A short pause of mutual thoughtfulness succeeded. Willoughby first rousing himself, broke it thus:
"Well, let me make haste and be gone. Your sister is certainly better, certainly out of danger?"
"We are assured of it."
"Your poor mother, too! - doting on Marianne."
"But the letter, Mr. Willoughby, your own letter; have you any thing to say about that?"
"Yes, yes, THAT in particular. Your sister wrote to me again, you know, the very next morning. You saw what she said. I was breakfasting at the Ellisons, - and her letter, with some others, was brought to me there from my lodgings. It happened to catch Sophia's eye before it caught mine - and its size, the elegance of the paper, the hand-writing altogether, immediately gave her a suspicion. Some vague report had reached her before of my attachment to some young lady in Devonshire, and what had passed within her observation the preceding evening had marked who the young lady was, and made her more jealous than ever. Affecting that air of playfulness, therefore, which is delightful in a woman one loves, she opened the letter directly, and read its contents. She was well paid for her impudence. She read what made her wretched. Her wretchedness I could have borne, but her passion - her malice - At all events it must be appeased. And, in short - what do you think of my wife's style of letter-writing? - delicate - tender - truly feminine - was it not?"
"Your wife! - The letter was in your own hand-writing."
"Yes, but I had only the credit of servilely copying such sentences as I was ashamed to put my name to. The original was all her own - her own happy thoughts and gentle diction. But what could I do! - we were engaged, every thing in preparation, the day almost fixed - But I am talking like a fool. Preparation! - day! - In honest words, her money was necessary to me, and in a situation like mine, any thing was to be done to prevent a rupture. And after all, what did it signify to my character in the opinion of Marianne and her friends, in what language my answer was couched? - It must have been only to one end. My business was to declare myself a scoundrel, and whether I did it with a bow or a bluster was of little importance. - 'I am ruined for ever in their opinion - ' said I to myself - 'I am shut out for ever from their society, they already think me an unprincipled fellow, this letter will only make them think me a blackguard one.' Such were my reasonings, as, in a sort of desperate carelessness, I copied my wife's words, and parted with the last relics of Marianne. Her three notes - unluckily they were all in my pocketbook, or I should have denied their existence, and hoarded them for ever - I was forced to put them up, and could not even kiss them. And the lock of hair - that too I had always carried about me in the same pocket-book, which was now searched by Madam with the most ingratiating virulence, - the dear lock - all, every memento was torn from me."
"You are very wrong, Mr. Willoughby, very blamable," said Elinor, while her voice, in spite of herself, betrayed her compassionate emotion; "you ought not to speak in this way, either of Mrs. Willoughby or my sister. You had made your own choice. It was not forced on you. Your wife has a claim to your politeness, to your respect, at least. She must be attached to you, or she would not have married you. To treat her with unkindness, to speak of her slightingly is no atonement to Marianne - nor can I suppose it a relief to your own conscience."
"Do not talk to me of my wife," said he with a heavy sigh. - "She does not deserve your compassion. - She knew I had no regard for her when we married. - Well, married we were, and came down to Combe Magna to be happy, and afterwards returned to town to be gay. - And now do you pity me, Miss Dashwood? - or have I said all this to no purpose? - Am I - be it only one degree - am I less guilty in your opinion than I was before? - My intentions were not always wrong. Have I explained away any part of my guilt?"
"Yes, you have certainly removed something - a little. - You have proved yourself, on the whole, less faulty than I had believed you. You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked. But I hardly know - the misery that you have inflicted - I hardly know what could have made it worse."
"Will you repeat to your sister when she is recovered, what I have been telling you? - Let me be a little lightened too in her opinion as well as in yours. You tell me that she has forgiven me already. Let me be able to fancy that a better knowledge of my heart, and of my present feelings, will draw from her a more spontaneous, more natural, more gentle, less dignified, forgiveness. Tell her of my misery and my penitence - tell her that my heart was never inconstant to her, and if you will, that at this moment she is dearer to me than ever."
"I will tell her all that is necessary to what may comparatively be called, your justification. But you have not explained to me the particular reason of your coming now, nor how you heard of her illness."
"Last night, in Drury Lane lobby, I ran against Sir John Middleton, and when he saw who I was - for the first time these two months - he spoke to me. - That he had cut me ever since my marriage, I had seen without surprise or resentment. Now, however, his good-natured, honest, stupid soul, full of indignation against me, and concern for your sister, could not resist the temptation of telling me what he knew ought to - though probably he did not think it WOULD - vex me horridly. As bluntly as he could speak it, therefore, he told me that Marianne Dashwood was dying of a putrid fever at Cleveland - a letter that morning received from Mrs. Jennings declared her danger most imminent - the Palmers are all gone off in a fright, etc. - I was too much shocked to be able to pass myself off as insensible even to the undiscerning Sir John. His heart was softened in seeing mine suffer; and so much of his ill-will was done away, that when we parted, he almost shook me by the hand while he reminded me of an old promise about a pointer puppy. What I felt on hearing that your sister was dying - and dying too, believing me the greatest villain upon earth, scorning, hating me in her latest moments - for how could I tell what horrid projects might not have been imputed? ONE person I was sure would represent me as capable of any thing - What I felt was dreadful! - My resolution was soon made, and at eight o'clock this morning I was in my carriage. Now you know all."