Cecilia/Book 6/Chapter vii

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Cecilia by Frances Burney
Book 6/Chapter vii: AN ANECDOTE

On the fourth day the house wore a better aspect; Delvile's fever was gone, and Dr Lyster permitted him to leave his room: a cough, however, remained, and his journey to Bristol was settled to take place in three days. Cecilia, knowing he was now expected down stairs, hastened out of the parlour the moment she had finished her breakfast; for affected by his illness, and hurt at the approaching separation, she dreaded the first meeting, and wished to fortify her mind for bearing it with propriety.

In a very few minutes, Lady Honoria, running after her, entreated that she would come down; "for Mortimer," she cried, "is in the parlour, and the poor child is made so much of by its papa and mama, that I wish they don't half kill him by their ridiculous fondness. It is amazing to me he is so patient with them, for if they teized me half as much, I should be ready to jump up and shake them. But I wish you would come down, for I assure you it's a comical scene."

"Your ladyship is soon diverted! but what is there so comical in the anxiety of parents for an only son?"

"Lord, they don't care a straw for him all the time! it's merely that he may live to keep up this old castle, which I hope in my heart he will pull down the moment they are dead! But do pray come; it will really give you spirits to see them all. The father keeps ringing the bell to order half a hundred pair of boots for him, and all the greatcoats in the county; and the mother sits and looks as if a hearse and mourning coach were already coming over the drawbridge: but the most diverting object among them is my Lord Derford! O, it is really too entertaining to see him! there he sits, thinking the whole time of his challenge! I intend to employ him all this afternoon in practising to shoot at a mark."

And then again she pressed her to join the group, and Cecilia, fearing her opposition might seem strange, consented.

Delvile arose at her entrance, and, with tolerable steadiness, she congratulated him on his recovery: and then, taking her usual seat, employed herself in embroidering a screen. She joined too, occasionally, in the conversation, and observed, not without surprise, that Delvile seemed much less dejected than before his confinement.

Soon after, he ordered his horse, and, accompanied by Lord Derford, rode out. Mr Delvile then took Lord Ernolf to shew him some intended improvements in another part of the castle, and Lady Honoria walked away in search of any entertainment she could find.

Mrs Delvile, in better spirits than she had been for many days, sent for her own work, and sitting by Cecilia, conversed with her again as in former times; mixing instruction with entertainment, and general satire with particular kindness, in a manner at once so lively and so flattering, that Cecilia herself reviving, found but little difficulty in bearing her part in the conversation.

And thus, with some gaiety, and tolerable ease, was spent the greatest part of the morning; but just as they were talking of changing their dress for dinner, Lady Honoria with an air of the utmost exultation, came flying into the room. "Well, ma'am," she cried, "I have some news now that I must tell you, because it will make you believe me another time though I know it will put you in a passion."

"That's sweetly designed, at least!" said Mrs Delvile, laughing; "however, I'll trust you, for my passions will not, just now, be irritated by straws."

"Why, ma'am, don't you remember I told you when you were in town that Mr Mortimer kept a mistress—"

"Yes!" cried Mrs Delvile, disdainfully, "and you may remember, Lady Honoria, I told you—"

"O, you would not believe a word of it! but it's all true, I assure you! and now he has brought her down here; he sent for her about three weeks ago, and he has boarded her at a cottage, about half a mile from the Park-gate."

Cecilia, to whom Henrietta Belfield was instantly present, changed colour repeatedly, and turned so extremely sick, she could with difficulty keep her seat. She forced herself, however, to continue her work, though she knew so little what she was about, that she put her needle in and out of the same place without ceasing.

Meanwhile Mrs Delvile, with a countenance of the utmost indignation, exclaimed, "Lady Honoria, if you think a tale of scandal such as this reflects no disgrace upon its relater, you must pardon me for entreating you to find an auditor more of the same opinion than myself."

"Nay, ma'am, since you are so angry, I'll tell you the whole affair, for this is but half of it. He has a child here, too,—I vow I long to see it!—and he is so fond of it that he spends half his time in nursing it;—and that, I suppose, is the thing that takes him out so much; and I fancy, too, that's what has made him grow so grave, for may be he thinks it would not be pretty to be very frisky, now he's a papa."

Not only Cecilia, but Mrs Delvile herself was now overpowered, and she sat for some time wholly silent and confounded; Lady Honoria then, turning to Cecilia exclaimed, "Bless me, Miss Beverley, what are you about! why that flower is the most ridiculous thing I ever saw! you have spoilt your whole work."

Cecilia, in the utmost confusion, though pretending to laugh, then began to unpick it; and Mrs Delvile, recovering, more calmly, though not less angrily, said "And has this tale the honour of being invented solely by your ladyship, or had it any other assistant?"

"O no, I assure you, it's no invention of mine; I had it from very good authority upon my word. But only look at Miss Beverley! would not one think I had said that she had a child herself? She looks as pale as death. My dear, I am sure you can't be well?"

"I beg your pardon," cried Cecilia, forcing a smile, though extremely provoked with her; "I never was better."

And then, with the hope of appearing unconcerned, she raised her head; but meeting the eyes of Mrs Delvile fixed upon her face with a look of penetrating observation, abashed and guilty, she again dropt it, and resumed her work.

"Well, my dear," said Lady Honoria, "I am sure there is no occasion to send for Dr Lyster to you, for you recover yourself in a moment: you have the finest colour now I ever saw: has not she, Mrs Delvile? did you ever see anybody blush so becomingly?"

"I wish, Lady Honoria," said Mrs Delvile, with severity, "it were possible to see you blush!"

"O but I never do! not but what it's pretty enough too; but I don't know how it is, it never happens. Now Euphrasia can blush from morning to night. I can't think how she contrives it. Miss Beverley, too, plays at it vastly well; she's red and white, and white and red half a dozen times in a minute. Especially," looking at her archly, and lowering her voice, "if you talk to her of Mortimer!"

"No, indeed! no such thing!" cried Cecilia with some resentment, and again looking up; but glancing her eyes towards Mrs Delvile, and again meeting hers, filled with the strongest expression of enquiring solicitude, unable to sustain their inquisition, and shocked to find herself thus watchfully observed, she returned in hasty confusion to her employment.

"Well, my dear," cried Lady Honoria, again, "but what are you about now? do you intend to unpick the whole screen?"

"How can she tell what she is doing," said Mrs Delvile, with quickness, "if you torment her thus incessantly? I will take you away from her, that she may have a little peace. You shall do me the honour to attend my toilette, and acquaint me with some further particulars of this extraordinary discovery."

Mrs Delvile then left the room, but Lady Honoria, before she followed her, said in a low voice "Pity me, Miss Beverley, if you have the least good-nature! I am now going to hear a lecture of two hours long!"

Cecilia, left to herself was in a perturbation almost insupportable: Delvile's mysterious conduct seemed the result of some entanglement of vice; Henrietta Belfield, the artless Henrietta Belfield, she feared had been abused, and her own ill-fated partiality, which now more than ever she wished unknown even to herself, was evidently betrayed where most the dignity of her mind made her desire it to be concealed!

In this state of shame, regret and resentment, which made her forget to change her dress, or her place, she was suddenly surprised by Delvile.

Starting and colouring, she busied herself with collecting her work, that she might hurry out of the room. Delvile, though silent himself, endeavoured to assist her; but when she would have gone, he attempted to stop her, saying "Miss Beverley, for three minutes only."

"No, sir," cried she, indignantly, "not for an instant!" and leaving him utterly astonished, she hastened to her own apartment.

She was then sorry she had been so precipitate; nothing had been clearly proved against him; no authority was so likely to be fallacious as that of Lady Honoria; neither was he under any engagement to herself that could give her any right to manifest such displeasure. These reflections, however, came too late, and the quick feelings of her agitated mind were too rapid to wait the dictates of cool reason. At dinner she attended wholly to Lord Ernolf, whose assiduous politeness, profiting by the humour, saved her the painful effort of forcing conversation, or the guilty consciousness of giving way to silence, and enabled her to preserve her general tenor between taciturnity and loquaciousness. Mrs Delvile she did not once dare look at; but her son, she saw, seemed greatly hurt; yet it was proudly, not sorrowfully, and therefore she saw it with less uneasiness.

During the rest of the day, which was passed in general society, Mrs Delvile, though much occupied, frequently leaving the room, and sending for Lady Honoria, was more soft, kind and gentle with Cecilia than ever, looking at her with the utmost tenderness, often taking her hand, and speaking to her with even unusual sweetness. Cecilia with mingled sadness and pleasure observed this encreasing regard, which she could not but attribute to the discovery made through Lady Honoria's mischievous intelligence, and which, while it rejoiced her with the belief of her approbation, added fresh force to her regret in considering it was fruitless. Delvile, mean-time, evidently offended himself, conversed only with the gentlemen, and went very early into his own room.

When they were all retiring, Mrs Delvile, following Cecilia, dismissed her maid to talk with her alone.

"I am not, I hope, often," she cried, "solicitous or importunate to speak about my son: his character, I believe, wants no vindication; clear and unsullied, it has always been its own support: yet the aspersion cast upon it this morning by Lady Honoria, I think myself bound to explain, not partially as his mother, but simply as his friend."

Cecilia, who knew not whither such an explanation might lead, nor wherefore it was made, heard this opening with much emotion, but gave neither to that nor to what followed any interruption.

Mrs Delvile then continued: she had taken the trouble, she said, to sift the whole affair, in order to shame Lady Honoria by a pointed conviction of what she had invented, and to trace from the foundation the circumstances whence her surmises or report had sprung.

Delvile, it seems, about a fortnight before the present time, in one of his morning walks, had observed a gipsey sitting by the side of the high road, who seemed extremely ill, and who had a very beautiful child tied to her back.

Struck with the baby, he stopt to enquire to whom it belonged; to herself, she said, and begged his charity with the most pitiable cries of distress; telling him that she was travelling to join some of her fraternity, who were in a body near Bath, but was so ill with an ague and fever that she feared she should die on the road.

Delvile desired her to go to the next cottage, and promised to pay for her board there till she was better. He then spoke to the man and his wife who owned it to take them in, who, glad to oblige his Honour, instantly consented, and he had since called twice to see in what manner they went on.

"How simple," continued Mrs Delvile, "is a matter of fact in itself, and how complex when embellished! This tale has been told by the cottagers to our servants; it has travelled, probably gaining something from every mouth, to Lady Honoria's maid, and, having reached her ladyship, was swelled in a moment into all we heard! I think, however, that, for some time at least, her levity will be rather less daring. I have not, in this affair, at all spared her; I made her hear from Mortimer himself the little story as it happened; I then carried her to the cottage, where we had the whole matter confirmed; and I afterwards insisted upon being told myself by her maid all she had related to her lady, that she might thus be unanswerably convicted of inventing whatever she omitted. I have occasioned her some confusion, and, for the moment, a little resentment; but she is so volatile that neither will last; and though, with regard to my own family, I may perhaps have rendered her more cautious, I fear, with regard to the world in general, she is utterly incorrigible, because it has neither pleasure nor advantage to offer, that can compensate for the deprivation of relating one staring story, or ridiculous anecdote."

And then, wishing her good night, she added, "I make not any apology for this detail, which you owe, not, believe me, to a mother's folly, but, if I [know] myself at all, to a love of truth and justice. Mortimer, independent of all connection with me, cannot but to every body appear of a character which may be deemed even exemplary; calumny, therefore, falling upon such a subject, injures not only himself but society, since it weakens all confidence in virtue, and strengthens the scepticism of depravity."

She then left her.

"Ah!" thought Cecilia, "to me, at least, this solicitude for his fame needs no apology! humane and generous Delvile! never, again, will I a moment doubt your worthiness!" And then, cherishing that darling idea, she forgot all her cares and apprehensions, her quarrel, her suspicions, and the approaching separation, and, recompensed for every thing by this refutation of his guilt, she hastened to bed, and composed herself to rest.