Hargrave no sooner perceived the futility of his design to involve Laura in a debt of honour, than he laid aside the disguise which had been assumed to lull her vigilance, and which he had never worn without difficulty. He condescended, however, to save appearances, by taking advantage of the idea which Laura had herself suggested to Lady Pelham, and averred that he had made a powerful effort to recover his self-possession; but he declared that, having totally failed in his endeavours to obtain his liberty, he was determined never to renew them, and would trust to time and accident for removing Laura's prejudice. In vain did she assure him that no time could produce such a revolution in her sentiments as would at all avail him; that though his eminent improvement in worth might secure her esteem, her affections were alienated beyond recall. The old system was resumed, and with greater vigour than before, because with less fear of observation, and more frequent opportunities of attack. Every meal, every visit, every public place, furnished occasions for his indefatigable assiduities, from which Laura found no refuge beyond the precincts of her own chamber. Regardless of the vexation which such a report might give her, he chose to make his suit a subject of the tittle-tattle of the day. By this manoeuvre, in which he had before found his advantage, he hoped that several purposes might be served. The publicity of his claim would keep other pretenders at a distance; it would oblige those who mentioned him to Laura to speak, if not favourably, at least with decent caution; and it might possibly at last induce her to listen with less reluctance to what every one spoke of as natural and probable. Lady Pelham seconded his intentions, by hints of her niece's engagement, and confidential complaints to her friends of the mauvaise honte which made Laura treat with such reserve the man to whom she had long been affianced. The consequence of their manoeuvring was, that Hargrave's right to persecute Laura seemed universally acknowledged. The men, at his approach, left her free to his attendance; the women entertained her with praises of his person, manners, and equipage, with hints of her situation, too gentle to warrant direct contradiction; or charges made with conviction too strong to yield any form of denial.
Lady Pelham, too, resumed her unwearied remonstrances, and teased, chided, argued, upbraided, entreated, and scolded, through every tedious hour in which the absence of visitors left Laura at her mercy. Laura had at one time determined against submitting to such treatment, and had resolved, that, if it were renewed, she would seek a refuge far from her persecutors, and from England. But that resolution had been formed when there appeared no immediate necessity for putting it in practice; and England contained somewhat to which Laura clung almost unconsciously. Amidst all her vexatious, Mrs De Courcy's letters soothed her ruffled spirits; and more than once, when she had renewed her determination to quit Lady Pelham, a few lines from Norwood made her pause on its fulfilment, reminding her that a few months, however unpleasing, would soon steal away, and that her return to the country would at least bring some mitigation of her persecutions.
Though Mrs De Courcy wrote often, and confidentially, she never mentioned Montague further than was necessary, to avoid particularity. She said little of his health, nothing of his spirits or occupations, and never hinted any knowledge of his rejected love. Laura's inquiries concerning him were answered with vague politeness; and thus her interest in the state of his mind was constantly kept awake. Often did she repeat to herself that she hoped he would soon learn to consider her merely as a friend; and that which we have often repeated as truth, we in time believe to be true.
Laura had been in town about a month, when one of her letters to Norwood was followed by a longer silence than usual. She wrote again, and still the answer was delayed. Fearing that illness prevented Mrs De Courcy from writing, Laura had endured some days of serious anxiety, when a letter was brought her, addressed in Montague's hand. She hastily tore it open, and her heart fluttered between pleasure and apprehension, when she perceived that the whole letter was written by him. It was short and cautious. He apologised for the liberty he took, by saying that a rheumatic affection having prevented his mother from using her pen, she had employed him as her secretary, fearing to alarm Laura by longer silence. The letter throughout was that of a kind yet respectful friend. Not a word betrayed the lover. The expressions of tender interest and remembrance with which it abounded, were ascribed to Mrs De Courcy, or at least shared with her, in a manner which prevented any embarrassment in the, reply. Laura hesitated for a moment whether her answer should be addressed to Mrs De Courcy or to Montague; but Montague was her benefactor, their intimacy was sanctioned by her best friend, and it is not difficult to imagine how the question was decided. Her answer produced a reply, which again was replied to in its turn; and thus a correspondence was established, which, though at first constrained and formal, was taught by Montague's prudent forbearance to assume a character of friendly ease.
This correspondence, which soon formed one of Laura's chief pleasures, she never affected to conceal from Lady Pelham. On the contrary, she spoke of it with perfect openness and candour. Unfortunately, however, it did not meet with her ladyship's approbation. She judged it highly unfavourable to her designs in regard to Hargrave. She imagined that, if not already an affair of love, it was likely soon to become so; and she believed that, at all events, Laura's intercourse with the De Courcys would foster those antiquated notions of morality to which Hargrave owed his ill success. Accordingly, she first objected to Laura's new correspondence; then lectured on its impropriety and imprudence; and, lastly, took upon her peremptorily to prohibit its continuance. Those who are already irritated by oppression, a trifle will at last rouse to resistance. This was an exercise of authority so far beyond Laura's expectations, that it awakened her resolution to submit no longer to the importunity and persecution which she had so long endured, but to depart immediately for Scotland. Willing, however, to execute her purpose with as little expense of peace as possible, she did not open her intentions at the moment of irritation. She waited a day of serenity to propose her departure.
In order to procure the means of defraying the expense of her journey, it was become necessary to remind Lady Pelham of her loan, which appeared to have escaped her ladyship's recollection. Laura, accordingly, one day gently hinted a wish to be repaid. Lady Pelham at first looked surprised, and affected to have forgotten the whole transaction; but upon being very distinctly reminded of the particulars, she owned that she recollected something of it, and carelessly promised to settle it soon; adding, that she knew Laura had no use for the money. Laura then frankly announced the purpose to which she meant to apply it, saying, that as her aunt was now surrounded by more agreeable society, she hoped she might, without inconvenience, be spared, and would therefore relieve Lady Pelham of her charge, by paying a visit to Mrs Douglas. Rage flamed in Lady Pelham's countenance, while she burst into a torrent of invective against her niece's ingratitude and coldness of heart; and it mingled with triumph as she concluded by saying, "Do, Miss; by all means go to your precious Scotland, but find the means as you best can, for not one penny will I give you for such a purpose. I have long expected some such fine freak as this, but I thought I should disappoint it."
Not daunted by this inauspicious beginning, Laura, taking encouragement from her aunt's known instability, again and again renewed the subject; but Lady Pelham's purposes, however easily shaken by accident or caprice, were ever inflexible to entreaty. "She possessed," she said, "the means of preventing her niece's folly, and she was determined to employ them." Laura burned with resentment at the injustice of this determination. She acknowledged no right which Lady Pelham possessed to detain her against her own consent, and she considered the detention of her lawful property as little else than fraud. But perceiving that remonstrance was useless, she judged it most prudent not to embitter, by vain recriminations, an intercourse from which she could not immediately escape. Without further complaint or upbraiding, she submitted to her fate; content with resolving to employ more discreetly the next payment of her annuity, and with making a just but unavailing appeal to her aunt's generosity, by asserting the right of defencelessness to protection. Lady Pelham had not the slightest idea of conceding any thing to this claim. On the contrary, the certainty that Laura could not withdraw from her power, encouraged her to use it with less restraint. She invited Hargrave to a degree of familiarity which he had not before assumed; admitted him at all hours; sanctioned any freedom which he dared to use with Laura; and forced or inveigled her into frequent tete-a-tetes with him.
Fretted beyond her patience, Laura's temper more than once failed under this treatment, and she bitterly reproached Hargrave as the source of all her vexation. As it was, however, her habitual study to convert every event of her life to the purposes of virtue, it soon occurred to her, that during these compulsory interviews, she might become the instrument of awakening her unworthy lover to more noble pursuits. Like a ray of light, the hope of usefulness darted into her soul, shedding a cheering beam on objects which before were dark and comfortless; and with all the enthusiastic warmth of her character, she entered on her voluntary task; forgetting, in her eagerness to recall a sinner from the error of his ways, the weariness, disgust, and dread with which she listened to the ravings of selfish passion. She no longer endeavoured to avoid him, no longer listened to him with frozen silence or avowed disdain. During their interviews, she scarcely noticed his protestations, but employed every interval in urging him, with all the eloquence of dread, to retreat from the gulf which was yawning to receive him; in assuring him, with all the solemnity of truth, that the waters of life would repay him a thousand-fold for the poisoned cup of pleasure.
Truth, spoken by the loveliest lips in the world, confirmed by the lightnings of a witching eye, kindled at times in Hargrave a something which he mistook for the love of virtue. He declared his abhorrence of his former self, asserted the innocence of his present manner of life, and vowed that, for the future, he should be blameless. But when Laura rather incautiously urged him to give proof of his reformation, by renouncing a passion whose least gratifications were purchased at the expense of justice and humanity, he insisted that she required more than nature could endure, and vehemently protested that he would never, but with life, relinquish the hope of possessing her.
Her remonstrances had however one effect, of which she was altogether unconscious. Hargrave could not estimate the force of those motives which led her to labour so earnestly for the conversion of a person wholly indifferent to her; and though she often assured him that her zeal was disinterested, he cherished a hope that she meant to reward his improvement. In this hope, he relinquished for a while the schemes which he had devised against the unsuspecting Laura, till accident again decided him against trusting to her free consent for the accomplishment of his wishes.
Among other exercises of authority to which Lady Pelham was emboldened by her niece's temporary dependence on her will, she adhered to her former prohibition of Laura's correspondence with De Courcy. Laura, unwilling to make it appear a matter of importance, promised that she would desist, but said that she must first write to Mr De Courcy to account for her seeming caprice. Lady Pelham consented, and the letter was written. It spoke of Laura's situation, of her sentiments, of her regret for Hargrave's strange perseverance, of the dread and vexation to which he occasionally subjected her. To atone for its being the last, it was more friendly, more communicative, than any she had formerly written. Laura meant to disguise under a sportive style the effects which oppression had produced upon her spirits; and the playful melancholy which ran throughout gave her expressions an air of artless tenderness.
Lady Pelham passed through the hall as this letter was lying upon the table, waiting the servant who was to carry it to the post. She looked at it. The sheet was completely filled. She wondered what it could contain. She took it up and examined it, as far as the seal would permit her. What she saw did but increase her curiosity. It was only wafered, and therefore easily opened; but then it was so dishonourable to open a letter. Yet what could the letter be the worse? A girl should have no secrets from her near relations. Still, to break a seal!--it was punishable by law. Lady Pelham laid down the letter, and walked away, already proud of having disdained to do a base action; but she heard the servant coming for his charge; she thought it best to have time to consider the matter. She could give him the letter at any time, and she slipped it into her pocket.
Sad sentence is produced against "the woman who deliberates." Lady Pelham read the letter; and then, in the heat of her resentment at the manner in which her favourite was mentioned, showed it to Hargrave. As he marked the innocent confiding frankness, the unconstrained respect, the chastened yet avowed regard, with which Laura addressed his rival, and contrasted them with the timid caution which, even during the reign of passion, had characterised her intercourse with himself, contrasting them too with the mixture of pity, dislike, and dread, which had succeeded her infatuation, all the pangs of rage and jealousy took hold on the soul of Hargrave. He would have vented his phrensy by tearing the letter to atoms, but Lady Pelham snatched it from his quivering grasp, and, dreading detection, sealed and restored it to its first destination.
The first use which he made of his returning powers of self-command was to urge Lady Pelham's concurrence in a scheme which he had before devised, but which had been laid aside in consequence of his ill-founded hopes. He entreated that her ladyship would, by an opportune absence, assist his intention; which was, he said, to alarm Laura with the horrors of a pretended arrest for an imaginary debt, and to work upon the gratefulness of her disposition, by himself appearing as her deliverer from her supposed difficulty. Lady Pelham in vain urged the futility of this stratagem, representing the obstacles to its accomplishment, and the certainty of early detection. Hargrave continued to importune, and she yielded.
Yet Hargrave himself was as far as Lady Pelham from expecting any fruits from the feeble artifice which he had detailed to her. He had little expectation that Laura could ever be induced to receive any pecuniary obligation at his hands, and still less that she would consider a loan which she might almost immediately repay, as a favour important enough to he rewarded with herself. He even determined that his aid should be offered in terms which would ensure its rejection. Though he durst not venture to unfold his whole plan to Lady Pelham, his real intention was merely to employ the disguise of law in removing Laura from even the imperfect protection of her aunt, to a place where she would be utterly without defence from his power. To the baseness of his purpose he blinded himself by considering the reparation which he should make in bestowing wealth and title on his victim; its more than savage brutality he forgot in anticipation of the gratitude with which Laura, humbled in her own eyes and in those of the world, would accept the assiduities which now she spurned. He little knew the being whom he thus devoted to destruction.
Incited by jealousy and resentment, he now resolved on the immediate execution of his design; and he did not quit Lady Pelham till he had obtained her acquiescence in it so far as it was divulged to her. He then hastened to prepare the instruments of his villany; and ere he gave himself time to cool, all was in readiness for the scheme which was to break the innocent heart that had loved and trusted him in seeming virtue, and pitied and prayed for him, and warned him in guilt. How had the shades of evil deepened since the time when Hargrave first faltered between his infant passion and a virtuous purpose! He had turned from the path which "shineth more and more unto the perfect day." On that in which he trode the night was stealing, slow but sure, which closes at last in outer darkness.
One morning at breakfast, Lady Pelham, with more than usual civility, apologised for leaving Laura alone during the rest of the day, saying that business called her a few miles out of town, but that she would return in the evening. She did not say whither she was going; and Laura, never imagining that it could at all concern her to know, did not think of inquiring. Pleasing herself with the prospect of one day of peace and solitude, she saw her aunt depart, and then sat down to detail to the friend of her youth her situation, her wishes, and her intentions.
She was interrupted by Fanny, who came to inform her that two men below desired to speak with her. Wondering who in that land of strangers could have business with her, Laura desired that they might be shown up stairs. Two coarse, robust-looking men, apparently of the lower rank, entered the room. Laura was unable to divine what could have procured her a visit from persons of their appearance; yet with her native courtesy, she was motioning them to a seat, when one of them stepped forward, and laying on her shoulder a stick which he held, said, in a rough ferocious voice, "Laura Montreville, I arrest you at the suit of John Dykes." Laura was surprised, but not alarmed. "This must be some mistake," said she; "I know no such person as John Dykes." "He knows you though, and that is enough," answered the man. "Get away, girl," continued he, "turning to Fanny, who stood lingering with the door ajar; "you have no business here." "Friend," returned Laura, mildly, "you mistake me for some other person." "What! miss," said the other man, advancing, "do you pretend that you are not Laura Montreville, daughter of the late Captain William Montreville, of Glenalbert in Scotland?" Laura, now changing colour, owned that she was the person so described. "But," said she, recovering herself, "I cannot be arrested. I do not owe five shillings in the world." "Mayhap not, miss," said the man, "but your father did; and you can be proved to have intermeddled with his effects as his heiress, which makes you liable for all his debts. So you'll please pay me the two hundred pounds which he owed to Mr John Dykes." "Two hundred pounds!" exclaimed Laura; "the thing is impossible. My father left a list of his debts in his own handwriting, and they have all been faithfully discharged by the sale of his property in Scotland." The men looked at each other for a moment, and seemed to hesitate; but the roughest of the two presently answered, "What nonsense do you tell me of lists?--who's to believe all that? I have a just warrant; so either pay the money, or come along." "Surely, friend," said Laura, who now suspected the people to be mere swindlers, "you cannot expect that I should pay such a sum without inquiring into your right to demand it. If your claim be a just one, present it in a regular account, properly attested, and it shall be paid to-morrow." "I have nothing to do with to-morrow, miss," said the man. "I must do my business. It's all one to me whether you pay or not. It does not put a penny in my pocket; only if you do not choose to pay, come along, for we can't be staying here all day." "I cannot procure the money just now, even though I were willing," answered Laura, with spirit, "and I do not believe you have any right to remove me." "Oh, as for the right, miss, we'll let you see that. There is our warrant, properly signed and sealed. You may look at it in my hand, for I don't much like to trust you with it."
The warrant was stamped, and imposingly written upon parchment. With the tautology which Laura had been taught to expect in a law-paper, it rang changes upon the permission to seize and confine the person of Laura Montreville, as heiress of William Montreville, debtor to John Dykes of Pimlico. It was signed as by a magistrate, and marked with the large seals of office. Laura now no longer doubted; and turning pale and faint, asked the men whether they would not stay for an hour while she sent to beg the advice of Mr Derwent, Lady Pelham's solicitor. "You may send for him to the lock-up house," said the savage; "we have no time to spare." "And whither will you take me?" cried Laura, almost sinking with horror. "Most likely," answered the most gentle of the two ruffians, "you would not like to be put into the common prison; and you may have as good accommodations in my house as might serve a duchess."
Spite of her dismay, Laura's presence of mind did not entirely forsake her. She hesitated whether she should not send to beg the assistance of some of Lady Pelham's acquaintance, or at least their advice, in a situation so new to her. Among them all there was none with whom she had formed any intimacy; none whom, in her present circumstances of embarrassment and humiliation, she felt herself inclined to meet. She shrank at the thought of the form in which her story might be represented by the malignant or the misjudging, and she conceived it her best course to submit quietly to an inconvenience of a few hours' continuance, from which she did not doubt that her aunt's return would that evening relieve her. Still the idea of being a prisoner; of committing herself to such attendants; of being an inmate of the abodes of misery, of degradation, perhaps of vice, filled her with dread and horror, while, sinking on a couch, she covered her pale face with her hands, and inwardly commended herself to the care of Heaven.
The men, meanwhile, stood whispering apart, and seemed to have forgotten the haste which they formerly expressed. At last one of them, after looking from the window into the street, suddenly approached her, and, rudely seizing her arm, cried, "Come, miss, the coach can't wait all day. It's of no use crying; we're too well used to that; so walk away, if you don't choose to be carried." Laura dashed the tears from her eyes, and faintly trying to disengage her arm, was silently following her conductor to the door, when it opened, and Hargrave entered.
Prepared as he was for a scene of distress, determined as he was to let no movement of compassion divert his purpose, he could not resist the quiet anguish which was written in the lovely face of his victim, and turning with real indignation to her tormentor, he exclaimed, "Ruffian! what have you done to her?" But quickly recollecting himself, he threw his arm familiarly round her, and said, "My dearest Laura, what is the meaning of all this? What can these people want with you?" "Nothing which can at all concern you, sir," said Laura, her spirit returning at the boldness of his address. "Nay, my dear creature," said Hargrave, "I am sure something terrible has happened. Speak, fellows!" said he, turning to his emissaries, "what is your business with Miss Montreville?" "No great matter, sir," answered the man; only we have a writ against her for £200, and she does not choose to pay it, so we must take her to a little snug place, that's all." "To a prison! You, Laura, to a prison! Heavens! it is not to be thought of. Leave the room, fellows, and let me talk with Miss Montreville." "There is no occasion, sir," said Laura. "I am willing to submit to a short confinement. My aunt returns this evening, and she will undoubtedly advance the money. It ought to be much the same to me what room I inhabit for the few intervening hours." "Good Heaven! Laura, do you consider what you say? Do you consider the horrors, the disgrace? Dearest girl, suffer me to settle this affair, and let me for once do something that may give you pleasure." Laura's spirit revolted from the freedom with which this was spoken. Suffering undeserved humiliation, never had she been more jealous of her claim to respect. "I am obliged to you, sir," said she, "but your good offices are unnecessary. Some little hardship I find I must submit to, and I believe the smallest within my choice is to let these people dispose of me till Lady Pelham's return." Hargrave reddened. "She prefers a prison," thought he, "to owing even the smallest obligation to me. But her pride is near a fall;" and he smiled with triumphant pity on the stately mien of his victim.
He was, in effect, almost indifferent whether she accepted or rejected his proffered assistance. If she accepted it, he was determined that it should be clogged with a condition expressly stated, that he was for the future to be received with greater favour. If she refused, and he scarcely doubted that she would, he had only to make the signal, and she would be hurried, unresisting, to destruction. Yet, recollecting the despair, the distraction, with which she would too late discover her misfortune; the bitter upbraidings with which she would meet her betrayer; the frantic anguish with which she would mourn her disgrace, if, indeed, she survived it, he was inclined to wish that she would choose the more quiet way of forwarding his designs, and he again earnestly entreated her to permit his interference.
Laura's strong dislike to being indebted for any favour to Hargrave, was somewhat balanced in her mind by a horror of a prison, and by the consideration that she could immediately repay him by the sale of part of her annuity. Though she still resisted his offer, therefore, it was less firmly than before. Hargrave continued to urge her. "If," said he, "you dislike to allow me the pleasure of obliging you, this trifling sum may be restored whenever you please; and if you afterwards think that any little debt remains, it is in your power to repay it a thousand-fold. One kind smile, one consenting look, were cheaply purchased with a world."
The hint which concluded this speech seemed to Laura manifestly intended to prevent her acceptance of the offer which he urged so warmly. "Are you not ashamed, sir," said she, with a disdainful smile, "thus to make a parade of generosity which you do not mean to practise? I know you do not, can not, expect that I should poorly stoop to purchase your assistance." "Upon my soul, Laura," cried Hargrave, seizing her hands, "I am most earnest, most anxious, that you should yield to me in this affair; nor will I quit this spot till you have consented--nor till you have allowed me to look upon your consent as a pledge of your future favour." Laura indignantly snatched her hands from his grasp. "All that I comprehend of this," said she, "is insult, only insult. Leave me, sir! It is unworthy even of you to insult the misfortunes of a defenceless woman."
Hargrave would not be repulsed. He again took her hand, and persevered in his entreaties, not forgetting, however, to insinuate the conditions. Laura, in silent scorn, turned from him, wondering what could be the motive of his strange conduct, till it suddenly occurred to her that the arrest might be a mere plot, contrived by Hargrave himself for the purpose of terrifying her into the acceptance of the conditions necessary to her escape. This suspicion once formed, gained strength by every circumstance. The improbability of the debt; the time chosen when Lady Pelham was absent; the opportune arrival of Hargrave; the submission of the pretended bailiffs to his order; his frequent repetition of the conditions of his offer, at the same time that he appeared to wish for its acceptance; all conspired to convince Laura that she was intended to be made the dupe of a despicable artifice. Glowing with indignation, she again forced herself from Hargrave. "Away with this contemptible mockery!" she cried; "I will hear no more of it. While these people choose to guard me in this house, it shall be in an apartment secure from your intrusion." Then, before Hargrave could prevent her, she left him, and shut herself into her own chamber.
Here, at greater liberty to think, a new question occurred to her. In case of her refusal to accept of Hargrave's terms, in case of her entrusting herself to the pretended bailiffs, whither could they intend to convey her? Laura's blood ran cold at the thought. If they were indeed the agents of Hargrave, what was there of dreadful that she had not to fear! Yet she could scarcely believe that persons could be found to attempt so daring a villany. Would they venture upon an outrage for which they must answer to the laws--an outrage which Lady Pelham would certainly feel herself concerned to bring to immediate detection and punishment. "Unfortunate chance!" cried Laura," that my aunt should be absent just when she might have saved me. And I know not even where to seek her. Why did she not tell me whither she was going? She who was wont to be so open! Can this be a part of this cruel snare? Could she--oh, it is impossible! My fears make me suspicious and unjust."
Though Laura thus endeavoured to acquit Lady Pelham, her suspicion of Hargrave's treachery augmented every moment. While she remembered that her father, though he had spoken to her of his affairs with the most confidential frankness, had never hinted at such a debt, never named such a person as his pretended creditor--while she thought of the manner of Hargrave's interference, the improbability that her own and her father's name and address, as well as the casualty of Lady Pelham's absence, should be known to mere strangers--the little likelihood that common swindlers would endeavour to extort money by means so hazardous, and with such small chance of success--her conviction rose to certainty; and she determined that nothing short of force should place her in the power of these impostors. Yet how soon might that force be employed!--how feeble was the resistance which she could offer!--and who would venture to aid her in resisting the pretended servants of the law! "Miserable creature that I am!" cried she, wringing her hands in an agony of grief and terror, "must I submit to this cruel wrong? Is there no one to save me--no friend near? Yes, yes! I have a friend from whom no treachery of man can tear me, who can deliver me from their violence, who can do more--can make their cruelty my passport to life eternal. Let me not despair, then. Let me not be wanting to myself. With His blessing, the feeblest means are mighty."
After a moment's consideration, Laura rang her bell, that she might dispatch a servant in quest of Mr Derwent; resolving to resist every attempt to remove her before his arrival, or, if dragged by force from her place of refuge, to claim the assistance of passengers in the street. No person, however, answered her summons. She rang again and again. Yet still no one came. She perceived that the servants were purposely kept at a distance from her, and this served to confirm her suspicions of fraud.
The windows of her chamber looked towards the gardens behind the house; and she now regretted that she had not rather shut herself up in one of the front apartments, from whence she could have explained her situation to the passers by. Seeing no other chance of escape, she resolved on attempting to change her place of refuge, and was approaching the door to listen whether any one was near, when she was startled by the rough voice of one of the pretended bailiffs. "Come along, miss," he cried; "we are quite tired of waiting. Come along." Laura made no reply, but throwing herself on a seat, strove to rally the spirits she was so soon to need. "Come, come, miss," cried the man again, "you have had time enough to make ready." Laura continued silent, while the ruffian called to her again and again, shaking the door violently. He threatened, with shocking oaths, that he would burst it open, and that she should be punished for resisting the officers of justice. All was in vain. Laura would not answer a single word. Trembling in every limb, she listened to his blasphemies and vows of vengeance, till she had wearied out her persecutor, and her ear was gladdened with the sound of his departing steps.
He was almost immediately succeeded by, his less ferocious companion, who more civilly begged her to hasten, as their business would not permit any longer delay. Finding that she would not answer, he reminded her of the consequences of obstructing the execution of law; and threatened, if she continued obstinate, to use force. Laura sat silent and motionless, using every momentary interval of quiet, in breathing a hasty prayer for deliverance. The least violent of the fellows proved the most persevering; yet at last she had the satisfaction to hear him also retire. Presently a lighter step approached, and Hargrave called to her, "Miss Montreville! Laura! Miss Montreville!" Laura was still silent. He called again without success. "Miss Montreville is ill," cried he aloud, as if to some one at a distance. "She is insensible. The door must be forced." "No, no!" cried Laura, determined not to leave him this pretence; "I am not insensible, nor ill, if you would leave me in peace." "For Heaven's sake, then," returned he, "let me speak a few words to you." "No," answered Laura; "you can say nothing that I wish to hear." "I beseech you, I implore you," said Hargrave, "only by one word put it in my power to save you from these miscreants--say but that one little word, and you are free." "Man, man!" cried Laura, vehemently, "why will you make me abhor you; I want no freedom but from your persecutions. Begone!" "Only promise me," said Hargrave, lowering his voice, "only promise me that you will give up that accursed De Courcy, and I will dismiss these men." "Do you curse him who saved your life? Monster! Leave me! I detest you!" Hargrave gnawed his lip with passion. "You shall dearly pay this obstinacy," said he, and fiercely strode away.
In the heat of his wrath he commanded his coadjutors to force the door; but the law which makes the home of an Englishman a sacred sanctuary, extends its precious influence, in some faint degree, to the breasts even of the dregs of mankind; and these wretches, who would have given up Laura to any other outrage, hesitated to perpetrate this. They objected the danger. "Does your honour think," said one of them, "that the servants will stand by and allow us to break open the door?" "I tell you," said Hargrave, "all the men-servants are from home. What do you fear from a parcel of women?" "Women can bear witness as well as men, your honour; and it might be as much as our necks are worth to be convicted. But if your honour could entice her out, we'd soon catch her."
Hargrave took two or three turns along the lobby, and then returned to Laura. "Miss Montreville," said he, "my dearest Miss Montreville, I conjure you to admit me only for a moment. These savages will wait no longer. They are determined to force your door. Once more I implore you, before it be too late, let me speak with you. I expect them every moment." Laura's breast swelled with indignation at this vile pretence of kindness. "Acting under your commands, sir," said she, "I doubt not that they may even dare this outrage. And let them at their peril. If the laws of my country cannot protect, they shall avenge me." For a moment Hargrave stood confounded at this detection, till anger replaced shame. "Very well, madam," he cried; "insult me as you please, and take the consequences." He then rejoined his emissaries, and by bribery and threats endeavoured to prevail upon them to consummate their violence. The men, unwilling to forfeit the reward of the hazard and trouble which they had already undergone, allured by Hargrave's promises, and fearing his vengeance, at last agreed to drag their hapless victim to her doom.
Having taken such instruments as they could find, for the purpose of forcing the door, they followed Hargrave up stairs, and prepared to begin their work. At this near prospect of the success of all his schemes, Hargrave's rage began to cool, and a gleam of tenderness and humanity reviving in his heart, he shrank from witnessing the anguish which he was about to inflict. "Stop," said he to his people, who were approaching the door; "stay a few moments;" and, putting his hand to his forehead, he walked about, not wavering in his purpose, but endeavouring to excuse it to himself. "It is all the consequence of her own obstinacy," said he, suddenly stopping. "You may go on--No; stay, let me first get out of this house. Her cries would drive me mad. Make haste--lose no time after I am gone. It is better over."
Besides the motive which he owned, Hargrave was impelled to depart by the dread of meeting Laura's upbraiding eye, and by the shame of appearing even to the servants, who were so soon to know his baseness, an inactive spectator of Laura's distress. He hastened from the house, and the men proceeded in their work. With dread and horror did Laura listen to their attempts. Pale, breathless, her hands clenched in terror, she fixed her strained eyes on the door, which every moment seemed yielding; then flying to the window, surveyed in despair the height, which made escape an act of suicide; then again turning to the door, tried with her feeble strength to aid its resistance. In vain! It yielded, and the shock threw Laura on the ground. The ruffians raised her, more dead than alive, and were seizing her lily arms to lead her away, but with all her native majesty, she motioned them from her. "You need not touch me," said she; "you see I can resist no farther." With the composure of despair, she followed them into the hall, where, her strength failing, she sank upon a seat.
Some of the servants now in pity and amazement approaching her, she addressed herself to one of them. "Will you go with me, my good friend," said she, "that you may return and tell Lady Pelham where to find her niece's corpse?" The girl consented with tears in her eyes; but one of the fellows cried, "No, no; she may run after the coach if she likes, but she don't go within side." "Why not?" said the other, with a brutal leer." They may both get home again together. They'll be free enough soon." Laura shuddered. "Where wandered my senses," said she, "when I thought of subjecting any creature to the chance of a fate like mine? Stay here, my dear, and tell Lady Pelham that I charge her, by all her hopes here and hereafter, to seek me before she sleeps. Let her seek me wherever there is wickedness and woe; and there, living or dead, I shall be found." "Let's have done with all this nonsense," said one of the men. "John, make the coach draw up close to the door." The fellow went to do as he was desired; while the other with a handkerchief prepared to stifle the cries of Laura, in case she should attempt to move the pity of passengers in the street. Laura heard the carriage stop, she heard the step let down, and the sound was like her death-knell.
The man hurried her through the hall. He opened the street door, and Fanny entered with Mr Derwent. Laura raising her bowed down head, uttered a cry of joy. "I am safe!" she cried, and sank into the arms of Fanny.
The faithful girl had witnessed the arrest of her young mistress, and with affectionate interest had lingered in the anteroom, till Laura's request that she might be allowed to send for Mr Derwent, had suggested to her what was most fit to be done, and the refusal of the pretended bailiff had warned her that it must be done quickly. She had then flown to Mr Derwent's; and finding him just stepping into his carriage, easily persuaded him to order it to Grosvenor Street.
Mr Derwent immediately directed his servants to seize the fellow who had held Laura, the other having made his escape upon seeing the arrival of her deliverers. Laura, soon recovering, told her tale to Mr Derwent, who, ordering the man to be searched, examined the warrant, and declared it to be false. The danger attending forgery, however, had been avoided, for there was no magistrate of the same name with that which appeared in the signature. Hargrave's villany thus fully detected, Laura wished to dismiss his agent; but Mr Derwent would not permit such atrocity to go unpunished, and gave up the wretch to the arm of the law. He then quitted Laura, leaving his servant to attend her till Lady Pelham's return; and worn out with the emotion she had undergone, she threw herself on a bed to seek repose.
Early in the evening Lady Pelham returned, and immediately inquired for her niece. The servants, always attentive and often uncharitable spectators of the actions of their superiors, had before observed the encouragement which their mistress gave to Hargrave, and less unwilling to suspect than Laura, were convinced of Lady Pelham's connivance in his purpose, None of them, therefore, choosing to announce the failure of a scheme in which they believed her so deeply implicated, her questions produced no information, except that Miss Montreville was gone indisposed to bed. The habitual awe with which the good sense and discernment of Laura had inspired Lady Pelham, was at present augmented almost to fear by the consciousness of duplicity. She shrank from encountering the glance of quiet scrutiny, and the plain direct question which left no room for prevarication, no choice between simple truth and absolute falsehood. But curiosity to know the success of the plot, and still more a desire to discover how far she was suspected of abetting it, prevailed over her fears; and having before studied the part she was to play, she entered Laura's apartment.
She found her already risen, and prepared to receive her. "My dear child," said her ladyship, in one of her kindest tones, "I am told you have been ill. What is the matter?" "My illness is nothing, madam," answered Laura, "but I have been alarmed in your absence by the most daring, the most unprincipled outrage!" "Outrage, my dear!" cried Lady Pelham, in a voice of the utmost surprise; "what outrage?" Laura, then, commanding by a powerful effort the indignation which swelled her heart, related her injuries without comment, pausing at times to observe how her aunt was affected by the recital.
Lady Pelham was all amazement; which, though chiefly pretended, was partly real. She was surprised at the lengths to which Hargrave had gone, and even suspected his whole design, though she was far from intending to discover her sentiments to her niece.
"This is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard of!" cried she, when Laura had ended. "What can have been the meaning of this trick? What can have incited the people?"
"Colonel Hargrave, madam," said Laura, without hesitation.
"Impossible, my dear! Hargrave can be no further concerned in it than as taking advantage of the accident to extort the promise of a little kindness from you. He would never have ventured to send the men into my house on such an errand."
"One of them confessed to Mr Derwent, before the whole family, that Colonel Hargrave was his employer."
"Astonishing!" cried Lady Pelham. "And what do you suppose to have been Hargrave's intention?"
"I doubt not, madam," returned Laura, commanding her voice, though resentment flashed from her eyes, "I doubt not that his intentions were yet more base and inhuman than the means he employed. But whatever they were, I am certain he would never have dared to entertain them, had it not been for the encouragement which your ladyship has thought proper to give him."
"I, child!" cried Lady Pelham, truth in her colour contradicting the falsehood of her tongue; "surely you do not think I would encourage him in such a plot?"
"No, madam," answered Laura, "I hope and believe you are incapable of consenting to such wickedness. I allude only to the general countenance which you have always shown to Colonel Hargrave."
Lady Pelham could implicitly rely upon Laura's word; and finding that she was herself unsuspected, she had leisure to attempt palliating the offence of her protege. "That countenance," returned she, "shall be completely withdrawn for the future, if Hargrave does not explain this strange frolic entirely to my satisfaction."
"Frolic, madam!" cried Laura, indignantly. "If that name belong to crimes which would disgrace barbarians, then call this a frolic."
"Come, my dear girl," said Lady Pelham, coaxingly, throwing her arm round Laura, "you are too much, and I must own, according to present appearances, too justly irritated, to talk of this affair coolly to-night. To-morrow we shall converse about it. Now, let's go to tea."
"No, madam," said Laura with spirit, for she saw through her aunt's intention of glossing over Hargrave's villany; "I will never again expose myself to the chance of meeting a wretch whose crimes are my abhorrence. I will not leave this room till I quit it for ever. Madam, you have often called me firm. Now I will prove to you that I am so. Give me the means of going hence in a manner becoming your niece, or my own limbs shall bear me to Scotland, and on the charity of my fellow-creatures will I rely for support."
"I protest, my love," cried Lady Pelham, "you are absolutely in a passion; I never saw you so angry till now."
"Your ladyship never saw me have such reason for anger," replied Laura. "I own I am angry, yet I know that my determination is right, and I assure you it will outlive the heat with which it is expressed."
Had Laura's purpose been more placidly announced, it would have roused Lady Pelham to fury; but even those who have least command over their tempers, have generalship enough to perceive the advantage of the attack; and the passion of a virago has commonly a patriarchal submission for its elder-born brother. Lady Pelham saw that Laura was in no humour for trifling; she knew that her resolutions were not easily shaken; and she quitted her niece on pretence of fatigue, but in reality that she might consider how to divert her from the purpose which she had so peremptorily announced.
Laura was every day becoming more necessary to her aunt, and to think of parting with her was seriously disagreeable. Besides, Laura's departure would effectually blast the hopes of Hargrave; and what would then become of all Lady Pelham's prospects of borrowing consequence from the lovely young Countess of Lincourt?
Never wanting an invention, Lady Pelham thought of a hundred projects for preventing her niece's journey to Scotland. Her choice was fixed by a circumstance which she could not exclude from her consideration. The story of Hargrave's nefarious plot was likely soon to be made public. It was known to Mr Derwent, and to all her own household. Her conscience whispered that her connivance would be suspected. Mr Derwent might be discreet; but what was to be expected from the discretion of servants? The story would spread from the footmen to the waiting-maids, and from these to their ladies, till it would meet her at every turn. Nor had her imprudent consent left her the power of disclaiming all concern in it, by forbidding Hargrave her house, since he would probably revenge himself by disclosing her share in the stratagem.
Lady Pelham saw no better means of palliating these evils, than by dismissing her establishment, and returning immediately to Walbourne; and she hoped, at the same time, that it might not be impossible to prevail on Laura to change the direction of her journey. For this purpose she began by beseeching her niece to lay aside thoughts of retiring to Scotland, and was beginning to recount all the disadvantages of such a proceeding; but Laura would listen to no remonstrance on the subject, declaring that, if after what had happened she remained in a place where she was liable to such outrage, she should be herself accountable for whatever evil might be the consequence. Lady Pelham then proposed an immediate removal to Walbourne, artfully insinuating, that if any cause of complaint should there arise, Laura would be near the advice and assistance of her friends at Norwood, and of Mrs Bolingbroke. Laura was not without some wishes that pointed towards Walbourne; but she remembered the importunities which she had there endured, and she firmly resisted giving occasion to their renewal.
Lady Pelham had then recourse to tender upbraidings. "Was it possible that Laura, the only hope and comfort of her age, would quit her now, when she had so endeared herself to the widowed heart, reft of all other treasures--now when increasing infirmity required her aid--now when the eye which was so soon to close, was fixed on her as on its last earthly treasure! Would Laura thus cruelly punish her for a crime in which she had no share; a crime which she was willing to resent to the utmost of her niece's wishes!" Lady Pelham talked herself into tears, and few hearts of nineteen are hard enough to resist the tears of age. Laura consented to accompany her aunt to Walbourne, provided that she should never be importuned on the subject of Hargrave, nor even obliged to see him. These conditions Lady Pelham solemnly promised to fulfil, and, well pleased, prepared for her journey.
Hargrave, however, waited on her before her departure, and excused himself so well on the score of his passion, his despair, and his eager desire of being allied to Lady Pelham, that, after a gentle reprimand, he was again received into favour, informed of the promises which had been made against him, and warned not to be discouraged if their performance could not immediately be dispensed with. Of this visit Laura knew nothing, for she adhered to her resolution of keeping her apartment, nor ever crossed its threshold, till, on the third day after her perilous adventure, the carriage was at the door which conveyed her to Walbourne.
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.