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"Miladi a une migranie affreuse this morning," said Felicie, addressing herself on the stairs to Rose. "Mille amitiés de sa part to your young lady, Miss Rose, and miladi recommend to her to follow a good example, and to take her breakfast in her bed, and then to take one good sleep till you shall hear midi sonné."
Miss Stanley, however, was up and dressed at the time when this message was brought to her, and a few minutes afterwards a footman came to the door, to give notice that the general was in the breakfast-room, waiting to know whether Miss Stanley was coming down or not. The idea of a tête-à-tetê breakfast with him was not now quite so agreeable as it would have been to her formerly, but she went down. The general was standing with his back to the fire, newspapers hanging from his hand, his look ominously grave. After "Good mornings" had been exchanged with awful solemnity, Helen ventured to hope that there was no bad public news.
"No public news whatever," said the general.
Next, she was sorry to hear that Cecilia had "such a bad headache."
"Tired last night," said the general.
"It was, indeed, a tiresome, disagreeable party," said Helen, hoping this would lead to how so? or why? but the general drily answered, "Not the London season," and went on eating his breakfast in silence.
Such a constraint and awe came upon her, that she felt it would be taking too great a liberty, in his present mood, to put sugar and cream into his tea, as she was wont in happier times. She set sugar-bowl and cream before him, and whether he understood, or noticed not her feelings, she could not guess. He sugared, and creamed, and drank, and thought, and spoke not. Helen put out of his way a supernumerary cup, to which he had already given a push, and she said, "Mr. Beauclerc does not breakfast with us."
"So I suppose," said the general, "as he is not here."
"He said he was engaged to breakfast."
"With some of his friends, I suppose," said the general.
There the dialogue came to a full stop, and breakfast, uncomfortably on her part, and with a preoccupied air on his, went on in absolute silence. At length the general signified to the servant who was in waiting, by a nod, and a look towards the door, that his further attendance was dispensed with. At another time Helen would have felt such a dismissal as a relief, for she disliked, and recollected that her uncle particularly disliked, the fashion of having servants waiting at a family breakfast, which he justly deemed unsuited to our good old English domestic habits; but somehow it happened that at this moment she was rather sorry when the servant left the room. He returned however in a moment, with something which he fancied to be yet wanting; the general, after glancing at whatever he had brought, said, "That will do, Cockburn; we want nothing more."
Cockburn placed a screen between him and the fire; the general put it aside, and, looking at him, said sternly—"Cockburn, no intelligence must ever go from my house to any newspapers."
Cockburn bowed—"None shall, Sir, if I can prevent it; none ever did from me, general."
"None must ever go from anyone in my family—look to it."
Cockburn bowed again respectfully, but with a look of reservation of right of remonstrance, answered by a look from his master, of "No more must be said." Yet Cockburn was a favourite; he had lived in the family from the time he was a boy. He moved hastily towards the door, and having turned the handle, rested upon it and said, "general, I cannot answer for others."
"Then, Cockburn, I must find somebody who can."
Cockburn disappeared, but after closing the door the veteran opened it again, stood, and said stoutly, though seemingly with some impediment in his throat—"General Clarendon, do me the justice to give me full powers."
"Whatever you require: say, such are your orders from me, and that you have full power to dismiss whoever disobeys." Cockburn bowed, and withdrew satisfied.
Another silence, when the general hastily finishing his breakfast, took up the newspaper, and said, "I wished to have spared you the pain of seeing these, Miss Stanley, but it must be done now. There have appeared in certain papers, paragraphs alluding to Beauclerc and to you; these scandalous papers I never allow to enter my house, but I was informed that there were such paragraphs, and I was obliged to examine into them. I am sorry to find that they have some of them been copied into my paper to-day."
He laid the newspaper before her. The first words which struck her eye were the dreaded whispers of last night; the paragraph was as follows:
"In a few days will be published the Memoirs of the late Colonel D'——, comprising anecdotes, and original love-letters; which will explain the mysterious allusions lately made in certain papers to 'La belle Fiancée,' and 'I promessi sposi."
"What!" exclaimed Helen; "the letters! published!"
The general had turned from her as she read, and had gone to his writing-desk, which was at the furthest end of the room; he unlocked it, and took from it a small volume, and turning over the leaves as he slowly approached Helen, he folded down some pages, laid the volume on the table before her, and then said, "Before you look into these scandalous memoirs, Miss Stanley, let me assure you, that nothing but the necessity of being empowered by you to say what is truth and what is falsehood, could determine me to give you this shock."
She was scarcely able to put forward her hand; yet took the book, opened it, looked at it, saw letters which she knew could not be Cecilia's, but turning another leaf, she pushed it from her with horror. It was the letter—beginning with "My dear—too dear Henry."
"In print!" cried she; "In print! published!"
"Not published yet, that I hope to be able to prevent," said the general.
Whether she heard, whether she could hear him, he was not certain, her head was bent down, her hands clasping her forehead. He waited some minutes, then sitting down beside her, with a voice of gentleness and of commiseration, yet of steady determination, he went on:—"I must speak, and you must hear me, Helen, for your own sake, and for Beauclerc's sake."
"Speak," cried she, "I hear."
"Hear then the words of a friend, who will be true to you through life—through life and death, if you will be but true to yourself, Helen Stanley—a friend who loves you as he loves Beauclerc; but he must do more, he must esteem you as he esteems Beauclerc, incapable of any thing that is false."
Helen listened with her breath suspended, not a word in reply.
"Then I ask——" She put her hand upon his arm, as if to stop him; she had a foreboding that he was going to ask something that she could not, without betraying Cecilia, answer.
"If you are not yet sufficiently collected, I will wait; take your own time—My question is simple—I ask you to tell me whether all these letters are your's or not?"
"No," cried Helen, "these letters are not mine."
"Not all," said the general: "this first one I know to be yours, because I saw it in your handwriting; but I am certain all cannot be yours: now will you show me which are and which are not."
"I will take them to my own room, and consider and examine."
"Why not look at them here, Miss Stanley?"
She wanted to see Cecilia, she knew she could never answer the question without consulting her, but that she could not say; still she had no other resource, so, conquering her trembling, she rose and said, "I would rather go to——"
"Not to Cecilia," said he; "to that I object: what can Cecilia do for you? what can she advise, but what I advise, that the plain truth should be told?"
"If I could! O if I could!" cried Helen.
"What can you mean? Pardon me, Miss Stanley, but surely you can tell the plain fact; you can recollect what you have written—at least you can know what you have not written. You have not yet even looked beyond a few of the letters—pray be composed—be yourself. This business it was that brought me to town. I was warned by that young lady, that poetess of Mr. Churchill's, whom you made your friend by some kindness at Clarendon Park—I was warned that there was a book to come out, these Memoirs of Colonel D'Aubigny, which would contain letters said to be yours, a publication that would be highly injurious to you. I need not enter into details of the measures I consequently took; but I ascertained that Sir Thomas D'Aubigny, the elder brother of the colonel, knows nothing more of the matter than that he gave a manuscript of his brother's, which he had never read, to be published: the rest is a miserable intrigue between booksellers and literary manufacturers, I know not whom; I have not been able to get to the bottom of it; sufficient for my present purpose I know, and must tell you. You have enemies who evidently desire to destroy your reputation, of course to break your marriage. For this purpose the slanderous press has been set at work, the gossiping part of the public has had its vile curiosity excited, the publication of this book is expected in a few days: this is the only copy yet completed, I believe, and this I could not get from the bookseller till this morning; I am now going to have every other copy destroyed directly."
"Oh my dear, dear friend, how can I thank you?" Her tears gushed forth.
"Thank me not by words, Helen, but by actions; no tears, summon your soul—be yourself."
"O if I could but retrieve one false step!"—she suddenly checked herself.
He stood aghast for an instant, then recovering himself as he looked upon her and marked the nature of her emotion, he said: "There can be no false step that you could ever have taken that cannot be retrieved. There can have been nothing that is irretrievable, except falsehood."
"Falsehood! No," cried she, "I will not say what is false—therefore I will not say anything."
"Then since you cannot speak," continued the general, "will you trust me with the letters themselves? Have you brought them to town with you?"
"The original letters?"
"Yes, those in the packet which I gave to you at Clarendon Park."
"They are burned."
"All?—one, this first letter I saw you tear; did you burn all the rest?"
"They are burned," repeated she, colouring all over. She could not say "I burned them."
He thought it a poor evasion. "They are burned," continued he, "that is, you burned them: unfortunate. I must then recur to my first appeal. Take this pencil, and mark, I pray you, the passages that are your's. I may be called on to prove the forgery of these passages: if you do not show me, and truly, which are yours, and which are not, how can I answer for you, Helen?"
"One hour," said Helen,—"only leave me for one hour, and it shall be done."
"Why this cowardly delay?" "I ask only one hour—only leave me for one hour."
"I obey, Miss Stanley, since it must be so. I am gone."
He went, and Helen felt how sunk she was in his opinion,—sunk for ever, she feared! but she could not think distinctly, her mind was stunned; she felt that she must wait for somebody, but did not at first recollect clearly that it was for Cecilia. She leaned back on the sofa, and sank into a sort of dreamy state. How long she remained thus unconscious she knew not; but she was roused at last by the sound, as she fancied, of a carriage stopping at the door: she started up, but it was gone, or it had not been. She perceived that the breakfast things had been removed, and, turning her eyes upon the clock, she was surprised to see how late it was. She snatched up the pages which she hated to touch, and ran up-stairs to Cecilia's room,—door bolted;—she gave a hasty tap—no answer; another louder, no answer. She ran into the dressing-room for Felicie, who came with a face of mystery, and the smile triumphant of one who knows what is not to be known. But the smile vanished on seeing Miss Stanley's face.
"Bon Dieu! Miss Stanley—how pale! mais qu'est ce que c'est? Mon Dieu, qu'est ce que c'est donc?"
"Is Lady Cecilia's door bolted within side?" said Helen.
"No, only lock by me," said Mademoiselle Felicie. "Miladi charge me not to tell you she was not dere. And I had de presentiment you might go up to look for her in her room. Her head is got better quite. She is all up and dress; she is gone out in the carriage, and will soon be back no doubt. I know not to where she go, but in my opinion to my Lady Katrine. If you please, you not mention I say dat, as miladi charge me not to speak of dis to you. Apparemment quelque petit mystère."
Poor Helen felt as if her last hope was gone, and now in a contrary extreme from the dreamy torpor in which she had been before, she was seized with a nervous impatience for the arrival of Cecilia, though whether to hope or fear from it, she did not distinctly know. She went to the drawing-room, and listened and listened, and watched and watched, and looked at the clock, and felt a still increasing dread that the general might return before Lady Cecilia, and that she should not have accomplished her promise. She became more and more impatient. As it grew later, the rolling of carriages increased, and their noise grew louder, and continually as they came near she expected that one would stop at the door. She expected and expected, and feared, and grew sick with fear long deferred. At last one carriage did stop, and then came a thundering knock—louder, she thought, than usual; but before she could decide whether it was Cecilia or not, the room-door opened, and the servant had scarcely time to say, that two ladies who did not give their names had insisted upon being let up—when the two ladies entered. One in the extreme of foreign fashion, but an Englishwoman, of assured and not prepossessing appearance; the other, half hid behind her companion, and all timidity, struck Helen as the most beautiful creature she had ever beheld.
"A thousand pardons for forcing your doors," said the foremost lady; "but I bear my apology in my hand: a precious little box of Roman cameos from a friend of Lady Cecilia Clarendon's, which I was desired to deliver myself."
Helen was, of course, sorry that Lady Cecilia was not at home.
"I presume I have the honour of speaking to Miss Stanley," continued the assured lady, and she gave her card "Comtesse de St. Cymon." Then half-turning to the beauty, who now became visible—"Allow me to mention—Lady Blanche Forrester."
At that name Helen did not start, but she felt as if she had received an electric shock. How she went through the necessary forms of civility she knew not; but even in the agony of passion the little habits of life hold their sway. The customary motions were made, and words pronounced; yet when Helen looked at that beautiful Lady Blanche, and saw how beautiful! there came a spasm at her heart.
The comtesse, in answer to her look towards a chair, did not "choose to sit down—could not stay—would not intrude on Miss Stanley." So they stood, Helen supporting herself as best she could, and preserving, apparently, perfect composure, seeming to listen to what farther Madame de St. Cymon was saying; but only the sounds reached her ear, and a general notion that she spoke of the box in her hand. She gave Helen some message to Lady Cecilia, explanatory of her waiting or not waiting upon her ladyship, to all which Helen answered with proper signs of civility; and while the comtesse was going on, she longed to look again at Lady Blanche, but dared not. She saw a half curtsey and a receding motion; and she knew they were going, and she curtsied mechanically. She felt inexpressible relief when Madame de St. Cymon turned her back and moved towards the door. Then Helen looked again at Lady Blanche, and saw again her surpassing beauty and perfect tranquillity. The tranquillity gave her courage, it passed instantaneously into herself, through her whole existence. The comtesse stopped in her way out, to look at a china table. "Ha! beautiful! Sêvre!—enamel—by Jaquetot, is it not?"
Helen was able to go forward, and answer to all the questions asked. Not one word from the Lady Blanche; but she wished to hear the sound of her voice. She tried—she spoke to her; but to whatever Helen said, no answer came, but the sweetest of smiles. The comtesse, with easy assurance and impertinent ill-breeding, looked at all that lay in her way, and took up and opened the miniature pictures that were on the table. "Lady Cecilia Clarendon—charming!—Blanche, you never saw her yet. Quite charming, is it not?"
Not a word from Lady Blanche, but a smile, a Guido smile. Another miniature taken up by the curious comtesse. "Ah! very like indeed! not flattered though. Do you know it, Blanche—eh?"
It was Beauclerc. Lady Blanche then murmured some few words indistinctly, in a very sweet voice, but showed no indication of feeling, except, as Helen gave one glance, she thought she saw a slight colour, like the inside of a shell, delicately beautiful; but it might be only the reflection from the crimson silk curtain near which she stood: it was gone, and the picture put down; and in a lively tone from the comtesse "Au revoir," and exit, a graceful bend from the silent beauty, and the vision vanished.
Helen stood for some moments fixed to the spot where they left her. She questioned her inmost thoughts. "Why was I struck so much, so strangely, with that beauty—so painfully? It cannot be envy; I never was envious of any one, though so many I have seen so much handsomer than myself. Jealousy? surely not; for there is no reason for it—no possibility of danger. Yet now, alas! when he has so much cause to doubt me! perhaps he might change. He seemed so displeased last night, and he has never been here all the morning!" She recollected the look and accent of Madame de St. Cymon, as she said the words "au revoir." Helen did not like the words, or the look. She did not like anything about Madame de St. Cymon: "Something so assured, so impertinent! And all that unintelligible message about those cameos!—a mere excuse for making this unseasonable pushing visit—just pushing for the acquaintance. The general will never permit it, though—that is one comfort. But why do I say comfort?" Back went the circle of her thoughts to the same point.—"What can I do?—the general will return, he will find I have not obeyed him. But what can be done till Cecilia returns? If she were but here, I could mark—we could settle. O Cecilia! where are you? But," thought she, "I had better look at the whole. I will, have courage to read these horrible letters." To prevent all hazard of further interruption, she now went into an inner room, bolted the doors, and sat down to her dreaded task. And there we leave her.
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