Her smile however changed to a sigh when she remembered that promise to Willoughby was yet unfulfilled, and feared she had that to communicate which might again unsettle the mind of Marianne, and ruin at least for a time this fair prospect of busy tranquillity. Willing therefore to delay the evil hour, she resolved to wait till her sister's health were more secure, before she appointed it. But the resolution was made only to be broken.
Marianne had been two or three days at home, before the weather was fine enough for an invalid like herself to venture out. But at last a soft, genial morning appeared; such as might tempt the daughter's wishes and the mother's confidence; and Marianne, leaning on Elinor's arm, was authorised to walk as long as she could without fatigue, in the lane before the house.
The sisters set out at a pace, slow as the feebleness of Marianne in an exercise hitherto untried since her illness required;--and they had advanced only so far beyond the house as to admit a full view of the hill, the important hill behind, when pausing with her eyes turned towards it, Marianne calmly said,
"There, exactly there,"--pointing with one hand, "on that projecting mound,--there I fell; and there I first saw Willoughby."
Her voice sunk with the word, but presently reviving she added,
"I am thankful to find that I can look with so little pain on the spot!--shall we ever talk on that subject, Elinor?"-- hesitatingly it was said.--"Or will it be wrong?--I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do."--
Elinor tenderly invited her to be open.
"As for regret," said Marianne, "I have done with that, as far as HE is concerned. I do not mean to talk to you of what my feelings have been for him, but what they are NOW.--At present, if I could be satisfied on one point, if I could be allowed to think that he was not ALWAYS acting a part, not ALWAYS deceiving me;--but above all, if I could be assured that he never was so VERY wicked as my fears have sometimes fancied him, since the story of that unfortunate girl"--
She stopt. Elinor joyfully treasured her words as she answered,
"If you could be assured of that, you think you should be easy."
"Yes. My peace of mind is doubly involved in it;-- for not only is it horrible to suspect a person, who has been what HE has been to ME, of such designs,--but what must it make me appear to myself?--What in a situation like mine, but a most shamefully unguarded affection could expose me to"--
"How then," asked her sister, "would you account for his behaviour?"
"I would suppose him,--Oh, how gladly would I suppose him, only fickle, very, very fickle."
Elinor said no more. She was debating within herself on the eligibility of beginning her story directly, or postponing it till Marianne were in stronger health;-- and they crept on for a few minutes in silence.
"I am not wishing him too much good," said Marianne at last with a sigh, "when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own. He will suffer enough in them."
"Do you compare your conduct with his?"
"No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours."
"Our situations have borne little resemblance."
"They have borne more than our conduct.--Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think-- It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past: I saw in my own behaviour, since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,--it would have been self-destruction.