One day Miss De Courcy expressed a wish to show Laura the collection of paintings at a celebrated seat in the neighbourhood. Mr Bolingbroke immediately undertook to procure the permission of the noble owner, who was his relation; and the party was speedily arranged. Mrs Penelope's sociable, as Mr Bolingbroke always called it, was to convey his aunt, his sister, Harriet, and Mrs De Courcy, to whom the genial warmth of the season had partially restored the use of her limbs. Mrs Penelope piqued herself upon rising with the lark, and enforcing the same wholesome habit upon the whole household; the Bolingbrokes were, therefore, to take an early breakfast at Norwood, and then proceed on their excursion. De Courcy and Mr Bolingbroke were to ride. Lady Pelham and Laura were to join the party in the grounds.
The weather proved delightful; and after spending some hours in examining the paintings, in which Laura derived additional pleasure from the skilful comments of De Courcy, the party proceeded to view the grounds, when she, with almost equal delight, contemplated a finished specimen of modern landscape-gardening. Pursuing, as usual, his cautious plan, Montague divided his attentions pretty equally between the elder ladies and Miss Bolingbroke, bestowing the least part upon her for whom he would willingly have reserved all; while Harriet, in good humour with herself and with all around her, frankly gave her arm to her lover; and sometimes laughing, sometimes blushing, suffered herself to loiter, to incline her head in listening to somewhat said in a half-whisper, and to answer it in an under tone; without recollecting that she had resolved, till she had quite made up her mind, to restrain her habitual propensity to flirting.
De Courcy was certainly above the meanness of envy, yet he could not suppress a sigh as, with Mrs Penelope and his mother leaning on his arms, while Laura walked behind with Miss Bolingbroke, he followed Harriet and his friend into the darkened path that led to a hermitage. The walk was shaded by yew, cypress, and other trees of dusky foliage, which, closing into an arch, excluded the gaudy sunshine. As they proceeded, the shade deepened into twilight, and the heats of noon gave place to refreshing coolness. The path terminated in a porch of wicker-work, forming the entrance to the hermitage, the walls of which were composed of the roots of trees, on the outside rugged as from the hand of nature, but within polished and fancifully adorned with shells and fossils. Opposite to the entrance, a rude curtain of leopard skin seemed to cover a recess; and Harriet hastily drawing it aside, gave to view a prospect gay with every variety of cheerful beauty. The meadows, lately cleared from their burden, displayed a vivid green, and light shadows quickly passed over them and were gone. The corn-fields were busy with the first labours of the harvest. The village spires were thickly sown in the distance. More near, a rapid river flashed bright to the sun; yet the blaze came chastened to the eye, for it entered through an awning close hung with the graceful tendrils of the passion-flower.
The party were not soon weary of so lovely a landscape, and returning to the more shady apartment, found an elegant collation of fruits and ices, supplied by the gallantry of Mr Bolingbroke. Never was there a more cheerful repast. Lady Pelham was luckily in good humour, and therefore condescended to permit others to be so too. Laura, happily for herself, possessed a faculty not common to beauties--she could be contented where another was the chief object of attention; and she was actually enjoying the court that was paid to her friend, when, accidentally raising the vine leaf which held the fruit she was eating, she observed some verses pencilled on the rustic table in a handwriting familiar to her recollection.
Sudden instinct made her hastily replace the leaf, and steal a glance to see whether any other eye had followed hers. No one seemed to have noticed her; but Laura's gaiety had vanished. The lines were distinct, as if recently traced; and Laura's blood ran chill at the thought, that, had she even a few hours sooner visited this spot, she might have met Colonel Hargrave. "He may still be near," thought she; and she wished, though she could not propose, to be instantly gone. None of her companions, however, seemed inclined to move. They continued their merriment, while Laura, her mind wholly occupied with one subject, again stole a glimpse of the writing. It was undoubtedly Hargrave's; and, deaf to all that was passing around her, she fell into a reverie, which was first interrupted by the company rising to depart.
Though she had been in such haste to be gone, she was now the last to go. In her momentary glance at the sonnet, she had observed that it was inscribed to her. "Of what possible consequence," thought she, "can it be to me?" yet she lingered behind to read it. In language half passionate, half melancholy, it complained of the pains of absence and the cruelty of too rigid virtue; but it broke off abruptly, as if the writer had been suddenly interrupted.
So rapidly did Laura glance over the lines, that her companions had advanced but a few paces, ere she was hastening to follow them. On reaching the porch, she saw that the walk was just entered by two gentlemen. An instant convinced her that one of them was Hargrave. Neither shriek nor exclamation announced this discovery, but Laura, turning pale, shrank back out of view. Her first feeling was eager desire of escape; her first thought, that returning to the inner apartment, she might thence spring from the lofty terrace, on the verge of which the hermitage was reared. She was deterred, by recollecting the absurd appearance of such an escape, and the surprise and confusion it would occasion. But what was to be done? There was no third way of leaving the place where she stood, and if she remained, in a few moments Hargrave would be there.
These ideas darted so confusedly through her mind, that it seemed rather by instinct than design that she drew her hat over her face, and doubled her veil in order to pass him unnoticed. She again advanced to the porch; but perceived, not without consternation, that Hargrave had joined her party, and stood talking to Lady Pelham in an attitude of easy cordiality. Laura did not comment upon the free morality which accorded such a reception to such a character; for she was sick at heart, and trembled in every limb. Now there was no escape. He would certainly accost her, and she must answer him--answer him without emotion!--or how would Mr De Courcy, how would his mother, construe her weakness? What would Hargrave himself infer from it? What, but that her coldness sprang from mere passing anger--or, more degrading still, from jealousy? The truant crimson now rushed back unbidden; and Laura proceeded with slow but steady steps.
During her short walk she continued to struggle with herself. "Let me but this once command myself," said she. "And wherefore should I not? It is he who ought to shrink; it is he who ought to tremble!" Yet it was Laura who trembled, when, advancing towards her, Lady Pelham introduced her to Colonel Hargrave as her niece. Laura's inclination of the head, cold as indifference could make it, did not seem to acknowledge former intimacy; and when Hargrave, with a manner respectful even to timidity, claimed her acquaintance, she gave a short answer of frozen civility, and turned away. Shrinking from even the slightest converse with him, she hastily passed on; then, determined to afford him no opportunity of speaking to her, she glided in between Mrs De Courcy, who stood anxiously watching her and Harriet, who was studying the contour of Hargrave's face; and offering an arm to each, she gently drew them forward.
Mr Bolingbroke immediately joined them, and entered into conversation with Harriet; while Mrs De Courcy continued to read the legible countenance of Laura, who silently walked on, revolving in her mine the difference between this and her last unexpected meeting with Hargrave. The freedom of his address to the unfriended girl who was endeavouring to exchange the labour of her hands for a pittance to support existence (a freedom which had once found sympathetic excuse in the breast of Laura), she now, not without indignation, contrasted with the respect offered to Lady Pelham's niece, surrounded by the rich and the respectable. Yet while she remembered what had then been her half-affected coldness, her ill-restrained sensibility, and compared them with the total alienation of heart which she now experienced, she could not stifle a sigh which rose at the recollection, that in her the raptures of love and joy were chilled never more to warm. "Would that my preference had been more justly directed," thought she, her eye unconsciously wandering to De Courcy; "but that is all over now!"
From idle regrets, Laura soon turned to more characteristic meditation upon the conduct most suitable for her to pursue. Hargrave had joined her party; had been acknowledged, by some of them at least, as an acquaintance; and had particularly attached himself to Lady Pelham, with whom he followed in close conversation. Laura thought he would probably take the first opportunity of addressing himself to her; and if her manner towards him corresponded with the bent of her feelings, consciousness made her fear, that in her distance and constraint Lady Pelham's already suspicious eye would read more than merely dislike to a vicious character. Hargrave himself, too, might mistake what so nearly resembled her former manner for the veil of her former sentiments. She might possibly escape speaking to him for the present; but if he was fixed in the neighbourhood (and something of the woman whispered that he would not leave it immediately), they would probably meet where to avoid him was not in her power. After some minutes of close consideration, she concluded, that to treat Colonel Hargrave with easy civil indifference best accorded with what she owed to her own dignity; and was best calculated, if he retained one spark of sensibility or discernment, to convince him that her sentiments had undergone an irrevocable change. This method, therefore, she determined to pursue; making, with a sigh, this grand proviso, that she should find it practicable.
Mrs De Courcy, who guessed the current of her thoughts, suffered it to proceed without interruption; and it was not till Laura relaxed her brow, and raised her head, like one who has taken his resolution, that her companion, stopping, complained of fatigue; proposing, as her own carriage was not in waiting, to borrow Lady Pelham's, and return home, leaving the other ladies to be conveyed in Mrs Penelope's sociable to Norwood, where the party was to dine. Not willing to direct the proposal to Laura, upon whose account chiefly it was made, she turned to Mrs Penelope, and inquired whether she did not feel tired with her walk; but that lady, who piqued herself upon being a hale active woman of her age, declared herself able for much greater exertion, and said she would walk till she had secured an appetite for dinner. Laura, who had modestly held back till Mrs Penelope's decision was announced, now eagerly offered her attendance, which Mrs De Courcy, with a little dissembled hesitation, accepted, smiling to perceive how well she had divined her young favourite's inclinations.
The whole party attended them to the spot where the carriages were waiting. On reaching them, Mr Bolingbroke, handing in Mrs De Courcy, left Laura's side for the first time free to Hargrave, who instantly occupied it; while Montague, the drops standing on his forehead, found himself shackled between Mrs Penelope and Miss Bolingbroke. "Ever dear, ever revered Miss Montreville--" Hargrave began in an insinuating whisper. "Sir!" cried Laura, starting with indignant surprise. "Nay, start not," continued he, in an under voice; "I have much, much to say. Lady Pelham allows me to visit Walbourne; will you permit me to--" Laura had not yet studied her lesson of easy civility, and therefore the courtesy of a slight inclination of the head was contradicted by the tone in which she interrupted him, saying, "I never presume, sir, to select Lady Pelham's visitors."
She had reached the door of the carriage, and Hargrave took her hand to assist her in entering. Had Laura been prepared, she would have suffered him, though reluctantly, to do her this little service; but he took her unawares, and snatching back her hand as from the touch of a loathsome reptile, she sprang unassisted into her seat.
As the carriage drove off, Mrs De Courcy again apologised for separating Laura from her companions; "Though I know not," added she, "whether I should not rather take-credit for withdrawing you from such dangerous society. All ladies who have stray hearts must guard them either in person or by proxy, since this formidable Colonel Hargrave has come among us." "He has fortunately placed the more respectable part of us in perfect security," returned Laura, with a smile and voice of such unembarrassed simplicity as fully satisfied her examiner.
Had Laura spent a lifetime in studying to give pain, which, indeed, was not in all her thoughts, she could not have inflicted a sharper sting on the proud heart of Hargrave, than by the involuntary look and gesture with which she quitted him. The idea of inspiring with disgust, unmixed, irresistible disgust, the woman upon whose affections, or rather upon whose passions, he had laboured so zealously and so long, had ever been more than be could bear, even when the expression of her dislike had no witness; but now she had published it to chattering misses and prying old maids, and more favoured rivals. Hargrave bit his lip till the blood came; and if the lightning of the eye could scathe, his wrath bad been far more deadly to others. After walking for some minutes surly and apart, he began to comfort himself with the hopes of future revenge. "She had loved him, passionately loved him, and he was certain she could not be so utterly changed. Her behaviour was either all affectation, or a conceit of the strength of her own mind, which all these clever women were so vain of. But the spark still lurked somewhere, whatever she might imagine, and if he could turn her own weapons against herself." Then, recollecting that he had resolved to cultivate Lady Pelham's favour, he resumed his station by her side, and was again the courtly, insinuating Colonel Hargrave.
Hargrave had lately acquired a friend, or rather an adviser (the dissolute have no friends), who was admirably calculated to supply the deficiencies of his character as a man of pleasure. Indeed, except in so far as pleasure was his constant aim, no term could with less justice have been applied to Hargrave; for his life was chiefly divided between the goadings of temptations to which he himself lent arms, and the pangs of self-reproach which he could not exclude, and would not render useful. The strait and narrow way he never had a thought of treading, but his wanderings were more frequent than he intended, his returns more lingering. The very strength of his passions made him incapable of deep or persevering deceit; he was humane to the suffering that pressed itself on his notice, if it came at a convenient season; and he was disinterested, if neglect of gold deserve the name. Lambert, his new adviser, had no passions, no humanity, no neglect of gold. He was a gamester.
The practice of this profession--for though a man of family and fortune, he made it a profession--had rendered him skilful to discern, and remorseless to use, the weaknesses of his fellow-creatures. His estate lay contiguous to----, the little town where Hargrave had been quartered when he visited at Norwood; but the year which Hargrave passed at---- was spent by Lambert almost entirely in London. He had returned, however, to the country, had been introduced to Hargrave, and had just fixed upon him as an easy prey, when the soldier was saved for a time, by receiving intimation of his promotion, and orders to join his regiment in a distant county.
They met again in an evil hour, just when Hargrave had half determined to abandon as fruitless his search after Laura. The necessity of a stimulant was as strong as ever. Another necessity, too, was strong, for £10,000 of damages had been awarded to Lord Bellamer; Hargrave could not easily raise the money, and Lord Lincourt refused to advance a shilling. "A pretty expensive pleasure has this Lady Bellamer been to me," said Hargrave, bestowing on her ladyship a coarse enough epithet; for even fine gentlemen will sometimes call women what they have found them to be. He was prevailed on to try the gaming-table for the supply of both his wants, and found that pleasure fully twice as expensive. His friend introduced him to some of those accommodating gentlemen who lend money at illegal interest, and was even generous enough to supply him when they would venture no more upon an estate in reversion. Lambert had accidentally heard of the phoenix which had appeared at Walbourne; and on comparing the description he received of her with that to which, with politic patience, he had often listened, he had no doubt of having found the object of Hargrave's search. But as it did not suit his present views that the lover should renew the pursuit, he dropt not a hint of his discovery, listening, with a gamester's insensibility, to the regrets which burst forth amidst the struggles of expiring virtue, for her whose soft influence would have led to peace and honour.
At last a dispute arising between the worthy Mr Lambert and his respectable coadjutors, as to the partition of the spoil, it occurred to him that he could more effectually monopolise his prey in the country; and thither, accordingly, he was called by pressing business. There he was presently so fortunate as to discover a Miss Montreville, on whose charms he descanted in a letter to Hargrave in such terms, that though he averred she could not be Hargrave's Miss Montreville, Hargrave was sure she could be no other; and, as his informer expected, arrived in ----shire as soon as a chaise and four could convey him thither.
Lambert had now a difficult game to play, for he had roused the leading passion, and the collateral one could act but feebly; but they who often tread the crooked path, find pleasure in its intricacy, vainly conceiting that it gives proof of their sagacity, and Lambert looked with pleasure on the obstacles in his way. He trusted, that while the master-spirit detained Hargrave within the circle of Walbourne, he might dexterously practise with the lesser imp of evil.
Had his letter afforded a clue to Laura's residence, Hargrave would have flown direct to Walbourne, but he was first obliged to stop at ----; and Lambert, with some difficulty, persuaded him, that, as he was but slightly known to Lady Pelham, and probably in disgrace with her protegee, it would be more politic to delay his visit, and first meet them at Lord ----'s, whither he had information they were to go on the following day. "You will take your girl at unawares," said he, "if she be your girl; and that is no bad way of feeling your ground." The vanity of extorting from Laura's surprise some unequivocal token of his power, prevailed on the lover to delay the interview till the morning; and after spending half the evening in dwelling on the circumstances of his last unexpected meeting with her, which distance softened in his imagination to more than its actual tenderness, he early in the morning set out with Lambert for ----, where he took post in the hermitage, as a place which no stranger omitted to visit.
Growing weary of waiting, he dispatched Lambert as a scout; and, lest he should miss Laura, remained himself in the hermitage, till his emissary brought him information that the party were in the picture gallery. Thither he hastened; but the party had already left the house, and thus Laura had accidental warning of his approach. No reception could have been more mortifying to him, who was prepared to support her sinking under the struggle of love and duty, of jealousy and pride. No struggle was visible; or, if there was, it was but a faint strife between native courtesy and strong dislike. He had boasted to Lambert of her tenderness; the specimen certainly was not flattering. Most of her companions were little more gracious. De Courcy paid him no more attention than bare civility required. With the Bolingbrokes he was unacquainted, but the character of his companion was sufficient reason for their reserve. Lady Pelham was the only person present who soothed his wounded vanity. Pleased with the prospect of unravelling the mystery into which she had pried so long in vain, charmed with the easy gallantry and adroit flattery of which Hargrave, in his cooler moments, was consummate master, she accepted his attentions with great cordiality; while he had the address tacitly to persuade her that they were a tribute to her powers of entertaining.
Before they parted, she had converted her permission to visit Walbourne into a pressing invitation, nay, had even hinted to De Courcy the propriety of asking Colonel Hargrave to join the dinner party that day at Norwood. The hint, however, was not taken; and, therefore, in her way home, Lady Pelham indulged her fellow-travellers with sundry moral and ingenious reflections concerning the folly of being "righteous over much; "and on the alluring, accessible form of the true virtue, contrasted with the repulsive, bristly, hedgehog-like make of the false. Indeed, it must be owned that for the rest of the evening her ladyship's conversation was rather sententious than agreeable; but the rest of the party, in high good humour, overlooked her attacks, or parried them in play.
Montague had watched the cold composure of Laura on Hargrave's first accosting her, and seen the gesture which repulsed him at parting; and though in the accompa[n]ying look he lost volumes, his conclusions, on the whole, were favourable. Still a doubt arose whether her manner sprang not from the fleeting resentment of affection; and he was standing mournfully calculating the effects of Hargrave's perseverance, when his mother, in passing him as she followed her guests to the eating-room, said in an emphatical whisper, "I am satisfied. There is no worm in the bud."
Mrs De Courcy's encouraging assertion was confirmed by the behaviour of Laura herself; for she maintained her usual serene cheerfulness, nor could even the eye of love detect more than one short fit of abstraction; and then the subject of thought seemed any thing rather than pleasing retrospect, or glad anticipation. The company of his friends, Harriet's pointedly favourable reception of Mr Bolingbroke's assiduities, and the rise of his own hopes, all enlivened Montague to unusual vivacity, and led him to a deed of daring which he had often projected, without finding courage to perform it. He thought if he could speak of Hargrave to Laura, and watch her voice, her eye, her complexion, all his doubts would be solved. With this view, contriving to draw her a little apart, he ventured, for the first time, to name his rival; mentioned Lady Pelham's hint; and, faltering, asked Laura whether he had not done wrong in resisting it?
"Really," answered Laura with a very naive smile, and a very faint blush, "I don't wonder you hesitate in offering me such a piece of flattery as to ask my opinion."
"Do not tax me with flattering you," said De Courcy, earnestly; "I would as soon flatter an apostle; but tell me candidly what you think."
"Then, candidly," said Laura, raising her mild unembarrassed eye to his, "I think you did right, perfectly right, in refusing your countenance to a person of Colonel Hargrave's character. While vice is making her encroachments on every hand, it is not for the friends of virtue to remove the ancient landmarks."
Though this was one of the stalest pieces of morality that ever Montague had heard Laura utter, he could scarcely refrain from repaying it by clasping her to his heart. Convinced that her affections were free, he could not contain his rapture, but exclaimed, "Laura, you are an angel! and, if I did not already love beyond all power of expression, I should be--" He raised his eyes to seek those of Laura, and met his mother's, fixed on him with an expression that compelled him to silence.
"You should be in love with me;" said Laura, laughing, and filling up the sentence as she imagined it was meant to conclude. "Well, I shall be content with the second place."
Mrs De Courcy, who had approached them, now spoke on some indifferent subject, and saved her son from a very awkward attempt at explanation. She drew her chair close to Laura, and soon engaged her in a conversation so animated, that Montague forgot his embarrassment, and joined them with all his natural ease and cheerfulness. The infection of his ease and cheerfulness Laura had ever found irresistible. Flashes of wit and genius followed the collision of their minds; and the unstudied eloquence, the poetic imagery of her style, sprang forth at his touch, like blossoms in the steps of the fabled Flora.
Happy with her friends, Laura almost forgot the disagreeable adventure of the morning; and every look and word mutually bestowing pleasure, the little party were as happy as affection and esteem could make them, when Lady Pelham, with an aspect like a sea fog, and a voice suitably forbidding, inquired whether her niece would be pleased to go home, or whether she preferred sitting chattering there all night. Laura, without any sign of noticing the rudeness of this address, rose, and said she was quite ready to attend her ladyship. In vain did the De Courcys entreat her to prolong her visit till the morning. To dare to be happy without her concurrence, was treason against Lady Pelham's dignity; and unfortunately she was not in a humour to concur in the joy of any living thing. De Courcy's reserve towards her new favourite she considered as a tacit reproof of her own cordiality; and she had just such a conviction that the reproof was deserved, as to make her thoroughly out of humour with the reprover, with herself, and consequently with every body. Determined to interrupt pleasure which she would not share, the more her hosts pressed her to stay, the more she hastened her departure; and she mingled her indifferent good nights to them with more energetic reprimands to the tardiness of her coachman.
"Thank Heaven!" said she, thrusting herself into the corner of her carriage with that jerk in her motion which indicates a certain degree of irritation; "to-morrow we shall probably see a civilised being." A short pause followed. Laura's plain integrity and prudence had gained such ascendancy over Lady Pelham, that her niece's opinion was to her ladyship a kind of second conscience, having, indeed, much the same powers as the first--its sanction was necessary to her quiet, though it had not force to control her actions. On the present occasion, she wished above all things to know Laura's sentiments, but she would not condescend to ask them directly. "Colonel Hargrave's manners are quite those of a gentleman," she resumed. The remark was entirely ineffectual, for Laura coolly assented, without inquiring whether he were the civilised being whom Lady Pelham expected to see. Another pause. "Colonel Hargrave will be at Walbourne to-morrow," said Lady Pelham, the tone of her voice sharpening with impatience. "Will he, ma'am?" returned Laura, without moving a muscle. "If Miss Montreville has no objections," said Lady Pelham, converting, by a toss of her head, and a twist of her upper lip, the words of compliment into an insult. "Probably," said Laura, with a smile, "my objections would make no great difference." "Oh, to be sure!" returned Lady Pelham; "it would be lost labour to state them to such an obstinate, unreasonable person as I am! Well, I believe you are the first who ever accused me of obstinacy." If Lady Pelham expected a compliment to her pliability, she was disappointed; for Laura only answered, "I shall never presume to interfere in the choice of your ladyship's visitors."
That she should be thus compelled to be explicit, was more than Lady Pelham's temper could endure. Her eyes flashing with rage, "Superlative humility, indeed!" she exclaimed, with a sneer; but awed in spite of herself from the free expression of her fury, she muttered it within her shut teeth in a sentence of which the words "close" and "jesuitical" alone reached Laura's ear. A long and surly silence followed; Lady Pelham's pride and anger struggling with her desire to learn the foundation and extent of the disapprobation which she suspected that her conduct excited. The latter, at last, partly prevailed, though Lady Pelham still disdained direct consultation.
"Pray, Miss Montreville," said she, "if Colonel Hargrave's visits were to you, what mighty objections might your sanctity find to them!" Laura had long ago observed that a slight exertion of her spirit was the best quietus to her aunt's ill humour; and, therefore, addressing her with calm austerity, she said, "Any young woman, madam, who values her reputation, might object to Colonel Hargrave's visits, merely on the score of prudence. But even my 'superlative humility' does not reconcile me to company which I despise; and my 'sanctity,' as your ladyship is pleased to call it, rather shrinks from the violator of laws divine and human." Lady Pelham withdrew her eyes to escape a glance which they never could stand; but, bridling, she said, "Well, Miss Montreville, I am neither young nor sanctimonious, therefore your objections cannot apply to Colonel Hargrave's visits to me; and I am determined," continued she, speaking as if strength of voice denoted strength of resolution, "I am determined that I will not throw away the society of an agreeable man to gratify the whims of a parcel of narrow-minded bigots." To this attack Laura answered only by a smile. She smiled to see herself classed with the De Courcys, for she had no doubt that they were the "bigots" to whom Lady Pelham referred. She smiled, too, to observe that the boasted freedom of meaner minds is but a poor attempt to hide from themselves the restraint imposed by the opinions of the wise and good.
The carriage stopped, and Laura took sanctuary in her own apartment, but at supper she met her aunt with smiles of unaffected complacency; and, according to the plan which she invariably pursued, appeared to have forgotten Lady Pelham's fit of spleen; by that means enabling her aunt to recover from it with as little expense to her pride as possible.
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.