"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 her affection."
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 any thing 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."