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Chapter 37

That Fortune is not nice in her morality, that she frequently favours those who do not adhere to truth more than those who do, we have early had occasion to observe. But whether Fortune may not be in this, as in all the rest, treacherous and capricious; whether she may not by her first smiles and favours lure her victims on to their cost, to their utter undoing at last, remains to be seen.

It is time to inquire what has become of Lady Cecilia Clarendon. Before we follow her on her very early morning visit to her cousin's, we must take leave to pause one moment to remark, not in the way of moralising by any means, but simply as a matter of history, that the first little fib in which Lady Cecilia, as a customary licence of speech, indulged herself the moment she awoke this morning, though it seemed to answer its purpose exactly at the time, occasioned her ladyship a good deal of superfluous toil and trouble during the course of the day. In reply to the first question her husband had asked, or in evasion of that question, she had answered, "My dear love, don't ask me any questions, for I have such a horrid headache, that I really can hardly speak."

Now a headache, such as she had at that moment, certainly never silenced any woman. Slighter could not be—scarce enough to swear by. There seemed no great temptation to prevarication either, for the general's question was not of a formidable nature, not what the lawyers call a leading question, rather one that led to nothing. It was only, "Had you a pleasant party at Lady Castlefort's last night, my dear Cecilia?" But with that prescience with which some nicely foresee how the truth, seemingly most innocent, may do harm, her ladyship foreboded that, if she answered straight forward—"no"—that might lead to—why? how? or wherefore?—and this might bring out the history of the strange rude manner in which la belle fiancée had been received. That need not necessarily have followed, but, even if it had, it would have done her no harm,—rather would have served at once her purpose in the best manner possible, as time will show. Her husband, unsuspicious man, asked no more questions, and only gave her the very advice she wished him to give, that she should not get up to breakfast—that she should rest as long as she could. Farther, as if to forward her schemes, even without knowing them, he left the house early, and her headache conveniently going off, she was dressed with all despatch—carriage at the door as soon as husband out of sight, and away she went, as we have seen, without Helen's hearing, seeing, or suspecting her so well contrived and executed project.

She was now in good spirits. The infection of fear which she had caught, perhaps from the too sensitive Helen, last night, she had thrown off this morning. It was a sunny day, and the bright sunshine dispelled, as ever with her, any black notions of the night, all melancholy ideas whatsoever. She had all the constitutional hopefulness of good animal spirits. But though no fears remained, curiosity was as strong as ever. She was exceedingly eager to know what had been the cause of all these strange appearances. She guessed it must be some pitiful jealousy of Lady Katrine's—some poor spite against Helen. Anything that should really give Beauclerc uneasiness, she now sincerely believed to be out of the question. Nonsense—only Helen and Beauclerc's love of tormenting themselves—quite nonsense! And nonsense! three times ejaculated, quite settled the matter, and assured her in the belief that there could be nothing serious to be apprehended. In five minutes she should be at the bottom of all things, and in half an hour return triumphant to Helen, and make her laugh at her cowardly self. The carriage rolled on, Lady Cecilia's spirits rising as she moved rapidly onwards, so that by the time she arrived at Lady Castlefort's she was not only in good but in high spirits. To her askings, "Not at home" never echoed. Even at hours undue, such as the present, she, privileged, penetrated. Accordingly, unquestioned, unquestioning, the alert step was let down, opened wide was the hall-door, and lightly tripped she up the steps; but the first look into the hall told her that company was in the house already—yes—a breakfast—all were in the breakfast-room, except Lady Castlefort, not yet come down—above, the footman believed, in her boudoir. To the boudoir Cecilia went, but Lady Castlefort was not there, and Cecilia was surprised to hear the sound of music in the drawing-room, Lady Castlefort's voice singing. While she waited in the next room for the song to be finished, Cecilia turned over the books on the table, richly gilt and beautifully bound, except one in a brown paper parcel, which seemed unsuited to the table, yet excited more attention than all the others, because it was directed "Private—for Lady Katherine Hawksby—to be returned before two o'clock." What could it be? thought Lady Cecilia. But her attention was now attracted by the song which Lady Castlefort seemed to be practising; the words were distinctly pronounced, uncommonly distinctly, so as to be plainly heard—

 "Had we never loved so kindly,
  Hail we never loved so blindly,
  Never met, or never parted.
  We had ne'er been broken-hearted."

As Cecilia listened, she cast her eyes upon a card which lay on the table—"Lord Beltravers," and a new light flashed upon her, a light favourable to her present purpose; for since the object was altered with Lady Castlefort, since it was not Beauclerc any longer, there would be no further ill-will towards Helen. Lady Castlefort was not of the violent vindictive sort, with her there was no long-lasting dépit amoureux. She was not that fury, a woman scorned, but that blessed spirit, a woman believing herself always admired. "Soft, silly, sooth—not one of the hard, wicked, is Louisa," thought Cecilia. And as Lady Castlefort, slowly opening the door, entered, timid, as if she knew some particular person was in the room, Cecilia could not help suspecting that Louisa had intended her song for other ears than those of her dear cousin, and that the superb negligence of her dress was not unstudied; but that well-prepared, well-according sentimental air, changed instantly on seeing—not the person expected, and with a start, she exclaimed, "Cecilia Clarendon!"

"Louisa Castlefort!" cried Lady Cecilia, answering that involuntary start of confusion with a well-acted start of admiration. "Louisa Castlefort, si belle, si belle, so beautifully dressed!"

"Beautifully dressed—nothing extraordinary!" said Lady Castlefort, advancing with a half embarrassed, half non-chalant air,—"One must make something of a toilette de matin, you know, when one has people to breakfast."

"So elegant, so negligent!" continued Lady Cecilia.

"There is the point," said Lady Castlefort. "I cannot bear any thing that is studied in costume, for dress is really a matter of so little consequence! I never bestow a thought upon it. Angelique rules my toilette as she pleases."

"Angelique has the taste of an angel fresh from Paris," cried Lady Cecilia.

"And now tell me, Cecilia," pursued Lady Castlefort, quite in good humour, "tell me, my dear, to what do I owe this pleasure? what makes you so matinale? It must be something very extraordinary."

"Not at all, only a little matter of curiosity."

Then, from Lady Castlefort, who had hitherto, as if in absence of mind, stood, there was a slight "Won't you sit?" motion.

"No, no, I can't sit, can't stay," said Lady Cecilia.

A look quickly visible, and quickly suppressed, showed Lady Castlefort's sense of relief; then came immediately greater pressing to sit down, "Pray do not be in such a hurry.

"But I am keeping you; have you breakfasted?"

"Taken coffee in my own room," said Lady Castlefort "But you have people to breakfast; must not you go down?"

"No, no, I shall not go down for this is Katrine's affair, as I will explain to you."

Lady Cecilia was quite content, without any explanation; and sitting down, she drew her chair close to Lady Castlefort, and said, "Now, my dear, my little matter of curiosity."

"Stay, my dear, first I must tell you about Katrine—now confidentially—very."

Lady Cecilia ought to have been aware that when once her dear cousin Louisa's little heart opened, and she became confidential, very, it was always of her own domestic grievances she began to talk, and that, once the sluice opened, out poured from the deep reservoir the long-collected minute drops of months and years.

"You have no idea what a life I lead with Katrine—now she is grown blue."

"Is she?" said Lady Cecilia, quite indifferent.

"Deep blue! shocking: and this is a blue breakfast, and all the people at it are true bores, and a blue bore is, as Horace Churchill says, one of the most mischievous creatures breathing; and he tells me the only way of hindering them from doing mischief is by ringing them; but first you must get rings. Now, in this case, for Katrine not a ring to be had for love or money. So there is no hope for me."

"No hope for me," thought Lady Cecilia, throwing herself back in her chair, submissive, but not resigned.

"If it had but pleased Heaven," continued Lady Castlefort, "in its mercy, to have sent Katrine a husband of any kind, what a blessing it would have been! If she could but have been married to any body—now any body—"

"Any body is infinitely obliged to you," said Cecilia, "but since that is out of the question, let us say no more about it—no use."

"No use! that is the very thing of which I complain; the very thing which must ever—ever make me miserable."

"Well, well, my dear," cried Lady Cecilia, no longer capable of patience; "do not be miserable any more just now; never mind Katrine just now."

"Never mind her! Easy for you to say, Cecilia, who do not live with Katrine Hawksby, and do not know what it is to have such a plague of a sister, watching one,—watching every turn, every look one gives—worse than a jealous husband. Can I say more?"

"No," cried Cecilia; "therefore say no more about it. I understand it all perfectly, and I pity you from the bottom of my heart, so now, my dear Louisa——"

"I tell you, my dear Cecilia," pursued Lady Castlefort, continuing her own thoughts, "I tell you, Katrine is envious of me. Envy has been her fault from a child. Envy of poor me! Envy, in the first place, of whatever good looks it pleased Providence to give me." A glance at the glass.—"And now Katrine envies me for being Lady Castlefort, Heaven knows! now, Cecilia, and you know, she need not envy me so when she looks at Lord Castlefort; that is, what she sometimes says herself, which you know is very wrong of her to say to me—unnecessary too, when she knows I had no more hand in my marriage——"

"Than heart!" Cecilia could not forbear saying.

"Than heart!" readily responded Lady Castlefort; "never was a truer word said. Never was there a more complete sacrifice than my mother made of me; you know, Cecilia, a poor, young, innocent, helpless sacrifice, if ever there was one upon earth."

"To a coronet," said Lady Cecilia.

"Absolutely dragged to the altar," continued Lady Castlefort.

"In Mechlin lace, that was some comfort," said Cecilia laughing, and she laughed on in hope of cutting short this sad chapter of sacrifices. But Lady Castlefort did not understand raillery upon this too tender point. "I don't know what you mean by Mechlin lace," cried she pettishly. "Is this your friendship for me, Cecilia?"

Cecilia, justly in fear of losing the reward of all her large lay-out of flattery, fell to protesting the tenderest sympathy. "But only now it was all over, why make her heart bleed about what could not be helped?"

"Cannot be helped! Oh! there is the very thing I must ever, ever mourn."

The embroidered cambric handkerchief was taken out of the bag; no tears, indeed, came, but there were sobs, and Cecilia not knowing how far it might go, apprehending that her ladyship meditated hysterics, seized a smelling-bottle, threw out the stopper, and presented it close under the nostrils. The good "Sels poignans d'Angleterre," of which Felicie always acknowledged the unrivalled potency, did their business effectually. Back went the head, with an exclamation of "That's enough! Oh, oh! too much! too much, Cecilia!"

"Are you better, my dear?" inquired Cecilia; "but indeed you must not give way to low spirits; indeed, you must not: so now to change the conversation, Louisa——"

"Not so fast, Lady Cecilia; not yet;" and now Louisa went on with a medical maundering. "As to low spirits, my dear Cecilia, I must say I agree with Sir Sib Pennyfeather, who tells me it is not mere common low spirits, but really all mind, too much mind; mind preying upon my nerves. Oh! I knew it myself. At first he thought it was rather constitutional; poor clear Sir Sib! he is very clever, Sir Sib; and I convinced him he was wrong; and so we agreed that it was all upon my mind—all; all——"

At that instant a green parrot, who had been half asleep in the corner, awoke on Lady Castlefort's pronouncing, in an elevated tone, "All, all!" and conceiving himself in some way called upon, answered, "Poll! Poll! bit o'sugar Poll!" No small difficulty had Lady Cecilia at that moment in keeping her risible muscles in order; but she did, for Helen's sake, and she was rewarded, for after Lady Castlefort had, all unconscious of ridicule, fed Poll from her amber bonbonniere, and sighed out once more "Mind! too much mind!" she turned to Cecilia, and said, "But, my dear, you wanted something; you had something to ask me."

At once, and as fast as she could speak, Lady Cecilia poured out her business about Helen Stanley. She told of the ill-bred manner in which Helen had been received last night; inquired why the words promessi sposi and belle fiancée were so oddly repeated, as if they had been watchwords, and asked what was meant by all those strange whisperings in the sanctum sanctorum.

"Katrine's set," observed Lady Castlefort coolly. "Just like them; just like her!"

"I should not care about it in the least," said Lady Cecilia, "if it were only Katrine's ill-nature, or their ill-breeding. Ill-breeding always recoils on the ill-bred, and does nobody else any harm. But I should be glad to be quite clear that there is nothing more at the bottom."

Lady Castlefort made no reply, but took up a bunch of seals, and looked at each of them one after another. Lady Cecilia more afraid now than she had yet been that there was something at the bottom, still bravely went on, "What is it? If you know, tell me at once."

"Nay, ask Katrine," said Lady Castlefort.

"No, I ask you, I would rather ask you, for you are good-natured, Louisa—so tell me."

"But I dare say it is only slander," said the good-natured Louisa.

"Slander!" repeated Lady Cecilia, "slander did you say?"

"Yes; what is there to surprise you so much in that word? did you never hear of such a thing? I am sure I hear too much of it; Katrine lives and breathes and fattens upon it; as Churchill says, she eats slander, drinks slander, sleeps upon slander."

"But tell me, what of Helen? that is all I want to hear," cried Lady Cecilia: "Slander! of Helen Stanley! what is it that Katrine says about poor Helen? what spite, what vengeance, can she have against her, tell me, tell me."

"If you would ask one question at a time, I might be able to answer you," said Lady Castlefort. "Do not hurry me so; you fidget my nerves. First as to the spite, you know yourself that Katrine, from the beginning, never could endure Helen Stanley; for my part, I always rather liked her than otherwise, and shall defend her to the last."

"Defend her!"

"But Katrine was always jealous of her, and lately worse than ever, for getting into her place, as she says, with you; that made her hate her all the more."

"Let her hate on, that will never make me love Helen the less."

"So I told her; and besides, Miss Stanley is going to be married."

"To be sure;—well?"

"And Katrine naturally hates every body that is going to be married. If you were to see the state she is in always reading the announcements of Marriages in High Life! Churchill, I do believe, had Miss Stanley's intended match put into every paper continually, on purpose for the pleasure of plaguing Katrine; and if you could have seen her long face, when she saw it announced in the Court Gazette—good authority, you know—really it was pitiable."

"I don't care, I don't care about that—Oh pray go on to the facts about Helen."

"Well, but the fact is as I tell you; you wanted to know what sufficient cause for vengeance, and am not I telling you? If you would not get into such a state of excitement!—as Sir Sib says excitements should be avoided. La! my dear," continued Lady Castlefort, looking up at her with unfeigned astonishment, "what agitation! why, if it were a matter that concerned yourself——"

"It concerns my friend, and that is the same thing."

"So one says; but—you look really, such a colour."

"No matter what colour I look," cried Cecilia; "go on."

"Do you never read the papers?" said Lady Castlefort.

"Sometimes," said Lady Cecilia; "but I have not looked at a paper these three days; was there any thing particular? tell me."

"My dear! tell you! as if I could remember by heart all the scandalous paragraphs I read." She looked round the room, and not seeing the papers, said, "I do not know what has become of those papers; but you can find them when you go home."

She mentioned the names of two papers, noted for being personal, scandalous, and scurrilous.

"Are those the papers you mean?" cried Lady Cecilia; "the general never lets them into the house."

"That is a pity—that's hard upon you, for then you never are, as you see, au courant du jour, and all your friends might be abused to death without your knowing it, if some kind person did not tell you."

"Do tell me, then, the substance; I don't want the words."

"But the words are all. Somehow it is nothing without the words."

In her now excited state of communicativeness, Lady Castlefort rose and looked all about the room for the papers, saying, "They were here, they were there, all yesterday; Katrine had them showing them to Lady Masham in the morning, and to all her blue set afterwards—Lord knows what she has done with them. So tiresome looking for things! how I hate it."

She rang the bell and inquired from the footman if he knew what had become of the papers. Of course he did not know, could not imagine—servants never know, nor can imagine what have become of newspapers—but he would inquire. While he went to inquire, Lady Castlefort sank down again into her bergère, and again fell into admiration of Cecilia's state of impatience.

"How curious you are! Now I am never really curious about any thing that does not come home to myself; I have so little interest about other people."

This was said in all the simplicity of selfishness, not from candour, but from mere absence of shame, and utter ignorance of what others think—what others feel, which always characterises, and often betrays the selfish, even where the head is best capable of supplying the deficiencies of the heart. But Louisa Castlefort had no head to hide her want of heart; while Cecilia, who had both head and heart, looked down upon her cousin with surprise, pity, and contempt, quick succeeding each other, in a sort of parenthesis of feeling, as she moved her eyes for a moment from the door on which they had been fixed, and to which they recurred, while she stood waiting for the appearance of those newspapers. The footman entered with them. "In Mr. Landrum's room they were, my lady."

Lady Cecilia did not hear a word that was said, nor did she see that the servant laid a note on the table. It was well that Louisa had that note to read, and to answer, while Cecilia looked at the paragraphs in these papers; else her start must have been seen, her exclamation must have been heard: it must have been marked, that the whole character of her emotion changed from generous sympathy with her friend, to agony of fear for herself. The instant she cast her eyes on that much-read paper, she saw the name of Colonel D'Aubigny; all the rest swam before her eyes. Lady Castlefort, without looking up from her writing, asked—What day of the month? Cecilia could not answer, but recalled to herself by the sound of the voice, she now tried to read—she scarcely read the words, but some way took the sense into her mind at a glance.

Maria Edgeworth