The travellers had proceeded for some time shaded by the overhanging woods, the distance lengthened by the dreary sameness of their way, when a wild halloo smote Laura's ear; and she perceived that three Indians stood at the water-edge, making signs for the boat to land. To her unspeakable surprise, the sailors joyfully obeyed the signal. They ran their bark into a creek to which the Indians pointed, and cheerfully busied themselves in discharging their cargo. Placed with her attendants on a little eminence which rose above the swampy margin of the river, Laura took a fearful survey of the scene around her. Save where the sluggish stream opened to the day, her view was bounded to a few yards of marshy ground, rank with unwholesome vegetation. No track appeared to lead from this desolate spot. Between the gigantic pines, brushwood and coarse grass spread in sad luxuriance. No trace was here of human footstep. All was dreary and forlorn, as the land which the first wanderers visited unwilling.
She had not long continued her melancholy survey, when the two stoutest of the Indians approached; and one of them, after talking apart with her attendants, lifted her female servant in his arms, and walked on. The other, making some uncouth gestures, prepared to raise Laura from the ground. She shrank back alarmed; but the Indian, in broken French, assured her that he would not hurt her; and, pointing towards the woods, reminded her of the difficulty of passing them on foot. Her valet, too, represented the fatigue she must undergo, if she refused the assistance of the Indian. But Laura, preferring a toilsome march to such a mode of conveyance, persevered in her refusal; and, bidding them lead the way, followed into the pathless wild.
They continued their journey for several hours, no object meeting their sight that might mark the stages of their way. No work of man appeared, not even the faintest trace that ever man had toiled through this wilderness; yet Laura perceived that the Indians proceeded without hesitation. The position of the grass, the appearance of the leaves, gave indications sufficient to guide them in their route. One of them carried a bag of provisions; and having reached a spot where the ground was firm and dry, he invited Laura to sit down and take some refreshment. Faint with fatigue, Laura thankfully acceded. Scarcely, however, had she seated herself on the grass, ere her attention was drawn by a slight though unusual noise; and she was told that it was caused by a rattlesnake. At this intelligence her maid, screaming, started up, and was going to dart forward into the wood. The Indians beheld her terror with silent contempt, while Laura calmly detained her with gentle force. "Stay, Mary," said she; "if you tread on the animal, you are gone! If we are quiet, we may probably see and avoid it." The influence which Laura always acquired over those with whom she lived, prevailed over Mary's dread; and in a few moments the serpent was seen by one of the Indians, who killed it with a single blow.
Their hasty meal ended, the party proceeded on their way; but they had not gone far ere Laura, worn out with toil and sorrow, sank upon the ground.. She had now no choice; and the Indian, lifting her with the same ease as she would have done an infant, went on with more speed than before.
Towards the close of day, the woods suddenly opened into a small field, surrounded by them on every side, which appeared to have been itself imperfectly redeemed from the same state of waste luxuriance. In the centre stood a house, or rather cabin, rudely constructed of the material which nature so lavishly supplied. Around it a small patch, enclosed by a palisade, bore marks of forsaken cultivation. Beyond this enclosure, logs of prodigious size lay scattered through the field, and the roots, which had not been cleared from the ground, were again shooting luxuriantly. With a faint sensation of gladness, Laura beheld traces of human kind. Yet no living creature appeared. Here reigned primeval stillness. The winds had died away. A sultry calm filled the air. The woods were motionless. The birds were silent. All was fixed as in death, save where a dull stream stole under the tall canes that deformed its margin.
Mary's exclamations of grief and surprise first informed Laura that she had reached her home. To Laura the dreariness of the scene was of small concern. No outward circumstances could add to the horrors with which her fears were familiar. While her attendant bewailed aloud that ever thirst of gain had lured her from happy England, Laura was inwardly striving to revive the hope that sudden death might snatch her from the grasp of the oppressor, and renewing her oft-repeated prayer--"Oh that Thou wouldst hide me in the grave!" But no selfish sorrow could make her regardless of the woes of others. "Courage, Mary!" said she, with a foreboding smile; "we shall soon be released; and both, I hope, find shelter in our Father's house."
The cabin was divided into three apartments, each entering from the other. To the innermost Laura was conducted; and she saw that it had been arranged for her. The window was secured with iron. The furniture, unlike that of the other rooms, was new and not inelegant. Laura looked round to observe whether any trace of Hargrave's presence was visible. None appeared. She examined every recess and corner of her new abode, as one who fears the lurking assassin. She ascertained that Hargrave was not its inmate, and thanked Heaven for the prospect of one night of peace. It was in vain, however, that she tried to discover how long this reprieve might last. The servants either could not or would not give her any information. She was too well acquainted with the character of her oppressor to hope that he would long delay his coming. "To-morrow, perhaps," thought she; and the cold shivering came over her, which now ever followed her anticipation of the future. "Yet why do I despair?" said she. "Is any time too short, are any means too feeble, for the power, for the wisdom, in which I trust? But since the hour of trial may be so near, let me not waste the time which should prepare for it--prepare to cast off this poor clog of earth, and rise beyond its sorrows and its stains."
Laura's bodily frame, however, could not long keep pace with the efforts of her mind, for her health and strength were failing under the continued influence of grief and fear. The form, once rounded in fair proportion, was wasted to a shadow. The once graceful neck bent mournfully forward. The lily arms hung down in listless melancholy. The cheek, once of form inimitable, was sunk and hollow now. The colour, once quick to tell the modest thought, was fixed in the paleness of the dead. And death was ever present to her thoughts--the only point to which her hope turned steadily!
One only desire lingered upon earth. She wished that some friend should pity her hard fate, and know that the victim had shrunk from it, though in vain. Intending to leave behind her some attestation of her innocence, she besought Mary to procure for her the means of writing. "Why should you fear to trust me?" said she, "To whom upon earth can my complaint reach now? You may see all I write, Mary; and perhaps, when I am gone, you will yourself convey it to my friend. Your master will not prevent you then; for then he will have pity on me, and wish that he had not dealt with me so hardly." The irresistible sweetness of Laura had won the heart of her attendant, and Mary promised that she would endeavour to gratify her. She said that the writing materials were kept carefully locked up by Robert, the man-servant; that his master's orders on that subject had been peremptory; that she was sure he would not venture to disobey while there remained a possibility of conveying intelligence from the place of their confinement; that two of the Indians were to depart on the following day; that after they were gone, no means of access to the habitable world remaining, Robert might possibly relax his strictness, and permit Laura to amuse herself with writing.
Mary's words awakened in Laura's mind an idea that all was not yet lost. The Indians were suspected of favouring her. They might then bear her appeal to human pity, to human justice. If she could find means to speak with them apart, she would plead so earnestly that even savages would be moved to mercy! At these thoughts, a ray of hope once more kindled in her breast It was the last. All day she watched for an opportunity to address one of the Indians. In vain! Robert guarded her with such relentless fidelity, that she found it impossible to effect her purpose. The Indians departed. Mary performed her promise, and Laura wrote the following letter, which was afterwards, by Hargrave's permission, conveyed to Mrs Douglas:--
"From this dreary land of exile, to whom shall I address myself save to you, mine own friend, and my father's friend? Where tell my sad fate save to you, who first taught me the hope that looks beyond it? And let it comfort your kind heart to know, that while you are shedding tears over this last memorial of your Laura, I shall be rejoicing in the full consummation of that hope.
There is indeed another friend!--one to whom my last earthly thoughts are due! But I cannot tell him, that she who was almost the wife of his bosom is gone down to a dishonoured grave. I have not time to soften my sad tale to him, nor to study words of comfort; for the moments are precious with me now. A few, a very few, are all that remain for preparation. I must not rob them of their awful right. Tell him my story as he is able to bear it. Tell him my innocence, and he will believe it, for he knew my very soul. But I must hasten, lest the destroyer come, ere, in these lines, I close my connection with this world of trial."
[She then proceeded to give a simple narrative of her wrongs. She expressed no bitterness against the author of them. She spoke of him as of a misguided being, and pitied the anguish which he was preparing for himself.] "Tell Mr De Courcy," she proceeded, "that I charge him, by all the love he bears me, to forgive my enemy, even from the heart forgive him. Let him do more. Let him pray for him; and if they meet, admonish him. It may be that his heart will soften when he remembers me."
[The remainder of the letter was written at intervals. Laura spent her time chiefly in acts of devotion, of self-examination, and repentance. It was only when exhausted nature could no longer follow these exercises of the soul, that she returned to add another line to her picture of wretchedness.]
"The saints who resisted unto blood striving against sin, who gave up their lives in defence of the truth, looked forward to the hour of their departure rejoicing. But I must go to the grave laden with shame and sorrow. My soul is weary of my life, and yet I must fear to die. Yet let my enemy a little while delay his coming, and my death also will be joyful. Let him stay only a few days, and I shall be deaf to the voice of the oppressor. I am wasting fast away. If he haste not to catch the shadow, it will be gone.
The people whom he has appointed to guard his poor prisoner, no longer watch me as they once did. It is useless now. A few short steps, and my feeble limbs bend to the earth, reminding me whither I am hastening.
When I am gone, Mary will carry you the ringlets which you were wont to twine round your finger. Send one of them to her who should have been my sister; but give not any to my own Montague, for he will pine over them when he might be happy in some new connection. Yet tell him that I loved him to the end. I believe he sometimes doubted of my love; but tell him that I bore him a firm affection. Passion is unfit for the things of this world.
I have a letter from my enemy. In two days more--
I have a knife concealed in my bosom. All night it is hidden beneath my pillow; and when my weary eyes close for a moment, I grasp it, and the chill touch rouses me again. Mine own dear friend, did you think when first you taught me to join my little hands in prayer, that these hands should be stained with murder?
Is it a crime to die when I can no longer live with innocence? When there is no escape but in the grave, is it forbidden to hide me there? My mind grows feeble now. I cannot discern between good and evil.
Why is my soul bowed down to the dust, as if the fountain of compassion were sealed? I will yet trust Him who is the helper of those who have no help in man. It may be that he will melt the heart of my enemy, and move him to let me die in peace. Or perhaps even the sight of my persecutor may be permitted to burst the rending heart, to scare the trembling spirit from its prison.
This day is my last, and it is closing now! The silence of midnight is around me. Ere it again return, a deeper night shall close for me, and the weary pilgrim shall sink to rest. It is time that I loosen me from the earth; I will not give my last hours to this land of shadows. Then fare you well, mine own dear friend! You first pointed my wishes to that better world where I shall not long wait your coming. And fare thee well, mine own Montague! Take comfort. I was not fit to linger here; for I had desires that earth could not satisfy, and thirstings after a perfection which this weak heart could not attain. Farewell. I will look back no more."
HARGRAVE'S LETTER TO LAURA.
"MY DEAREST LAURA-- The tantalising business which has so long thwarted my wishes, will still detain me for two days. Your gentle mind cannot imagine what this delay costs me. My only recompense is, that it affords me an opportunity of showing you somewhat of that consideration with which I could always wish to treat you. I willingly forego the advantage of surprise, for the sake of allowing you to exercise that decision which you are so well qualified to use discreetly.
You know, Laura, how I have doated on you. For near four long years you have been the desire of my soul; and now that my happy daring has placed me within reach of my utmost wishes, I would fain attain them without distress to you. This is no time for concealment, and you must pardon me if I am explicit with you. I have known the disposition of Lady Pelham's fortune from the hour when it was made. You know that with all my faults I am not sordid, but circumstances have rendered money necessary to me. Except in the event of Lord Lincourt's death, I cannot return to England otherwise than as your husband. I will own, too, dearest Laura, that after all I have done, and all that I may be compelled to do, I dare not trust for pardon to your pity alone; I must interest your duty in my cause.
Consider your situation, then, my beloved, and spare me the pain of distressing you. I have watched you, implored you, pined for you. I have borne your coldness, your scorn. I have ventured my life to obtain you. Judge whether I be of a temper to be baulked of my reward. You must be mine, bewitching Laura. No cool, insulting, plausible pretender can cheat me of you now. Trackless woods divide you from all human kind. I have provided against the possibility of tracing your retreat. It rests with you, then, to choose whether you will bless my love with a willing and honourable reward, or force me to extort the power of bestowing obligation.
My charming Laura, for now indeed I may call you mine, pardon, in consideration of its sincerity, the abrupt language I am compelled to hold.
One thing more. In three weeks I must return hither. The engagement of your British attendants expires before that time. I cannot for a moment allow myself to suppose that you will prefer a hopeless solitary exile to the reparation which I shall even then be so anxious to make; to the endearments of a fond husband, of an impassioned lover; to the envy and the homage of an admiring world. Suffer me rather, dear lovely girl, to exult in the hope that you will receive, without reluctance, the man to whom fate assigns you, and that you will recall somewhat of the tenderness you once confessed for your own ever devoted VILLIERS HARGRAVE."
(Sent with the two foregoing to Mrs Douglas.)
"I thought my spirit had been broken, crushed never more to rise. Must the glow of indignation mingle with the damps of death? But I will not upbraid you. The language of forgiveness best befits me now. The measure of your injuries to me is almost full, while those which you have heaped upon yourself are yet more deep and irreparable. My blasted fame, my life cut off in its prime, even the horrible dread that has overwhelmed me, are nothing to the pangs of hopeless remorse, the unaccepted struggle for repentance. Yet a little while, and this darkness shall burst into light ineffable; yet a little while, and this sorrow shall be as the remembrance of a troubled dream. But you--oh, Hargrave, have pity on yourself!
It was not to warn, it was to plead with you, that I won on my knees the consent of your messenger to bear my reply. I will strive to hope, for you were not always pitiless. I have seen you feel for the sufferings of a stranger, and have you no mercy for me? Alas! in those pitying tears I saw you shed, began this long train of evil; for then began my base idolatry, and justly have you been made the instrument of my punishment.
My mind wanders. I am weaker than a child. Oh, Hargrave, if you have human pity, let the feeble spark expire in peace. Here, where no Christian footstep shall hallow the turf that covers me, nor song of Christian praise rise near my grave, here let me lay me down and die, and I will bless you that I die in peace. I dare not spend my parting breath in uttering unholy vows, nor die a voluntary partner in your crimes. Nor would I, had my life been prolonged, have joined to pollution this dust, which, perishable as it is, must rise to immortality--which, vile as it is, more vile as it soon may be, shall yet 'put on incorruption.' Why, then, should you come hither? Will it please you to see this poor piece of clay, for which you have ventured your soul, faded to an object of horror?--cast uncoffined into the earth, robbed of the decencies which Christians pay even to the worst of sinners? When you look upon my stiffened corpse, will you then triumph in the security of your possession? Will you again exult in hope when you turn from my grave and say, ' Here lies the wretch whom I have undone?'
Come not, I charge you, if you would escape the anguish of the murderer. When did the evil of your deeds stop within your first intention? Do not amuse your conscience with the dream of reparation. I am fallen indeed, ere you dare insult me with the thought! Will you wed the dead? Or could I outlive your injuries, think you that I would sink so low as to repay them with myself?--reward with vows of love a crime more black than murder? Though my name, already degraded through you, must no more claim alliance with the good and worthy, think you that I would bind myself before Heaven to a wretch who owed his very life to my undeserved mercy? Inhuman! Your insults have roused the failing spirit. Yet I must quell these last stirrings of nature. Instant, full, and free, must be my forgiveness; for such is the forgiveness which I shall soon require.
Perhaps, as now you seem to think me fit for any baseness, you will suppose my forebodings a poor deceit to win you from your purpose. See, then, if you can trace in these unsteady lines the vigour of health. Ask him who bears them to you, how looks now the face which you call lovely? Ask him if the hand which gave this letter looks soft and graceful now? I love to gaze upon it. It bids me hope, for it is like no living thing. Inquire minutely. Ask if there remains one charm to lure you on to further guilt. And if death has already seized on all, if he has spared nothing to desire, will you yet hurry him on his prey? You have made life a burden too heavy for the weary frame. Will you make death too dreadful to be endured? Will you add to its horrors till nature and religion shrink from it in agony?
I cannot plead with you as I would. My strength fails. My eyes are dim with weeping. Oh, grant that this farewell may be the last; that we may meet no more till I welcome you with the joy which angels feel over the sinner that repenteth."
The whole of the night preceding Hargrave's arrival, was passed by Laura, in acts of devotion. In her life, blameless as it had appeared to others, she saw so much ground for condemnation, that, had her hopes rested upon her own merit, they would have vanished like the sunshine of a winter storm. Their support was more mighty; and they remained unshaken. The raptures of faith beamed on her soul. By degrees they triumphed over every fear; and the first sound that awoke the morning, was her voice raised in a trembling hymn of praise.
Her countenance elevated as in hope; her eyes cast upwards; her hands clasped; her lips half open in the unfinished adoration; her face brightened with a smile, the dawn of eternal day, she was found by her attendant. Awe-struck, the woman paused, and at a reverent distance gazed upon the seraph; but her entrance had called back the unwilling spirit from its flight; and Laura, once more a feeble child of earth, faintly inquired whether her enemy were at hand. Mary answered, that her master was not expected to arrive before the evening, and entreated that Laura would try to recruit her spirits, and accept of some refreshment. Laura made no opposition. She unconsciously swallowed what was placed before her; unwittingly suffered her attendant to lead her abroad; nor once heeded ought that was done to her, nor ought that passed before her eyes, till her exhausted limbs found rest upon the trunk of a tree, which lay mouldering near the spot where its root was sending forth a luxuriant thicket.
The breath of morning blew chill on the wasted form of Laura, while it somewhat revived her to strength and recollection. Her attendant seeing her shiver in the breeze, compassionately wrapped her more closely in her cloak, and ran to seek a warmer covering. "She feels for my bodily wants," said Laura. "Will she have no pity for the sufferings of the soul? Yet what relief can she afford? What help is there for me in man? Oh, be Thou my help, who art the guard of the defenceless!--thou who canst shield in every danger!--thou who canst guide in every difficulty!"
Her eye rested as it fell upon a track as of recent footsteps. They had brushed away the dew, and the rank grass had not yet risen from their pressure. The unwonted trace of man's presence arrested her attention; and her mind, exhausted by suffering, and sharing the weakness of its frail abode, admitted the superstitious thought that these marks afforded a providential indication for her guidance. Transient animation kindling in her frame, she followed the track as it wound round a thicket of poplar; then, suddenly recollecting herself, she became conscious of the delusion, and shed a tear over her mental decay.
She was about to return, when she perceived that she was near the bank of the river. Its dark flood was stealing noiselessly by, and Laura, looking on it, breathed the oft-repeated wish that she could seek rest beneath its waves. Again she moved feebly forward. She reached the brink of the stream, and stood unconsciously following its course with her eye, when a light wind stirring the canes that grew down to the water's edge, she beheld close by her an Indian canoe. With suddenness that mocks the speed of light, hope flashed on the darkened soul; and, stretching her arms in wild ecstacy, "Help, help!" cried Laura, and sprang towards the boat. A feeble echo from the farther shore alone returned the cry. Again she called. No human voice replied. But delirious transport lent vigour to her frame. She sprang into the bark; she pressed the slender oar against the bank. The light vessel yielded to her touch. It floated. The stream bore it along. The woods closed around her prison. "Thou hast delivered me!" she cried; and sank senseless.
A meridian sun beat on her uncovered head ere Laura began to revive. Recollection stole upon her like the remembrance of a feverish dream. As one who, waking from a fearful vision, still trembles in his joy, she scarcely dared to hope that the dread hour was past, till raising her eyes she saw the dark woods bend over her, and steal slowly away as the canoe glided on with the tide. The raptures of fallen man own their alliance with pain, by seeking the same expression. Joy and gratitude, too big for utterance, long poured themselves forth in tears. At length, returning composure permitting the language of ecstacy, it was breathed in the accents of devotion; and the lone wild echoed to a song of deliverance.
The saintly strain arose unmixed with other sound. No breeze moaned through the impervious woods; no ripple broke the stream. The dark shadows trembled for a moment in its bosom as the little bark stole by, and then reposed again. No trace appeared of human presence. The fox peeping from the brushwood, the wild duck sailing stately in the stream, saw the unwonted stranger without alarm, untaught as yet to flee from the destroyer.
The day declined, and Laura with the joy of her escape began to mingle a wish, that, ere the darkness closed around her, she might find shelter near her fellow beings. She was not ignorant of the dangers of her voyage. She knew that the navigation of the river was interrupted by rapids, which had been purposely described in her hearing. She examined her frail vessel and trembled; for life was again become precious, and feeble seemed her defence against the torrent. The canoe, which could not have contained more than two persons, was constructed of a slender frame of wood, covered with the bark of the birch. It yielded to the slightest motion, and caution was necessary to poise in it even the light form of Laura.
Slowly it floated down the lingering tide; and when a pine of larger size or form more fantastic than his fellows enabled her to measure her progress, she thought that through wilds less impassable her own limbs would have borne her more swiftly. In vain behind each tangled point did her fancy picture the haunt of man. Vainly amid the mists of eve did she trace the smoke of sheltered cottages. In vain at every winding of the stream she sent forward a longing eye in search of human dwelling. The narrow view was bounded by the dark wilderness, repeating ever the same picture of dreary repose.
The sun went down. The shadows of evening fell; not such as in her happy native land blend softly with the last radiance of day, but black and heavy, harshly contrasting with the light of a naked sky reflected from the waters, where they spread beyond the gloom of impending woods. Dark and more dark the night came on. Solemn even amid the peopled land, in this vast solitude it became more awful.
Ignorant how near the place of danger might be, fearing to pursue darkling her perilous way, Laura tried to steer her light bark to the shore, intending to moor it, to find in it a rude resting-place, and in the morning to pursue her way. Laboriously she toiled, and at length reached the bank in safety; but in vain she tried to draw her little vessel to land. Its weight resisted her strength. Dreading that it should slip from her grasp and leave her without means of escape, she re-entered it, and again glided on in her dismal voyage. She had found in the canoe a little coarse bread made of Indian corn; and this, with the water of the river, formed her whole sustenance. Her frame worn out with previous suffering, awe and fear at last yielded to fatigue, and the weary wanderer sank to sleep.
It was late on the morning of a cloudy day, when a low murmuring sound stealing on the silence awoke Laura from the rest of innocence. She listened. The murmur seemed to swell on her ear. She looked up. The dark woods still bent over her. But they no longer touched the margin of the stream. They stretched their giant arms from the summit of a precipice. Their image was no more reflected unbroken. The grey rocks which supported them, but half lent their colours to the rippling water. The wild duck no longer tempting the stream, flew screaming over its bed. Each object hastened on with fearful rapidity, and the murmuring sound was now a deafening roar.
Fear supplying superhuman strength, Laura strove to turn the course of her vessel. She strained every nerve; she used the force of desperation. Half hoping that the struggle might save her, half fearing to note her dreadful progress, she toiled on till the oar was torn from her powerless grasp, and hurried along with the tide.
The fear of death alone had not the power to overwhelm the soul of Laura. Somewhat might yet be done perhaps to avert her fate, at least to prepare for it. Feeble as was the chance of life, it was not to be rejected. Fixing her cloak more firmly round her, Laura bound it to the slender frame of the canoe. Then commending herself to Heaven with the fervour of a last prayer, she in dread stillness awaited her doom.
With terrible speed the vessel hurried on. It was whirled round by the torrent, tossed fearfully, and hurried on again. It shot over a smoothness more dreadful than the eddying whirl. It rose upon its prow. Laura clung to it in the convulsion of terror. A moment she trembled on the giddy verge. The next, all was darkness!
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.