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[-377-]

CHAPTER CXXIV.

THE INTRIGUES OF A DEMIREP

LADY CECILIA retired to her own chamber, locked the door, threw herself upon the bed, and burst into tears.
    Oh, at that moment how she hated her husband - how she hated herself!
    She wept not in regret of her evil ways: she poured forth tears of spite when she thought of the opinion that her new lover must form of her, after the explanation given by Sir Rupert.
    For Captain Fitzhardinge was rich and confiding; and the fair patrician had calculated upon rendering him subservient alike to her necessities and her licentiousness.
    "But, now - what must we think of one who be-[-378-]stowed upon him those favours that were alienated from her husband by a former compact? What opinion could he entertain, of a woman who sinned deliberately by virtue of an understanding with him whom she had sworn to respect and obey?
    It could not be supposed that the morality of Captain Fitzbardinge was of a very elevated nature; but in the occurrence of that morning there was something calculated to shock the mind the least delicate - the least refined.
    Yes - Lady Cecilia wept; for she thought of all this!
    And then her rage against her husband knew no bounds.
    "The wretch - the cowardly wretch!" she exclaimed aloud, as she almost gnashed her teeth with rage; "was he not born to be my ruin? From the moment that I saw him first until the present hour, has he not been an evil genius In my way? Yes - oh! yes: he is a demon sent to torture me in this world for my faults and failings! Seduced by him when I was very young, I might have been plunged into disgrace and infamy, had not my father purchased his consent to espouse me. Then the large sum that was paid to save my honour was squandered in the payment of his debts, or in ministering to his extravagances. Now, what is our position? what is my position? Shunned by my own father and mother, I am left dependent on him who knows not how to obtain enough for himself; or else I - I, the daughter of a peer, must sell myself to some Mr. Greenwood or Captain Fitzhardinge for the means to support my rank! Oh! it is atrocious: I begin to loathe myself! Would that I were the mistress of some wealthy man who would be constant and kind towards me, rather than the wife of this beggared baronet!
    Lady Cecilia rose from the bed, advanced towards the mirror, and smoothed her hair. Then she perceived that her eyes were red with weeping.
    "Absurd!" she exclaimed, a contemptuous smile curling her lips; "why should I shed tears upon the past which no human power can recall? Rather let me avail myself of the present, and endeavour to provide for the future. Am I not young? and does not my glass tell me that I am beautiful? Even the immaculate - the taintless - the exemplary rector of Saint David's paid me a compliment on my good looks when I met him at Lady Marlborough's, a few days ago. Yes - and methought that if the most evangelical of evangelical clergymen of the Established Church could for a moment be moved by my smile, - if that admired preacher, who publicly avows that he refrains from marriage upon principle, - if that holy minister who is quoted as a pattern to his class, and an example for the whole world, - if he could whisper a word savouring of a compliment in my ear, and then seem ashamed at the moment of weakness into which his admiration had betrayed him ;- if my charms could effect so great a miracle as this, what may they not do for me in helping me on to fortune ?"
    She paused and considered herself for some minutes in the glass opposite to her.
    "Yes," she cried, again breaking silence, "I will no longer remain in the same house with my unprincipled and heartless husband: I will no longer breathe the tainted atmosphere which he inhabits. His very name is associated in my mind with forgery and felony! I will break the shackle which yet partially binds me to him; I will emancipate myself from the restraint and thraldom wherein I now exist. Fitzhardinge is rich and loving; perhaps  he may still feel the influence of the silken chain which I threw around his heart. We will see! If he come gladly back to my feet, my aim is won; if not - well, -and she smiled, complacently,- there are others as rich, as handsome, and as easily enchained as he!"
    Lady Cecilia proceeded to her desk and wrote the following note:-     

    "Come to me, dearest Fitzhardinge, at three precisely, this afternoon: I have much to say respecting the specious falsehoods which Sir Rupert uttered this morning in order to conceal the natural cowardice of his disposition. He was afraid to involve himself in a quarrel with you; and he excused his unmanly forbearance by means of assertions that reflected upon me. Come, then, to me at three; I shall be alone, and at home only to you."     

    This note was immediately conveyed to Captain Fitzhardinge by Cecilia's lady's-maid, who was the confidant of her mistress's intrigues.
    Having despatched her missive, the baronet's wife proceeded to the duties of the toilet.
    This employment, breakfast, the newspaper, and a novel, wiled away the time until about one o'clock, when Lady Cecilia, having ascertained that her husband had gone out half an hour previously, descended to the drawing-room.
    She was attired in a simple and unpretending manner; but then she knew that this style became her best.
    She was determined to captivate that day; and certainly she had seldom appeared to greater advantage.
    Her rich auburn hair, - of a hue as warm as the disposition which it characterised, - fell in long hyperion ringlets upon her sloping shoulders: her blue eyes were expressive of a feeling of languid voluptuousness; and her pure complexion was set off by the dark dress that she wore.
    The time-piece upon the mantel had scarcely struck two, when a loud double-knock at the front-door resounded through the house.
    Lady Cecilia started from her seat, for she had forgotten to instruct the servants "that she was only at home to Captain Fitzhardinge." But she was too late to remedy her neglect; the summons was already answered ere she had gained the landing on which the drawing room opened.
    She accordingly returned to the sofa, and composed herself to receive the visitor, whoever it might be.
    In a few moments the servant announced the Earl of Warrington.
    With this nobleman Lady Cecilia was only very slightly acquainted, she having met him on two or three occasions, some years previously, at her father's house.
    "I must apologise, Lady Harborough, for this intrusion," said the earl; "but I trust to your kindness to pardon me in that respect, and to afford me a little information concerning a matter which has suddenly assumed an air of importance in my eyes."
    "No apology is necessary for the honour which your lordship confers upon me by visiting my humble abode," answered Lady Cecilia; "and with regard to the subject to which your lordship alludes, I shall be happy to furnish any information in my power."
    "Your ladyship's courtesy encourages me to proceed," continued the earl. "Forgive me if I must direct your attention to one of those pieces of gossip - I will not say scandal - which so often becomes current in the sphere in which we move. I allude to an anecdote relative to a certain mysterious remit-[-379-]tance of a thousand pounds which was forwarded to Sir Rupert Harborough, and which your ladyship undertook to disburse for his advantage."
    "Your ladyship [-sic. ed.-] places the matter in as delicate a way as possible," said Lady Cecilia, affecting to laugh heartily in order to conceal the shame which she really experienced at this reference to her unworthy action; "but it was only a pleasant trick which I played Sir Rupert. The truth is, Sir Rupert is not the most generous man towards his wife and when I found that some honourable person was repaying him a debt contracted a long time previously, I thought that, as the amount fell so providentially into my hands, I could not do better than appropriate it to the liquidation of the arrears of pin-money due to me."
    "Very just, madam," said the Earl, forcing himself to smile at the incident which Lady Cecilia represented in the light of a venial little advantage by a wife against her husband. "I believe that the amount was forwarded anonymously?"
    "To tell you the candid truth, my lord," answered Lady Cecilia, "the whole affair was so strange and romantic, that I kept, as a great curiosity, the letter which accompanied the bank-note. If you possess any interest in the matter —"
    "Your ladyship knows that I am not seeking this information without some object," said the earl, emphatically. "Would it be indiscreet," he added, in a less serious tone, "to request a glimpse at that great curiosity?"
    "Oh! by no means," returned Lady Cecilia, who affected to treat the whole matter as an excellent joke; then, rising from her seat,, she hastened to her work-box, and in a few moments produced the letter. "It was not so scented with musk when I received it," she added, laughing; "but it was redolent of a far more grateful flavour - that of this world's mammon."
    "I believe mammon is the deity whom we all afore or less adore," observed the Earl of Warrington, gallantly taking up the tone of chit-chat, rather than formality, which Lady Cecilia endeavoured to infuse into the conversation: then, as he received the letter from her hand, he said, "May I be permitted to read it?"
    "Oh, certainly, my lord: and if you have any curiosity in the matter, you are welcome to retain it," answered Lady Cecilia.
    "With your leave, I will do so," said the earl.
    "And now that I have replied to all your lordship's queries," continued Lady Cecilia, "may I ask one in my turn ?"
    The earl bowed, and smiled.
    "Who was the indiscreet eave's-dropper or tale-bearer that gave your lordship the hint concerning this business?" asked the baronet's wife.
    "Methinks that your ladyship has been at no pains to conceal the affair, said the earl: "and what hundreds have talked about cannot well be charged against an individual tale-bearer."
    "Nay, my lord, I mentioned it but to two persons," exclaimed Cecilia. "The first was to Sir Rupert Harborough - in a moment of pique; and the other was to - a - a - particular friend —"
    "I am not indiscreet enough to ask for names," interrupted the earl, rising; and he hastened to take his leave, ere Lady Cecilia could reiterate her question relative to the person who had communicated to him the fact of the intercepted thousand pounds.
    It was now nearly three o'clock;' and Lady Cecilia again composed herself to receive Captain Fitzhardinge.
    Punctual to the hour, the officer was introduced into the drawing-room.
    But his manner, instead of being all love and tenderness, was simply polite and friendly.
    "Fitzhardinge," said the lady, "I perceive that you have allowed yourself to be prejudiced against me."     
    "Not prejudiced, Lady Cecilia," answered the guardsman; "but I confess that I am no longer under the influence of a blind passion. The conduct of your husband this morning was that of a man who was acting consistently with the circumstances which he explained, and not that of an individual who was playing a part in order to disguise the innate cowardice of his disposition. No, Cecilia - your husband is not a coward - whatever else he may be! And now one word relative to myself. So long as I believed that you made to me, as a proof of love, the generous sacrifice of conjugal fidelity, - so long as I believed that an affection for me alone induced you to violate your marriage vow, - then the dream was sweet, though not the less criminal. But when I discovered that you made no sacrifice to me, -that you came not to my arms warm with a love that trembled at detection, but secure in the existence of a heartless compact with your husband, - then my eyes were opened, and I saw that Lady Cecilia Harborough had risked nothing of all that she had pretended to risk - sacrificed nothing of all that she had affected to sacrifice - for the sake of Captain Fitzhardinge! Thus the delusion was destroyed; and although our amour might be based upon more impunity than I had ever conceived, it would be the less sweet! The charm - the spell is broken!"
    "And have you come here to tell me all this - to insult me with your moralisings?" demanded Lady Cecilia, the fire of indignation and wounded pride displacing the languid voluptuousness which had at first reigned in the expression of her eyes.
    "No! not to insult you, Cecilia," answered the officer; "but to explain in an open and candid manner the motive which leads me to say: 'Let us forget the past, as it regards each other!'
    "Be it it so," said Lady Cecilia, deeply humiliated, and now hating the handsome officer much more than she had ever liked him. "In that case, sir, we can have nothing more to say to each other."
    Captain Fitzhardinge bowed, and withdrew.
    Lady Cecilia fell back upon the sofa, murmuring "Beaten - beaten! defeated in this hope!"
    And tears came into her eyes.
    But in a few moments she exclaimed, "How foolish is this grief! how useless this indignation! Sorrow and hatred are the consuming enemies of female beauty! Did I not say ere now that there were others in the world as rich, as handsome, and as confiding as Captain Fitzhardinge ?"
    As she uttered those words aloud, the haughty beauty wiped her eyes, and composed her countenance.
    She rose and advanced towards the mirror to assure herself that her appearance indicated naught of those tears which she had shed; and as she contemplated her features with a very pardonable pride, the reminiscence of the compliment which the clergyman of Saint David's had paid her flashed to her mind.
    She smiled triumphantly as she pondered upon it; and that vague, shadowy, unsubstantial phrase of flattery, that now formed the topic of her thoughts, gradually assumed a more palpable shape in her imagination, - became invested with a significant [-380-]  meaning,  - then grew into a revelation of passion, - and was at length embodied into a perfect romance of love with all its enjoyments and blisses.
    The ardent soul of that frail woman converted the immaculate clergyman into an admirer betrayed in an unguarded moment into a confession of love, - then changed him into a suitor kneeling at her feet, - and by rapid degrees carried him on, through all the mystic phases of passion, until he became a happy lover reclining on her bosom.
    With a presumption which only characterises minds of her warm temperament and loose ideas of morality, Cecilia triumphed in the half-hour's impassioned reverie which succeeded the departure of Captain Fitzhardinge, over the ascetic virtue and self-denying integrity which public opinion ascribed to the rector of Saint David's.
    Then, when some trifling incident aroused her from this wild and romantic dream, she did not smile at its folly - she regarded it as a species of inspiration prompting her in which direction to play the artillery of her charms.
    "Yes," she exclaimed, musing aloud; "he once said 'I never saw you look so well as you appear this evening :' -those words shall be a motto to a new chapter in my life!"
    And she smiled triumphantly as if her daring aim were already accomplished.
    "Thirty-six years of age," she abruptly resumed her musings, -"wealthy - handsome - unmarried, from principle," - and here an erratic smile of mingled satisfaction and irony played on her rosy lips, - "and yet fond of society, the Reverend Reginald Tracy must no longer be permitted to remain proof against woman's beauty - aye, and woman's wiles. Oh! no - he shall repeat to me, but far more tenderly, the words he uttered the other evening: his passing compliment shall become a permanent expression of his sentiments? But his character-his disposition? must I not study them?  If that be necessary, the task is ready to hand !"
    She rose from the sofa, and having selected an ecclesiastical magazine from some books that stood upon a cheffonier, returned to her seat to peruse at leisure a sketch which the work contained of the character, ministry, and popularity of the rector of Saint David's.

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