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[-387-]
    
    CHAPTER CXXVIII
    
    TEMPTATION.

    "He will come again on Wednesday," said Lady Cecilia to herself, as she heard the front door close behind the Rev. Reginald Tracy.
    This wily woman was well-acquainted with the human heart: she had discovered the weak side of the rector of Saint David's: she assailed him by means of his vulnerable point; she directed her way to his heart through the avenue of his vanity.
    Yes-Reginald Tracy was vain,-as vain as a man who was admired and sought after by all classes, was likely to be rendered,-as vain as a spoiled child of the public could be.
    His life had, moreover, been so pure, so chaste, so ascetic, that the fierce passions which agitate other men were unknown to him; and, as all mortals must be characterised by some failing, his was a habit of self-admiration!
    Venial and insignificant was this foible, so long as no advantage was taken of it by designing or worldly-minded persons; but even our lightest defects, as well as our most "pleasant vices," may be made the means of our ruin.
    Vanity is a noxious weed which, when nurtured by the dews of flattery, spreads its poisonous roots throughout the fertile soil of the heart; and each root springs up into a plant more venomous, more rank, more baleful than its predecessor.
    The life of Reginald Tracy had been singularly pure. He had even passed through the ordeal of a college career without affixing the least stain on the chastity of his soul. Yet with all his austerity of virtue, he was characterised by no austerity of manner: he mixed freely in society, and hesitated not to frequent the ball-room-although he did not dance. He could be a pleasant companion: at the same time he never uttered a word upon which he had to retrospect with regret. When amongst men, no obscene jest nor ribald allusion was vented in his presence; and yet he was never voted "a bore." In a word, he was one of those men who possess the rare talent of maintaining a character for every virtue, and of being held up as a pattern and an example, without creating a single enemy-without even being compelled to encounter the irony of the libertine, and without producing a feeling of restraint or embarrassment in the society which he frequented.
    Such was Reginald Tracy; and it was this man,-who at the age of thirty-six could look back with complacency upon a spotless life,-a life unsullied by a single fault,-an existence devoid of the slightest dereliction from moral propriety,-it was this good, this holy, this saint-like man whom the daring Cecilia undertook to subdue.
    Reginald, Reginald! the day of thy temptation has now come: thou standest upon a pinnacle of the temple-the tempter is by thy side;-take good heed of thyself, Reginald Tracy!
    "He will come again on Wednesday," had said Lady Cecilia.
    The prediction was fulfilled!
    The morning had been so inclement that no one would have stirred abroad unless actuated by important motives. The rain had fallen in torrents,- beating violently against the windows, and inundating the streets. It had, however, ceased at noon; but the sky remained covered with black clouds; and at three o'clock on that gloomy winter-day it was dark and sombre as if night were at hand.
    But in spite of that inauspicious weather, the Rev. Reginald Tracy knocked at Lady Cecilia Harborough's door at the hour which we have just mentioned.
    The designing creature received the clergyman with a smile, exclaiming at the same time, "It is indeed kind of you to visit me on such a day as this. I have been so happy-so resigned-so possessed with the most complete mental tranquillity since you manifested sympathy and interest in my behalf, that your presence appears to be that of a good angel!"
    "It is our duty to sustain those who droop, and console those who suffer," answered the rector.
    "Delightful task!" ejaculated Cecilia. "What a pure and holy satisfaction must you enjoy, when you reflect upon the amount of comfort which your lessons impart to the world-wearied and sinking spirit. Believe me, many an one has entered the gates of your chapel with a weight upon his soul almost too heavy for him to bear, and has issued forth carrying his burden of care lightly, if not cheerfully, along!"
    "Do you really imagine that my humble agency can produce such good results in the cause of heaven?" asked Reginald, fixing a glance of mingled tenderness and satisfaction upon the charming countenance of Cecilia.
    "I do-I do," she answered, with apparent enthusiasm; "I can judge by the effect which your admirable discourse of last Sunday morning produced upon myself. For-let me not deceive you," she continued, hanging down her head, and speaking in a tremulous and tender voice,- "let me not deceive you-It was not the heat of the chapel which overcame me-it was your eloquence! I dared not confess this to you at first; but now-now that I can look upon you as a friend-I need have no secret from you."
    She took his hand as she uttered these words, and pressed it in a manner which he conceived to be indicative of grateful fervour; and without a thought of evil-but with an indefinable sensation of pleasure to which until lately he had been all his life a stranger-he returned that pressure.
    Lady Cecilia did not withdraw her hand, but allowed it to linger in his; and he retained it under the influence of that sensation which caused his veins to flow with liquid fire.
    He was sitting on the sofa by her side, and his eyes wandered from her countenance over the outlines of her form.
    "Oh! how can the man who accompanied you to the altar, and there swore to love and cherish you," he exclaimed, in an ebullition of impassioned feelings such as he had never known before,-"how can that man find it in his heart to neglect-to abandon you,-you who are evidently all gentleness, amiability, and candour!"
    "He has no heart-no soul for any one save himself," answered Cecilia. "And now tell me-relieve my mind from a most painful suspense upon one point! Am I criminal in the eyes of heaven, because I have ceased to love one whom I vowed to love, but whose conduct has quenched all the election that I once experienced for him?"
    "You must not harden your heart against him," said Reginald; "but by your resignation, your uncomplaining patience, your meekness, and your constant devotion to his interests, you must seek to bring him back to the paths of duty and love."
    "I might as well essay to teach the hyena gratitude" answered Cecilia.
    "You speak too bitterly," rejoined the rector of [-388-] Saint David's; and yet he was not altogether displeased at the aversion which Lady Cecilia's language manifested towards her husband.
    "Alas! we have no power over volition," said she; "and that doctrine is a severe one which enjoins us to kiss the hand that strikes us."
    "True," observed Reginald. "I know not how it is-but I feel that I am at this moment unaccountably deficient in argument to meet your objections; and yet-"
    He paused, for he felt embarrassed; but he knew not why.
    "Oh! you can appreciate the difficulty of enjoining a love towards one who merits hatred," exclaimed Cecilia, now skilfully availing herself of the crisis to which she had so artfully conducted the conversation. "You see that you are deficient in reasoning to enforce the alleged necessity of maintaining, cherishing, and nourishing respect and veneration for a husband who has forfeited all claims to such feelings on the part of his injured wife. At all events, do not tell me that I am criminal in ceasing to love one who oppresses me;-do not say that I offend heaven by ceasing to kiss the hand that rudely repulses all my overtures of affection;-oh! tell me not that-or you will make me very, very miserable indeed!"
    Lady Cecilia's bosom was convulsed with sobs as she uttered these words in a rapid and impassioned manner; and as she ceased speaking her head fell upon Reginald's shoulder.
    "Compose yourself-compose yourself, Lady Cecilia," exclaimed the clergyman, alarmed by this ebullition of grief, the sincerity of which he could not for one moment suspect. "Do not give way to sorrow-remember the lessons of resignation and patience which you have heard from my lips-remember-"
    But the lady sobbed as if her heart would break-her head reclined upon his shoulder-her forehead touched his face-her hand was still clasped in his.
    "Oh Reginald!-Reginald!" she murmured, "I cannot love my husband more-no-it is impossible! I love another!"
    "You love another!" ejaculated the rector, his whole frame trembling with an ineffable feeling of mingled joy and suspense.
    "Yes-and now reproach, revile me-leave me-spurn me-treat me with contempt!" continued Cecilia: "do all this if you will; but never, never can you prevent me from idolizing- adoring you!"
    "Cecilia!" cried Reginald Tracy, starting from his seat; "you know not what you are saying!"
    "Alas! I know but too well the feelings which my words express," returned the lady, clasping her hands together, and sobbing violently. "Hear me for a few minutes, and then leave me to the misery of my fate-a hopeless love, and a breaking heart!"
    "Speak, then, and unburden your mind to me without reserve," said Reginald, resuming his seat upon the sofa, and inviting a confidence the thought of which produced in his mind emotions of bliss and burning joy, the power of which was irresistible.
    "Yes, I will speak, even though I render myself contemptible in your sight," continued Cecilia, wiping her eyes and affecting to resume that calmness which she had never lost more than the impassioned actress on the stage, when enacting some melodramatic part. "For months and months past I have cherished for you a feeling, the true nature of which has only revealed itself to me within the last few days. In the first instance, I admired your character and your talents: I respected you; and respect and admiration soon ripened into another feeling. You do not know the heart of woman; but it is ever moved by a contemplation of the sublime characteristics of remarkable men-like you. I met you in society, and I almost worshipped the ground on which you trod. I listened to your conversation: not a word was lost to me! During long and sleepless nights your image was ever present to my mind. You became an idol that I adored. At length you yourself, one evening, innocently and unconsciously, fanned the flame that was engendered in my heart: you told me that I looked well. That passing compliment rendered me your devoted slave. I thought that no human happiness could be greater than that of pleasing you. I resolved to attend your chapel from that period. I obtained the pew that was nearest to the pulpit; and when you preached I was electrified. Oh! you saw how I was overcome! Your attention to me on that occasion threw additional chains around me. Then you called on me the day before yesterday, and you spoke so kindly that I was every moment on the point of falling at your feet, and exclaiming,-'Forgive me, but I now know that I love you!' You proffered me your friendship: how joyously I accepted the sacred gift! And that friendship-oh! let me not forfeit it now- for the love which my heart cherishes for you shall be as pure and taintless as that friendship with which you have blessed me!"
    Reginald had listened to this strange confession with the most profound attention;-yes, and with the deepest interest.
    A young and beautiful woman had avowed her love for him-she sate near him;-his hand still thrilled with the pressure of hers-his cheek was still warm and flushed with the contact of her white and polished forehead;-the room was involved in obscurity and silence.
    She had insinuated herself, in an incredibly short space of time, into his heart, by flattering his vanity and exciting those deaires which had hitherto slumbered so profoundly in his breast, but which were now ready to burst for with the violence of the long pent-up volcano.
    He trembled-he hesitated. At one moment he was inclined to rush from the house, as if from the presence of the tempter; and then he remembered that the love which she had avowed was as pure as his friendship!
    Nevertheless, the struggle in his mind was terrific.
    Cecilia understood it all.
    "You hate me-you despise me," she suddenly exclaimed, covering her face with her hands. "Oh! do not crush me with your contempt-do not abandon me to the conviction of your abhorrence! Reginald-take pity upon me: forgive me for loving you-forgive me-on my knees I implore you!"
    She threw herself before him: she took his hand and pressed it to her lips.
    She covered it with kisses.
    "Cecilia," murmured the rector, making a faint effort to withdraw his hand.
    "No-no, you shall not leave me thus," she exclaimed, with apparent wildness: " I should die if you went away, without telling me that you forgive me! No, you must not leave me thus!"
    "Rise, Cecilia-rise-in the name of heaven, rise!" exclaimed Reginald, alarmed lest they should be discovered in that equivocal position: "rise, and I will forgive you. I will do all that you desire-I will not leave you until you are composed."
    And you will return and see me again? you will [-389-] not withdraw your friendship?" demanded Cecilia, in a soft and melting tone.
    "No-never, never!" cried Reginald, enthusiastically, as if he suddenly abandoned himself to the torrent of passion which now swept through his soul.
    "Oh! thank you-thank you for that assurance!" exclaimed Cecilia; and, as if yielding to an unconquerable burst of feeling, she threw herself into his arms: "you shall be as a brother to me; and our friendship, our love, shall be eternal!"
    Her rich red mouth was pressed upon the rector's lips; her arms were wound around him; and for a moment he yielded to the intoxicating delight of that pleasure so new to him.
    But ere he was entirely culpable, his guardian genius struck his soul with a sudden remorse; and, disengaging himself from the syren's arms, he imprinted one long-burning-delicious kiss upon her lips; then, murmuring, "To-morrow, to-morrow, dearest Cecilia, I will see thee again," rushed from the room.
    "He is mine!" exclaimed the lady, as the door closed behind him; "irrevocably mine!"

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