Cecilia/Book 6/Chapter i
It was still early, and Mrs Delvile was not expected till late. Cecilia, therefore, determined to make a visit to Miss Belfield, to whom she had been denied during the late disorders at Mr Harrel's, and whom she could not endure to mortify by quitting town without seeing, since whatever were her doubts about Delvile, of her she had none.
To Portland-street, therefore, she ordered her chair, deliberating as she went whether it were better to adhere to the reserve she had hitherto maintained, or to satisfy her perplexity at once by an investigation into the truth. And still were these scruples undecided, when, looking in at the windows as she passed them to the door of the house, she perceived Miss Belfield standing in the parlour with a letter in her hand, which she was fervently pressing to her lips.
Struck by this sight, a thousand painful conjectures occurred to her, all representing that the letter was from Delvile, and all explaining to his dishonour the mystery of his late conduct. And far were her suspicions from diminishing, when, upon being shown into the parlour, Miss Belfield, trembling with her eagerness to hide it, hastily forced the letter into her pocket.
Cecilia, surprised, dismayed, alarmed, stopt involuntarily at the door; but Miss Belfield, having secured what was so evidently precious to her, advanced, though not without blushing, and taking her hand, said "How good this is of you, madam, to come to me! when I did not know where to find you, and when I was almost afraid I should have found you no more!"
She then told her, that the first news she had heard the preceding morning, was the violent death of Mr Harrel, which had been related to her, with all its circumstances, by the landlord of their lodgings, who was himself one of his principal creditors, and had immediately been at Portman-square to put in his claims: where he had learnt that all the family had quitted the house, which was entirely occupied by bailiffs. "And I was so sorry," she continued, "that you should meet with any hardships, and not know where to go, and have another home to seek, when I am sure the commonest beggar would never want an habitation, if you had one in your power to give him!—But how sad and melancholy you look! I am afraid this bad action of Mr Harrel has made you quite unhappy? Ah madam! you are too good for this guilty world! your own compassion and benevolence will not suffer you to rest in it!"
Cecilia, touched by this tender mistake of her present uneasiness, embraced her, and with much kindness, answered, "No, sweet Henrietta! it is you who are good, who are innocent, who are guileless!— you, too, I hope are happy!"
"And are not you, madam?" cried Henrietta, fondly returning her caress. "Oh if you are not, who will ever deserve to be! I think I should rather be unhappy myself, than see you so; at least I am sure I ought, for the whole world may be the better for your welfare, and as to me,—who would care what became of me!"
"Ah Henrietta!" cried Cecilia, "do you speak sincerely? do you indeed think yourself so little valued?"
"Why I don't say," answered she, "but that I hope there are some who think a little kindly of me, for if I had not that hope, I should wish to break my heart and die! but what is that to the love and reverence so many have for you?"
"Suppose," said Cecilia, with a forced smile, "I should put your love and reverence to the proof? do you think they would stand it?"
"O yes, indeed I do! and I have wished a thousand and a thousand times that I could but shew you my affection, and let you see that I did not love you because you were a great lady, and high in the world, and full of power to do me service, but because you were so good and so kind, so gentle to the unfortunate, and so sweet to every body!"
"Hold, hold," cried Cecilia, "and let me try if indeed, fairly and truly, you will answer what I mean to ask."
"O yes," cried she warmly, "if it is the dearest secret I have in the world! there is nothing I will not tell you; I will open my whole heart to you, and I shall be proud to think you will let me trust you, for I am sure if you did not care a little for me, you would not take such a trouble."
"You are indeed a sweet creature!" said Cecilia, hesitating whether or not to take advantage of her frankness, "and every time I see you, I love you better. For the world would I not injure you,—and perhaps your confidence—I know not, indeed, if it is fair or right to exact it—" she stopt, extremely perplext, and while Henrietta waited her further enquiries, they were interrupted by the entrance of Mrs Belfield.
"Sure, Child," cried she, to her daughter, "you might have let me know before now who was here, when you knew so well how much I wished an opportunity to see the young lady myself: but here you come down upon pretence to see your brother, and then stay away all the morning, doing nobody knows what." Then, turning to Cecilia, "Ma'am," she continued, "I have been in the greatest concern in the world for the little accident that happened when I saw you before; for to be sure I thought, and indeed nobody will persuade me to the contrary, that it was rather an odd thing for such a young lady as you to come so often after Henny, without so much as thinking of any other reason; especially when, to be sure, there's no more comparison between her and my son, than between anything in the world; however, if it is so, it is so, and I mean to say no more about it, and to be sure he's as contented to think so as if he was as mere an insignificant animal as could be."
"This matter, madam," said Cecilia, "has so long been settled, that I am sorry you should trouble yourself to think of it again."
"O, ma'am, I only mention it by the way of making the proper apology, for as to taking any other notice of it, I have quite left it off; though to be sure what I think I think; but as to my son, he has so got the upper hand of me, that it all goes for nothing, and I might just as well sing to him. Not that I mean to find fault with him neither; so pray, ma'am, don't let what I say be to his prejudice, for I believe all the time, there's nobody like him, neither at this end of the town nor the other; for as to the other, he has more the look of a lord, by half, than of a shopman, and the reason's plain, for that's the sort of company he's always kept, as I daresay a lady such as you must have seen long ago. But for all that, there's some little matters that we mothers fancy we can see into as well as our children; however, if they don't think so, why it answers no purpose to dispute; for as to a better son, to be sure there never was one, and that, as I always say, is the best sign I know for making a good husband."
During this discourse, Henrietta was in the utmost confusion, dreading lest the grossness of her mother should again send off Cecilia in anger: but Cecilia, who perceived her uneasiness, and who was more charmed with her character than ever, from the simplicity of her sincerity, determined to save her that pain, by quietly hearing her harangue, and then quietly departing: though she was much provoked to find from the complaining hints every instant thrown out, that Mrs Belfield was still internally convinced her son's obstinate bashfulness was the only obstacle to his chusing whom he pleased: and that though she no longer dared speak her opinion with openness, she was fully persuaded Cecilia was at his service.
"And for that reason," continued Mrs Belfield, "to be sure any lady that knew her own true advantage, could do nothing better than to take the recommendation of a mother, who must naturally know more of her own children's disposition than can be expected from a stranger: and as to such a son as mine, perhaps there a'n't two such in the world, for he's had a gentleman's education, and turn him which way he will, he'll see never a handsomer person than his own; though, poor dear love, he was always of the thinnest. But the misfortunes he's had to struggle with would make nobody fatter."
Here she was interrupted, and Cecilia not a little surprised, by the entrance of Mr Hobson and Mr Simkins.
"Ladies," cried Mr Hobson, whom she soon found was Mrs Belfield's landlord: "I would not go up stairs without just stopping to let you know a little how the world goes."
Then perceiving and recollecting Cecilia, he exclaimed "I am proud to see you again, ma'am,—Miss, I believe I should say, for I take it you are too young a lady to be entered into matrimony yet."
"Matrimony?" cried Mr Simkins, "no, to be sure, Mr Hobson, how can you be so out of the way? the young lady looks more like to a Miss from a boarding-school, if I might take the liberty for to say so."
"Ay, more's the pity," cried Mrs Belfield, "for as to young ladies waiting and waiting, I don't see the great good of it; especially if a proper match offers; for as to a good husband, I think no lady should be above accepting him, if he's modest and well-behaved, and has been brought up with a genteel education."
"Why as to that, ma'am," said Mr Simkins, "it's another guess matter, for as to the lady's having a proper spouse, if I may be so free, I think as it's no bad thing."
Cecilia now, taking Henrietta's hand, was wishing her good morning; but hearing Mr Hobson say he was just come from Portman-square, her curiosity was excited, and she stayed a little longer.
"Sad work, ma'am," said he; "who'd have thought Mr Harrel asked us all to supper for the mere purpose of such a thing as that! just to serve for a blind, as one may say. But when a man's conscience is foul, what I say is it's ten to one but he makes away with himself. Let every man keep clear of the world, that's my notion, and then he will be in no such hurry to get out of it."
"Why indeed, ma'am," said Mr Simkins, advancing with many bows to Cecilia, "humbly craving pardon for the liberty, I can't pretend for to say I think Mr Harrel did quite the honourable thing by us; for as to his making us drink all that champagne, and the like, it was a sheer take in, so that if I was to speak my mind, I can't say as I esteem it much of a favour."
"Well," said Mrs Belfield, "nothing's to me so surprising as a person's being his own executioner, for as to me, if I was to die for it fifty times, I don't think I could do it."
"So here," resumed Mr Hobson, "we're all defrauded of our dues! nobody's able to get his own, let him have worked for it ever so hard. Sad doings in the square, Miss! all at sixes and sevens; for my part I came off from Vauxhall as soon as the thing had happened, hoping to get the start of the others, or else I should have been proud to wait upon you, ladies, with the particulars: but a man of business never stands upon ceremony, for when money's at stake, that's out of the question. However, I was too late, for the house was seized before ever I could get nigh it."
"I hope, ma'am, if I may be so free," said Mr Simkins, again profoundly bowing, "that you and the other lady did not take it much amiss my not coming back to you, for it was not out of no disrespect, but only I got so squeezed in by the ladies and gentlemen that was looking on, that I could not make my, way out, do what I could. But by what I see, I must needs say if one's never in such genteel company, people are always rather of the rudest when one's in a crowd, for if one begs and prays never so, there's no making 'em conformable."
"Pray," said Cecilia, "is it likely any thing will remain for Mrs Harrel?"
"Remain, ma'am?" repeated Mr Hobson, "Yes, a matter of a hundred bills without a receipt to 'em! To be sure, ma'am, I don't want to affront you, that was his intimate acquaintance, more especially as you've done nothing disrespectful by me, which is more than I can say for Mrs Harrel, who seemed downright ashamed of me, and of Mr Simkins too, though all things considered, it would have been as well for her not to have been quite so high. But of that in its proper season!"
"Fie, Mr Hobson fie," cried the supple Mr Simkins, "how can you be so hard? for my share, I must needs own I think the poor lady's to be pitied; for it must have been but a melancholy sight to her, to see her spouse cut off so in the flower of his youth, as one may say: and you ought to scorn to take exceptions at a lady's proudness when she's in so much trouble. To be sure, I can't say myself as she was over-complaisant to make us welcome; but I hope I am above being so unpitiful as for to owe her a grudge for it now she's so down in the mouth."
"Let everybody be civil!" cried Mr Hobson, "that's my notion; and then I shall be as much above being unpitiful as anybody else."
"Mrs Harrel," said Cecilia, "was then too unhappy, and is now, surely, too unfortunate, to make it possible any resentment should be harboured against her."
"You speak, ma'am, like a lady of sense," returned Mr Hobson, "and, indeed, that's the character I hear of you; but for all that, ma'am, every body's willing to stand up for their own friends, for which reason, ma'am, to be sure you'll be making the best of it, both for the Relict, and the late gentleman himself; but, ma'am, if I was to make bold to speak my mind in a fair manner, what I should say would be this: a man here to go shooting himself with all his debts unpaid, is a mere piece of scandal, ma'am! I beg pardon, but what I say is, the truth's the truth, and I can't call it by no other nomination."
Cecilia now, finding she had not any chance of pacifying him, rang for her servant and chair.
Mr Simkins then, affecting to lower his voice, said reproachfully to his friend "Indeed, Mr Hobson, to speak ingenusly, I must needs say I don't think it over and above pelite in you to be so hard upon the young lady's acquaintance that was, now he's defunct. To be sure I can't pretend for to deny but he behaved rather comical; for not paying of nobody, nor so much as making one a little compliment, or the like, though he made no bones of taking all one's goods, and always chused to have the prime of every thing, why it's what I can't pretend to stand up for. But that's neither here nor there, for if he had behaved as bad again, poor Miss could not tell how to help it; and I dares to say she had no more hand in it than nobody at all."
"No, to be sure," cried Mrs Belfield, "what should she have to do with it? Do you suppose a young lady of her fortune would want to take advantage of a person in trade? I am sure it would be both a shame and a sin if she did, for if she has not money enough, I wonder who has. And for my part, I think when a young lady has such a fine fortune as that, the only thing she has to do, is to be thinking of making a good use of it, by dividing it, as one may say, with a good husband. For as to keeping it all for herself, I dare say she's a lady of too much generosity; and as to only marrying somebody that's got as much of his own, why it is not half so much a favour: and if the young lady would take my advice, she'd marry for love, for as to lucre, she's enough in all conscience."
"As to all that," said Mr Hobson, "it makes no alteration in my argument; I am speaking to the purpose, and not for the matter of complaisance: and therefore I'm bold to say Mr Harrel's action had nothing of the gentleman in it. A man has a right to his own life, you'll tell me; but what of that? that's no argument at all, for it does not give him a bit the more right to my property; and a man's running in debt, and spending other people's substances, for no reason in the world but just because he can blow out his own brains when he's done,—though it's a thing neither lawful nor religious to do,—why it's acting quite out of character, and a great hardship to trade into the bargain."
"I heartily wish it had been otherwise," said Cecilia; "but I still hope, if any thing can be done for Mrs Harrel, you will not object to such a proposal."
"Ma'am, as I said before," returned Mr Hobson, "I see you're a lady of sense, and for that I honour you: but as to any thing being done, it's what I call a distinct thing. What's mine is mine, and what's another man's is his; that's my way of arguing; but then if he takes what's mine, where's the law to hinder my taking what's his? This is what I call talking to the purpose. Now as to a man's cutting his throat, or the like of that, for blowing out his own brains may be called the self-same thing, what are his creditors the better for that? nothing at all, but so much the worse it's a false notion to respect it, for there's no respect in it; it's contrary to law, and a prejudice against religion."
"I agree entirely in your opinion," said Cecilia, "but still Mrs Harrel"—
"I know your argument, ma'am," interrupted Mr Hobson; "Mrs Harrel i'n't the worse for her husband's being shot through the head, because she was no accessory to the same, and for that reason, it's a hardship she should lose all her substance; this, ma'am, is what I say, speaking to your side of the argument. But now, ma'am, please to take notice what I argue upon the reply; what have we creditors to do with a man's family? Suppose I am a cabinet-maker? When I send in my chairs, do I ask who is to sit upon them? No; it's all one to me whether it's the gentleman's progeny or his friends, I must be paid for the chairs the same, use them who may. That's the law, ma'am, and no man need be ashamed to abide by it."
The truth of this speech palliating its sententious absurdity, made Cecilia give up her faint attempt to soften him; and her chair being ready, she arose to take leave.
"Lack-a-day, ma'am," cried Mrs Belfield, "I hope you won't go yet, for I expect my son home soon, and I've a heap of things to talk to you about besides, only Mr Hobson having so much to say stopt my mouth. But I should take it as a great favour, ma'am, if you would come some afternoon and drink a dish of tea with me, for then we should have time to say all our say. And I'm sure, ma'am, if you would only let one of your footmen just take a run to let me know when you'd come, my son would be very proud to give you the meeting; and the servants can't have much else to do at your house, for where there's such a heap of 'em, they commonly think of nothing all day long but standing and gaping at one another."
"I am going out of town to-morrow," said Cecilia, "and therefore cannot have the pleasure of calling upon Miss Belfield again."
She then slightly courtsied, and left the room.
The gentle Henrietta, her eyes swimming in tears, followed her to her chair; but she followed her not alone, Mrs Belfield also attended, repining very loudly at the unlucky absence of her son: and the cringing Mr Simkins, creeping after her and bowing, said in a low voice, "I humbly crave pardon, ma'am, for the liberty, but I hope you won't think as I have any share in Mr Hobson's behaving so rude, for I must needs say, I don't think it over genteel in no shape." And Mr Hobson himself, bent upon having one more sentence heard, called out, even after she was seated in her chair, "All I say, ma'am, is this: let every man be honest; that's what I argue, and that's my notion of things."
Cecilia still reached home before Mrs Delvile; but most uneasy were her sensations, and most unquiet was her heart: the letter she had seen in the hands of Henrietta seemed to corroborate all her former suspicions, since if it came not from one infinitely dear to her she would not have shewn such fondness for it, and if that one was not dear to her in secret, she would not have concealed it.
Where then was the hope that any but Delvile could have written it? in secret she could not cherish two, and that Delvile was cherished most fondly, the artlessness of her character unfitted her for disguising.
And why should he write to her? what was his pretence? That he loved her she could now less than ever believe, since his late conduct to herself, though perplexing and inconsistent, evinced at least a partiality incompatible with a passion for another. What then, could she infer, but that he had seduced her affections, and ruined her peace, for the idle and cruel gratification of temporary vanity?
"And if such," cried she, "is the depravity of this accomplished hypocrite, if such is the littleness of soul that a manner so noble disguises, shall he next, urged, perhaps, rather by prudence than preference, make me the object of his pursuit, and the food of his vain-glory? And shall I, warned and instructed as I am, be as easy a prey and as wretched a dupe? No, I will be better satisfied with his conduct, before I venture to trust him, and since I am richer than Henrietta and less likely to be deserted, when won, I will be more on my guard to know why I am addressed, and vindicate the rights of innocence, if I find she has been thus deluded, by forgetting his talents in his treachery, and renouncing him for ever!"
Such were the reflections and surmises that dampt all the long-sought pleasure of her change of residence, and made her habitation in St James's-square no happier than it had been at Mr Harrel's!
She dined again with only Mr and Mrs Delvile, and did not see their son all day; which, in her present uncertainty what to think of him, was an absence she scarcely regretted.
When the servants retired, Mr Delvile told her that he had that morning received two visits upon her account, both from admirers, who each pretended to having had leave to wait upon her from Mr Harrel.
He then named Sir Robert Floyer and Mr Marriot.
"I believe, indeed," said Cecilia, "that neither of them were treated perfectly well; to me, however, their own behaviour has by no means been strictly honourable. I have always, when referred to, been very explicit; and what other methods they were pleased to take, I cannot wonder should fail."
"I told them," said Mr Delvile, "that, since you were now under my roof, I could not refuse to receive their proposals, especially as there would be no impropriety in your alliance with either of them but I told them, at the same time, that I could by no means think of pressing their suit, as that was an office which, however well it might do for Mr Harrel, would be totally improper and unbecoming for me."
"Certainly;" said Cecilia, "and permit me, Sir, to entreat that, should they again apply to you, they may be wholly discouraged from repeating their visits, and assured that far from having trifled with them hitherto, the resolutions. I have declared will never be varied."
"I am happy," said Mrs Delvile, "to see so much spirit and discernment where arts of all sorts will be practised to ensnare and delude. Fortune and independence were never so securely lodged as in Miss Beverley, and I doubt not but her choice, whenever it is decided, will reflect as much honour upon her heart, as her difficulty in making it does upon her understanding."
Mr Delvile then enquired whether she had fixed upon any person to choose as a guardian in the place of Mr Harrel. No, she said, nor should she, unless it were absolutely necessary.
"I believe, indeed," said Mrs Delvile, "your affairs will not much miss him! Since I have heard of the excess of his extravagance, I have extremely rejoiced in the uncommon prudence and sagacity of his fair ward, who, in such dangerous hands, with less penetration and sound sense, might have been drawn into a thousand difficulties, and perhaps defrauded of half her fortune."
Cecilia received but little joy from this most unseasonable compliment, which, with many of the same sort that were frequently, though accidentally made, intimidated her from the confession she had planned and finding nothing but censure was likely to follow the discovery, she at length determined to give it up wholly, unless any connection should take place which might render necessary its avowal. Yet something she could not but murmur, that an action so detrimental to her own interest, and which, at the time, appeared indispensable to her benevolence, should now be considered as a mark of such folly and imprudence that she did not dare own it.