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Chapter 39

We left Helen in the back drawing-room, the door bolted, and beginning to read her dreaded task. The paragraphs in the newspapers, we have seen, were sufficiently painful, but when she came to the book itself—to the letters—she was in consternation, greater even than what she had felt in the general's presence under the immediate urgency of his eye and voice. Her conviction was that in each of these letters, there were some passages, some expressions, which certainly were Cecilia's, but mixed with others, which as certainly were not hers. The internal evidence appeared to her irresistibly strong: and even in those passages which she knew to be Cecilia's writing, it too plainly appeared that, however playfully, however delicately expressed, there was more of real attachment for Colonel D'Aubigny than Cecilia had ever allowed Helen to believe; and she felt that Cecilia must shrink from General Clarendon's seeing these as her letters, after she had herself assured him that he was her first love. The falsehood was here so indubitable, so proved, that Helen herself trembled at the thought of Cecilia's acknowledging the plain facts to her husband. The time for it was past. Now that they were in print, published perhaps, how must he feel! If even candid confession were made to him, and made for the best motives, it would to him appear only forced by necessity—forced, as he would say to himself, because her friend would not submit to be sacrificed.

Such were Helen's thoughts on reading the two or three first letters, but, as she went on, her alarm increased to horror. She saw things which she felt certain Cecilia could never have written; yet truth and falsehood were so mixed up in every paragraph, circumstances which she herself had witnessed so misrepresented, that it was all to her inextricable confusion. The passages which were to be marked could not now depend upon her opinion, her belief; they must rest upon Cecilia s integrity—and could she depend upon it? The impatience which she had felt for Lady Cecilia's return now faded away, and merged in the more painful thought that, when she did come, the suspense would not end—the doubts would never be satisfied.

She lay down upon the sofa and tried to rest, kept herself perfectly still, and resolved to think no more; and, as far as the power of the mind over itself can stay the ever-rising thoughts, she controlled hers, and waited with a sort of forced, desperate composure for the event. Suddenly she heard that knock, that ring, which she knew announced Lady Cecilia's return. But not Cecilia alone; she heard the general also coming upstairs, but Cecilia first, who did not stop for more than an instant at the drawing-room door:—she looked in, as Helen guessed, and seeing that no one was there, ran very quickly up the next flight of stairs. Next came the general:—on hearing his step, Helen's anxiety became so intense, that she could not, at the moment he came near, catch the sound or distinguish which way he went. Strained beyond its power, the faculty of hearing seemed suddenly to fail—all was confusion, an indistinct buzz of sounds. The next moment, however, recovering, she plainly heard his step in the front drawing-room, and she knew that he twice walked up and down the whole length of the room, as if in deep thought. Each time as he approached the folding doors she was breathless. At last he stopped, his hand was on the lock—she recollected that the door was bolted, and as he turned the handle she, in a powerless voice, called to tell him, but not hearing her, he tried again, and as the door shook she again tried to speak, but could not. Still she heard, though she could not articulate. She heard him say, "Miss Stanley, are you there? Can I see you?"

But the words—the voice seemed to come from afar—sounded dull and strange. She tried to rise from her seat—found a difficulty—made an effort—stood up—she summoned resolution—struggled—hurried across the room—drew back the bolt—threw open the door—and that was all she could do. In that effort strength and consciousness failed—she fell forward and fainted at the general's feet. He raised her up, and laid her on the sofa in the inner room. He rang for her maid, and went up-stairs to prevent Cecilia's being alarmed. He took the matter coolly: he had seen many fainting young ladies, he did not like them—his own Cecilia excepted—in his mind always excepted from every unfavourable suspicion regarding the sex. Helen, on the contrary, was at present subject to them all, and, under the cloud of distrust, he saw in a bad light every thing that occurred; the same appearances which, in his wife, he would have attributed to the sensibility of true feeling, he interpreted in Helen as the consciousness of falsehood, the proof of cowardly duplicity. He went back at once to his original prejudice against her, when, as he first thought, she had been forced upon him in preference to his own sister. He had been afterwards convinced that she had been perfectly free from all double dealing; yet now he slid back again, as people of his character often do, to their first opinion. "I thought so at first, and I find, as I usually do, that my first thought was right."

What had been but an adverse feeling was now considered as a prescient judgment. And he did not go upstairs the quicker for these thoughts, but calmly and coolly, when he reached Lady Cecilia's dressing-room, knocked at the door, and, with all the precautions necessary to prevent her from being alarmed, told her what had happened. "You had better not go down, my dear Cecilia, I beg you will not. Miss Stanley has her own maid, all the assistance that can be wanted. My dear, it is not fit for you. I desire you will not go down."

But Lady Cecilia would not listen, could not be detained; she escaped from her husband, and ran down to Helen. Excessively alarmed she was, and well she might be, knowing herself to be the cause, and not certain in any way how it might end. She found Helen a little recovered, but still pale as white marble; and when Lady Cecilia took her hand, it was still quite cold. She came to herself but very slowly. For some minutes she did not recover perfect consciousness, or clear recollection. She saw figures of persons moving about her, she felt them as if too near, and wished them away; wanted air, but could not say what she wished. She would have moved, but her limbs would not obey her will. At last, when she had with effort half raised her head, it sunk back again before she could distinguish all the persons in the room. The shock of cold water on her forehead revived her; then coming clearly to power of perception, she saw Cecilia bending over her. But still she could not speak, and yet she understood distinctly, saw the affectionate anxiety, too, in her little maid Rose's countenance; she felt that she loved Rose, and that she could not endure Felicie, who had now come in, and was making exclamations, and advising various remedies, all of which, when offered, Helen declined. It was not merely that Felicie's talking, and tone of voice, and superabundant action, were too much for her; but that Helen had at this moment a sort of intuitive perception of insincerity, and of exaggeration. In that dreamy state, hovering between life and death, in which people are on coming out of a swoon, it seems as if there was need for a firm hold of reality; the senses and the understanding join in the struggle, and become most acute in their perception of what is natural or what is unnatural, true or false, in the expressions and feelings of the by-standers. Lady Cecilia understood her look, and dismissed Felicie, with all her smelling-bottles. Rose, though not ordered away, judiciously retired as soon as she saw that her services were of no further use, and that there was something upon her young lady's mind, for which, hartshorn and sal volatile could be of no avail.

Cecilia would have kissed her forehead, but Helen made a slight withdrawing motion, and turned away her face: the next instant, however, she looked up, and taking Cecilia's hand, pressed it kindly, and said, "You are more to be pitied than I am; sit down, sit down beside me, my poor Cecilia; how you tremble! and yet you do not know what is coming upon you."

"Yes, yes, I do—I do," cried Lady Cecilia, and she eagerly told Helen all that had passed, ending with the assurance that the publication had been completely stopped by her dear Clarendon; that the whole chapter containing the letters had been destroyed, that not a single copy had got abroad. "The only one in existence is this," said she, taking it up as she spoke, and she made a movement as if going to tear out the leaves, but Helen checked her hand, "That must not be, the general desired——"

And almost breathless, yet distinctly, she repeated what the general had said, that he might be called upon to prove which parts were forged, and which true, and that she had promised to mark the passages. "So now, Cecilia, here is a pencil, and mark what is and what is not yours."

Lady Cecilia instantly took the pencil, and in great agitation obeyed. "Oh, my dear Helen, some of these the general could not think yours. Very wicked these people have been!—so the general said; he was sure, he knew, all could not be yours."

"Finish! my dear Cecilia," interrupted Helen; "finish what you have to do, and in this last trial, give me this one proof of your sincerity. Be careful in what you are now doing, mark truly—oh, Cecilia! every word you recollect—as your conscience tells you. Will you, Cecilia? this is all I ask, as I am to answer for it—will you?"

Most fervently she protested she would. She had no difficulty in recollecting, in distinguishing her own; and at first she marked truly, and was glad to separate what was at worst only foolish girlish nonsense from things which had been interpolated to make out the romance; things which never could have come from her mind.

There is some comfort in having our own faults overshadowed, outdone by the greater faults of others. And here it was flagrant wickedness in the editor, and only weakness and imprudence in the writer of the real letters. Lady Cecilia continually solaced her conscience by pointing out to Helen, as she went on, the folly, literally the folly, of the deception she had practised on her husband; and her exclamations against herself were so vehement that Helen would not add to her pain by a single reproach, since she had decided that the time was past for urging her confession to the general. She now only said, "Look to the future, Cecilia, the past we cannot recall. This will be a lesson you can never forget."

"Oh, never, never can I forget it. You have saved me, Helen."

Tears and protestations followed these words, and at the moment they were all sincere; and yet, can it be believed? even in this last trial, when it came to this last proof, Lady Cecilia was not perfectly true. She purposely avoided putting her mark of acknowledgment to any of those expressions which most clearly proved her love for Colonel D'Aubigny; for she still said to herself that the time might come, though at present it could not be, when she might make a confession to her husband,—in his joy at the birth of a son, she thought she might venture; she still looked forward to doing justice to her friend at some future period, and to make this easier—to make this possible—as she said to herself, she must now leave out certain expressions, which might, if acknowledged, remain for ever fixed in Clarendon's mind, and for which she could never be forgiven.

Helen, when she looked over the pages, observed among the unmarked passages some of those expressions which she had thought were Cecilia's, but she concluded she was mistaken: she could not believe that her friend could at such a moment deceive her, and she was even ashamed of having doubted her sincerity; and her words, look, and manner, now gave assurance of perfect unquestioning confidence.

This delicacy in Helen struck Lady Cecilia to the quick. Ever apt to be more touched by her refined feelings than by any strong appeal to her reason or her principles, she was now shocked by the contrast between her own paltering meanness and her friend's confiding generosity. As this thought crossed her mind, she stretched out her hand again for the book, took up the pencil, and was going to mark the truth; but, the impulse past, cowardice prevailed, and cowardice whispered, "Helen is looking at me, Helen sees at this moment what I am doing, and, after having marked them as not mine, how can I now acknowledge them?—it is too late—it is impossible."

"I have done as you desired," continued she, "Helen, to the best of my ability. I have marked all this, but what can it signify now my dear, except—?"

Helen interrupted her. "Take the book to the general this moment, will you, and tell him that all the passages are marked as he desired; stay, I had better write."

She wrote upon a slip of paper a message to the same effect, having well considered the words by which she might, without further step in deception, save her friend, and take upon herself the whole blame—the whole hazardous responsibility.

When Cecilia gave the marked book to General Clarendon, he said, as he took it, "I am glad she has done this, though it is unnecessary now, as I was going to tell her if she had not fainted: unnecessary, because I have now in my possession the actual copies of the original letters; I found them here on my return. That good little poetess found them for me at the printer's—but she could not discover—I have not yet been able to trace where they came from, or by whom they were copied."

"O let me see them," cried Lady Cecilia."

"Not yet, my love," said he; "you would know nothing more by seeing them; they are in a feigned hand evidently."

"But," interrupted Cecilia, "you cannot want the book now, when you have the letters themselves;" and she attempted to draw it from his hand, for she instantly perceived the danger of the discrepancies between her marks and the letters being detected. She made a stronger effort to withdraw the book but he held it fast. "Leave it with me now, my dear; I want it; it will settle my opinion as to Helen's truth."

Slowly, and absolutely sickened with apprehension, Lady Cecilia withdrew. When she returned to Helen, and found how pale she was and how exhausted she seemed, she entreated her to lie down again and try to rest.

"Yes, I believe I had better rest before I see Granville," said Helen: "where can he have been all day?"

"With some friend of his, I suppose," said Cecilia, and she insisted on Helen's saying no more, and keeping herself perfectly quiet. She farther suggested that she had better not appear at dinner.

"It will be only a family party, some of the general's relations. Miss Clarendon is to be here, and she is one, you know, trying to the spirits; and she is not likely to be in her most suave humour this evening, as she has been under a course of the tooth-ache, and has been all day at the dentist's."

Helen readily consented to remain in her own room, though she had not so great a dread of Miss Clarendon as Lady Cecilia seemed to feel. Lady Cecilia was indeed in the greatest terror lest Miss Clarendon should have heard some of these reports about Helen and Beauclerc, and would in her blunt way ask directly what they meant, and go on with some of her point-blank questions, which Cecilia feared might be found unanswerable. However, as Miss Clarendon had only just come to town from Wales, and come only about her teeth, she hoped that no reports could have reached her; and Cecilia trusted much to her own address and presence of mind in moments of danger, in turning the conversation the way it should go.

But things were now come to a point where none of the little skilful interruptions or lucky hits, by which she had so frequently profited, could avail her farther than to delay what must be. Passion and character pursue their course unalterably, unimpeded by small external circumstances; interrupted they may be in their progress, but as the stream opposed bears against the obstacle, sweeps it away, or foams and passes by.

Before Lady Cecilia's toilette was finished her husband was in her dressing-room; came in without knocking,—a circumstance so unusual with him, that Mademoiselle Felicie's eyes opened to their utmost orbit, and, without waiting for word or look, she vanished, leaving the bracelet half clasped on her lady's arm.

"Cecilia!" said the general.

He spoke in so stern a tone that she trembled from head to foot; her last falsehood about the letters—all her falsehoods, all her concealments, were, she thought, discovered; unable to support herself, she sank into his arms. He seated her, and went on in a cool, inexorable tone, "Cecilia, I am determined not to sanction by any token of my public approbation this marriage, which I no longer in my private conscience desire or approve; I will not be the person to give Miss Stanley to my ward."

Lady Cecilia almost screamed: her selfish fears forgotten, she felt only terror for her friend. She exclaimed, "Clarendon, will you break off the marriage? Oh! Helen, what will become of her! Clarendon, what can you mean?"

"I mean that I have compared the passages that Helen marked in the book, with those copies of the letters which were given to the bookseller before the interpolations were made—the letters as Miss Stanley wrote them. The passages in the letters and the passages marked in the book do not agree."

"Oh, but she might have forgotten, it might be accident," cried Cecilia, overwhelmed with confusion.

"No, Cecilia," pursued the General, in a tone which made her heart die within her—"no, Cecilia, it is not accident, it is design. I perceive that every strong expression, every word, in short, which could show her attachment to that man, has been purposely marked as not her own, and the letters themselves prove that they were her own. The truth is not in her."

In an agitation, which prevented all power of thought, Cecilia exclaimed, "She mistook—she mistook; I could not, I am sure, recollect; she asked me if I remembered any."

"She consulted you, then?"

"She asked my advice,—told me that——"

"I particularly requested her," interrupted the general, "not to ask your advice; I desired her not to speak to you on the subject—not to consult you. Deceit—double-dealing in every thing she does, I find."

"No, no, it is my fault; every thing I say and do is wrong," cried Lady Cecilia. "I recollect now—it was just after her fainting, when I brought the book, and when she took it to mark she really was not able. It was not that she consulted me, but I forced my counsel upon her. I looked over the letters, and said what I thought—if anybody is wrong, it is I, Clarendon. Oh, do not visit my sins upon Helen so cruelly!—do not make me the cause of her ruin, innocent creature! I assure you, if you do this, I never could forgive myself."

The general looked at her in silence: she did not dare to meet his eyes, desperately anxious as she was to judge by his countenance what was passing within. He clasped for her that bracelet which her trembling hands were in vain attempting to close.

"Poor thing, how its heart beats!" said her husband, pressing her to him as he sat down beside her. Cecilia thought she might venture to speak.—"You know, my dear Clarendon, I never oppose—interfere with—any determination of yours when once it is fixed—"

"This is fixed," interrupted the general.

"But after all you have done for her this very day, for which I am sure she—I am sure I thank you from my soul, would you now undo it all?"

"She is saved from public shame," said the general; "from private contempt I cannot save her: who can save those who have not truth? But my determination is fixed; it is useless to waste words on the subject. Esther is come; I must go to her. And now, Cecilia, I conjure you, when you see Beauclerc—I have not seen him all day—I do not know where he has been—I conjure you—-I command you not to interfere between him and Helen."

"But you would not have me give her up! I should be the basest of human beings."

"I do not know what you mean, Cecilia; you have done for her all that an honourable friend could do."

"I am not an honourable friend," was Cecilia's bitter consciousness, as she pressed her hand upon her heart, which throbbed violently with contending fears.

"You have done all that an honourable friend could do; more must not be done," continued the general. "And now recollect, Cecilia, that you are my wife as well as Miss Stanley's friend;" and, as he said these words, he left the room.

Maria Edgeworth