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Chapter 41

If "trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of Holy Writ," and that they are no one since the time of Othello could ever doubt, it may be some consolation to observe, on the credit side of human nature, that, to those who are not cursed with a jealous infirmity, trifles light as air are often confirmations strong of the constancy of affection. Well did Lady Cecilia know this when she was so eager to be the bearer of the flowers which were sent by Beauclerc. She foresaw and enjoyed the instant effect, the quick smile, and blush of delight with which that bouquet was received by Helen.

"Oh, thank you! How kind of him!" and "all's well," was her immediate conclusion. When she saw his note, she never even took notice that he did not particularly mention her. The flowers from him were enough; she knew his sincerity so well, trusted to it so completely, that she was quite sure, if he had been angry with her, he would not have sent these tokens of his love,—slight tokens, though they were all-sufficient for her. Her fears had taken but one direction, and in that direction they were all dispelled. He would be at breakfast to-morrow, when she should know where he had been, and what had detained him from her the whole of this day. She told Cecilia that she was now quite well, but that she would not attempt to go down stairs. And Cecilia left her happy, so far at least; and when she was alone with her flowers, she doubly enjoyed them, inhaling the fragrance of each which she knew he particularly liked, and thanking him in her heart for the careful choice, for she was certain that they were not accidentally put together. Some of them were associated with little circumstances known only to themselves, awakening recollections of bright, happy moments, and selected, she was sure, with reference to a recent conversation they had had on the language of flowers.

Whether Helen fancied half this, or whether it was all true, it had the effect of soothing and pleasing her anxious, agitated mind; and she was the more ready to indulge in that pleasant reverie, from all that she had previously suffered herself, and all that she feared Beauclerc had yet to endure. She knew too well how much these reports would affect him—and hear them he must. She considered what trials he had already borne, and might still have to bear, for her sake, whatever course she might now pursue. Though soon, very soon, the whole would be told to him, yet still, though she might stand clear in his eyes as to the main points, he must, and would blame her weakness in first consenting to this deception—he who was above deceit. She had not absolutely told, but she had admitted a falsehood; she had acted a falsehood. This she could not extenuate. Her motive at first, to save Lady Davenant's life, was good; but then her weakness afterwards, in being persuaded time after time by Cecilia, could not well be excused. She was conscious that she had sunk step by step, dragged down that slippery path by Cecilia, instead of firmly making a stand, as she ought to have done, and up-holding by her own integrity her friend's failing truth. With returning anguish of self-reproach, she went over and over these thoughts; she considered the many unforeseen circumstances that had occurred. So much public shame, so much misery had been brought upon herself and on all she loved, by this one false step! And how much more might still await her, notwithstanding all that best of friends, the general, had done! She recollected how much he had done for her!—thinking of her too, as he must, with lowered esteem, and that was the most painful thought of all;—to Beauclerc she could and would soon clear her truth, but to the general—never, perhaps, completely!

Her head was leaning on her hand, as she was sitting deep in these thoughts, when she was startled by an unusual knock at her door. It was Cockburn with a packet, which General Clarendon had ordered him to deliver into Miss Stanley's own hands. The instant she saw the packet she knew that it contained the book; and on opening it she found manuscript letters inserted between the marked pages, and there was a note from General Clarendon. She trembled—she foreboded ill.

The note began by informing Miss Stanley how the enclosed manuscript letters came into General Clarendon's hands from a person whom Miss Stanley had obliged, and who had hoped in return to do her some service. The general next begged Miss Stanley to understand that these letters had been put into his possession since his conversation with her at breakfast time; his only design in urging her to mark her share in the printed letters had been to obtain her authority for serving her to the best of his ability; but he had since compared them:—and then came references, without comment, to the discrepancies between the marked passages, the uniform character of the omissions, followed only by a single note of admiration at each from the general's pen. And at last, in cold polite phrase, came his regret that he had not been able to obtain that confidence which he had trusted he had deserved, and his renunciation of all future interference in her affairs—or concerns, had been written, but a broad dash of the pen had erased the superfluous words; and then came the inevitable conclusion, on which Helen's eyes fixed, and remained immovable for some time—that determination which General Clarendon had announced to his wife in the first heat of indignation, but which, Lady Cecilia had hoped, could be evaded, changed, postponed—would not at least be so suddenly declared to Helen; therefore she had given her no hint, had in no way prepared her for the blow,—and with the full force of astonishment it came upon her—"General Clarendon cannot have the pleasure he had proposed to himself, of giving Miss Stanley at the altar to his ward. He cannot by any public act of his attest his consent to that marriage, of which, in his private opinion, he no longer approves."

"And he is right. O Cecilia!" was Helen's first thought, when she could think after this shock—not of her marriage, not of herself, not of Beauclerc, but of Cecilia's falsehood—Cecilia's selfish cowardice, she thought, and could not conceive it possible,—could not believe it, though it was there. "Incredible—yet proved—there—there—before her eyes-brought home keen to her heart! after all! at such a time—after her most solemn promise, with so little temptation, so utterly false—with every possible motive that a good mind could have to be true—in this last trial—her friend's whole character at stake—ungenerous—base! O Cecilia! how different from what I thought you—or how changed! And I have helped to bring her to this!—I—I have been the cause.—I will not stay in this house—I will leave her. To save her—to save myself—save my own truth and my own real character—let the rest go as it will—the world think what it may! Farther and farther, lower and lower, I have gone: I will not go lower—I will struggle up again at any risk, at any sacrifice. This is a sacrifice Lady Davenant would approve of: she said that if ever I should be convinced that General Clarendon did not wish me to be his guest—if he should ever cease to esteem me—I should go, that instant—and I will go. But where? To whom could she fly, to whom turn? The Collingwoods were gone; all her uncle's friends passed rapidly through her recollection. Since she had been living with General and Lady Cecilia Clarendon, several had written to invite her; but Helen knew a little more of the world now than formerly, and she felt that there was not one, no, not one of all these, to whom she could now, at her utmost need, turn and say, 'I am in distress, receive me! my character is attacked, defend me! my truth is doubted, believe in me!'" And, her heart beating with anxiety, she tried to think what was to be done. There was an old Mrs. Medlicott, who had been a housekeeper of her uncle's, living at Seven Oaks—she would go there—she should be safe—she should be independent. She knew that she was then in town, and was to go to Seven Oaks the next day; she resolved to send Rose early in the morning to Mrs. Medlicott's lodging, which was near Grosvenor Square, to desire her to call at General Clarendon's as she went out of town, at eight o'clock. She could then go with her to Seven Oaks; and, by setting out before Cecilia could be up, she should avoid seeing her again.

There are minds which totally sink, and others that wonderfully rise, under the urgency of strong motive and of perilous circumstance. It is not always the mind apparently strongest or most daring that stands the test. The firm of principle are those most courageous in time of need. Helen had determined what her course should be, and, once determined, she was calm. She sat down and wrote to General Clarendon.

"Miss STANLEY regrets that she cannot explain to General Clarendon the circumstances which have so much displeased him. She assures him that no want of confidence has been, on her part, the cause; but she cannot expect that, without further explanation, he should give her credit for sincerity. She feels that with his view of her conduct, and in his situation, his determination is right,—that it is what she has deserved,—that it is just towards his ward and due to his own character. She hopes, however, that he will not think it necessary to announce to Mr. Beauclerc his determination of withdrawing his approbation and consent to his marriage, when she informs him that it will now never be by her claimed or accepted. She trusts that General Clarendon will permit her to take upon herself the breaking off this union. She encloses a letter to Mr. Beauclerc, which she begs may be given to him to-morrow. General Clarendon will find she has dissolved their engagement as decidedly as he could desire, and that her decision will be irrevocable. And since General Clarendon has ceased to esteem her, Miss Stanley cannot longer accept his protection, or encroach upon his hospitality. She trusts that he will not consider it as any want of respect, that she has resolved to retire from his family as soon as possible. She is certain of having a safe and respectable home with a former housekeeper of her uncle Dean Stanley's, who will call for her at eight o'clock to-morrow, and take her to Seven Oaks, where she resides. Miss Stanley has named that early hour, that she may not meet Mr. Beauclerc before she goes; she wishes also to avoid the struggle and agony of parting with Lady Cecilia. She entreats General Clarendon will prevent Lady Cecilia from attempting to see her in the morning, and permit her to go unobserved out of the house at her appointed hour.

"So now farewell, my dear friend—yes, friend, this last time you must permit me to call you; for such I feel you have ever been, and ever would have been, to me, if my folly would have permitted. Believe me—notwithstanding the deception of which I acknowledge I have been guilty towards you, General Clarendon—I venture to say, believe me, I am not ungrateful. At this instant my heart swells with gratitude, while I pray that you may be happy—happy as you deserve to be. But you will read this with disdain, as mere idle words: so be it. Farewell! HELEN STANLEY."

Next, she was to write to Beauclerc himself. Her letter was as follows:—

"With my whole heart, dear Granville, I thank you for the generous confidence you have shown towards me, and for the invariable steadiness of your faith and love. For your sake, I rejoice. One good has at least resulted from the trials you have gone through: you must now and hereafter feel sure of your own strength of mind. With me it has been different, for I have not a strong mind. I have been all weakness, and must now be miserable; but wicked I will not be—and wicked I should be if I took advantage of your confiding love. I must disappoint your affection, but your confidence I will not betray. When I put your love to that test which it has so nobly stood, I had hoped that a time would come when all doubts would be cleared up, and when I could reward your constancy by the devotion of my whole happy life—but that hope is past: I cannot prove my innocence—I will no longer allow you to take it upon my assertion. I cannot indeed, with truth, even assert that I have done no wrong; for though I am not false, I have gone on step by step in deception, and might go on, I know not how far, nor to what dreadful consequences, if I did not now stop—and I do stop. On my own head be the penalty of my fault—upon my own happiness—my own character: I will not involve yours—therefore we part. You have not yet heard all that has been said of me; but you soon will, and you will feel, as I do, that I am not fit to be your wife. Your wife should not be suspected; I have been—I am. All the happiness I can ever have in this world must be henceforth in the thought of having saved from misery—if not secured the happiness of those I love. Leave me this hope—Oh, Granville, do not tell me, do not make me believe that you will never be happy without me! You will—indeed you will. I only pray Heaven that you may find love as true as mine, and strength to abide by the truth! Do not write to me—do not try to persuade me to change my determination: it is irrevocable. Further writing or meeting could be only useless anguish to us both. Give me the sole consolation I can now have, and which you alone can give—let me hear from Cecilia that you and your noble-minded guardian are, after I am gone, as good friends as you were before you knew me. I shall be gone from this house before you are here again; I cannot stay where I can do no good, and might do much evil by remaining even a few hours longer. As it is, comfort your generous heart on my account, with the assurance that I am sustained by the consciousness that I am now, to the best of my power, doing right. Adieu, Granville! Be happy! you can—you have done no wrong. Be happy, and that will console

"Your affectionate HELEN STANLEY."

This, enclosed to General Clarendon, she sent by Cockburn, who delivered it to his master immediately. Though she could perfectly depend upon her maid Rose's fidelity, Helen did not tell her that she was going away in the morning, to avoid bringing her into any difficulty if she were questioned by Lady Cecilia; and besides, no note of preparation would he heard or seen. She would take with her only sufficient for the day, and would leave Rose to pack up all that belonged to her, after her departure, and to follow her. Thanks to her own late discretion, she had no money difficulties—no debts but such as Rose could settle, and she had now only to write to Cecilia; but she had not yet recovered from the tumult of mind which the writing to the general and to Beauclerc had caused. She lay down upon the sofa, and closing her trembling eyelids, she tried to compose herself sufficiently to think at least of what she was to say. As she passed the table in going to the sofa, she, without perceiving it, threw down some of the flowers; they caught her eye, and she said to herself "Lie there! lie there! Granville's last gifts! last gifts to me! All over now; lie there and wither! Joys that are passed, wither! All happiness for me, gone! Lie there, and wither, and die!—and so shall I soon, I hope—if that only hope is not wrong."

Some one knocked at the door; she started up, and said, "I cannot see you, Cecilia!"

A voice not Cecilia's, a voice she did not recollect, answered, "It is not Cecilia; let me see you. I come from General Clarendon."

Helen opened the door, and saw—Miss Clarendon. Her voice had sounded so much lower and gentler than usual, that Helen had not guessed it to be hers. She was cloaked, as if prepared to go away; and in the outer room was another lady seated with her back towards them, and with her cloak on also.

"My aunt Pennant—who will wait for me. As she is a stranger, she would not intrude upon you, Miss Stanley; but will you allow me one minute?"

Helen, surprised, begged Miss Clarendon to come in, moved a chair towards her, and stood breathless with anxiety. Miss Clarendon sat down, and resuming her abruptness of tone, said, "I feel that I have no right to expect that you should have confidence in me, and yet I do. I believe in your sincerity, even from the little I know of you, and I have a notion you believe in mine. Do you?"

"I do." "I wish it had pleased Heaven," continued Miss Clarendon, "that my brother had married a woman who could speak truth! But you need not he afraid; I will not touch on your secrets. On any matter you have in keeping, my honour as well as yours will command my silence—as will also my brother's happiness, which I have somewhat at heart; not that I think it can be preserved by the means you take. But this is not what I came to say. You mean to go away from this house to-morrow morning?"

"Yes," said Helen.

"You are right. I would not stay where I did not esteem or where I had reason to believe that I was not esteemed. You are quite right to go, and to go directly; but not to your old housekeeper."

"Why not?" said Helen.

"Because, though I dare say she is vastly respectable,—an excellent person in her way, I am convinced,—yet my brother says she might not be thought just the sort of person to whom you should go now—not just the thing for you at present; though, at another time, it would be very well and condescending; but now, when you are attacked, you must look to appearances —in short, my brother will not allow you to go to this old lady's boarding-house, or cottage, or whatever it may be, at Seven Oaks; he must be able to say for you where you are gone. You must be with me; you must be at Llansillen. Llansillen is a place that can be named. You must be with me—with General Clarendon's sister. You must—you will, I am sure, my dear Miss Stanley. I never was so happy in having a house of my own as at this moment. You will not refuse to return with my aunt and me to Llansillen, and make our home yours? We will try and make it a happy home to you. Try; you see the sense of it: the world can say nothing when you are known to be with Miss Clarendon; and you will, I hope, feel the comfort of it, out of the stir and din of this London world. I know you like the country, and Llansillen is a beautiful place—romantic too; a fine castle, an excellent library, beautiful conservatory; famous for our conservatories we are in South Wales; and no neighbours—singular blessing! And my aunt Pennant, you will love her so! Will you try? Come! say that you will."

But Helen could not; she could only press the hand that Miss Clarendon held out to her. There is nothing more touching, more overcoming, than kindness at the moment the heart is sunk in despair. "But did General Clarendon really wish you to ask me?" said Helen, when she could speak. "Did he think so much and so carefully for me to the last? And with such a bad opinion as he must have of me!"

"But there you know he is wrong."

"It is like himself," continued Helen; "consistent in protecting me to the last. Oh, to lose such a friend!"

"Not lost, only mislaid," said Miss Clarendon. "You will find him again some fair day or other; truth always comes to light. Meanwhile, all is settled. I must run and tell my aunt, and bless the fates and Lady Emily Greville, that Lady Cecilia did not come up in the middle of it. Luckily, she thinks I am gone, and knows nothing of my being with you; for my brother explained all this to me in his study, after we had left the saloon, and he desires me to say that his carriage shall be ready for you at your hour, at eight o'clock. We shall expect you; and now, farewell till to-morrow."

She was gone, and her motto might well be, though in a different acceptation from that of our greatest modern politician—"Tout faire sans paraître."

But before Helen could go to rest, she must write to Lady Cecilia, and her thoughts were in such perplexity, and her feelings in such conflict, that she knew not how to begin. At last she wrote only a few hasty lines of farewell, and referred for her determination, and for all explanations, to her letter to the general. It came to "Farewell, dear Cecilia."

Dear! yes, still dear she was to Helen—she must be as Lady Davenant's daughter—still dear for her own sake was Cecilia, the companion of her childhood, who had shown her such generous affection early, such fondness always, who was so charming, with so many good qualities, so much to win love—loved she must be still. "Farewell, Cecilia; may you be happy!"

But as Helen wrote these words, she thought it impossible, she could scarcely in the present circumstances wish it possible, that Cecilia should be happy. How could she, unless her conscience had become quite callous?

She gave her note to Rose, with orders to deliver it herself to Lady Cecilia to-night, when she should demand admittance. And soon she came, the very instant Lady Emily Greville went away—before Helen was in bed she heard Cecilia at her door; she left her to parley with Rose—heard her voice in the first instance eager, peremptory for admittance. Then a sudden silence. Helen comprehended that she had opened her note—and in another instant she heard her retreating step. On seeing the first words referring for explanation to Helen's letter to the general, panic-struck, Lady Cecilia hurried to her own room to read the rest privately.

Helen now tried to recollect whether every thing had been said, written, done, that ought to be done; and at last went to bed and endeavoured to sleep for a few hours.

Maria Edgeworth