The evening was closing, when Laura proceeded on her way. She had outstaid her purposed time, and from every bush by the path-side she expected to see Hargrave steal upon her; in every gust of the chill November wind she thought she heard his footstep. She passed the last cottages connected with Norwood. The evening fires glanced cheerfully through the casements, and the voice of rustic merriment came softened on the ear. "Amiable De Courcy!" thought Laura. "The meanest of his dependents finds comfort in his protection, while the being on whom I have lavished the affection which might have rejoiced that worthy heart, makes himself an object of dread, even to her whom he pretends to love."
She reached home, however, without interruption, and was going to join Lady Pelham in the sitting-room, when happening to pass a looking-glass, she observed that her eyes still bore traces of the tears she had been shedding; and in dread of the merciless raillery of her aunt, she retired to her own room. There, with an undefined feeling of despondence, she sat down to reconsider her conversation with De Courcy.
Never was task more easy, or more unprofitable. She remembered every word that De Courcy had uttered; remembered the very tone, look, and gesture, with which they were spoken. She recollected, too, all that she had said in reply; but she could by no means unravel the confused effects of the scene upon her own mind. She certainly pitied her lover to a very painful degree. "Poor De Courcy!" said she, accompanying the half-whisper with a heavy sigh. But having, in the course of half an hour's rumination, repeated this soliloquy about twenty times, she began to recollect that De Courcy had borne his disappointment with considerable philosophy, and had appeared to derive no small comfort from the prospect of an intercourse of mere friendship.
This fortunate recollection, however, not immediately relieving her, she endeavoured to account for her depression by laying hold of a vague idea which was floating in her mind, that she had not on this occasion acted as she ought. Friendship between young persons of different sexes was a proverbial fomenter of the tender passion; and though she was herself in perfect safety, was it right to expose to such hazard the peace of De Courcy? Was it generous, was it even honourable, to increase the difficulties of his self-conquest, by admitting him to the intimacy of friendship? It was true he had voluntarily sought the post of danger; but then he was under the dominion of an influence which did not allow him to weigh consequences; and was it not unpardonable in her, who was in full possession of herself, to sanction, to aid, his imprudence? Yet how could she have rejected a friendship which did her so much honour?--the friendship of a man whom her father had so loved and respected--of the man to whom her father had wished to see her connected by the closest ties--the man to whom she owed obligations never to be repaid? Alas! how had she acknowledged these obligations? By suffering the most amiable of mankind to sport with his affections, while she had weakly thrown away her own. But the mischief was not yet totally irremediable; and dazzled by the romantic generosity of sacrificing her highest earthly joy to the restoration of her benefactor's quiet, she snatched a pen intending to retract her promise.
An obsolete notion of decorum was for once favourable to a lover, and Laura saw the impropriety of writing to De Courcy. Besides, it occurred to her that she might withdraw into Scotland without formally announcing the reason of her retreat, and thus leave herself at liberty to receive De Courcy as a friend whenever discretion should warrant this indulgence. After the most magnanimous resolves, however, feeling her mind as confused and comfortless as before, she determined to obtain the benefit of impartial counsel, and changed the destination of the paper on which she had already written "My dear friend," from De Courcy to Mrs Douglas.
With all her native candour and singleness of heart, did Laura detail her case to the monitress of her youth. To reveal De Courcy's name was contrary to her principles; but she described his situation, his mode of life, and domestic habits. She enlarged upon his character, her obligations to him, and the regret which, for his sake, she felt, that particular circumstances rendered her incapable of such an attachment as was necessary to conjugal happiness. She mentioned her compliance with her lover's request of a continuance of their former intimacy; confessed her doubts of the propriety of her concession; and entreated Mrs Douglas's explicit opinion on the past, as well as her directions for the future.
Her mind thus unburdened, she was less perplexed and uneasy; and the next morning cheerfully commenced her journey, pleasing herself with the prospect of being released from the harassing attendance of Hargrave. On the evening of the second day the travellers reached Grosvenor Street; and the unsuspecting Laura, with renewed sentiments of gratitude towards her aunt, revisited the dwelling which had received her when she could claim no other shelter.
Her annuity having now become due, Laura, soon after her arrival in town, one day borrowed Lady Pelham's chariot, that she might go to receive the money, and purchase some necessary additions to her wardrobe. Remembering, however, the inconveniences to which she had been subjected by her imprudence in leaving herself without money, she regulated her disbursements by the strictest economy; determined to reserve a sum, which, besides a little gift to her cousin, might defray the expense of a journey to Scotland.
Her way chancing to lie through Holborn, a recollection of the civilities of her old landlady induced her to stop and inquire for Mrs Dawkins. The good woman almost compelled her to alight; overwhelmed her with welcomes, and asked a hundred questions in a breath, giving in return a very detailed account of all her family affairs. She informed Laura that Miss Julia, having lately read the life of a heroine who in the capacity of a governess captivated the heart of a great lord, had been seized with a desire to seek adventures under a similar character; but finding that recommendations for experience were necessary to her admission into any family of rank, she had condescended to serve her apprenticeship in the tuition of the daughters of an eminent cowfeeder. The good woman expressed great compassion for the pupils of so incompetent a teacher, from whom they could learn nothing useful. "But that was," she observed, "their father's look-out, and, in the mean time, it was so far well that July was doing something towards her keeping. "After a visit of some length, Laura wished to be gone, but her hostess would not suspend her eloquence long enough to suffer her to take leave. She was at last obliged to interrupt the harangue; and breaking from her indefatigable entertainer, hurried home, not a little alarmed lest her stay should expose her on her return home to oratory of a different kind.
Lady Pelham, however, received her most graciously, examined all her purchases, and inquired very particularly into the cost of each. She calculated the amount, and the balance of the annuity remaining in Laura's possession. "Five and thirty pounds!" she exclaimed--"what in the world, Laura, will you do with so much money?" "Perhaps five and thirty different things," answered Laura, smiling; I have never had, nor ever shall have, half so much money as I could spend." "Oh, you extravagant thing!" cried Lady Pelham, patting her cheek. "But take care that some one does not save you the trouble of spending it. You should be very sure of the locks of your drawers. You had better let me put your treasures into my bureau." Laura was about to comply, when, recollecting that there might be some awkwardness in asking her aunt for the money while she concealed its intended destination, she thanked Lady Pelham, but said she supposed it would be perfectly safe in her own custody; and then, as usual, avoided impending altercation by hastening out of the room. She thought Lady Pelham looked displeased; but as that was a necessary effect of the slightest contradiction, she saw it without violent concern; and the next time they met, her ladyship was again all smiles and courtesy.
Some blanks remaining to be filled up in Lady Pelham's town establishment, Laura took advantage of the present happy humour, for performing her promise to the kind-hearted Fanny, who was, upon her recommendation, received into the family. A much more important boon indeed would have been granted with equal readiness. Lady Pelham could for the present refuse nothing to her dear Laura.
Three days, "three wondrous days," all was sunshine and serenity. Lady Pelham was the most ingenious, the most amusing, the most fascinating, of womankind. "What a pity," thought Laura, "that my aunt's spirits are so fluctuating! How delightful she can be when she pleases!" In the midst of these brilliant hours, Lady Pelham one morning ran into the room where Laura was at work. "Here's a poor fellow," said she, with a look and voice all compassion, "who has sent me his account, and says he must go to jail if it is not paid instantly. But it is quite impossible for me to get the money till to-morrow." "To jail!" cried Laura, shocked--" What is the amount?" "Forty pounds, " said Lady Pelham, "and I have not above ten in the house." "Take mine," cried Laura, hastening to bring it. Lady Pelham stopped her. "No, my dear good girl," said she, "I won't take away your little store; perhaps you may want it yourself." "Oh no," said Laura, "I cannot want it; pray let me bring it." "The poor man has a large family," said Lady Pelham, "but indeed I am very unwilling to take--" Her ladyship spared further regrets, for Laura was out of hearing. She returned in a moment with the whole of her wealth, out of which, Lady Pelham, after some further hesitation, was prevailed upon to take thirty pounds; a robbery to which she averred that she would never have consented, but for the wretched situation of an innocent family, and her own certainty of repaying the debt in a day or two at farthest. Several days, however, passed away, and Lady Pelham made no mention of discharging her debt. Laura wondered a little that her aunt should forget a promise so lately and so voluntarily given; but her attention was entirely diverted from the subject by the following letter from Mrs Douglas:--
"You see, my dear Laura, I lose no time in answering your letter, though, for the first time, I answer you with some perplexity. The weight which you have always kindly allowed to my opinion, makes me at all times give it with timidity; but this is not the only reason of my present hesitation. I confess that, in spite of the apparent frankness and perspicuity with which you have written, I am not able exactly to comprehend you.
You describe a man of respectable abilities, of amiable dispositions, of sound principles, and engaging manners. You profess that such qualities, aided by intimacy, have secured your cordial friendship, while obligations beyond return have enlivened this friendship by the warmest gratitude. But, just as I am about to conclude that all this has produced its natural effect, and to prepare my congratulations for a happy occasion, you kill my hopes with a dismal sentence, expressing your regret for having been obliged to reject the addresses of this excellent person. Now, this might have been intelligible enough, supposing you were preoccupied by a stronger attachment. But, so far from this, you declare yourself absolutely incapable of any exclusive affection, or of such a regard as is necessary to any degree of happiness in the conjugal state. I know not, my dear Laura, what ideas you may entertain of the fervency suitable to wedded love; but had you been less peremptory, I should have thought it not unlikely to spring from a young woman's 'most cordial esteem' and 'warmest gratitude' towards a young man with 'expressive black eyes, ' and 'the most benevolent smile in the world. ' From the tenor of your letter, as well as from some expressions you have formerly dropped, I am led to conjecture that you think an extravagant passion necessary to the happiness of married life. You will smile at the expression; but if it offend you, change it for any other descriptive of a feeling beyond tender friendship, and you will find the substitute nearly synonymous with the original. Now, this idea appears to me rather erroneous; and I cannot help thinking that calm dispassionate affection, at least on the side of the lady, promises more permanent comfort.
All male writers on the subject of love, so far as my little knowledge extends, represent possession as the infallible cure of passion. A very unattractive picture, it must be confessed, of the love of that lordly sex; but they themselves being the painters, the deformity is a pledge of the resemblance, and I own my small experience furnishes no instance to contradict their testimony. Taking its truth, then, for granted, I need not inquire whether the passions of our own sex be equally fleeting. If they be, the enamoured pair soon find themselves at best in the same situation of those who marry from sober sentiments of regard; that is, obliged to seek happiness in the esteem, the confidence, the forbearance, of each other. But if, in the female breast, the fervours of passion be less transient, I need not describe to you the sufferings of feminine sensibility under half-returned ardours, nor the stings of feminine pride under the unnatural and mortifying transference of the arts of courtship. I trust, my dear child, that should you even make a marriage of passion, your self-command will enable you to smother its last embers in your own bosom, while your prudence will improve the short advantage which is conferred by its empire in that of your husband, to lay the foundation of an affection more tender than friendship, more lasting than love.
Again, it is surely of the utmost consequence to the felicity of wedded life, that a just and temperate estimate be formed of the character of him to whose temper we must accommodate ourselves; whose caprices we must endure; whose failings we must pardon, whether the discord burst upon us in thunder, or steal on amid harmonies which render it imperceptible, perhaps half pleasing. Small chance is there that passion should view with the calm extenuating eye of reason the faults which it suddenly detects in the god of its idolatry. The once fervent votary of the idol, finding it unworthy of his worship, neglects the useful purposes to which he might apply the gold which it contains.
I have other reasons for thinking that passion is at best unnecessary to conjugal happiness; but even if I should make you a proselyte to my opinion, the conviction would, in the present case, probably come too late. Such a man as you describe will probably be satisfied with the answer he has received. He will certainly never importune you, nor poorly attempt to extort from your pity what he could not win from your love. His attachment will soon subside into a friendly regard for you, or be diverted into another channel by virtues similar to those which first attracted him. I only wish, my dear Laura, that after this change takes place, the 'circumstances' may remain in force which render you 'for ever incapable of repaying him with a love like his own.' If you are sure that these circumstances are decisive, I foresee no evil which can result from your cultivating a friendship so honourable and advantageous to you, as that of a man of letters and a Christian; whose conversation may improve your mind, and whose experience may supply that knowledge of the world which is rarely attainable by women in the more private walks of life.
To him I should suppose that no danger could arise from such an intercourse. We are all apt to overrate the strength and durability of the attachments we excite. I believe the truth is, that in a vigorous, well-governed, and actively employed mind, love rarely becomes that resistless tyrant which vanity and romances represent him. His empire is divided by the love of fame or the desire of usefulness, the eagerness of research or the triumph of discovery. But even solitude, idleness, and imagination, cannot long support his dominion without the assistance of hope; and I take it for granted from your tried honour and generosity, that your answer has been too explicit to leave your lover in any doubt that your sentence is final.
I own I could have wished that the virtues of my ever dear Laura had found in the sacred characters of wife and mother a larger field than a state of celibacy can afford; but I have no fear that your happiness or respectability should ever depend upon outward circumstances. I have no doubt that moderate wishes and useful employments will diffuse cheerfulness in the loneliest dwelling, while piety will people it with guests from heaven.
Thus, my beloved child, I have given my opinion with all the freedom you can desire. I have written a volume rather than a letter. The passion for giving advice long survives that which is the subject of our correspondence; but to show you that I can lay some restraint on an old woman's rage for admonition, I will not add another line except that which assures you that I am, with all a mother's love, and all a friend's esteem, your affectionate E. DOUGLAS."
Laura read this letter often, and pondered it deeply. Though she could not deny that it contained some truths, she was not satisfied with the doctrine deduced from them. She remembered that Mrs Douglas was the most affectionate of wives, and concluded that in one solitary instance her judgment had been at variance with her practice; and that, having herself made a marriage of love, she was not an adequate judge of the disadvantages attending a more dispassionate connection. Some passages, too, she could well have spared, but as these were prophetic rather than monitory, they required little consideration; and after the second reading, Laura generally omitted them in the perusal of her friend's epistle. Upon the whole, however, it gave her pleasure. Her conscience was relieved by obtaining the sanction of Mrs Douglas to her promised intimacy with De Courcy, and already she looked forward to the time when it should be renewed.
Since her arrival in town, her aunt, all kindness and complacency, had scarcely named Hargrave; and, with the sanguine temper of youth, Laura hoped that she had at last exhausted the perseverance of her persecutors. This fruitful source of strife removed, she thought she could without much difficulty submit to the casual fits of caprice to which Lady Pelham was subject; and considering that her aunt, with all her faults, was still her most natural protector, and her house her most proper abode, she began to lay aside thoughts of removing immediately to Scotland, and to look towards Walbourne as her permanent home.
In the meantime, she promised herself that the approaching winter would bring her both amusement and information. The capital, with all its wonders, of which she had hitherto seen little, the endless diversity of character which she expected its inhabitants to exhibit, the conversation of the literary and the elegant, of wits, senators, and statesmen, promised an inexhaustible fund of instruction and delight. Nay, the patriotic heart of Laura beat high with the hope of meeting some of those heroes, who, undaunted by disaster, where all but honour is lost, maintain the honour of Britain, or who, with happier fortune, guide the triumphant navies of our native land. She was yet to learn how little of character appears through the varnish of fashionable manners, and how little a hero or a statesman at a rout differs from a mere man of fashion in the same situation.
Lady Pelham seemed inclined to furnish her with all the opportunities of observation which she could desire, introducing her to every visitor of distinction, and procuring for her the particular attention of two ladies of high rank, who constantly invited her to share in the gaieties of the season. But Laura, instructed in the value of time, and feeling herself accountable for its employment, stopped far short of the dissipation of her companions. She had long since established a criterion by which to judge of the innocence of her pleasures, accounting every amusement from which she returned to her duties with an exhausted frame, languid spirits, or distracted attention, to be at best dangerous, and contrary to all rational ends of recreation. Of entertainments which she had never before witnessed, curiosity generally induced her for once to partake; but she found few that could stand her test; and to those which failed in the trial, she returned as seldom as possible.
One species alone, if it deserves to he classed with entertainments, she was unwillingly obliged to except from her rule. From card-parties Laura always returned fatigued both in mind and body; while present at them she had scarcely any other wish than to escape, and she quitted them unfit for any thing but rest. Lady Pelham, however, sometimes made it a point that her niece should accompany her to these parties; and though she never asked Laura to play, was occasionally at pains to interest her in the game, by calling her to her side, appealing to her against ill fortune, or exacting her congratulation in success. A few of these parties excepted, Laura's time passed pleasantly. Though the calm of her aunt's temper was now and then disturbed by short gusts of anger, it returned as lightly as it fled; and the subject, fertile in endless chiding, seemed almost forgotten.
A fortnight had passed in this sort of quiet, when one morning Lady Pelham proposed to carry Laura to see the Marquis of ----'s superb collection of pictures. Laura, obliged by her aunt's attention to her prevailing taste, eagerly accepted the proposal, and hastened to equip herself for the excursion. Light of heart, she was returning to the drawing-room to wait till the carriage drew up, when, on entering, the first object she beheld was Colonel Hargrave, seated confidentially by the side of Lady Pelham.
Laura, turning sick with vexation, shrank back; and bewailing the departure of her short-lived quiet, returned, half angry, half sorrowful, to her own room. She had little time, however, to indulge her chagrin, for Lady Pelham almost immediately sent to let her know that the carriage waited.
Disconcerted, and almost out of humour, Laura had tossed aside her bonnet, and was about to retract her consent to go, when, recollecting that the plan had been proposed on her account, without any apparent motive unless to oblige her, she thought her aunt would have just reason to complain of such an ungracious rejection of her civility. "Besides, it is like a spoiled child, " thought she, "to quarrel with any amusement, because one disagreeable circumstance attends it; and readjusting her bonnet, she joined Lady Pelham, not without a secret hope that Hargrave might not be of the party. The hope deceived her. He was ready to hand her into the carriage, and to take his seat by her side.
Her sanguine expectations thus put to flight, the habitual complacency of Laura's countenance suffered a sudden eclipse. She answered almost peevishly to Hargrave's inquiries for her health; and so complete was her vexation, that it was long ere she observed how much his manner towards her was changed. He whispered no extravagances in her ear; offered her no officious attentions; and seized no opportunities of addressing her, but such as were consistent with politeness and respect. He divided his assiduities not unequally between her and Lady Pelham; and even without any apparent reluctance, permitted a genteel young man, to whom the ladies curtsied in passing, to share in his office of escort, and almost to monopolise Laura's conversation. Having accompanied the ladies home, he left them immediately, refusing Lady Pelham's invitation to dinner; and Laura, no less pleased than surprised at this unexpected turn, wished him good morning more graciously than she had of late spoken to him.
The next day he dined in Grosvenor Street, and the same propriety of manner continued. The following evening Laura again met with him in a large party. He did not distinguish her particularly from any of her fair competitors. Laura was delighted. She was convinced that he had at last resolved to abandon his fruitless pursuit; but what had so suddenly wrought this happy change, she could not divine.
He did not visit Lady Pelham daily, yet it so happened that Laura saw him every day, and still he was consistent. Laura scarcely doubted, yet durst scarcely trust her good fortune.
The violent passions of Hargrave, however, in some degree unfitted him for a deceiver; and sometimes the fiery glance of impatience, of admiration, or of jealousy, belied the serenity of his manner. Laura did not fail to remark this; but she possessed the happy faculty of explaining every ambiguity in human conduct, in a way favourable to the actor--a faculty which, though it sometimes exposed her to mistake and vexation, was, upon the whole, at once a happiness and a virtue. She concluded that Hargrave, determined to persecute her no further, was striving to overcome his passion; that the appearances she had remarked were only the struggles which he could not wholly repress; and she felt herself grateful to him for making the attempt--the more grateful from her idea of its difficulty.
With her natural singleness of heart, she one day mentioned to Lady Pelham the change in Hargrave's behaviour. "I suppose," added she, smiling, "that, finding he can make nothing more of me, he is resolved to lay me under obligation by leaving me at peace, having first contrived to make me sensible of its full value." Lady Pelham was a better dissembler than Colonel Hargrave; and scarcely did a change of colour announce the deception, while, in a tone of assumed anger, she answered by reproaching her niece with having at last accomplished her purpose, and driven her lover to despair. Yet Lady Pelham was aware that Hargrave had not a thought of relinquishing his pursuit. His new-found self-command was merely intended to throw Laura off her guard, that Lady Pelham might have an opportunity of executing a scheme which Lambert had contrived, to entangle Laura beyond the possibility of escape.
Many an action, harmless in itself, is seen by a discerning bystander to have in it "nature that in time will venom breed, though no teeth for the present. " It happened that Lambert, while at Walbourne, had once seen Laura engaged in a party at chess; and her bent brow and flushed cheek, her palpitating bosom, her trembling hand, her eagerness for victory, above all, her pleasure in success restrained but not concealed, inspired him with an idea that play might be made subservient to the designs of his friend; designs which he was the more disposed to promote, because, for the present, they occupied Hargrave to the exclusion of that folly of which Lambert had so well availed himself.
It was Lambert's proposal that he should himself engage Laura in play; and having won from her, by means which he could always command, that he should transfer the debt to Hargrave. The scheme was seconded by Lady Pelham, and, in part, acquiesced in by Hargrave. But though he could consent to degrade the woman whom he intended for his wife, he could not endure that any other than himself should be the instrument of her degradation; and, sickening at the shackles which the love of gaming had imposed upon himself, he positively refused to accede to that part of the plan which proposed to make Laura's entanglement with him the branch of a habit previously formed. Besides, the formation of a habit, especially one so contrary to previous bias, was a work of time; and a stratagem of tedious execution did not suit the impatience of Hargrave's temper. He consented, however, to adopt a more summary modification of the same artifice. It was intended that Laura should at first be induced to play for a stake too small to alarm her, yet sufficiently great to make success desirable; that she should at first be allowed to win; that the stake should be increased until she should lose a sum which it might incommode her to part with; and then that the stale cheat of gamblers, hope of retrieving her loss, should be pressed on her as a motive for venturing nearer to destruction.
The chief obstacle to the execution of this honourable enterprise lay in the first step, the difficulty of persuading Laura to play for any sum which could be at all important to her. For obviating this, Lady Pelham trusted to the diffidence, the extreme timidity, the abhorrence of notoriety, which nature strengthened by education had made a leading feature in the character of Laura. Her ladyship determined that the first essay should be made in a large company, in the presence of persons of rank, of fame, of talent, of every qualification which could augment the awe, almost amounting to horror, with which Laura shrank from the gaze of numbers.
Partly from a craving for a confidant, partly in hope of securing assistance, Lady Pelham communicated her intention to the Honourable Mrs Clermont, a dashing widow of five-and-thirty. The piercing black eyes, the loud voice, the free manner, and good-humoured assurance of this lady, had inspired Laura with a kind of dread, which had not yielded to the advances which the widow condescended to make. Lady Pelham judged it most favourable to her righteous purpose, that the first, attempt should be made in the house of Mrs Clermont, rather than in her own; both because that lady's higher circle of acquaintance could command a more imposing assemblage of visitors, and because this arrangement would leave her ladyship more at liberty to watch the success of her scheme, than she could be where she was necessarily occupied as mistress of the ceremonies.
The appointed evening came, and Lady Pelham, though with the utmost kindness of manner, insisted upon Laura's attendance. Laura would rather have been excused; yet, not to interrupt a humour so harmonious, she consented to go. Lady Pelham was all complacency. She condescended to preside at her niece's toilette, and obliged her to complete her dress by wearing for that evening a superb diamond aigrette, one of the ornaments of her own earlier years. Laura strenuously resisted this addition to her attire, accounting it wholly unsuitable to her situation; but her aunt would take no denial, and the affair was not worthy of a more serious refusal. This important concern adjusted, Lady Pelham viewed her niece with triumphant admiration. She burst forth into praises of her beauty, declaring, that she had never seen her look half so lovely. Yet, with skilful malice, she contrived to awaken Laura's natural bashfulness, by saying, as they were alighting at Mrs Clermont's door, "Now, my dear, don't mortify me tonight by any of your Scotch gaucheries. Remember every eye will be turned upon you." "Heaven forbid!" thought Laura, and timidly followed her aunt to a couch, where she took her seat.
For a while Lady Pelham's words seemed prophetic, and Laura could not raise her eyes without meeting the gaze of admiration or of scrutiny; but the rooms began to be crowded by the great and the gay, and Laura was relieved from her vexatious distinction. Lady Pelham did not long suffer her to enjoy her release, but rising, proposed that they should walk. Though Laura felt in her own majestic stature a very unenviable claim to notice, a claim rendered more conspicuous by the contrast offered in the figure of her companion, she could not with politeness refuse to accompany her aunt, and giving Lady Pelham her arm, they began their round. Laura, little acquainted with the ease which prevails in town parties, could not help wondering at the nonchalance of Mrs Clermont, who, leaving her guests to entertain themselves as they chose, was lounging on a sofa playing picquet with Colonel Hargrave. "Mrs Clermont at picquet!" said Lady Pelham. "Come, Laura, picquet is the only civilised kind of game you play. You shall take a lesson;" and she led her niece forwards through a circle of misses, who, in hopes of catching the attention of the handsome Colonel Hargrave, were tittering and talking nonsense most laboriously. This action naturally drew the eyes of all upon Laura, and Lady Pelham, who expected to find useful engines in her timidity and embarrassment, did not fail to make her remark the notice which she excited. From this notice Laura would have escaped, by seating herself near Mrs Clermont; but Lady Pelham perceiving her intention, placed herself without ceremony, so as to occupy the only remaining seats, leaving Laura standing alone, shrinking at the consciousness of her conspicuous situation. No one was near her to whom she could address herself, and her only resource was bending down to overlook Mrs Clermont's game.
She had kept her station long enough to be fully sensible of its awkwardness, when Mrs Clermont suddenly starting up, exclaimed, "Bless me! I had quite forgotten that I promised to make a loo-table for the duchess. Do, my dear Miss Montreville, take my hand for half an hour." "Excuse me, madam," said Laura, drawing back; "I play so ill." "Nay, Laura," interrupted Lady Pelham, "your teacher is concerned to maintain your skill, and I insist on it that you play admirably." "Had not your ladyship better play?" "Oh no, my dear; I join the loo-table." "Come," said Mrs Clermont, offering Laura the seat she had just quitted, "I will take no excuse; so sit down, and success attend you!" The seat presented Laura with an inviting opportunity of turning her back upon her inspectors; she was averse from refusing a trifling request, and rather willing to give Hargrave a proof that she was not insensible to the late improvement in his behaviour. She therefore quietly took the place assigned her, while the trio exchanged smiles of congratulation on the facility with which she had fallen into the snare.
Something, however, yet remained to be arranged, and Lady Pelham and her hostess still kept their stations by her side. While dividing the cards, Laura recollected having observed that in town every game seemed played for money, and she asked her antagonist what was to be the stake. He of course referred that point to her own decision; but Laura, in profound ignorance of the arcana of card-tables, blushed, hesitated, and looked at Lady Pelham and Mrs Clermont for instructions. "We don't play high in this house, my dear," said Mrs Clermont; "Colonel Hargrave and I were only playing guineas." "Laura is only a beginner," said Lady Pelham, "and perhaps half a guinea--" Laura interrupted her aunt by rising and deliberately collecting the cards. "Colonel Hargrave will excuse me," said she; "that is far too great a stake for me." "Don't be absurd, my dear," said Lady Pelham, touching Laura's sleeve, and affecting to whisper; "why should not you play as other people do?" Laura, not thinking this a proper time to explain her conscientious scruples, merely answered, that she could not afford it; and, more embarrassed than before, would have glided away, but neither of her guards would permit her to pass. "You need not mind what you stake with Hargrave," said Lady Pelham apart; "you play so much better than he that you will infallibly win." "That does not at all alter the case," returned Laura. "It would be as unpleasant to me to win Colonel Hargrave's money as to lose my own." "Whatever stake Miss Montreville chooses must be equally agreeable to me," said Colonel Hargrave; but Laura observed that the smile which accompanied these words had in it more of sarcasm than of complacency. "I should be sorry, sir," said she, "that you lowered your play upon my account. Perhaps some of these young ladies--" continued she, looking round to the talkative circle behind. "Be quiet, Laura," interrupted Lady Pelham, again in an under tone; "you will make yourself the town-talk with your fooleries." "I hope not," returned Laura calmly; "but if I do, there is no help; little inconveniences must be submitted to for the sake of doing right." "Lord, Miss Montreville," cried Mrs Clermont aloud, "what odd notions you have! Who would mind playing for half a guinea? It is nothing; absolutely nothing. It would not buy a pocket handkerchief." It would buy a week's food for a poor family, thought Laura, and she was confirmed in her resolution; but not willing to expose this reason to ridicule, and a little displeased that Mrs Clermont should take the liberty of urging her, she coolly yet modestly replied, "That such matters must greatly depend on the opinions and circumstances of the parties concerned, of which they were themselves the best judges." "I insist on your playing," said Lady Pelham, in an angry half-whisper. "If you will make yourself ridiculous, let it be when I am not by to share in the ridicule." "Excuse me, madam, for to-night," returned Laura, pleadingly. "Before another evening I will give you reasons which I am sure will satisfy you." "I am sure," said Hargrave, darting a very significant look towards Laura, "if Miss Montreville, instead of cards, prefer allowing me to attend her in your absence, I shall gain infinitely by the exchange,"
Laura, to whom his glance made this hint very intelligible, reddened; and saying she would by no means interrupt his amusement, was again turning to seek a substitute among her tittering neighbours, when Mrs Clermont prevented her, by calling out to a lady at a considerable distance, "My dear duchess, do have the goodness to come hither, and talk to this whimsical beauty of ours. She is seized with an economical fit, and has taken it into her pretty little head that I am quite a gambler because I fix her stake at half a guinea." "What may not youth and beauty do!" said her grace, looking at Laura with a smile half sly half insinuating. "When I was the Miss Montreville of the day, I too might have led the fashion of playing for pence, though now I dare not venture even to countenance it."
The mere circumstance of rank could never discompose Laura; and rather taking encouragement from the charming though faded countenance of the speaker, she replied, "But in consideration of having no pretensions to lead the fashion, may I not claim exemption from following it?" "Oh, by no means!" said her grace." When once you have entered the world of fashion, you must either be the daring leader or the humble follower. If you choose the first, you must defy the opinions of all other people; and if the last, you must have a suitable indifference for your own." "A gentle intimation," returned Laura, "that in the world of fashion I am quite out of place, since nothing but my own opinion is more awful to me than that of others."
"Miss Montreville," said Lady Pelham, with an aspect of vinegar, "we all wait your pleasure." "Pray, madam," answered Laura, "do not let me detain you a moment; I shall easily dispose of myself." "Take up your cards this instant, and let us have no more of these airs," said Lady Pelham, now without affectation whispering, in order to conceal from her elegant companions the wrath which was, however, distinctly written in her countenance.
It now occurred to Laura as strange, that so much trouble should be taken to prevail upon her to play for more than she inclined. Hargrave, though he had pretended to release her, still kept his seat, and his language had tended rather to embarrass than relieve her. Mrs Clermont had interfered farther than Laura thought either necessary or proper; and Lady Pelham was eager to carry her point. Laura saw that there was something in all this which she did not comprehend; and looking up to seek an explanation in the faces of her companions, she perceived that the whole trio seemed waiting her decision with looks of various interest. The piercing black eyes of Mrs Clermont were fixed upon her with an expression of sly curiosity. Hargrave hastily withdrew a sidelong glance of anxious expectation; while Lady Pelham's face was flushed with angry impatience of delay. "Has your ladyship any particular reason for wishing that I should play for a higher stake than I think right?" said Laura, fixing on her aunt a look of calm scrutiny. Too much out of humour to be completely on her guard, Lady Pelham's colour deepened several shades while she answered, "I, child! what should make you think so?" "I don't know," said Laura. "People sometimes try to convince from mere love of victory; but they seldom take the trouble to persuade without some other motive." "Any friend," said Lady Pelham, recollecting herself, "would find motive enough for what I have done, in the absurd appearance of these littlenesses to the world, and the odium that deservedly falls on a young miser." "Nay, Lady Pelham," said the duchess, "this is far too severe. Come," added she, beckoning to Laura, with a gracious smile, "you shall sit by me, that I may endeavour to enlarge your conceptions on the subject of card-playing."
Laura, thus encouraged, instantly begged her aunt's permission to pass. Lady Pelham could not decently refuse; and venting her rage, by pinching Laura's arm till the blood came, and muttering through her clenched teeth, "Obstinate wretch!" she suffered her niece to escape. Laura did not condescend to bestow any notice upon this assault, but, pulling her glove over her wounded arm, took refuge beside the duchess. The fascinating manners of a high-bred woman of fashion, and the respectful attentions offered to her, whom the duchess distinguished by her particular countenance, made the rest of the evening pass agreeably, in spite of the evident ill-humour of Lady Pelham.
Her ladyship restrained the further expression of her rage till Laura and she were on their way home; when it burst out in reproaches of the parsimony, obstinacy, and perverseness, which had appeared in her niece's refusal to play. Laura listened to her in silence; sensible, that while Lady Pelham's passion overpowered the voice of her own reason, it was vain to expect that she should hear reason from another. But next day, when she judged that her aunt had had time to grow cool, she took occasion to resume the subject; and explained, with such firmness and precision, her principles in regard to the uses of money and the accountableness of its possessors, that Lady Pelham laid aside thoughts of entangling her by means of play; since it was vain to expect that she would commit to the power of chance that which she habitually considered as the sacred deposit of a father, and specially destined for the support and comfort of his children.
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.