"Pray," said Lady Pelham to her niece, "what might you and your paragon be engaged in for the hour and a half you were together this evening?"
"We were discussing a very important subject, madam," answered Laura, mustering all her confidence.
"May I be permitted to inquire into the nature of it?" returned Lady Pelham, covering her spleen with a thin disguise of ceremony.
"Certainly, madam," replied Laura. "You may remember I once told you that if ever I received addresses which I could with honour reveal, I should bespeak your ladyship's patience for my tale. Mr De Courcy was talking of marriage, madam; and--and I--"
"Oh, mighty well, Miss Montreville," cried Lady Pelham, swelling with rage, "I comprehend you perfectly. You may spare your modesty. Keep all these airs and blushes till you tell Colonel Hargrave that all your fine high-flown passion for him has been quite at the service of the next man you met with!"
Laura's eyes filled with tears of mortification, yet she meekly answered, "I am conscious that the degrading attachment of which I was once the sport merits your upbraidings; and, indeed, they have not been its least punishment." She paused for a moment, and then added with an insinuating smile, "I can bear that you should reproach me with my new choice, for inconstancy is the prescriptive right of woman, and nothing else can be objected to my present views. "
"Oh, far be it from me," cried Lady Pelham, scorn and anger throwing her whole little person into active motion, "far be it from me to make any objection to your immaculate swain! I would have you understand, however, that no part of my property shall go to enrich a parcel of proud beggars. It was indeed my intention, if you had made a proper match, to give you the little all that I have to bestow; but if you prefer starving with your methodist parson to being the heiress of £45, 000, I have no more to say. However, you had better keep your own secret. The knowledge of it might probably alter Mr De Courcy's plans a little."
"Your ladyship," answered Laura with spirit, "has good access to know that the love of wealth has little influence on my purposes; and I assure you that Mr De Courcy would scorn upon any terms to appropriate what he considers as the unalienable right of your own child. Though we shall not be affluent, we shall be too rich for your charity, and that is the only claim in which I could compete with Mrs Herbert."
This mention of her daughter exasperated Lady Pelham to fury. In a voice half choked with passion, she cried, "Neither that rebellious wretch nor any of her abettors or imitators shall ever have countenance or assistance from me. No! Not though they should beg with their starved bantlings from door to door."
To this intemperate speech Laura made no reply, but quietly began to pour out the tea. Lady Pelham continued to hurry up and down the room, chafing, and venting her rage in common abuse; for a scold in a drawing-room is not very unlike a scold at a green-stall. The storm meeting with no opposition, at length spent itself, or subsided into short growlings, uttered in the intervals of a surly silence. To these, as no answer was absolutely necessary, none was returned. Laura did not utter a syllable till Lady Pelham's wrath beginning to give place to her curiosity, she turned to her niece, saying, "Pray, Miss Montreville, when and where is this same wise marriage of yours to take place?"
"The time is not quite fixed, madam," answered Laura. "As soon as you can conveniently spare me, I intend going to Scotland; and when you and Mrs De Courcy wish me to return, Mr De Courcy will escort me back."
"I spare you!" returned Lady Pelham with a sneer--"Oh, ma'am, if that is all, pray don't let me retard your raptures. You may go to-morrow, or to-night ma'am, if you please. Spare you, indeed! Truly, while I can afford to pay a domestic, I need not be dependent on your assistance; and in attachment or gratitude any common servant may supply your place."
The rudeness and ingratitude of this speech again forced the tears to Laura's eyes; but she mildly replied, "Well, madam, as soon as you find a substitute for me, I shall be ready to depart." Then to escape further insult, she quitted the room.
Lady Pelham's wrath at the derangement of her plan would not suffer her to rest till she had communicated the disaster to Colonel Hargrave. Early next morning, accordingly, she dispatched a note requiring his immediate presence at Walbourne. He obeyed the summons, and was as usual privately received by Lady Pelham. He listened to her intelligence with transports of rage rather than of sorrow. He loaded his rival with execrations, declaring that he would rather see Laura torn in pieces than know her to be the wife of De Courcy. He swore that he would circumvent their schemes, and that though his life should be the forfeit, he would severely revenge the sufferings he had endured.
Lady Pelham had not courage to encounter the evil spirit which she had raised. Subdued, and crouching before his violence, she continued to give a terrified assent to every extravagance he uttered, till he announced his resolution of seeing Laura on the instant, that he might know whether she dared to confirm this odious tale. Lady Pelham then ventured to represent to him that Laura might be so much offended by this breach of contract, as to take refuge with Mrs De Courcy, a measure which would oppose a new obstacle to any scheme for breaking off the intended marriage. She assured him that she would grant every reasonable assistance in preventing a connection so injurious to her niece's interest, though she knew Laura's obstinacy of temper too well to hope any thing from direct resistance. She hinted that it would be most prudent to give the desired interview the appearance of accident, and she promised to contrive the occasion as soon as Hargrave was sufficiently calm to consider of improving it to the best advantage.
But calm was a stranger to the breast of Hargrave. The disquiet which is the appointed portion of the wicked, raged there beyond control. To the anguish of disappointment were added the pangs of jealousy, and the heart-burnings of hatred and revenge. Even the loss of the object of three years' eager pursuit was less cutting than the success of De Courcy; and the pain of a forfeiture which was the just punishment of a former crime, was heightened to agony by the workings of such passions as consummate the misery of fiends.
The associates of the wicked must forego the consolations of honest sympathy. All Hargrave's tortures were aggravated by the sarcasms of Lambert; who, willing to hasten the fever to its crisis, goaded him with coarse comments upon the good fortune of his rival, and advices (which he well knew would act in a direction opposite to their seeming purpose) to desist from further competition. After spending four-and-twenty hours in alternate fits of rage and despair, Hargrave returned to Lady Pelham, informing her, that whatever were the consequence, he would no longer delay seeing Laura. Lady Pelham had foreseen this demand; and though not without fear of the event, had prepared for compliance. She had already arranged her scheme, and the execution was easy.
Laura's favourite walk in the shrubbery led to a little summer-house, concealed in a thicket of acacias. Thither Lady Pelham had conveyed some dried plants, and had requested Laura's assistance in classing them. Laura had readily agreed, and that very morning had been allotted for the task. Lady Pelham, having first directed Hargrave where to take his station, accompanied her unsuspecting niece to the summer-house, and there for a while joined in her employment. Soon, however, feigning a pretext for half an hour's absence, she quitted Laura, intending at first to loiter in the shrubbery, as a kind of safeguard against the ill consequences of her imprudent connivance; but meeting with a gardener who was going to transplant a bed of favourite auriculas, she followed him to watch over their safety, leaving her niece to guard her own.
Scarcely had Laura been a minute alone, ere she was startled by the entrance of Hargrave, and seriously alarmed by seeing him lock the door, and deliberately secure the key. "What is it you mean, sir?" said she, trembling.
"To decide your fate and mine?" answered Hargrave, with a look and voice that struck terror to her soul.
"I am told you are a bride, Laura," said he, speaking through his clenched teeth. "Say," continued he, firmly grasping her arm; "speak, is it so?"
"I know no right," said Laura, recovering herself, "that you have to question me--nor meanly thus to steal--"
"No evasions!" interrupted Hargrave, in a voice of thunder. "I have rights--rights which I will maintain while I have being. Now, tell me, if you dare, that you have transferred them to that abhorred--"
He stopped--his utterance choked by the phrensy into which he had worked himself. "What has transported you to this fury, Colonel Hargrave?" said Laura, calmly. "Surely you must be sensible, that whatever claims I might once have allowed you, have long since been made void by your own conduct. I will not talk to you of principle, though that were of itself sufficient to sever us for ever; but ask yourself what right you can retain over the woman whom you have insulted, and forsaken, and oppressed, and outraged!"
"Spare your taunts, Laura; they will only embitter the hour of retribution. And may hell be my portion if I be not richly repaid for all the scorn you have heaped upon me! I will be revenged, proud woman. You shall be at my mercy, where no cool, canting villain can wrest you from me!"
His threats, and the frightful violence with which they were uttered, filled Laura with mingled dread and pity. "Command yourself, I beseech you, Colonel Hargrave," said she. "If you resent the pain which, believe me, I have most unwillingly occasioned, you are amply revenged. You have already caused me sufferings which mock description."
"Yes, yes; I know it," cried Hargrave in a milder voice. "You were not then so hard. You could feel when that vile wanton first seduced me from you. Then think what I now endure, when this cold-blooded--but may I perish if I do not snatch his prize from him! And think not of resistance, Laura; for, by all that I have suffered, resistance shall be vain. "
"Why do you talk so dreadfully to me?" said Laura, making a trembling effort to release her arm, which he still fiercely grasped. "Why, why will you not cease to persecute me? I have never injured you. I have forgiven, pitied, prayed for you. How have I deserved this worse than savage cruelty?"
"Laura," said Hargrave, moved by the pleadings of a voice which would have touched a murderer's heart, "you have still a choice. Promise to be mine. Permit me only, by slow degrees, to regain what I have lost. Say that months, that years hence you will consent, and you are safe. "
"Impossible!" said Laura. "I cannot bind myself. Nor could you trust a promise extorted by fear. Yet be but half what I once thought you, and I will esteem--"
"Esteem!" interrupted Hargrave, with a ghastly smile. "Yes! and shrink from me as you do now while you hang on that detested wretch till even his frozen heart warm to passion. No!" continued he, with an awful adjuration, "though the deed bring me to the scaffold, you shall be mine. You shall be my wife, too, Laura--but not till you have besought me, sued at my feet, for the title you have so often despised. I will be master of your fate, of that reputation, that virtue which you worship, and your minion shall know it, that he may writhe under jealousy and disappointment."
"Powers of mercy!" cried Laura, raising her eyes in strong compunction, "have I made this mine idol!" Then turning on Hargrave a look of deep repentance, "Yes," she continued, "I deserve to see thee as thou art, without mitigation vile; since on thee my sacrilegious heart bestowed such love as was due to the Infinite alone!"
"Oh, Laura!" cried Hargrave, softened by the remembrance of her youthful affection, "let but one faint spark of that love revive, and. I will forget all you scorns, and feel again such gentle wishes as blessed our first hours of tenderness. Or only swear that you will renounce that bane of my existence--that you will shrink from him, shun him like a serpent! Or give me your word only, and I will trust it. Your liberty, your person, shall be sacred as those of angels. Promise then--"
"Why do you attempt to terrify me?" said Laura, her indignation rising as her alarm subsided. "I have perhaps no longer the right, even if I had the inclination, to utter such a vow. I trust that, in this land of freedom, I am safe from your violence. My reputation, frail as it is, you cannot harm without permission from on high; and if, for wise purposes, the permission be given, I doubt not that I shall be enabled to bear unjust reproach, nay, even to profit by the wrong."
Hargrave suffered her to conclude; rage bereft him, for a time, of the power of utterance. Then, bursting into a torrent of reproach, he upbraided her in language the most insulting. "Do you dare to own," said he, "that your inclination favours that abhorred--that this accursed marriage is your choice--your free choice?" He paused in vain for a reply. Laura would not irritate him further, and scorned to disguise the truth. "Then, Laura," said he, and he confirmed the sentence with a dreadful oath, "you have sealed your fate. Think you that your De Courcy shall foil me? By Heaven! I will see you perish first. I will tear you from him, though I answer it with my life and soul. Let this be the pledge of my triumph," and he made a motion to clasp her rudely in his arms. With a cry of dread and horror, Laura sprang from him, and, throwing open the casement, called loudly for assistance. Hargrave forced her back. "Spare your alarms, my lovely proud one," said he, with a smile, which made her blood run cold. "You are safe for the present--but may I not even kiss this pretty hand, as an earnest that you shall soon be mine beyond the power of fate?" "Silence, audacious!" cried Laura, bursting into tears of mingled fear and indignation, while she struggled violently to disengage her hands. "Nay, this rosy cheek will content me better," cried Hargrave--when the door was burst suddenly open, and De Courcy appeared.
"Ruffian!" he exclaimed, approaching Hargrave, who, in his surprise, permitted Laura to escape. Her fears now taking a new direction, she flew to intercept De Courcy. "Ah!" she cried, "my folly has done this. Fly from this madman, I entreat you. I have nothing to fear but for you. Begone, I implore you."
"And leave you to such treatment! Not while I have life! When you choose to go, I will attend you. For you, sir!--But I must stoop below the language of a gentleman ere I find words to describe your conduct. "
"For Heaven's sake," cried Laura, "dear De Courcy, provoke him no farther. Let us fly this place;" and clinging to De Courcy's arm, she drew him on; while, with the other, he defended her from Hargrave, who had advanced to detain her. Her expression of regard, her confiding attitude, exasperated the phrensy of Hargrave to the uttermost. Almost unconscious of his own actions, he drew a pistol from his pocket, and fired. Laura uttered a cry of terror, clasping her lover's arm more closely to her breast. "Be not alarmed, love, " whispered De Courcy; "it is nothing!"--and staggering forward a few paces, he fell to the ground.
Laura in desperation rushed from the summer-house, calling wildly for help; then, struck with the fearful thought that Hargrave might now complete his bloody work, she hurried back. During the few moments of her absence, De Courcy addressed his murderer, whose rage had given place to a wild stupor. "I fear this is an unlucky stroke, Hargrave. Save yourself. My horse is at the gate." Hargrave answered only with a groan; and striking his clenched hand on his forehead, turned away. His crime was unpremeditated. No train of self-deceit had reconciled his conscience to its atrocity. The remembrance of the courage which had saved his life; the generous concern of De Courcy for his safety; humanity, the last virtue which utterly forsakes us--all awakened him to remorse, keen and overwhelming, like every other passion of Hargrave. Not bearing to look upon his victim, he stood fixed and motionless; while Laura, on her knees, watched in dismay the changing countenance of De Courcy, and strove to staunch the blood which was streaming from his wound.
De Courcy once more tried to cheer Laura with words of comfort. "Were it not," said he, "for the pleasure this kind concern gives me, I might tell you that I do not suffer much pain. I am sure I could rise, if I could trust this slender arm," laying his hand gently upon it. Laura eagerly offered her assistance as he attempted to raise himself; but the effort overpowered him, and he sank back fainting.
In the strong language of terror, Laura now besought Hargrave to procure help. Still motionless, his forehead resting against the wall, his hands clenched as in convulsion, Hargrave seemed not to heed her entreaties. "Have you no mercy?" cried she, clasping the arm from which she had so lately shrunk in horror. "He saved your life. Will you let him perish without aid?" "Off, woman!" cried Hargrave, throwing her from him. "Thy witchcraft has undone me;" and he distractedly hurried away.
Laura's terror was not the passive cowardice of a feeble mind. She was left alone to judge, to act, for herself--for more than herself. Immediate, momentous decision, was necessary. And she did decide, by an effort of which no mind enfeebled by sloth or selfishness would have been capable. She saw that loss of blood was the cause of De Courcy's immediate danger, a danger which might be irremediable before he could receive assistance from more skilful hands than hers. Such remedy, then, as she could command, she hastened to apply.
To the plants which their beauty had recommended to Lady Pelham, Laura had added a few of which the usefulness was known to her. Agaric of the oak was of the number; and she had often applied it where many a hand less fair would have shrunk from the task. Nor did she hesitate now. The ball had entered near the neck; and the feminine, the delicate Laura, herself disengaged the wound from its coverings; the feeling, the tender Laura, herself performed an office from which false sensibility would have recoiled in horror.
She was thus employed when she was found by a woman whom Hargrave had met and sent to her assistance, with an indistinct message, from which Laura gathered that he was gone in search of a surgeon. The woman no sooner cast her eyes on the bloody form of De Courcy, and on the colourless face of Laura, more deathlike than his, than, with noisy imbecility, she began to bewail and ejaculate. Laura, however, instantly put a stop to her exclamations by dispatching her for cordials and assistance.
In a few minutes all the household was assembled round De Courcy; yet such was the general curiosity, horror, or astonishment, that he would have remained unaided but for the firmness of her who was most interested in the scene. She dismissed every one whose presence was unnecessary, and silenced the rest by a peremptory command. She administered a cordial to recruit the failing strength of De Courcy; and causing him to be raised to the posture which seemed the least painful, made her own trembling arms his support.
Nothing further now remained to be done, and Laura began to feel the full horrors of her situation; to weigh the fearful probability that all her cares were vain; to upbraid herself as the cause of this dire tragedy. Her anguish was too great to find relief in tears. Pale and cold as marble, chilly drops bursting from her forehead, she sat in the stillness of him who waits the sentence of condemnation, save when a convulsive shudder expressed her suffering.
The mournful quiet was interrupted by the entrance of Lady Pelham; who, quite out of breath, began a string of questions, mixed with abundance of ejaculation. "Bless my soul!" she cried, "how has all this happened? For Heaven's sake, Laura, tell me the meaning of all this. Why don't you speak, girl? Good Lord! could not you have prevented these madmen from quarrelling? What brought De Courcy here? How did he find you out? Why don't you speak? Mercy on me! Is the girl out of her senses?"
The expression of deep distress with which Laura now raised her eyes, reminded Lady Pelham of the sensibility requisite upon such an occasion, which her ladyship's curiosity had hitherto driven from her recollection. Approaching, therefore, to De Courcy, she took a hasty look of this dismal spectacle; and exclaiming, "Oh, what a sight is here! Unfortunate Laura! Dear wretched girl!" she began first to sob, and then to scream violently. Laura motioned to the attendants to lead her away, and she suffered them to do so without resistance; but she had no sooner crossed the threshold, than, perceiving the spectators whom curiosity had collected in the shrubbery, she redoubled her shrieks, struggled, beat herself; and, but for the untoward strength of her nerves, would have soon converted her pretended fit into reality. Wearied with her efforts, she was beginning to relax them, when the surgeon appeared, and her ladyship was more vociferous than ever. Mr Raby, a quiet, sensible man, undertook her cure before he proceeded to his more serious business; and, either guided by his previous acquaintance with his patient, or by his experience in similar cases, gave a prescription which, though simple, was perfectly efficacious. He directed that the lady should be instantly secluded in her own chamber, with only one attendant; and the remedy proved so beneficial, that her ladyship enjoyed a night of tranquil repose.
He next turned his attention to De Courcy; and judging it proper to extract the ball without delay, advised Laura to retire. Without opposition she prepared to obey; and, seeing De Courcy about to speak, put her hand on his lips to save him the exertion, and herself the pain of a farewell. Yet, as she resigned her charge, raising her eyes to heaven, once more to commend De Courcy to the divine protection, the fervour of her supplication burst into words. "Oh, if it be possible! if it be possible!" she cried. "Yes, it is possible," said De Courcy, comprehending the unfinished sentence. "Your firmness, noble creature, has made it possible." Reproaching herself with having allowed De Courcy to perceive her alarm, she hastened away; and seating herself on the steps that led to the door, awaited in silence the event of the operation.
Here, as she sorrowfully called to mind the various excellences of De Courcy, his piety, his integrity, his domestic virtues, so lately known, so soon to be lost to her, she suddenly recollected the heavier calamity of the mother deprived of such a son, and perceived the inhumanity of permitting the stroke to fall without preparation. Having access to no messenger more tender than a common servant, she determined, though with unspeakable reluctance, herself to bear the tidings to Mrs De Courcy. "I will know the worst," thought she, "and then--"
She started at a faint noise that sounded from the summer-house. Steps approached the door from within. She sprang up, and the surgeon appeared. "I have the happiness to tell you," said he, "that if no fever take place, our friend is safe. The chief danger has been from loss of blood; and your presence of mind--Ah! do you feel faint?"
The awful interest which had supported the spirits of Laura thus suddenly withdrawn, the tide of various feeling overpowered them; and she sank into one of those long and deep faintings which were now unhappily become in some degree constitutional with her. Mr Raby having given directions for her recovery, placed De Courcy in Lady Pelham's carriage, and himself attended him to Norwood; where he mitigated Mrs De Courcy's horror and distress by assurances of her son's safety, which he again delighted Montague by ascribing to the cares of Laura.
It was late in the evening before Laura was sufficiently collected to review with composure the events of the day. As soon, however, as she was capable of considering all the circumstances, a suspicion occurred that her unfortunate interview with Hargrave had been sanctioned, if not contrived, by Lady Pelham. That he should know the place and the hour in which he might surprise her alone; that to this place, which because of its loneness she had of late rather deserted, she should be conducted by her aunt; that at this moment she should, upon a trivial pretence, be left in solitude, seemed coincidences too strong to be merely accidental. She recollected some symptoms of private communication between Lady Pelham and Hargrave. Suspicions of connivance in the infamous stratagem of her arrest again revived in her mind. Lady Pelham, she perceived, had afforded her a protection at best imperfect, perhaps treacherous. Hargrave's late threats, too, as she revolved them in her thoughts, appeared more like the intimations of settled design than the vague ravings of passion. Prudence, therefore, seemed to require that she should immediately provide for her own safety; and indignation at her aunt's breach of confidence hastened the purpose which she formed of leaving Walbourne without delay. She determined to go the next morning to Norwood, there to remain till De Courcy showed signs of convalescence, and then perform her long-projected journey to Scotland.
In order to avoid unpleasant altercation, she resolved to depart without warning Lady Pelham of her intention; merely announcing by letter the reasons of her conduct. The affectionate Laura would not have parted from the meanest servant without a kindly farewell; but her innate abhorrence of treachery steeled her heart, and she rejoiced that it was possible to escape all present intercourse with her deceitful kinswoman.
As soon as the dawn appeared, she arose; and on her knees thankfully acknowledged the protecting care which had watched over her, since first as a destitute orphan the applied to Lady Pelham. She blessed the goodness which had softened in her favour a heart little subject to benevolent impressions, which had restored her in sickness, consoled her in sorrow, delivered her from the snares of the wicked, and opened to her the joys of virtuous friendship. And where is the wretch so miserable that he may not in the review of eighteen months find subjects of gratitude still more numerous! Laura began no important action of her life without imploring a blessing on the event; and she now proceeded to commend herself and her future prospects to the same care of which she had glad experience.
The proper business of the morning ended, she had begun to make arrangements for her immediate departure, when she heard Lady Pelham's bell ring, and the next instant a noise like that occasioned by the fall of something heavy. She listened for a while, but all was again still. The rest of the family were yet buried in sleep, and Laura, hearing no one stirring to answer Lady Pelham's summons, began to fear that her aunt was ill, perhaps unable to make any further effort to procure assistance. At this idea, all her just indignation subsiding in a moment, she flew to Lady Pelham's chamber.
Lady Pelham was lying on the floor, having apparently fallen in an attempt to rise from her bed. She was alive, though insensible; and her face, though altered, was still florid. Laura soon procuring help, raised her from the ground; and guessing that apoplexy was her disorder, placed her in an upright posture, loosened her night-clothes; and having hurried away a servant for Mr Raby, ventured, until his arrival, upon such simple remedies as she knew might be safely administered. In little more than an hour the surgeon arrived; and having examined his patient, declared her to be in extreme danger. Before he left her, however, he succeeded in restoring her to some degree of recollection; yet, far from changing his first opinion, he advised Laura to lose no time in making every necessary use of an amendment which he feared would be only transient.
From Lady Pelham, he went to Norwood; and returning to Walbourne in the evening, brought the pleasing intelligence that De Courcy continued to do well. This second visit produced no change in his sentiments, and he remained persuaded that though Lady Pelham might continue to linger for a time, the shock had been too great to allow of complete recovery. Laura now rejoiced that she had not executed her purpose of leaving Walbourne; since, had her aunt's illness succeeded to the rage which her departure would have excited, she could never have ceased to blame herself as the cause.
She looked with profound compassion, too, upon the condition of an unfortunate being, whose death-bed was neither smoothed by affection, nor cheered by pious hope. "Unhappy woman!" thought she, as she sat watching an unquiet slumber into which her aunt had fallen, "to whom the best gifts of nature and of fortune have by some fatality been useless, or worse than useless; whose affluence has purchased no higher joys than half-grudged luxuries; whose abilities have dazzled others and bewildered herself, but lent no steady light to guide her way; whose generosity has called forth no gratitude, whose kindness has awakened no affection; to whom length of days has brought no reverence, and length of intimacy no friends! Even the sacred ties of nature have been to her unblessed. Her only child driven from her in anger, dares not approach to share the last sad offices with me, who, in performing them, must forgive as well as pity. Favourite of fortune, what has been wanting to thee save that blessing which 'bringeth no sorrow with it?' But that blessing was light in thine esteem; and amidst the glitter of thy toys, the 'pearl of great price' was disregarded."
For some days Lady Pelham continued much in the same situation. She suffered no pain, yet gave no signs of amendment. On the sixth morning from her first attack, she grew suddenly and materially worse. It was soon discovered that her limbs were paralysed, and the surgeon declared that her end could not be very distant. Her senses, however, again returned, and she continued free from pain. She showed little apprehension of her own danger; and Laura debated with herself whether she should permit her aunt to dream away the last precious hours of probation, or endeavour to awaken her to a sense of her condition.
Laura had no faith in death-bed repentance. She knew that resolutions of amendment which there is no longer time to practise, and renunciations of sin made under the immediate prospect of punishment, are at best suspicious. She knew that, in the ordinary course of Providence, the grace which has been long despised, is at length justly withdrawn. Yet she saw that she had no right to judge Lady Pelham as wholly impenitent; and she considered a death-bed as highly suitable to the renewal, though not to the beginning, of repentance. She knew, too, that the call might be made effectual even at the "eleventh hour;" and the bare chance was worth the toil of ages. She felt how little she herself would have valued the mistaken pity which could suffer her to enter on the "dark valley" without a warning to cling closer to the "staff and rod" of comfort. She therefore ventured to hint gently to Lady Pelham the opinion of her medical friends, and to remind her of the duty of preparing for the worst.
Lady Pelham at first appeared a good deal shocked, and lay for some time apparently meditating on her situation. At last, recovering her spirits, she said, "Your nerves, Laura, were always so coarse, that you seemed to me to take a pleasure in thinking of shocking things; but I am sure it is abominably barbarous in you to tease me with them now I am ill. Do keep your horrid fancies to yourself, or keep away till you are cured of the vapours--I dare say it is your dismal face that makes me dream so unpleasantly. "
Laura, however, was not to be so discouraged. She took occasion to represent that no harm could ensue from preparing to meet the foe; since his march was not to be retarded by shutting our eyes on his advances, nor hastened by the daring which watched his approach. She at length thought she had succeeded in convincing her aunt of her danger. Lady Pelham said that she feared she was dying, and she believed that she said the truth. But Lady Pelham had had sixty years' practice in self-deceit. The fear might flutter in her imagination, but was not strong enough to touch her heart.
Laura, however, made use of her acknowledgment to press upon her the duties of forgiveness and charity towards all mankind, and especially towards her child; reminding her of the affecting parity of situation between offending man and his disobedient offspring. Lady Pelham at first answered impatiently that she would not be urged on this subject; but as her spirits began to fail under the first confinement which she had ever endured, she became more tractable. "God knows, " said she to Laura one day, "we have all much need to be forgiven, and therefore we must forgive in our turn. For my part, I am sure I die in charity with all mankind, and with that creature among the rest. However, I shall take my friend the Spectator's advice, and remember the difference between giving and forgiving."
Laura often begged permission to send for Mrs Herbert; but Lady Pelham sometimes postponed it till she should get better, sometimes till she should grow worse. Laura was in the meantime her constant attendant; bearing with her peevishness, soothing her caprice, and striving to rouse in her feelings suitable to her condition. Finding, however, that she made but little progress in her pious work, she begged that she might be allowed to take the assistance of a clergyman. "A clergyman, child!" cried Lady Pelham. "Do you imagine me to be a papist? Or do you think me capable of such weak superstition as to place more reliance on a parson's prayers than on yours, or my maid Betty's? No, no! though I may be weak, I shall never be fanatical."
"It would indeed be superstition," answered Laura, "to expect that the prayers of any mortal should be useful to you any farther than as they speak the language of your own heart; but as our divine Master has chosen some of his servants as guides to the rest, we may hope that he will grant a peculiar blessing on their labours. Besides, Mr Wentworth has been accustomed to plead with men, and knows every avenue of persuasion."
"Oh, now I see the cloven foot. This is the true pharisaical cant. I, forsooth, am one of the unconverted. But in spite of your charitable opinion, I trust I have been no worse than other people, and I have too high a sense of the divine justice to think that our maker would first give us ungovernable passions, and then punish us for yielding to them. A phlegmatic being like you may indeed be called to strict account; but people of strong feelings must be judged by a different standard."
"Oh, madam," said Laura, "be assured that our Maker gives us no unconquerable passions. If we ourselves have made them so, it becomes us to be humbled in the dust, not to glory in the presumptuous hope that He will soften the sanctions of his law to favour our remissness."
Driven from the stronghold of justice, rather by the increase of her bodily languor than by the force of truth, the dying sinner had recourse to mercy, a mercy, however, of her own composing. "It is true," said she one day to Laura, "that I have done some things which I have reason to regret, and which, I must confess, deserve punishment. But divine mercy towards believers, we are told, is infinite; and though I may at times have doubted, I have never disbelieved." Laura, shuddering at this awful blindness, was offering an inward prayer for aid to frame a useful reply, when she saw her aunt's countenance change. It was distorted by a momentary convulsion, and then fixed for ever in the stillness of death.
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.