Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 4

A Proposition.

Early the next morning, Delvile again made his appearance. Cecilia, who was at breakfast with Mrs and Miss Charltons, received him with the most painful confusion, and he was evidently himself in a state of the utmost perturbation. Mrs Charlton made a pretence almost immediately for sending away both her grand-daughters, and then, without taking the trouble of devising one for herself, arose and followed them, though Cecilia made sundry signs of solicitation that she would stay.

Finding herself now alone with him, she hastily, and without knowing what she said, cried, “How is Mrs Delvile, Sir? Is she still at Bristol?”

“At Bristol? no; have you never heard she is returned to Delvile Castle?”

“O, true! — I meant Delvile Castle — but I hope she found some benefit from the waters?”

“She had not, I believe, any occasion to try them.”

Cecilia, ashamed of these two following mistakes, coloured high; but ventured not again to speak: and Delvile, who seemed big with something he feared to utter, arose, and walked for a few instants about the room; after which, exclaiming aloud “How vain is every plan which passes the present hour!” He advanced to Cecilia, who pretended to be looking at some work, and seating himself next her, “when we parted yesterday,” he cried, “I presumed to say one night alone should be given to deliberation — and today, this very day to action! — but I forgot that though in deliberating I had only myself to consult, in acting I was not so independent; and that when my own doubts were satisfied, and my own resolutions taken, other doubts and other resolutions must be considered, by which my purposed proceedings might be retarded, might perhaps be wholly prevented!”

He paused, but Cecilia, unable to conjecture to what he was leading, made not any answer.

“Upon you, madam,” he continued, “all that is good or evil of my future life, as far as relates to its happiness or misery, will, from this very hour, almost solely depend: yet much as I rely upon your goodness, and superior as I know you to trifling or affectation, what I now come to propose — to petition — to entreat — I cannot summon courage to mention, from a dread of alarming you!”

What next, thought Cecilia, trembling at this introduction, is preparing for me! does he mean to ask me to solicit Mrs Delvile’s consent! or from myself must he receive commands that we should never meet more!

“Is Miss Beverley,” cried he, “determined not to, speak to me? Is she bent upon silence only to intimidate me? Indeed if she knew how greatly I respect her, she would honour me with more confidence.”

“When, Sir,” cried she, “do you mean to make your tour?”

“Never!” cried he, with fervour, “unless banished by you, never! — no, loveliest Miss Beverley, I can now quit you no more! Fortune, beauty, worth and sweetness I had power to relinquish, and severe as was the task, I compelled myself to perform it — but when to these I find joined so attractive a softness — a pity for my sufferings so unexpectedly gentle no! sweetest Miss Beverley, I can quit you no more!” And then, seizing her hand, with yet greater energy, he went on, “I here,” he cried, “offer you my vows, I here own you sole arbitress of my fate! I give you not merely the possession of my heart — that, indeed, I had no power to withhold from you — but I give you the direction of my conduct, I entreat you to become my counsellor and guide. Will Miss Beverley accept such an office? Will she deign to listen to such a prayer?”

“Yes,” cried Cecilia, involuntarily delighted to find that such was the result of his night’s deliberation, “I am most ready to give you my counsel; which I now do — that you set off for the Continent tomorrow morning.”

“O how malicious!” cried he, half laughing, “yet not so immediately do I even request your counsel; something must first be done to qualify you for giving it: penetration, skill and understanding, however amply you possess them, are not sufficient to fit you for the charge; something still more is requisite, you must be invested with fuller powers, you must have a right less disputable, and a title, that not alone, inclination, not even judgment alone must sanctify, but which law must enforce, and rites the most solemn support!”

“I think, then,” said Cecilia, deeply blushing, “I must be content to forbear giving any counsel at all, if the qualifications for it are so difficult of acquirement.”

“Resent not my presumption,” cried he, “my beloved Miss Beverley, but let the severity of my recent sufferings palliate my present temerity; for where affliction has been deep and serious, causeless and unnecessary misery will find little encouragement; and mine has been serious indeed! Sweetly, then, permit me, in proportion to its bitterness, to rejoice in the soft reverse which now flatters me with its approach.”

Cecilia, abashed and uneasy, uncertain of what was to follow, and unwilling to speak till more assured, paused, and then abruptly exclaimed “I am afraid Mrs Charlton is waiting for me,” and would have hurried away: but Delvile, almost forcibly preventing her, compelled her to stay; and, after a short conversation, on his side the most impassioned, and on hers the most confused, obtained from her, what, indeed, after the surprise of the preceding evening she could but ill deny, a frank confirmation of his power over her heart, and an ingenuous, though reluctant acknowledgment, how long he had possessed it.

This confession, made, as affairs now stood, wholly in opposition to her judgment, was torn from her by an impetuous urgency which she had not presence of mind to resist, and with which Delvile, when particularly animated, had long been accustomed to overpower all opposition. The joy with which he heard it, though but little mixed with wonder, was as violent as the eagerness with which he had sought it; yet it was not of long duration, a sudden, and most painful recollection presently quelled it, and even in the midst of his rapturous acknowledgment, seemed to strike him to the heart.

Cecilia, soon perceiving both in his countenance and manner an alteration that shocked her, bitterly repented an avowal she could never recall, and looked aghast with expectation and dread.

Delvile, who with quickness saw a change of expression in her of which in himself he was unconscious, exclaimed, with much emotion, “O how transient is human felicity! How rapidly fly those rare and exquisite moments in which it is perfect! Ah! sweetest Miss Beverley, what words shall I find to soften what I have now to reveal! to tell you that, after goodness, candour, generosity such as yours, a request, a supplication remains yet to be uttered that banishes me, if refused, from your presence for ever!”

Cecilia, extremely dismayed, desired to know what it was: an evident dread of offending her kept him some time from proceeding, but at length, after repeatedly expressing his fears of her disapprobation, and a repugnance even on his own part to the very measure he was obliged to urge, he acknowledged that all his hopes of being ever united to her, rested upon obtaining her consent to an immediate and secret marriage.

Cecilia, thunderstruck by this declaration, remained for a few instants too much confounded to speak; but when he was beginning an explanatory apology, she started up, and glowing with indignation, said, “I had flattered myself, Sir, that both my character and my conduct, independent of my situation in life, would have exempted me at all times from a proposal which I shall ever think myself degraded by having heard.”

And then she was again going, but Delvile still preventing her, said “I knew too well how much you would be alarmed, and such was my dread of your displeasure that it had power even to embitter the happiness I sought with so much earnestness, and to render your condescension insufficient to ensure it. Yet wonder not at my scheme; wild as it may appear, it is the result of deliberation, and censurable as it may seem, it springs not from unworthy motives.”

“Whatever may be your motives with respect to yourself, Sir,” said Cecilia, “with respect to me they must certainly be disgraceful; I will not, therefore, listen to them.”

“You wrong me cruelly,” cried he, with warmth, “and a moment’s reflection must tell you that however distinct may be our honour or our disgrace in every other instance, in that by which we should be united, they must inevitably be the same: and far sooner would I voluntarily relinquish you, than be myself accessory to tainting that delicacy of which the unsullied purity has been the chief source of my admiration.”

“Why, then,” cried Cecilia, reproachfully, “have you mentioned to me such a project?”

“Circumstances the most singular, and necessity the most unavoidable,” he answered, “should alone have ever tempted me to form it. No longer ago than yesterday morning, I believed myself incapable of even wishing it; but extraordinary situations call for extraordinary resolutions, and in private as well as public life, palliate, at least, extraordinary actions. Alas! the proposal which so much offends you is my final resource! it is the sole barrier between myself and perpetual misery! — the only expedient in my power to save me from eternally parting from you! — for I am compelled now cruelly to confess, that my family, I am certain, will never consent to our union!”

“Neither, then, Sir,” cried Cecilia, with great spirit, “will I! The disdain I may meet with I pretend not to retort, but wilfully to encounter, were meanly to deserve it. I will enter into no family in opposition to its wishes, I will consent to no alliance that may expose me to indignity. Nothing is so contagious as contempt! — The example of your friends might work powerfully upon yourself, and who shall dare assure me you would not catch the infection?”

I dare assure you!” cried he; “hasty you may perhaps think me, and somewhat impetuous I cannot deny myself; but believe me not of so wretched a character as to be capable, in any affair of moment, of fickleness or caprice.”

“But what, Sir, is my security to the contrary? Have you not this moment avowed that but yesterday you held in abhorrence the very plan that today you propose? And may you not tomorrow resume again the same opinion?”

“Cruel Miss Beverley! how unjust is this inference! If yesterday I disapproved what today I recommend, a little recollection must surely tell you why: and that not my opinion, but my situation is changed.”

The conscious Cecilia here turned away her head; too certain he alluded to the discovery of her partiality.

“Have you not yourself,” he continued, “witnessed the steadiness of my mind? Have you not beheld me fly, when I had power to pursue, and avoid, when I had opportunity to seek you? After witnessing my constancy upon such trying occasions, is it equitable, is it right to suspect me of wavering?”

“But what,” cried she, “was the constancy which brought you into Suffolk? — When all occasion was over for our meeting any more, when you told me you were going abroad, and took leave of me for ever — where, then, was your steadiness in this unnecessary journey?”

“Have a care,” cried he, half smiling, and taking a letter from his pocket, “have a care, upon this point, how you provoke me to spew my justification!”

“Ah!” cried Cecilia, blushing, “’tis some trick of Lady Honoria!”

“No, upon my honour. The authority is less doubtful: I believe I should hardly else have regarded it.”

Cecilia, much alarmed, held out her hand for the letter; and looking first at the end was much astonished to see the name of Biddulph. She then cast her eye over the beginning, and when she saw her own name, read the following paragraph.

“Miss Beverley, as you doubtless know, is returned into Suffolk; every body here saw her with the utmost surprize; from the moment I had heard of her residence in Delvile Castle, I had given her up for lost: but, upon her unexpected appearance among us again, I was weak enough once more to make trial of her heart. I soon found, however, that the pain of a second rejection you might have spared me, and that though she had quitted Delvile Castle, she had not for nothing entered it: at the sound of your name, she blushes; at the mention of your illness, she turns pale; and the dog you have given her, which I recollected immediately, is her darling companion. Oh happy Delvile! yet so lovely a conquest you abandon. —”

Cecilia could read no more; the letter dropt from her hand: to find herself thus by her own emotions betrayed, made her instantly conclude she was universally discovered: and turning sick at the supposition, all her spirit forsook her, and she burst into tears.

“Good heaven,” cried Delvile, extremely shocked, “what has thus affected you? Can the jealous surmises of an apprehensive rival —”

“Do not talk to me,” interrupted she, impatiently, “and do not detain me — I am extremely disturbed — I wish to be alone — I beg, I even entreat you would leave me.”

“I will go, I will obey you in every thing!” cried he, eagerly, “tell me but when I may return, and when you will suffer me to explain to you all the motives of my proposal?”

“Never, never!” cried she, with earnestness, “I am sufficiently lowered already, but never will I intrude myself into a family that disdains me!”

“Disdains? No, you are revered in it! who could disdain you! That fatal clause alone —”

“Well, well, pray leave me; indeed I cannot hear you; I am unfit for argument, and all reasoning now is nothing less than cruelty.”

“I am gone,” cried he, “this moment! I would not even wish to take advantage of your agitation in order to work upon your sensibility. My desire is not to surprize, but to reconcile you to my plan. What is it I seek in Miss Beverley? An Heiress? No, as such she has seen I could resist her; nor yet the light trifler of a spring or two, neglected when no longer a novelty; no, no! — it is a companion for ever, it is a solace for every care, it is a bosom friend through every period of life that I seek in Miss Beverley! Her esteem, therefore, to me is as precious as her affection, for how can I hope her friendship in the winter of my days, if their brighter and gayer season is darkened by doubts of my integrity? All shall be clear and explicit; no latent cause of uneasiness shall disturb our future quiet: we will now be sincere, that hereafter we may be easy; and sweetly in unclouded felicity, time shall glide away imperceptibly, and we will make an interest with each other in the gaiety of youth, to bear with the infirmities of age, and alleviate them by kindness and sympathy. And then shall my soothing Cecilia —”

“O say no more!” interrupted she, softened in her own despite by a plan so consonant to her wishes, “what language is this! how improper for you to use, or me to hear!”

She then very earnestly insisted upon his going; and after a thousand times taking leave and returning, promising obedience, yet pursuing his own way, he at length said if she would consent to receive a letter from him, he would endeavour to commit what he had to communicate to paper, since their mutual agitation made him unable to explain himself with clearness, and rather hurt his cause than assisted it, by leaving all his arguments unfinished and obscure.

Another dispute now arose; Cecilia protesting she would receive no letter, and hear nothing upon the subject; and Delvile impetuously declaring he would submit to no award without being first heard. At length he conquered, and at length he departed.

Cecilia then felt her whole heart sink within her at the unhappiness of her situation. She considered herself now condemned to refuse Delvile herself, as the only condition upon which he even solicited her favour, neither the strictness of her principles, nor the delicacy of her mind, would suffer her to accept. Her displeasure at the proposal had been wholly unaffected, and she regarded it as an injury to her character ever to have received it; yet that Delvile’s pride of heart should give way to his passion, that he should love her with so much fondness as to relinquish for her the ambitious schemes of his family, and even that darling name which so lately seemed annexed to his existence, were circumstances to which she was not insensible, and proofs of tenderness and regard which she had thought incompatible with the general spirit of his disposition. Yet however by these she was gratified, she resolved never to comply with so humiliating a measure, but to wait the consent of his friends, or renounce him for ever.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/cecilia/book7.4.html

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