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.