Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 6

A Mystery.

For two days, in consequence of violent colds caught during the storm, Lady Honoria Pemberton and Cecilia were confined to their rooms. Cecilia, glad by solitude and reflection to compose her spirits and settle her plan of conduct, would willingly have still prolonged her retirement, but the abatement of her cold affording her no pretence, she was obliged on the third day to make her appearance.

Lady Honoria, though less recovered, as she had been more a sufferer, was impatient of any restraint, and would take no denial to quitting her room at the same time; at dinner, therefore, all the family met at usual.

Mr Delvile, with his accustomed solemnity of civility, made various enquiries and congratulations upon their danger and their security, carefully in both, addressing himself first to Lady Honoria, and then with more stateliness in his kindness, to Cecilia. His lady, who had frequently visited them both, had nothing new to hear.

Delvile did not come in till they were all seated, when, hastily saying he was glad to see both the ladies so well again, he instantly employed himself in carving, with the agitation of a man who feared trusting himself to sit idle.

Little, however, as he said, Cecilia was much struck by the melancholy tone of his voice, and the moment she raised her eyes, she observed that his countenance was equally sad.

“Mortimer,” cried Mr Delvile, “I am sure you are not well: I cannot imagine why you will not have some advice.”

“Were I to send for a physician, Sir,” cried Delvile, with affected chearfulness, “he would find it much more difficult to imagine what advice to give me.”

“Permit me however, Mr Mortimer,” cried Lady Honoria, “to return you my humble thanks for the honour of your assistance in the thunder storm! I am afraid you made yourself ill by attending me!”

“Your ladyship,” returned Delvile, colouring very high, yet pretending to laugh; “made so great a coward of me, that I ran away from shame at my own inferiority of courage.”

“Were you, then, with Lady Honoria during the storm?” cried Mrs Delvile.

“No, Madam!” cried Lady Honoria very quick; “but he was so good as to leave me during the storm.”

“Mortimer,” said Mr Delvile, “is this possible?”

“O Lady Honoria was such a Heroine,” answered Delvile, “that she wholly disdained receiving any assistance; her valour was so much more undaunted than mine, that she ventured to brave the lightning under an oak tree!”

“Now, dear Mrs Delvile,” exclaimed Lady Honoria, “think what a simpleton he would have made of me! he wanted to persuade me that in the open air I should be less exposed to danger than under the shelter of a thick tree!”

“Lady Honoria,” replied Mrs Delvile, with a sarcastic smile, “the next tale of scandal you oblige me to hear, I will insist for your punishment that you shall read one of Mr Newbury’s little books! there are twenty of them that will explain this matter to you, and such reading will at least employ your time as usefully as such tales!”

“Well, ma’am,” said Lady Honoria, “I don’t know whether you are laughing at me or not, but really I concluded Mr Mortimer only chose to amuse himself in a tête-à-tête with Miss Beverley.”

“He was not with Miss Beverley,” cried Mrs Delvile with quickness; “she was alone — I saw her myself the moment she came in.”

“Yes, ma’am — but not then,-he was gone;"— said Cecilia, endeavouring, but not very successfully, to speak with composure.

“I had the honour,” cried Delvile, making, with equal success, the same attempt, “to wait upon Miss Beverley to the little gate; and I was then returning to Lady Honoria when I met her ladyship just coming in.”

“Very extraordinary, Mortimer,” said Mr Delvile, staring, “to attend Lady Honoria the last!”

“Don’t be angry in earnest, Sir,” cried Lady Honoria, gaily, “for I did not mean to turn tell-tale.”

Here the subject was dropt: greatly to the joy both of Delvile and Cecilia, who mutually exerted themselves in talking upon what next was started, in order to prevent its being recurred to again.

That fear, however, over, Delvile said little more; sadness hung heavily on his mind; he was absent, disturbed, uneasy; yet he endeavoured no longer to avoid Cecilia; on the contrary, when she arose to quit the room, he looked evidently disappointed.

The ladies’ colds kept them at home all the evening, and Delvile, for the first time since their arrival at the castle, joined them at tea: nor when it was over, did he as usual retire; he loitered, pretended to be caught by a new pamphlet, and looked as anxiously eager to speak with Cecilia, as he had hitherto appeared to shun her.

With new emotion and fresh distress Cecilia perceived this change; what he might have to say she could not conjecture, but all that foreran his communication convinced her it was nothing she could wish; and much as she had desired some explanation of his designs, when the long-expected moment seemed arriving, prognostications the most cruel of the event, repressed her impatience, and deadened her curiosity. She earnestly lamented her unfortunate residence in his house, where the adoration of every inhabitant, from his father to the lowest servant, had impressed her with the strongest belief of his general worthiness, and greatly, though imperceptibly, encreased her regard for him, since she had now not a doubt remaining but that some cruel, some fatal obstacle, prohibited their union.

To collect fortitude to hear it with composure, was now her whole study; but though, when alone, she thought any discovery preferable to suspence, all her courage failed her when Delvile appeared, and if she could not detain Lady Honoria, she involuntarily followed her.

Thus passed four or five days; during which the health of Delvile seemed to suffer with his mind, and though be refused to acknowledge he was ill, it was evident to every body that he was far from well.

Mr Delvile frequently urged him to consent to have some advice; but he always revived, though with forced and transitory spirits, at the mention of a physician, and the proposal ended in nothing.

Mrs Delvile, too, at length grew alarmed; her enquiries were more penetrating and pointed, but they were not more successful; every attack of this sort was followed by immediate gaiety, which, however constrained, served, for the time, to change the subject. Mrs Delvile, however, was not soon to be deceived; she watched her son incessantly, and seemed to feel an inquietude scarce less than his own.

Cecilia’s distress was now augmented every moment, and the difficulty to conceal it grew every hour more painful; she felt herself the cause of the dejection of the son, and that thought made her feel guilty in the presence of the mother; the explanation she expected threatened her with new misery, and the courage to endure it she tried in vain to acquire; her heart was most cruelly oppressed, apprehension and suspence never left it for an instant; rest abandoned her at night, and chearfulness by day.

At this time the two lords, Ernolf and Derford, arrived; and Cecilia, who at first had lamented their design, now rejoiced in their presence, since they divided the attention of Mrs Delvile, which she began to fear was not wholly directed to her son, and since they saved her from having the whole force of Lady Honoria’s high spirits and gay rattle to herself.

Their immediate observations upon the ill looks of Delvile, startled both Cecilia and the mother even more than their own fears, which they had hoped were rather the result of apprehension than of reason. Cecilia now severely reproached herself with having deferred the conference he was evidently seeking, not doubting but she had contributed to his indisposition by denying him the relief he might expect from concluding the affair.

Melancholy as was this idea, it was yet a motive to overpower her reluctance, and determine her no longer to shun what it seemed necessary to endure.

Deep reasoners, however, when they are also nice casuists, frequently resolve with a tardiness which renders their resolutions of no effect: this was the case with Cecilia; the same morning that she came down stairs prepared to meet with firmness the blow which she believed awaited her, Delvile, who, since the arrival of the two lords, had always appeared at the general breakfast, acknowledged in answer to his mother’s earnest enquiries, that he had a cold and head-ache: and had he, at the same time, acknowledged a pleurisy and fever, the alarm instantly spread in the family could not have been greater; Mr Delvile, furiously ringing the bell, ordered a man and horse to go that moment to Dr Lyster, the physician to the family, and not to return without him if he was himself alive; and Mrs Delvile, not less distressed, though more quiet, fixed her eyes upon her son, with an expression of anxiety that shewed her whole happiness was bound in his recovery.

Delvile endeavoured to laugh away their fears, assuring them he should be well the next day, and representing in ridiculous terms the perplexity of Dr Lyster to contrive some prescription for him.

Cecilia’s behaviour, guided by prudence and modesty, was steady and composed; she believed his illness and his uneasiness were the same, and she hoped the resolution she had taken would bring relief to them both while the terrors of Mr and Mrs Delvile seemed so greatly beyond the occasion, that her own were rather lessened than increased by them.

Dr Lyster soon arrived; he was a humane and excellent physician, and a man of sound judgment.

Delvile, gaily, shaking hands with him, said “I believe, Dr Lyster, you little expected to meet a patient, who, were he as skilful, would be as able to do business as yourself.”

“What, with such a hand as this?” cried the Doctor; “come, come, you must not teach me my own profession. When I attend a patient, I come to tell how he is myself, not to be told.”

“He is, then ill!” cried Mrs Delvile; “oh Mortimer, why have you thus deceived us!”

“What is his disorder?” cried Mr Delvile; “let us call in more help; who shall we send for, doctor?”

And again he rang the bell.

“What now?” said Dr Lyster, coolly; “must a man be dying if he is not in perfect health? we want nobody else; I hope I can prescribe: for a cold without demanding a consultation?”

“But are you sure it is merely a cold?” cried Mr Delvile; “may not some dreadful malady”—

“Pray, Sir, have patience,” interrupted the doctor; “Mr Mortimer and I will have some discourse together presently; mean time, let us all sit down, and behave like Christians: I never talk of my art before company. ’Tis hard you won’t let me be a gentleman at large for two minutes!”

Lady Honoria and Cecilia would then have risen, but neither Dr Lyster nor Delvile would permit them to go; and a conversation tolerably lively took place, after which, the party in general separating, the doctor accompanied Delvile to his own apartment.

Cecilia then went up stairs, where she most impatiently waited some intelligence: none, however, arriving, in about half an hour she returned to the parlour; she found it empty, but was soon joined by Lady Honoria and Lord Ernolf.

Lady Honoria, happy in having something going forward, and not much concerning herself whether it were good or evil, was as eager to communicate what she had gathered, as Cecilia was to hear it.

“Well, my dear,” she cried, “so I don’t find at last but that all this prodigious illness will be laid to your account.”

“To my account?” cried Cecilia, “how is that possible?”

“Why this tender chicken caught cold in the storm last week, and not being put to bed by its mama, and nursed with white-wine whey, the poor thing has got a fever.”

“He is a fine young man,” said Lord Ernolf; “I should be sorry any harm happened to him.”

“He was a fine young man, my lord,” cried Lady Honoria, “but he is grown intolerably stupid lately; however, it’s all the fault of his father and mother. Was ever any thing half so ridiculous as their behaviour this morning? it was with the utmost difficulty I forbore laughing in their faces: and really, I believe if I was to meet with such an unfortunate accident with Mr Delvile, it would turn him to marble at once! indeed he is little better now, but such an affront as that would never let him move from the spot where he received it.”

“I forgive him, however,” returned Lord Ernolf, “for his anxiety about his son, since he is the last of so ancient a family.”

“That is his great misfortune, my lord,” answered Lady Honoria, “because it is the very reason they make such a puppet of him. If there were but a few more little masters to dandle and fondle, I’ll answer for it this precious Mortimer would soon be left to himself: and then, really, I believe he would be a good tolerable sort of young man. Don’t you think he would, Miss Beverley?”

“O yes!” said Cecilia, “I believe — I think so!”

“Nay, nay, I did not ask if you thought him tolerable now, so no need to be frightened.”

Here they were interrupted by the entrance of Dr Lyster.

“Well, Sir,” cried Lady Honoria, “and when am I to go into mourning for my cousin Mortimer?”

“Why very soon,” answered he, “unless you take better care of him. He has confessed to me that after being out in the storm last Wednesday, he sat in his wet cloaths all the evening.”

“Dear,” cried Lady Honoria, “and what would that do to him? I have no notion of a man’s always wanting a cambric handkerchief about his throat.”

“Perhaps your ladyship had rather make him apply it to his eyes?” cried the doctor: “however, sitting inactive in wet cloaths would destroy a stouter man than Mr Delvile; but he forgot it, he says! which of you two young ladies could not have given as good reason?”

“Your most obedient,” said Lady Honoria and why should not a lady give as good a reason as a gentleman?”

“I don’t know,” answered he, drily, “but from want of practice, I believe.”

“O worse and worse!” cried Lady Honoria; you shall never be my physician; if I was to be attended by you, you’d make me sick instead of well.”

“All the better,” answered he, “for then I must have the honour of attending you till I made you well instead of sick.” And with a good-humoured smile, he left them; and Lord Derford, at the same time, coming into the room, Cecilia contrived to stroll out into the park.

The account to which she had been listening redoubled her uneasiness; she was conscious that whatever was the indisposition of Delvile, and whether it was mental or bodily, she was herself its occasion: through her he had been negligent, she had rendered him forgetful, and in consulting her own fears in preference to his peace, she had avoided an explanation, though he had vigilantly sought one. She knew not, he told her, half the wretchedness of his heart. — Alas! thought she, he little conjectures the state of mine!

Lady Honoria suffered her not to be long alone; in about half an hour she ran after her, gaily calling out, “O Miss Beverley, you have lost the delightfullest diversion in the world! I have just had the most ridiculous scene with my Lord Derford that you ever heard in your life! I asked him what put it in his head to be in love with you — and he had the simplicity to answer, quite seriously, his father!”

“He was very right,” said Cecilia, “if the desire of uniting two estates is to be denominated being in love; for that, most certainly, was put into his head by his father.”

“O but you have not heard half. I told him, then, that, as a friend, in confidence I must acquaint him, I believed you intended to marry Mortimer —”

“Good heaven, Lady Honoria!”

“O, you shall hear the reason; because, as I assured him, it was proper he should immediately call him to account.”

“Are you mad, Lady Honoria?”

“For you know, said I, Miss Beverley has had one duel fought for her already, and a lady who has once had that compliment paid her, always expects it from every new admirer; and I really believe your not observing that form is the true cause of her coldness to you.”

“Is it possible you can have talked so wildly?”

“Yes, and what is much better, he believed every word I said!”

“Much better? — No, indeed, it is much worse! and if, in fact, he is so uncommonly weak, I shall really be but little indebted to your ladyship for giving him such notions.”

“O I would not but have done it for the world! for I never laughed so immoderately in my life. He began assuring me he was not afraid, for he said he had practised fencing more than any thing: so I made him promise to send a challenge to Mortimer as soon as he is well enough to come down again: for Dr Lyster has ordered him to keep his room.”

Cecilia, smothering her concern for this last piece of intelligence by pretending to feel it merely for the former, expostulated with Lady Honoria upon so mischievous a frolic, and earnestly entreated her to go back and contradict it all.

“No, no, not for the world!” cried she; “he has not the least spirit, and I dare say he would not fight to save the whole nation from destruction; but I’ll make him believe that it’s necessary, in order to give him something to think of, for really his poor head is so vacant, that I am sure if one might but play upon it with sticks, it would sound just like a drum.”

Cecilia, finding it vain to combat with her fantasies, was at length obliged to submit.

The rest of the day she passed very unpleasantly; Delvile appeared not; his father was restless and disturbed, and his mother, though attentive to her guests, and, for their sakes rallying her spirits, was visibly ill disposed to think or to talk but of her son.

One diversion, however, Cecilia found for herself; Delvile had a favourite spaniel, which, when he walked followed him, and when he rode, ran by his horse; this dog, who was not admitted into the house, she now took under her own care; and spent almost the whole day out of doors, chiefly for the satisfaction of making him her companion.

The next morning, when Dr Lyster came again, she kept in the way, in order to hear his opinion; and was sitting with Lady Honoria in the parlour, when he entered it to write a prescription.

Mrs Delvile, in a few moments, followed him, and with a face and voice of the tenderest maternal apprehensions, said “Doctor, one thing entrust me with immediately; I can neither bear imposition nor suspense; — you know what I would say! — tell me if I have any thing to fear, that my preparations may be adequate!”

“Nothing, I believe, in the world.”

“You believe!” repeated Mrs Delvile, starting; “Oh doctor!”

“Why you would not have me say I am certain, would you? these are no times for Popery and infallibility; however, I assure you I think him perfectly safe. He has done a foolish and idle trick, but no man is wise always. We must get rid of his fever, and then if his cold remains, with any cough, he may make a little excursion to Bristol.”

“To Bristol! nay then — I understand you too well!”

“No, no, you don’t understand me at all; I don’t send him to Bristol because he is in a bad way, but merely because I mean to put him in a good one.”

“Let him, then, go immediately; why should he increase the danger by waiting a moment? I will order —”

“Hold, hold! I know what to order myself! ’Tis a strange thing people will always teach me my own duty! why should I make a man travel such weather as this in a fever? do you think I want to confine him in a mad-house, or be confined in one myself?”

“Certainly you know best — but still if there is any danger —”

“No, no, there is not! only we don’t chuse there should be any. And how will he entertain himself better than by going to Bristol? I send him merely on a jaunt of pleasure; and I am sure he will be safer there than shut up in a house with two such young ladies as these.”

And then he made off. Mrs Delvile, too anxious for conversation, left the room, and Cecilia, too conscious for silence, forced herself into discourse with Lady Honoria.

Three days she passed in this uncertainty what she had to expect; blaming those fears which had deferred an explanation, and tormented by Lady Honoria, whose raillery and levity now grew very unseasonable. Fidel, the favourite spaniel, was almost her only consolation, and she pleased herself not inconsiderably by making a friend of the faithful animal.

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