Self Control: A Novel

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CHAPTER XXIII.

IF Lady Pelham repined at the desertion of the Herberts, it was not because their departure consigned her to solitude. Never had Walbourne attracted so many visitors. Lady Pelham's beautiful niece drew thither all the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. The ladies followed them of course. The beauty and modesty of Laura charmed the men, while the women were half inclined to think it an unfounded slander that such a good-natured, obliging, neat-handed creature studied mathematics, and read Tacitus in the original.

Among the society to which she was introduced by Lady Pelham, and still more among that in which she mingled at Norwood, Laura met with persons of distinguished ability, rank, and politeness. In such company she rapidly acquired that ease of address which alone was wanting to make her manners as fascinating as they were correct. She grew accustomed to find herself the object of attention; and though no habit could reconcile her to the gaze of numbers, she gradually learnt to carry into these lesser occasions the self-command which distinguished her in more important concerns. In real modesty and humility she improved every day; for it was the study of her life to improve in them. She retained all the timidity which is the fruit of genuine sensibility and quick perception of impropriety, while she lost that bashfulness which owes its growth to solitude and inexperience. Her personal charms, too, increased as they approached maturity. The symmetry of her form and features was indeed scarcely susceptible of improvement, but added gracefulness gave new attractions to her figure; while the soul lent its improving strength and brightness to animate her face with charms which mere symmetry knows not.

With such qualifications Laura could not fail to excite admiration; yet never, perhaps, did beauty so seldom listen to its own praises. It was labour lost to compliment one who never rewarded the flatterer with one smile of gratified vanity, or repaid him with one complaisant departure from the simple truth. To the everyday nothings of the common herd she listened with a weariness which politeness could sometimes scarcely repress. "Oh, would," thought she, "that civil things, as they are called, required no answer, or that one obliging gentleman would undertake the labour of replying to the rest!" If addressed in the language of commonplace compliment by one whom she respected, her look of mortification intelligibly said, "Has then your penetration searched me deeper than I know myself, and detected in me the more than childish weakness of valuing myself on such distinctions as those you are praising?"

Laura had no personal vanity, and therefore it required no effort to withstand such praise. She had more merit in the more strenuous but less successful exertions which she made to resist the silent flattery of the respectful glance that awaited her decision, besought her approbation, or reflected her sentiments. Sometimes she thought Montague De Courcy an adept in this sort of flattery. But more frequently when it was administered by him, she forgot to call it by that name; arid she was the less upon her guard against his homage, because it was never offered in any more palpable form.

Fortified by the advice of his mother, who had convinced him that a premature disclosure of his sentiments would be fatal to his hopes, and aware that were he even successful with Laura, some further provision must be made for his sister, ere he could with justice increase the expense of his establishment, he acted with such caution as baffled the penetration of common observers. The neighbouring tea-tables were rather inclined to consign his affections to a lively young heiress, whose estate had formerly been dismembered from that of Norwood; for he had flirted with her at a review, and danced with her at the county ball. Moreover, the charitable declared, that "if he was backward, it was not for want of encouragement; that miss allowed herself strange liberties; though, to be sure, heiresses might do any thing."

In spite of the lynx eye in detecting embryo passion, which is ascribed to the sex, Montague's secret was safe even from Laura herself; or if a momentary suspicion had glanced across her mind, she chid it away with self-accusations of vanity, and recollections of the ten thousand opportunities for a declaration which he had suffered to pass unimproved. Besides, Mrs De Courcy had once hinted that Montague's little fits of melancholy and absence were occasioned by his partiality for a lady whose affections were pre-engaged; and Laura was sure that the hint could not refer to herself. Her humiliating secret, she was thankful, was safely lodged in her own breast, and could never be divulged to cover her with mortification.

That which any effort of imagination can ascribe to the influence of Cupid, no woman ever attributed to any other power; and if at any time a shade crossed the open countenance of Montague, Laura called to mind his mother's hint, and added to her truly sisterly affection a pity which lent indescribable softness to her manners towards him. Indeed, she always treated him with undisguised regard, and Montague tried to be satisfied. Yet he could not help longing to read in some inadvertent glance a proof that all the heart was not freely shown. In vain!--the heart was open as the day; and all was there that could delight the friend, but nothing that could satisfy the lover.

He had, however, none of the temptations of jealousy to betray his secret, for his rivals were neither numerous nor formidable. Laura was known to have no fortune; she had little talent for chit-chat, and still less for flattery: thus amid universal admiration and general good-will, she had only two professed adorers--one, who haunted her while present, toasted her when absent, and raved of her charms, both in prose and rhyme, without ever suffering his pretensions to become so serious as to afford her a pretext for seriously repulsing them--the other, a prudent elderly widower, who being possessed of a good fortune, and a full-grown daughter, thought himself entitled to consult his taste without regard to pecuniary views, and conceived that Laura might be useful to the young lady, in the double capacities of companion and example. Laura's answer to his proposals was a firm but gentle refusal, while she assured him that she would not abuse his confidence, nor betray the trust he had reposed in her. Elderly gentlemen are seldom inclined to publish a repulse. The widower never mentioned his even to Lady Pelham; and Laura, on this occasion, owed to her principle an escape from many a tedious remonstrance and many a covert attack.

The summer had almost glided away, and Montague continued to fluctuate between hope and fear, his mother to cherish his hopes and allay his apprehensions, Laura to be tranquil, Harriet to be gay, and Lady Pelham to exhibit by turns every various degree of every various humour, when one morning Miss De Courcy, who had lately returned from a visit to a companion, accompanied her brother on horseback to Walbourue. Lady Pelham was, as usual, engaged in her garden, but the visitors had no sooner entered the room where Laura sat, than she observed that they seemed to have exchanged characters. Harriet looked almost thoughtful, while the countenance of De Courcy sparkled with unusual animation. He was gay even to restlessness. He offered to give Laura her lesson in mathematics; and before it was half over, having completely bewildered both himself and his pupil, he tossed away the book, declaring that he never in his life was so little fit for thinking. Pleasure spoke in every tone of his voice, or sported in his eye when he was silent.

After a short visit, enlivened by a hilarity which Laura found more infectious than the gravity of Harriet, he proposed leaving his sister with her friend, while he rode on to call for a gentleman in the neighbourhood. "Begone, then," cried Laura, gaily, "for I long to question Harriet what has given you such enviable spirits this morning." "Ah, she must not betray me," said De Courcy, half smiling, half sighing, "or I forfeit my only chance of being remembered when I am out of sight. If she can be silent, curiosity may perhaps befriend me." "How very humble!" cried Laura; "as if curiosity were the only name you could find for the interest I take in what makes you gay, or Harriet grave!" "Dear Laura," said De Courcy, ardently, "give the cause what name you will, if you will but think of me." Then, snatching her lily hands, he pressed them to his lips, and the next moment was gone.

Confused, surprised, a little displeased, Laura stood silently revolving his behaviour. He had never before made the slightest approach to personal familiarity. Had her frankness invited the freedom? "Dear Laura!" It was the first time he had ever called her by any name less respectful than Miss Montreville. "Well, and what then?--it were mere prudery to be displeased at such a trifle. What!" thought she, "can have delighted him so much? Perhaps the lady is kind at last. He need not, however, have vented his transports upon me." And Laura was a little more angry than before.

During her cogitation, Laura forgot that she might apply to her companion for a solution of the mystery; perhaps she did not even recollect that Harriet was in the room, till happening to turn her head, she met a glance of sly inquisition, which, however, was instantly withdrawn. Harriet made no comment on the subject of her observation. "The man is as much elated," cried she, "as if I were five-and-forty, and had never had a lover before."

"You, my dear Harriet!" exclaimed Laura, suddenly recovering her good humour, "is it a conquest of yours that has pleased Mr De Courcy so much?" "Even so," returned Harriet. "Heigho!"

"I congratulate you: and yet it does not seem to delight you quite so much as it does your brother."

"Really, Laura, I am not sure whether it does or not; so I am come to ask you."

"Me! Indeed, you have too much confidence in my penetration; but you have, fortunately, abler and more natural advisers. Your mother--"

"Oh, my mother is so cautious, so afraid of influencing me! when to be influenced is the very thing I want. I do hate caution. Then I can't talk it over with her as I could with you. And then, there's Montague looks so provokingly pleased; and yet he pretends to prim up his mouth, and say, 'really it is a subject on which he neither can, nor ought to give an opinion.' Pray, advise me, my dear."

"What! before I know who the gentleman is, when perhaps you have even no right to inform me?

"Psha! nonsense; it is Bolingbroke. But I believe you have never met with him."

"So you would have me advise you to marry a man whom I have never seen; for of course that is the advice you want. Had the balance lain on the other side, no advice would have been thought necessary."

"Poh!" cried Harriet pouting, "I don't want to be advised to marry him." "Are you sure," returned Laura, smiling, "that you know what you want?"

"Saucy girl! I would have you tell me whether I am ever likely to marry him!"

"Do you think I am by birth entitled to the second-sight, that I should foresee this before I know any thing of the gentleman's merits, or, what is of more consequence, of their rank in your estimation!"

"The man has good legs," said Harriet, plaiting the fingers of her glove with great industry.

"Legs!--really, Harriet, I was in hopes I had for once found you serious."

"So I am, my dear; I never was so serious before, and hope I never shall again. Yet I don't know what to think; so I shall just tell you honestly how the matter stands, and you shall think for me."

"I will not promise that; but I own I have some curiosity to hear your honest confession."

"Oh, you need not peep so archly askance under these long eyelashes; I can stand a direct look, I assure you; for at this moment I have not the slightest preference in the world for Bolingbroke over half a score of others."

"Then what room is there for hesitation?'

"Why, my dear, in the first place, he has a noble fortune, though that goes for nothing with you; secondly, he is really a good creature, and far from a fool; then, to talk in your style, I have had advantages in observing his temper and dispositions such as I shall never have with any other man; for his sister and I have been companions from childhood, and I have lived under his roof for months: then, which will weigh with you more than all, he is Montague's particular favourite."

"Great recommendations these, Harriet; sufficient at least to bias any woman who intends to marry. I should like to know Mr Bolingbroke."

"Here is his letter, my dear," said Harriet; "it came enclosed in one to my brother. There is a good deal of the man's turn in it."

Laura took the letter, and read as follows--

"I will not wrong your penetration so much as to suppose that this letter will surprise you, or that you will fail to anticipate the subject on the first glance at the signature. Nor do I write to tell you, in the hackneyed phrase, that the happiness of my whole life depends upon you, because, next to your affection, nothing is so desirable to me as your esteem, and the hope, that though you should reject my suit, you will continue to respect my understanding. But I may with truth declare, that I prefer you to all women; that I love you, not only in spite of your faults, but, perhaps, even the more for them; and that, to forfeit the hope of your affection, would dispel many a long-cherished vision of domestic peace, and even some lighter dreams of rapture. Dearest Harriet, do not, in return for this confession, write me a cold profession of esteem. I know already that you esteem me, for you have long known me possessed of qualities that inevitably engage esteem; but I am conscious of a deficiency in those which excite passion, and I dread that I may never awaken sentiments like those I feel. Yet it is no small compliment which I offer, when I suppose you superior to the attractions which captivate the vulgar of your sex; and you may value it the more, because it is perhaps the only one I shall ever pay you.

To say all this or something like it, has long been in my thoughts, and during your late visit to my sister, occupied them more than I shall own; but a dread of I know not what, forced me to let you depart without offering to your acceptance all that I have to offer. I felt a certainty that I was not yet beloved, and I believe I feared that you, in your lively way (so I must call it, since no epithet that implies reproof must flow from a lover's pen), would give utterance to the feeling of the moment, and bid me think of you no more. Is it presumption to say, that I hope more from a more considerate decision? Ask your own heart, then, dear Miss De Courcy, whether time and the assiduities of respectful love can beguile you of such tenderness as is due to a confiding affectionate husband. Ask yourself, whether you can ever return my warm attachment, to such a degree as will make the duties of a wife easy and pleasant to you. I need not assure you that I am not the selfish wretch who could find joy in receiving those which were painfully and reluctantly performed. Be candid with yourself, then, I adjure you. Fear not that I shall persecute you with importunity or complaint. If it must be so, I will see you no more for some months; and at the end of that time, I shall expect, in reward of my self-conquest, to be received with cordiality as your brother's friend. If your sentence be against me, save yourself the pain of telling me so; for I know that it must be painful to you. Yet judge of the strength of that regard which is thus anxious to shield you from uneasiness, at the moment when it anticipates such pain from your hands. If you can give me hope (and, observe, when I say hope, I do not mean certainty), do not tax your delicacy for studied phrases of acceptance, but write me even a common card of invitation to Norwood, and the tenderest billet that ever was penned by woman, never gave more pleasure than it will bring to your very affectionate and obedient servant,           EDWARD BOLINGBROKE."

Laura could not help smiling at the composed style of this epistle, so different from the only ones of its kind with which she was conversant. A lover confess that his mistress had faults, and that he was sensible of them! insinuate that he expected not only duty, but willing and graceful duty, from his wife! have the boldness to expect that, if his passion were unsuccessful, he should quickly be able to conquer it! Laura felt no inclination to envy her friend a lover so fully in the exercise of his judgment and foresight, but she was pleased with the plain honest rationality of the letter; and, with the materials before her, immediately busied her imagination in its favourite work of sketching and adorning character.

She was recalled from her meditation by another petition for advice. "You see," said Harriet, "he pretends not to expect certainty; but it is much the same whether one run one's neck into the noose, or get entangled so that one can't decently get off. If I could creditably contrive to keep him dangling till I had made up my mind," continued she, illustrating the metaphor with her watch-chain. "Do assist me, my dear; I am sure you have managed a dozen of them in your time."

"My experience is not so extensive," replied Laura, "and I can really assist you to no creditable method of trifling."

"You would not have me resolve to marry a man whom I don't care a farthing for?"

"No, indeed! but I think Mr Bolingbroke would have a right to complain, if you gave hopes which you did not fulfil."

"You would have me dismiss him at once, then?"

"By no means; but I would have you think for yourself on a subject of which no other person can judge; and remember, my dear, that, as your decision has neither been wrested from you by surprise nor seduced from you by persuasion, you have no excuse for forming a weak or wavering resolution."

Determined that on such a subject she would deliver no opinion, Laura was relieved from some embarrassment by the return of De Courcy. His reflections during his ride had effectually quelled the exuberance of his spirits, and he endeavoured to repair his unguardedness by distant civility. His manner increased the feeling of restraint of which Laura could not at that time divest herself; and after a short and constrained sequel to a visit which had begun so differently, Montague hurried his sister away.

"I shall never conquer her indifference," said he to his mother, after relating the folly of the morning. "Had you seen her frozen look of displeasure, you would have been convinced." "And how, my dear Montague, could you expect Miss Montreville to receive such freedom?--like a little village coquette gasping at the prospect of a first lover? If you are convinced that your secret would still be heard without pleasure, you must redouble your caution to preserve it. But suffer me to warn you against the extreme of reserve into which I have sometimes observed that you are apt to fall. It can only confirm suspicions if they are excited; if not, it will disgust by an appearance of caprice."

Montague promised to be guarded, and withdrew to seek in his laboratory a refuge from despondence. Those who pursue worldly gains and vulgar pleasures, must cheerlessly toil on, waiting for their reward till their end is attained; but the pursuits of science and of virtue have this advantage peculiar to themselves, that there is reward in the labour, even though the success be only partial; and in half an hour all Montague's cares were absorbed in the muriatic acid. In a few days he again saw Laura, and her sunny smile of welcome revived hopes which she little thought of fullfiling.

When a woman of ordinary delicacy is brought to hesitate upon the proposal of a lover, it is easy, provided prudence be on his side, to conjecture how the balance will turn. Mr Bolingbroke received his card of invitation to Norwood; and his suit advanced prosperously, though slowly. He was a plain, unpretending man, seven years at least beyond excuse for any youthful indiscretion; habitually silent, though sure of commanding attention when he spoke. The perfect fairness and integrity of his mind had secured him the respect of all his acquaintance, in a degree which he appeared to have precisely estimated; and he never seemed to expect less or to exact more. His calm unobtrusive manners never captivated a stranger, nor gave offence to an intimate. He was kind and generous to a sister, who twenty years before had succeeded as his plaything to tops and marbles, and uniformly respectful to a maiden aunt, who had about the same date replaced his mother as directress of the family.

His father had long been dead; and in consequence of his steady resistance of all the batteries of charms opened against him, or rather against his 7000 a-year, the ladies had begun to shake their heads, and pronounce him a determined bachelor. But notwithstanding their decision, Mr Bolingbroke was resolved to marry, for he considered marriage as one of the duties of his station.

Harriet amused, became customary, pleasing, necessary to him. "Our dissimilarity will assist us to correct each other's failings," thought he, and his choice was fixed. He was aware that a grave elderly man might find some difficulty in attaching a volatile girl; and though he could not condescend to flatter even his mistress, he was assiduous to please. He bestowed an infinity of little attentions, which were the more gratifying, because, from a man of his temper, they were wholly unexpected. His books, his horses, his carriages, waited but a half-expressed wish. He planned little excursions and parties of pleasure, or contrived to add some agreeable surprise to those which were proposed by others. Far from showing any paltry jealousy, he treated Miss De Courcy's favourites of both sexes with distinguished politeness; and perhaps he owed his success with a heart that had withstood more attractive admirers, partly to the agreeable associations which he found means to raise, partly to vanity, pleased with power over the philosophic Mr Bolingbroke.

Montague watched the progress of his friend with keen interest, but he conscientiously avoided influencing Harriet's decision. On the contrary, lest the dread of future dependence should weigh with her, he informed her, that should she prefer a single life, or should other circumstances render such a sum important to her, he was determined to double the little fortune he had already given.

While he was anxious to see his sister's happiness secured by her union with an estimable man, he felt that her marriage with Mr Bolingbroke would immediately remove one grand obstacle to his own wishes; for the little dower which he was determined ere he settled in life to save for Harriet, would form an addition altogether insignificant to the splendid settlement which was now in her power. There was nothing Quixotic in the justice and generosity of De Courcy, and he had no intention of incurring real difficulty and privation for the sake of adding a trifle to the stores of affluence. He therefore considered his sister's marriage as leaving him at full liberty to pursue his inclinations with regard to Laura, if the time should ever arrive when he could declare them without hazarding the forfeiture of even his present stinted measure of favour.

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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.