Cecilia, by Fanny Burney

Chapter 9

A Tale.

A week passed, during which Cecilia, however sad, spent her time as usual with the family, denying to herself all voluntary indulgence of grief, and forbearing to seek consolation from solitude, or relief from tears. She never named Delvile, she begged Mrs Charlton never to mention him; she called to her aid the account she had received from Dr Lyster of his firmness, and endeavoured, by an emulous ambition, to fortify her mind from the weakness of depression and regret.

This week, a week of struggle with all her feelings, was just elapsed, when she received by the post the following letter from Mrs Delvile.

To Miss Beverley.

BRISTOL, Oct. 21.

My sweet young friend will not, I hope, be sorry to hear of my safe arrival at this place: to me every account of her health and welfare, will ever be the intelligence I shall most covet to receive. Yet I mean not to ask for it in return; to chance I will trust for information, and I only write now to say I shall write no more.

Too much for thanks is what I owe you, and what I think of you is beyond all power of expression. Do not, then, wish me ill, ill as I have seemed to merit of you, for my own heart is almost broken by the tyranny I have been compelled to practise upon yours. And now let me bid a long adieu to you, my admirable Cecilia; you shall not be tormented with a useless correspondence, which can only awaken painful recollections, or give rise to yet more painful new anxieties. Fervently will I pray for the restoration of your happiness, to which nothing can so greatly contribute as that wise, that uniform command, so feminine, yet so dignified, you maintain over your passions; which often I have admired, though never so feelingly as at this conscious moment! when my own health is the sacrifice of emotions most fatally unrestrained.

Send to me no answer, even if you have the sweetness to wish it; every new proof of the generosity of your nature is to me but a new wound. Forget us, therefore, wholly — alas! you have only known us for sorrow! forget us, dear and invaluable Cecilia! though, ever, as you have nobly deserved, must you be fondly and gratefully remembered by AUGUSTA DELVILE.

The attempted philosophy, and laboured resignation of Cecilia, this letter destroyed: the struggle was over, the apathy was at an end, and she burst into an agony of tears, which finding the vent they had long sought, now flowed unchecked down her cheeks, sad monitors of the weakness of reason opposed to the anguish of sorrow!

A letter at once so caressing, yet so absolute, forced its way to her heart, in spite of the fortitude she had flattered herself was its guard. In giving up Delvile she was satisfied of the propriety of seeing him no more, and convinced that even to talk of him would be folly and imprudence; but to be told that for the future they must remain strangers to the existence of each other — there seemed in this a hardship, a rigour, that was insupportable.

“Oh what,” cried she, “is human nature! in its best state how imperfect! that a woman such as this, so noble in character, so elevated in sentiment, with heroism to sacrifice to her sense of duty the happiness of a son, whom with joy she would die to serve, can herself be thus governed by prejudice, thus enslaved, thus subdued by opinion!” Yet never, even when miserable, unjust or irrational; her grief was unmixed with anger, and her tears streamed not from resentment, but affliction. The situation of Mrs Delvile, however different, she considered to be as wretched as her own. She read, therefore, with sadness, but not bitterness, her farewell, and received not with disdain, but with gratitude, her sympathy. Yet though her indignation was not irritated, her sufferings were doubled, by a farewell so kind, yet so despotic, a sympathy so affectionate, yet so hopeless.

In this first indulgence of grief which she had granted to her disappointment, she was soon interrupted by a summons down stairs to a gentleman.

Unfit and unwilling to be seen, she begged that he might leave his name, and appoint a time for calling again.

Her maid brought for answer, that he believed his name was unknown to her, and desired to see her now, unless she was employed in some matter of moment. She then put up her letter, and went into the parlour; and there, to her infinite amazement, beheld Mr Albany.

“How little, Sir,” she cried, “did I expect this pleasure.”

“This pleasure,” repeated he, “do you call it? — what strange abuse of words! what causeless trifling with honesty! is language of no purpose but to wound the ear with untruths? is the gift of speech only granted us to pervert the use of understanding? I can give you no pleasure, I have no power to give it any one; you can give none to me-the whole world could not invest you with the means!”

“Well, Sir,” said Cecilia, who had little spirit to defend herself, “I will not vindicate the expression, but of this I will unfeignedly assure you, I am at least as glad to see you just now, as I should be to see anybody.”

“Your eyes,” cried he, “are red, your voice is inarticulate; — young, rich, and attractive, the world at your feet; that world yet untried, and its falsehood unknown, how have you thus found means to anticipate misery? which way have you uncovered the cauldron of human woes? Fatal and early anticipation! that cover once removed, can never be replaced; those woes, those boiling woes, will pour out upon you continually, and only when your heart ceases to beat, will their ebullition cease to torture you!”

“Alas!” cried Cecilia, shuddering, “how cruel, yet how true!”

“Why went you,” cried he, “to the cauldron? it came not to you. Misery seeks not man, but man misery. He walks out in the sun, but stops not for a cloud; confident, he pursues his way, till the storm which, gathering, he might have avoided, bursts over his devoted head. Scared and amazed, he repents his temerity; he calls, but it is then too late; he runs, but it is thunder which follows him! Such is the presumption of man, such at once is the arrogance and shallowness of his nature! And thou, simple and blind! hast thou, too, followed whither Fancy has led thee, unheeding that thy career was too vehement for tranquility, nor missing that lovely companion of youth’s early innocence, till, adventurous and unthinking, thou hast lost her for ever!”

In the present weak state of Cecilia’s spirits, this attack was too much for her; and the tears she had just, and with difficulty restrained, again forced their way down her cheeks, as she answered, “It is but too true — I have lost her for ever!”

“Poor thing,” said he, while the rigour of his countenance was softened into the gentlest commiseration, “so young! — looking, too, so innocent — ’tis hard! — And is nothing left thee? no small remaining hope, to cheat, humanely cheat thy yet not wholly extinguished credulity?”

Cecilia wept without answering.

“Let me not,” said he, “waste my compassion upon nothing; compassion is with me no effusion of affectation; tell me, then, if thou deservest it, or if thy misfortunes are imaginary, and thy grief is factitious?”

“Factitious,” repeated she, “Good heaven!”

“Answer me, then, these questions, in which I shall comprise the only calamities for which sorrow has no controul, or none from human motives. Tell me, then, have you lost by death the friend of your bosom?”

“No!”

“Is your fortune dissipated by extravagance, and your power of relieving the distressed at an end?”

“No; the power and the will are I hope equally undiminished.”

“O then, unhappy girl! have you been guilty of some vice, and hangs remorse thus heavy on your conscience?”

“No, no; thank heaven, to that misery, at least, I am a stranger!”

His countenance now again resumed its severity, and, in the sternest manner, “Whence then,” he said, “these tears? and what is this caprice you dignify with the name of sorrow? — strange wantonness of indolence and luxury! perverse repining of ungrateful plenitude! — oh hadst thou known what I have suffered!”—

“Could I lessen what you have suffered,” said Cecilia, “I should sincerely rejoice; but heavy indeed must be your affliction, if mine in its comparison deserves to be styled caprice!”

“Caprice!” repeated he, “’tis joy! ’tis extacy compared with mine! — Thou hast not in licentiousness wasted thy inheritance! thou hast not by remorse barred each avenue to enjoyment! nor yet has the cold grave seized the beloved of thy soul!”

“Neither,” said Cecilia, “I hope, are the evils you have yourself sustained so irremediable?”

“Yes, I have borne them all! — have borne? I bear them still; I shall bear them while I breathe! I may rue them, perhaps, yet longer.”

“Good God!” cried Cecilia, shrinking, “what a world is this! how full of woe and wickedness!” “Yet thou, too, canst complain,” cried he, “though happy in life’s only blessing, Innocence! thou, too, canst murmur, though stranger to death’s only terror, Sin! Oh yet if thy sorrow is unpolluted with guilt, be regardless of all else, and rejoice in thy destiny!” “But who,” cried she, deeply sighing, “shall teach me such a lesson of joy, when all within rises to oppose it?”

“I,” cried he, “will teach it thee, for I will tell thee my own sad story. Then wilt thou find how much happier is thy lot, then wilt thou raise thy head in thankful triumph.”

“O no! triumph comes not so lightly! yet if you will venture to trust me with some account of yourself, I shall be glad to hear it, and much obliged by the communication.”

“I will,” he answered, “whatever I may suffer: to awaken thee from this dream of fancied sorrow, I will open all my wounds, and thou shalt probe them with fresh shame.”

“No, indeed,” cried Cecilia with quickness, “I will not hear you, if the relation will be so painful.”

“Upon me this humanity is lost,” said he, “since punishment and penitence alone give me comfort. I will tell thee, therefore, my crimes, that thou mayst know thy own felicity, lest, ignorant it means nothing but innocence, thou shouldst lose it, unconscious of its value. Listen then to me, and learn what Misery is! Guilt is alone the basis of lasting unhappiness; — Guilt is the basis of mine, and therefore I am a wretch for ever!”

Cecilia would again have declined hearing him, but he refused to be spared: and as her curiosity had long been excited to know something of his history, and the motives of his extraordinary conduct, she was glad to have it satisfied, and gave him the utmost attention.

“I will not speak to you of my family,” said he; “historical accuracy would little answer to either of us. I am a native of the West Indies, and I was early sent hither to be educated. While I was yet at the University, I saw, I adored, and I pursued the fairest flower that ever put forth its sweet buds, the softest heart that ever was broken by ill-usage! She was poor and unprotected, the daughter of a villager; she was untaught and unpretending, the child of simplicity! But fifteen summers had she bloomed, and her heart was an easy conquest; yet, once made mine, it resisted all allurement to infidelity. My fellow students attacked her; she was assaulted by all the arts of seduction; flattery, bribery, supplication, all were employed, yet all failed; she was wholly my own; and with sincerity so attractive, I determined to marry her in defiance of all worldly objections.

“The sudden death of my father called me hastily to Jamaica; I feared leaving this treasure unguarded, yet in decency could neither marry nor take her directly; I pledged my faith, therefore, to return to her, as soon as I had settled my affairs, and I left to a bosom friend the inspection of her conduct in my absence.

“To leave her was madness — to trust in man was madness — Oh hateful race! how has the world been abhorrent to me since that time! I have loathed the light of the sun, I have shrunk from the commerce of my fellow creatures; the voice of man I have detested, his sight I have abominated! — but oh, more than all should I be abominated myself!

“When I came to my fortune, intoxicated with sudden power, I forgot this fair blossom, I revelled in licentiousness and vice, and left it exposed and forlorn. Riot succeeded riot, till a fever, incurred by my own intemperance, first gave me time to think. Then was she revenged, for then first remorse was my portion: her image was brought back to my mind with frantic fondness, and bitterest contrition. The moment I recovered, I returned to England; I flew to claim her — but she was lost! no one knew whither she was gone; the wretch I had trusted pretended to know least of all; yet, after a furious search, I traced her to a cottage, where he had concealed her himself!

“When she saw me, she screamed and would have flown; I stopt her, and told her I came faithfully and honourably to make her my wife:— her own faith and honour, though sullied, were not extinguished, for she instantly acknowledged the fatal tale of her undoing!

“Did I recompense this ingenuousness? this unexampled, this beautiful sacrifice to intuitive integrity? Yes! with my curses! — I loaded her with execrations, I reviled her in language the most opprobrious, I insulted her even for her confession! I invoked all evil upon her from the bottom of my heart — She knelt at my feet, she implored my forgiveness and compassion, she wept with the bitterness of despair — and yet I spurned her from me! — Spurned? — let me not hide my shame! I barbarously struck her! — nor single was the blow! — it was doubled, it was reiterated! — Oh wretch, unyielding and unpitying! where shall hereafter be clemency for thee! — So fair a form! so young a culprit! so infamously seduced! so humbly penitent!

“In this miserable condition, helpless and deplorable, mangled by these savage hands, and reviled by this inhuman tongue, I left her, in search of the villain who had destroyed her: but, cowardly as treacherous, he had absconded. Repenting my fury, I hastened to her again; the fierceness of my cruelty shamed me when I grew calmer, the softness of her sorrow melted me upon recollection: I returned, therefore, to soothe her — but again she was gone! terrified with expectation of insult, she hid herself from all my enquiries. I wandered in search of her two long years to no purpose, regardless of my affairs, and of all things but that pursuit. At length, I thought I saw her — in London, alone, and walking in the streets at midnight — I fearfully followed her — and followed her into an house of infamy!

“The wretches by whom she was surrounded were noisy and drinking, they heeded me little — but she saw and knew me at once! She did not speak, nor did I— but in two moments she fainted and fell.

“Yet did I not help her; the people took their own measures to recover her, and when she was again able to stand, would have removed her to another apartment.

“I then went forward, and forcing them away from her with all the strength of desperation, I turned to the unhappy sinner, who to chance only seemed to leave what became of her, and cried, From this scene of vice and horror let me yet rescue you! you look still unfit for such society, trust yourself, therefore, to me. I seized her hand, I drew, I almost dragged her away. She trembled, she could scarce totter, but neither consented nor refused, neither shed a tear, nor spoke a word, and her countenance presented a picture of affright, amazement, and horror.

“I took her to a house in the country, each of us silent the whole way. I gave her an apartment and a female attendant, and ordered for her every convenience I could suggest. I stayed myself in the same house, but distracted with remorse for the guilt and ruin into which I had terrified her, I could not bear her sight.

“In a few days her maid assured me the life she led must destroy her; that she would taste nothing but bread and water, never spoke, and never slept.

“Alarmed by this account, I flew into her apartment; pride and resentment gave way to pity and fondness, and I besought her to take comfort. I spoke, however, to a statue, she replied not, nor seemed to hear me. I then humbled myself to her as in the days of her innocence and first power, supplicating her notice, entreating even her commiseration! all was to no purpose; she neither received nor repulsed me, and was alike inattentive to exhortation and to prayer.

“Whole hours did I spend at her feet, vowing never to arise till she spoke to me — all, all, in vain! she seemed deaf, mute, insensible; her face unmoved, a settled despair fixed in her eyes — those eyes that had never looked at me but with dove-like softness and compliance! — She sat constantly in one chair, she never changed her dress, no persuasions could prevail with her to lie down, and at meals she just swallowed so much dry bread as might save her from dying for want of food.

“What was the distraction of my soul, to find her bent upon this course to her last hour! — quick came that hour, but never will it be forgotten! rapidly it was gone, but eternally it will be remembered!

“When she felt herself expiring, she acknowledged she had made a vow, upon entering the house, to live speechless and motionless, as a pennance for her offences!

“I kept her loved corpse till my own senses failed me — it was then only torn from me — and I have lost all recollection of three years of my existence!”

Cecilia shuddered at this hint, yet was not surprised by it; Mr Gosport had acquainted her he had been formerly confined; and his flightiness, wildness, florid language, and extraordinary way of life, bad long led her to suspect his reason had been impaired.

“The scene to which my memory first leads me back,” he continued, “is visiting her grave; solemnly upon it I returned her vow, though not by one of equal severity. To her poor remains did I pledge myself, that the day should never pass in which I would receive nourishment, nor the night come in which I would take rest, till I had done, or zealously attempted to do, some service to a fellow-creature.

“For this purpose have I wandered from city to city, from the town to the country, and from the rich to the poor. I go into every house where I can gain admittance, I admonish all who will hear me, I shame even those who will not. I seek the distressed where ever they are hid, I follow the prosperous to beg a mite to serve them. I look for the Dissipated in public, where, amidst their licentiousness, I check them; I pursue the Unhappy in private, where I counsel and endeavour to assist them. My own power is small; my relations, during my sufferings, limiting me to an annuity; but there is no one I scruple to solicit, and by zeal I supply ability.

“Oh life of hardship and pennance! laborious, toilsome, and restless! but I have merited no better, and I will not repine at it; I have vowed that I will endure it, and I will not be forsworn.

“One indulgence alone from time to time I allow myself — ’tis Music! which has power to delight me even to rapture! it quiets all anxiety, it carries me out of myself, I forget through it every calamity, even the bitterest anguish.

“Now then, that thou hast heard me, tell me, hast thou cause of sorrow?”

“Alas,” cried Cecilia, “this indeed is a Picture of Misery to make my lot seem all happiness!”

“Art thou thus open to conviction?” cried he, mildly; “and dost thou not fly the voice of truth! for truth and reproof are one.”

“No, I would rather seek it; I feel myself wretched, however inadequate may be the cause; I wish to be more resigned, and if you can instruct me how, I shall thankfully attend to you.”

“Oh yet uncorrupted creature!” cried he, “with joy will I be thy monitor — joy long untasted! Many have I wished to serve, all, hitherto, have rejected my offices; too honest to flatter them, they had not the fortitude to listen to me; too low to advance them, they had not the virtue to bear with me. You alone have I yet found pure enough not to fear inspection, and good enough to wish to be better. Yet words alone will not content me; I must also have deeds. Nor will your purse, however readily opened, suffice, you must give to me also your time and your thoughts; for money sent by others, to others only will afford relief; to enlighten your own cares, you must distribute it yourself.”

“You shall find me,” said she, “a docile pupil, and most glad to be instructed how my existence may be useful.”

“Happy then,” cried he, “was the hour that brought me to this country; yet not in search of you did I come, but of the mutable and ill-fated Belfield. Erring, yet ingenious young man! what a lesson to the vanity of talents, to the gaiety, the brilliancy of wit, is the sight of that green fallen plant! not sapless by age, nor withered by disease, but destroyed by want of pruning, and bending, breaking by its own luxuriance!”

“And where, Sir, is he now?

“Labouring wilfully in the field, with those who labour compulsatorily; such are we all by nature, discontented, perverse, and changeable; though all have not courage to appear so, and few, like Belfield, are worth watching when they do. He told me he was happy; I knew it could not be: but his employment was inoffensive, and I left him without reproach. In this neighbourhood I heard of you, and found your name was coupled with praise. I came to see if you deserved it; I have seen, and am satisfied.”

“You are not, then, very difficult, for I have yet done nothing. How are we to begin these operations you propose? You have awakened me by them to an expectation of pleasure, which nothing else, I believe, could just now have given me.”

“We will work,” cried he, “together, till not a woe shall remain upon your mind. The blessings of the fatherless, the prayers of little children, shall heal all your wounds with balm of sweetest fragrance. When sad, they shall cheer, when complaining, they shall soothe you. We will go to their roofless houses, and see them repaired; we will exclude from their dwellings the inclemency of the weather; we will clothe them from cold, we will rescue them from hunger. The cries of distress shall be changed to notes of joy: your heart shall be enraptured, mine, too, shall revive — oh whither am I wandering? I am painting an Elysium! and while I idly speak, some fainting object dies for want of succour! Farewell; I will fly to the abodes of wretchedness, and come to you tomorrow to render them the abodes of happiness.”

He then went away.

This singular visit was for Cecilia most fortunately timed: it almost surprised her out of her peculiar grief, by the view which it opened to her of general calamity; wild, flighty, and imaginative as were his language and his counsels, their morality was striking, and their benevolence was affecting. Taught by him to compare her state with that of at least half her species, she began more candidly to weigh what was left with what was withdrawn, and found the balance in her favour. The plan he had presented to her of good works was consonant to her character and inclinations; and the active charity in which he proposed to engage her, re-animated her fallen hopes, though to far different subjects from those which had depressed them. Any scheme of worldly happiness would have sickened and disgusted her; but her mind was just in the situation to be impressed with elevated piety, and to adopt any design in which virtue humoured melancholy.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/cecilia/book8.9.html

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