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Book of Scottish Story
The Progress of Inconstancy


"Sweet, tender sex! with snares encompassed round.
On others hang thy comforts and thy rest."—Hogg.

Nature has made woman weak, that she might receive with gratitude the protection of man. Yet how often is this appointment perverted! How often does her protector become her oppressor ! Even custom seems leagued against her. Born with the tenderest feelings, her whole life is commonly a struggle to suppress them. Placed in the most favourable circumstances, her choice is confined to a few objects; and unless where singularly fortunate, her fondest partialities are only a modification of gratitude. She may reject, but cannot invite : may tell what would make her wretched, but dare not even whisper what would make her happy; and, in a word, exercises merely a negative influence upon the most important event of her life. Man has leisure to look around him, and may marry at any age, with almost equal advantage ; but woman must improve the fleeting moment, and determine quickly, at the hazard of determining rashly. The spring-time of her beauty will not last; its wane will be the signal for the flight of her lovers ; and if the present opportunity is neglected, she may be left to experience the only species of misfortune for which the world evinces no sympathy. How cruel, then, to increase the misery of her natural dependence! How ungenerous to add treachery to strength, and deceive or disappoint those whose highest ambition is our favour, and whose only safety is our honesty!

William Arbuthnot was born in a remote county of Scotland, where his father rented a few acres of land, which his own industry had reclaimed from the greatest wildness to a state of considerable fertility. Having given, even in his first attempts at learning, those indications of a retentive memory, which the partiality of a parent easily construes into a proof of genius, he was early destined for the Scottish Church, and regarded as a philosopher before he had emerged from the nursery. While his father pleased himself with the prospect of seeing his name associated with the future greatness of his son, his mother, whose ambition took a narrower range, thought she could die contented if she should see him seated in the pulpit of his native church; and perhaps, from a pardonable piece of vanity, speculated as frequently upon the effect his appearance would have upon the hearts of the neighbouring daughters, as his discourses upon the minds of their mothers. This practice, so common among the poorer classes in Scotland, of making one of their children a scholar, to the prejudice, as is alleged, of the rest, has been often remarked, and sometimes severely censured. But probably the objections that have been urged against it, derive their chief force from the exaggerations upon which they are commonly founded. It is not in general true that parents, by bestowing the rudiments of a liberal education upon one of the family, materially injure the condition or prospects of the rest. For it must be remembered that the plebeian student is soon left to trust to his own exertions for support, and, like the monitor of a Lancastrian seminary, unites the characters of pupil and master, and teaches and is taught by turns.

But to proceed with our little narrative. The parish schoolmaster having intimated to the parents of his pupil, that the period was at hand when he should be sent to prosecute his studies at the university, the usual preparations were made for his journey, and his departure was fixed for the following day, when he was to proceed to Edinburgh under escort of the village carrier and his black dog Caesar, two of the eldest and most intimate of his acquaintance. Goldsmith's poetical maxim, that little things are great to little men, is universally true; and this was an eventful day for the family of Belhervie, for that was the name of the residence of Mr Arbuthnot. The father was as profuse of his admonitions as the mother was of her tears, and had a stranger beheld the afflicted group, he would have naturally imagined that they were bewailing some signal calamity, in place of welcoming an event to which they had long looked forward with pleasure. But the feelings of affectionate regret, occasioned by this separation, were most seasonably suspended by the receipt of a letter from Mr Coventry, a respectable fanner in the neighbourhood, in which that gentleman offered to engage their son for a few years, as a companion and tutor to his children. This was an offer which his parents were too prudent to reject, particularly as it might prove the means of future patronage as well as of present emolument. It was therefore immediately agreed upon, that William should himself be the bearer of their letter of acceptance, and proceed forthwith to his new residence. On this occasion he was admonished anew; but the advices were different from those formerly given, and were delivered by a different person. His mother was now the principal speaker; and, instead of warning him against the snares that are laid for youth in a great city, she furnished him with some rude lessons on the principles of good-breeding, descending to a number of particulars too minute to be enumerated here. William listened to her harangue with becoming reverence and attention, and on the following morning, for the first time, bade farewell to his affectionate parents.

On the afternoon of the same day, he arrived at Daisybank, where he was welcomed with the greatest cordiality. His appearance was genteel and prepossessing, and it was not long before his new friends discovered, that the slight degree of awkwardness which at first clung to his manners, proceeded more from bashfulness and embarrassment than natural rusticity. But as he began to feel himself at home, this embarrassment of manner gradually gave place to an easy but unobtrusive politeness. Indeed it would not have been easy for a youth of similar views, at his first outset in life, to have fallen into more desirable company. Mr and Mrs Coventry were proverbial among then neighbours for the simplicity and purity of their manners, and they had laboured, not unsuccessfully, to stamp a similar character upon the minds of their children. Their family consisted of two sons and two daughters, the former of whom were confided to the care of William.

Mary, the eldest of the four, now in her sixteenth or seventeenth year, was in every respect the most interesting object at Daisybank. To a mind highly cultivated for her years, she united many of those personal graces and attractions which command little homage in the crowd, but open upon us in the shade of retirement, and lend to the domestic circle its most irresistible charms. In stature she scarcely reached the middle size. To the beauty derived from form and colour she had few pretensions; yet when her fine blue eyes moistened with a tear at a tale of distress, or beamed an unaffected welcome to the stranger or the friend, he must have been more or less than man who felt not for her a sentiment superior to admiration. Hers, in a word, was the beauty of expression— the beauty of a mind reflected, in which the dullest disciple of Lavater could not for a moment have mistaken her real character. Her education had been principally conducted under the eye of her parents, and might be termed domestic rather than fashionable. Not that she was entirely a stranger to those acquirements which are deemed indispensable in modern education. She had visited occasionally the great metropolis, though, owing to the prudent solicitude of her parents, her residence there had been comparatively short, yet probably long enough to acquire all its useful or elegant accomplishments, without any admixture of its fashionable frivolities.

From this hasty portraiture of Miss Coventry, it will be easily believed that it was next to impossible for a youth nearly of the same age, and not dissimilar in his dispositions, to remain long insensible to charms that were gradually maturing before his eyes, and becoming every day more remarkable. Fortunately, however, the idea of dependence attached to his situation, and a temper naturally diffident determined him to renounce for ever a hope which he feared in his present circumstances would be deemed ungrateful and even presumptuous. But this was waging war with nature, a task which he soon found to be above his strength. He had now, therefore, to abandon the hope of victory for the safety of retreat, and content himself with concealing those sentiments he found it impossible to subdue. Yet so deceitful is love, that even this modest hope was followed with disappointment. One fine evening in June, when he was about to unbend from the duties of the day, and retire to muse on the amiable Mary, he encountered the fair wanderer herself, who was probably returning from a similar errand. He accosted her in evident confusion; and, without being conscious of what he said, invited her to join him in a walk to a neighbouring height. His request was complied with in the same spirit it had been made in, for embarrassment is often contagious, particularly the embarrassment arising from love. On this occasion he intended to summon up all his powers of conversation, and yet his companion had never found him so silent. Some commonplace compliments to the beauty of the evening were almost the only observations which escaped his lips, and these he uttered more in the manner of a sleep-walker than a lover. They soon reached the limit of their walk, and rested upon an eminence that commanded the prospect of an extensive valley below. Bay was fast declining to that point which is termed twilight, when the whole irrational creation seem preparing for rest, and only man dares to intrude upon the silence of nature. Miss Coventry beheld the approach of night with some uneasiness, and dreading to be seen with William alone, she began to rally him upon his apparent absence and confusion, and proposed that they should immediately return to the house At mention of this, William started as from a dream, and being unable longer to command his feelings, he candidly confessed to her the cause of his absence and dejection. He dwelt with much emotion upon his own demerit, and voluntarily accused himself for the presumption of a hope which he never meant to have revealed until the nearer accomplishment of his views had rendered it less imprudent and romantic, He declared that he would sooner submit to any hardship that incur the displeasure of her excellent parents, and entreated that, whatever were her sentiments with regard to the suit he was so presumptuous as to prefer, she might assist him in concealing from them a circumstance which he feared would be attended with that consequence. To this tender and affectionate appeal, the gentle Mary could only answer with her sighs and blushes. She often indeed attempted to speak, but the words as often died upon her lips, and they had nearly reached home be-fore she could even whisper an answer to the reiterated question of her lover. But she did answer at last; and never was a monarch more proud of his conquest, or the homage of tributary princes, than William was of the simple fealty of the heart of Mary.

In the bosom of this happy family William now found his hours glide away so agreeably that he looked forward with real regret to the termination of his engagement. His condition was perhaps one of those in which the nearest approach is made to perfect happiness; when the youthful mind, unseduced by the blandishments of ambition, confines its regards to a few favourite objects, and dreads a separation from them as the greatest of evils. The contrast between the patriarchal simplicity of his father's fireside, and the comparative elegance of Mr Coventry's parlour, for a season dazzled him with its novelty; while the ripening graces of Mary threw around him a fascination which older and more unsusceptible minds than his might have found it difficult to resist. In his domestic establishment Mr Coventry aimed at nothing beyond comfort and gentility. William was therefore treated in every respect as an equal, and was never banished from his patron's table to make room for a more important guest, or condemned to hold Lent over a solitary meal, while the family were celebrating a holiday.

All our ideas are relative, and we estimate every thing by comparison. Upon this principle, William thought no female so lovely or amiable as Miss Coventry, and no residence so delightful as Daisybank. And he would not have exchanged his feelings, while seated on a winter evening amidst his favourite circle, scanning, for their amusement, a page of history, or the columns of a newspaper, while the snug-ness and comfort that reigned within made him forget the storm that pelted without, for the most delicious paradise an eastern imagination ever painted.

It will thus readily be imagined, that the saddest day of our tutor's life was that on which he parted from this amiable family. He had here, he believed, spent the happiest moments of his existence, and instead of rejoicing that he had passed through one stage of his apprenticeship, he dwelt upon the past with pleasure, and looked forward to the future with pain.

Fortune, however, presented an insuperable obstacle to his spending his days in the inaction of private study; and he knew that he could neither gain, nor deserved to gain, the object of his affection, without establishing himself in life, by pursuing the course which had been originally chalked out to him. After, therefore, "pledging oft to meet again," he bade adieu to Daisybank, loaded with the blessings of the best of parents, and followed with the prayers of the best of daughters. He now paid a farewell visit to his own parents; and, after remaining with them a few days, he proceeded to Edinburgh, and for a short period felt his melancholy relieved, by the thousand novelties that attract the notice of a stranger in a great city. But this was only a temporary relief, and as he had no friend in whom he could confide, he soon felt himself solitary in the midst of thousands. Often, when the Professor was expatiating upon the force of the Greek particles, his imagination was hovering over the abodes he had forsaken; and frequently it would have been more difficult for him to have given an account of the lectures he had been attending, than to have calculated the probability of what was passing at a hundred miles' distance. But this absence and dejection at last wore off; and as he possessed good natural talents, and had been an industrious student formerly, he soon distinguished himself in his classes, and before the usual period was engaged as a tutor in one of the best families in Scotland.

This event formed another important era in his life. His prospects were now flattering; and as vanity did not fail to exaggerate them, he soon dropped a considerable portion of his humility, and began to regard himself as a young man of merit, to whom fortune was lavish of her favours. In his leisure hours he was disposed to mingle much in society, and, as his manners and address were easy and engaging, scarcely a week elapsed that that did not add to the number of his friends. The affections, when divided into many channels, cannot run deep in any, and, probably, for every new acquaintance whom William honoured with his esteem, it required a sacrifice of friendship at the expense of love, and produced some abatement of that devotion of soul which accompanies every true and permanent attachment. At Daisybank he had seen a simple favourite of the graces, but here he beheld the daughters of wealth and of fashion, surrounded with all the gloss of art, and soon began to waver in his attachment, and even to regard his engagement as little more than a youthful frolic. Still this temper of mind was not attained without many struggles between love and ambition, honour and interest; nor could he ever for a moment commune with himself, without feeling remorse for his inconstancy and ingratitude. He could not annihilate the conviction, that Miss Coventry was as faithful and worthy as ever, and had she been present to appeal to his senses, it is probable he might have been preserved from the crime of apostasy. But these were fits of reflection and repentance which repetition soon deprived of their poignancy. The world, the seductive world, returned with all its opiates and charms, to stifle in his bosom the feelings of honour, and obliterate every trace of returning tenderness. After this he became less punctual in his correspondence with Miss Coventry, and in place of anticipating the arrival of her letters, as he was wont to do, he allowed them to be sent slowly to his lodgings, opened them without anxiety, and read them without interest. Of all this inconstancy, ingratitude, and neglect, the simple Mary remained a silent, though not unconcerned spectator. Kind and generous by nature, and judging of others by herself, she framed a thousand excuses for his negligence; and when he did condescend to write to her, answered him as though she had been unconscious of any abatement in his attentions.

Matters remained in this uncertain state for the space of three long years —at least they seemed long to Miss Coventry—when William received his licence as a preacher. He now therefore thought of redeeming a pledge he had given to the minister of his native parish, to make his first public appearance in his pulpit; and after giving due intimation, he departed for the parish of-------, with his best sermon in the pocket of his best coat. The account of his visit spread with telegraphic despatch, long before telegraphs were invented, and was known over half the county many days before his arrival. This was another great and eventful day for his mother. She blessed Providence that she had lived to see the near fulfilment of her most anxious wish, and rising a little in her ambition, thought she could now die contented, if she should see him settled in a living of his own, and be greeted by her neighbours with the envied name of grandmother.—As William was expected to dine with his parents on his way to the parsonage, or, as it is called in Scotland, the manse, of-------, great preparations were made for his reception, and for the appearance of the whole family at church on the following Sunday. Mrs Arbuthnot drew from the family-chest her wedding-gown, which had only seen the sun twice during thirty summers; and her husband, for the first time, reluctantly applied a brush to his holiday suit, which appeared, from the antiquity of its fashion, to have descended, like the garments of the Swiss, through many successive generations of the Arbuthnots.

The little church of H---------- was crowded to the door, perhaps for the first time, long before the bellman had given the usual signal. Mr Coventry, though residing in a different parish, had made a journey thither with several of his family, for the purpose of witnessing the first public appearance of his friend. In this party was the amiable Mary, who took a greater interest in the event than any one, save the preacher, was aware of.

William, on this occasion, recited a well written discourse with ease and fluency, and impressed his audience with a high opinion of his talents and piety. Some of the elder of them, indeed, objected to his gestures and pronunciation, which they thought "new fangled" and theatrical; but they all agreed in thinking him a clever lad, and a great honour to his parents. His mother was now overwhelmed with compliments and congratulations from all quarters, which she received with visible marks of pride and emotion. Mr Coventry waited in the churchyard till the congregation had retired, to salute his friend, and invite him to spend a few days at Daisybank. Mary, who hung on her father's arm, curtsied, blushed, and looked down. She had no well-turned compliment to offer on the occasion, but her eyes expressed something at parting, which once would have been sweeter to his soul than the applause of all the world beside.

Ambition, from the beginning, has been the bane of love. War and peace are not more opposite in their nature and effects than those rival passions, and the bosom that is agitated with the cares of the one has little relish for the gentle joys of the other. William beheld in the person of Miss Coventry all he had been taught to regard as amiable or estimable in woman; but the recollection of the respect that had been shown him by females of distinction, mixed with exaggerated notions of his own merit, made him undervalue those simple unobtrusive graces he once valued so highly, and think almost any conquest easy after he had been settled in the rich living of B----------, which had been promised him by his patron.

On the following day he paid a visit to Daisybank, and received the most cordial welcome from a family who sympathised almost equally with his parents in his prospects and advancement. During his stay there, he had frequent opportunities of seeing Miss Coventry alone, but he neglected, 01 rather avoided them all; and when rallied on the subject of marriage, declaimed on the pleasures of celibacy, and hinted, with a good deal of insincerity, his intention of living single. Although these speeches were Tike daggers to the mind of her who regretted she could not rival him in inconstancy and indifference, they produced no visible alteration in her behaviour. Hers was not one of those minds in which vanity predominates over every other feeling, and where disappointment is commonly relieved by the hatred or resentment which it excites. Her soul was soft as the passion that enslaved it, and the traces of early affection are not easily effaced from a mind into which the darker passions have never entered.

William bade adieu to Miss Coventry without dropping one word upon which she could rear the superstructure of hope, and carried with him her peace of mind, as he had formerly carried with him her affections. From that hour she became pensive and melancholy, in spite of all her efforts to appear cheerful and happy. She had rejected many lovers for the inconstant's sake, but that gave her no concern. Her union with him had been long the favourite object of her life, and she could have patiently resigned existence, now that its object was lost. But she shuddered at the thought of the shock it would give her affectionate parents, for the softer feelings of our nature are all of one family. and the tenderest wives have ever been the most dutiful daughters.

It was impossible for Mary long to conceal the sorrow which consumed her. Her fading checks and heavy eyes gave daily indications of what her lips refused to utter. Her parents became deeply alarmed at these symptoms of indisposition, and anxiously and unceasingly inquired into the cause of her illness; but her only answer was, that she felt no pain. The best physicians were immediately consulted upon her case, who recommended change of air and company; but all these remedies were tried without effect. The poison of disappointment had taken deep root in her heart, and defied the power of medicine.

Her attendants, when they found all their prescriptions ineffectual, began to ascribe her malady to its real cause, and hinted to her parents their apprehensions that she had been crossed in love. The good people, though greatly surprised at the suggestion, had too much prudence to treat it with indifference, and they left no means untried, consistent with a regard for the feelings of their child, to wile from her the important secret. At first she endeavoured to evade their inquiries; but fading it impossible to allay their apprehensions without having recourse to dissimulation, she confessed to her mother her attachment to William, concealing only the promises he had made to her, and every circumstance that imputed to him the slightest degree of blame. At the same time she entreated them, with the greatest earnestness, that no use might be made of a secret which she wished to have carried with her to the grave. This was a hard task imposed upon her parents. They felt equally with herself the extreme delicacy of making the disclosure; but, on the other hand, they contemplated nothing but the probable loss of their child ; an event, the bare apprehension of which filled their minds with the bitterest anguish. After many anxious consultations, Mr Coventry determined, unknown to any but his wife, to pay a visit to William, and ascertain his sentiments with regard to his daughter.

Upon his arrival at Edinburgh, he found that his friend had departed for the manse of B-------, with which he had been recently presented. This event, which in other circumstances would have given him the liveliest pleasure, awakened on this occasion emotions of a contrary nature, as he feared it would make his now reverend friend more elevated in his notions, and consequently more averse to a union with his daughter. He did not, however, on that account conceal the real object of his journey, or endeavour to accomplish his purpose by stratagem or deceit. He candidly disclosed his daughter's situation and sentiments, requesting of his friend that he would open to him his mind with equal candour; and added, that although he held wealth to be an improper motive in marriage, and hoped that his daughter did not require such a recommendation, in the event of this union, whatever he possessed would be liberally shared with him.

On hearing of the situation of Miss Coventry, William became penetrated with the deepest remorse ; and being aware that his affection for her was rather stilled than estranged, he declared his willingness to make her his wife. These words operated like a charm upon the drooping spirits of the father, who embraced his friend with ardour, and besought him immediately to accompany mm home, that they might lose no time in making a communication, which he fondly hoped would have a similar effect upon the spirits of his daughter.

The departed accordingly together, indulging in the pleasing hope that all would yet be well ; but on their arrival at Daisybank, they were seriously alarmed to hear that Miss Coventry had been considerably worse since her father eft home. She was now entirely confined to her chamber, and Beamed to care for nothing so much as solitude, and an exemption from the trouble of talking. As soon as she was informed of the arrival of their visitor, she suspected he had been sent for, and therefore refused to see him; but upon being assured by her mother, who found deceit in this instance indispensable, that his visit was voluntary and accidental she at last consented to give him an interview.

On entering the room, which had formerly been the family parlour, William was forcibly struck with the contrast exhibited. Every object seemed  to swim before his sight, and it was some moments before he discovered Miss Coventry, who reclined upon a sofa at the farther end of the room. He advanced with a beating heart, and grasped the burning hand that was extended to meet him. He pressed it to his lips and wept, and muttered something incoherent of forgiveness and love. He looked doubtingly on Mary's face for an answer,—but her eye darted no reproach, and her lips uttered no reflection. A faint blush, that at this moment overspread her cheek, seemed a token of returning strength, and inspired him With confidence and hope. It was the last effort of nature,—and ere the blood could return to its fountain, that fountain had closed for ever. Death approached his victim under the disguise of sleep, and appeared divested of his usual pains and terrors.

William retired from this scene of unutterable anguish, and for a long period was overwhelmed with the deepest melancholy and remorse. But time gradually softened and subdued his sorrow, and I trust perfected his repentance. He is since married and wealthy, and is regarded by the world as an individual eminently respectable and happy. But, amidst all his comforts, there are moments when he would exchange his identity with the meanest slave that breathes, and regards himself as the murderer of Mary Coventry — J. McD., in Blackwood's Magazine, 1817.

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