Laura had proceeded but a short way towards Norwood when she was met by De Courcy, who, with a manner the most opposite to his coldness on the preceding day, sprang forward to meet her, his countenance radiant with pleasure. Laura, delighted with the change, playfully reproached him with his caprice. Montague coloured, but defended himself with spirit; and a dialogue, more resembling flirtation than any in which Laura had ever engaged, occupied them till, as they loitered along the dark avenue of Norwood, a shade of the sentimental began to mingle with their conversation.
De Courcy had that morning resolved, firmly resolved, that while Laura was his guest at Norwood, he would avoid a declaration of his sentiments. Convinced, as he now was, that he had no longer any thing to fear from the perseverance of Hargrave, he was yet far from being confident of his own success. On the contrary, he was persuaded that he had hitherto awakened in Laura no sentiment beyond friendship, and that she must become accustomed to him as a lover, before he could hope for any further grace. He considered how embarrassing would be her situation in a house of which the master was a repulsed, perhaps a rejected, admirer; and he had determined not to hazard embittering to her a residence from which she had at present no retreat. Yet the confiding manner, the bewitching loveliness of Laura, the stillness, shade, and solitude of their path, had half beguiled him of his prudence, when, fortunately for his resolution, he saw Harriet advancing to meet her friend. Harriet's liveliness soon restored gaiety to the conversation; and the party proceeded less leisurely than before to Norwood, where Laura was received with affectionate cordiality by Mrs De Courcy.
Never had the time appeared to Laura to fly so swiftly as now. Every hour was sacred to improvement, to elegance, or to benevolence. Laura had a mind capable of intense application, and therefore could exalt relaxation into positive enjoyment. But the pleasure which a vigorous understanding takes in the exercise of its powers, was now heightened in her hours of study, by the assistance, the approbation, of De Courcy; and the hours of relaxation he enlivened by a manner, which, at once frank and respectful, spirited and kind, seemed peculiarly fitted to adorn the domestic circle.
A part of every day was employed by Mrs De Courcy in various works of charity; and, joining in these, Laura returned with satisfaction to a habit which she had unwillingly laid aside during her residence in London, and but imperfectly resumed at Walbourne. Amiable, rational, and pious, the family at Norwood realised all Laura's day-dreams of social happiness; and the only painful feeling that assailed her mind arose from the recollection that the time of her visit was fast stealing away.
Her visit was, however, prolonged by a fortunate cold, which detained Lady Pelham at Derham Green; and Laura could not regret an accident which delayed her separation from her friends. Indeed, she began to dread Lady Pelham's return, both as the signal of her departure from Norwood, and as a prelude to the renewal of her persecutions on account of Hargrave. Far from having, as Lady Pelham had insinuated renounced his pursuit, he returned in a few days from Mrs Bathurst's; again established himself with Lambert; and though he could not uninvited intrude at Norwood, contrived to beset Laura as often as she passed its bounds. In the few visits which she paid she generally encountered him; and he regularly waylaid her at church. But he had lost an able coadjutor in Lady Pelham; and now, when no one present was concerned to assist his designs, and when Laura was protected by kind and considerate friends, she generally found means to escape his officious attentions; though remembering his former jealousy of Montague, and the irritability of his temper, she was scrupulously cautious of marking her preference of De Courcy, or of appearing to take sanctuary with him from the assiduities of Hargrave.
Indeed, notwithstanding the mildness of De Courcy's disposition, she was not without fear that he might be involved in a quarrel by the unreasonable suspicions of Hargrave, who had often taxed her with receiving his addresses, ascribing his own failure to their success. She had in vain condescended to assure him that the charge was groundless. He never met De Courcy without showing evident marks of dislike. If he accosted him, it was in a tone and manner approaching to insult. The most trivial sentence which De Courcy addressed to Laura, drew from Hargrave looks of enmity and defiance; while Montague, on his part, returned these aggressions by a cool disdain, the most opposite to the conciliating frankness of his general manners. Laura's alarm lest Hargrave's ill-concealed aversion should burst into open outrage, completed the dread with which he inspired her; and she felt like one subjected to the thraldom of an evil genius, when he one day announced to her that he had procured leave to remove his regiment to ----; in order, as he said, "that he might be it hand to assert his rights over her."
He conveyed this information, as, rudely preventing Mr Bolingbroke and De Courcy, he led her from Mrs De Courcy's carriage into church. Laura durst not challenge his presumptuous expression, for Montague was close by her side, and she dreaded that his aversion arrogance and oppression should induce him to engage in her quarrel. Silently, therefore, though glowing with resentment, she suffered Hargrave to retain the place he had usurped, while Montague followed, with a countenance which a few short moments had clouded with sudden care. "Ah!" thought he, "those rights must indeed be strong, which he dares thus boldly and publicly assert."
It was some time ere the service began, and Laura could not help casting glances of kind inquiry on the saddened face, which a few minutes before she had seen bright with animation and delight. Hargrave's eye followed hers with a far different expression. While she observed him darting a scowl of malice and aversion on the man to whom he owed his life, Laura shuddered; and wondering at the infatuation which had so long disguised his true character, bent her head, acknowledged her short-sightedness, and resigned the future events of her life to the disposal of Heaven.
It was the day immediately preceding Harriet's marriage, and neither she nor Mrs De Courcy was in church; Laura therefore returned home tete-a-tete with Montague. Ignorant that Hargrave's provoking half-whisper had been overheard by De Courcy, she could not account for the sudden change in his countenance and manner; yet though she took an affectionate interest in his melancholy, they had almost reached home before she summoned courage to inquire into its cause. "I fear you are indisposed," said she to him, in a voice of kind concern. De Courcy thanked her. "No, not indisposed," said he, with a faint smile. "Disturbed, then," said Laura. De Courcy was silent for a moment, and then taking her hand, said, "May I be candid with you?" "Surely," returned Laura. "I trust I shall ever meet with candour in you." "Then I will own," resumed De Courcy, "that I am disturbed. And can the friend of Montreville be otherwise when he hears a right claimed over you by one so wholly unworthy of you?" "Ah!" cried Laura, "you have then heard all. I hoped you had not attended to him." "Attended!" exclaimed De Courcy; "could any right be claimed over you, and I be regardless?" "It were ungrateful to doubt your friendly interest in me," replied Laura. "Believe me, Colonel Hargrave has no right over me, nor ever shall have." "Yet I did not hear you resist the claim," returned De Courcy. "Because," answered Laura, "I feared to draw your attention. His violence terrifies me, and I feared that--that you might--" She hesitated, stopped, and blushed very deeply. She felt the awkwardness of appearing to expect that De Courcy should engage in a quarrel on her account, but the simple truth ever rose so naturally to her lips, that she could not even quality it without confusion. "Might what?" cried De Courcy eagerly; "speak frankly, I beseech you." "I feared," replied Laura, recovering herself, "that the interest you take in the daughter of your friend might expose you to the rudeness of this overbearing man." "And did you upon my account, dearest Laura, submit to this insolence?" cried De Courcy, his eyes sparkling with exultation. "Is my honour, my safety, then, dear to you? Could you think of me even while Hargrave spoke?"
With surprise and displeasure, Laura read the triumphant glance which accompanied his words. "Is it possible," thought she, "that, well as he knows me, he can thus mistake the nature of my regard? or can he, attached to another, find pleasure in the idle dream! Oh, man! thou art altogether vanity!" Snatching away the hand which he was pressing to his lips, she coldly replied, "I should have been equally attentive to the safety of any common stranger, had I expected his interference, and Colonel Hargrave's speeches cannot divert my attention even from the most trivial object in nature."
Poor De Courcy, his towering hopes suddenly levelled with the dust, shrank from the frozen steadiness of her eye. "Pardon me, Miss Montreville," said he in a tone of mingled sorrow and reproach, "pardon me for the hope that you would make any distinction between me and the most indifferent. I shall soon be cured of my presumption." Grieved at the pain she saw she had occasioned, Laura would fain have said something to mitigate the repulse which she had given; but a new light began to dawn upon her, and she feared to conciliate the friend lest she should encourage the lover. Fortunately for the relief of her embarrassment, the carriage stopped. De Courcy gravely and in silence handed her from it; and, hurrying to her chamber, she sat down to reconsider the dialogue she had just ended.
De Courcy's manner more than his words recalled a suspicion which she had oftener than once driven from her mind. She was impressed, she scarcely knew why, with a conviction that she was beloved. For some moments this idea alone filled her thoughts; the next that succeeded was the recollection that she ought sincerely to lament a passion which she could not return. It was her duty to be sorry, very sorry indeed, for such an accident; to be otherwise would have argued the most selfish vanity, the most hard-hearted ingratitude, towards the best of friends, and the most amiable of mankind. Yet she was not very sorry; it was out of her power to convince herself that she was; so she imputed her philosophy under her misfortune to doubtfulness of its existence. "But after all," said she to herself, "his words could not bear such a construction; and for his manner--who would build any thing upon a manner? While a woman's vanity is so apt to deceive her, what rational creature would give credit to what may owe so much to her own imagination? Besides, did not Mrs Do Courcy more than hint that his affections were engaged? Did he not even himself confess to me that they were? And I taxed him with vanity! Truly, if he could see this ridiculous freak of mine, he might very justly retort the charge. And see it he will. What could possess me with my absurd prudery to take offence at his expecting that I, who owe him ten thousand kind offices, should be anxious for his safety? How could I be so false, so thankless, as to say I considered him as a common acquaintance? The friend of my father, my departed father!--the friend who supported him in want, and consoled him in sorrow! No wonder that he seemed shocked! What is so painful to a noble heart as to meet with ingratitude? But he shall never again have reason to think me vain or ungrateful;" and Laura hastened down stairs that she might lose no time in convincing De Courcy that she did not suspect him of being her lover, and highly valued him as a friend. She found him in the drawing-room, pensively resting his forehead against the window sash; and approaching him, spoke some trifle with a smile so winning, so gracious, that De Courcy soon forgot both his wishes and his fears, enjoyed the present, and was happy.
The day of Harriet's marriage arrived; and for once she was grave and silent. She even forget her bridal finery; and when Laura went to inform her of Mr Bolingbroke's arrival, she found her in the library, sitting on the ground in tears, her head resting on the seat of an old-fashioned elbow-chair. She sprang up as Laura entered, and dashing the drops from her eyes, cried, "I have been trying to grow young again for a few minutes, before I am made an old woman for life. Just there I used to sit when I was a little thing, and laid my head upon my father's knee; for this was his favourite chair, and there old Rover and I used to lie at his feet together. I'll beg this chair of my mother, for now I love every thing at Norwood." Laura drew her away, and she forgot the old elbow-chair when she saw the superb diamonds which were lying on her dressing-table.
The ceremonial of the wedding was altogether adjusted by Mrs Penelope; and though, in compliance with Mr Bolingbroke's whims, she suffered the ceremony to be privately performed, she invited every creature who could claim kindred with the names of Bolingbroke or De Courcy to meet and welcome the young bride to her home. Mr Bolingbroke having brought a licence, the pair were united at Norwood. Mr Wentworth officiated, and De Courcy gave his sister away. Mrs Bolingbroke's own new barouche, so often beheld in fancy, now really waited to convey her to her future dwelling; but she turned to bid farewell to the domestics who had attended her infancy, and forgot to look at the new barouche,
Mr Bolingbroke was a great man, and could not be allowed to marry quietly. Bonfires were lighted, bells were rung, and a concourse of his tenantry accompanied the carriages which conveyed the party. The admiration of the company whom Mrs Penelope had assembled in honour of the day, was divided between Mrs Bolingbroke's diamonds and her bridemaid; and as the number of each sex was pretty equal, the wonders shared pretty equally.
"Did you ever sec any thing so lovely as Miss Montreville!" said Sophia Bolingbroke to the young lady who sat next her. "I never can think any body pretty who has red hair," was the reply. "If her hair be red," returned Sophia, "it is the most pardonable red hair in the world, for it is more nearly black. Don't you admire her figure?" "Not particularly; she is too much of the May-pole for me; besides, who can tell what her figure is when she is so muffled up? I dare say she is stuffed, or she would show a little more of her skin." "She has at least an excellent taste in stuffing, then," said Sophia, "for I never saw any thing so elegantly formed." "It is easy to see," said the critic, "that she thinks herself a beauty by her dressing so affectedly. To-night when every body else is in full dress, do but look at hers!" "Pure, unadorned, virgin white," said Miss Bolingbroke, looking at Laura; "the proper attire of angels!" The name of Miss Montreville had drawn the attention of De Courcy to this dialogue. "I protest," cried he to Mr Wentworth, who stood by him, "Sophy Bolingbroke is the most agreeable plain girl I ever saw." He then placed himself by her side; and while she continued to praise Laura, gave her credit for all that is most amiable in woman.
The moment he left her, she ran to rally Laura upon her conquest. "I give you joy, my dear," said she; "De Courcy is certainly in love with you." "Non[e]sense?" cried Laura, colouring crimson; "what can make you think so?" "Why, he will talk of nothing but you, and he looked so delighted when I praised you, and paid me more compliments in half an hour, than ever I received in my whole life before." "If he was so complimentary," said Laura, smiling, "it seems more likely that he is in love with you." "Ah!" said Sophia, sighing, "that is not very probable." "Fully as probable as the other," answered Laura; and turned away to avoid a subject which she was striving to banish from her thoughts.
During the few days which Laura and the De Courcys spent with the newly-married pair, Miss Bolingbroke's observations served to confirm her opinion; and merely for the pleasure of speaking of Montague, she rallied Laura incessantly on her lover. In weighing credibilities, small weight of testimony turns the scale; and Laura began alternately to wonder what retarded De Courcy's declaration, and to tax herself with vanity in expecting that he would ever make one. She disliked her stay at Orfordhall, and counted the hours till her return to Norwood. De Courcy's attentions she had long placed to the account of a regard which, while she was permitted to give it the name of friendship, she could frankly own that she valued above any earthly possession. These attentions were now so familiar to her, that they were become almost necessary, and she was vexed at being constantly reminded that she ought to reject them. She had, therefore, a latent wish to return to a place where she would have a legitimate claim to his kindness, and where at least there would be no one to remind her that she ought to shrink from it.
Besides, she was weary of the state and magnificence that surrounded her. While Harriet glided into the use of her finery, as if she had been accustomed to it from her cradle, Laura could by no means be reconciled to it. She endured with impatience a meal of three hours long; could not eat while six footmen were staring at her; started if she thoughtlessly leant her head against the white damask wall; and could not move with ease, where every gesture was repeated in endless looking-glasses. With pleasure, therefore, she saw the day arrive which was to restore her to easy hospitality and respectable simplicity at Norwood; but that very day she received a summons to attend her aunt at Walbourne.
Unwilling as Laura was to quit her friends, she did not delay to comply with Lady Pelham's requisition. Mrs De Courcy judged it improper to urge her to stay; and Montague in part consoled himself for her departure, by reflecting that he would now be at liberty to disclose his long-concealed secret. "No doubt you are at liberty," said Mrs De Courcy, when he spoke to her of his intentions, "and I am far from pretending to advise or interfere. But, my dear Montague, you must neither be surprised, nor in despair, if you be at first unsuccessful. Though Laura esteems you, perhaps more than esteems you, she is convinced that she is invulnerable to love; and it may be so, but her fancied security is all in your favour.
Weary of suspense, however, De Courcy often resolved to know his fate, and often went to Walbourne, determined to learn, ere he returned, whether a circle of pleasing duties was to fill his after life, or whether it was to be spent alone, "loveless, joyless, unendeared;" but when he met the friendly smile of Laura, and remembered that, his secret told, it might vanish like the gleaming of a wintry sun, his courage failed, and the intended disclosure was again delayed. Yet his manner grew less and less equivocal, and Laura, unwilling as she was to own the conviction to herself, could scarcely maintain her wilful blindness.
She allowed the subject to occupy the more of her thoughts, because it came disguised in a veil of self-condemnation and humility. Sometimes she repeated to herself that she should never have known the vanity of her own heart had it not been visited by so absurd a suspicion, and sometimes that she should never have been acquainted with its selfishness and obduracy, had she not borne with such indifference the thoughts of what must bring pain and disappointment to so worthy a breast. But spite of Laura's efforts to be miserable, the subject cost her much more perplexity than distress; and in wondering whether De Courcy really were her lover, and what could be his motive for concealing it if he were, she often forgot to deplore the consequences of her charms.
Meanwhile, Hargrave continued his importunities, and Lady Pelham seconded them with unwearied perseverance. In vain did Laura protest that her indifference was unconquerable; in vain assure him that though a total revolution in his character might regain her esteem, her affection was irrecoverably lost. She could at any time exasperate the proud spirit of Hargrave, till in transports of fury he would abjure her for ever; but a few hours always brought the "for ever" to an end, and Hargrave back, to supplicate, to importune, and not unfrequently to threaten. Though her unremitting coldness, however, failed to conquer his passion, it by degrees extinguished all of generous or kindly that had ever mingled with the flame; and the wild unholy fire which her beauty kept alive, was blended with the heart-burnings of anger and revenge. From such a passion Laura shrank with dread and horror. She heard its expressions as superstition listens to sounds of evil omen; and saw his impassioned glances with the dread of one who meets the eye of the crouching tiger. His increasing jealousy of De Courcy, which testified itself in haughtiness, and even ferocity of behaviour towards him, and Montague's determined though cool resistance of his insolence, kept her in continual alarm. Though she never on any other occasion voluntarily entered Hargrave's presence, yet, if De Courcy found him at Walbourne, she would hasten to join them, fearing the consequences of a private interview between two such hostile spirits; and this apparent preference not only aggravated the jealousy of Hargrave, but roused Lady Pelham's indefatigable spirit of remonstrance.
The subject was particularly suited for an episode to her ladyship's harangues in favour of Hargrave; and she introduced and varied it with a dexterity all her own. She taxed Laura with a passion for De Courcy; and in terms not eminently delicate, reproached her with facility in transferring her regards. Then, assuming the tone of a tender monitress, and affecting to treat all Laura's denials as the effect of maiden timidity, she would pretend to sympathise in her sufferings, advising her to use her native strength of mind to conquer this unfortunate partiality; to transfer her affections from one to whom they appeared valueless, to him who sued for them with such interesting perseverance. Above all, she entreated Laura to avoid the appearance of making advances to a man who probably never bestowed a thought on her in return; thus intimating that her behaviour might bear so provoking a construction.
Laura, sometimes irritated, oftener amused by these impertinences, could have endured them with tolerable patience; but they were mere interludes to Lady Pelham's indefatigable chidings on the subject of Hargrave, and Laura's patience would have failed her, had she not been consoled by reflecting that the time now drew near when the payment of her annuity would enable her to escape from her unwearied persecutors. She heartily wished, however, that a change of system might make her residence with Lady Pelham endurable; for strong as was her attachment to Mrs Douglas, it was no longer her only friendship; and she could not without pain think of quitting, perhaps for ever, her valued friends at Norwood.
Winter advanced, and Lady Pelham began to talk of her removal to town. Laura could not help wondering sometimes that her aunt, while she appeared so anxious to promote the success of Hargrave, should meditate a step which would place him at a distance from the object of his pursuit; but Lady Pelham's conduct was so generally inconsistent, that Laura was weary of trying to reconcile its contradictories. She endeavoured to hope that Lady Pelham, at last becoming sensible of the inefficacy of her efforts, was herself growing desirous to escape the colonel's importunity; and she thought she could observe, that as the time of their departure approached, her ladyship relaxed somewhat of her industry in teasing.
But the motives of Lady Pelham's removal did not at all coincide with her niece's hopes; and nothing could be farther from her intention than to resign her labours in a field so rich in controversy and provocation. She imagined that Laura's obstinacy was occasioned, or at least strengthened, by the influence of the De Courcys, and she expected that a more general acquaintance with the world would remove her prejudices. At Walbourne, Laura, if offended, could always take refuge with Mrs De Courcy. In London she would be more defenceless. At Walbourne, Lady Pelham acted under restraint, for there were few objects to divide with her the observation of her neighbours, and she felt herself accountable to them for the propriety of her conduct; but she would be more at liberty in a place where, each immersed in his own business or pleasure, no one had leisure to comment on the concerns of others. She knew that Hargrave would find means to escape the duty of remaining with his regiment, and, indeed, had concerted with him the whole plan of her operations.
Meanwhile, Laura, altogether unsuspicious of their designs, gladly prepared for her journey, considering it as a fortunate instance of the instability of Lady Pelham's purposes. She paid a parting visit to Mrs Bolingbroke, whom she found established in quiet possession of all the goods of fortune. By the aid of Mrs De Courcy's carriage, she contrived, without molestation from Hargrave, to spend much of her time at Norwood, where she was always received with a kindness the most flattering, and loaded with testimonies of regard. De Courcy still kept his secret; and Laura's suspicions rather diminished when she considered that, though he knew she was to go without any certainty of returning, he suffered numberless opportunities to pass without breathing a syllable of love.
The day preceding that which was fixed for the journey arrived; and Laura begged Lady Pelham's permission to spend it entirely with Mrs De Courcy. Lady Pelham was rather unwilling to consent, for she remembered that her last excursion had been rendered abortive by a visit to Norwood; but flattering herself that her present scheme was secure from hazard of failure, she assumed an accommodating humour, and not only permitted Laura to go, but allowed the carriage to convey her, stipulating that she should return it immediately, and walk home in the evening. She found the De Courcys alone, and passed the day less cheerfully than any she had ever spent at Norwood. Mrs De Courcy, though kind, was grave and thoughtful; Montague absent and melancholy. Harriet's never-failing spirits no longer enlivened the party, and her place was but feebly supplied by the infantine gaiety of De Courcy's little protege Henry.
This child, who was the toy of all his patron's leisure hours, had, during her visits to Norwood, become particularly interesting to Laura. His quickness, his uncommon beauty, his engaging frankness, above all, the innocent fondness which he showed for her, had really attached her to him, and he repaid her with all the affections of his little heart. He would quit his toys to hang upon her; and though at other times as restless as any of his kind, was never weary of sitting quietly on her knee, clasping her snowy neck in his little sun-burnt arms. His prattle agreeably interrupted the taciturnity into which the little party were falling, till his grandfather came to take him away. "Kiss your hand, Henry, and bid Miss Montreville farewell," said the old man, as he was about to take him from Laura's arms; "it will be a long while before yon see her again." "Are you going away?" said the child, looking sorrowfully in Laura's face. "Yes, far away," answered Laura. "Then Henry will go with you, Henry's dear pretty lady." "No, no," said his grandfather; "you must go to your mammy; good boys love their mammies best." "Then you ought to be Henry's mammy," cried the child, sobbing, and locking his arms round Laura's neck, "for Henry loves you best." "My dear boy!" cried Laura, kissing him with a smile that half consented to his wish; but happening to turn her eye towards De Courcy, she saw him change colour, while, with an abruptness unlike his usual manner, he snatched the boy from her arms, and, regardless of his cries, dismissed him from the room.
This little incident did not contribute to the cheerfulness of the group. Grieved to part with her favourite, and puzzled to account for De Courcy's behaviour, Laura was now the most silent of the trio. She saw nothing in the childish expression of fondness which should have moved De Courcy; yet it had evidently stung him with sudden uneasiness. She now recollected that she had more than once inquired who were the parents of this child, and that the question had always been evaded. A motive of curiosity prompted her now to repeat her inquiry, and she addressed it to Mrs De Courcy. With a slight shade of embarrassment Mrs De Courcy answered, "His mother was the only child of our old servant; a pretty, meek-spirited, unfortunate girl; and his father--" "His father's crimes," interrupted De Courcy hastily, "have brought their own punishment--a punishment beyond mortal fortitude to bear;" and catching up a book, he asked Laura whether she had seen it, endeavouring to divert her attention by pointing out some passages to her notice. Laura's curiosity was increased by this appearance of concealment, but she had no means of gratifying it, and the subject vanished from her mind, when she thought of bidding farewell to her beloved friends, perhaps for ever.
When she was about to go, Mrs De Courcy affectionately embraced her. "My dear child," said she, "second in my love and esteem only to my own Montague, almost the warmest wish of my heart is to retain you always with me; but if that is impossible, short may your absence be, and may you return to us as joyfully as we shall receive you." Weeping, and reluctant to part, Laura at last tore herself away. Hargrave had so often stolen upon her walks that the fear of meeting him was become habitual to her, and she wished to escape him by reaching home before her return could be expected. As she leant on De Courcy's arm, ashamed of being unable to suppress her sensibility, she averted her head, and looked sadly back upon a dwelling endeared to her by many an innocent, many a rational pleasure.
Absorbed in her regrets, Laura had proceeded a considerable way before she observed that she held a trembling arm; and recollected that De Courcy had scarcely spoken since their walk began. Her tears suddenly ceased, while, confused and disquieted, she quickened her pace. Soon recollecting herself, she stopped; and thanking him for his escort, begged that he would go no farther. "I cannot leave you yet," said De Courcy, in a voice of restrained emotion, and again he led her onwards.
A few short sentences were all that passed till they had almost reached the antique gate which terminated the winding part of the avenue. Here Laura again endeavoured to prevail upon her companion to return, but without success. With more composure than before, he refused to leave her. Dreading to encounter Hargrave while De Courcy was in such evident agitation, she besought him to go, telling him that it was her particular wish that he should proceed no farther. He instantly stopped, and, clasping her hand between his, "Must I then leave you, Laura," said he; "you whose presence has so long been the charm of my existence!" The blood rushed violently into Laura's face, and as suddenly retired. "And can I," continued De Courcy, "can I suffer you to go without pouring out my full heart to you?" Laura breathed painfully, and she pressed her hand upon her bosom to restrain its swelling. "To talk to you of passion," resumed De Courcy, "is nothing. You have twined yourself with every wish and every employment, every motive, every hope, till to part with you is tearing my heart-strings." Again he paused. Laura felt that she was expected to reply, and, though trembling and breathless, made an effort to speak. "This is what I feared," said she; "and yet I wish you had been less explicit, for there is no human being whose friendship is so dear to me as yours; and now I fear I ought--" the sob which had been struggling in her breast now choked her utterance, and she wept aloud. "It is the will of Heaven," said she, "that I should be reft of every earthly friend." She covered her face, and stood labouring to compose herself; while, heart-struck with a disappointment which was not mitigated by all the gentleness with which it was conveyed, De Courcy was unable to break the silence.
"Ungrateful, selfish that I am!" exclaimed Laura, suddenly dashing the tears from her eyes, "thus to think only of my own loss, while I am giving pain to the worthiest of hearts. My best friend, I cannot indeed return the regard with which you honour me, but I can make you cease to wish that I should. And I deserve the shame and anguish I shall suffer. She whom you honour with your love," continued she, the burning crimson glowing in her face and neck, "has been the sport of a passion, strong as disgraceful--disgraceful as its object is worthless."
Her look, her voice, her manner, conveyed to De Courcy the strongest idea of the torture which this confession cost her; and no sufferings of his own could make him insensible to those of Laura. "Cease, cease!" he cried, "best and dearest of women; do not add to my wretchedness the thought of giving pain to you." Then, after a few moments' pause, he continued, "It would be wronging your noble candour to doubt that you have recalled your affections."
"In doing so," answered Laura," can claim no merit. Infatuation itself could have been blind no longer."
"Then why, dearest Laura," cried De Courcy, his heart again bounding with hope, "why may not time and the fond assiduities of love--"
"Ah!" interrupted Laura, "that is impossible. A mere preference I might give you, but I need not tell you that I have no more to give."
"My heavenly Laura," cried De Courcy, eager joy beaming in his eyes, "give me but this preference, and I would not exchange it for the fondest passion of all womankind."
"You deceive yourself," said Laura, mournfully, "miserably deceive yourself. Such a sentiment could never content you. You would miss a thousand little arts of happiness which love alone can teach; observe a thousand nameless coldnesses which no caution could conceal; and you would be unhappy, without knowing perhaps of what to complain. You, who would deserve the warmest affection, to be content with mere endurance! Oh, no; I should be wretched in the bare thought of offering you so poor a return."
"Endurance, Laura! I should indeed be a monster to find joy in any thing which you could describe by such a word. But must I despair of awakening such affection as will make duty delightful, such as will enjoy the bliss which it bestows?"
"Believe me, my dear friend," said Laura, in a voice as sweet, as soothing, as ever conveyed the tenderest confession, "believe me, I am not insensible to the value of your regard. It adds a new debt of gratitude to all that Montreville's daughter owes you. My highest esteem shall ever be yours; but after what I have confided to you, a moment's consideration must convince you that all beyond is impossible."
"Ah!" thought De Courcy, "what will it cost me to believe that it is indeed impossible!" But Laura's avowal was not quite so fatal to his hopes as she imagined; and while she supposed that he was summoning fortitude to endure their final destruction, he stood silently pondering Mrs De Courcy's oft-repeated counsel to let love borrow the garb of friendship, nor suffer him undisguised to approach the heart where, having once been dethroned as an usurper, all was in arms against him.
"If I must indeed renounce every dearer hope," returned he, "then in your friendship, my ever dear Miss Montreville, I must seek the happiness of my after life, and surely--"
"Oh, no!" interrupted Laura, "that must not be; the part, the little part, of your happiness which will depend upon earthly connections, you must find in that of some fortunate woman, who has yet a heart to give."
"How can you name it to me?" cried De Courcy, half indignantly. "Can he who has known you, Laura, admired in you all that is noble, loved in you all that is enchanting, transfer his heart to some commonplace being? You are my business--you are my pleasure-- I toil but to be worthy of you--your approbation is my sweetest reward; all earthly things are precious to me only as you share in them; even a better world borrows hope from you. And is this a love to be bestowed on some soulless thing? No, Laura, I cannot, will not, change. If I cannot win your love, I will admit no substitute but your friendship."
"Indeed, Mr De Courcy," cried Laura, unconsciously pressing, in the energy of speech, the hand which held hers--"indeed, it is to no commonplace woman that I wish to resign you. Lonely as my own life must be, its chief pleasures must arise from the happiness of my friends, and to know that you are happy." Laura stopped, for she felt her voice grow tremulous. "But we will not talk of this now," resumed she; "I shall be absent for some months at least, and in that time you will bring yourself to think differently. Promise me at least to make the attempt."
"No, Laura," answered De Courcy; "this I cannot promise. I will never harass you with importunity or complaint, but the love of you shall be my heart's treasure, it shall last through life--beyond life; and if you cannot love me, give in return only such kind thoughts as you would bestow on one who would promote your happiness at the expense of his own. And promise me, dearest Laura, that when we meet, you will not receive me with suspicion or reserve, as if you feared that I should presume on your favour, or persecute you with solicitations. Trust to my honour, trust to my love itself, for sparing you all unavailing entreaty. Promise me, then, ever to consider me as a friend, a faithful tender friend; and forget, till my weakness remind you of it, that ever you knew me as a lover."
"Ah, Mr De Courcy!" cried Laura, tears filling her eyes, "what thoughts but the kindest can I ever have. of him who comforted my father's sorrows, who relieved--in a manner that made relief indeed a kindness--relieved my father's wants? And what suspicion, what coldness, can I ever feel towards him whom my father loved and honoured! Yes, I will trust you; for I know that you are as far above owing favour to compassion as to fear."
"A thousand thanks, beloved Laura," cried De Courcy, kissing her hands, "and thus I seal our compact. One thing more: shall I trespass on your noble frankness, if I ask you whether, had not another stolen the blessing, I might have hoped to awaken a warmer regard? whether any labour, any cares, could have won for me what he has forfeited?"
Silent and blushing, Laura stood for a few moments with her eyes fixed on the ground; then raising them, said, "From you I fear no wrong construction of my words, and will frankly own to you that, for my own sake, as well as yours, I wish you had been known to me ere the serpent wound me in his poisoned folds. I believe, indeed, that no mortal but himself could have inspired the same--what shall I call an infatuation with which reason had nothing to do! But you have the virtues which I have been taught to love, and--and--but what avails it now? I was, indeed, a social creature; domestic habits, domestic wishes, strong in me. But what avails it now?"
"And was there a time when you could have loved me, Laura? Blessings on you for the concession! It shall cheer my exiled heart when you are far distant; soothe me with delightful day-dreams of what might have been; and give my solitude a charm which none but you could bring to the most social hour."
"Your solitude, my honoured friend," replied Laura, "needs it not; it has better and nobler charms--the charms of usefulness, of piety; and long may those form your business and delight. But what makes me linger with you? I meant to hasten home that I might avoid one as unlike you as confidence is to fear; the feelings which you each inspire. Farewell; I trust I shall soon hear that you are well and happy."
Loath to part, De Courcy endeavoured to detain her while he again gave utterance his strong affection; and when she would be gone, bade her farewell, in language so solemn, so tender, that all her self-command could not repress the tears which trickled down her cheeks. They parted; he followed her to beg that she would think of him sometimes. Again she left him; again he had some little boon to crave. She reached the gate, and looking back, saw De Courcy standing motionless where she had last quitted him. She beckoned a farewell. The gate closed after her, and De Courcy felt as if one blank dreary waste had blotted the fair face of nature.
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.