Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 5

A Sarcasm.

The reproach which Cecilia had received from young Delvile in the name of his mother, determined her upon making this visit; for though, in her present uncertainty, she wished only to see that family when sought by themselves, she was yet desirous to avoid all appearance of singularity, lest any suspicions should be raised of her sentiments.

Mrs Delvile received her with a cold civility that chilled and afflicted her: she found her seriously offended by her long absence, and now for the first time perceived that haughtiness of character which hitherto she had thought only given to her by the calumny of envy; for though her displeasure was undisguised, she deigned not to make any reproaches, evidently shewing that her disappointment in the loss of her society, was embittered by a proud regret for the kindness she believed she had thrown away. But though she scrupulously forbore the smallest complaint, she failed not from time to time to cast out reflections upon fickleness and caprice the most satirical and pointed.

Cecilia, who could not possibly avow the motives of her behaviour, ventured not to offer any apology for her apparent negligence; but, hitherto accustomed to the most distinguished kindness, a change to so much bitterness shocked and overpowered her, and she sat almost wholly silent, and hardly able to look up.

Lady Honoria Pemberton, a daughter of the Duke of Derwent, now came into the room, and afforded her some relief by the sprightliness of her conversation. This young lady, who was a relation of the Delviles, and of a character the most airy and unthinking, ran on during her whole visit in a vein of fashionable scandal, with a levity that the censures of Mrs Delvile, though by no means spared, had no power to [controul]: and, after having completely ransacked the topics of the day, she turned suddenly to Cecilia, with whom during her residence in St James’s-square she had made some acquaintance, and said, “So I hear, Miss Beverley, that after half the town has given you to Sir Robert Floyer, and the other half to my Lord Derford, you intend, without regarding one side or the other, to disappoint them both, and give yourself to Mr Marriot.”

“Me? no, indeed,” answered Cecilia, “your ladyship has been much misinformed.”

“I hope so,” said Mrs Delvile, “for Mr Marriot, by all I ever heard of him, seems to have but one recommendation, and that the last Miss Beverley ought to value, a good estate.”

Cecilia, secretly delighted by a speech which she could not resist flattering herself had reference to her son, now a little revived, and endeavoured to bear some part in the conversation.

“Everybody one meets,” cried Lady Honoria, “disposes of Miss Beverley to some new person; yet the common opinion is that Sir Robert Floyer will be the man. But upon my word, for my own part, I cannot conjecture how she will manage among them, for Mr Marriot declares he’s determined he won’t be refused, and Sir Robert vows that he’ll never give her up. So we none of us know how it will end; but I am vastly glad she keeps them so long in suspence.”

“If there is any suspence,” said Cecilia, “I am at least sure it must be wilful. But why should your ladyship rejoice in it?”

“O, because it helps to torment them, and keeps something going forward. Besides, we are all looking in the news-papers every day, to see when they’ll fight another duel for you.”

“Another?” cried Cecilia; “indeed they have never yet fought any for me.”

“O, I beg your pardon,” answered her ladyship, “Sir Robert, you know, fought one for you in the beginning of the winter, with that Irish fortune-hunter who affronted you at the Opera.”

“Irish fortune-hunter?” repeated Cecilia, “how strangely has that quarrel been misrepresented! In the first place, I never was affronted at the Opera at all, and in the second, if your Ladyship means Mr Belfield, I question if he ever was in Ireland in his life.”

“Well,” cried Lady Honoria, “he might come from Scotland, for aught I know, but somewhere he certainly came from; and they tell me he is wounded terribly, and Sir Robert has had all his things packed up this month, that in case he should die, he may go abroad in a moment.”

“And pray where, Lady Honoria,” cried Mrs Delvile, “do you contrive to pick up all this rattle?”

“O, I don’t know; everybody tells me something, so I put it all together as well as I can. But I could acquaint you with a stranger piece of news than any you have heard yet.”

“And what is that?”

“O, if I let you know it, you’ll tell your son.”

“No indeed,” said Mrs Delvile laughing, “I shall probably forget it myself.”

She then made some further difficulty, and Cecilia, uncertain if she was meant to be a party in the communication, strolled to a window; where, however, as Lady Honoria did not lower her voice, she heard her say “Why you must know I am told he keeps a mistress somewhere in Oxford–Road. They say she’s mighty pretty; I should like vastly to see her.”

The consternation of Cecilia at this intelligence would certainly have betrayed all she so much wished to conceal, had not her fortunate removal to the window guarded her from observation. She kept her post, fearing to look round, but was much pleased when Mrs Delvile, with great indignation answered “I am sorry, Lady Honoria, you can find any amusement in listening to such idle scandal, which those who tell will never respect you for hearing. In times less daring in slander, the character of Mortimer would have proved to him a shield from all injurious aspersions; yet who shall wonder he could not escape, and who shall contemn the inventors of calumny, if Lady Honoria Pemberton condescends to be entertained with it?”

“Dear Mrs Delvile,” cried Lady Honoria, giddily, “you take me too seriously.”

“And dear Lady Honoria,” said Mrs Delvile, “I would it were possible to make you take yourself seriously; for could you once see with clearness and precision how much you lower your own dignity, while you stoop to depreciate that of others, the very subjects that now make your diversion, would then, far more properly, move your resentment.”

“Ay but, dear madam,” cried Lady Honoria, “if that were the case, I should be quite perfect, and then you and I should never quarrel, and I don’t know what we should do for conversation.”

And with these words, hastily shaking hands with her, she took leave.

“Such conversation,” said Mrs Delvile when she was gone, “as results from the mixture of fruitless admonition with incorrigible levity, would be indeed more honoured in the breach than the observance. But levity is so much the fashionable characteristic of the present age, that a gay young girl who, like Lady Honoria Pemberton, rules the friends by whom she ought to be ruled, had little chance of escaping it.”

“She seems so open, however, to reproof,” said Cecilia, “that I should hope in a short time she may also be open to conviction.”

“No,” answered Mrs Delvile, “I have no hope of her at all. I once took much pains with her; but I soon found that the easiness with which she hears of her faults, is only another effect of the levity with which she commits them. But if the young are never tired of erring in conduct, neither are the older in erring in judgment; the fallibility of mine I have indeed very lately experienced.”

Cecilia, who strongly felt the poignancy of this sarcasm, and whose constant and unaffected value of Mrs Delvile by no means deserved it, was again silenced, and again most cruelly depressed: nor could she secretly forbear repining that at the very moment she found herself threatened with a necessity of foregoing the society of her new favourite, Miss Belfield, the woman in the whole world whom she most wished to have for her friend, from an unhappy mistake was ready to relinquish her. Grieved to be thus fallen in her esteem, and shocked that she could offer no justification, after a short and thoughtful pause, she gravely arose to take leave.

Mrs Delvile then told her that if she had any business to transact with Mr Delvile, she advised her to acquaint him with it soon, as the whole family left town in a few days.

This was a new and severe blow to Cecilia, who sorrowfully repeated “In a few days, madam?”

“Yes,” answered Mrs Delvile, “I hope you intend to be much concerned?”

“Ah madam!” cried Cecilia, who could no longer preserve her quietness, “if you knew but half the respect I bear you, but half the sincerity with which I value and revere you, all protestations would be useless, for all accusations would be over!”

Mrs Delvile, at once surprised and softened by the warmth of this declaration, instantly took her hand, and said “They shall now, and for ever be over, if it pains you to hear them. I concluded that what I said would be a matter of indifference to you, or all my displeasure would immediately have been satisfied, when once I had intimated that your absence had excited it.”

“That I have excited it at all,” answered Cecilia, “gives me indeed the severest uneasiness; but believe me, madam, however unfortunately appearances maybe against me, I have always had the highest sense of the kindness with which you have honoured me, and never has there been the smallest abatement in the veneration, gratitude, and affection I have inviolably borne you.”

“You see, then,” said Mrs Delvile with a smile, that where reproof takes any effect, it is not received: with that easiness you were just now admiring: on the contrary, where a concession is made without pain, it is also made without meaning, for it is not in human nature to project any amendment without a secret repugnance. That here, however, you should differ from Lady Honoria Pemberton, who can wonder, when you are superior to all comparison with her in every thing?”

“Will you then,” said Cecilia, “accept my apology, and forgive me?”

“I will do more,” said Mrs Delvile laughing, “I will forgive you without an apology; for the truth is I have heard none! But come,” continued she, perceiving Cecilia much abashed by this comment, “I will enquire no more about the matter; I am glad to receive my young friend again, and even half ashamed, deserving as she is, to say how glad!”

She then embraced her affectionately, and owned she had been more mortified by her fancied desertion than she had been willing to own even to herself, repeatedly assuring her that for many years she had not made any acquaintance she so much wished to cultivate, nor enjoyed any society from which she had derived so much pleasure.

Cecilia, whose eyes glistened with modest joy, while her heart beat quick with revived expectation, in listening to an effusion of praise so infinitely grateful to her, found little difficulty in returning her friendly professions, and, in a few minutes, was not merely reconciled, but more firmly united with her than ever.

Mrs Delvile insisted upon keeping her to dinner, and Cecilia, but too happy in her earnestness, readily agreed to send Mrs Harrel an excuse.

Neither of the Mr Delviles spent the day at home, and nothing, therefore, disturbed or interrupted those glowing and delightful sensations which spring from a cordial renewal of friendship and kindness. The report, indeed, of Lady Honoria Pemberton gave her some uneasiness, yet the flighty character of that lady, and Mrs Delvile’s reply to it, soon made her drive it from her mind.

She returned home early in the evening, as other company was expected, and she had not changed her dress since the morning; but she first made a promise to see Mrs Delvile some part of every day during the short time that she meant to remain in town.

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