bribe, no fear betray, thy inflexible rectitude. Go on, then; convince me, if thou canst, that thou art in the right to choose thy portion amidst self-denial, and obscurity, and dependence."
"Would that I were able to convince you," returned Laura, "and then you would no longer add to the difficulties of this fearful struggle. Tell me then, were Colonel Hargrave your son, and were I what I cannot name, could any passion excuse, any circumstances induce you to sanction the connection for which you now plead?"
"My dear love," said Montreville, "the cases are widely different. The world's opinion affixes just disgrace to the vices in your sex, which in ours it views with more indulgent eyes."
"But I," returned Laura, "when I took upon me the honoured name of Christian, by that very act became bound that the opinion of the world should not regulate my principles, nor its customs guide my practice. Perhaps even the worst of my sex might plead that the voice of a tempter lured them to perdition; but what tongue can speak the vileness of that tempter? Could I promise to obey him who wilfully leads others to their ruin? Could I honour him who deceives the heart that trusteth in him? Could I love him who can look upon a fellow-creature--once the image of the highest, now humbled below the brutes that perish--upon the heir of immortality, immortal only to misery, and who can, unmoved, unpitying, seek in the fallen wretch a minister of pleasure? Love!" continued Laura, forgetting in the deformity of the hideous image that it was capable of individual application, "words cannot express the energy of my abhorrence!"
"Were Hargrave such, or to continue such," said Montreville--
"Hargrave!" cried Laura, almost with a shriek, "oh, God forbid! And yet--" She covered her face with her hands, and cold drops stood on her forehead, as she remembered how just cause she had to dread that the portrait might be his.
"Hargrave," continued Montreville, "is not an abandoned profligate, though he may not have escaped the follies usual to men of his rank; and he has promise'd, if you will be favourable to him, to live henceforward in irreproachable purity. Heaven forgives the sins that are forsaken, and will you be less lenient?""Joyfully will I forgive," replied Laura, "when I am assured that they are indeed abhorred and forsaken--"
"They are already forsaken," said Montreville; "it rests with you to confirm Hargrave in the right, by consenting to his wishes."
"I ask but the conviction which time alone can bring," said Laura, "and then--"
"And how will you bear it, Laura, if, weary of your perverse delays, Hargrave should relinquish his suit? How would you bear to see the affections you have trifled with transferred to another?"
"Better, far better," answered Laura, "than to watch the deepening of those shades of iniquity, that close at last into outer darkness--better than to see each guilty day advance and seal our eternal separation. To lose his affection," continued she with a sickly smile, "I would bear as I strive to bear my other burdens; and should they at last prove too heavy for me, they can but weigh me to the earth, where they and I must soon rest together."
"Talk not so, beloved child," said Montreville; "a long life is before you. All the joys that ambition, all the joys that love can offer, are within your power. A father invites, implores, I will not say commands, you to accept them. The man of your choice, to whom the proudest might aspire, whom the coldest of your sex might love, entreats you to confirm him in the ways of virtue. Consent, then, to this union, on which my heart is set, while yet it can be hallowed by the blessing of your dying father."
"Oh, take pity on me!" Laura would have said, and "league not with my weak heart to betray me;" but convulsive sobs were all that she could utter.
"You consent, then," said Montreville, choosing so to interpret her silence; "you have yielded to my entreaties, and made me the happiest of fathers."
"No! no!" cried Laura, tossing her arms distractedly, "I will do right, though my heart should break. No; my father, my dear honoured father, for whom I would lay down my life, not even your entreaties shall prevail."
"Ungrateful child!" said Montreville; "what could you have pleaded for, that your father would have refused--your father, whom anxiety for your welfare has brought to the gates of the grave, whose last feeling shall be love to you, whose last words shall bless you?"
"Oh, most merciful, most gracious!" cried Laura, clasping her hands, and raising her eyes in resigned anguish, "wilt thou suffer me to be tempted above what I am able to bear! Oh, my dear father, if you have pity for misery unutterable, misery that cannot know relief, spare me now, and suffer me to think, if to think be yet possible."
"Hear me but for one moment more," said Montreville, who from the violence of her emotion gathered hopes of success.
"Oh no! no!" cried Laura; "I must leave you while yet I have the power to do right." And darting from his presence, she shut herself into her chamber. There, falling on her knees, she mingled bitter expressions of anguish with fervent prayers for support, and piteous appeals for mercy.
Becoming by degrees more composed, she endeavoured to fortify her resolution by every argument of reason and religion which had formerly guided her determination. She turned to the passages of scripture which forbid the unequal yoke with the believer; convinced that the prohibition applies no less to those whose lives are unchristian than to those whose faith is unsound. She asked herself whether she was able to support those trials (the severest of all earthly ones) which the wife of a libertine must undergo; and whether, in temptations which she voluntarily sought, and sorrows which she of choice encountered, she should be entitled to expect the divine support. "Holy Father!" she cried, "what peace can enter where thy blessing is withheld?--and shall I dare to mock thee with a petition for that blessing on an union which thou hast forbidden? May I not rather fear that this deliberate premeditated guilt may be the first step in a race of iniquity? May I not dread to share in the awful sentence of those who are joined to their idols, and be 'let alone' to wander in the way that leadeth to destruction?"
Yet, as oft as her father's entreaties rose to her recollection, joined with the image of Hargrave--of Hargrave beseeching, of Hargrave impassioned--Laura's resolution faltered; and half desirous to deceive herself, she almost doubted of the virtue of that firmness that could withstand a parent's wish. But Laura was habitually suspicious of every opinion that favoured her inclinations, habitually aware of the deceitfulness of her own heart; and she did not, unquestioned, harbour for a moment the insidious thought that flattered her strongest wishes. "And had my father commanded me to marry where I was averse," said she, "would I then have hesitated? Would my father's command have prevailed on me then to undertake duties which I was unlikely to perform? No: there I would have resisted. There, authority greater than a father's would have empowered me to resist; and I know that I should have resisted even unto death. And shall mere inclination give more firmness than a sense of duty! Yet, oh, dear father, think me not unmindful of all your love, or forgetful of a debt that began with my being. For your sake cold and hunger, shall be light to me, for you poverty and toil shall be pleasing. But what solitary sorrow could equal the pang with which I should blush before my children for the vices of their father! What is the wasting of famine to the mortal anguish of watching the declining love, the transferred desires, the growing depravity of my husband!"
In thoughts and struggles like these, Laura passed the day alone. Montreville, though disappointed at his ill success with his daughter, was not without hope that a lover's prayers might prevail where a father's were ineffectual; and believing that the season of Laura's emotion was a favourable one for the attempt, he was anxious for the daily visit of Hargrave.
But for the first time since his meeting with Laura, Hargrave did not appear. In her present frame, Laura felt his absence almost a relief; but Montreville was uneasy and half alarmed. It was late in the evening when a violent knocking at the house door startled Montreville, who was alone in his apartment; and the next minute, without being announced, Hargrave burst into the room. His hair was dishevelled, his dress neglected, and his eyes had a wildness which Montreville had never before seen in them. Abruptly grasping Montreville's hand, he said, in the voice of one struggling for composure, "Have you performed your promise--have you spoken with Laura!"
"I have," answered Montreville; "and have urged her, till, had you seen her, you would yourself have owned that I went too far. But you look--"
"Has she consented," interrupted Hargrave; "will she give herself to me?"
Montreville shook his head. "Her affections are wholly yours," said he; "you may yourself be more successful; I fervently wish that you may. But why this strange emotion? What has happened?"
"Nothing, nothing," said Hargrave; "ask me no questions; but let me speak instantly with Laura."
"You shall see her," returned Montreville, opening the door, and calling Laura; "only I beseech you to command yourself, for my poor child is already half distracted."
"She is the fitter to converse with me," said Hargrave, with a ghastly smile, "for I am upon the very verge of madness."
Laura came at her father's summons; but when she saw Hargrave, the colour faded from her face, an universal tremor seized her, she stopped, and leaned on the door for support. "Colonel Hargrave wishes to speak with you alone," said Montreville; "go with him to the parlour."
"I cannot," answered Laura, in words scarcely audible; "this night I cannot."
"I command you to go," said the father, in a tone which he had seldom employed, and Laura instantly prepared to go. "Surely, surely," said she, "Heaven will not leave me to my own weakness, whilst I act in obedience to you."
Perceiving that she trembled violently, Hargrave offered her the support of his circling arm; but Laura instantly disengaged herself. "Will you not lean on me, dearest Laura?" said he; "perhaps it is for the last time."
"I hope," answered Laura, endeavouring to exert her spirit, "it will be the last time that you will avail yourself of my father's authority to constrain me."
"Spare your reproaches, Laura," said Hargrave, "for I am desperate. All that I desire on earth, my life itself, depends upon this hour."
They entered the parlour, and Laura, sinking into a seat, covered her eyes with her hand, and strove to prepare for answering this new call upon her firmness.
Hargrave stood silent for some moments. Fain would he have framed a resistless petition; for the events of that day had hastened the unravelling of a tale which, once known to Laura, would, he knew, make all his petitions vain. But his impatient spirit could not wait to conciliate; and, seizing her hand, he said, with breathless eagerness, "Laura, you once said that you loved me, and I believed you. Now to the proof; and if that fail--but I will not distract myself with the thought. You have allowed me a distant hope. Recal your sentence of delay. Circumstances which you cannot, must not know, leave you but one alternative. Be mine now, or you are for ever lost to me."
Astonished at his words, alarmed by the ill-suppressed vehemence of his manner, Laura tried to read his altered countenance, and feared she knew not what. "Tell me what you mean?" said she. "What mean these strange words, these wild looks? Why have you come at this late hour?"
"Ask me nothing," cried Hargrave, "but decide. Speak. Will you be mine--now--to-morrowówithin a few hours. Soon, very soon, it will be no longer possible for you to choose."
A hectic of resentment kindled in Laura's cheek at the threat of desertion which she imagined to lurk beneath the words of Hargrave. "You have," said she, "I know not how, extended my conditional promise to receive you as a friend far beyond what the terms of it could warrant. In making even such an engagement, perhaps I condescended too far. But, admitting it in your own sense, what right have you to suppose that I am to be weakly terrified into renouncing a resolution formed on the best grounds?"
"I have no right to expect it," said Hargrave, in a voice of misery. "I came to you in desperation. I cannot, will not, survive the loss of you; and if I prevail not now, you must be lost to me."
"What means this strange, this presuming haste?" said Laura. "Why do you seem thus wretched?"
"I am, indeed, most wretched. Oh, Laura, thus on my knees I conjure you to have pity on me; or if it will cost you a pang to lose me, have pity on yourself. And if thy love be too feeble to bend thy stubborn will, let a father's wishes, a father's prayers, come to its aid."
"Oh, Hargrave!" cried Laura, bursting into tears, "how have I deserved that you should lay on me this heavy load--that "you should force me to resist the entreaties of my father?
"Do not--oh, do not resist them. Let a father's prayers--let the pleadings of a wretch whose reason, whose life depends upon you, prevail to move you."
"Nothing shall move me," said Laura, with the firmness of despair, "for I am used to misery, and will bear it."
"And will you bear it too, if, driven from virtuous love, from domestic joy, I turn to the bought smile of harlots, forget you in the haunts of riot, or in the grave of a suicide?
"Oh, for mercy!" cried the terrified Laura, "talk not so dreadfully. Be patient, I implore you. Fear not to lose me. Be but virtuous, and no power of man shall wrest me from you. In poverty, in sickness, in disgrace itself, I will cleave to you."
"Oh, I believe it!" said Hargrave, moved even to woman's weakness, "for thou art an angel. But wilt thou cleave to me in--"
"In what?" said Laura.
"Ask me nothing, but yield to my earnest entreaty. Save me from the horrors of losing you; and may Heaven forsake me if ever again I give you cause to repent of your pity."
Softened by his imploring looks and gestures, overpowered by his vehemence, harassed beyond her strength, Laura seemed almost expiring. But the upright spirit shared not the weakness of its frail abode. "Cease to importune me," said she; "everlasting were my cause of repentance, should I wilfully do wrong. You may break my heart, it is already broken, but my resolution is immoveable."
Fire flashed from the eyes of Hargrave, as, starting from her feet, he cried, in a voice of phrensy, "Ungrateful woman, you have never loved me ! You love nothing but the fancied virtue to which I am sacrificed. But tremble, obdurate, lest I dash from me this hated life, and my perdition be on your soul?"
"Oh no!" cried Laura, in an agony of terror, "I will pray for you, pity you--what shall I say?--love you as never man was loved. Would that it were possible to do more!"
"Speak then your final rejection," said Hargrave, grasping her hand with convulsive energy," and abide by the consequence."
"I must not fear consequences," said Laura, trembling in every limb. "They are in the hands of Heaven."
"Then be this first fond parting kiss our last!" cried Hargrave, and franticly straining her to his breast, he rushed out of the room.
Surprise, confusion, a thousand various feelings, kept Laura for a while motionless; till, Hargrave's parting words ringing in her ear, a dreadful apprehension took possession of her mind. Starting from her seat, and following him with her arms as if she could still have detained him, "Oh, Hargrave, what mean you?" she cried. But Hargrave was already beyond the reach of her voice; and sinking to the ground, the wretched Laura found refuge from her misery in long and deep insensibility.
In the attitude in which she had fallen, her lily arms extended on the ground, her death-like cheek resting upon one of them, she was found by a servant who accidentally entered the room, and whose cries soon assembled the family. Montreville, alarmed, hastened down stairs, and came in just as the maid, with the assistance of the landlady, was raising Laura to all appearance dead.
"Merciful Heaven!" he exclaimed, "what is this?" The unfeeling landlady immediately expressed her opinion that Miss Montreville had died of famine, declaring that she had long feared as much. The horror-struck father had scarcely power to ask her meaning. "Oh, sir!" said the maid, sobbing aloud, "I fear it is but too true; for she cared not for herself, so you were but well--for she was the sweetest lady that ever was born; and many a long night has she sat up toiling when the poorest creature was asleep--for she never cared for herself."
The whole truth flashed at once upon Montreville, and all the storm, from which his dutiful child so well had sheltered him, burst upon him in a moment. "Oh, Laura," he cried, clasping her lifeless form, "my only comfort--my good, my gentle, my blameless child--hast thou nourished thy father with thy life! Oh, why didst thou not let me die?" Then laying his cheek to hers, "Oh, she is cold--cold as clay," he cried, and the father wrung his hands, and sobbed like an infant.
Suddenly he ceased his lamentation; and pressing his hands on his breast, uttered a deep groan, and sank down by the side of his senseless child. His alarm and agitation burst again the blood-vessel, which before had been slightly healed, and he was conveyed to bed without hopes of life. A surgeon was immediately found, but he administered his prescription without expecting its success; and, departing, left the dying Montreville to the care of the landlady.
The tender-hearted Fanny remained with Laura, and at last succeeded in restoring her to animation. She then persuaded her to swallow a little wine, and endeavoured to prevail upon her to retire to bed. But Laura refused. "No, my kind good girl," said she, laying her arm gratefully on Fanny's shoulder; "I must see my father before I sleep. I have thwarted his will to-day, and will not sleep without his blessing." Fanny then besought her so earnestly not to go to the captain's chamber, that Laura, filled as every thought was with Hargrave, took alarm, and would not be detained. The girl, dreading the consequences of the shock that awaited her, threw her arms round her to prevent her departure. "Let me go," cried Laura, struggling with her; "he is ill, I am sure he is ill, or he would have come to watch and comfort his wretched child."
Fanny, then, with all the gentleness in her power, informed Laura, that Montreville, alarmed by the sight of her fainting, had been suddenly taken ill. Laura, in terror which effaced the remembrance of all her former anguish, scarcely suffered her attendant to finish her relation; but broke from her, and hurried, as fast as her tottering limbs would bear her, to her father's chamber.
Softly, on tiptoe, she stole to his bedside. His eyes were closed, and death seemed already stamped on every feature. Laura shuddered convulsively, and shrunk back in horror. But the dread of scaring the spirit from its frail tenement suppressed the cry that was rising to her lips. Trembling, she laid her hand upon his. He looked up, and a gleam of joy brightened in his dying eyes as they rested on his daughter. "Laura, my beloved," said he, drawing her gently towards him, "thou hast been the joy of my life. I thank God thou art spared to comfort me in death."
Laura tried to speak the words of hope, but the sounds died upon her lips.
After a pause of dread silence, Montreville said, "This is the hour when thy father was wont to bless thee. Come, and I will bless thee still."
The weeping Laura sank upon her knees, and Montreville laid one hand upon her head, while she still held the other, as if wishing to detain him. "My best, my last blessing be upon thee, child of my heart," said he. "The everlasting arms be around thee, when mine can embrace thee no more. The Father of the fatherless be a parent to thee; support thee in sorrow; crown thy youth with joy--thy grey hairs with honour; and when thou art summoned to thy kindred angels, may thy heart throb its last on some breast kind and noble as thine own."
Exhausted by the effort which he had made, Montreville sank back on his pillow; and Laura, in agony of supplication, besought Heaven to spare him to her. "Father of mercies!" she inwardly ejaculated, "if it be possible, save me, oh save me, from this fearful stroke, or take me in pity from this desolate wilderness to the rest of thy chosen!"
The dead of night came on, and all but the wretched Laura was still. Montreville breathed softly. Laura thought he slept, and stifled even her sighs, lest they should awake him. In the stillness of the dead, but in agony of suspense that baffles description, she continued to kneel by his bedside, and to return his relaxing grasp, till she felt a gentle pressure of her hand, and looked up to interpret the gesture. It was the last expression of a father's love. Montreville was gone!
* See Jamieson's Popular ballards, vol. ii. p. 553.
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.