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Chapter 42

Helen was just dressed, and had given her last orders to her bewildered maid, when she heard a knock at the door, and Mademoiselle Felicie's voice. She could not at this instant endure to hear her heartless exclamatory speeches; she would not admit her. Mademoiselle Felicie gave Rose a note for her young lady—it was from Cecilia.

"Dearest Helen,—The general will not allow me to take leave of you this morning, but I shall certainly go to you in the course of to-day. I cannot understand or make you understand any thing till I see you. I will see you to-day. Your affectionate CECILIA."

"I understand it too well!" thought Helen.

The carriage was announced, Helen was ready; she hurried into it, and she was gone! And thus she parted from the friend of her childhood—the friend she had but a few months before met with such joy, such true affection; and her own affection was true to the last.

As Helen drove from the door, she saw the general—yes, it certainly was the general riding off—at this unusual hour!—Was it to avoid her? But she was in too great anguish to dwell upon that or any other circumstance; her only thought now was to subdue her emotion before she was seen by Miss Clarendon and Mrs. Pennant. And by the time she arrived, she thought she had quite recovered herself, and was not aware that any traces of tears remained; but to Mrs. Pennant's sympathising eyes they were visible, and after the first introductions and salutations were over, that kind lady, as she seated her at the breakfast-table, gently pressing her hand, said, "Poor thing! no wonder—parting with old friends for new is a sad trial: but you know we shall become old friends in time: we will make what haste we can, my dear Miss Stanley, and Esther will help me to make you forget that you have not known us all your life."

"There is very little to be known; no mysteries, that is one comfort," said Miss Clarendon; "so now to breakfast. You are very punctual, Miss Stanley; and that is a virtue which aunt Pennant likes, and can estimate to a fraction of a minute with that excellent watch of hers."

There was some history belonging to that family-watch, which then came out; and then the conversation turned upon little family anecdotes and subjects which were naturally interesting to the aunt and niece, and not exciting to Helen, whose mind, they saw, needed quiet, and freedom from all observation.

From the first awkwardness of her situation, from the sense of intrusion, and the suddenness of change, she was thus as far as possible gradually and almost imperceptibly relieved. By their perfect good-breeding, as well as good-nature, from their making no effort to show her particular attention, she felt received at once into their family as one of themselves; and yet, though there was no effort, she perceived in the most minute circumstances the same sort of consideration which would be shown to an intimate friend. They not only did not expect, but did not wish, that she should make any exertion to appear to be what she could not be; they knew the loneliness of heart she must feel, the weight that must be upon her spirits. They left her, then, quite at liberty to be with them or alone, as she might like, and she was glad to be alone with her own thoughts; they soon fixed upon Beauclerc. She considered how he would feel, what he would think, when he should receive her letter: she pictured his looks while reading it; considered whether he would write immediately, or attempt, notwithstanding her prohibition, to see her. He would know from General Clarendon, that is, if the general thought proper to tell him, where she was, and that she would remain all this day in town. Though her determination was fixed, whether he wrote or came, to abide by her refusal, and for the unanswerable reasons which she had given, or which she had laid down to herself; yet she could not, and who, loving as she did, could help wishing that Beauclerc should desire to see her again; she hoped that he would make every effort to change her resolution, even though it might cost them both pain. Yet in some pain there is pleasure; or, to be without it, is a worse kind of suffering. Helen was conscious of the inconsistency in her mind, and sighed, and endeavoured to be reasonable. And, to do her justice, there was not the slightest wavering as to the main point. She thought that the general might, perhaps, have some relenting towards her. Hope would come into her mind, though she tried to keep it out; she had nothing to expect, she repeatedly said to herself, except that either Cecilia would send, or the general would call this morning, and Rose must come at all events.

The morning passed on, however, and no one came so soon as Helen had expected. She was sitting in a back room where no knocks at the door could be heard; but she would have been called, surely, if General Clarendon had come. He had come, but he had not asked for her; he had at first inquired only for his sister, but she was not at home, gone to the dentist's. The general then desired to see Mrs. Pennant, and when she supposed that she had not heard rightly, and that Miss Stanley must be the person he wished to see, he had answered, "By no means; I particularly wish not to see Miss Stanley. I beg to see Mrs. Pennant alone."

It fell to the lot of this gentle-hearted lady to communicate to Helen the dreadful intelligence he brought: a duel had taken place! When Helen had seen the general riding off, he was on his way to Chalk Farm. Just as the carriage was coming round for Miss Stanley, Mr. Beauclerc's groom had requested in great haste to see the general; he said he was sure something was going wrong about his master; he had heard the words Chalk Farm. The general was off instantly, but before he reached the spot the duel had been fought. A duel between Beauclerc and Mr. Churchill. Beauclerc was safe, but Mr. Churchill was dangerously wounded; the medical people present could not answer for his life. At the time the general saw him he was speechless, but when Beauclerc and his second, Lord Beltravers, had come up to him, he had extended his hand in token of forgiveness to one or the other, but to which he had addressed the only words he had uttered could not be ascertained; the words were, "You are not to blame!—escape!—fly!" Both had fled to the Continent. General Clarendon said that he had no time for explanations, he had not been able to get any intelligible account of the cause of the affair. Lord Beltravers had named Miss Stanley, but Beauclerc had stopped him, and had expressed the greatest anxiety that Miss Stanley's name should not be implicated, should not be mentioned. He took the whole blame upon himself—said he would write—there was no time for more.

Mrs. Pennant listened with the dread of losing a single word: but however brief his expressions, the general's manner of speaking, notwithstanding the intensity of his emotion, was so distinct that every word was audible, except the name of Lord Beltravers, which was not familiar to her. She asked again the name of Mr. Beauclerc's second? "Lord Beltravers," the general repeated with a forcible accent, and loosening his neck-cloth with his finger, he added, "Rascal! as I always told Beauclerc that he was, and so he will find him—too late."

Except this exacerbation, the general was calmly reserved in speech, and Mrs. Pennant felt that she could not ask him a single question beyond what he had communicated. When he rose to go, which he did the moment he had finished what he had to say, she had, however, courage enough to hope that they should soon hear again, when the general should learn something more of Mr. Churchill.

Certainly he would let her know whatever he could learn of Mr. Churchill's state.

Her eyes followed him to the door with anxious eagerness to penetrate farther into what his own opinion of the danger might be. His rigidity of composure made her fear that he had no hope, "otherwise certainly he would have said something."

He opened the door again, and returning, said, "Depend upon it you shall hear how he is, my dear Mrs. Pennant, before you leave town to-morrow."

"We will not go to-morrow," she replied. "We will stay another day at least. Poor Miss Stanley will be so anxious——"

"I advise you not to stay in town another day, my dear madam. You can do no good by it. If Mr. Churchill survive this day, he will linger long I am assured. Take Helen—take Miss Stanley out of town, as soon as may be. Better go to-morrow, as you had determined."

"But it will be so long, my dear general!—one moment—if we go, it will be so long before we can hear any further news of your ward."

"I will write."

"To Miss Stanley—Oh, thank you."

"To my sister," he looked back to say, and repeated distinctly, "To my sister."

"Very well—thank you, at all events."

Mrs. Pennant saw that, in General Clarendon's present disposition towards Miss Stanley, the less she said of him the better, and she confined herself strictly to what she had been commissioned to say, and all she could do was to prevent the added pain of suspense; it was told to Helen in the simplest shortest manner possible:—but the facts were dreadful. Beauclerc was safe!—safe! but under what circumstances?

"And it was for me, I am sure," cried Helen, "I am sure it was for me! I was the cause! I am the cause of that man's death—of Beauclerc's agony."

For some time Helen had not power or thought for any other idea. The promise that they should hear as soon as they could learn any thing more of Mr. Churchill's state was all she could rely upon or recur to.

When her maid Rose arrived from General Clarendon's, she said, that when Lady Cecilia heard of the duel she had been taken very ill, but had since recovered sufficiently to drive out with the general. Miss Clarendon assured Helen there was no danger. "It is too deep a misfortune for Lady Cecilia. Her feelings have not depth enough for it, you will see. You need not be afraid for her, Helen."

The circumstances which led to the duel were not clearly known till long afterwards, but may be now related. The moment Beauclerc had parted from Helen when he turned away at the carriage door after the party at Lady Castlefort's he went in search of one, who, as he hoped, could explain the strange whispers he had heard. The person of whom he went in search was his friend, his friend as he deemed him, Lord Beltravers. Churchill had suggested that if any body knew the bottom of the matter, except that origin of all evil Lady Katrine herself,—it must be Lord Beltravers, with whom Lady Castlefort was, it was said, fortement éprise, and as Horace observed, "the secrets of scandal are common property between lovers, much modern love being cemented by hate."

Without taking in the full force of this observation in its particular application to the hatred which Lord Beltravers might feel to Miss Stanley, as the successful rival of his sister Blanche, Beauclerc hastened to act upon his suggestion. His lordship was not at home: his people thought he had been at Lady Castlefort's; did not know where he might be if not there. At some gambling-house Beauclerc at last found him, and Lord Beltravers was sufficiently vexed in the first place at being there found, for he had pretended to his friend Granville that he no longer played. His embarrassment was increased by the questions which Beauclerc so suddenly put to him; but he had nonchalante impudence enough to brave it through, and he depended with good reason on Beauclerc's prepossession in his favour. He protested he knew nothing about it; and he returned Churchill's charge, by throwing the whole blame upon him; said he knew he was in league with Lady Katrine;—mentioned that one morning, sometime ago, he had dropped in unexpectedly early at Lady Castlefort's, and had been surprised to find the two sisters, contrary to their wont, together—their heads and Horace Churchill's over some manuscript, which was shuffled away as he entered. This was true, all but the shuffling away; and hear it is necessary to form a clear notion, clearer than Lord Beltravers will give, of the different shares of wrong; of wrong knowingly and unknowingly perpetrated by the several scandal-mongers concerned in this affair.

Lord Beltravers could be in no doubt as to his own share, for he it was who had furnished the editor of Colonel D'Aubigny's Memoirs with the famous letters. When Carlos, Lady Davenant's runaway page, escaped from Clarendon Park, having changed his name, he got into the service of Sir Thomas D'Aubigny, who was just at this time arranging his brother's papers. Now it had happened that Carlos had been concealed behind the screen in Lady Davenant's room, the day of her first conversation with Helen about Colonel D'Aubigny, and he had understood enough of it to perceive that there was some mystery about the colonel with either Helen or Lady Cecilia; and chancing one day, soon after he entered Sir Thomas's service, to find his escritoire open, he amused himself with looking over his papers, among which he discovered the packet of Lady Cecilia's letters. Carlos was not perfectly sure of the handwriting; he thought it was Lady Cecilia's; but when he found the miniature of Miss Stanley along with them, he concluded that the letters must be hers. And having special reasons for feeling vengeance against Helen, and certain at all events of doing mischief, he sent them to General Clarendon: not, however, forgetting his old trade, he copied them first. This was just at the time when Lord Beltravers returned from abroad after his sister's divorce. He by some accident found out who Carlos was, and whence he came, and full of his own views for his sister, he cross-examined him as to every thing he knew about Miss Stanley; and partly by bribes, partly by threats of betraying him to Lady Davenant, he contrived to get from him the copied letters. Carlos soon after returned with his master to Portugal, and was never more heard of. Lord Beltravers took these purloined copies of the letters, thus surreptitiously obtained, to the editor, into whose hands Sir Thomas D'Aubigny (who knew nothing of books or book-making) had put his brother's memoirs. This editor, as has been mentioned, had previously consulted Mr. Churchill, and in consequence of his pepper and salt hint, Lord Beltravers himself made those interpolations which he hoped would ruin his sister's rival in the eyes of her lover.

Mr. Churchill, however, except this hint, and except his vanity in furnishing a good title, and his coxcombry of literary patronage, and his general hope that Helen's name being implicated in such a publication would avenge her rejection of himself, had had nothing to do with the business. This Lord Beltravers well knew, and yet when he found that the slander made no impression upon Beauclerc, and that he was only intent upon discovering the slanderer, he, with dexterous treachery, contrived to turn the tables upon Churchill, and to direct all Beauclerc's suspicion towards him! He took his friend home with him, and showed him all the newspaper paragraphs—paragraphs which he himself had written! Yes, this man of romantic friendship, this blazé, this hero oppressed with his own sensibility, could condescend to write anonymous scandal, to league with newsmongers, and to bribe waiting-women to supply him with information, for Mademoiselle Felicie had, through Lady Katrine's maid, told all, and more than all she knew, of what passed at General Clarendon's; and on this foundation did he construct those paragraphs, which he hoped would blast the character of the woman to whom his dearest friend was engaged. And now he contrived to say all that could convince Beauclerc that Mr. Churchill was the author of these very paragraphs. And hot and rash, Beauclerc rushed on to that conclusion. He wrote, a challenge to Churchill, and as soon as it was possible in the morning he sent it by Lord Beltravers. Mr. Churchill named Sir John Luttrell as his friend: Lord Beltravers would enter into no terms of accommodation; the challenge was accepted, Chalk Farm appointed as the place of meeting, and the time fixed for eight o'clock next morning. And thus, partly by his own warmth of temper, and partly by the falsehood of others, was Beauclerc urged on to the action he detested, to be the thing he hated. Duelling and duellists had, from the time he could think, been his abhorrence, and now he was to end his life, or to take the life of a fellow-creature perhaps, in a duel.

There was a dread interval. And it was during the remainder of this day and night that Beauclerc felt most strongly compared with all other earthly ties, his attachment, his passionate love for Helen. At every pause, at every close of other thoughts forced upon him, his mind recurred to Helen—what Helen would feel—what Helen would think—what she would suffer—and in the most and in the least important things his care was for her. He recalled the last look that he had seen at the carriage-door when they parted, recollected that it expressed anxiety, was conscious that he had turned away abruptly—that in the preoccupied state of his mind he had not spoken one word of kindness—and that this might be the last impression of him left on her mind. He knew that her anxiety would increase, when all that day must pass without his return, and it was then he thought of sending her those flowers which would, he knew, reassure her better than any words he could venture to write.

Meanwhile his false friend coldly calculated what were the chances in his sister's favour; and when Churchill fell, and even in the hurry of their immediate departure, Lord Beltravers wrote to Madame de St. Cymon, over whom the present state of her affairs gave him command, to order her to set out immediately, and to take Blanche with her to Paris, without asking the consent of that fool and prude, her aunt Lady Grace.

It was well for poor Helen, even in the dreadful uncertainty in which she left London, that she did not know all these circumstances. It may be doubted, indeed, whether we should be altogether happier in this life if that worst of evils, as it is often called, suspense, were absolutely annihilated, and if human creatures could clearly see their fate, or even know what is most likely to happen.

Maria Edgeworth