As Lady Pelham's carriage passed the entrance of the avenue which led to Norwood, Laura sank into a profound reverie, in the course of which she settled most minutely the behaviour proper for her first meeting with De Courcy. She decided on the gesture of unembarrassed cordiality with which she was to accost him, intending her manner to intimate that she accounted him a friend, and only a friend. The awkwardness of a private interview she meant to avoid by going to Norwood next day, at an hour which she knew that Montague employed in reading aloud to his mother.
All tins excellent arrangement, however, was unfortunately useless. Laura was taking a very early ramble in what had always been her favourite walk, when, at a sudden turn, she saw De Courcy not three steps distant. Her white gown shining through the still leafless trees had caught his attention; the slightest glimpse of her form was sufficient for the eye of love, and he advanced prepared to meet her; while she, thus taken by surprise, stood before him conscious and blushing. At this confusion, so flattering to a lover, De Courcy's heart gave one bound of triumphant joy; but he was too modest to ascribe to love what timidity might so well account for, and he prudently avoided reminding Laura, even by a look, of either his hopes or his wishes. Quickly recollecting herself, Laura entered into a conversation which, though at first reserved and interrupted, returned by degrees to the confidential manner which De Courcy had formerly won from her under the character of her father's friend.
This confidence, so precious to him, De Courcy was careful never to interrupt. From the time of Laura's return, he saw her almost daily. She made long visits to Mrs De Courcy; he came often to Walbourne; they met in their walks, in their visits; they spent a week together under Mr Bolingbroke's roof; yet De Courcy religiously kept his promise, nor ever wilfully reminded Laura that he had a wish beyond her friendship. Always gentle, respectful, and attentive, he never invited observation by distinguishing her above others who had equal claims on his politeness. She only shared his assiduities with every other woman whom he approached; nor did he betray uneasiness when she, in her turn, received attentions from others. His prudent self-command had the effect which he intended; and Laura, in conversing with him, felt none of the reserve which may be supposed to attend intercourse with a rejected admirer. His caution even at times deceived her. She recollected Mrs Douglas's prophecy, that "his attachment would soon subside into friendly regard," and imagined she saw its accomplishment. "How happy are men in having such flexible affections!" thought she with a sigh. "I wonder whether he has entirely conquered the passion which, three short months ago, was to 'last through life--beyond life?' I hope he has," whispered she, with a deeper sigh; and she repeated it again--"I hope he has"--as if by repeating it she would have ascertained that it was her real sentiment. Yet, at other times, some little inadvertency, unheeded by less interested observers, would awaken a doubt of De Courcy's self-conquest; and in that doubt Laura unconsciously found pleasure. She often reconsidered the arguments which her friend had used to prove that passion is unnecessary to the happiness of wedded life. She did not allow that she was convinced by them, but she half wished that she had had an opportunity of weighing them before she had decided her fate with regard to De Courcy. Meanwhile, much of her time was spent in his company, and his presence had ever brought pleasure with it. Week after week passed agreeably away, and the close of the winter atoned for the disquiet which had marked its commencement.
During all this time, Laura saw nothing of Hargrave. His visits, indeed, to Walbourne were more frequent than she supposed; but the only one of which she had been informed, Lady Pelham affected to announce to her, advising her to avoid it by spending that day at Norwood. Since their return from town, her ladyship had entirely desisted from her remonstrances in his favour, and Laura hoped that his last outrage had opened her aunt's eyes to the deformity of his character. And could Lady Pelham's end have been pursued without annoyance to any living being, it would long before have shared the perishable nature of her other purposes. But whatever conferred the invaluable occasion of tormenting, was cherished by Lady Pelham as the dearest of her concerns; and she only waited fit opportunity to show that she could be as stubborn in thwarting the wishes of others as capricious in varying her own.
De Courcy's attachment could not escape her penetration; and as she was far from intending to desert the cause of Hargrave, she saw, with displeasure, the progressive advancement of Laura's regard for the friend of her father. Though she was sufficiently acquainted with Laura to know that chiding would effect no change in her sentiments or conduct, she had not temper enough to restrain her upbraidings on this subject, but varied them with all the skill and perseverance of a veteran in provocation. "She did not, she must confess, understand the delicacy of ladies whose affections could be transferred from one man to another. She did not see how any modest woman could find two endurable men in the world. It was a farce to tell her of friendship and gratitude, and such like stuff. Every body knew the meaning of a friendship between a girl of nineteen and a good-looking young fellow of five and twenty. She wondered whether Laura was really wise enough to imagine that De Courcy could afford to marry her; or whether, if he were mad enough to think of such a thing, she could be so ungenerous as to take advantage of his folly, to plunge him into irretrievable poverty; and this, too, when it was well known that a certain young heiress had prior claims upon him."
Laura at first listened to these harangues with tolerable coolness; yet they became, she was unconscious why, every day more provoking. Though she had self-command enough to be silent, her changing colour announced Lady Pelham's victory, and it was followed up without mercy or respite. It had, however, no other effect than that of imposing a little restraint when her ladyship happened to be present; for De Courcy continued his attentions, and Laura received him with increasing favour.
Lady Pelham omitted none of the minor occasions of disturbing this harmonious intercourse. She interrupted their tete-a-tetes, beset them in their walks, watched their most insignificant looks, pried into their most commonplace messages, and dexterously hinted to the one whatever foible she could see or imagine in the other. A casual breath of scandal soon furnished her with a golden opportunity of sowing dissension, and she lost no time in taking advantage of the hint. "It is treating me like a baby," said she once to Laura, after opening in form her daily attack; "it is treating me like a mere simpleton to expect that you are to deceive me with your flourishing sentiments about esteem and gratitude. Have esteem and gratitude the blindness of love? Don't I see that you overlook in your beloved Mr Montague De Courcy, faults which in another you would think sufficient excuse for any ill treatment that you chose to inflict?"
Laura kept silence, for of late she had found that her temper could not stand a charge of this kind.
"What becomes of all your fine high-flown notions of purity, and so forth," continued Lady Pelham, "when you excuse his indiscretions with his mother's protege, and make a favourite and a plaything of his spoilt bantling?"
Laura turned pale, then reddened violently. "What protege? what bantling?" cried she, quite thrown off her guard. "I know of no indiscretions--I have no playthings."
"What! you pretend not to know that the brat he takes so much notice of is his own. Did you never hear of his affair with a pretty girl whom his mamma was training as a waiting-maid for her fine lady daughter?"
"Mr De Courcy, madam!" cried Laura, making a powerful struggle with her indignation--"He seduce a girl who as a member of his family was doubly entitled to his protection! Is it possible that your ladyship can give credit to such a calumny?""Hey-day!" cried Lady Pelham, with a provoking laugh, "a most incredible occurrence, to be sure! And pray, why should your immaculate Mr De Courcy be impeccable any more than other people?"
"I do not imagine, madam," returned Laura, with recovered self-possession, "that Mr De Courcy, or any of the human race, is perfectly sinless; but nothing short of proof shall convince me that he is capable of deliberate wickedness; or even that the casual transgressions of such a man can be so black in their nature, so heinous in their degree. It were next to a miracle if one who makes conscience of guarding his very thoughts, could, with a single step, make such progress in iniquity."
"It were a miracle indeed," said Lady Pelham, sneeringly, "if you could be prevailed upon to believe any thing that contradicts your romantic vagaries. As long as you are determined to worship De Courcy, you'll never listen to any thing that brings him down from his pedestal."
"It is wasting time," returned Laura calmly, "to argue on the improbability of this malicious tale. I can easily give your ladyship the pleasure of being able to contradict it. Mrs Bolingbroke is at Norwood. She will tell me frankly who is the real father of little Henry, and I shall feel no difficulty in asking her. Will you have the goodness to lend me the carriage for an hour?"
"A pretty expedition truly!" cried Lady Pelham, "and mighty delicate and dignified it is for a young lady to run about inquiring into the pedigree of all the bastards in the country! I assure you, Miss Montreville, I shall neither countenance nor assist such a scheme!"
"Then, madam," answered Laura coolly, "I shall walk to Norwood. The claims of dignity, or even of delicacy, are surely inferior to those of justice and gratitude. But though it should subject me to the scorn of all mankind, I will do what in me lies to clear his good name whose kindness ministered the last comforts that sweetened the life of my father."
The manner in which these words were pronounced, showed Lady Pelham that resistance was useless. She was far from wishing to quarrel with the De Courcy family, and she now began to fear that she should appear the propagator of this scandal. Having little time to consult the means of safety, since Laura was already leaving the room, she hastily said, "I suppose in your explanations with Mrs Bolingbroke, you will give me up for your authority?" "No, madam," replied Laura, with a scorn which she could not wholly suppress; "your ladyship has no right to think so at the moment when I am showing such concern for the reputation of my friends." Lady Pelham would have fired at this disdain, but her quietus was at hand; she was afraid of provoking Laura to expose her, and therefore she found it perfectly possible to keep her temper. "If you are resolved to go," said she, "you had better wait till I order the carriage; I fear we shall have rain." Laura at first refused; but Lady Pelham pressed her, with so many kind concerns for a slight cold which she had, that though she saw through the veil, she suffered her ladyship to wear it undisturbed. The carriage was ordered, and Laura hastened to Norwood.
Though she entertained not the slightest doubt of De Courcy's integrity, she was restless and anxious. It was easy to see that her mind was preoccupied during the few minutes which passed, before, taking leave of Mrs De Courcy, she begged Mrs Bolingbroke to speak with her apart. Harriet followed her into another room; and Laura, with much more embarrassment than she had expected to feel, prepared to begin her interrogations.
Harriet, from the thoughtful aspect of her companion, anticipating something of importance, stood gravely waiting to hear what she had to say; while Laura was confused by the awkwardness of explaining her reason for the question she was about to ask. "I have managed this matter very ill," said she at last, pursuing her thoughts aloud. "I have entered on it with so much formality that you must expect some very serious affair; and, after all, I am only going to ask a trifling question. Will you tell me who is the father of my pretty little Henry?" Harriet looked surprised, and answered, "Really, my dear, I am not sure that I dare. You inquired the same thing once before; and just when I was going to tell you, Montague looked so terrible, that I was forced to hold my tongue. But what makes you ask? What! you won't tell? Then I know how it is. My prophecy has proved true, and the good folks have given him to Montague himself. Ah! what a tell-tale face you have, Laura! And who has told you this pretty story?" "It is of no consequence," replied Laura, "that you should know my authority, provided that I have yours to contradict the slander." "You shall have better authority than mine," returned Harriet. "Those who were malicious enough to invent such a tale of Montague, might well assert that his sister employed falsehood to clear him. You shall hear the whole from nurse Margaret herself, and her evidence cannot be doubted. Come, will you walk to the cottage, and hear what she has to say?"
They found Margaret alone; and Harriet, impatient till her brother should be fully justified, scarcely gave herself time to answer the old woman's civilities, before she entered on her errand. "Come, nurse," said she, with all her natural frankness of manner, "I have something particular to say to you. Let's shut the door, and sit down. Do you know somebody has been malicious enough to tell Miss Montreville that Montague is little Henry's father." Margaret lifted up her hands and eyes. "My young master, madam!" cried she--"He go to bring shame and sorrow into any honest man's family! If you'll believe me, miss," continued she, turning to Laura, "this is, begging your pardon, the wickedest lie that ever was told."
Laura was about to assure her that she gave no credit to the calumny, but Harriet, who had a double reason for wishing that her friend should listen to Margaret's tale, interrupted her, saying, "Nurse, I am sure nothing could convince her so fully as hearing the whole story from your own lips. I brought her hither on purpose; and you may trust her, I assure you, for she is just such a wise, prudent creature as you always told me that I ought to be." "Ah, madam," answered Margaret, "I know that; for John says she is the prettiest-behaved young lady he ever saw; and says how fond my lady is of her, and others too besides my lady, though it is not for servants to be making remarks." "Come, then, nurse," said Harriet, "sit down between us; tell us the whole sad story of my poor foster-sister, and clear your friend Montague from this aspersion."
Margaret did as she was desired. "Ah, yes!" said she, tears lending to her eyes a transient brightness, "I can talk of it now! Many a long evening John and I speak of nothing else. She always used to sit between us--but now we both sit close together. But we are growing old," continued she, in a more cheerful tone, "and in a little while we shall see them all again. We had three of the prettiest boys! My dear young lady, you will soon have children of your own, but never set your heart upon them, nor be too proud of them, for that is only provoking Providence to take them away." "I shall probably never have so much reason," said Harriet, "as you had to be proud of your Jessy." The mother's pride had survived its object; and it brightened Margaret's faded countenance, as pressing Harriet's hand between her own, she cried, "Ah, bless you! you were always kind to her. She was indeed the flower of my little flock; and when the boys were taken away, she was our comfort for all. But I was too proud of her. Five years since, there was not her like in all the country round. A dutiful child, too, and never made us sad or sorrowful till--and such a pretty modest creature! But I was too proud of her."
Margaret stopped, and covered her face with the corner of her apron. Sympathising tears stood in Laura's eyes; while Harriet sobbed aloud at the remembrance of the playfellow of her infancy. The old woman first recovered herself. "I shall never have done at this rate," said she, and, drying her eyes, turned to address the rest of her tale to Laura. "Well, ma'am, a gentleman who used to come a-visiting to the castle, by ill fortune chanced to see her, and ever after that he noticed her and spoke to her; and flattered me up, too, saying, what a fine-looking young creature she was, and so well brought up, and what a pity it was that she should be destined for a tradesman's wife. So, like a fool as I was, I thought no harm of his fine speeches, because Jessy always said he behaved quite modest and respectful like. But John, to be sure, was angry, and said that a tradesman was her equal, and that he hoped her rosy cheeks would never give her notions above her station; and, says he--I am sure many and many a time I have thought of his words--says he, 'God grant I never see worse come of her than to be an honest tradesman's wife. ' My young master, too, saw the gentleman one day speaking to her; and he was so good as advise her himself, and told her that the gentleman meant nothing honest by all his fine speeches. So after that, she would never stop with him at all, nor give ear to a word of his flatteries, but always ran away from him, telling him to say those fine things to his equals.
So, one unlucky day I had some matters to be done in the town, and Jessy said she would like to go, and poor foolish I was so left to myself that I let her go. So she dressed herself in her clean white gown. I remember it as if it were but yesterday. I went to the door with her, charging her to be home early. She shook hands with me. Jessy, says I, you look just like a bride. So she smiled. No, mother, says she, I shan't leave home so merrily the day I leave it for all--and I never saw my poor child smile again. So she went poor lamb, little thinking! and I stood in the door looking after her, thinking, like a fool as I was, that my young master need not have thought it strange though a gentleman had taken her for a wife, for there were not many ladies that looked like her."
Margaret rested her arms upon her knees, bent her head over them, made a pause, and then began again. "All day I was as merry as a lark, singing and making every thing clean in our little habitation here, where I thought we should all sit down together so happy when John came home at night from the castle. So it was getting darkish before my work was done, and then I began to wonder what was become of Jessy; and many a time I went across the green to see if there was any sight of her. At last John came home, and I told him that I was beginning to be frightened; but he laughed at me, and said she had perhaps met with some of her comrades, and was gone to take her tea with them. So we sat down by the fire, but I could not rest, for my mind misgave me sadly; so says I, 'John, I will go and see after my girl. ' 'Well, ' says he, ' we may as well go and meet her. ' Alas, alas! a sad meeting was that! We went to the door; I opened it, and somebody fell against me. It was Jessy. She looked as dead as she did the day I laid her in her coffin; and her pretty cheek! and her pretty mouth that used to smile so sweetly in my face when she was a baby on my knee! and her pretty shining hair that I used to comb so often! Oh woe, woe is me! How could I see such a sight and live?"
The mother wrang her withered hands, and sobbed as if her heart were breaking. Laura laid her arms kindly round old Margaret's neck, for misfortune made the poor and the stranger her equal and her friend. She offered no words of unavailing consolation, but pitying tears trickled fast down her cheeks; while Mrs Bolingbroke, her eyes flashing indignant fires, exclaimed, "Surely the curse of Heaven will pursue that wretch?"
"Alas!" said Margaret, "I fear I cursed him too; but I was in a manner beside myself then. God forgive both him and me! My poor child never cursed him. All that I could say she would not tell who it was that had used her so. She said she should never bring him to justice; and always prayed that his own conscience might be his only punishment. So from the first we saw that her heart was quite broken; for she would never speak nor look up, nor let me do the smallest thing for her, but always said it was not fit that I should wait on such a one as she. Well, one night, after we were all a-bed, a letter was Hung in at the window of Jessy's closet, and she crept out of her bed to take it. I can show it you, Miss, for it was under her pillow when she died." Margaret, unlocking a drawer, took out a letter and gave it to Laura, who read as follows:
"MY DEAR JESSY--I am the most miserable wretch upon earth. I wish I had been upon the rack the hour I met you. I am sure I have been so ever since. Do not curse me, dear Jessy! Upon my soul, I had far less thought of being the ruffian I have been to you, than I have at this moment of blowing out my own brains. I wish to Heaven that I had been in your own station, that I might have made you amends for the injury I have done. But you know it is impossible for me to marry you. I enclose a bank bill for £100, and I will continue to pay you the same sum annually while you live, though you should never consent to see me more. If you make me a father, no expense shall be spared to provide the means of secrecy and comfort. No accommodation which a wife could have shall be withheld from you. Tell me if there be any thing more that I can do for you. I shall never forgive myself for what I have done. I abhor myself; and, from this hour, I forswear all womankind for your sake. Once more, dear Jessy, pardon me, I implore you."
This letter was without signature; but the handwriting was familiar to Laura, and could not be mistaken. It was Hargrave's! Shuddering at this new proof of his depravity, Laura inwardly offered a thanksgiving that she had escaped all connection with such a monster. "You may trust my friend with the wretch's name," said Harriet, anxious that Laura's conviction should be complete; "she will make no imprudent use of it." "I should never have known it myself had it not been for this letter," answered Margaret. "But my poor child wished to answer it, and she was not able to carry the answer herself, so she was obliged to ask her father to go with it. And first she made us both promise on the Bible never to bring him either to shame or punishment; and then she told us that it was that same Major Hargrave that used to speak her so fair. Here is the scroll that John took of her answer."
"SIR--I return your money, for it can be of no use where I am going. I will never curse you; but trust I shall to the last have pity on you, who had no pity on me. I fear your sorrow is not right repentance; for, if it was, you would never think of committing a new sin by taking your own life, but rather of making reparation for the great evil you have done. Not that I say this in respect of wishing to be your wife. My station makes that unsuitable, more especially now when I should be a disgrace to any man. And I must say, a wicked person would be as unsuitable among my friends; for my parents are honest persons, although their daughter is so unhappy as to bring shame on them. I shall not live longer to disgrace them any farther, so pray inquire no more for me, nor take the trouble to send me money, for I will not buy my coffin with the wages of shame; and I shall need nothing else. So, wishing that my untimely end may bring you to a true repentance, I remain, Sir, the poor dying, disgraced, JESSY WILSON."
"Ah, Miss," continued Margaret, wiping from the paper the drops which had fallen on it, "my poor child's prophecy was true. She always said she would just live till her child was born, and then lay her dishonoured head and her broken heart in the grave. My lady and Miss Harriet there were very kind, and my young master himself was so good as promise that he would act the part of a father to the little orphan. And he used to argue with her that she should submit to the chastisement that was laid upon her, and that she might find some comfort still; but she always said that her chastisement was less than she deserved, but that she could never wish to live to be 'a very scorn of men, an outcast and an alien among her mother's children.'
So the day that little Henry was born, she was doing so well that we were in hopes she would still be spared to us; but she knew better; and when I was sitting by her, she pulled me close to her, and said, 'Mother, ' says she, looking pleased like, 'the time of my release is at hand now, ' and then she charged me never to give poor little Henry to his cruel father. I had not power to say a word to her, but sat hushing the baby, with my heart like to break. So, by and bye, she said to me again, but very weak and low like, 'My brothers lie side by side in the churchyard--lay me at their feet; it is good enough for me. ' So she never spoke more, but closed her eyes, and slipped quietly away, and left her poor old mother."
A long pause followed Margaret's melancholy tale. "Are you convinced, my friend?" said Mrs Bolingbroke, at length. "Fully," answered Laura, and returned to silent and thankful meditation.
"My master," said Margaret, "has made good his promise to poor Jessy. He has shown a father's kindness to her boy. He paid for his nursing, and forces John to take a board for him that might serve any gentleman's son; and now it will be very hard if the end of all his goodness is to get himself ill spoken of; and nobody saying a word against him that was the beginning of all this mischief. But that is the way of the world." "It is so," said Laura. "And what can better warn us that the earth was never meant for our resting-place. The 'raven' wings his way through it triumphant; the 'dove' finds no rest for the sole of her foot, and turns to the ark from whence she came."
Mrs Bolingbroke soon after took leave of her nurse, and the ladies proceeded in their walk towards Walbourne. Harriet continued to express the warmest detestation of the profligacy of Hargrave, while Laura's mind was chiefly occupied in endeavouring to account for De Courcy's desire to conceal from her the enormity which had just come to her knowledge. Unable to divine his reason, she applied to Harriet. "Why, my dear," said she, "should your brother have silenced you on a subject which could only be mentioned to his honour?" "He never told me his reasons," said Harriet, smiling, "but if you will not be angry, I may try to guess them." "I think," said Laura, "that, thus cautioned, I may contrive to keep my temper; so speak boldly." "Then, my dear," said Harriet, "I may venture to say that I think he suspected you of a partiality for this wretch, and would not shock you by a full disclosure of his depravity. And I know," added she, in a voice tremulous with emotion, "that in him this delicacy was virtue; for the peace of his life depends on securing your affectionate, your exclusive preference." "Ah, Harriet, you have guessed right. Yes! I see it all. Dear, generous De Courcy!" cried Laura, and burst into tears.
Harriet had not time to comment upon this agitation, for the next moment De Courcy himself was at her side. For the first time, Laura felt embarrassed and distressed by his presence. The words she had just uttered still sounded in her ear, and she trembled lest they had reached that of De Courcy. She was safe. Her exclamation was unheard by Montague--but he instantly observed her tears, and they banished from his mind every other idea than that of Laura in sorrow. He paid his compliments like one whose attention was distracted, and scarcely answered what his sister addressed to him. Mrs Bolingbroke, inwardly enjoying his abstraction and Laura's embarrassment, determined not to spoil an opportunity which she judged so favourable to her brother's suit. "This close walk," said she, with a sly smile, "was never meant for a trio. It is just fit for a pair of lovers. Now, I have letters to write, and if you two will excuse me--" De Courcy, colouring crimson, had not presence of mind to make any reply, while Laura, though burning with shame and vexation, answered, with her habitual self-command, "Oh, pray my dear, use no ceremony. Here are none but friends." The emphasis which she laid upon the last word, wrang a heavy sigh from De Courcy; who, while his sister was taking leave, was renewing his resolution not to disappoint the confidence of Laura.
The very circumstances which Mrs Bolingbroke had expected should lead to a happy eclaircissement, made this interview the most reserved and comfortless which the two friends had ever had. Laura was too conscious to talk of the story which she had just heard, and she was too full of it to enter easily upon any other subject. With her gratitude for the delicacy which De Courcy had observed towards her, was mingled a keen feeling of humiliation at the idea that he had discovered her secret before it had been confided to him; for we can sometimes confess a weakness which we cannot, without extreme mortification, see detected. Her silence and depression infected De Courcy; and the few short constrained sentences which were spoken during their walk, formed a contrast to the general vivacity of their conversations.
Laura, however, recovered her eloquence as soon as she found herself alone with Lady Pelham. With all the animation of sensibility she related the story of the ill-fated Jessy, and disclosing in confidence the name of her destroyer, drew, in the fulness of her heart, a comparison between the violator of laws human and divine, owing his life to the mercy of the wretch whom he had undone, and the kind adviser of inexperienced youth, the humane protector of forsaken infancy. Lady Pelham quietly heard her to an end; and then wrinkling her eyelids, and peeping through them with her glittering blue eyes, she began, "Do you know, my dear, I never met with prejudices so strong as yours? When will you give over looking for prodigies? Would any mortal but you expect a gay young man to be as correct as yourself? As for your immaculate Mr De Courcy, with his sage advices, I think it is ten to one that he wanted to keep the girl for himself. Besides, I'll answer for it, Hargrave would have bid farewell to all his indiscretions if you would have married him." "Never name it, madam," cried Laura warmly, "if you would not banish me from your presence. His marriage with me would have been itself a crime; a crime aggravated by being, as if in mockery, consecrated to Heaven. For my connection with such a person no name is vile enough." "Well, well," said Lady Pelham, shrugging her shoulders, "I prophesy that one day you will repent having refused to share a title with the handsomest man in England." "All distinction between right and wrong," returned Laura, "must first be blotted from my mind. The beauty of his person is no more to me than the shining colours of an adder, and the rank which your ladyship prizes so highly, would but render me a more conspicuous mark for the infamy in which his wife must share."
Awed by the lightnings of Laura's eye, Lady Pelham did not venture to carry the subject further for the present. She had of late been watching an opportunity of procuring the readmission of Hargrave to the presence of his mistress; but this fresh discovery had served, if possible, to widen the breach. Hargrave's fiery temper submitted with impatience to the banishment which he had so well deserved, and he constantly urged Lady Pelham to use her authority in his behalf. Lady Pelham, though conscious that this authority had no existence, was flattered by having power ascribed to her, and promised at some convenient season to interfere. Finding herself, however, considerably embarrassed by a promise which she could not fulfil without hazarding the loss of Laura, she was not sorry that an opportunity occurred of evading the performance of her agreement. She therefore acquainted Hargrave with Laura's recent discovery, declaring that she could not ask her niece to overlook entirely so great an irregularity. From a regard to the promise of secrecy which she had given to Laura, as well as in common prudence, Lady Pelham had resolved not to mention the De Courcy family as the fountain from which she had drawn her intelligence. Principle and prudence sometimes governed her ladyship's resolutions, but seldom swayed her practice. In the first interview with Hargrave which followed this rational determination, she was led, by the mere vanity of a babbler, to give such hints as not only enabled him to trace the story of his shame to Norwood, but inclined him to fix the publishing of it upon Montague.
From the moment when Hargrave first unjustly suspected Laura of a preference for De Courcy, his heart had rankled with an enmity which a sense of its ingratitude served only to aggravate. The cool disdain with which De Courcy treated him--a strong suspicion of his attachment--above all, Laura's avowed esteem and regard, inflamed this enmity to the bitterest hatred. Hopeless as he was of succeeding in his designs by any fair or honourable means, he might have entertained thoughts of relinquishing his suit, and of seeking in a match of interest the means of escape from his embarrassments; but that Laura, with all her unequalled charms, should be the prize of De Courcy, that in her he should obtain all that beauty, affluence, and love could give, was a thought not to be endured. Lady Pelham, too, more skilled to practise on the passions of others than to command her own, was constantly exciting him, by hints of De Courcy's progress in the favour of Laura; while Lambert, weary of waiting for the tedious accomplishment of his own scheme, continually goaded him with sly sarcasms on his failure in the arts of persuasion, and on his patience in submitting to be baffled in his wishes by a haughty girl. In the heat of his irritation, Hargrave often swore that no power on earth should long delay the gratification of his love and his revenge. But to marry a freeborn British woman against her consent, is, in these enlightened times, an affair of some difficulty; and Hargrave, in his cooler moments, perceived that the object of three years' eager pursuit was farther than ever from his attainment.
Fortune seemed in every respect to oppose the fulfilment of his designs, for his regiment at this time received orders to prepare to embark for America; and Lord Lincourt, who had discovered his nephew's ruinous connection with Lambert, had influence to procure, from high authority, a hint that Hargrave would be expected to attend his duty on the other side of the Atlantic. The news of this arrangement Hargrave immediately conveyed to Lady Pelham, urging her to sanction any means which could be devised for making Laura the companion of his voyage. Lady Pelham hesitated to carry her complaisance so far, but she resolved to make the utmost use of the time which intervened to promote the designs of her favourite. Her ladyship was not at any time much addicted to the communication of pleasurable intelligence, and the benevolence of her temper was not augmented by a prospect of the defeat of a plan in which her vanity was so much interested. She therefore maliciously withheld from her niece a piece of information so likely to be heard with joy. It reached Laura, however, by means of one who was ever watchful for her gratification. De Courcy no sooner ascertained the truth of the report, than he hastened to convey it to Laura.
He found her alone, and was welcomed with all her accustomed cordiality. "I am sorry," said he, with a smile which contradicted his words, "I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news to you; but I could not deny myself the edification of witnessing your fortitude. Do you know that you are on the point of losing the most assiduous admirer that ever woman was blessed with? In three weeks Colonel Hargrave embarks for America. Nay, do not look incredulous. I assure you it is true." "Thank Heaven!" cried Laura, "I shall once more be in peace and safety?" "Oh, fie! Is this your regret for the loss of so ardent a lover? Have you no feeling?" "Just such a feeling as the poor man had when he escaped from beneath the sword that hung by a hair. Indeed, Mr De Courcy, I cannot tell you to what a degree he has embittered the two last years of my life. But I believe," continued she, blushing very deeply, "I need not explain to you any of my feelings towards Colonel Hargrave, since I find you have I know not what strange faculty of divining them." Assisted by a conversation which he had had with his sister, De Courcy easily understood Laura's meaning. Respectfully taking her hand, "Pardon me," said he, in a low voice, "if I have ever ventured to guess what it was your wish to conceal from me." "Oh, believe me," cried Laura, with a countenance and manner of mingled candour and modesty, "there is not a thought of my heart that I wish to conceal from you; since from you even my most humbling weaknesses are sure of meeting with delicacy and indulgence. But since you are so good an augur," added she, with an ingenuous smile, "I trust yon perceive that I shall need no more delicacy or indulgence upon the same score."
The fascinating sweetness of her looks and voice for the first time beguiled De Courcy of his promised caution. "Dear, dear Laura!" he cried, fondly pressing her hand to his breast, "it is I who have need of indulgence, and I must, I must sue for it. I must repeat to you that--" Laura's heart sprang to her lips, and unconsciously snatching away her hand, she stood in breathless expectation of what was to follow. "Madman that I am!" cried De Courcy, recalled to recollection by her gesture; "whither am I venturing!" That was precisely what of all things Laura was most desirous to know; and she remained with her eyes fixed on the ground, half dreading the confidence, half the timidity, of her lover. A momentary glance at the speaking countenance of Laura, glowing with confusion, yet brightened with trembling pleasure, awakened the strongest hopes that ever had warmed De Courcy's bosom. "Beloved Laura," said he, again tenderly approaching her, "remember I am but human. Cease to treat me with this beguiling confidence. Cease to bewitch me with these smiles, which are so like all that I wish, or suffer me to--" Laura started, as her attention was drawn by some one passing close to the ground window near which they were standing. "Ah!" cried she, in a tone of vexation, "there is my evil genius. Colonel Hargrave is come into the house. He will be here this instant. Excuse me for driving you away. I beseech you, do not remain a moment alone with him."
Laura was not mistaken. She had scarcely spoken, ere, with a dark cloud on his brow, Hargrave entered. He bowed to Laura, who was advancing towards the door. "I am afraid, madam, I interrupt you," said he, darting a ferocious scowl upon De Courcy. Laura, without deigning even a single glance in reply, left the room.
Hargrave, as he passed the window, had observed the significant attitude of the lovers; and his jealousy and rage were inflamed to the uttermost by the scorn which he had endured in the presence of his rival. Fiercely stalking up to De Courcy, "Is it to you, sir," said he, "that I am indebted for this insolence?" "No, sir," answered De Courcy, a little disdainfully. "I have not the honour of regulating Miss Montreville's civilities." "This is a paltry evasion," cried Hargrave. "Is it not to your misrepresentations of a youthful indiscretion that I owe Miss Montreville's present displeasure?" "I am not particularly ambitious of the character of an informer," answered De Courcy; and taking his hat, wished Hargrave a stately good morning. "Stay, sir!" cried Hargrave, roughly seizing him by the arm. "I must have some further conversation with you. You don't go yet." "I am not disposed to ask your permission," returned De Courcy; and coolly liberating his arm, walked out of the house.
Boiling with rage, Hargrave followed him. "It is easy to see, sir," said he, "from whence you borrow a spirit that never was natural to you--your presumption builds upon the partiality of that fickle, capricious woman. But observe, sir, that I have claims on her--claims which she herself was too happy in allowing--and no man shall dare to interfere with them." "I shall dare," returned De Courcy, anger kindling in his eyes, "to inquire by what right you employ such expressions in regard to Miss Montreville; and whether my spirit be my own or not, you shall find it sufficient to prevent your holding such language in my presence." "In your presence, or the presence of all the devils," cried Hargrave, "I will maintain my right; and if you fancy that it interferes with any claim of yours, you know how to obtain satisfaction. There is but one way to decide the business." "I am of your opinion," replied De Courcy," that there is one way, provided that we can mutually agree to abide by it; and that is, an appeal to Miss Montreville herself." Hargrave turned pale, and his lip quivered with rage. "A mode of decision, no doubt," said he, "which your vanity persuades you will be all in your favour! No, no, sir, our quarrel must be settled by means in which even your conceit cannot deny my equality." "By a brace of pistols, you mean, of course," said De Courcy coolly; "but I frankly tell you, Colonel Hargrave, that my notions must have changed before I can find the satisfaction of a gentleman in being murdered; and my principles, before I shall seek it in murdering you." "Curse on your hypocrisy!" cried Hargrave. "Keep this canting to cozen girls, and let me revenge my wrongs like a man, or the world shall know you, sir." "Do you imagine," said De Courcy, with a smile of calm disdain, "that I am to be terrified into doing what I tell you I think wrong, by the danger of a little misrepresentation? You may, if you think fit, tell the world that I will not stake my life in a foolish quarrel, nor wilfully send an unrepenting sinner to his great account; and if you go on to ascribe for my forbearance any motive which is derogatory to my character, I may, if I think fit, obtain justice as a peaceable citizen ought; or I may leave you undisturbed the glory of propagating a slander which even you yourself believe to be groundless."
De Courcy's coolness served only to exasperate his adversary. "Truce with this methodistical jargon!" cried he fiercely; "it may impose upon women, but I see through it, sir--see that it is but a miserable trick to escape what you dare not meet." "Dare not!" cried De Courcy, lightnings flashing from his eye. "My nerves have failed me, then, since--" He stopped abruptly, for he scorned at such a moment to remind his antagonist of the courageous effort to which he owed his life. "Since when?' cried Hargrave, more and more enraged, as the recollection which De Courcy had recalled, placed before him the full turpitude of his conduct. "Do you think I owe you thanks for a life which you have made a curse to me, by cheating me of its dearest pleasures? But may tortures be my portion if I do not foil you!"
The latter part of this dialogue was carried on in a close shady lane which branched off from the avenue of Walbourne. The dispute was proceeding with increasing warmth on both sides, when it was interrupted by the appearance of Laura. From a window she had observed the gentlemen leave the house together; had watched Hargrave's angry gestures, and seen De Courcy accompany him into the bye-path. The evil which she had so long dreaded seemed now on the point of completion; and alarm leaving no room for reserve, she followed them with her utmost speed.
"Oh, Mr De Courcy!" she cried, with a look and attitude of most earnest supplication, "for mercy leave this madman! If you would not make me for ever miserable, carry this no further, I entreat, I implore you. Fear for me, if you fear not for yourself." The tender solicitude for the safety of his rival, which Hargrave imagined her words and gestures to express, the triumphant delight which they called up to the eyes of De Courcy, exasperated Hargrave beyond all bounds of self-command. Frantic with jealousy and rage, he drew, and rushed fiercely on De Courcy; but Montague having neither fear nor anger to disturb his presence of mind, parried the thrust with his cane, closed with his adversary before he could recover, wrested the weapon from his hand; and having calmly ascertained that no person could be injured by its fall, threw it over the fence into the adjoining field. Then taking Hargrave aside, he whispered that he would immediately return to him; and giving his arm to Laura, led her towards the house.
She trembled violently, and big tears rolled down her colourless cheeks, as, vainly struggling with her emotion, she said, "Surely you will not endanger a life so precious, so--" She was unable to proceed; but laying her hand on De Courcy's arm, she raised her eyes to his face, with such a look of piteous appeal as reached his very soul. Enchanted to find his safety the object of such tender interest, he again forgot his caution; and, fondly supporting with his arm the form which seemed almost sinking to the earth, "What danger would I not undergo," he cried, "to purchase such concern as this? Be under no alarm, dear Miss Montreville. Even if my sentiments in regard to duelling were other than they are, no provocation should tempt me to implicate your revered name in a quarrel which would, from its very nature, become public."
Somewhat tranquillised by his words, Laura walked silently by his side till they reached the house, when, in a cheerful tone, he bade her farewell. "A short farewell," said he, "for I must see you again this evening." Laura could scarcely prevail on herself to part from him. "May I trust you?" said she, with a look of anxiety that spoke volumes. "Securely, dearest Laura," answered he. "He whom you trust needs no other motive for rectitude."
He then hastened from her into the field, whither he had thrown Hargrave's sword; and having found it, sprang over into the lane where he had left its owner, gracefully presenting it to him, De Courcy begged pardon for having deprived him of it; "though," added he, "I believe you are now rather disposed to thank me for preventing the effects of a momentary irritation." Hargrave took his sword, and in surly silence walked on; then, suddenly stopping, he repeated that there was only one way in which the quarrel could be decided; and asked De Courcy whether he was determined to refuse him satisfaction. "The only satisfaction," returned De Courcy, "which is consistent with my notions of right and wrong, I will give you now, on the spot. It is not to my information that you owe Miss Montreville's displeasure. Circumstances which I own were wholly foreign to any consideration of your interests, induced me to keep your secret almost as if it had been my own; and it is from others that she has learnt a part of your conduct, which, you must give me leave to say, warrants, even on the ground of modern honour, my refusal to treat you as an equal." "Insolent!" cried Hargrave. "Leave me--avoid me, if you would not again provoke me to chastise you, unarmed as you are." "My horses wait for me at the gate," said De Courcy, coolly proceeding by his side, "and your way seems to lie in the same direction as mine."
The remainder of the way was passed in silence. At the gate, De Courcy, mounting his horse, bade his rival good morning, which the other returned with an ungracious bow. De Courcy rode home, and Hargrave, finding himself master of the field, returned to Walbourne. There he exerted his utmost influence with Lady Pelham to procure an opportunity of excusing himself to Laura. Lady Pelham confessed that she could not venture to take the tone of command, lest she should drive Laura to seek shelter elsewhere; but she promised to contrive an occasion for an interview which he might prolong at his pleasure, provided such a one could be found without her apparent interference.
With this promise he was obliged for the present to content himself; for during his stay, Laura did not appear. She passed the day in disquiet. She could not rest. She could not employ herself. She dreaded lest the interview of the morning should have been only preparatory to one of more serious consequence. She told herself a hundred times that she was sure of De Courcy's principles, and yet feared as if they had been unworthy of confidence.
He had promised to see her in the evening, and she anxiously expected the performance of his promise. She knew that if he came while Lady Pelham was in the way, her ladyship would be too vigilant a guard to let one confidential word be exchanged. She, therefore, with a half-pardonable cunning, said not a word of De Courcy's promised visit; and as soon as her aunt betook herself to her afternoon's nap, stole from the drawing-room to receive him. Yet perhaps she never met him with less semblance of cordiality. She blushed and stammered while she expressed her hopes that the morning's dispute was to have no further consequences, and apologised for the interest she took in it, in language more cold than she would have used to a mere stranger. Scarcely could the expression of tenderness have delighted the lover like this little ill-concerted affectation, the first and the last which he ever witnessed in Laura Montreville. "Ah, dearest Laura!" cried he, "it is too late to retract. You have said that my safety was dear to you; owned that it was for me you feared this morning, and you shall not cancel your confession." Laura's colour deepened to crimson, but she made no other reply. Then, with a more timid voice and air, De Courcy said, "I would have told you then what dear presumptuous hopes your anxiety awakened, but that I feared to extort from your agitation what perhaps a cooler moment might refuse me. My long-loved, ever dear Laura, will you pardon me these hopes? Will you not speak to me? Not one little word to tell me that I am not too daring." Laura spoke not even that little word. She even made a faint struggle to withdraw the hand which De Courcy pressed. Yet the lover read the expression of her half-averted face, and was satisfied.
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.