Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 7

A Retrospection.

Left now to herself, sensations unfelt before filled the heart of Cecilia. All that had passed for a while appeared a dream; her ideas were indistinct, her memory was confused, her faculties seemed all out of order, and she had but an imperfect consciousness either of the transaction in which she had just been engaged, or of the promise she had bound herself to fulfil: even truth from imagination she scarcely could separate; all was darkness and doubt, inquietude and disorder!

But when at length her recollection more clearly returned, and her situation appeared to her such as it really was, divested alike of false terrors or delusive expectations, she found herself still further removed from tranquility.

Hitherto, though no stranger to sorrow, which the sickness and early loss of her friends had first taught her to feel, and which the subsequent anxiety of her own heart had since instructed her to bear, she had yet invariably possessed the consolation of self-approving reflections: but the step she was now about to take, all her principles opposed; it terrified her as undutiful, it shocked her as clandestine, and scarce was Delvile out of sight, before she regretted her consent to it as the loss of her self-esteem, and believed, even if a reconciliation took place, the remembrance of a wilful fault would still follow her, blemish in her own eyes the character she had hoped to support, and be a constant allay to her happiness, by telling her how unworthily she had obtained it.

Where frailty has never been voluntary, nor error stubborn, where the pride of early integrity is unsubdued, and the first purity of innocence is inviolate, how fearfully delicate, how “tremblingly alive,” is the conscience of man! strange, that what in its first state is so tender, can in its last become so callous!

Compared with the general lot of human misery, Cecilia had suffered nothing; but compared with the exaltation of ideal happiness, she had suffered much; willingly, however, would she again have borne all that had distressed her, experienced the same painful suspence, endured the same melancholy parting, and gone through the same cruel task of combating inclination with reason, to have relieved her virtuous mind from the new-born and intolerable terror of conscientious reproaches.

The equity of her notions permitted her not from the earnestness of Delvile’s entreaties to draw any palliation for her consent to his proposal; she was conscious that but for her own too great facility those entreaties would have been ineffectual, since she well knew how little from any other of her admirers they would have availed.

But chiefly her affliction and repentance hung upon Mrs Delvile, whom she loved, reverenced and honoured, whom she dreaded to offend, and whom she well knew expected from her even exemplary virtue. Her praises, her partiality, her confidence in her character, which hitherto had been her pride, she now only recollected with shame and with sadness. The terror of the first interview never ceased to be present to her; she shrunk even in imagination from her wrath-darting eye, she felt stung by pointed satire, and subdued by cold contempt.

Yet to disappoint Delvile so late, by forfeiting a promise so positively accorded; to trifle with a man who to her had been uniformly candid, to waver when her word was engaged, and retract when he thought himself secure — honour, justice and shame told her the time was now past.

“And yet is not this,” cried she, “placing nominal before actual evil? Is it not studying appearance at the expence of reality? If agreeing to wrong is criminal, is not performing it worse? If repentance for ill actions calls for mercy, has not repentance for ill intentions a yet higher claim? — And what reproaches from Delvile can be so bitter as my own? What separation, what sorrow, what possible calamity can hang upon my mind with such heaviness, as the sense of committing voluntary evil?”

This thought so much affected her, that, conquering all regret either for Delvile or herself, she resolved to write to him instantly, and acquaint him of the alteration in her sentiments.

This, however, after having so deeply engaged herself, was by no means easy; and many letters were begun, but not one of them was finished, when a sudden recollection obliged her to give over the attempt — for she knew not whither to direct to him.

In the haste with which their plan had been formed and settled, it had never once occurred to them that any, occasion for writing was likely to happen. Delvile, indeed, knew that her address would still be the same; and with regard to his own, as his journey to London was to be secret, he purposed not having any fixed habitation. On the day of their marriage, and not before, they had appointed to meet at the house of Mrs Roberts, in Fetter–Lane, whence they were instantly to proceed to the church.

She might still, indeed, enclose a letter for him in one to Mrs Hill, to be delivered to him on the destined morning when he called to claim her; but to fail him at the last moment, when Mr Belfield would have drawn up the bond, when a licence was procured, the clergyman waiting to perform the ceremony, and Delvile without a suspicion but that the next moment would unite them for ever, seemed extending prudence into treachery, and power into tyranny. Delvile had done nothing to merit such treatment, he had practised no deceit, he had been guilty of no perfidy, he had opened to her his whole heart, and after shewing it without any disguise, the option had been all her own to accept or refuse him.

A ray of joy now broke its way through the gloom of her apprehensions. “Ah!” cried she, “I have not, then, any means to recede! an unprovoked breach of promise at the very moment destined for its performance, would but vary the mode of acting wrong, without approaching nearer to acting right!”

This idea for a while not merely calmed but delighted her; to be the wife of Delvile seemed now a matter of necessity, and she soothed herself with believing that to struggle against it were vain.

The next morning during breakfast Mr Monckton arrived.

Not greater, though winged with joy, had been the expedition of Delvile to open to him his plan, than was his own, though only goaded by desperation, to make some effort with Cecilia for rendering it abortive. Nor could all his self-denial, the command which he held over his passions, nor the rigour with which his feelings were made subservient to his interest, in this sudden hour of trial, avail to preserve his equanimity. The refinements of hypocrisy, and the arts of insinuation, offered advantages too distant, and exacted attentions too subtle, for a moment so alarming; those arts and those attentions he had already for many years practised, with an address the most masterly, and a diligence the most indefatigable: success had of late seemed to follow his toils; the encreasing infirmities of his wife, the disappointment and retirement of Cecilia, uniting to promise him a conclusion equally speedy and happy; when now, by a sudden and unexpected stroke, the sweet solace of his future cares, the long-projected recompence of his past sufferings, was to be snatched from him for ever, and by one who, compared with himself, was but the acquaintance of a day.

Almost wholly off his guard from the surprise and horror of this apprehension, he entered the room with such an air of haste and perturbation, that Mrs Charlton and her grand-daughters demanded what was the matter.

“I am come,” he answered abruptly, yet endeavouring to recollect himself, “to speak with Miss Beverley upon business of some importance.”

“My dear, then,” said Mrs Charlton, “you had better go with Mr Monckton into your dressing-room.”

Cecilia, deeply blushing, arose and led the way: slowly, however, she proceeded, though urged by Mr Monckton to make speed. Certain of his disapprobation, and but doubtfully relieved from her own, she dreaded a conference which on his side, she foresaw, would be all exhortation and reproof, and on hers all timidity and shame.

“Good God,” cried he, “Miss Beverley, what is this you have done? bound yourself to marry a man who despises, who scorns, who refuses to own you!”

Shocked by this opening, she started, but could make no answer.

“See you not,” he continued, “the indignity which is offered you? Does the loose, the flimsy veil with which it is covered, hide it from your understanding, or disguise it from your delicacy?”

“I thought not — I meant not,” said she, more and more confounded, “to submit to any indignity, though my pride, in an exigence so peculiar, may give way, for a while, to convenience.”

“To convenience?” repeated he, “to contempt, to derision, to insolence!”—

“O Mr Monckton!” interrupted Cecilia, “make not use of such expressions! they are too cruel for me to hear, and if I thought they were just, would make me miserable for life!”

“You are deceived, grossly deceived,” replied he, “if you doubt their truth for a moment: they are not, indeed, even decently concealed from you; they are glaring as the day, and wilful blindness can alone obscure them.”

“I am sorry, Sir,” said Cecilia, whose confusion, at a charge so rough, began now to give way to anger, “if this is your opinion; and I am sorry, too, for the liberty I have taken in troubling you upon such a subject.”

An apology so full of displeasure instantly taught Mr Monckton the error he was committing, and checking, therefore, the violence of those emotions to which his sudden and desperate disappointment gave rise, and which betrayed him into reproaches so unskilful, he endeavoured to recover his accustomed equanimity, and assuming an air of friendly openness, said, “Let me not offend you, my dear Miss Beverley, by a freedom which results merely from a solicitude to serve you, and which the length and intimacy of our acquaintance had, I hoped, long since authorised. I know not how to see you on the brink of destruction without speaking, yet, if you are averse to my sincerity, I will curb it, and have done.”

“No, do not have done,” cried she, much softened; “your sincerity does me nothing but honour, and hitherto, I am sure, it has done me nothing but good. Perhaps I deserve your utmost censure; I feared it, indeed, before you came, and ought, therefore, to have better prepared myself for meeting with it.”

This speech completed Mr Monckton’s self-victory; it skewed him not only the impropriety of his turbulence, but gave him room to hope that a mildness more crafty would have better success.

“You cannot but be certain,” he answered, “that my zeal proceeds wholly from a desire to be of use to you: my knowledge of the world might possibly, I thought, assist your inexperience, and the disinterestedness of my regard, might enable me to see and to point out the dangers to which you are exposed, from artifice and duplicity in those who have other purposes to answer than what simply belong to your welfare.”

“Neither artifice nor duplicity,” cried Cecilia, jealous for the honour of Delvile, “have been practised against me. Argument, and not persuasion, determined me, and if I have done wrong — those who prompted me have erred as unwittingly as myself.”

“You are too generous to perceive the difference, or you would find nothing less alike. If, however, my plainness will not offend you, before it is quite too late, I will point out to you a few of the evils — for there are some I cannot even mention, which at this instant do not merely threaten, but await you.”

Cecilia started at this terrifying offer, and afraid to accept, yet ashamed to refuse, hung back irresolute.

“I see,” said Mr Monckton, after a pause of some continuance, “your determination admits no appeal. The consequence must, indeed, be all your own, but I am greatly grieved to find how little you are aware of its seriousness. Hereafter you will wish, perhaps, that the friend of your earliest youth had been permitted to advise you; at present you only think him officious and impertinent, and therefore he can do nothing you will be so likely to approve as quitting you. I wish you, then, greater happiness than seems prepared to follow you, and a counsellor more prosperous in offering his assistance.”

He would then have taken his leave: but Cecilia called out, “Oh, Mr Monckton! do you then give me up?”

“Not unless you wish it.”

“Alas, I know not what to wish! except, indeed, the restoration of that security from self-blame, which till yesterday, even in the midst of disappointment, quieted and consoled me.”

“Are you, then, sensible you have gone wrong, yet resolute not to turn back?” “Could I tell, could I see,” cried she, with energy, “which way I ought to turn, not a moment would I hesitate how to act! my heart should have no power, my happiness no choice — I would recover my own esteem by any sacrifice that could be made!”

“What, then, can possibly be your doubt? To be as you were yesterday what is wanting but your own inclination?”

“Every thing is wanting; right, honour, firmness, all by which the just are bound, and all which the conscientious hold sacred!” “These scruples are merely romantic; your own good sense, had it fairer play, would contemn them; but it is warped at present by prejudice and prepossession.”

“No, indeed!” cried she, colouring at the charge, “I may have entered too precipitately into an engagement I ought to have avoided, but it is weakness of judgment, not of heart, that disables me from retrieving my error.”

“Yet you will neither hear whither it may lead you, nor which way you may escape from it?”

“Yes, Sir,” cried she, trembling, “I am now ready to hear both.”

“Briefly, then, I will tell you. It will lead you into a family of which every individual will disdain you; it will make you inmate of a house of which no other inmate will associate with you; you will be insulted as an inferior, and reproached as an intruder; your birth will be a subject of ridicule, and your whole race only named with derision: and while the elders of the proud castle treat you with open contempt, the man for whom you suffer will not dare to support you.”

“Impossible! impossible!” cried Cecilia, with the most angry emotion; “this whole representation is exaggerated, and the latter part is utterly without foundation.”

“The latter part,” said Mr Monckton, “is of all other least disputable: the man who now dares not own, will then never venture to defend you. On the contrary, to make peace for himself, he will be the first to neglect you. The ruined estates of his ancestors will be repaired by your fortune, while the name which you carry into his family will be constantly resented as an injury: you will thus be plundered though you are scorned, and told to consider yourself honoured that they condescend to make use of you! nor here rests the evil of a forced connection with so much arrogance — even your children, should you have any, will be educated to despise you!”

“Dreadful and horrible!” cried Cecilia; —“I can hear no more — Oh, Mr Monckton, what a prospect have you opened to my view!”

“Fly from it, then, while it is yet in your power — when two paths are before you, chuse not that which leads to destruction; send instantly after Delvile, and tell him you have recovered your senses.”

“I would long since have sent — I wanted not a representation such as this — but I know not how to direct to him, nor whither he is gone.”

“All art and baseness to prevent your recantation!”

“No, Sir, no,” cried she, with quickness; “whatever may be the truth of your painting in general, all that concerns —”

Ashamed of the vindication she intended, which yet in her own mind was firm and animated, she stopt, and left the sentence unfinished.

“In what place were you to meet?” said Mr Monckton; “you can at least send to him there.”

“We were only to have met,” answered she, in much confusion, “at the last moment — and that would be too late — it would be too — I could not, without some previous notice, break a promise which I gave without any restriction.”

“Is this your only objection?”

“It is: but it is one which I cannot conquer.”

“Then you would give up this ill-boding connection, but from notions of delicacy with regard to the time?”

“Indeed I meant it, before you came.”

I, then, will obviate this objection: give me but the commission, either verbally or in writing, and I will undertake to find him out, and deliver it before night.”

Cecilia, little expecting this offer, turned extremely pale, and after pausing some moments, said in a faultering voice, “What, then, Sir, is your advice, in what manner —”

“I will say to him all that is necessary; trust the matter with me.”

“No — he deserves, at least, an apology from myself — though how to make it —”

She stopt, she hesitated, she went out of the room for pen and ink, she returned without them, and the agitation of her mind every instant encreasing, she begged him, in a faint voice, to excuse her while she consulted with Mrs Charlton, and promising to wait upon him again, was hurrying away.

Mr Monckton, however, saw too great danger in so much emotion to trust her out of his sight: he told her, therefore, that she would only encrease her perplexity, without reaping any advantage, by an application to Mrs Charlton, and that if she was really sincere in wishing to recede, there was not a moment to be lost, and Delvile should immediately be pursued.

Cecilia, sensible of the truth of this speech, and once more recollecting the unaffected earnestness with which but an hour or two before, she had herself desired to renounce this engagement, now summoned her utmost courage to her aid, and, after a short, but painful struggle, determined to act consistently with her professions and her character, and, by one great and final effort, to conclude all her doubts, and try to silence even her regret, by completing the triumph of fortitude over inclination.

She called, therefore, for pen and ink, and without venturing herself from the room, wrote the following letter.

To Mortimer Delvile, Esq.

Accuse me not of caprice, and pardon my irresolution, when you find me shrinking with terror from the promise I have made, and no longer either able or willing to perform it. The reproaches of your family I should very ill endure; but the reproaches of my own heart for an action I can neither approve nor defend, would be still more oppressive. With such a weight upon the mind length of life would be burthensome; with a sensation of guilt early death would be terrific! These being my notions of the engagement into which we have entered, you cannot wonder, and you have still less reason to repine, that I dare not fulfil it. Alas! where would be your chance of happiness with one who in the very act of becoming yours would forfeit her own!

I blush at this tardy recantation, and I grieve at the disappointment it may occasion you: but I have yielded to the exhortations of an inward monitor, who is never to be neglected with impunity. Consult him yourself, and I shall need no other advocate. Adieu, and may all felicity attend you! if to hear of the almost total privation of mine, will mitigate the resentment with which you will probably read this letter, it may be mitigated but too easily! Yet my consent to a clandestine action shall never be repeated; and though I confess to you I am not happy, I solemnly declare my resolution is unalterable. A little reflection will tell you I am right, though a great deal of lenity may scarce suffice to make you pardon my being right no sooner. C. B.

This letter, which with trembling haste, resulting from a fear of her own steadiness, she folded and sealed, Mr Monckton, from the same apprehension yet more eagerly received, and scarce waiting to bid her good morning, mounted his horse, and pursued his way to London.

Cecilia returned to Mrs Charlton to acquaint her with what had passed: and notwithstanding the sorrow she felt in apparently injuring the man whom, in the whole world she most wished to oblige, she yet found a satisfaction in the sacrifice she had made, that recompensed her for much of her sufferings, and soothed her into something like tranquility; the true power of virtue she had scarce experienced before, for she found it a resource against the cruellest dejection, and a supporter in the bitterest disappointment.

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