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Chapter 34

Helen instantly went to Cecilia's room; Felicie was with her. Helen expected Lady Cecilia would dismiss her instantly; but mademoiselle was chattering. Helen had sometimes thought Cecilia let her talk too much, but to-night it was insufferable. Helen was too impatient, too anxious to bear it. "Cecilia, my dear, I want to speak to you alone, as soon as you can, in my own room."

"As soon as possible," Cecilia answered in a voice not natural. And she came, but not as soon as possible—shut the door behind her, showing that she had not dismissed Felicie, and, with hair dishevelled, as if hastening back to her room, said, "I am in a hurry; the general ordered me to make haste, and not to be an hour undressing.

"I will not keep you a moment," said Helen. "I am in as great a hurry as you can be. Beauclerc is waiting for me."

"Waiting for you at this time of night! Oh! my dear, he cannot be standing there with his arms folded all this time."

Helen repeated what the general had said, and ended with, "I am determined to return."

"No no," Lady Cecilia said. The general could not advise her going back at this time of night. And with rapidity and confusion, she poured out a multitude of dissuasive arguments, some contradicting the others. "At this time of night! The world is not gone, and Beauclerc is in the midst of them by this time, you may be sure. You don't think he is standing alone there all this time. You could not speak to him before all the world—don't attempt it. You would only expose yourself. You would make a scene at last—undo all, and come to disgrace, and ruin me and yourself. I know you would, Helen. And if you were to send for him—into the library—alone! the servants would know it—and the company gone! And after all, for you, my dear, to make the first advance to reconciliation! If he is angry—I don't think that would be quite—dignified; quite like you, Helen."

"The general thinks it right, and I am sure he would not advise any thing improper—undignified. It does not signify, Cecilia, I am determined—I will go." Trembling, she grew absolutely desperate from fear. "I am afraid you have forgot your promise, Cecilia; you said that if I could bear it for one hour, it would be over. Did you not promise me that if any difficulty came between me and——" She stopped short. She had felt indignant; but when she looked at Cecilia, and saw her tears, she could not go on. "Oh Helen!" cried Cecilia, "I do not ask you to pity me. You cannot know what I suffer—you are innocent—and I have done so wrong! You cannot pity me."

"I do, I do," cried Helen, "from the bottom of my heart. Only trust me, dear Cecilia; let me go down——"

Lady Cecilia sprang between her and the door. "Hear Me! hear me, Helen! Do not go to-night, and, cost what it will—cost me what it may, since it has come to this between you, I will confess all this night—I will tell all to the general, and clear you with him and with Granville. What more can you ask?—what more can I do, Helen? And will you go?"

"No no, my dear Cecilia. Since you promise me this, I will not go now."

"Be satisfied then, and rest—for me there is no rest;" so saying Cecilia slowly left the room.

Helen could not sleep: this was the second wretched night she had passed in that most miserable of all uncertainty—whether she was right or wrong.

In the morning, to Helen's astonishment, Cecilia's first words were about a dream—"Oh, my dear Helen, I have had such a dream! I do not usually mind dreams in the least, but I must own to you that this has made an impression! My dear, I can hardly tell it; I can scarcely bear to think of it. I thought that Clarendon and I were sitting together, and my hand was on his shoulder; and I had worked myself up—I was just going to speak. He was winding up his watch, and I leaned forward to see his face better. He looked up-and it was not him: it was Colonel D'Aubigny come to life. The door opened, Clarendon appeared—his eyes were upon me; but I do not know what came afterwards; all was confusion and fighting. And then I was with that nurse my mother recommended, and an infant in her arms. I was going to take the child, when Clarendon snatched it, and threw it into the flames. Oh! I awoke with a scream!"

"How glad you must have been," said Helen, "to awake and find it was only a dream!"

"But when I screamed," continued Cecilia, "Clarendon started up, and asked if I was in pain. 'Not of body,' I said;—and then—oh, Helen! then I thought I would begin. 'Not of body,' I said, 'but of mind;' then I added, 'I was thinking of Helen and Beauclerc,' Clarendon said, 'So was I; but there is no use in thinking of it; we can do no good.'—'Then,' I said, 'suppose, Clarendon—only suppose that Helen, without saying any thing, were to let this matter pass off with Beauclerc?'—Clarendon answered, 'It would not pass off with Beauclerc.'—'But,' said I, 'I do not mean without any explanation at all. Only suppose that Helen did not enter into any particulars, do not you think, Clarendon, that things would go on well enough?'—'No,' he said decidedly, 'no.'—'Do you mean,' said I, 'that things would not go on at all?'—'I do not say, not at all,' he answered; 'but well they would not go on.'"

"I am sure the general is right," said Helen.

"Then," continued Lady Cecilia, "then I put the question differently. I wanted to feel my way, to try whether I could possibly venture upon my own confession. 'Consider it this way, Clarendon,' I said. 'Take it for granted that Helen did somehow arrange that Beauclerc were to be satisfied without any formal explanation.'—'Formal!' said he,—'I will not say formal,' said I; 'but without a full explanation: in short, suppose that from mere timidity, Helen could not, did not, exactly tell him the whole before marriage—put it off till afterwards—then told him all candidly; do you think, Clarendon, that if you were in Beauclerc's place (I quite stammered when I came to this)—do you think you could pardon, or forgive, or esteem, or love,' I intended to end with, but he interrupted me with—'I do not know,' very shortly; and added, 'I hope this is not what Miss Stanley intends to do?'"

"Oh! what did you answer?" cried Helen.

"I said I did not know. My dear Helen, it was the only thing I could say. What would Clarendon have thought, after all my supposes, if I had said any thing else? he must have seen the truth." "And that he is not to see," said Helen: "and how false he must think me!"

"No, no; for I told him," continued Lady Cecilia, "that I was sure you wished always to tell the whole truth about everything, but that there might be circumstances where you really could not; and where I, knowing all the circumstances, could not advise it. He said, 'Cecilia, I desire you will not advise or interfere any farther in this matter. Promise me, Cecilia!' He spoke sternly, and I promised as fast as I could. 'Do nothing, say nothing more about it,' he repeated; and now, after that, could I go on, Helen?"

"No, indeed; I do not think you could. My dear Cecilia, I really think you could not," said Helen, much moved.

"And do you forgive me, my dear, good——." But seeing Helen change colour, Lady Cecilia, following her eye, and looking out of the window, started up, exclaiming, "There is Beauclerc; I see him in my mother's walk. I will go to him this minute; yes, I will trust him—I will tell him all instantly."

Helen caught hold of her, and stopped her. Surprised, Cecilia said, "Do not stop me. I may never have the courage again if stopped now. Do not stop me, Helen."

"I must, Cecilia. General Clarendon desired you not to interfere in the matter."

"But this is not interfering, only interposing to prevent mischief."

"But, Cecilia," continued Helen eagerly, "another reason has just struck me."

"I wish reasons would not strike you. Let me go. Oh, Helen; it is for you."

"And it is for you I speak, Cecilia," said Helen, as fast as she could. "If you told Beauclerc, you never could afterwards tell the general; it would be a new difficulty. You know the general could never endure your having confessed this to any man but himself—trusted Beauclerc rather than your husband."

Cecilia stopped, and stood silent.

"My dear Cecilia," continued Helen, "you must leave me to my own judgment now;" and, breaking from Cecilia, she left the room. She hurried out to meet Beauclerc. He stopped on seeing her, and then came forward with an air of evident deliberation.

"Do you wish to speak to me, Miss Stanley!"

"Miss Stanley!" cried Helen; "is it come to this, and without hearing me!"

"Without hearing you, Helen! Was not I ready last night to hear you? Without hearing you! Have not you kept me in torture, the worst of tortures—suspense? Why did not you speak to me last night?"

"I could not."

"Why, why?"

"I cannot tell you," said she.

"Then I can tell you, Helen."

"You can!"

"And will. Helen, you could not speak to me till you had consulted—arranged—settled what was to be said—what not to be said—what told—what left untold."

Between each half sentence he darted looks at her, defying hers to contradict—and she could not contradict by word or look. "You could not speak," continued he passionately, "till you had well determined what was to be told—what left untold to me! To me, Helen, your confiding—devoted —accepted lover! for I protest before Heaven, had I knelt at the altar with you, Helen Stanley, not more yours, not more mine could I have deemed you—not more secure of your love and truth—your truth, for what is love without it!—not more secure of perfect felicity could I have been on earth than I was when we two sat together but yesterday evening on that bank. Your words—your looks—and still your looks—But what signify tears!—Tears, women's tears! Oh! what is woman!—and what is man that believes in her?—weaker still?"

"Hear me!—hear me!"

"Hear you?—No, Helen, do not now ask me to hear you.—Do not force me to hear you.—Do not debase, do not sully, that perfect image of truth.—Do not sink yourself, Helen, from that height at which it was my entranced felicity to see you. Leave me one blessed, one sacred illusion. No," cried he, with increasing vehemence, "say nothing of all you have prepared—not one arranged word conned over in your midnight and your morning consultations," pointing back to the window of her dressing-room, where he had seen her and Lady Cecilia.

"You saw," Helen began——

"Yes.—Am I blind, think you?—I wish I were. Oh! that I could be again the believing, fond, happy dupe I was but yesterday evening!"

"Dupe!" repeated Helen. "But pour out all—all, dear Granville. Think—say—what you will—reproach-abuse me as you please. It is a relief—take it—for I have none to give."

"None!" cried he, his tone suddenly changing, "no relief to give!—What! have you nothing to say?—No explanation?—Why speak to me then at all?"

"To tell you so at once—to end your suspense—to tell you that I cannot explain. The midnight consultation and the morning, were not to prepare for you excuse or apology, but to decide whether I could tell you the whole; and since that cannot be, I determined not to enter into any explanation. I am glad that you do not wish to hear any."

"Answer me one question," said he:—"that picture-did you give it to Colonel D'Aubigny?"

"No. That is a question I can answer. No—he stole it from Cecilia's portfolio. Ask me no more."

"One question more—"

"No, not one more—I cannot tell you anything more."

She was silent for a moment, he withdrew his eyes, and she went on.

"Granville! I must now put your love and esteem for me to the test. If that love be what I believe it to be; if your confidence in me is what I think it ought to be, I am now going to try it. There is a mystery which I cannot explain. I tell you this, and yet I expect you to believe that I am innocent of anything wrong but the concealment. There are circumstances which I cannot tell you."

"But why?" interrupted Beauclerc.—"Ought there to be any circumstances which cannot be told to the man to whom you have plighted your faith? Away with this 'cannot—this mystery!' Did not I tell you every folly of my life—every fault? And what is this?—in itself, nothing!—concealment everything—Oh! Helen—"

She was going to say, "If it concerned only myself,"—but that would at once betray Cecilia, and she went on.—"If it were in my opinion right to tell it to you, I would. On this point, Granville, leave me to judge and act for myself. This is the test to which I put your love—put mine to any test you will, but if your confidence in me is not sufficient to endure this trial, we can never be happy together." She spoke very low: but Beauclerc listened with such intensity that he could not only distinguish every syllable she said, but could distinctly hear the beating of her heart, which throbbed violently, in spite of all her efforts to be calm. "Can you trust me?" concluded she.

"I can," cried he. "I can—I do! By Heaven I do! I think you an angel, and legions of devils could not convince me of the contrary. I trust your word—I trust that heavenly countenance—I trust entirely——" He offered, and she took his offered hand. "I trust entirely. Not one question more shall I ask—not a suspicion shall I have: you put me to the test, you shall find me stand it."

"Can you?" said she; "you know how much I ask. I acknowledge a mystery, and yet I ask you to believe that I am not wrong."

"I know," said she; "you shall see." And both in happiness once more, they returned to the house.

"I love her a thousand times better than ever," thought Beauclerc, "for the independence of mind she shows in thus braving my opinion, daring to set all upon the cast—something noble in this! I am to form my own judgment of her, and I will, independently of what any other human being may say or think. The general, with his strict, narrow, conventional notions, has not an idea of the kind of woman I like, or of what Helen really is. He sees in Helen only the discreet proper-behaved young lady, adapted, so nicely adapted to her place in society, to nitch and notch in, and to be of no sort of value out of it. Give me a being able to stand alone, to think and feel, decide and act, for herself. Were Helen only what the general thinks her, she would not be for me; while she is what I think her, I love—I adore!" And when he saw his guardian, Beauclerc declared that, though Helen had entered into no explanations, he was perfectly satisfied.

The general answered, "I am glad you are satisfied." Beauclerc perceived that the general was not; and in spite of all that he had just been saying to himself, this provoked and disgusted him. His theory of his own mind, if not quite false, was still a little at variance with his practice. His guardian's opinion swayed him powerfully, whenever he believed that it was not designed to influence him; when the opinion was repressed, he could not rest without drawing it out. "Then, you think, general," said he, "that some explanation ought to have been made?"

"No matter what I think, Granville, the affair is yours. If you are satisfied, that is all that is necessary."

Then even, because left on their own point of suspension to vibrate freely, the diamond-scales of Beauclerc's mind began to move, from some nice, unseen cause of variation. "But," said he, "General Clarendon, no one can judge without knowing facts."

"So I apprehend," said the general.

"I may be of too easy faith," replied Beauclerc.—[No reply.] "This is a point of honour."—[No denial.] "My dear general, if there be anything which weighs with you, and which you know and I do not, I think, as my friend and my guardian, you ought to tell it to me."

"Pardon me," said the general, turning away from Beauclerc as he spoke, and striking first one heel of his boot against the scraper at the hall-door, then the other—"pardon me, Granville, I cannot admit you to be a better judge than I am myself of what I ought to do or not to do."

The tone was dry and proud, but Beauclerc's provoked imagination conceived it to be also mysterious; the scales of his mind vibrated again, but he had said he would trust—trust entirely, and he would: yet he could not succeed in banishing all doubt, till an idea started into his head—"That writing was Lady Cecilia's! I thought so at the first moment, and I let it go again. It is hers, and Helen is keeping her secret:—but could Lady Cecilia be so ungenerous—so treacherous?" However, he had declared he would ask no questions; he was a man of honour, and he would ask none—none even of himself—a resolution which he found it surprisingly easy to keep when the doubt concerned only Lady Cecilia. Whenever the thought crossed his mind, he said to himself, "I will ask nothing—suspect nobody; but if it is Lady Cecilia's affair, it is all the more generous in Helen." And so, secure in this explanation, though he never allowed to himself that he admitted it, his trust in Helen was easy and complete, and his passion for her increased every hour.

But Lady Cecilia was disturbed even by the perfect confidence and happiness of Beauclerc's manner towards Helen. She could not but fear that he had guessed the truth; and it seemed as if everything which happened tended to confirm him in his suspicions; for, whenever the mind is strongly interested on any subject, something alluding to it seems wonderfully, yet accidentally, to occur in everything that we read, or hear in common conversation, and so it now happened; things were continually said by persons wholly unconcerned, which seemed to bear upon her secret. Lady Cecilia frequently felt this with pangs of confusion, shame, and remorse; and, though Beauclerc did not watch, or play the spy upon her countenance, he could not help sometimes observing the flitting colour—the guilty changes of countenance—the assumed composure: that mind, once so artless, began to be degraded—her spirits sank; she felt that she "had lost the sunshine of a soul without a mystery!"

The day fixed for the marriage approached; Lady Cecilia had undertaken the superintendence of the trousseau, and Felicie was in anxious expectation of its arrival. Helen had written to the Collingwoods to announce the intended event, asking for the good bishop's sanction, as her guardian, and regretting that he could not perform the ceremony. She had received from Lady Davenant a few lines, written just before she sailed, warm with all the enthusiasm of her ardent heart, and full of expectation that Helen's lot would be one of the happiest this world could afford. All seemed indeed to smile upon her prospects, and the only clouds which dimmed the sunshine were Cecilia's insincerity, and her feeling that the general thought her acting unhandsomely and unwisely towards his ward; but she consoled herself with the thought that he could not judge of what he did not know, that she did not deserve his displeasure, that Granville was satisfied, and if he was, why should not General Clarendon be so too? Much more serious, however, was the pain she felt on Cecilia's account. She reproached herself with betraying the trust Lady Davenant had reposed in her. That dreadful prophecy seemed now accomplishing: Cecilia's natural generosity, that for which Helen had ever most loved and admired her, the brightest, fairest parts of her character, seemed failing now; what could be more selfish than Cecilia's present conduct towards herself, more treacherous to her noble minded, her confiding husband! The openness, the perfect unreserve between the two friends, was no longer what it had been. Helen, however, felt the constraint between them the less as she was almost constantly with Beauclerc, and in her young happiness she hoped all would be right. Cecilia would tell the general, and they would be as intimate, as affectionate, as they had ever been.

One morning General Clarendon, stopping Cecilia as she was coming down to breakfast, announced that he was obliged to set off instantly for London, on business which could not be delayed, and that she must settle with Miss Stanley whether they would accompany him or remain at Clarendon Park. He did not know, he said, how long he might be detained.

Cecilia was astonished, and excessively curious; she tried her utmost address to discover what was the nature of his business, in vain. All that remained was to do as he required without more words. He left the room, and Cecilia decided at once that they had better accompany him. She dreaded some delay; she thought that, if the general went alone to town, he might be detained Heaven knows how long; and though the marriage must be postponed at all events, yet if they went with the general, the ceremony might be performed in town as well as at Clarendon Park; and she with some difficulty convinced Helen of this. Beauclerc feared nothing but delay. They were to go. Lady Cecilia announced their decision to the general, who immediately set off, and the others in a few hours followed him.

Maria Edgeworth