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[-375-]

CHAPTER CXXIII.

ARISTOCRATIC MORALS.

     IT was still dark, though pest seven o'clock, on the morning which succeeded the fire, when a somewhat strange scene occurred at the house of Sir Rupert Harborough in Tavistock Square.
     The baronet, in his slippers and dressing-gown, cautiously descended the stairs, guiding himself with his left hand placed upon the balustrade, and conducting a young female with his right.
     They maintained a profound silence, and stole down so carefully that it was easy to perceive they were fearful of alarming the household.
     But while he was still descending the stairs, leading the young female, who was fully dressed, even to her bonnet and shawl, the following thoughts passed rapidly through the mind of the baronet.
     "After all, it is absurd for me to take this trouble to get my new mistress secretly out of the house. Why should she not walk boldly in and out, night or day, I wonder? 'Pon my honour, I have a great mind that she should! But, no - whatever agreement exists between me and Lady Cecilia, a certain degree of decency must be observed before the servants, and for the sake of one's character with the neighbours. After all, prudence is perhaps the best system."
     His thoughts were at this moment interrupted by steps upon the stairs, which evidently were not the echoes of those of himself and his paramour.
     He paused and listened.
     Those steps were descending with great apparent caution, and yet a little more heavily than was quite consistent with entire secrecy.
     The baronet led his mistress hastily after him, crossed the hall, and then drew her along with him into an obscure corner near the front-door.
     "Silence, Caroline - silence," he whispered: "it is most likely the housemaid."
     The baronet and his mistress accordingly remained as quiet as mice in the corner where they were concealed.
     Meantime the steps gradually grew nearer and nearer; and now and then a low and suppressed whisper on the stairs met the baronet's ear.
     A vague suspicion that some adventure, which those who were interested in it were anxious to conduct with as much secrecy as possible, was in progress, now entered the mind of Sir Rupert Harborough. He accordingly became all attention.
     And now the steps ceased to echo upon the stairs, but advanced towards the front-door.
     The hall was pitch-dark; but the baronet was satisfied that two persons - a male and female - were the actors in the proceeding which now interested him; and all doubt on this head was banished from his mind when they halted within a few feet of the corner where he and his mistress were concealed.
     Then the whispering between the two persons whose conduct he was watching re-commenced.
     "Farewell, dearest Cecilia," said the low and subdued voice of a man.
     "Farewell, beloved Fitzhardinge," answered the other voice, with whose intonation, in spite of the whisper in which it spoke, the baronet was full well acquainted.
     Then there was the billing murmur of kisses, which continued for some moments.
     "When shall we meet again, dearest ?" demanded Fitzhardinge, still in the same low tone.
     "To-night-at the usual hour I will admit you," returned Lady Cecilia. "Sir Rupert goes to France to-night with his splendid friend Chichester."
     "Thank heaven for that blessing!" said the Grenadier Guardsman. "And now, adieu, sweet Cecilia, until this evening! But, tell me, before I depart - shalt I always find you the same warm, loving, devoted, fond creature you now are?"
     "Always-always to you," was the murmuring reply.
     Then kisses were exchanged again.
     "And am I indeed the first whom you have ever really loved? am I the only one who has ever tasted the pleasures of heaven in your arms, save your husband ?" continued the officer, intoxicated with the reminiscences of the night of bliss which he had enjoyed with his paramour. "Oh! tell me so once again - only once!"
     "You know that you alone could have tempted me to weakness, Fitzhardinge," answered the fair, but guilty patrician lady: "you alone could have induced me to forget my marriage vows!"
     "Now I shall depart happy, my beloved Cecilia," said the officer; and again he imprinted burning kisses upon the lady's lips.
     He then turned towards the front-door, and endeavoured to remove the chain: but it had become entangled with the key in some way or another; and he could not detach it.
     "What is the matter ?" inquired Cecilia, anxiously.
     " This infernal chain is fast," answered the officer; "and all I can do will not move it."
     "Let me try," said the lady; but her attempt was as vain as that of her lover.
     "What is to be done?" asked Fitzhardinge.
     "God knows!" returned Cecilia; "and it is growing late! In half-an-hour it will be daylight.. Besides, the servants will be about presently."
     "The devil!" said the officer, impatiently.
     "Stay," whispered Lady Cecilia: "I will go to the kitchen and obtain a light. Do not not move from this spot: I will not be a moment."
     She then glided away; and the officer remained at his post as motionless and as silent as a statue, for fear of alarming the inmates of the house. His thoughts were not, however, of the most pleasureable kind; and during the two minutes that Lady Cecilia was absent, his mind rapidly pictured all the probable consequences of detection-exposure, ridicule, law-suit, damages, the Queen's Bench prison, the divorce of the lady, and the necessity under which he should labour of making her his own wife.
     This gloomy perspective was suddenly enlivened by the gleam of a candle at the further end of the ball, and which was immediately followed by the appearance of Lady Cecilia, with a light.
     Still the corner in which Sir Rupert and his paramour were concealed was veiled in obscurity; while the the baronet obtained a full view of the tall Guardsman, dressed in plain clothes, standing within a couple of yards of his hiding-place, and also of Lady Cecilia, attired in a loose dressing-gown, as she advanced rapidly towards the place where her lover awaited her.
     But when Cecilia reached the immediate vicinity of the front-door, the gleam of the candle fell upon [-375-] that nook which had hitherto remained buried in obscurity.
     A scream escaped the lady's lips, and the candle fell from her hands.
     Fortunately it was not extinguished : Sir Rupert rushed forward and caught it up in time to preserve the light.
     Then, at a single glance, those four persons became aware of each other's position.
     A loud laugh escaped the lips of the baronet.
     "Sir," said the officer, advancing towards him, "for all our sakes avoid exposure: but if you require any satisfaction at my hand, you know who I am and where I reside."
     "Satisfaction!" exclaimed Lady Cecilia, ironically; for she had recovered her presence of mind the moment she had perceived the equivocal position in which her husband himself was placed in respect to the female who stood quivering and quaking behind him: "what satisfaction can Sir Rupert Harborough require, when he admits such a creature as that into his house ?"     
    And she pointed with a disdain and a disgust, by no means affected, towards her husbands paramour.
     "Creature indeed!" cried the young woman, now irritated and excited in her turn : "I think I am as honest as you, my lady, at all events."
    "Wretch!" murmured Cecilia between her teeth, as if the sight of the creature filled her with abhorrence and loathing.
     Ah! haughty lady! thou could thyself sin through lust: but thou couldst not brook the sight of one who sinned for bread!
     The young woman, over-awed by the air of insuperable disgust which marked the proud patrician at that moment, recoiled from her presence, and burst into tears.
     "Come, enough of this folly," said Sir Rupert, impatiently: "we shall have the servants here in a moment. Perhaps you and this gentleman," he continued, "will step into that room for a moment, while I open the door for my little companion here."
     Lady Cecilia tossed her head disdainfully, darted a look of sovereign contempt upon the abashed Caroline, and beckoned Captain Fitzhardinge to follow her into the adjacent parlour.
     Sir Rupert retained the light. He opened the door, the chain of which had only become entangled round the key, and dismissed his paramour, who was delighted to escape from that house where the terrible looks of the lady had so disconcerted her.
     The baronet then repaired to the parlour, and, having locked the door to prevent the intrusion of the servants, threw himself upon the sofa.
     "Well, on my honour!"  he exclaimed, bursting into a loud fit of laughter, "this is one of the most pleasant adventures that ever I heard or read of - 'pon my honour!"
     "Have you requested me to wait here in order to contribute to your hilarity, sir?" demanded Captain Fitzhardinge, indignantly.
     "My dear fellow," returned the baronet, "let us laugh in concert! Oh! I can assure you that you need fear no law-suits nor pistols from me!"
     "Fear, sir!" ejaculated the Guardsman: "I do not understand the word."
    "Well - expect, then, if that will suit you better, my dear captain," continued Sir Rupert Harborough. "You see that my wife and myself act as we please, independently of each other."
     "Sir Rupert!" exclaimed Cecilia, who was by no means anxious that her lover should be made acquainted with the terms of the agreement into which she and her husband had entered a short time previously, and the nature of which the reader will remember.
     "My dear Cecilia," observed the baronet, "is it not much better that your friend should be made acquainted with the grounds on which you have admitted him as your sworn knight and only love ?"
     "Cease this bantering. sir," cried Captain Fitzhardinge "Have I not already said that I am willing to give you any satisfaction which you may require ?"
     "And must I again tell you, my dear fellow," returned the baronet, with an affectation of familiarity, which only made his words the more bitter,  -" must I again tell you that I have no satisfaction - that I have none to ask, and you none to give? But I cannot allow you to consider me a grovelling  coward :- I must explain to you the grounds on which my forbearance is based."
    "Proceed, sir," said Captain Fitzbardinge, coolly. 
    "You will then allow me to retire to my own room ?" exclaimed Lady Cecilia, rising from the chair in which she had thrown herself.
     "No, my dear," said the baronet, gently forcing her back into her seat: "you must remain to corroborate the truth of what I am about to state to this gentleman."
     Lady Cecilia resumed the chair from which she had risen, and made no reply.
     "In one word, Captain Fitzhardinge," continued if the baronet, "there is a mutual understanding between my wife and myself, that we shall follow our own inclinations, whims, and caprices, without reference to the ties which bind us, or the vows which we pledged at church some years ago. All this may seem very strange: it is nevertheless true. Therefore, I have no more right to quarrel with Lady Cecilia on your account, than she has to abuse me on account of that young person whom you saw in the house just now. Now, then, my dear captain," continued the baronet, his tone again becoming bitterly ironical, "you may at your ease congratulate yourself upon being the only person that Lady Cecilia has ever loved, and the only one on whom she has ever bestowed her favours with the exception of her husband."
     "Then I am to understand, sir," said the officer, perfectly astounded at the turn which the affair had taken, "that you do not consider yourself offended or aggrieved by the - the —"
     "Not a whit!" ejaculated the baronet. "On the contrary - I have no doubt we shall be excellent friends in future."
     The captain bowed, and rose to depart. 
    Sir Rupert unlocked and opened the door for him, and then ushered him, with affected politeness, out of the house.
     When he returned to the parlour, he found Lady Cecilia red with indignation.
     "What means this scene, Sir Rupert," she said, "after our mutual compact ?"
     "My dear," answered tine baronet, calmly, "you treated my little friend in a most unpleasant manner, and I thought myself justified in retaliating to a certain extent. Besides, I was compelled to give an explanation to a man who would have otherwise looked upon me as a coward for failing to demand satisfaction of him."
     "But did you not consider that you have rendered me contemptible in his eyes?" demanded Lady Cecilia, burning with spite.
    [-377-]

     "Never fear, said the baronet., "Confiding in your sweet assurances that be alone has ever possessed your love, and that he alone, save your husband, has ever been blessed with the proofs of that affection, he will return ere long to your arms. Besides, am I not going to France to-night with my      splendid friend, Chichester ?"
     "This is cruel, Sir Rupert. If an accident made you acquainted with the conversation which passed between us —"
     "An accident, indeed !" interrupted Sir Rupert Harborough, laughing affectedly. " 'Pon my honour, the entire adventure is one of the drollest that ever occurred! But let us say no more upon the subject! Adhere to the compact on your side, and do not insult my friends —"
     "But a prostitute in my house!" ejaculated Lady Cecilia, still loathing the idea.
     "And my wife's paramour in my house!" cried Sir Rupert.
     "Oh, there is something refined in an amour with one's equal," said Lady Cecilia; but a wretch of that description —"
     "Enough of this I cried the baronet. "The servants are already about: let us each retire to our, own rooms."
    And this suggestion was immediately adopted.

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