Elinor, starting back with a look of horror
at the sight of him,
obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the
room; and her hand was already on the lock, when its action was
suspended by his hastily advancing, and saying, in a voice rather of
command than supplication
"Miss Dashwood, for half an hour- for ten minutes- I entreat you to stay."
"No, sir," she replied with firmness, "I shall not stay. Your
business cannot be with me. The servants, I suppose, forgot to tell
you that Mr. Palmer was not in the house."
"Had they told me," he cried with vehemence, "that Mr. Palmer
and all his relations were at the devil, it would not have turned me
from the door. My business is with you, and only you."
"With me!"- in the utmost amazement- "well, sir, be quick- and
if you can, less violent."
"Sit down, and I will be both."
She hesitated; she knew not what to do. The possibility of Colonel
Brandon's arriving and finding her there came across her. But she
had promised to hear him; and her curiosity no less than her honor was
engaged. After a moment's recollection, therefore, concluding that
prudence required dispatch, and that her acquiescence would best
promote it, she walked silently towards the table, and sat down. He
took the opposite chair; and for half a minute not a word was said by either.
"Pray be quick, sir," said Elinor, impatiently; "I have no time to spare."
He was sitting in an attitude of deep meditation, and seemed not to hear her.
"Your sister," said he, with abruptness, a moment afterwards,
"is out of danger. I heard it from the servant. God be praised! But is
it true? Is it really true?"
Elinor would not speak. He repeated the enquiry with yet greater eagerness.
"For God's sake tell me, is she out of danger, or is she not?"
"We hope she is."
He rose up, and walked across the room.
"Had I known as much half an hour ago;- but since I am here,"
speaking with a forced vivacity as he returned to his seat,- "what
does it signify? For once, Miss Dashwood- it will be the last time,
perhaps- let us be cheerful together. I am in a fine mood for
gaiety. Tell me honestly," a deeper glow overspreading his cheeks, "do
you think me most a knave or a fool?"
Elinor looked at him with greater astonishment than ever. She
began to think that be must be in liquor;- the strangeness of such a
visit, and of such manners, seemed no otherwise intelligible; and with
this impression she immediately rose, saying,-
"Mr. Willoughby, I advise you, at present, to return to Combe. I
am not at leisure to remain with you longer. Whatever your business
may be with me, will it be better recollected and explained to-morrow."
"I understand you," he replied, with an expressive smile, and a
voice perfectly calm; "yes, I am very drunk. A pint of porter with
my cold beef at Marlborough was enough to overset me."
"At Marlborough!" cried Elinor, more and more at a loss to
understand what he would be at.
"Yes,- I left London this morning at eight o'clock, and the only
ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time procured
me a nunchion at Marlborough."
The steadiness of his manner, and the intelligence of his eye as
he spoke, convincing Elinor, that whatever other unpardonable folly
might bring him to Cleveland, he was not brought there by
intoxication, she said, after a moment's recollection,-
"Mr. Willoughby, you ought to feel, and I certainly do that
after what has passed, your coming here in this manner, and forcing
yourself upon my notice, requires a very particular excuse. What is it
than you mean by it?"
"I mean," said he, with serious energy, "if I can, to make you
hate me one degree less than you do now. I mean to offer some kind
of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past; to open my whole
heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always
a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness".
"Is this the real reason of your coming?"
"Upon my soul it is," was his answer, with a warmth which
brought all the former Willoughby to her remembrance, and, in spite of
herself, made her think him sincere.
"If that is all, you may be satisfied already; for Marianne
does, she has long forgiven you."
"Has she?" he cried, in the same eager tone. "Then she has
forgiven me before she ought to have done it. But she shall forgive me
again, and on more reasonable grounds. Now will you listen to me?"
Elinor bowed her assent.
"I do not know," said he, after a pause of expectation on her
side, and thoughtfulness on his own, "how you may have accounted for
my behaviour to your sister, or what diabolical motive you may have
imputed to me. Perhaps you will hardly think the better of me,- it
is worth the trial, however,- and you shall hear every thing. When I
first became intimate in your family, I had no other intention, no
other view in the acquaintance, than to pass my time pleasantly
while I was obliged to remain in Devonshire, more pleasantly than I
had ever done before. Your sister's lovely person, and interesting
manners, could not but please me; and her behaviour to me almost
from the first was of a kind- it is astonishing, when I reflect on
what it was, and what she was, that my heart should have been so
insensible! But at first, I must confess, my vanity only was
elevated by it. Careless of her happiness, thinking only of my own
amusement, giving way to feelings which I had always been too much
in the habit of indulging, I endeavoured, by every means in my
power, to make myself pleasing to her, without any design of returning
Miss Dashwood, at this point, turning her eyes on him with the
most angry contempt, stopped him, by saying:-
"It is hardly worth while, Mr. Willoughby, for you to relate, or
for me to listen any longer. Such a beginning as this cannot be
followed by any thing. Do not let me be pained by hearing anything
more on the subject."
"I insist on you hearing the whole of it," he replied. "My fortune
was never large, and I had always been expensive, always in the
habit of associating with people of better income than myself. Every
year since my coming of age, or even before, I believe, had added to
my debts; and though the death of my old cousin, Mrs. Smith, was to
set me free, yet that event being uncertain, and possibly far distant,
it had been for some time my intention to re-establish my
circumstances by marrying a woman of fortune. To attach myself to your
sister, therefore, was not a thing to be thought of; and with a
meanness, selfishness, cruelty, which no indignant, no contemptuous
look, even of yours, Miss Dashwood, can ever reprobate too much- I was
acting in this manner, trying to engage her regard, without a
thought of returning it. But one thing may be said for me: even in
that horrid state of selfish vanity, I did not know the extent of
the injury I meditated, because I did not then know what it was to
love. But have I ever known it? Well may it be doubted; for, had I
really loved, could I have sacrificed my feelings to vanity, to
avarice? or what is more, could I have sacrificed hers? But I have
done it. To avoid a comparative poverty, which her affection and her
society would have deprived of all its horrors, I have, by raising
myself to affluence, lost every thing that could make it a blessing."
"You did, then," said Elinor, a little softened, "believe yourself
at one time attached to her?"
"To have resisted such attractions, to have withstood such
tenderness! Is there a man on earth who could have done it? Yes, I
found myself, by insensible degrees, sincerely fond of her; and the
happiest hours of my life were what I spent with her when I felt my
intentions were strictly honourable, and my feelings blameless. Even
then, however, when fully determined on paying my addresses to her,
I allowed myself most improperly to put off, from day to day, the
moment of doing it, from an unwillingness to enter into an
engagement while my circumstances were so greatly embarrassed. I
will not reason here- nor will I stop for you to expatiate on the
absurdity, and the worse than absurdity, of scrupling to engage my
faith where my honour was already bound. The event has proved that I
was a cunning fool, providing with great circumspection for a possible
opportunity of making myself contemptible and wretched for ever. At
last, however, my resolution was taken; and I had determined, as
soon as I could engage her alone, to justify the attentions I had so
invariably paid her, and openly assure her of an affection which I had
already taken such pains to display. But in the interim - in the
interim of the very few hours that were to pass before I could have an
opportunity of speaking with her in private- a circumstance
occurred- an unlucky circumstance- to ruin all my resolution, and with
it all my comfort. A discovery took place,"- here he hesitated and
looked down. "Mrs. Smith had somehow or other been informed, I imagine
by some distant relation, whose interest it was to deprive me of her
favour, of an affair, a connection- but I need not explain myself
farther," he added, looking at her with an heightened colour and an
enquiring eye- "your particular intimacy- you have probably heard
the whole story long ago."
"I have," returned Elinor, colouring likewise, and hardening her
heart anew against any compassion for him, "I have heard it all; and
how you will explain away any part of your guilt in that dreadful
business I confess is beyond my comprehension."
"Remember," cried Willoughby, "from whom you received the account.
Could it be an impartial one? I acknowledge that her situation and her
character ought to have been respected by me. I do not mean to justify
myself, but at the same time cannot leave you to suppose that I have
nothing to urge- that because she was injured she was
irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, she must be a saint. If
the violence of her passions, the weakness of her understanding- I
do not mean, however, to defend myself. Her affection for me
deserved better treatment; and I often, with great self-reproach,
recall the tenderness which, for a very short time, had the power of
creating any return. I wish- I heartily wish it had never been. But
I have injured more than herself; and I have injured one, whose
affection for me (may I say it?) was scarcely less warm than hers; and
whose mind- oh, how infinitely superior!"
"Your indifference, however, towards that unfortunate girl- I must
say it, unpleasant to me as the discussion of such a subject may
well be- your indifference is no apology for your cruel neglect of
her. Do not think yourself excused by any weakness, any natural defect
of understanding on her side, in the wanton cruelty so evident on
yours. You must have known, that while you were enjoying yourself in
Devonshire, pursuing fresh schemes, always gay, always happy, she
was reduced to the extremest indigence."
"But, upon my soul, I did not know it," he warmly replied: "I
did not recollect that I had omitted to give her my direction; and
common sense might have told her how to find it out."
"Well, sir, and what said Mrs. Smith?"
"She taxed me with the offence at once, and my confusion may be
guessed. The purity of her life, the formality of her notions, her
ignorance of the world- every thing was against me. The matter
itself I could not deny, and vain was every endeavour to soften it.
She was previously disposed, I believe, to doubt the morality of my
conduct in general, and was, moreover, discontented with the very
little attention, the very little portion of my time that I had
bestowed on her in my present visit. In short, it ended in a total
breach. By one measure I might have saved myself. In the height of her
morality, good woman! she offered to forgive the past, if I would
marry Eliza. That could not be; and I was formally dismissed from
her favour and her house. The night following this affair- I was to go
the next morning- was spent by me in deliberating on what my future
conduct should be. The struggle was great, but it ended too soon. My
affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to
me- it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or
get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches,
which I was naturally inclined to feel; and expensive society had
increased. I had reason to believe myself secure of my present wife,
if I chose to address her, and I persuaded myself to think that
nothing else in common prudence remained for me to do. A heavy
scene, however, awaited me before I could leave Devonshire: I was
engaged to dine with you on that very day; some apology was
therefore necessary for my breaking this engagement. But whether I
should write this apology, or deliver it in person, was a point of
long debate. To see Marianne I felt would be dreadful; and I even
doubted whether I could see her again and keep to my resolution. In
that point, however, I undervalued my own magnanimity, as the event
declared; for I went, I saw her, and saw her miserable, and left her
miserable; and left her hoping never to see her again."
"Why did you call, Mr. Willoughby?" said Elinor, reproachfully; "a
note would have answered every purpose. Why was it necessary to call?"
"It was necessary to my own pride. I could not bear to leave the
country in a manner that might lead you, or the rest of the
neighbourhood, to suspect any part of what had really passed between
Mrs. Smith and myself, and I resolved, therefore, on calling at the
cottage, in my way to Honiton. The sight of your dear sister, however,
was really dreadful; and, to heighten the matter, I found her alone.
You were all gone, I do not know where. I had left her only the
evening before, so fully, so firmly resolved within my self on doing
right! A few hours were to have engaged her to me for ever; and I
remember how happy, how gay were my spirits, as I walked from the
cottage to Allenham, satisfied with myself, delighted with every body?
But in this, our last interview of friendship, I approached her with a
sense of guilt that almost took from me the power of dissembling.
Her sorrow, her disappointment, her deep regret, when I told her
that I was obliged to leave Devonshire so immediately- I never shall
forget it- united, too, with such reliance, such confidence in me! Oh,
God! what a hard-hearted rascal I was!"
They were both silent for a few moments. Elinor first spoke.
"Did you tell her that you should soon return?"
"I do not know what I told her," he replied, impatiently; "less
than was due to the past beyond a doubt, and in all likelihood much
more than was justified by the future. I cannot think of it. It
won't do. Then came your dear mother to torture me farther, with all
her kindness and confidence. Thank Heaven! it did torture me. I was
miserable. Miss Dashwood, you cannot have an idea of the comfort it
gives me to look back on my own misery. I owe such a grudge to
myself for the stupid, rascally folly of my own heart, that all my
past sufferings under it are only triumph and exultation to me now.
Well, I went, left all that I loved, and went to those to whom, at
best, I was only indifferent. My journey to town- travelling with my
own horses, and therefore so tediously- no creature to speak to- my
own reflections so cheerful- when I looked forward every thing so
inviting!- when I looked back at Barton, the picture so soothing!- oh,
it was a blessed journey!"
"Well, sir," said Elinor, who, though pitying him, grew
impatient for his departure, "and this is all?"
"All!- no:- have you forgot what passed in town? That infamous
letter? Did she show it you?"
"Yes, I saw every note that passed."
"When the first of hers reached me (as it immediately did, for I
was in town the whole time), what I felt is, in the common phrase, not
to be expressed; in a more simple one, perhaps too simple to raise
my emotion, my feelings were very, very painful. Every line, every
word, was- in the hackneyed metaphor which their dear writer, were she
here, would forbid- a dagger to my heart. To know that Marianne was in
town was, in the same language, a thunderbolt. Thunderbolts and
daggers! what a reproof would she have given me! Her taste, her
opinions- I believe they are better known to me than my own, and I
am sure they are dearer."
Elinor's heart, which had undergone many changes in the course
of this extraordinary conversation, was now softened again; yet she
felt it her duty to check such ideas in her companion as the last.
"This is not right, Mr. Willoughby. Remember that you are married.
Relate only what in your conscience you think necessary for me to hear."
"Marianne's note, by assuring me that I was still as dear to her
as in former days- that in spite of the many, many weeks we had been
separated, she was as constant in her own feelings, and as full of
faith in the constancy of mine as ever- awakened all my remorse. I say
awakened, because time and London, business and dissipation, had in
some measure quieted it, and I had been growing a fine hardened
villain, fancying myself indifferent to her, and choosing to fancy
that she too must have become indifferent to me; talking to myself
of our past attachment as a mere idle, trifling business; shrugging up
my shoulders in proof of its being so, and silencing every reproach,
overcoming every scruple, by secretly saying now and then, 'I shall be
heartily glad to hear she is well married.' But this note made me know
myself better. I felt that she was infinitely dearer to me than any
other woman in the world, and that I was using her infamously. But
every thing was then just settled between Miss Grey and me. To retreat
was impossible. All that I had to do was to avoid you both. I sent
no answer to Marianne, intending by that to preserve myself from her
farther notice; and for some time I was even determined not to call in
Berkeley Street; but at last, judging it wiser to affect the air of
a cool, common acquaintance than anything else, I watched you all
safely out of the house one morning, and left my name."
"Watched us out of the house!"
"Even so. You would be surprised to hear how often I watched
you, how often I was on the point of falling in with you. I have
entered many a shop to avoid your sight as the carriage drove by.
Lodging as I did in Bond Street, there was hardly a day in which I did
not catch a glimpse of one or other of you; and nothing but the most
constant watchfulness on my side, a most invariably prevailing
desire to keep out of your sight, could have separated us so long. I
avoided the Middletons as much as possible, as well as every body else
who was likely to prove an acquaintance in common. Not aware of
their being in town, however, I blundered on Sir John, I believe,
the first day of his coming, and the day after I had called on Mrs.
Jennings. He asked me to a party, a dance at his house in the evening.
Had he not told me as an inducement that you and your sister were to
be there, I should have felt it too certain a thing to trust myself
near him. The next morning brought another short note from Marianne-
still affectionate, open, artless, confiding- everything that could
make my conduct most hateful. I could not answer it. I tried- but
could not frame a sentence. But I thought of her, I believe, every
moment of the day. If you can pity me, Miss Dashwood, pity my
situation as it was then. With my head and heart full of your
sister, I was forced to play the happy lover to another woman! Those
three or four weeks were worse than all. Well, at last, as I need
not tell you, you were forced on me; and what a sweet figure I cut!
what an evening of agony Willoughby was! Marianne, beautiful as an
angel on one side, calling me such a tone! Oh, God! holding out her
hand to me, asking me for an explanation, with those bewitching eyes
fixed in such speaking solicitude on my face! and Sophia, jealous as
the devil on the other, looking all that was- Well, it does not
signify; it is over now. Such an evening! I ran away from you all as
soon as I could; but not before I had seen Marianne's sweet face as
white as death. That was the last, last look I ever had of her; the
last manner in which she appeared to me. It was a horrid sight! yet
when I thought of her to-day as really dying, it was a kind of comfort
to me to imagine that I knew exactly how she would appear to those who
saw her last in this world. She was before me, constantly before me,
as I travelled, in the same look and hue."
A short pause of mutual thoughtfulness succeeded. Willoughby first
rousing himself, broke it thus:-
"Well, let me make haste and be gone. Your sister is certainly
better, certainly out of danger?"
"We are assured of it."
"Your poor mother, too! doting on Marianne."
"But the letter, Mr. Willoughby, your own letter: have you any
thing to say about that?"
"Yes, yes, that in particular. Your sister wrote to me again,
you know, the very next morning. You saw what she said. I was
breakfasting at the Ellisons',- and her letter, with some others,
was brought to me there from my lodgings. It happened to catch
Sophia's eye before it caught mine;- and its size, the elegance of the
paper, the handwriting altogether, immediately gave her a suspicion.
Some vague report had reached her before of my attachment to some
young lady in Devonshire, and what had passed within her observation
the preceding evening had marked who the young lady was, and made
her more jealous than ever. Affecting that air of playfulness,
therefore, which is delightful in a woman one loves, she opened the
letter directly, and read its contents. She was well paid for her
impudence. She read what made her wretched. Her wretchedness I could
have borne, but her passion- her malice- at all events it must be
appeased. And, in short, what do you think of my letter-writing?
delicate- tender- truly feminine- was it not?"
"Your wife! The letter was in your own hand-writing."
"Yes, but I had only the credit of servilely copying such
sentences as I was ashamed to put my name to. The original was all her
own- her own happy thoughts and gentle diction. But what could I do?
We were engaged, every thing in preparation, the day almost fixed- but
I am talking like a fool. Preparation! Day! In honest words, her money
was necessary to me; and in a situation like mine any thing was to
be done to prevent a rupture. And after all, what did it signify to my
character, in the opinion of Marianne and her friends, in what
language my answer was couched? It must have been only to one end.
My business was to declare myself a scoundrel; and whether I did it
with a bow or a bluster was of little importance. 'I am ruined for
ever in their opinion,' said I to myself: 'I am shut out for ever from
their society; they already think me an unprincipled fellow; this
letter will only make them think me a blackguard one.' Such were my
reasonings as, in a sort of desperate carelessness, I copied my wife's
words, and parted with the last relics of Marianne. Her three
notes,- unluckily they were all in my pocketbook, or I should have
denied their existence, and hoarded them for ever- I was forced to put
them up, and could not even kiss them. And the lock of hair- that,
too, I had always carried about me in the same pocket-book, which
was now searched by madam with the most ingratiating virulence,- the
dear lock, all, every memento was torn from me."
"You are very wrong, Mr. Willoughby; very blamable," said
Elinor; while her voice, in spite of herself, betrayed her
compassionate emotion; "you ought not to speak in this way, either
of Mrs. Willoughby or my sister. You had made your own choice. It
was not forced on you. Your wife has a claim to your politeness, to
your respect, at least. She must be attached to you, or she would
not have married you. To treat her with unkindness, to speak of her
slightingly, is no atonement to Marianne; nor can I suppose it a
relief to your own conscience."
"Do not talk to me of my wife," said he with a heavy sigh; "she
does not deserve your compassion. She knew I had no regard for her
when we married. Well, married we were, and came down to Combe Magna
to be happy, and afterwards returned to town to be gay. And now do you
pity me, Miss Dashwood? Or have I said all this to no purpose? Am
I,- be it only one degree,- am I less guilty in your opinion than I
was before? My intentions were not always wrong. Have I explained away
any part of my guilt?"
"Yes, you have certainly removed something- a little. You have
proved yourself, on the whole, less faulty than I had believed you.
You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked. But I hardly
know- the misery that you have inflicted- I hardly know what could
have made it worse."
"Will you repeat to your sister, when she is recovered, what I
have been telling you? Let me be a little lightened, too, in her
opinion as well as in yours. You tell me that she has forgiven me
already. Let me be able to fancy that a better knowledge of my
heart, and of my present feelings, will draw from her a more
spontaneous, more natural, more gentle, less dignified, forgiveness.
Tell her of my misery and my penitence;- tell her that my heart was
never inconstant to her; and, if you will, that at this moment she
is dearer to me than ever."
"I will tell her all that is necessary to what may comparatively
be called your justification. But you have not explained to me the
particular reason of your coming now, nor how you heard of her illness."
"Last night, in Drury Lane lobby, I ran against Sir John
Middleton; and when he saw who I was, for the first time these two
months, he spoke to me. That he had cut me ever since my marriage, I
had seen without surprise or resentment. Now, however, his
good-natured, honest, stupid soul, full of indignation against me, and
concern for your sister, could not resist the temptation of telling me
what he knew ought to, though probably he did not think it would,
vex me horridly. As bluntly as he could speak it, therefore, he told
me that Marianne Dashwood was dying of a putrid fever at Cleveland-
a letter that morning received from Mrs. Jennings declared her
danger most imminent- the Palmers are all gone off in a fright, &c.
I was too much shocked to be able to pass myself off as insensible
even to the undiscerning Sir John. His heart was softened in seeing
mine suffer; and so much of his ill-will was done away, that when we
parted, he almost shook me by the hand while he reminded me of an
old promise about a pointer puppy. What I felt on hearing that your
sister was dying, and dying, too, believing me the greatest villain
upon earth, scorning, hating me in her latest moments- for how could I
tell what horrid projects might not have been imputed? One person I
was sure would represent me as capable of any thing. What I felt was
dreadful! My resolution was soon made, and at eight o'clock this
morning I was in my carriage. Now you know all."
Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the
irreparable injury which too early an independence, and its consequent
habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the
character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person
and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a
feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and
vain- extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish.
Vanity while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another,
had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least
its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty
propensity in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment.
The attachment, from which against honor, against feeling, against
every better interest, he had outwardly torn himself, now, when no
longer allowable, governed every thought; and the connection, for
the sake of which he had, with little scruple, left her sister to
misery, was likely to prove a source of unhappiness to himself of a
far more incurable nature. From a reverie of this kind she was
recalled at the end of some minutes by Willoughby, who, rousing
himself from a reverie at least equally painful, started up in
preparation for going, and said-
"There is no use in staying here; I must be off."
"Are you going back to town?"
"No- to Combe Magna. I have business there; from thence to town in
a day or two. Good-by."
He held out his hand. She could not refuse to give him hers: he
pressed it with affection.
"And you do think something better of me than you did?" said he,
letting it fall, and leaning against the mantel-piece, as if
forgetting he was to go.
Elinor assured him that she did; that she forgave, pitied,
wished him well- was even interested in his happiness- and added
some gentle counsel as to the behavior most likely to promote it.
His answer was not very encouraging.
"As to that," said he, "I must rub through the world as well as
I can. Domestic happiness is out of the question. If, however, I am
allowed to think that you and yours feel an interest in my fate and
actions, it may be the means- it may put me on my guard- at least it
may be something to live for. Marianne, to be sure, is lost to me
for ever. Were I even by any blessed chance at liberty again-"
Elinor stopped him with a reproof.
"Well," he replied, "once more good-by. I shall now go away and
live in dread of one event."
"What do you mean?"
"Your sister's marriage."
"You are very wrong. She can never be more lost to you than she is now."
"But she will be gained by some one else. And if that some one
should be the very he whom, of all others, I could least bear- but I
will not stay to rob myself of all your compassionate good-will, by
showing that where I have most injured I can least forgive. Good-by-
God bless you!"
And with these words he almost ran out of the room.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 43 Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 45