Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 7

A Reproof.

The attention of Cecilia to her own affairs, did not make her forgetful of those of the Harrels: and the morning after the busy day which was last recorded, as soon as she quitted the breakfast-room, she began a note to Mr Monckton, but was interrupted with information that he was already in the house.

She went to him immediately, and had the satisfaction of finding him alone: but desirous as she was to relate to him the transactions of the preceding day, there was in his countenance a gravity so unusual, that her impatience was involuntarily checked, and she waited first to hear if he had himself any thing to communicate.

He kept her not long in suspence; “Miss Beverley,” he said, “I bring you intelligence which though I know you will be very sorry to hear, it is absolutely necessary should be told you immediately: you may otherwise, from however laudable motives, be drawn into some action which you may repent for life.”

“What now!” cried Cecilia, much alarmed.

“All that I suspected,” said he, “and more than I hinted to you, is true; Mr Harrel is a ruined man! he is not worth a groat, and he is in debt beyond what he ever possessed.”

Cecilia made no answer: she knew but too fatally the desperate state of his affairs, yet that his debts were more than he had ever possessed, she had not thought possible.

“My enquiries,” continued he, “have been among principals, and such as would not dare deceive me. I hastened, therefore, to you, that this timely notice might enforce the injunctions I gave you when I had the pleasure of seeing you last, and prevent a misjudging generosity from leading you into any injury of your own fortune, for a man who is past all relief from it, and who cannot be saved, even though you were to be destroyed for his sake.”

“You are very good,” said Cecilia, “but your counsel is now too late!” She then briefly acquainted him with what passed, and with how large a sum she had parted.

He heard her with rage, amazement, and horror: and after inveighing against Mr Harrel in the bitterest terms, he said, “But why, before you signed your name to so base an imposition, could you not send for me?”

“I wished, I meant to have done it,” cried she, “but I thought the time past when you could help me: how, indeed, could you have saved me? my word was given, given with an oath the most solemn, and the first I have ever taken in my life.”

“An oath so forced,” answered he, “the most delicate conscience would have absolved you from performing. You have, indeed, been grossly imposed upon, and pardon me if I add unaccountably to blame. Was it not obvious that relief so circumstanced must be temporary? If his ruin had been any thing less than certain, what tradesmen would have been insolent? You have therefore deprived yourself of the power of doing good to a worthier object, merely to grant a longer date to extravagance and villainy.”

“Yet how,” cried Cecilia, deeply touched by this reproof, “how could I do otherwise! Could I see a man in the agonies of despair, hear him first darkly hint his own destruction, and afterwards behold him almost in the very act of suicide, the instrument of self-murder in his desperate hand — and yet, though he put his life in my power, though he told me I could preserve him, and told me he had no other reliance or resource, could I leave him to his dreadful despondence, refuse my assisting hand to raise him from perdition, and, to save what, after all, I am well able to spare, suffer a fellow-creature, who flung himself upon my mercy, to offer up his last accounts with an action blacker than any which had preceded it? — No, I cannot repent what I have done, though I lament, indeed, that the object was not more deserving.”

“Your representation,” said Mr Monckton, “like every thing else that I ever heard you utter, breathes nothing but benevolence and goodness: but your pity has been abused, and your understanding imposed upon. Mr Harrel had no intention to destroy himself; the whole was an infamous trick, which, had not your generosity been too well known, would never have been played.”

“I cannot think quite so ill of him,” said Cecilia, “nor for the world would I have risked my own future reproaches by trusting to such a suspicion, which, had it proved wrong, and had Mr Harrel, upon my refusal committed the fatal deed, would have made his murder upon my own conscience rest for ever! surely the experiment would have been too hazardous, when the consequence had all my future peace in its power.

“It is impossible not to revere your scruples,” said Mr Monckton, “even while I consider them as causeless; for causeless they undoubtedly were: the man who could act so atrocious a part, who could so scandalously pillage a young lady who was his guest and his ward, take advantage of her temper for the plunder of her fortune, and extort her compliance by the basest and most dishonourable arts, meant only to terrify her into compliance, for he can be nothing less than a downright and thorough scoundrel, capable of every species of mean villainy.”

He then protested he would at least acquaint her other guardians with what had passed, whose business it would be to enquire if there was any chance of redress.

Cecilia, however, had not much trouble in combating this proposal; for though her objections, which were merely those of punctilious honour and delicacy, weighed nothing with a man who regarded them as absurdities, yet his own apprehensions of appearing too officious in her affairs, forced him, after a little deliberation, to give up the design.

“Besides,” said Cecilia, “as I have his bond for what I have parted with, I have, at least, no right to complain, unless, after he receives his rents, he refuses to pay me.”

“His bonds! his rents!” exclaimed Mr Monckton, “what is a man’s bond who is not worth a guinea? and what are his rents, when all he ever owned must be sold before they are due, and when he will not himself receive a penny from the sale, as he has neither land, house, nor possession of any sort that is not mortgaged?”

“Nay, then,” said Cecilia, “if so, it is indeed all, over! I am sorry, I am grieved! — but it is past, and nothing, therefore, remains, but that I try to forget I ever was richer!”

“This is very youthful philosophy,” said Mr Monckton; “but it will not lessen your regret hereafter, when the value of money is better known to you.”

“If I shall dearly buy my experience,” said Cecilia, “let me be the more attentive to making good use of it; and, since my loss seems irremediable to myself, let me at least endeavour to secure its utility to Mr Harrel.”

She then told him her wish to propose to that gentleman some scheme of reformation, while yesterday’s events were yet recent in his mind: but Mr Monckton, who had hardly patience to hear her, exclaimed, “He is a wretch, and deserves the full force of the disgrace he is courting. What is now most necessary is to guard you from his further machinations, for you may else be involved in ruin as deep as his own. He now knows the way to frighten you, and he will not fail to put it in practice.”

“No, Sir,” answered Cecilia, “he would vainly apply to me in future: I cannot repent that I ventured not yesterday to brave his menaces, but too little is the comfort I feel from what I have bestowed, to suffer any consideration to make me part with more.”

“Your resolution,” answered he, “will be as feeble as your generosity will be potent: depend nothing upon yourself, but instantly quit his house. You will else be made responsible for every debt that he contracts; and whatever may be his difficulties hereafter, he will know that to extricate himself from them, he has but to talk of dying, and to shew you a sword or a pistol.”

“If so, then,” said Cecilia, looking down while she spoke, “I suppose I must again go to Mr Delvile’s.”

This was by no means the purpose of Mr Monckton, who saw not more danger to her fortune with one of her guardians, than to her person with the other. He ventured, therefore, to recommend to her a residence with Mr Briggs, well knowing that his house would be a security against her seeing any man equal to himself, and hoping that under his roof he might again be as unrivalled in her opinion and esteem, as he formerly was in the country.

But here the opposition of Cecilia was too earnest for any hope that it might be surmounted; for, added to her dislike of Mr Briggs, her repugnance to such an habitation was strongly, though silently increased, by her secret inclination to return to St James’s-square.

“I mention not Mr Briggs as an eligible host,” said Mr Monckton, after listening to her objections, “but merely as one more proper for you than Mr Delvile, with whom your fixing at present would but be ill thought of in the world.”

“Ill thought of, Sir? Why so?”

“Because he has a son; for whose sake alone it would be universally concluded you changed your abode: and to give any pretence for such a report, would by no means accord with the usual delicacy of your conduct.”

Cecilia was confounded by this speech: the truth of the charge she felt, and the probability of the censure she did not dare dispute.

He then gave her a thousand exhortations to beware of the schemes and artifices of Mr Harrel, which he foresaw would be innumerable. He told her, too, that with respect to Sir Robert Floyer, he thought she had better suffer the report to subside of itself, which in time it must necessarily do, than give to it so much consequence as to send a message to the Baronet, from which he might pretend to infer that hitherto she had been wavering, or she would have sent to him sooner.

But the real motive of this advice was, that as he found Sir Robert by no means to be dreaded, he hoped the report, if generally circulated and credited, might keep off other pretenders, and intimidate or deceive young Delvile.

The purport for which Cecilia had wished this conference was, however, wholly unanswered; Mr Monckton, enraged by the conduct of Mr Harrel, refused to talk of his affairs, and could only mention him with detestation: but Cecilia, less severe in her judgment, and more tender in her heart, would not yet give up the hope of an amendment she so anxiously wished; and having now no other person to whom she could apply, determined to consult with Mr Arnott, whose affection for his sister would give him a zeal in the affair that might somewhat supply the place of superior abilities. There was, indeed, no time to be lost in making the projected attempt, for no sooner was the immediate danger of suffering removed, than the alarm wore away, and the penitence was forgotten; every thing went on as usual, no new regulations were made, no expences abated, no pleasures forborn, not a thought of hereafter admitted: and ruinous and terrible as had been the preceding storm, no trace of it was visible in the serenity of the present calm.

An occasion of discussion with Mr Arnott very speedily offered. Mr Harrel said he had observed in the looks of his friends at the Pantheon much surprise at the sight of him, and declared he should take yet another measure for removing all suspicion. This was to give a splendid entertainment at his own house to all his acquaintance, to which he meant to invite every body of any consequence he had ever seen, and almost every body he had ever heard of, in his life.

Levity so unfeeling, and a spirit of extravagance so irreclaimable, were hopeless prognostics; yet Cecilia would not desist from her design. She therefore took the earliest opportunity of speaking with Mr Arnott upon the subject, when she openly expressed her uneasiness at the state of his brother’s affairs, and warmly acknowledged her displeasure at his dissipated way of life.

Mr Arnott soon shewed that example was all he wanted to declare the same sentiments. He owned he had long disapproved the conduct of Mr Harrel, and trembled at the situation of his sister. They then considered what it was possible to propose that might retrieve their affairs, and concluded that entirely to quit London for some years, was the only chance that remained of saving them from absolute destruction.

Mr Arnott, therefore, though fearfully, and averse to the talk, told his sister their mutual advice. She thanked him, said she was much obliged to him, and would certainly consider his proposal, and mention it to Mr Harrel. — Parties of pleasure, however, intervened, and the promise was neglected.

Cecilia then again spoke herself. Mrs Harrel, much softened by her late acts of kindness, was no longer offended by her interference, but contented herself with confessing that she quite hated the country, and could only bear to live in it in summer time. And when Cecilia very earnestly expostulated on the weakness of such an objection to a step absolutely necessary for her future safety and happiness, she said, she could do no worse than that if already ruined, and therefore that she thought it would be very hard to expect from her such a sacrifice before-hand.

It was in vain Cecilia remonstrated: Mrs Harrel’s love of pleasure was stronger than her understanding, and therefore, though she listened to her with patience, she concluded with the same answer she had begun.

Cecilia then, though almost heartless, resolved upon talking with Mr Harrel himself: and therefore, taking an opportunity which he had not time to elude, she ingenuously told him her opinion of his danger, and of the manner in which it might be avoided.

He paid unusual attention to her advice, but said she was much mistaken with respect to his affairs, which he believed he should now very speedily retrieve, as he had had the preceding night an uncommon run of luck, and flattered himself with being able very shortly to pay all his debts, and begin the world again upon a new score.

This open confession of gaming was but a new shock to Cecilia, who scrupled not to represent to him the uncertainty of so hazardous a reliance, and the inevitable evils of so destructive a practice.

She made not, however, the least impression upon his mind; he assured her he doubted not giving her shortly a good account of himself, and that living in the country was a resource of desperation which need not be anticipated.

Cecilia, though grieved and provoked by their mutual folly and blindness, could proceed no further: advice and admonition she spared not, but authority she had none to use. She regretted her ineffectual attempt to Mr Arnott, who was yet more cruelly afflicted at it; but though they conversed upon the subject by every opportunity, they were equally unable to relate any success from their efforts, or to devise any plan more likely to ensure it.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32