Lady Pelham was not disappointed in her expectation of seeing Colonel Hargrave on the following day. He called at Walbourne while her ladyship was still at her toilette, and was shown into the drawing-room, where Laura had already taken her station. She rose to receive him, with an air which showed that his visit gave her neither surprise nor pleasure, and motioning him to a distant seat, quietly resumed her occupation. Hargrave was a little disconcerted. He expected that Laura would shun him with marks of strong resentment, or perhaps with the agitation of offended love, and he was prepared for nothing but to entreat the audience which she now seemed inclined to offer him.
Lovers are so accustomed to accuse ladies of cruelty, and to find ladies take pleasure in being so accused, that unlooked-for kindness discomposes them, and a favour unhoped is generally a favour undesired. The consciousness of ill desert, the frozen serenity of Laura's manner, deprived Hargrave of courage to use the opportunity which she seemed voluntarily to throw in his way. He hesitated, he faltered; while, all unlike her former self, Laura appeared determined that he should make love, for she would not aid his dilemma even by a comment on the weather. All the timidity which formerly marked her demeanour was now transferred to his; and arranging her work with stoical composure, she raised her head to listen, as Hargrave, approaching her, stammered out an incoherent sentence expressive of his unalterable love, and his fears that he had offended almost beyond forgiveness.
Laura suffered him to conclude without interruption; then answered, in a voice mild but determined, "I had some hopes, sir, from your knowledge of my character and sentiments, that after what has passed, you could have entertained no doubts on this subject. Yet, lest even a shadow of suspense should rest on your mind, I have remained here this morning on purpose to end it. I sincerely grieve to hear that you still retain the partiality you have been pleased to express, since it is now beyond my power to make even the least return."
The utmost bitterness of reproach would not have struck so chilly on the heart of Hargrave as these words, and the manner in which they were uttered. From the principles of Laura he had indeed dreaded much, but he had feared nothing from her indifference. He had feared that duty might obtain a partial victory, but he had never doubted that inclination would survive the struggle. With a mixture of doubt, surprise, and anguish, he continued to gaze upon her after she was silent; then starting, he exclaimed, "I will not believe it; it is impossible. Oh, Laura, choose some other way to stab, for I cannot bear this!" "It pains me," said Laura, in a voice of undissembled concern, "to add disappointment to the pangs which you cannot but feel; yet it were most blameable now to cherish in you the faintest expectation." "Stop!" cried Hargrave, vehemently, "if you would not have me utterly undone. I have never known peace or innocence but in the hope of your love; leave me a dawning of that hope, however distant. Nay, do not look as if it were impossible. When you thought me a libertine, a seducer--all that you can now think me--you suffered me to hope. Let me but begin my trial now, and all womankind shall not lure me from you."
"Ah!" said Laura, "when I dreamt of the success of that trial, a strange infatuation hung over me. Now it has passed away for ever. Sincerely do I wish and pray for your repentance, but I can no longer offer to reward it. My desire for your reformation will henceforth be as disinterested as sincere."
Half distracted with the cutting calmness of her manner, so changed since the time when every feature spoke the struggles of the heart, when the mind's whole strength seemed collected to resist its tenderness, Hargrave again vehemently refused to believe in her indifference. "'Tis but a few short months," he cried, grasping her hand with a violence that made her turn pale; "'tis but a few short months since you loved me with your whole soul, since you said that your peace depended upon my return to virtue. And dare you answer it to yourself to cast away the influence, the only influence that can secure me?"
"If I have any influence with you," returned Laura, with a look and attitude of earnest entreaty, "let it but this once prevail, and then be laid aside for ever. Let me persuade you to a review of your conduct; to the consideration of your prospects as an accountable being, of the vengeance that awaits the impenitent, of the escape offered in the gospel. As you value your happiness, let me thus far prevail. Or if it will move you more," continued she, the tears gushing from her eyes, "I will beseech you to grant this, my only request, in memory of a love that mourned your unworthiness almost unto death."
The sight of her emotion revived Hargrave's hopes; and casting himself at her feet, he passionately declared, while she shuddered at the impious sentiment, that he asked no heaven but her love, and cared not what were his fate if she were lost. "Ah, sir," said she, with pious solemnity, "believe me, the time is not distant when the disappointment of this passion will seem to you a sorrow light as the baffled sports of childhood. Believe the testimony of one who but lately drew near to the gates of the grave. On a death-bed, guilt appears the only real misery; and lesser evils are lost amidst its horrors, like shadows in the midnight gloom."
The ideas which Laura was labouring to introduce into the mind of Hargrave were such as he had of late too successfully endeavoured to exclude. They had intruded like importunate creditors; till, oft refused admittance, they had ceased to return. The same arts which he had used to disguise from himself the extent of his criminality, he now naturally employed to extenuate it in the sight of Laura. He assured her that he was less guilty than she supposed; that she could form no idea of the force of the temptation which had overcome him; that Lady Bellamer was less the victim of his passions than of her own. He vehemently protested that he despised and abhorred the wanton who had undone him; and that, even in the midst of a folly for which he now execrated himself, his affections had never wandered from their first object. While he spoke, Laura in confusion cast down her eyes, and offended modesty suffused her face and neck with crimson. She could, indeed, form no idea of a heart which, attached to one woman, could find any temptation in the allurements of another. But when he ended, virtuous indignation flashing in her countenance, "For shame, sir!" said she, "If any thing could degrade you in my eyes, it were this mean attempt to screen yourself behind the partner of your wickedness. Does it lessen your guilt that it had not even the poor excuse of passion; or think you that even in the hours of a weakness for which you have given me such just reason to despise myself, I could have prized the affections of a heart so depraved? You say you detest your crime; I fear you only detest its punishment; for, were you really repentant, my opinion, the opinion of the whole world, would seem to you a trifle unworthy of regard, and the utmost bitterness of censure be but an echo to your own self-upbraidings."
Hargrave had no inclination to discuss the nature of repentance. His sole desire was to wrest from Laura some token, however slight, of returning tenderness. For this purpose he employed all the eloquence which he had often found successful in similar attempts. But no two things can be more different in their effects, than the language of passion poured into the sympathising bosom of mutual love, or addressed to the dull ear of indifference. The expressions which Laura once thought capable of warming the coldest heart, seemed now the mere ravings of insanity; the lamentations which she once thought might have softened rocks, now appeared the weak complainings of a child for his lost toy. With a mixture of pity and disgust she listened and replied, till the entrance of Lady Pelham put a period to the dialogue, and Laura quitted the room.
Lady Pelham easily perceived that the conversation had been particular, and Hargrave did not long leave her in doubt as to the subject. He acquainted her with his pretensions to Laura, and begged her sanction to his addresses; assuring her that his intercourse with Lady Bellamer was entirely broken off, and that his marriage would secure his permanent reformation. He complimented Lady Pelham upon her liberality of sentiment and knowledge of the world; from both of which he had hopes, he said, that she would not consider one error as sufficient to blast his character. Lady Pelham made a little decent hesitation on the score of Lady Bellamer's prior claims, but was assured that no engagement had ever subsisted there. "She hoped Lord Lincourt would not be averse." She was told that Lord Lincourt anxiously desired to see his nephew settled. "She hoped Colonel Hargrave was resolved that his married life should be irreproachable. Laura had a great deal of sensibility; it would break her heart to be neglected; and Lady Pelham was sure, that in that case the thought of having consented to the dear child's misery would be more than she could support!" Her ladyship was vanquished by an assurance, that for Laura to be neglected by her happy husband was utterly impossible.
"Laura's inclinations, then, must be consulted; every thing depended upon her concurrence, for the sweet girl had really so wound herself round Lady Pelham's heart, that positively her ladyship could not bear to give her a moment's uneasiness, or to press her upon a subject to which she was at all averse." And, strange as it may seem, Lady Pelham at that moment believed herself incapable of distressing the person whom, in fact, she tormented with ceaseless ingenuity! Hargrave answered by confessing his fears that he was for the present less in favour than he had once been; but he disclosed Laura's former confessions of partiality, and insinuated his conviction that it was smothered rather than extinguished.
Lady Pelham could now account for Laura's long illness and low spirits; and she listened with eager curiosity to the solution of the enigma which had so long perplexed her. She considered whether she should relate to the lover the sorrows he had caused. She judged (for Lady Pelham often judged properly) that it would be indelicate thus to proclaim to him the extent of his power; but with the usual inconsistency between her judgment and her practice, in half an hour she had informed him of all that she had observed, and hinted all that she suspected. Hargrave listened, was convinced, and avowed his conviction), that Lady Pelham's influence was alone necessary to secure his success. Her ladyship said, "That she should feel some delicacy in using any strong influence with her niece, as the amiable orphan had no friend but herself, had owed somewhat to her kindness, and might be biassed by gratitude against her own inclination. The fortune which she intended bequeathing to Laura might by some be thought to confer a right to advise; but, for her part, she thought her little all was no more than due to the person whose tender assiduities filled the blank which had been left in her ladyship's maternal heart by the ingratitude and disobedience of her child." This sentiment was pronounced in a tone so pathetic, and in language so harmonious, that though it did not for a moment impose upon her hearer, it deceived Lady Pelham herself; and she shed tears, which she actually imagined to be forced from her by the mingled emotions of gratitude and of disappointed tenderness.
Lady Pelham had now entered on a subject inexhaustible; her own feelings, her own misfortunes, her own dear self. Hargrave, who in his hours of tolerable composure was the most polite of men, listened, or appeared to listen, with unconquerable patience, till he fortunately recollected an appointment which his interest in her ladyship's conversation had before banished from his mind, when he took his leave, bearing with him a very gracious invitation to repeat his visit.
With him departed Lady Pelham's fit of sentimentality; and in five minutes she had dried her eyes, composed the paragraph which was to announce the marriage of Lord Lincourt (for she killed off the old peer without ceremony) to the lovely heiress of the amiable Lady Pelham; taken possession of her niece's barouche and four; and heard herself announced as the benefactress of this new wonder of the world of fashion. She would cut off her rebellious daughter with a shilling; give her up to the beggary and obscurity which she had chosen, and leave her whole fortune to Lady Lincourt; for so, in the fulness of her content, she called Laura. After some time enjoying her niece's prospects, or, to speak more justly, her own, she began to think of discovering how near they might be to their accomplishment, and for this purpose she summoned Laura to a conference.
Lady Pelham loved nothing on earth but herself; yet vanity, gratified curiosity, and, above all, the detection of a mere human weakness, reducing Laura somewhat more to her own level, awakened in her breast an emotion resembling affection, as, throwing her arms round her niece, she, in language half sportive, half tender, declared her knowledge of Laura's secret, and reproached her with having concealed it so well. Insulted, wronged, and forsaken by Hargrave, Laura had kept his secret inviolable, for she had no right to disclose it; but she scorned, by any evasion, to preserve her own. Glowing with shame and mortification, she stood silently shrinking from Lady Pelham's looks; till, a little recovering herself, she said, "I deserve to be thus humbled for my folly in founding my regards, not on the worth of their object, but on my own imagination; and more, if it be possible, do I deserve, for exposing my weakness to one who has been so ungenerous as to boast of it. But it is some compensation to my pride," continued she, raising her eyes, "that my disorder is cured beyond the possibility of relapse." Lady Pelham smiled at Laura's security, which she did not consider as an infallible sign of safety. It was in vain that Laura proceeded solemnly to protest her indifference. Lady Pelham could allow for self-deceit in another's case, though she never suspected it in her own. Vain were Laura's comments upon Hargrave's character; they were but the fond revilings of offended love. Laura did not deny her former preference; she even owned that it was the sudden intelligence of Hargrave's crimes which had reduced her to the brink of the grave--therefore Lady Pelham was convinced that a little perseverance, would fan the smothered flame; and perseverance, she hoped, would not be wanting.
Nevertheless, as her ladyship balanced her fondness for contradicting by her aversion to being contradicted, and as Laura was too much in earnest to study the qualifying tone, the conference concluded rather less amicably than it began; though it ended by Lady Pelham's saying, not very consistently with her sentiments an hour before, that she would never cease to urge so advantageous a match, conceiving that she had a right to influence the choice of one whom she would make the heiress of £40,000. Laura was going to insist that all influence would be ineffectual, but her aunt quitted her without suffering her to reply. She would have followed to represent the injustice of depriving Mrs Herbert of her natural rights; but she desisted on recollecting that Lady Pelham's purposes were, like wedges, never fixed but by resistance.
The time had been when Lady Pelham's fortune would have seemed to Hargrave as dust in the balance, joined with the possession of Laura. He had gamed, had felt the want of money; and money was no longer indifferent to him. But Laura's dower was still light in his estimation, compared with its weight in that of Lambert, to whom he incidentally mentioned Lady Pelham's intention. That prudent person calculated that £40,000 would form a very handsome addition to a fund upon which he intended to draw pretty freely. He had little doubt of Hargrave's success : he had never known any woman with whom such a lover could fail. He thought he could lead his friend to bargain for immediate possession of part of his bride's portion, and, for certainty of the rest in reversion, before parting with his liberty. He allowed two, or perhaps even three, months for the duration of Laura's influence; during which time he feared he should have little of her husband's company at the gaming-table; but from thenceforth he judged that the day would be his own, and that he should soon possess himself of Hargrave's property, so far as it was alienable. He considered that, in the meantime, Laura would furnish attraction sufficient to secure Hargrave's stay at ----, and he trusted to his own dexterity for improving that circumstance to the best advantage. He failed not, therefore, to encourage the lover's hopes, and bestowed no small ridicule on the idea that a girl of nineteen should desert a favourite on account of a little gallantry.
Cool cunning would engage with fearful odds against imprudence, if it could set bounds to the passions, as well as direct their course. But it is often deceived in estimating the force of feelings, which it knows only by their effects. Lambert soon found that he had opened the passage to a torrent which bore all before it. The favourite stimulus found, its temporary substitute was almost disregarded; and Hargrave, intoxicated with his passion, tasted sparingly of the poisoned cup which his friend designed for him. His time and thoughts were again devoted to Laura, and gaming was only sought as a relief from the disappointment and vexation which generally attended his pursuit. The irritation of his mind, however, made amends for the lessened number of opportunities for plundering him, by rendering it easier to take advantage of those which remained.
The insinuating manners and elegant person of Hargrave gained daily on the favour of Lady Pelham; for the great as well as the little vulgar are the slaves of mere externals. She permitted his visits at home, and his attendance abroad, expatiating frequently on the liberality of sentiment which she thus displayed. At first these encomiums on her own conduct were used only to disguise from herself and others her consciousness of its impropriety; but she repeated them till she actually believed them just, and considered herself as extending a charitable hand to rescue an erring brother from the implacable malignity of the world.
She was indefatigable in her attempts to promote his success with Laura. She lost no opportunity of pressing the subject. She obstinately refused to be convinced of the possibility of overcoming a strong prepossession. Laura, in an evil hour for herself, thoughtlessly replied, that affection was founded on the belief of excellence, and must of course give way when the foundation was removed. This observation had just fallacy sufficient for Lady Pelham's purpose. She took it for her text, and harangued upon it with all the zeal and perseverance of disputation. She called it Laura's theory; and insisted that, like other theorists, she would shut her eyes against the plainest facts, nay, stifle the feelings of her own mind, rather than admit what might controvert her opinion. She cited all the instances which her memory could furnish of agricultural, and chemical, and metaphysical theorism; and with astonishing ingenuity, contrived to draw a parallel between each of them and Laura's case. It was in vain that Laura qualified, almost retracted, her unlucky observation. Her adversary would not suffer her to desert the untenable ground. Delighted with her victory, she returned again and again to the attack, after the vanquished had appealed to her mercy; and much more than "thrice she slew the slain."
Sick of arguing about the possibility of her indifference, Laura at length confined herself to simple assertions of the fact. Lady Pelham at first merely refused her belief, and with provoking pity, rallied her niece upon her self-deceit; but finding that she corroborated her words by a corresponding behaviour to Hargrave, her ladyship's temper betrayed its accustomed infirmity. She peevishly reproached Laura with taking a coquettish delight in giving pain; insisted that her conduct was a tissue of cruelty and affectation; and upbraided her with disingenuousness in pretending an indifference which she could not feel. "And does your ladyship communicate this opinion to Colonel Hargrave?" said Laura one day, fretted almost beyond her patience by a remonstrance of two hours' continuance. "To be sure I do," returned Lady Pelham. "In common humanity I will not allow him to suffer more from your perverseness than I can avoid." "Well, madam," said Laura, with a sigh and shrug of impatient resignation, "nothing remains but that I show a consistency, which, at least, is not common to affectation."
Lady Pelham's representations had their effect upon Hargrave. They brought balm to his wounded pride, and he easily suffered them to counteract the effect of Laura's calm and uniform assurances of her indifference. While he listened to these, her apparent candour and simplicity, the regret she expressed at the necessity of giving pain, brought temporary conviction to his mind; and, with transports of alternate rage and grief, he now execrated her inconstancy, then his own unworthiness; now abjured her, then the vices which had deprived him of her affection. But the joint efforts of Lady Pelham and Lambert always revived hopes sufficient to make him continue a pursuit which he had not indeed the fortitude to relinquish.
His love (if we must give that name to a selfish desire, mingled at times with every ungentle feeling) had never been so ardent. The well-known principle of our nature which adds charms to what is unattainable, lent new attractions to Laura's really improved loveliness. The smile which was reserved for others seemed but the more enchanting; the hand which he was forbidden to touch seemed but the more soft and snowy; the form which was kept sacred from his approach, bewitched him with more resistless graces, Hargrave had been little accustomed to suppress any of his feelings, and he gave vent to this with an entire neglect of the visible uneasiness which it occasioned to its object. He employed the private interviews which Lady Pelham contrived to extort for him, in the utmost vehemence of complaint, protestation, and entreaty. He laboured to awaken the pity of Laura; he even condescended to appeal to her ambition; and persevered, in spite of unequivocal denials, till Laura, disgusted, positively refused ever again to admit him without witnesses.
His public attentions were, if possible, still more distressing to her. Encouraged by Lady Pelham, he, notwithstanding the almost repulsive coldness of Laura's manner, became her constant attendant. He pursued her wherever she went; placed himself, in defiance of propriety, so as to monopolise her conversation; and seemed to have laid aside all his distinguishing politeness, while he neglected every other woman to devote his assiduities to her alone. He claimed the station by her side, till Laura had the mortification to observe that others resigned it at his approach; he snatched every opportunity of whispering his adulations in her ear; and far from affecting any concealment in his preference, seemed to claim the character of her acknowledged adorer.
It is impossible to express the vexation with which Laura endured this indelicate pre-eminence. Had Hargrave been the most irreproachable of mankind, she would have shrunk from such obtrusive marks of his partiality; but her sense of propriety was no less wounded by the attendance of such a companion, than her modesty was shocked by her being thus dragged into the notice, and committed to the mercy, of the public. The exclusive attention of the handsome Colonel Hargrave, the mirror of gallantry, the future Lord Lincourt, was not, however undesired, to he possessed unenvied. Those who unsuccessfully angled for his notice, avenged themselves on her to whom they imputed their failure, by looks of scorn, and by sarcastic remarks, which they sometimes contrived should reach the ear of the innocent object of their malice. Laura, unspeakably averse to being the subject of even laudatory observation, could sometimes scarcely restrain the tears of shame and mortification that were wrung from her by attacks which she could neither resent nor escape.
In spite of the natural sweetness of her temper, she was sometimes tempted to retort upon Colonel Hargrave the vexation which he caused to her; and his officiousness almost compelled her to forsake the civility within the bounds of which she had determined to confine her coldness. He haunted her walks, stole upon her unannounced, detained her almost by force at these accidental meetings, or at those which he obtained by the favour of Lady Pelham. His whole conduct conspired to make him an object of real dread to Laura, though her watchful self-command and habitual benevolence preserved him from her aversion.
Sometimes she could not help wondering at the obstinacy of her persecutor. "Surely," said she to him, "after all I have said, after the manner in which I have said it, you cannot expect any fruit from all these rhapsodies; you must merely think your honour bound to keep them up, at whatever hazard to the credit of your understanding." Laura had never herself submitted to be driven into a course of actions contrary to reason, and it never occurred to her that her lover had no reason for his conduct, except that he was not sufficiently master of himself to desist from his pursuit.
From the importunities of Hargrave, however, Laura could sometimes escape. Though they were frequent, they were of necessity intermitting. He could not always be at Walbourne; he could not intrude into her apartment. She visited sometimes where he was not admitted, or she could decline the invitation which she knew extended to him. But her persecutions by Lady Pelham had no intermission; from them she had no retreat. Her chamber was no sanctuary from so familiar a friend; and the presence of strangers only served to exercise her ladyship in that ingenious species of conversation which addresses to the sense of one of the company, what it conveys to the ear of the rest.
For some time she employed all her forces in combating Laura's supposed affectation; and when, not without extreme difficulty, she was convinced that she strove against a phantom of her own creation, she next employed her efforts to alter her niece's determination. She tried to rouse her ambition; and again and again expatiated on all the real and on all the imaginary advantages of wealth and title. The theme in her ladyship's hands seemed inexhaustible, though Laura repeatedly declared that no earthly thing could be less in her esteem than distinctions which she must share with such a person as Hargrave. Every day and all day, the subject was canvassed, and the oft-confuted argument vamped up anew, till Laura was thoroughly weary of the very names of rank, and influence, and coronets, and coaches.
Next, her ladyship was eloquent upon Laura's implacability. "Those who were so very unforgiving," she supposed, "were conscious that they had no need to be forgiven. Such people might pretend to be Christians, but in her opinion such pretensions were mere hypocrisy." Laura stood amazed at the strength of self-deception which could produce this sentiment from lips which had pronounced inextinguishable resentment against an only child. Recovering herself, she calmly made the obvious reply, "That she entertained no enmity against Hargrave; that, on the contrary, she sincerely wished him every blessing, and the best of all blessings, a renewed mind; but that the Christian precept was never meant to make the vicious and the impure the denizens of our bosoms." It might be thought that such a reply was quite sufficient; but Lady Pelham possessed one grand qualification for a disputant: she defied conviction. She could shift, and turn, and bewilder, till she found herself precisely at the point from whence she set out.
She had a practice, too, of all others the most galling to an ingenuous and independent spirit--she would invent a set of opinions and sentiments, and then argue upon them as if they were real. It was in vain for Laura to disclaim them. Lady Pelham could prove incontrovertibly that they were Laura's sentiments; or, which was the same thing, proceeded as if she had proved it. She insisted that Laura acted on a principle of revenge against Hargrave, for the slight his inconstancy had put upon her; and argued most convincingly on the folly and wickedness of a revengeful spirit. Laura in vain protested her innocence. Lady Pelham was certain of the fact; and she dilated on the guilt of such a sentiment, and extenuated the temporary secession of Hargrave, till a bystander must have concluded that Laura was the delinquent, and he her harmless victim. Her ladyship declared, that "she did not wonder at her niece's obduracy. She had never in her life known a person of cool temper who was capable of forgiving. She had reason, for her own part, to be thankful that, if she had the failings of a warm temper, she had its advantages too. She had never, except in one instance, known what it was to feel permanent displeasure."
On this topic Lady Pelham had the more room for her eloquence, because it admitted of no reply; and perhaps for this reason it was the sooner exhausted; for it had not been discussed above half a dozen times, before she forsook it, in order to assert her claims to influence her niece's decision. And here her ladyship was suddenly convinced of the indefeasible rights of relationship. "She stood in the place of Laura's parents, and in their title might claim authority." But finding Laura firmly of opinion that parental authority extended no farther than a negative voice, Lady Pelham laid aside the imperative tone to take up that of entreaty. "She would not advance the claim which her tried friendship might give her to advise; she would only beseech, conjure. She hoped her importunities would be forgiven, as they could proceed only from the tenderest regard to her dear girl's welfare. Laura was her only hope; the sole being on earth to whom her widowed heart clung with partial affection; and to see her thus throw away her happiness was more than her ladyship could bear." Closely as Laura had studied her aunt's character, and well as it was now known to her, she was sometimes overpowered by these expressions of love and sorrow, and wept as she was compelled to repeat that her happiness and her duty must alike be sacrificed ere she could yield to the wishes of her friend. But as she never, even in these moments of softness, betrayed the smallest symptoms of compliance, Lady Pelham had not patience to adhere to the only method of attack that possessed a chance of success.
Of all her arts of teasing, this was indeed the most distressing to a person of Laura's sensibility, and she felt not a little relieved when, exasperated by the failure of all her efforts, Lady Pelham burst into vehement upbraidings of her niece's hardness of heart. "She could not have conceived," she said, "such obduracy in one so young, in woman, too--a creature who should be all made up of softness. Laura might pique herself upon her stoicism, but a Zeno in petticoats was, in her opinion, a monster. For her part, she never could resist entreaty in her life."
"Then I beseech you, madam," said Laura, after having patiently submitted to be baited thus for three full hours, "do not make mine an exception; but for pity's sake be prevailed upon to drop this subject. I assure you it can have no effect but to distress me."
"You may be determined, Miss Montreville, that all my endeavours shall be vain; but I shall certainly never be so far wanting to my duty as to neglect pressing upon you a match so much for your honour and advantage."
"Is it possible," cried Laura, losing patience at this prospect of the continuation of her persecutions, "that your ladyship can think it for my 'advantage' to marry a man I despise; for my ' honour' to share the infamy of an adulterer!"
"Upon my word, Miss Montreville," returned Lady Pelham, reddening with anger, "I am constrained to admire the delicacy of your language, so very suitable to the lips of so very delicate a lady."
A smile, not wholly free from sarcasm, played on Laura's lips. "If delicacy," said she, "be henceforth to find so strenuous a supporter in your ladyship, I shall hope to be exempted in future from all remonstrance on the subject of this evening's altercation."
If Laura really entertained the hope she mentioned, she was miserably disappointed, for Lady Pelham remitted not a jot of her tormentings. Her remonstrances were administered in every possible form, upon every possible occasion. They seasoned every tete-a-tete, were insinuated into every conversation. Laura's attempts to avoid the subject were altogether vain. The discourse might begin with the conquests of Gengis Khan, but it always ended with the advantages of marrying Colonel Hargrave.
Teased and persecuted, disturbed in every useful occupation and every domestic enjoyment, Laura often considered of the possibility of delivering herself from her indefatigable tormentors, by quitting the protection of her aunt, and taking refuge with Mrs Douglas. But this plan she had unfortunately deprived herself of the means of executing.
Laura knew that her cousins, the Herberts, were poor. She knew that Mrs Herbert was in a situation which needs comforts that poverty cannot command, and it was vain to expect these comforts from the maternal compassion of Lady Pelham. She therefore determined to supply them, as far as possible, from her own little fund; and fearing that a gift from her might revolt the high spirit of Herbert, she enclosed almost all her half-year's annuity in a blank cover, and conveyed it to her cousin. What she retained was a sum far too small to defray the expense of a journey to Scotland; and several months were to elapse before she could recruit her fund. Till then she had no resource but patience; and she endeavoured to console herself with a hope that in time the perseverance of her adversaries would fail.
Often did she with a sigh turn her eyes towards Norwood--Norwood, the seat of all the peaceful domestic virtues, where the voice of contention was unheard, where courtly politeness, though duly honoured, held the second place to the courtesy of the heart. But Mrs De Courcy had never hinted a wish that Laura should be a permanent inmate of her family; and even if she had, there would have been a glaring impropriety in forsaking Lady Pelham's house for one in its immediate neighbourhood. De Courcy, too, she thought, was not the kind friend he was wont to be. She had of late seen him seldom, which was probably caused by the marked coolness of Lady Pelham's reception; but it had happened unfortunately that he had twice surprised her in the midst of Hargrave's extravagances, when she almost feared to speak to him, lest she should awaken the furious jealousy to which her tormentor was subject; and she dreaded that her father's friend (for so she loved to call him) suspected her of encouraging the addresses of such a lover. During these visits he had looked, she thought, displeased, and had early taken leave. Was it kind to judge her unheard? Perhaps, if an opportunity had been given her, she might have assumed courage to exculpate herself; but without even calling to ask her commands, De Courcy was gone with Mr Bolingbroke to London, to make arrangements for Harriet's marriage.
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.