Norwood had appeared to Laura to be little more than a mile distant from Walbourne. The swellings of the ground had deceived her. It was more than twice that distance. As the carriage approached Norwood, Laura perceived traces of a noble park, changed from its former purpose to one more useful, though less magnificent. The corn fields were intersected by venerable avenues, and studded with gigantic elm and oak. Through one of these avenues, straight as a dart, and darkened by the woods that closed over it, the party drove up to a massive gate. In the door of a turreted lodge overgrown with hornbeam, stood the grey-haired porter, waiting their arrival. He threw open the gate with one hand, and respectfully stood with his hat in the other, while De Courcy checked his horse to inquire for the old man's family.
The avenue now quitted its formality, to wind along the bank of a rapid stream, till the woods suddenly opening to the right, discovered the lawn, green as an emerald, and kept with a neatness truly English. Flowering shrubs were scattered over it, and here and there a lofty forest-tree threw its quivering shadow; while tall spruce-firs, their branches descending to the ground, formed a contrast to its verdure. At the extremity of this lawn stood Norwood, a large castellated building; and while Laura looked at it, she imagined the interior dull with baronial magnificence.
The carriage drove up to the door, and Laura could not help smiling at the cordial welcome that seemed to await De Courcy. The great Newfoundland dog that lay upon the steps leapt upon him, and expressed his joy by a hundred clumsy gambols; while John, the old servant whom she had seen in Audley Street, busied himself about his master, with an officiousness that evidently came from the heart, leaving Lady Pelham's attendants to wait upon their mistress and her companions. De Courcy, giving his hand to Lady Pelham, conducted her, followed by Harriet and Laura, into the room where Mrs De Courcy was sitting; and the next moment his heart throbbed with pleasure, while he saw the beloved of his soul locked in his mother's arms.
When the first joy of the meeting was over, Laura had leisure to observe the interior of the mansion, which differed not less from her expectations than from any thing she had before seen. Though it was equally remote from the humble simplicity of her cottage of Glenalbert, and the gaudiness of Lady Pelham's more modern abode, she saw nothing of the gloomy splendour which she had fancied; every thing breathed comfort and repose. The furniture, though not without magnificence, was unadorned and substantial, grandeur holding the second place to usefulness. The marble hall through which she had entered, was almost covered with matting. In the spacious room in which she was sitting, the little Turkey carpet of our forefathers had given place to one of homelier grain but far larger dimensions. The apartment was liberally stored with couches, footstools, and elbow chairs. A harp occupied one window, a piano-forte stood near it; many books were scattered about, in bindings which showed they were not meant for ornament; and in the chimney blazed a fire which would have done credit to the days of Elizabeth.
The dinner hour was four; and punctual to a moment the dinner appeared, plain, neat, and substantial. It was served without tumult, partaken of with appetite, and enlivened by general hilarity and good will. When the ladies rose from table, Harriet offered to conduct Laura through the other apartments, which exactly corresponded with those she had seen. The library was spacious; and besides an excellent collection of books, contained globes, astronomical instruments, and cabinets of minerals and coins. A smaller room which opened from it, used as De Courcy's laboratory, was filled with chemical and mechanical apparatus. Comfort, neatness, and peace, reigned every where, and Norwood seemed a fit retreat for literary leisure and easy hospitality.
Between music, work, and conversation, the evening passed cheerfully away; nor did Laura mark its flight till the great house-clock struck nine. The conversation suddenly paused; Harriet laid aside her work; Mrs De Courcy's countenance assumed a pleasing seriousness; and Montague, quitting his place by Laura's side, seated himself in a patriarchal-looking chair, at the upper end of the room. Presently John entered, followed by all the domestics of the family. He placed before his master a reading desk and a large bible, and then sat down at a distance with his fellow servants.
With a manner serious and earnest, as one impressed with a just sense of their importance, Montague read a portion of the Holy Scriptures. He closed the volume; and all present sank upon their knees. In plain but solemn language, he offered a petition in the name of all, that all might be endowed with the graces of the Christian spirit. In the name of all, he confessed that they were unworthy of the blessings they implored. In the name of all, he gave thanks for the means of improvement, and for the hopes of glory. He next, more particularly, besought a blessing on the circumstances of their several conditions. Among the joyous faces of this happy household, Laura had observed one alone clouded with sorrow. It was that of a young modest-looking girl in deep mourning, whose audible sobs attested that she was the subject of a prayer which commended an orphan to the Father of the fatherless. The worship was closed; the servants withdrew. A silence of a few moments ensued; and Laura could not help gazing with delight not unmingled with awe, on the traces of serene benevolence and manly piety which lingered on the countenance of De Courcy.
"Happy Harriet," said she, when she was alone with her friend, "would that I had been your sister!" Harriet laughed. "You need not laugh, my dear," continued Laura, with most unembarrassed simplicity; "I did not mean your brother's wife, but his sister, and Mrs De Courcy's daughter."
Though Miss De Courcy was much less in Montague's confidence than her mother, she was not ignorant of his preference for Laura; but Mrs De Courcy had so strongly cautioned her against even hinting this preference to the object of it, that though she but half guessed the reasons of her mother's injunctions, she was afraid to disobey. That Laura was even acquainted with Hargrave was unknown to Harriet; for De Courcy was almost as tenacious of Laura's secret as she herself was, and would as soon have thought of giving up his own heart to the frolics of a kitten, as of exposing that of Laura to the badinage of his sister. This kind precaution left Laura perfectly at her ease with Harriet, an ease which would quickly have vanished, had she known her to be acquainted with her humiliating story.
The young ladies had rambled over half the grounds of Norwood before the family had assembled at a cheerful breakfast; and as soon as it was ended, Harriet proposed that Laura should assist her with her advice in composing a water-colour drawing from one of her own pictures. "We'll leave Lady Pelham and my mother in possession of the drawing-room," said she, "for the pictures all hang in the library. I wanted them put up in the sitting-room, but Montague would have them where they are--and so he carried his point, for mamma humours him in every thing." "Perhaps," returned Laura, "Mrs De Courcy thinks he has some right to dictate in his own house." "Well, that's true," cried Harriet. "I protest I had forgotten that this house was not my mother's."
The picture which Miss De Courcy had fixed upon was that of Leonidas, and Laura would far rather have been excused from interference; yet, as she could not with propriety escape, nothing remained but to summon her composure, and to study anew this resemblance of her unworthy lover. She took her work, and began quietly to superintend Harriet's progress. Their employments did not interrupt conversation; and though Laura's was at first a little embarrassed, she soon recovered her ease. "Do touch the outline of the mouth for me," said Harriet; "I can't hit the resemblance at all." Laura excused herself, saying, that since her fever, her hand had been unsteady. "Oh, here's Montague; he'll do it. Come hither, Montague, and sketch a much prettier mouth than your own." De Courcy, who had approached his sister before he understood her request, shrank back. She could scarcely have proposed an employment less agreeable to him; and he was hastily going to refuse it, when, happening to meet the eye of Laura, in the dread that she should detect his consciousness, he snatched the pencil and began.
Harriet having thus transferred her work, quickly found out other occupation. "Oh, by the bye, my dear," said she to Laura, "your Leonidas is the greatest likeness in the world of my old beau, Colonel Hargrave. Bless me, how she blushes! Ah! I see Hargrave has not been so long in Scotland for nothing!"
"Take away that thing, Harriet," cried De Courcy, quite thrown off his guard, and pushing the drawing from him. "I see no reason why Miss Montreville and I should both do for you what you ought to be doing for yourself."
"Heyday, what ails the man?" cried Harriet, looking after her brother to the window, whither he had retreated. "You need not be angry with me for making Laura blush. I dare say she likes it; it becomes her so well."
"If you are accustomed to say such strange things to your friends, my dear Harriet," said Laura, "the blushes you raise will not always have that advantage. The colourings of anger are not generally becoming."
"So, with that meek face of yours, you would have me believe that it is downright rage that has made you all scarlet. No, no, my dear; there is rage, and there is the colour of it too (pointing to Montague's face); and if you'll put your two heads together before the glass, you will see whether the colours are a bit alike!"
Montague, recovering his temper, tried to laugh, and succeeded very ill. "I don't wonder you laugh," said Laura, not venturing to look round to him, "at hearing Harriet, on such slender grounds, exalt such a matter-of-fact person as myself into the heroine of a romance. But to spare your imagination, Harriet, I will tell you, that your old beau, as you call him, being the handsomest man I had seen, I saw no harm in making use of his beauty in my picture."
"Well, I protest," cried Harriet, "it was quite by accident I thought of mentioning it, for I had not the least idea that ever you had seen Hargrave."
"And now that you have made that mighty discovery," said De Courcy, endeavouring to appear unconcerned, "I suppose you'll poison Miss Montreville; for you know you were so in love with Hargrave, that I was obliged to put a rail round the fish-pond to prevent felo de se."
"In love!" said Harriet, yawning; "ay, so I was, indeed, for three whole days once when I had nothing else to do. But only think of the sly girl never even to name him to me! Well, well, I shall worm it all out of her when we are by ourselves, though she won't blab before you."
"I will give you an opportunity this moment," said De Courcy, who, quite unable to bear the subject any longer, determined to make his mother interrupt it, and immediately went in search of her. In a few minutes Mrs De Courcy appeared, and dismissed her unwilling daughter to escort Lady Pelham to the flower garden, while Laura preferred remaining at home.
At the next opportunity Harriet executed her threat, in so far as depended upon her. She did what she could to rally Laura out of her secret, but she totally failed of success. Laura, now upon her guard, not only evaded making any discovery, but by the easy indifference of her answers, convinced Harriet that there was nothing to discover. Indeed, her suspicion was merely a transient thought, arising from Laura's confusion at her sudden attack, and scarcely outlived the moment that gave it birth; though the emotion which Montague had shown, confirmed his sister in the belief of his attachment to Laura.
The subject thus entirely dropped which Laura could never approach without pain, the time of her visit to Norwood glided away in peace and comfort, every day lessening the dejection which she had believed, nay, almost wished, would follow her to the grave. Still, however, the traces of it were sufficiently visible to the observant eye of love; and Montague found in it an interest not to be awakened by the brightest flashes of gaiety. "There is a charm inexpressible in her sadness," said he to Mrs De Courcy. "I think," replied Mrs De Courcy, "I can observe that that charm is decaying. Indeed, if it should entirely disappear before your fates are more closely united, you need not lament its departure. These cypresses look graceful bending over the urn there in the vista, but I should not like them to darken the sitting-room."
The only habit common to love-lorn damsels, in which Laura indulged, was that of preferring solitary rambles; a habit, however, which had been imbibed long before she had any title to that character. Delighted with the environs of Norwood, she sometimes wandered beyond the dressed ground into the park, where art still embellished without restraining nature. The park might, indeed, have better deserved the name of an ornamented farm; for the lawns were here and there diversified by corn fields, and enlivened by the habitations of the labourers necessary to the agriculturist. Those cottages, banished by fashion far from every lordly residence, were contrived so as to unite beauty with usefulness; they gave added interest to the landscape even to the eye of a stranger, but far more to that of De Courcy, for he knew that every one of them contained useful hands or grateful hearts—youth for whom he provided employment, or age whose past services he repaid. Here the blue smoke curled from amidst the thicket; there the white wall enlivened the meadow; here the casement flashed bright with the setting sun; there the woodbine and the creeping rose softened the colouring that would have glared on the eye.
Laura had followed the windings of a little green lane, till the woods which darkened it suddenly opened into a small field, sheltered by them on every side, which seemed to form the territory of a cottage of singular neatness and beauty. In a porch covered with honeysuckle, which led through a flower-garden to the house, a lovely little boy about three years old was playing with De Courcy's great Newfoundland dog. The child was stretching on tiptoe to hug with one arm the neck of his rough companion, while with the other hand he was playfully offering the animal a bit of bread, and then snatching it in sport away. Neptune, not used to be so tantalised, made a catch at his prey; but the child succeeded in preserving his prize, and laughing, hid it behind him. The next moment Laura saw the dog throw him down, and heard a piercing cry. Fearless of personal danger, she ran to his assistance. The child was lying motionless on his face; while with one huge paw laid on his back, Neptune was standing over him, wagging his tail in triumph. Convinced that the child was unhurt, and that the scream had been caused merely by fear, Laura spoke to the dog, who immediately quitted his posture to fawn upon her. She lifted the child from the ground, and carried him towards the cottage. The poor little fellow, pale with terror, clung round her neck; but he no sooner saw himself in safety, than, recovering his suspended faculties, he began to roar with all his might. His cries reached the people in the house, who hastened to inquire into their cause; and Laura was met in the door of the cottage by De Courcy's grey-haired servant, John, who seemed its owner, and a decent old woman, who was his wife.
Laura prefaced her account of the accident by an assurance that the child was not hurt, and the old woman, taking him in her arms, tried to soothe him, while John invited Miss Montreville to enter. She followed him into a room, which, unacquainted as she was with the cleanliness of English cottages, appeared to her quite Arcadian. While Margaret was busy with her little charge, Laura praised the neatness and comfort of John's abode. "It is as snug a place as heart can desire, please you, ma'am," answered John, visibly gratified; "and we have every thing here as convenient as in the king's palace, or as my master himself has, for the matter of that." "I thought, John, you had lived in Mr De Courcy's house," said Laura. "Yes, please you, ma'am, and so I did, since I was a little fellow no higher than my knee, taken in to run messages, till my young master came of age, and then he built this house for me, that I might just have it to go to when I pleased, without being turned away like; for he knew old folks liked to have a home of their own. So now, of a fine evening, I come home after prayers, and I stay all night; and when it's bad weather, I have the same bed as I have had these forty years; not a penny worse than my master's own." "And if you are employed all day at Norwood," said Laura, "how do you contrive to keep your garden in such nice order?" "Oh! for the matter of that, ma'am, my master would not grudge me a day's work of the under gardener any time; no, nor to pay a man to work the little patch for me; but only, as he says, the sweetest flowers are of one's own planting; so, of a fine day he often sends me home for an hour or two in the cool, just to put the little place in order." "Mr De Courcy seems attentive to the comfort of every body that comes near him," said Laura. "That he is, madam; one would think he had an affection like, for every mortal creature, and particularly when they grow old and useless, like me and Margaret. I know who offered him twenty pounds a-year for this house and the bit of field; but he said, old folks did not like moving, and he would not put us out of this, even though he could give us one twice as good." "And your rent is lower than twenty pounds, I suppose?" said Laura. "Why sure, ma'am, we never pay a penny for it. My master," said John, drawing up his head, and advancing his chest, "my master has the proper true spirit of a gentleman, and he had it since ever he was born; for it's bred in the bone with him, as the saying is. Why, ma'am, he had it from a child. I have seen him, when he was less than that boy there, give away his dinner when he was as hungry as a hound, just because a beggar asked it. Ay, I remember one day, just two-and-twenty years ago come July, that he was sitting at the door on my knee, eating his breakfast, and he had asked it half a dozen times from Mrs Martin, for he was very hungry; and she did not always attend to him very well. So up came a woman leading a little ragged creature, and it looked at Master Montague's bread and milk, and said, 'I wish I had some too.' So, says my master, 'Here take you some, and I'll take what you leave.' Well, ma'am, the brat snapped it all up in a trice, and I waited to see what little master would do. Well, he just laughed as good naturedly! Then I was going to have got him another breakfast, but my lady would not allow me. 'No, no, John!' said my lady, 'we must teach Montague the connection between generosity and self-denial.' These were my lady's very words."
By this time Margaret had succeeded in quieting the child; and a double allowance of bread and butter restored all his gaiety. "Come, Nep," said he, squatting himself down on the ground where Neptune was lying at Laura's feet; "come, Nep, I'll make friends; and there's half for you, Henry's own dear Nep." "Will you sit upon my knee?" said Laura, who was extremely fond of children. The boy looked steadily in her face for a few moments, and then holding out his arms to her, said, "Yes, I will." "Whose charming child is this?" inquired Laura, twisting his golden ringlets round her fingers. The colour rose to old Margaret's furrowed cheek as she answered, "He is an orphan, ma'am." "He is our grandson," said John, and drew his hand across his eyes. Laura saw that the subject was painful, and she inquired no further. She remained for a while playing with little Henry, and listening to John's praises of his master, and then returned homewards.
She was met by De Courcy and Harriet, who were coming in search of her. She related her little adventure, and praised the extraordinary beauty of the child.
"Oh, that's Montague's protege!" cried Harriet. "By the bye he has not been to visit us since you came; I believe he was never so long absent before since he could see. I have a great notion my brother did not want to produce him to you." "To me!" exclaimed Laura in surprise; "why not?" But receiving no answer from Harriet, who had been effectually silenced by a look from De Courcy, she turned for explanation to Montague, who made an awkward attempt to laugh off his sister's attack, and then as awkwardly changed the subject.
For some minutes Laura gravely and silently endeavoured to account for his behaviour. "His generosity supports this child," thought she, "and he is superior to blazoning his charity." So having, as greater philosophers have done, explained the facts to agree with her theory, she was perfectly satisfied, and examined them no more. Association carrying her thoughts to the contemplation of the happiness which De Courcy seemed to diffuse through every circle where he moved, she regretted that she was so soon to exchange the enjoyment of equable unobtrusive kindness, for starts of officious fondness mingling with intervals of cold neglect or peevish importunity.
"Norwood is the Eden of the earth," said she to Harriet, as they drew their chairs towards the fire, to enjoy a tete-a-tete after the family were retired for the night; "and it is peopled with spirits fit for paradise. Happy you, who need never think of leaving it!"
"Bless you! my dear," cried Harriet, "there is nothing I think of half so much. You would not have me an old maid to comb lapdogs and fatten cats, when I might be scolding my own maids and whipping my own children."
"Really," said Laura, "I think you would purchase even these delightful recreations too dearly by the loss of your present society. Sure it were a mad venture to change such a blessing for any uncertainty!"
"And yet, Mrs Graveairs, I have a notion that a certain gallant soldier could inspire you with the needful daring. Now, look me in the face, and deny it if you can."
Laura, did as she was desired; and, with cheeks flushed to crimson, but a voice of "sweet austere composure," replied, "Indeed, Miss De Courcy, I am hurt that you should so often have taxed me, even in sport, with so discreditable a partiality. You cannot be serious in supposing that I would marry an--" adulterer, Laura would have said; but to apply such an epithet to Hargrave was too much for human firmness, and she stopped.
"I declare she is angry," cried Harriet. "Well, my dear, since it displeases you, I shan't tease you any more; at least not till I find a new subject. But, pray now, do you intend to practise as you preach? Have you made a vow never to marry?"
"I do not say so," answered Laura; "it is silly to assert resolutions which nobody credits. Besides, my situation sadly differs from yours. Like the moon that is rising yonder, I must pursue my course alone. Thousands around me might perhaps warm and enlighten me; but far distant, their influence is lost ere it reaches me. You are in the midst of a happy family, endeared to you by all that is lovely in virtue, all that is sacred in kindred. I know not what would tempt me to resign your situation."
"What would tempt you!" cried Harriet. "Why, a pretty fellow would. But I verily believe you have been taking your cue from Montague: these are precisely his ideas. I think he has set his heart upon making me lead apes."
"What makes you think so?" inquired Laura.
"Because he finds out a hundred faults to every man that talks nonsense to me. One is poor; and he thinks it folly to marry a beggar. Another is old, though he's rich; and that would be downrightly selling myself. One's a fool, and t'other's cross; and, in short, there's no end to his freaks. Only the other day he made me dismiss a creature that I believe I should have liked well enough in time. I have not half forgiven him for it yet. Poor Wilmot--and I should have had a nice barouche too!"
"What could possibly weigh with your brother against the barouche?" said Laura, smiling.
"Why, my dear, the saucy wretch told me, as plainly as he civilly could, that Wilmot and I had not a grain of prudence between us; ergo, that we should be ridiculous and miserable. Besides, poor Wilmot once persuaded a pretty girl to play the fool; and though he afterwards did every thing he could to prevail on her to be made an honest woman, the silly thing chose rather to break her heart and die; and ever since, poor Wilmot has been subject to fits of low spirits."
"Is it possible, Harriet, that you can talk so lightly of a crime so black in its nature, so dreadful in its consequences? Can it seem a trifle to you to destroy the peace, the innocence, of a fellow-creature? Can you smile at remorse that pursued its victim even to the grave?"
Tears filled the eyes of Harriet. "Oh, no! my dearest," she cried, throwing her arms round Laura's neck; "do not think so hardly of me. I am a rattle, it is true, but I am not unprincipled."
"Pardon my injustice, dearest Harriet," said Laura, "in believing, even for a moment, that you were capable of such perversion; and join with me in rejoicing that your brother's influence has saved you from witnessing, from sharing, the pangs of unavailing repentance."
"Indeed," said Harriet, " Montague's influence can do any thing with me; and no wonder. I should be the most ungrateful wretch on earth if I could oppose his wishes. I cannot tell you the thousandth part of the affection he has shown me. Did you ever hear, my dear, that my father had it not in his power to make any provision for me?"
Laura answered that she had never heard the circumstances of the family at all mentioned.
"Do you know," continued Harriet, "I am certain that Montague is averse to my marrying, because he is afraid that my poverty, and not my will, consents. But he has himself set that matter to rest; for the very morning after I gave Wilmot his conge, Montague presented me with bills for two thousand pounds. The generous fellow told me that he did not offer his gift while Wilmot's suit was pending, lest I should think he bought a right to influence my decision."
"This is just what I should have expected from Mr De Courcy," said Laura, the purest satisfaction beaming in her countenance. "He is ever considerate, ever generous."
"To tell you that he gives me money," cried Harriet rapturously, "is nothing; he gives me his time, his labour, his affection. Do love him, dear Laura! He is the best of all creatures!"
"Indeed, I believe it," said Laura, "and I have the most cordial regard for him."
"Ah, but you must--" Harriet's gratitude to her brother had very nearly been too strong for his secret, and she was on the point of petitioning Laura to return a sentiment warmer than cordial regard, when, recollecting her mother's commands, she desisted; and to fly from the temptation, wished Laura good night, and retired.
It was with sincere regret that Laura, the next day, took leave of her kind hosts. As De Courcy handed her into the carriage, the tears were rising to her eyes; but they were checked by a glance from Lady Pelham, in which Laura could read mingled scorn and anger. Lady Pelham had remarked the improved spirits of her niece; but instead of rejoicing that any medicine should have "ministered to a mind diseased," she was offended at the success of a remedy applied by any other than herself. She was nettled at perceiving that the unobtrusive seriousness of Mrs De Courcy, and the rattling gaiety of Harriet, had effected what all her brilliant powers had not achieved. Her powers, indeed, had been sometimes directed to entertain, but never to console; they had been exerted to purchase admiration, not to win confidence; yet, with a common perverseness, she was angry at their ill success, not sorry for their wrong direction. She did not consider, that real benevolence, or an excellent counterfeit, is the only road to an unadulterated heart. It appeared to her a proof of an ungrateful temper in her niece, that she should yield in so short a time to strangers to whom she owed nothing, what she refused to a relation to whom she owed so much.
She had not been able to forbear from venting her spleen in little spiteful remarks and sly stings, sometimes so adroitly given that they were unobserved, except by the person who was by degrees becoming accustomed to expect them. The presence of the De Courcy family, however, restrained the expression of Lady Pelham's ill humour; and as she detested restraint (a detestation which she always ascribed to a noble ingenuousness of mind), she nestled, with peculiar complacency, into the corner of the carriage which was to convey her to what she called freedom, namely, the liberty to infringe with impunity the rights of others. Laura felt that her reluctance to quit Norwood was a bad compliment to her aunt, and she called a smile to her face as she kissed her hand to her kind friends; yet the contrast between their affectionate looks and the "lurking devil" in Lady Pelham's eye, did not lessen her regret at the exchange she was making.
Lady Pelham saw the tone of Laura's mind, and she immediately struck up a discord. "Heaven be praised," she cried, "we have at last escaped out of that stupid place! I think it must be something extraordinary that tempts me to spend four days there again." Laura remained silent; for she disliked direct contradiction, and never spoke what she did not think. Lady Pelham continued her harangue, declaring, "that your good sort of people were always intolerably tiresome; that clock-work regularity was the dullest thing in nature; that Norwood was another cave of Trophouious; Mrs De Courcy inspired with the soul of a starched old maid; Harriet animated by the joint spirit of a magpie and a monkey; and Montague by that of a methodist parson." Finally, she again congratulated herself on her escape from such society, and wondered how any body could submit to it without hanging himself. Laura was accustomed to support Lady Pelham's attacks upon herself with perfect equanimity; but her temper was not proof against this unjust, this unexpected philippic, against her friends; and she reddened with anger and disdain, though she had still so much self-command as to reply only, "Your ladyship is fortunate in being able to lose, without regret, what others find it so difficult to replace."
Lady Pelham fully understood the strong emphasis which was laid on the word others, but the mortification to her vanity was compensated by the triumph of discovering the vulnerable side of her niece's temper. This was the first time that she had been conscious of power over it, and severely did Laura pay for the momentary negligence which had betrayed the secret. Some persons never feel pleasure without endeavouring to communicate it. Lady Pelham acted upon the converse of this amiable principle; and as an ill-regulated mind furnished constant sources of pain, a new channel of participation was a precious discovery. As often, therefore, as spleen, jealousy, or malice, prompted her to annoyance, she had recourse henceforth to this new-found weapon; and she varied her warfare through all the changes of hints, insinuations, and that mode of attack the most provoking of all, which, aiming at no particular point, becomes the more difficult to parry. During several months, she made it the occasional instrument of her vengeance for the jealousy which she entertained of Laura's increasing intimacy with the De Courcys; an intimacy which she chose to embitter, though she could not break it off, without depriving herself of acquaintances who were visited by the first people in the county.
Her industry in teasing was not confined to Laura. She inflicted a double stroke, by the petulance or coldness with which she sometimes treated the De Courcys. But though Laura was keenly sensible to these petty wrongs done her friends, the injured passed them over without much notice. Harriet repaid them with laughter or sarcasm, while Montague seemed to consider them as wholly unworthy of attention. He continued his visits to Walbourne, and accident at last furnished an excuse for their frequency.
In the course of Lady Pelham's improvements, a difficulty chanced to occur, which a slight knowledge of the elements of mathematics would have enabled her to solve. To supply the want of this knowledge she had recourse to Mr De Courcy, who removed her perplexity with the ease of one conversant with his subject, and the accuracy of one who speaks to a reasoning creature. Lady Pelham was charmed. She was convinced that "of all studies that of mathematics must be the most delightful. She imagined it might not be quite impracticable even for a lady, supposing she were so fortunate as to meet with a friend who could assist her." De Courcy, laughing, offered his services, not, it must be owned, with any idea that they would be accepted. Her ladyship, however, eagerly embraced the offer; for she was little accustomed to forecast the difficulties of any scheme that entered her brain. In the triumphant expectation that all difficulty would yield to her acuteness, and her brighter abilities gain in a comparison with the plain good sense of her niece, she obliged Laura to join in her new pursuit.
Upon the study of this science, so little in favour with a sex who reserve cultivation for faculties where it is least wanting, Laura entered with a pleasure that surprised herself, and she persevered in it with an industry that astonished her teacher. Lady Pelham was, for a little while, the companion of her labours; but, at the first difficulty, she took offence at the unaccommodating thing, which showed no more indulgence to female than to royal indolence. Forthwith she was fired with strong aversion to philosophers in bibs, and a horror at she-pedants, a term of reproach which a dexterous side glance could appropriate to her niece, though the author of these memoirs challenges any mortal to say that ever Laura Montreville was heard to mention ellipse or parabola, or to insinuate her acquaintance with the properties of circle or polygon. Nothing moved by Lady Pelham's sneers, Laura continued her studies, impelled partly by the duty of improving the most valuable faculty of an immortal mind, partly by the pleasure which she derived from the study itself. It is true that her ladyship's indiscreet use of the secret made Laura's labours the cause of much merriment to titterers of both sexes; but we have never discovered that De Courcy esteemed her the less for her persevering industry, or loved her the less for this new subject of mutual interest. He watched with delight the restoration of her mind to its full vigour; and as he had never known her in the blaze of youthful gaiety, he was scarcely sensible of the shade which blended the radiance of her mid-day of life with the sober tints of evening.
The impression of her early disappointment was indeed indelible, but it was no longer overwhelming She had given the reins to her imagination--it had fatally misled her; but its power had sustained an irrecoverable shock, and the sway was transferred to reason She had dreamed of an earthly heaven, and seen that it was but a dream. All her earthly joys had vanished—yet misery had been almost as transient as delight, and she learned the practical use of a truth which all acknowledge in theory. In the course of four months' residence at Walbourne, she recovered a placid cheerfulness, which afterwards continued to be the habitual tenor of her mind. If she looked forward to the future events of her life, it was to resolve that they should be subservient to the great end of her being. If she glanced backward, it was less to lament her disappointment than to blame the error which had led to it; and she never allowed her thoughts to dwell upon her unworthy lover, except when praying that he might be awakened to a sense of his guilt.
She was chiefly concerned to improve and to enjoy the present; and in this she was successful, in spite of the peevish humours of Lady Pelham, mixed occasionally with ebullitions of rage. Those who are furious where they dare, or when the provocation is sufficient to rouse their courage, sometimes chide with impotent perseverance where they are awed from the full expression of their fury: as the sea which the lightest breeze dashes in billows over the sandbank, frets in puny ripples against the rock that frowns over it. If Lady Pelham's temper had any resemblance to this stormy element, it was not wholly void of likeness to another, for it "changed as it listed," without any discoverable reason. It would have lost half its power to provoke, and Laura half the merit of her patient endurance, if it had been permanently diabolical. The current, not only serene but sparkling, would reflect with added beauty every surrounding object, then would suddenly burst into foam, or settle into a stagnant marsh. Laura threw oil upon the torrent, and suffered the marsh to clear itself. She enjoyed Lady Pelham's wit and vivacity in her hours of good humour, and patiently submitted to her seasons of low spirits, as she complaisantly called them.
Laura at last, undesignedly, opened a new direction to her aunt's spleen. From her first introduction to Lady Pelham, she had laboured assiduously to promote a reconciliation between her aunt and her daughter, Mrs Herbert. Her zeal appeared surprising to Lady Pelham, who could not estimate the force of her motive for thus labouring, to the manifest detriment of her own interest, she being (after Mrs Herbert) the natural heiress of her aunt's fortune. She had seized the moment of complacency; watched the relentings of nature; by turns tried to soothe and to convince; and, in the proper spirit of a peace-maker, adhered to her purpose with meek perseverance. According to the humour of the hour, Lady Pelham was "alternately flattered by solicitations that confessed her power, or rendered peevish by entreaties which she was determined to reject, or fired to rage by the recollection of her wrongs. If the more placid frame prevailed, she could ring eternal changes on the same oft-refuted arguments, or adroitly shift the subject by some lively sally of wit, or some neat compliment to her niece. In her more stormy tempers, she would profess total inability to pardon--nay, a determination never to attempt it; and took credit for scorning to pretend a forgiveness which she could not practise.
Still Laura was not discouraged; for she had often observed that what Lady Pelham declared on one day to be wholly impossible, on the next became, without any assignable reason, the easiest thing in nature; and that what to-day no human force should wrest from her, was yielded to-morrow to no force at all. She therefore persisted in her work of conciliation; and her efforts at last prevailed so far, that though Lady Pelham still protested implacability, she acknowledged, that as there was no necessity for her family feuds being known to the world, she was willing to appear upon decent terms with the Herberts, and for that purpose would receive them for a few weeks at Walbourne.
Of this opening, unpromising as it was, Laura instantly availed herself; and wrote to convey the frozen invitation to her cousin, in the kindest language which she was permitted to use. It was instantly accepted; and Mrs Herbert and her husband became the inmates of Walbourne.
Mrs Herbert had no resemblance to her mother. Her countenance was grave and thoughtful; her manners uniformly cold and repulsive. Laura traced in her unbending reserve, the apathy of one whose genial feelings had been blunted by early unkindness. Frank, high-spirited, and imprudent, Herbert was his wife's opposite; and Laura had not been half an hour in his company, before she began to tremble for the effect of these qualities on the irascible temper of her aunt. But her alarm seemed causeless, for the easy resoluteness with which he maintained his opinions, appeared to extort from Lady Pelham a sort of respect; and though she privately complained to Laura of what she called his assurance, she exempted him, while present, from her attacks, seeming afraid to exert upon him her skill in provoking. Laura began to perceive, that a termagant is not so untameable an animal as she had once imagined, since one glimpse of the master-spirit is of sovereign power to lay the lesser imps of spleen.
But though Lady Pelham seemed afraid to measure her strength with spirits of kindred irascibility, she was under no restraint with Mrs Herbert, upon whom she vented a degree of querulousness that appeared less like the ebullitions of ill-temper than the overflowings of settled malice. Every motion, every look, furnished matter of censure or of sarcasm. The placing of a book, the pronunciation of a word, the snuffing of a candle, called forth reprehension; and Laura knew not whether to be most astonished at the ingenious malice which contrived to convert "trifles light as air" into certain proofs of degeneracy, or at the apathy on which the venomed shaft fell harmless. Mrs Herbert received all her mother's reprimands in silence, without moving a muscle, without announcing, by the slightest change of colour, that the sarcasm had reached farther than her ear. If, as not unfrequently happened, the reproof extended into a harangue, Mrs Herbert, unmoved, withdrew no part of her attention from her netting, and politely suppressed a yawn.
These discourteous scenes were exhibited only in Mr Herbert's absence; his presence instantly suspended Lady Pelham's warfare; and Laura inferred that his wife never made him acquainted with her mother's behaviour. That behaviour formed an exception to the general unsteadiness of Lady Pelham; for to Mrs Herbert she was consistently cruel and insulting. Nothing could he more tormenting to the benevolent mind of Laura than to witness this system of aggression; and she repented having been instrumental in renewing an intercourse that could lead to no pleasing issue.
But the issue was nearer than she expected. One day, in Herbert's absence, Lady Pelham began to discuss with his wife, or rather to her, the never-failing subject of her duplicity and disobedience. She was not interrupted by any expression of regret or repentance from the culprit, who maintained a stoical silence, labouring the while to convey mathematical precision to the crimping of a baby's cap, an employment upon which Lady Pelham seemed to look with peculiar abhorrence. From the turpitude of her daughter's conduct, she proceeded to its consequences. She knew no right, she said, that people had to encumber their relations with hosts of beggarly brats. She vowed that none such should ever receive her countenance or protection. Her rage kindled as she spoke. She inveighed against Mrs Herbert's insensibility; and at last talked herself into such a pitch of fury, as even to abuse her for submitting to the company of one who could not conceal detestation of her--a want of spirit which she directly attributed to the most interested views; views which, however, she absolutely swore that she would defeat.
In the energy of her declamation, she did not perceive that Herbert had entered the room, and stood listening to her concluding sentences, with a face of angry astonishment. Advancing towards his wife, he indignantly inquired into the meaning of the tumult. "Nothing," answered she, calmly surveying her handiwork; "only my mother is a little angry, but I have not spoken a word." He then turned for explanation to Lady Pelham, whom the flashing of his eye reduced to instantaneous quiet; and not finding, in her stammering abstract of the conversation, any apology for the insult which he had heard, he took his wife by the arm and instantly left the house, giving orders that his baggage should follow him to a little inn in the neighbouring village.
Thus did the insolence of one person, and the hasty spirit of another, undo what Laura had for months been labouring to effect. The Herberts never made any attempt at reconciliation, and Lady Pelham would never afterwards hear them mentioned, without breaking out into torrents of abuse, and even imprecation, which made Laura's blood run cold. Yet, with her usual inconsistency, Lady Pelham was vexed at the suspension of her intercourse with the Herberts; because she thus lost even the shadow of power over her daughter. Not that she acknowledged this cause of regret. No; she eloquently bewailed her hard fate, in being exposed to the censure of the world as at variance with her nearest relatives. She complained that, with a heart "warm as melting charity," she had no one to love or to cherish. Yet Laura could not always forbear smiling at the perverse direction of her aunt's regrets. Lady Pelham was angry, not that her own unkindness had driven her children from her, but that Laura's officious benevolence had brought them to her house; a measure from which she was pleased to say that no person of common sense could have expected a different issue.
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.