My feelings are at present in a state of dreadful indecision; I wish to acquit you, but certainty on either side will be ease to what I now suffer. If your sentiments are no longer what they were, you will return my notes, and the lock of my hair which is in your possession.
That such letters, so full of affection and confidence, could have been so answered, Elinor, for Willoughby's sake, would have been unwilling to believe. But her condemnation of him did not blind her to the impropriety of their having been written at all; and she was silently grieving over the imprudence which had hazarded such unsolicited proofs of tenderness, not warranted by anything preceding, and most severely condemned by the event, when Marianne, perceiving that she had finished the letters, observed to her that they contained nothing but what any one would have written in the same situation.
"I felt myself," she added, "to be as solemnly engaged to him, as if the strictest legal covenant had bound us to each other."
"I can believe it," said Elinor; "but unfortunately he did not feel the same."
"He DID feel the same, Elinor--for weeks and weeks he felt it. I know he did. Whatever may have changed him now, (and nothing but the blackest art employed against me can have done it), I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish. This lock of hair, which now he can so readily give up, was begged of me with the most earnest supplication. Had you seen his look, his manner, had you heard his voice at that moment! Have you forgot the last evening of our being together at Barton? The morning that we parted too! When he told me that it might be many weeks before we met again--his distress--can I ever forget his distress?"
For a moment or two she could say no more; but when this emotion had passed away, she added, in a firmer tone,
"Elinor, I have been cruelly used; but not by Willoughby."
"Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?"
"By all the world, rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty. This woman of whom he writes--whoever she be--or any one, in short, but your own dear self, mama, and Edward, may have been so barbarous to bely me. Beyond you three, is there a creature in the world whom I would not rather suspect of evil than Willoughby, whose heart I know so well?"
Elinor would not contend, and only replied, "Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence."
"No, no," cried Marianne, "misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched. The triumph of seeing me so may be open to all the world. Elinor, Elinor, they who suffer little may be proud and independent as they like--may resist insult, or return mortification--but I cannot. I must feel--I must be wretched--and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can."
"But for my mother's sake and mine--"
"I would do more than for my own. But to appear happy when I am so miserable--Oh! who can require it?"
Again they were both silent. Elinor was employed in walking thoughtfully from the fire to the window, from the window to the fire, without knowing that she received warmth from one, or discerning objects through the other; and Marianne, seated at the foot of the bed, with her head leaning against one of its posts, again took up Willoughby's letter, and, after shuddering over every sentence, exclaimed--
"It is too much! Oh, Willoughby, Willoughby, could this be yours! Cruel, cruel--nothing can acquit you. Elinor, nothing can. Whatever he might have heard against me-- ought he not to have suspended his belief? ought he not to have told me of it, to have given me the power of clearing myself? 'The lock of hair, (repeating it from the letter,) which you so obligingly bestowed on me'--That is unpardonable. Willoughby, where was your heart when you wrote those words? Oh, barbarously insolent!--Elinor, can he be justified?"
"No, Marianne, in no possible way."
"And yet this woman--who knows what her art may have been?--how long it may have been premeditated, and how deeply contrived by her!--Who is she?--Who can she be?--Whom did I ever hear him talk of as young and attractive among his female acquaintance?--Oh! no one, no one--he talked to me only of myself."
Another pause ensued; Marianne was greatly agitated, and it ended thus.