It was arranged that they should be married at Exeter in April. Their house there was not yet vacant, but would be lent to them for a fortnight. After the marriage Mrs. Holt would go into lodgings, and remain there till the house should be ready for her. But they were both to return to Exeter together, and then there would be bustle and confusion till the happy ceremony should have been performed. It was arranged that she should have but two bridesmaids, but she was determined that she would not ask Miss Altifiorla to be one of them. A younger sister of Mrs. Green and a younger sister also of Maude Hippesley were chosen. Miss Altifiorla, when she came to see Cecilia on her return, expressed herself as quite satisfied. "It is best so, dear," she said. "I was afraid that you would ask me. Of course I should have done it, but my heart would not have been there. You can understand it all, I know." Cecilia's wrath had become mitigated by this time, and she answered her friend civilly. "Just so. You think I ought to be an old maid, and therefore do not like to lend a hand at turning me into a young wife. I have got two girls who have no objection on that score." "You might find a hundred in Exeter," said Miss Altifiorla proudly, "and yet I may be right in my opinions."
Mr. Western was to come down to Exeter only on the day before the marriage. The Holts had seen him as they came through London where they slept one night, but as yet the story had not been told. Cecilia expected, almost wished, that the story might reach him from other quarters. It was so natural now that he should talk about the girl whom he intended to marry, and so natural,—as Cecilia thought,—that in doing so he should hear the name of Sir Francis Geraldine. Sir Francis was a man well known to the world of fashion, and many men must have heard of his intended marriage. Cecilia, though she almost hoped, almost feared that it should be so. The figure of Mr. Western asking with an angry voice why he had not been told did alarm her. But he asked no such question, nor, as far as Cecilia knew, had he heard anything of Sir Francis when the Holts passed through London.
Nor did he seem to have heard it when he came down to Exeter. At any rate he did not say a word respecting Sir Francis. He spent the last evening with the Holts in their own house, and Cecilia felt that he had never before made himself so happy with her, so pleasant, and so joyous. It had been the same during their long walk together in the afternoon. He was so full of affairs which were his own, which were so soon to become her own, that there was not a moment for her in which she could tell the story. There are stories for the telling of which a peculiar atmosphere is required, and this was one of them. She could not interrupt him in the middle of his discourse and say:—"Oh, by-the-bye,—there is something that I have got to say to you." To tell the story she must tune her mind to the purpose. She must begin it in a proper tone, and be sure that he would be ready to hearken to it as it should be heard. She felt that the telling would be specially difficult in that it had been put off so long. But though she had made up her mind to tell it before she had started on her walk, the desirable moment never came. So she again put it off, saying that it should be done late at night when her mother had gone to her bed. The time came when he was alone with her, sitting with his arm around her waist, telling her of all the things she should do for him to make his life blessed;—and how he too would endeavour to do some little things for her in order that her life might be happy. She would not tell it then. Though little might come of it, she could not do it. And yet from day to day the feeling had grown upon her that it was certainly her duty to let him know that one accident in her life. There was no disgrace in it, no cause for anger on his part, nor even for displeasure if it had only been told him at Rome. He could then have taken her, or left her as he pleased. Of course he would have taken her, and the only trouble of her life would have been spared her. What possible reason could there have been that he should not take her? It was not any reason of that kind which had kept her silent. Of that she was quite confident. Indeed now she could not explain to herself why she had held her peace. It seemed to her as though she must have been mad to have let day after day go by at Rome and never to have mentioned to him the name of Sir Francis Geraldine. But such, alas! had been the fact. And now the time had come in which she found it to be impossible to tell the story. As she went for the last time to her solitary bed she endeavoured to console herself by thinking that he must have heard of it from other quarters. But then again she declared that he in his nobility would certainly not have been silent. He would have questioned her and then have told her that all was right between them. But now as she tossed unhappily on her pillow she told herself that all was wrong.
WHAT ALL HER FRIENDS SAID ABOUT IT.
And "all went merry as a marriage bell." George Western and Cecilia Holt were married in the cathedral by the Dean, who was thus supposed to show his great anger at his brother-in-law's conduct. And this was more strongly evinced by the presence of all the Hippesleys;—for all were there to grace the ceremony except Maude, who was still absent with her young squire, and who wrote a letter full of the warmest affection and congratulations, which Cecilia received on that very morning. Miss Altifiorla also came to the cathedral, with pink bows in her bonnet, determined to show that though she were left alone in her theory of life she did not resent the desertion. And Mrs. Green was there, humble and sweet-tempered as ever, snubbing her husband a little who assisted at the altar, and whispering a word into her friend's ears to assure her that she had done the proper thing.
It is hardly necessary to say that on the morning of her wedding it was in truth impossible for Cecilia to tell the story. It had now to be left untold, with what hope there might be for smoothing it over in some future stage of her married life. She had done the deed now, and had married the man with the untold secret in her heart. The sin surely could not be of a nature to weigh so deeply on her conscience! She endeavoured to comfort herself with that idea again and again. How many girls are married who have been engaged to, or at least in love with, half-a-dozen suitors before the man has come who is at last to be their lord! But Cecilia told herself, as she endeavoured thus to find comfort, that her nature was not such as theirs. This thing which she had done was a sin or not a sin, according as it might be regarded by the person who did it. It was a sin to her, a heavy, grievous sin, and one that weighed terribly on her conscience as she repeated the words after the Dean at the altar that morning. There was a moment in which she almost refused to repeat them,—in which she almost brought herself to demand that she might retire for a time with him who was not yet her husband, and give him another chance. Her mind entertained an exaggerated feeling of it, a feeling which she felt to be exaggerated but which she could not restrain. In the meantime the service went on; the irrevocable word was spoken; and when it was done she was led away into the cathedral vestry as sad a bride as might be.
And yet nobody had seen her trouble. With a capacity for struggling, infinitely greater than that possessed by any man, she had smiled and looked happy beneath her bridal finery, as though no grief had weighed heavily at her heart. And he was as jocund a bridegroom as ever put a ring upon a lady's finger. All that gloom of his, which had seemed to be his nature till after she had accepted him, had vanished altogether. And he carried himself with no sheepish, shame-faced demeanour as though half ashamed of the thing which he had done. He seemed as proud to be a bridegroom as ever girl was to become a bride. And in truth he was proud of her and did think that he had chosen well. After the former troubles of his life he did feel that he had brought himself to a happy haven at last.
There was a modest breakfast at Mrs. Holt's house, from which the guests departed quickly as soon as the bride and bridegroom had been taken away to the railway station. But when the others were gone Miss Altifiorla remained,—out of kindness. Mrs. Holt need make no stranger of her, and it would be so desolate for her to be alone. So surmised Miss Altifiorla. "I suppose," said she, when she had fastened up the pink ribbons so that they might not be soiled by the trifle with which she prepared to regale herself while she asked the question, "I suppose that he knows all the story about that other man?"
"Why should he?" asked Mrs. Holt in a sharp tone that was quite uncommon to her.
"Well; I do not know much about such things, but I presume it is common to tell a gentleman when anything of that kind has occurred."
"What business has he to know? And what can it matter? Perhaps he does know it."
"But Cecilia has not told him?"
"Why should she tell him? I don't think that it is a thing we need talk about. You may be quite sure that Cecilia has done what is proper." In saying this Mrs. Holt belied her own thoughts. Cecilia had never said a word to her about it, nor had she dared to say a word to her own daughter on the subject. She had been intently anxious that her daughter should be married, and when she had seen Mr. Western in the act of falling in love, had studiously abstained from all subjects which might bring about a reference to Sir Francis Geraldine. But she had felt that her daughter would make that all straight. Her daughter was so much more wise, so much more certain to do what was right, so much more high-minded than was she, that she considered herself bound to leave all that to Cecilia. But as the days went on and the hour fixed for the marriage became nearer and nearer she had become anxious. Something seemed to tell her that a duty had been omitted. But the moment had never come in which she had been able to ask her daughter. And now she would not endure to be cross-examined on the subject by Miss Altifiorla.
But Miss Altifiorla was not at all afraid of Mrs. Holt, and was determined to push the question a little further. "He ought to know, you know. I am sure Cecilia will have thought that."
"If he ought to know then he does know," said Mrs. Holt with great certainty. "I am sure we may leave all that to Cecilia herself. If he is satisfied with her, it does not matter much who else may be dissatisfied."
"Oh, if he is satisfied, that is enough," said Miss Altifiorla as she took her leave. But she felt sure that the secret had not been told, and that it ought to have been told, and she felt proud to think that she had spotted the fault. Cecilia Holt would have done very well in the world had she confined herself,—as she had solemnly promised,—to those high but solitary feminine duties to which Miss Altifiorla had devoted herself. But she had chosen to make herself the slave of a man who,—as Miss Altifiorla expressed it to herself,—"would turn upon her and rend her." And she, Miss Altifiorla, had seen and did see it all. The time might come when the wounded dove would return to her care. Of course she hoped that the time would not come;—but it might.
"I'll tell you one thing," said Mrs. Green to her husband as they walked home from the breakfast. "That girl has not yet said a word to that man about Sir Francis Geraldine."
"What makes you think that, my dear?"
"Think it! I know it. It was not likely that there should be much talk about Sir Francis either in the cathedral or at the breakfast; but one can tell from other things whether a subject has been avoided. These are plain when little things would have been said but are not said. There has been no allusion made to their reason for leaving the house."
"I don't see that it signifies much, my dear."
"Oh; doesn't it? What would you have thought if after I had become engaged to you you had found that a month or two before I had been engaged to another man?"
"It is more than twelve months, my dear."
"No, it is not more than twelve months since first they met in Italy. I know what I am talking about, and you need not contradict me. You'll find that he'll learn it of a sudden, and then all the fat will be in the fire. I know what men are." It was thus that the gentle Mrs. Green expressed herself on the subject to her husband.
At the Deanery the matter was spoken of in a different tone but still with similar feelings. "I don't think Cecilia has ever yet said a word to that poor man as to her engagement with Francis. I cannot tell what has put it into my mind, but I think that it is so." It was thus that Mrs. Hippesley spoke to the Dean.
"Your brother behaved very badly;—very badly," said the Dean.
"That has got nothing to do with it. Mr. Western won't care a straw whether Francis behaved well or ill. And for the matter of that I don't think that as yet we quite know the truth of it. Nor would he care if his wife had behaved ill to the other man, so long as she behaved well to him. But if he has heard nothing of it and now finds it out, he's not the man I take him to be if he don't let her hear of it."
"It's nothing to us," said the Dean.
"Oh, no; it's nothing to us. But you'll see that what I say comes true."
In this way all the world of Cecilia's friends were talking on the matter which she had mentioned to no one. She still hoped that her husband might have heard the story, and that he kept it buried in his bosom. But it never occurred to her that it would become matter of discussion among her friends at Exeter.
There was one other person who also discussed it very much at his ease. Sir Francis Geraldine among his friends in London had been congratulated on his safe but miraculous escape. With a certain number of men he had been wont to discuss the chances of matrimony. Should he die, without having an heir, his title and property would go to his cousin, Captain Geraldine, who was a man some fifteen years younger than himself and already in possession of a large fortune. There were many people in the world whom Sir Francis hated, but none whom he hated so cordially as his cousin. Three or four years since he had been ill, nearly to dying, and had declared that he never would have recovered but for the necessity that he was under to keep his cousin out of the baronetage. It had therefore become imperative on him to marry in order that there might be an heir to the property. And though he had for a few weeks been perfectly contented with his Cecilia, there could be no doubt that he had experienced keenly the sense of relief when she had told him that the engagement must be at an end. Another marriage must be arranged, but there would be time for that; and he would take care, that on this occasion he would not put himself into the hands of one who was exigeante and had a will of her own. "By Gad," he said to his particular friend, Dick Ross, "I would almost sooner that my cousin Walter had the property than put it and myself into the hands of such a virago."
"You'll only get another," said Dick, "that will not let on, but will turn out to be twice as bad in the washing."
"That I hardly think probable. There are many things which go to the choice of a wife, and the worst of it is that they are not compatible one with another. A woman should be handsome; but then she is proud. A woman should have a certain air of dignity; but when she has got it she knows that herself, and shows it off in the wrong place. She should be young; but if she is too young she is silly: wait a little and she becomes strong-minded and headstrong. If she don't read anything she becomes an ass and a bore; but if she do she despises a man because he is not always doing the same thing. If she is a nobody the world thinks nothing of her. If she come of high birth she thinks a deal too much of herself. It is difficult."
"I'd have nothing to do with any of them," said Dick Ross.
"And let that puppy come in! He wrote to me to congratulate me on my marriage, just when he knew it was off."
"I'll tell you what I'd do," said Dick. "I'd marry some milk-maid and keep her down on the property. I'd see that it was all done legally, and I'd take the kid away when he was three or four years old."
"Everybody would talk about it."
"Let 'em talk," said Dick heroically. "They couldn't talk you out of your ease or your pleasure or your money. I never could find out the harm of people talking about you. They might say whatever they pleased of me for five hundred a year."
Then there came the news that Cecilia Holt was going to marry Mr. Western. The tidings reached Sir Francis while the lovers were still at Rome. Of Mr. Western Sir Francis knew something. In the first place his cousin Walter Geraldine had taken away the girl to whom Mr. Western had in the first instance been engaged. And then they were in some degree neighbours, each possessing a small property in Berkshire. Sir Francis had bought his now some years since for racing purposes. It was adjacent to Ascot, and had been let or used by himself during the racing week, as he had or had not been short of money. Mr. Western's small property had come to him from his uncle. But he had held it always in his own hands, and intended now to take his bride there as soon as their short honeymoon trip should be over. In this way Sir Francis had come to know something of Cecilia's husband, and did not especially love him. "That young lady of mine has picked up old Western on her travels." This Sir Francis said to his friend Ross up in London. The reader however must remember that "old Western" was in fact a younger man than Sir Francis himself.
"I suppose he's welcome to her?" said Ross.
"I'm not so sure of that. Of course he is welcome in one way. She'll make him miserable and he'll do as much for her. You may let them alone for that."
"Why should you care about it?"
"Well; I don't know. A fellow has a sort of feeling about a girl when he has been spooning on her himself. He doesn't want to think that another fellow is to pick her up immediately."
"Dog in the manger, you mean."
"You may call it that if you like. You never cared for any young woman, I suppose?"
"Oh, haven't I! Lots of 'em. But if I couldn't get a girl myself I never cared who had her. What's the good of being selfish?"
"What's the good of lying?" said Sir Francis, propounding a great doctrine in sociology. "If I feel cut up what's the use of saying I don't,—unless I want to deceive the man I'm talking to? If I feel that I'd like a girl to be punished for her impertinence, what's the use of my pretending to myself that I don't want it? If I wish a person to be injured, what's the use of saying I wish them all the good in the world,—unless there's something to be gained by my saying it? Now I don't care to tell you lies. I am quite willing that you should know all the truth about me. Therefore I tell you that I'm not best pleased that this minx should have already picked up another man."
"He has the devil of a temper," said Dick Ross, wishing to make the matter as pleasant as possible to his friend.
"So your Miss Holt is married," Ross said to his friend on the day after the ceremony.
"Yes; she is married, and her troubles have now to begin. I wonder whether she has told him the little episode of our loves."
"You may be sure of that," said Dick.
"I am not at all so sure of it. She may have told him when they first became acquainted, but I cannot imagine her telling him afterwards. He is as proud as she, and is just the man not to like it."
"It doesn't much signify to you at any rate," said the indifferent Dick.
"I'm not so sure of that," said Sir Francis. "I like the truth to be told. It may become my duty to take care that poor Mr. Western shall know all about it."
"What a beast that fellow is for mischief!" said Dick Ross as he walked home from his club that evening.
MISS ALTIFIORLA'S ARRIVAL.
Yes;—Sir Francis Geraldine was a beast for mischief! Thinking the matter over, he resolved that Mr. Western should not be left in the dark as to his wife's episode. And he determined that Mr. Western would think more of the matter if it were represented to him that his wife had been jilted, and had been jilted unmistakably before they two had met each other on the Continent. He was right in this. According to the usages of the world the lady would have less to say for herself if that were the case and would have more difficulty in saying it. Therefore the husband would be the more bound to hear it. Sir Francis was a beast for mischief, but he knew what he was about.
But so did not Mrs. Western when she allowed those opportunities to pass by her which came to her for telling her story before her marriage. In very truth she had had no reason for concealing it but that his story had been so nearly the same. On this account she had put it off, and put it off,—and then the fitting time had passed by. When she was with him alone after their marriage she could not do it,—without confessing her fault in that she had not done it before. She could not bring herself to do so. Standing so high in his esteem as she did, and conscious that he was thoroughly happy in his appreciation of her feminine merit, she could not make him miserable by descending from her pedestal to the telling of a story, which was disgraceful in that it had not been told before.
And there was a peculiarity of manner in him of which she became day by day more conscious. He could be very generous for good conduct to those dependent on him, but seemed to be one who could with difficulty forgive an injury. He wished to have everything about him perfect, and then life should go as soft as a summer's day. He was almost idolatrous to her in these first days of their marriage, but then he had found nothing out. Cecilia knowing his character asked herself after all what there was to be found out. How often that question must occur to the girl just married. But there was nothing. He was pleased with her person; pleased with her wit; pleased that money should have been offered to him, and pleased that for the present he should have declined it. He liked her dress and her willingness to change any portion of it at his slightest hint. He liked her activity and power of walking, and her general adaptability to himself. He was pleased with everything. But she had the secret at her heart.
"I wonder that you should have lived so long, and never have been in love before," he said to her one day as they were coming home.
"How do you know?" She blushed as she answered him, but it was a matter as to which any girl might blush.
"I am sure you were not. I should have heard it." And yet she was silent. She felt at the moment that the time had come,—the only possible time. But she let the moment pass by. Though she was ever thinking of her secret, and ever wishing that she could tell it, longing that it had been told, she could not bear that it should be surprised from her in this way. "I think it nicer as it is," he added as he left the room.
Then she got up and stood alone on the floor, thinking of it all. There she stood for ten minutes thinking of it. She would follow him and, not throwing herself on her knees—but standing boldly before him, tell him all. There was no disgrace in it,—to have loved that other man. Of her own conduct she was confident before all the world. There had been so little secrecy about it that she almost had a right to suppose that it had been known to all men. The more she tried to bring herself to follow him and tell him, the more she assured herself that there should be no necessity. How ought she to have told him, and when? At every point of his story should she have made known to him the same point in hers? "It was exactly the same with me." "I wouldn't have my young man because he was indifferent." "With yours there was another lover ready. That has yet to come with me." "You have come abroad for consolation. So have I." It would have been impossible;—was impossible. "I think it nicer as it is," he had said, and she could not do it.
There was some security while they were travelling, and she wished that they might travel for ever. She was happy while with him alone; and so too was he. But for her secret she was completely happy. Let him only be kept in the dark and he would be happy always. She idolised him as her own. She loved him the better for thinking that "it was nicer as it is;"—or would have done, had it been so. Why should they go where some sudden tidings might mar his joy;—where some sudden tidings certainly would do so sooner or later? Still they went on and on till in May they reached his house in Berkshire,—he with infinite joy at his heart, and she with the load upon hers.
Early in May they reached Durton Lodge, in Berkshire, and there they stayed during the summer. Mr. Western had his house in London, and there was a question whether they would not go there for the season. But Cecilia had begged to be taken to her house in the country, and there she remained. Durton Lodge was little more than a cottage, but it was very pretty and prettily situated. When the Ascot week came he offered to take her there, but offered it with a smile which she understood to mean that his proposal should not be accepted. Indeed she had no wish for Ascot or for any place in which he or she must meet their old friends. Might it not be possible if they both could be happy at Durton that there they might remain with some minimum of intercourse with the world? Six months had now passed by since they had become engaged and no good-natured friend had as yet told him the truth. Might it not be possible that the same silence should be as yet preserved? If years could be made to run on then he would have become used to her, and the telling of the secret would not be so severe.
But there came to her a great trouble in regard to her letters from Exeter. Miss Altifiorla would fill hers with long statements about Sir Francis which had no interest whatsoever, but which required to be at once destroyed. She soon learnt in her married life that her husband had no wish to see her letters. She would so willingly have shown them to him, would have taken such a joy in asking for his sympathy, such a delight in exposing Miss Altifiorla's peculiar views of life, that she lost much by her constrained reticence. But this necessity of destroying papers was very grievous to her. Though she knew that he would not read the letters without her permission, still she must destroy them. In every possible way she endeavoured to silence her correspondent, not answering her at first; and then giving her such answers as were certainly not affectionate. But in no way would Miss Altifiorla be "snubbed." Then after a while she proposed to come and stay a week at Durton Lodge. This was not to be endured. The very thought of it filled poor Mrs. Western's heart with despair. And yet she did not like to refuse without telling her husband. Of Miss Altifiorla she had already made mention, and Mr. Western had been taught to laugh at the peculiarities of the old maid. "Pray do not have her," she said to him. "She will make you very uncomfortable, and my life will be a burden to me."
"But what can you say to her?"
"No room," suggested Cecilia.
"But there are two rooms."
"I know there are. But is one to be driven by a strict regard for literal truth to entertain an unwelcome friend? Miss Altifiorla thought that I ought not to have married you, and as I thought I ought we had some words about it."
"Whom did she want you to marry?" asked Mr. Western with a laugh.
"Nobody. She is averse to marriage altogether."
"Unless she was the advocate of some other suitor, I do not see that I need quarrel with her. But she is your friend and not mine, and if you choose to put her off of course you can do so. I would advise you to find something more probable than the want of a bedroom in a house in which one is only occupied."
There was truth in this. What reason could she find? Knowing her husband's regard to truth she did not dare to suggest any reason to her friend more plausible than the want of a room, but still essentially false. She was driven about thinking that she would get her husband to take her away from home for awhile—for two or three days. The letter remained unanswered, when her husband suggested to her that she had better write. "Could we not go somewhere?" she replied with a look of trouble on her brow.
"Run away from home on account of Miss Altifiorla?" said he. She was beginning to be afraid of him and knew that it was so. She did not dare to declare to him her thoughts and was afraid at every moment that he should read them.
"Then I must just tell her that we can't have her."
"That will be best,—if you have made up your mind. As far as I am concerned she is welcome. Any friend of yours would be welcome."
"Oh, George, she would bore you out of your life!"
"I am not so easily bored. I am sure that any intimate friend of yours would have something to say for herself."
"And as for her having been an advocate for single life, she had not seen me and therefore her reasons could not have been personal. There are a great many young women, thirty years old and upwards, who take up the idea. They do not wish to subject themselves,—perhaps because they have not been asked by the right person."
"I don't think there have been any persons here. Not that she is bad looking."
"Perhaps you think I shall fall in love with her."
"I'd have her directly. But she is the last person in the world I should think of."
"I can get on very well with anyone who has an idea. There is at any rate something to strike at. The young lady who agrees with everything and suggests nothing, is to me the most intolerable. At any rate you had better make up your mind at once or you'll have her here before you know where you are."
It was this which did, indeed, happen. On the day after the last conversation Mrs. Western wrote her letter. In it she expressed her sorrow that engagements for the present prevented her from having the power to entertain her friend. No doubt the letter was cold and unfriendly. As she read it over to herself she declared that she would have been much hurt to have received such a letter from her friend. But she declared again that under no circumstances could she have offered herself as Miss Altifiorla had done. Nevertheless she felt ashamed of the letter. All of which, however, became quite unnecessary, when, in the course of the afternoon, Miss Altifiorla appeared at Durton Lodge. She arrived with a torrent of reasons. She had come up to London on business which admitted of no excuse. She was sure that her friend's letter must have gone astray,—that letter which for the last three days she had been expecting. To return from London to Exeter without seeing her dear friend would be so unfeeling and unnatural! She must have come to Durton Lodge or must have returned to Exeter. In fact, she so put it as to make it appear impossible that she should not have come.
"My dear Miss Altifiorla," said Mr. Western, "I am sure that Cecilia is delighted to see you. And as for me, you are quite welcome." But, as a fact, there she was. There was no sending her away again;—no getting her out of the house without a sojourn of some days. Whatever mischief she might do might be done at once. There could be no doubt that she would begin to talk of Sir Francis Geraldine and declare the secret which it was now the one care of Cecilia's mind to keep away from her husband. It mattered not that her presence there showed her to be vulgar, impertinent, and obtrusive. There she was, and must be dealt with as a friend, or as an enemy. Again Cecilia almost made up her mind as to the better course. Let her go to her husband and tell him all, and tell him also why it was that she told him now. Let her endure his anger, and then there would be an end of it. There was nothing else as to which she had need to dread him.
But again, when she found herself with him, he was happy, and jocund, and jested with her about her friend. She could not get him into the humour in which it was proper that he should be told. She did not tell him, and went down to dinner with the terrible load about her heart. Three or four times during the evening the conversation was on the point of turning to matters in which the name of Sir Francis Geraldine would surely be mentioned. With infinite care, but without showing her care, she contrived to master the subject, and to force her friend and her husband to talk of other things. But the struggle was very great, and she was aware that it could not be repeated. The reader will remember, perhaps, the stern thoughts which Miss Holt had entertained as to her friend when her friend had thought proper to give her some idea of what her duty ought to be in regard to her present husband. She remembered well that Miss Altifiorla had written to her, asking whether Mr. Western had forgiven "that episode." And her mother, too, had in writing dropped some word,—some word intended to be only half intelligible as to the question which Miss Altifiorla had asked after the wedding breakfast. She knew well what had been in the woman's mind, and knew also what had been in her own! She remembered how proudly she had disdained the advice of this woman when it had been given to her. And yet now she must go to her and ask for mercy. She saw no other way out of her immediate trouble. She did not believe but that her friend would be silent when told to be silent; but yet how painfully disgraceful to her, the bride, would be the telling.
She went up to Miss Altifiorla's room after she had gone for the night, and found her friend getting into bed, happy with the assistance of a strange maid. "Oh, my dear," said Miss Altifiorla, "my hair is not half done yet; are you in a hurry for Mary?"
"I will go to my own room," said Mrs. Western, "and when Mary will tell me that you are ready I will come to you. There is something I have to tell you." She had not been five minutes in her own room before Mary summoned her. The "something to be told" took immediate hold of Miss Altifiorla's imagination, and induced her to be ready for bed with her hair, we may suppose, "half done."
"Francesca," said Mrs. Western, as soon as she entered the room, "I have a favour to ask you."
"Yes, a favour." She had come prepared with her request down to the very words in which it should be uttered. "I do not wish you, while you remain here, to make any allusion to Sir Francis Geraldine." Miss Altifiorla almost whistled as she heard the words spoken. "You understand me, do you not? I do not wish any word to be said which may by chance lead to the mention of Sir Francis Geraldine's name. If you will understand that, you will be able to comply with my wishes." Her request she made almost in the stern words of an absolute order. There was nothing humble in her demeanour, nothing which seemed to tell of a suppliant. And having given her command she remained quiet, waiting for an answer.
"Then this was the reason why you didn't answer me. You did not want to see me, and therefore remained silent."
"I did not want to see you. But it was not on that account that I remained silent. I should have written to you. Indeed I have written to you, and the letter would have gone to-day. I wrote to you putting you off. But as you are here I have to tell you my wishes. I am sure that you will do as I would have you."
"I have to think of my duty," said Miss Altifiorla.
Then there came a black frown on Mrs. Western's brow. Duty! What duty could she have in such a matter, except to her? She suspected the woman of a desire to make mischief. She felt confident that the woman would do so unless repressed by the extraction from her of a promise to the contrary. She did believe that the woman would keep her word,—that she would feel herself bound to preserve herself from the accusation of direct falsehood; but from her good feeling, from her kindness, from her affection, from that feminine bond which ought to have made her silent, she expected nothing. "Your duty, Francesca, in this matter is to me," said Mrs. Western, assuming a wonderful severity of manner. "You have known me many years and are bound to me by many ties. I tell you what my wishes are. I cannot quite explain my reasons, but I do not doubt that you will guess them."
"You have kept the secret?" said Miss Altifiorla with a devilish mixture of malice, fun, and cunning.
"It does not matter what I have done. There are reasons, which made me wish to avoid your immediate coming. At the present moment it would interfere gravely with his happiness and with mine were he to learn the circumstances of Sir Francis Geraldine's courtship. Of course it is painful to me to have to say this to you. It is so painful that to avoid it I have absolutely written to you telling you not to come. This I have done not to avoid your coming, which would otherwise have been a pleasure to me, but to save myself from this great pain. Now you know it all, and know also what it is that I expect from you."
Miss Altifiorla listened to this in silence. She was seated in an easy bedroom chair, clothed from head to foot in a pale pink dressing-gown, from which the colour was nearly washed out; and her hair as I have said was "half done." But in her trouble to collect her thoughts she became quite unaware of all accessories. Her dear friend Cecilia had put the matter to her so strongly that she did not quite dare to refuse. But yet what a fund of gratification might there not be in telling such a story under such circumstances to the husband! She sat silent for a while meditating on it, till Mrs. Western roughly forced a reply from her lips. "I desire to have your promise," said Mrs. Western.
"Oh, yes, of course."
"You will carefully avoid all allusion to the subject."
"Since you wish it, I will do so."
"That is sufficient. And now good-night."
"I know that I am doing wrong," said Miss Altifiorla.
"You would indeed be doing wrong," said Mrs. Western, "if you were to take upon yourself to destroy my happiness on such a matter after having been duly warned."
It is literally true that the tongue will itch with a desire to tell a secret. Miss Altifiorla's tongue did itch. But upon the whole she endured her suffering, and kept her promise. She did not say a word in Mr. Western's hearing which led to Sir Francis Geraldine as a topic of conversation. But in reward for this she exacted from Mrs. Western an undertaking to keep her at Durton Lodge for a fortnight. The bargain was not exactly struck in those words, but it was so made that Mrs. Western understood how great was the price she paid, and how valuable the article she received in return. "A fortnight!" Mr. Western said, when his wife told him of the promise she had made. "I thought that three days would have been too much for you."
"Three hours are too much,—as interrupting our happiness. But as she is here, and as we have been very intimate for many years, and as she herself has named the time, I have not liked to contradict her."
"So be it. She will interfere much more with you than with me, and I suppose that the coming will not be frequently repeated."
Two days after this another guest proposed to visit them. But this was only for two nights, and her coming had in fact been expected from a period before the marriage. Lady Grant was Mr. Western's younger sister, and the person of whom in all the world he seemed to think the most. Indeed he had assured his wife that next to herself she was the nearest and the dearest to him. She was a widow, and went but little into society. According to his account she was clever, agreeable, and beautiful. She lived altogether in Scotland, where her time was devoted to her children, and was now coming up to England chiefly with the purpose of seeing her brother's wife. She was to be at Durton Lodge now only for a couple of nights, and then to return and remain with the understood purpose of taking them with her back to Scotland. Of Lady Grant Cecilia had become much afraid, as thinking it more than probable that her secret might be known. But it had seemed that as yet Lady Grant knew nothing of it. She corresponded frequently with her brother, and, as far as Cecilia could tell, the subject had not yet been mentioned between them. Could it be possible that all this time the secret was known to her husband and to her husband's sister? If so his silence to her was almost cruel.
Up to the morning of her coming Miss Altifiorla had certainly kept her promise. She had kept her promise though there had been twenty little openings as to which it would have been so easy for her to lead the way to the matter as to which her tongue longed to be speaking. When any mention was made of baronets either married or unmarried, of former lovers, of broken vows, or of second engagements, Miss Altifiorla would look with a meaning glance at her hostess. But of these glances Cecilia would apparently take no heed. She had soon got to know that Miss Altifiorla's promise would be kept unless she were led by some other person into an indirect breach of it. Cecilia's life during the period was one of great agony. But still she endured it without allowing her husband to perceive that it was so.
Now, on the coming of Lady Grant, what steps should she take? Should she ask her friend to be silent also to this second person or should she presume the promise to be so extended? She could not bring herself to make a second request. The task of doing so was too ponderous. Miss Altifiorla's manner of receiving the request made it such a burden that she could not submit herself to it. The woman looked at her and spoke to her in a manner which she was obliged to endure without seeming to endure aught that was unnatural. She looked back to her own struggles during that evening in the bedroom, and could see the woman as she sat struggling, in her pale pink dressing-gown, to escape from the necessity of promising. She could not have another such scene as that. But she thought that perhaps with one added word the promise might be made to suffice.
When they were alone together Miss Altifiorla would constantly refer to the Geraldine affair. This was to be expected and to be endured. There would come an end to the fortnight and the woman would be gone. "Do you think that Lady Grant knows?" she said, in the whisper that had become usual to her on such occasions.
"I am sure she knows nothing about it," said Cecilia.
"How can you be sure? You do not know her and have never seen her. It will be very odd if she has not heard."
"At any rate nothing need be said to her in this house. No hint need be made to her either by you or me."
"I think she must have heard it. I happen to know that she has a great correspondence. Laws! when you think of who Sir Francis is and of the manner in which he lives, it is almost impossible to conceive that a person should not have heard of it."
"We need not tell her."
"You are quite safe with me. I have given you my word, and that ought to be enough. Nobody could have been more studious to avoid the matter;—though, indeed, it has sometimes been difficult. And then there has been my feeling of doubt whether my duty ought not to make me divulge it." There was something in this which was peculiarly painful to Cecilia. The duty of this woman to her husband, to him whom she loved so truly, to him with whom it was in the very core of her heart to have everything in common! Francesca Altifiorla to speak of her duty to him! But even this had to be borne. "Indeed, I feel every day that I am staying here that I am sacrificing duty to friendship." Oh, into what trouble had she fallen without any sin of her own,—as she told herself;—without, at least, any great sin! When was the moment at which she ought to have told the story? She thought that she could remember the exact moment; when he had come back to her for her answer at the end of that week. And then she had not told him, simply from her dislike to repeat back to him the story which she had heard from himself!
Lady Grant came, and nothing could be sweeter or more gracious than the meeting. Miss Altifiorla was not there, and the two ladies, in the presence of the husband and brother, received each other with that quick intimacy and immediate loving friendship which it is given only to women to entertain. Lady Grant was ten years the senior and a widow, and had that air of living through the evening of her life instead of still enjoying the morning, which is peculiar to widows who have loved their husbands. She was very lovely, even in her mitigated widow's weeds, with a tall figure, and pale oval face, rather thin, but not meagre or attenuated. And Cecilia thought that she saw in her a determination to love her,—and she on her side at once determined that she would return Lady Grant's affection. But not for that reason was her secret to be known. She looked on Lady Grant as one whom she would so willingly have made her friend in all things, but still as one whom, as to that single matter, she could not but regard as her enemy.
They sat together for a couple of hours before dinner, and then at night there was another sitting from which Miss Altifiorla was again banished. And there were some joking questions asked and answers given as to Miss Altifiorla's presence. There was a something in the manner and gait of Lady Grant which made Cecilia almost ashamed of her Exeter friend. It was not that Miss Altifiorla was ignorant, or unladylike, or ill-dressed; but that she knew her friend too well. Miss Altifiorla was little and mean, whereas Cecilia was ready to accept her sister-in-law as great and noble. Miss Altifiorla was not therefore spoken of in the highest terms, and the mode of her coming to Durton Lodge without an invitation was subjected to some little ridicule.
But Mrs. Western when she went to her room was comforted at any rate in thinking that Lady Grant did not know her secret. How poor must have been her state of comfort may be judged from the fact that this could add to it. On the following morning they met at breakfast, and all went well. But Lady Grant could not but notice that the young lady from Devonshire seemed to exercise an authority incommensurate with the tone in which she had been described. The day passed by happily enough, and Cecilia was strong in hope that Lady Grant might take her departure without a reference to her one subject of sorrow.
That night, however, her comfort, such as it was, was brought to an end. As they were sitting together in Lady Grant's bedroom Cecilia's ears were suddenly wounded by the mention of the name of Sir Francis Geraldine. In her immediate agony she could hardly tell how it occurred, but she was rapidly asked a question as to her former engagement. In the asking of it there was nothing rough, nothing unkind, nothing intended to wound, nothing to show a feeling that it should not be so;—but the question had been asked. There was the fact that Lady Grant knew the whole story.
But there was the fact also that her husband did not know it, or else that other fact which she would have given the world to know to be a fact,—that he knew it, and had willingly held his peace respecting it, even to his sister. If that could be so, then she could be happy; if that could be so,—if she could know that it was so, then could she afford to despise Miss Altifiorla and her tyranny. But though the word had been not yet a moment uttered, she could not at first remember how it had been said. There was simply the knowledge that the name of Sir Francis Geraldine had been used, and that it had been declared that she had been engaged to him. Up to this moment she had been very brave, and very powerful, too, over herself. Up to this she had never betrayed herself. But now her courage gave way, the colour came to her cheeks and forehead and neck, and then passed rapidly away,—and she betrayed herself. "Does not he know it?" asked Lady Grant. As she said the words she put out her hand and pressed Cecilia's in her own; and the tone of her voice was loving, and friendly, and sisterly. Though there was reproach in it, it was not half so bitter as that which Cecilia was constantly addressing to herself. The reproach was in her ears and not in Lady Grant's voice. But the words were repeated before Cecilia could answer them. "Does not he know it?"
All her hope was thus abolished. Almost from the moment of Lady Grant's coming into the house she had taught herself to think that he must know it. It was impossible that the two should be ignorant, and impossible also as she thought that the sister should know it and that he should not. But all that was now at an end. It was necessary that she should answer her sister's question, and yet so difficult to find words in which to do so. She attempted to speak but the word would not come. Even the one word, "No," would not form itself on her lips. She fell upon her knees and, burying her face in Lady Grant's lap, thus told her secret.
"He has never heard of it?" again asked Lady Grant. "Oh, my dear. That should not have been so;—must not be so."
"If I could tell you! If I could tell you!"
"Tell me what? I am sure there is nothing for you to tell which you need blush to speak."
"No, no. Nothing, nothing."
"Then why should he not know? Why should he not have known? Cecilia, you will tell him to-night before he goes to his rest?"
"No,—no. Not to-night. It is impossible. I must wait till that woman has gone."
"Miss Altifiorla knows it?"
"She knows, too, that he does not know it?" This question Cecilia answered only by some sign. "I fancied that it might be so. I thought that there was something between you which had been kept from him. Why, why have you been,—shall I say so foolish?"
"Yes. Yes. Yes; foolish;—oh, yes! But it has been only that. There is nothing, nothing that is not known to all the world. The marvel is that he should not have known it. It was in all the newspapers. But he never thinks of trifles such as that."
"But why did you keep it from him?"
"Shall I tell you? You know the story of his own engagement."
"To Miss Tremenhere? Oh, yes, I know the story."
"And how badly she behaved to him, receiving the attention of another man, absolutely while she was engaged to him."
"She was very pretty;—but a flighty, inconstant little girl. I felt that George had had a great escape."
"But such was the story. Well;—he told it me. He told it before he had thought of me. We were together and had become intimate; and out of the full heart the mouth speaks."
"I can understand that he should have told it you."
"He did not think of loving me then. Well;—he told me his story, but I kept mine to myself."
"That was natural,—then."
"But, when he came to me with the other story and asked me to love him, was I to give him back his own tale and tell him the same thing of myself? I too have had a lover, and I have—jilted him, if you please to call it so. Was I to tell him that?"
"It would hardly have been true, I think."
"It would have been true,—true to the letter," said Cecilia, determined that Sir Francis Geraldine's lie should not prevail at this moment. "I had done to Sir Francis just what the girl had done to your brother. I was guided by other motives and had, I think, behaved properly. Was I to tell it to him then?"
"His own story, back again? I could not do it, and then, after that, from time to time the occasions have gone by. Words have been said by him which have made it impossible. Twenty times I have determined to do it, and twenty times the opportunity has been lost. I was obliged to tell this woman not to mention it in his presence."
"He must know it."
"I wish he did."
"He is a man who will not bear to be kept in the dark on such a question."
"I know it. I have read his character and I know it."
"You cannot know him as I do," said Lady Grant. "Though you are his wife you have not been so long enough to know him; how true he is, how affectionate, how honest; but yet how jealous! Were I to say that he is unforgiving I should belie him. Without many thoughts he could forgive the man who had robbed him of his fortune, or his health. But it is hard for him to forgive that which he considers to be an offence against his self-love."
"I know it all."
"The longer he is kept in the dark the deeper will be the wound. Of such a man it is impossible to say what he suspects. He will not think that you have loved him the less or that you are less true to him; but there will be something that will rankle, and which he will not endeavour to define. He is the noblest man on earth, and the most generous—till he be offended. But then he is the most bitter."
"You describe his character just as I have read it."
"If it be so you must be careful that he learn this from yourself, and not from others. If it come from you he will be angry, that it has come so late. But his anger will pass by and he will forgive you. But if he hears it from the world at large, if it be told of you, and not by you, then I can understand, that his wrath should be very great."
"Why has he not heard it already?" asked Mrs. Western after a pause. "Why has he not been like all the world who have read it in the newspapers? It was talked of so much, that it was hardly necessary that I should tell it myself."
"You yourself have said that he does not think of trifles. Paragraphs about the loves and marriages of other people he would never read. You may be sure at any rate of this,—that your engagement with Sir Francis Geraldine he has never read."
"I have sometimes hoped," said Mrs. Western, "that he knew it all." Lady Grant shook her head. "I have sometimes thought that he knew it all, and regarded it as a matter on which nothing need be said between us. Should I have been angry with him had he not told me of Miss Tremenhere?"
"Do you measure the one thing by the other," said Lady Grant; "a man's desires by a woman's, a man's sense of honour by what a woman is supposed to feel? Though a man keep such secrets deep in his bosom through long years of married life, the woman is not supposed to be injured. She may know, or may not know, and may hear the tale at any period of her married life, and no harm will follow. But a man expects to see every thought in the breast of the woman to whose love be trusts, as though it were all written there for him in the clear light, but written in letters which no one else shall read."
"I have nothing that he may not read," said Mrs. Western.
"But there is something that he has not read, something that he has not been invited to read. Let it not remain so. Tell it to him all even though you may have to support his anger, and for a time to pine in the shadow of his displeasure."
Mrs. Western as she went away to her own room felt some relief at any rate in the conviction that with Lady Grant her secret would be safe. Strong as was the bond which bound her to her brother, there would be on her tongue no itching desire to tell the secret simply because it was there to be told. She had not threatened, or spoken of her duty, or boasted of her friendship, but had simply given her advice in the strongest language which it was within her power to use. On the next morning she took her leave, and started on her journey without showing even by a glance that she was possessed of any secret.
"Does she know?" asked Miss Altifiorla as soon as the two were in the drawing-room together, using a kind of whisper which had now become habitual to her.
It may almost be said that Mrs. Western had come to hate her friend. She looked forward to the time of her going as a liberation from misery. Miss Altifiorla's intrusion at Durton Lodge was altogether unpalatable to her. She certainly no longer loved her friend, and knew well that her friend knew that it was so. But still she could not risk the open enmity of one who knew her secret. And she was bound to answer the question that was asked her. "Yes, she does know it."
"And what does she say?"
"It matters not what she says. My request to you is that you should not speak of it."
"But to yourself!"
"No, not to myself or to any other person here." Then she was silent; and Miss Altifiorla, pursing up her lips, bethought herself whether the demands made upon her friendship were not too heavy. But there still remained five days of the visit.
MISS ALTIFIORLA'S DEPARTURE.
The fortnight was nearly gone, and Miss Altifiorla was to start early on the following morning. Cecilia had resolved that she would tell her story to her husband as soon as they were alone together, and make a clean breast. She would tell him everything down as far as she could, to the little feelings which had prevented her from speaking before, to Miss Altifiorla's abominable interference, and to Lady Grant's kind advice. She would do this as soon as Miss Altifiorla was out of the house. But she could not quite bring herself to determine on the words she would use. She was resolved, however, that in owning her fault she would endeavour to disarm his wrath by special tenderness. If he were tender;—oh, yes, then she would be tender in return. If he took it kindly then she would worship him. All the agony she endured should be explained to him. Of her own folly, she would speak very severely,—if he treated it lightly. But she would do nothing to seem to deprecate his wrath. As to all this she was resolved. But she had not yet settled on the words with which she would commence her narrative.
The last day wore itself away very tediously. Miss Altifiorla was in her manner more objectionable than ever. Mr. Western had evidently disliked her though he had hardly said so. During the days he had left the two women much together, and had remained in his study or had wandered forth alone. In this way he had increased his wife's feeling of anger against her visitor, and had made her look forward to her departure with increasing impatience. But an event happened which had at once disturbed all her plans. She was sitting in the drawing-room with Miss Altifiorla at about five in the evening, discussing in a most disagreeable manner the secrecy of her first engagement. That is to say, Miss Altifiorla was persisting in the discussion, whereas Mrs. Western was positively refusing to make it a subject of conversation. "I think you are demanding too much from me," said Miss Altifiorla. "I have given way, I am afraid wrongly as to your husband. But I should not do my duty by you were I not to insist on giving you my advice with my last breath. Let me tell it. I shall know how to break the subject to him in a becoming manner." At this moment the door was opened and the servant announced Sir Francis Geraldine.
The disturbance of the two women was complete. Had the dead ancestor of either of them been ushered in they could not have received him with more trepidation. Miss Altifiorla rose with a look of awe, Mrs. Western with a feeling of anger that was almost dominated by fear. But neither of them for a moment spoke a word, nor gave any sign of making welcome the new guest. "As I am living so close to you," said the baronet, putting on that smile which Mrs. Western remembered so well, "I thought that I was in honour bound to come and renew our acquaintance."
Mrs. Western was utterly unable to speak. "I don't think that we knew that you were living in the neighbourhood," said Miss Altifiorla.
"Oh, yes; I have the prettiest, funniest, smallest little cottage in the world just about two miles off. The Criterion it is called."
"What a very odd name!" said Miss Altifiorla.
"Yes, it is rather odd. I won the race once and bought the place with the money. The horse was called Scratch'em, and I couldn't call my house Scratch'em. I have built a second cottage, so that it is not so very small, and as it is only two miles off I hope that you and Mrs. Western will come and see it."
This was addressed exclusively to Cecilia, and made an answer of some kind absolutely necessary. "I fear that we are going to Scotland very shortly," she said; "and my husband is not much in the habit of visiting."
This was uncivil enough, but Sir Francis did not take it amiss. He sat there for twenty minutes, and even made allusion to their former intimacy at Exeter.
"I am quite well aware how happily all that has ended," he said;—"at any rate on your side of the question. You have done very well and very wisely. And I,"—he laughed as he said this,—"have succeeded in getting over it better than might have been expected. At any rate I hope that there will be no ill-will. I shall do myself the honour of asking you and Mr. Western to come and dine with me at the Criterion. It is the little place that Lord Tomahawk had last year." Then he departed without another word from Cecilia Western.
"Now he must be told," whispered Miss Altifiorla the moment the door was closed. "My dear, if you will think of it all round you will perceive that this can be done by no one so well as by myself. I will go to Mr. Western the moment he comes in, and get through it all in half an hour."
"You will do nothing of the kind," said Mrs. Western.
"Let me pray you. Let me implore you. Let me beseech you."
"You will do nothing of the kind. I will admit of no interference in the matter."
"Interference! You cannot call it interference."
"I will not have you to speak to my husband on the subject."
"But what will you do?"
"Whatever I do shall be done by myself alone."
"But you must tell him instantly. You cannot allow this man to come and call and yet say nothing about it. And he would not have called without some previous acquaintance. This you will have to describe, and if you say that you merely knew him at Exeter, there will be in that case an additional fib." The use of such words applied to herself by this woman was intolerable. But she could only answer them by an involuntary frown upon her brow. "And then," continued Miss Altifiorla, "of course he will refer to me. He will conclude that as you knew Sir Francis at Exeter I must have known him. I cannot tell a fib."
She could not tell a fib! And that was uttered in such a way as to declare that Mrs. Western had been fibbing. I cannot tell a fib! "You will leave me at any rate to mind my own business," said Cecilia in an indignant tone as she left the room.
But Mr. Western was at the hall door, and the coming of Sir Francis had to be explained at once. That could not be left to be told when Miss Altifiorla should have gone,—not even though she were going to-morrow. "Sir Francis Geraldine has been here," she said almost before he had entered the room. She was immediately aware that she had been too sudden, and had given by her voice too great an importance to her idea of the visit.
But he was not surprised at that and did not notice it. "Sir Francis Geraldine! A man whom I particularly do not wish to know! And what has brought him here?"
"He came to call. He is a Devonshire man, and he knew us at Exeter."
"He is the Dean's brother-in-law. I remember. And when he came what did he say? Unless you and he were very intimate I think he might as well have remained away. There are some stories here not altogether to his credit. I do not know much about his business, but he is not a delectable acquaintance."
"We were intimate," said Cecilia. "Maude Hippesley, his niece, was my dearest friend." The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she was aware that she had fibbed. Miss Altifiorla was justified. Why had she not stopped at the assurance of her intimacy with Sir Francis, and leave unexplained the nature of it? Every step which she took made further steps terribly difficult!
After dinner, Mr. Western, as a matter of course, brought up the subject of Sir Francis Geraldine. "Did you know him, Miss Altifiorla?"
"Oh, yes!" said that lady, looking at Cecilia with peculiar eyes. Only that Mr. Western was a man and not a woman, and among men the least suspicious till his suspicion was aroused, he would have discovered at once from Miss Altifiorla's manner that there was a secret.
"He seems to have lived in very good clerical society down in Exeter,—a very different class from those with whom he has been intimate here."
"Of course he was staying at the Deanery," said Cecilia.
"And the Dean, I know, is a very pearl of Church propriety. It is odd what different colours men show at different places. Down here, where he is well known, a great many even of the racing men fight shy of him. But I beg your pardon if he be a particular friend of yours, Miss Altifiorla."
"Oh dear, no, not of mine at all. I should never have known him to speak to but for Cecilia." Her words no doubt were true; but again she looked as though endeavouring to tell all she could without breaking her promise.
"He is one of our Devonshire baronets," said Cecilia, "and of course we like to stand by our own. At any rate he is going to ask us to dinner."
"We cannot dine with him."
"That's as you please. I don't want to dine with him."
"I look upon it as very impertinent. He knows that I should not dine with him. There has never been any actual quarrel, but there has been no acquaintance."
"The acquaintance has been on my part," said Cecilia, who felt that at every word she uttered she made the case worse for herself hereafter.
"When a woman marries, she has to put up with her husband's friends," said Mr. Western gravely.
"He is nothing on earth to me. I never wish to see him again as long as I live."
"It is unfortunate that he should have turned out to be so near a neighbour," said Miss Altifiorla. Then for the moment Sir Francis Geraldine was allowed to be forgotten.
"I did not like to say it before her," he said afterwards in their own room;—and now Cecilia was able to observe that his manner was altogether altered,—"but to tell the truth that man behaved very badly to me myself. I know nothing about racing, but my cousin, poor Jack Western, did. When he died, there was some money due to him by Sir Francis, and I, as his executor, applied for it. Sir Francis answered that debts won by dead men were not payable. But Jack had been alive when he won this, and it should have been paid before. I know nothing about debts of honour as they are called, but I found out that the money should have been paid."
"What was the end of it?" asked Cecilia.
"I said no more about it. The money would have come into my pocket and I could afford to lose it. But Sir Francis must know what I think of the transaction, and, knowing it, ought not to talk of asking me to dinner."
"But that was swindling."
"For the matter of that it's all swindling as far as I can see. One strives to get the money out of another man's pocket by some juggling arrangement. For myself I cannot understand how a gentleman can condescend to wish to gain another man's money. But I leave that all alone. It is so; and when I meet a man who is on the turf as they call it, I keep my own feelings to myself. He has his own laws of conduct and I have mine. But here is a man who does not obey his own laws; and puts money in his pocket by breaking them. He can do as he pleases. It is nothing to me. But he ought not to come and call upon my wife." In this way he talked himself into a passion; but the passion was now against Sir Francis Geraldine and not against his wife.
On the next morning Miss Altifiorla was despatched by an early train so that she might be able to get down to Exeter, via London, early in the day. It behoved her to go to London on the route. She had things to buy and people to see, and to London she went. "Good-bye, my dear," she said, seeming to include the husband as well as the wife in the address. "I have spent a most pleasant fortnight, and have been most delighted to become acquainted with your husband. You are Cecilia Holt no longer. But it would have been sad indeed not to know him who has made you Cecilia Western." Then she put out her hand, and getting hold of that of the gentleman squeezed it with the warmest affection. But her farewell address made to Mrs. Western in her own room was quite different in its tone. "Now I am going, Cecilia," she said, "and am leaving you in the midst of terrible dangers."
"I hope not," said Cecilia.
"But I am. They would have been over now and passed if you would have allowed me to obey my reason, and to tell him the whole story of your former love."
"Because I am your most intimate friend. And I think I should have told it in such a manner as to disarm his wrath."
"It is out of the question. I will tell him."
"Do so. Do so. But I doubt your courage. Do so this very morning. And remember that at any rate Francesca Altifiorla has been true to her promise."
That such a promise should have been needed and should have been boasted of with such violent vulgarity was almost more than Mrs. Western could stand. She came down-stairs and then underwent the additional purgatory of listening to the silver-tongued farewell. That she, she with her high ideas of a woman's duty and a woman's dignity, should have put herself into such a condition was a marvel to herself. Had some one a year since told her that she should become thus afraid of a fellow-creature and of one that she loved best in all the world, she would have repelled him who had told her with disdain. But so it was. How was she to tell her husband that she had been engaged to one whom he had described to her as a gambler and a swindler?
SIR FRANCIS TRAVELS WITH MISS ALTIFIORLA.
Miss Altifiorla was at the station of course before her time. It is the privilege of unmarried ladies when they travel alone to spend a good deal of time at stations. But as she walked up and down the platform she had an opportunity for settling her thoughts. She was angry with three persons—with Mrs. Western, Mr. Western, and with herself. She was very angry with Cecilia. Had Cecilia trusted to her properly she could have sympathised with her thoroughly in all her troubles. She was not angry with her friend in that her friend was afraid of her husband. Would she have reposed herself and her fears on her friend's bosom it might have been very well. But it was because her friend had not been afraid of her that she was wrath. Mrs. Western had misbehaved egregiously, and had come to her in her trouble solely because it was necessary. So far she had done naturally. But though she had come, she had not come in any of the spirit of humility. She had been bold as brass to her in the midst of her cowardice towards her husband,—imperious to herself and unbending. She had declined her advice with scorn. And yet one word spoken by herself would have been destructive. Seeing that she had been so treated had she not been wrong to abstain from the word?
Her anger against Mr. Western was less hot in its nature but was still constant. He had not liked her, and though he had been formally civil, his dislike had been apparent. He was a man proud of himself, who ought to be punished for his pride. It was quite proper that he should learn that his wife had been engaged to the man whom he had so violently despised. It would be no more than a fitting reverse of fortune. Mr. Western was, she thought, no better than other men, and ought to be made so to understand. She had not quite arranged in her mind what she could now do in the matter, but for "dear Cecilia's" sake she was sure that something must be done.
And she was angry with herself at allowing herself to be turned out of the house before the crisis had come. She felt that she ought to have been present at the crisis, and that by the exercise of her own powers she might have hurried on the crisis. In this respect she was by no means satisfied with herself.
She was walking up and down the platform of the little country station thinking of all this when on a sudden she saw Sir Francis Geraldine get out of a brougham. It cannot be explained why her heart throbbed when she saw Sir Francis get out of his brougham. It was not that she thought that she could ask his advice on the matters which filled her mind, but there probably did come to her vague ideas of the possibility of some joint action. At any rate she received him when he came upon the platform with her blandest smile, and immediately entered into conversation with him respecting the household of the Westerns. What a stiff man he was, so learned, so proper, and so distant! It was impossible to get on with him. No doubt he was very good and all that. But what was their poor dear Cecilia to do with a man so silent, and one who hated all amusements? Before the train came up she and Sir Francis were quite on good terms together; and as they were both going to London they got into the same carriage.
"Of course he's a prig," said Sir Francis, as they seated themselves opposite to one another. "But then his wife is a prig too, and I do not see why they should not suit each other."
"You did not use to think her a prig, Sir Francis."
"No; like other men I made a mistake and was nearly having to pay for it. But I discovered in time,—luckily for both of us."
"You know," said Miss Altifiorla, "that Cecilia Holt was my dearest friend, and I cannot endure to hear her abused."
"Abused! You do not think I wish to abuse her. I am awfully fond of her still. But I do not see why she and Western should not get on very well together. I suppose they've no secrets from each other," he added after a pause. Upon this Miss Altifiorla remained silent. "They tell each other everything I should think." Still Miss Altifiorla said nothing. "I should imagine that she would tell him everything."
"Upon my word I can't say."
"I suppose she does. About her former engagement, for instance. He knows the whole story, eh?"
"I declare you put it to me in such a way that one doesn't know how to answer you."
"Different people have such different opinions about these kind of things. Some people think that because a girl has been engaged to a man she never ought to speak to him again when the engagement is broken. For my part I do not see why they should not be as intimate as any other people. She looked at me the other day as though she thought that I ought not to put myself into the same room with her again. I suppose she did it in obedience to him."
What was Miss Altifiorla to say in answer to such a question? She did remember her promise, and her promise was in a way binding upon her. She wished so to keep it as to be able to boast that she had kept it. But still she was most anxious to break it in the spirit. She did understand that she had bound herself not to divulge aught about Mrs. Western's secret, and that were she to do so now to Sir Francis she would be untrue to her friend. But the provocation was strong; and she felt that Sir Francis was a man with whom it would be pleasant to form an alliance.
"You must know," said Sir Francis.
"I don't see that I need know at all. Of course Cecilia does tell me everything; but I do not see that for that reason I am bound to tell anyone else."
"Then you do know."
"Has she told him that she was engaged to me? Or does he not know it without her telling him?" By this time they had become very intimate, and were whispering backwards and forwards with each other at their end of the carriage. All this was very pleasant to Miss Altifiorla. She felt that she was becoming the recipient of an amount of confidential friendship which had altogether been refused to her during the last two weeks. Sir Francis was a baronet, and a man of fashion, and a gentleman very well thought of in Devonshire, let Mr. Western say what he might about his conduct. Mr. Western was evidently a stiff stern man who did not like the amusements of other gentlemen. Miss Altifiorla felt that she liked being the friend of a man of fashion, and she despised Mr. Western. She threw herself back on the seat and closed her eyes and laughed. But he pressed her with the same question in another form. "Does he know that she was engaged to me?"
"If you will ask me, I do not think that he does."
"You really mean to say that he had never heard of it before his marriage?"
"What am I to do when you press me in this way? Remember that I do not tell you anything of my own knowledge. It is only what I think."
"You just now said that she told you everything."
"But perhaps she doesn't know herself."
"At any rate there is a mystery about it."
"I think there is, Sir Francis." After that it was not very long before Miss Altifiorla was induced to talk with great openness of the whole affair, and before they had reached London she had divulged to Sir Francis the fact that Mrs. Western had as yet told her husband nothing of her previous engagement, and lived at the present moment in awe at the idea of having to do so. "I had no conception that Cecilia would have been such a coward," she said, as Sir Francis was putting her into a cab, "but such is the sad fact. She has never mentioned your name."
"And was therefore dreadfully frightened when I called."
"Oh, dreadfully! But I shouldn't wonder if she has not told him all about it now."
"Already, you think." He was standing at the door of the cab, detaining it, and thereby showing in a very pleasant manner the importance of the interview.
"Well;—I cannot say. Perhaps not yet. She had certainly not made the communication when I left this morning, but was only waiting for my departure to do so. So she said at least. But she is terribly afraid of him and perhaps has not plucked up her courage. But I must be off now."
"When do you leave town?"
"This afternoon. You are delaying me terribly at this moment. Don't, Sir Francis!" This she said in a whisper because he had got hold of her hand through the window, as though to say good-bye to her, and did not at once let it go.
"When do you go? I'll see you off by the other train. When do you go, and from where?"
"Will you though? That will be very kind. Waterloo;—at 4.30. Remember the 4.30."
"Sans adieu!" Then she kissed her hand to him and was driven off.
This to her was all very pleasant. It gave an instant rose colour to her life. She had achieved such a character down at Exeter for maidenly reserve, and had lived so sternly, that it was hardly in her memory that a man had squeezed her hand before. She did remember one young clergyman who had sinned in this direction, twelve years since, but he was now a Bishop. When she heard the other day that he had been made a Bishop some misgivings as to her great philosophy touched her mind. Had she done right in repudiating mankind? Would it not have been better now to have been driving about the streets of the episcopal city, or perhaps even those of the metropolis, in an episcopal carriage? But, as she had then said, she had chosen her line and must now abide by it. But the pressing of her hand by Sir Francis had opened up new ideas to her. And they were the pleasanter because a special arrangement had been made for their meeting once again before they left London. As to one point she was quite determined. Mrs. Western and her secret must be altogether discarded. As for her promise she had not really broken it. He had been clever enough to extract from her all that she knew without, as she thought, any positive statement on her own part. At any rate he did know the truth, and no concealment could any longer be of service to Cecilia. It was evident that the way was open to her now, and that she could tell all that she knew without any breach of confidence.
Sir Francis, when he left her, was quite determined to carry his project through. Cecilia had thrown him over with most abominable unconcern and self-sufficiency. He had intended to honour her and she had monstrously dishonoured him. He had endeavoured to escape this by taking upon himself falsely the fault of having been the first to break their engagement. But there was a doubt as to this point, and people said that he had been jilted—much to his disgust. He was determined to be revenged,—or, as he said to himself, "he had made up his mind that the broad truth should be known." It certainly would be the "broad truth" if he could make Mr. Western understand the relations on which he, Sir Francis, had but a few months before stood in regard to his wife. "Honesty," he said to himself, "demanded it."
Miss Altifiorla, he thought, was by no means an unpleasant young woman with whom to have an intrigue. She had good looks of her own, though they were thin and a little pinched. She was in truth thirty-five years old, but she did not quite look it. She had a certain brightness of eye when she was awakened to enthusiasm, and she knew how to make the best of herself. She could whisper and be—or pretend to be—secret. She had about her, at her command, a great air of special friendship. She had not practised it much with men as yet, but there was no reason why she should not do so with advantage. She felt herself already quite on intimate terms with Sir Francis; and of Sir Francis it may be said, that he was sufficiently charmed with Miss Altifiorla to find it expedient to go and see her off from the Waterloo Station.
He found Dick Ross at his club and lunched with him. "You're just up from the Criterion," said Dick.
"Yes; I went down for the sake of renewing an old acquaintance, and I renewed it."
"You've been persecuting that unfortunate young woman."
"Why a young woman should be thought unfortunate because she marries such a pink of perfection as Mr. Western, and avoids such a scapegrace as I am, I cannot conceive."
"She's unfortunate because you mean to bully her. Why can't you leave her alone? She has had her chance of war, and you have had yours, and he has had his. As far as I can see you have had the best of it. She is married to a stiff prig of a fellow, who no doubt will make her miserable. Surely that ought to be enough for you."
"Not quite," said Sir Francis. "There is nothing recommends itself to my mind so much as even-handed justice. He played me a trick once, and I'll play him another. She too played me a trick, and now I can play her one. My good fortune consists in this, that I can kill the two birds with one stone."
"You mean to kill them?"
"Certainly I do. Why on earth should I let them off? He did not let me off. Nor did she. They think because I carry things in an easy manner that I take them easily. I suffer as much as they do. But they shall suffer as well as I."
"The most pernicious doctrine I ever heard in my life," said Dick Ross as he filled his mouth with cold chicken pie.
"When you say pernicious, have you any idea what you mean?"
"Well, yes; awfully savage, and all that kind of thing. Just utter cruelty, and a bad spirit."
"Those are your ideas because you don't take the trouble to return evil for evil. But then you never take the trouble to return good for good. In fact, you have no idea of duty, only you don't like to burden your conscience with doing what seems to be ill-natured. Now, if a man does me good, I return it,—which I deem to be a great duty, and if he does me evil, I generally return that sooner or later. There is some idea of justice in my conduct, but there is none in yours."
"Do you mean to punish them both?"
"Well, yes; as far as it is in my power, both."
"Don't," said Dick Ross, looking up with something like real sorrow depicted on his face. But still he called for some greengage tart.
"I like to get the better of my enemies," said the Baronet. "You like fruit pie. I doubt if you'd even give up fruit pie to save this woman."
"I will," said Dick, pushing the pie away from him.
"The sacrifice would be all in vain. I must write the letter to-day, and as it has to be thought about I must begin it at once. Whatever happens, do not let your good nature quarrel with your appetite."
"He's a fiend, a perfect fiend," said Dick Ross, as he sate dawdling over his cheese. "I wouldn't have his ill-nature for all his money." But he turned that sentiment over in his mind, endeavouring to ascertain what he would do if the offer of the exchange were made to him. For Dick was very poor, and at this moment was in great want of money. Sir Francis went into the smoking-room, and sitting there alone with a cigar in his mouth, meditated the letter which he would have to write. The letter should be addressed to Mr. Western, and was one which could not be written without much forethought. He not only must tell his story, but must give some reason more or less plausible for the telling of it. He did not think that he could at once make his idea of justice plain to Mr. Western. He could not put forth his case so clearly as to make the husband understand that all was done in fair honour and honesty. But as he thought of it, he came to the conclusion that he did not much care what impression he might leave on the mind of Mr. Western;—and still less what impression he might leave on hers. He might probably succeed in creating a quarrel, and he was of opinion that Mr. Western was a man who would not quarrel lightly, but, when he did, would quarrel very earnestly. Having thought it all over with great deliberation, he went up-stairs, and in twenty minutes had his letter written. At a quarter past four he was at the Waterloo Station to see the departure of Miss Altifiorla. Even he could perceive that she was somewhat brighter in her attire than when he had met her early in the morning. He could not say what had been done, but something had been added to please his eyes. The gloves were not the same, nor the ribbons; and he thought that he perceived that even the bonnet had been altered. Her manner too was changed. There was a careless ease and freedom about her which he rather liked; and he took it in good part that Miss Altifiorla had prepared herself for the interview, though he were to be with her but for a few minutes, and that she should be different from the Miss Altifiorla as she had come away from the Western breakfast table. "Now there is one thing I want you to promise me," she said as she gave him her hand.
"Anything on earth."
"Don't let Mr. Western or Cecilia know that you know about that." He laughed and merely shook his head. "Pray don't. What's the good? You'll only create a disturbance and misery. Poor dear Cecilia has been uncommonly silly. But I don't think that she deserves to be punished quite so severely."
"I'm afraid I must differ from you there," he said, shaking his head.
"Is it absolutely necessary?"
"Poor Cecilia! How can she have been so foolish! He is of such a singular temperament that I do not know what the effect may be. I wish you would think better of it, Sir Francis."
"And leave myself to stand in my present very uncomfortable position! And that after such treatment as hers. I have thought it all over, and have found myself bound in honour to inform him. And it is for the sake of letting you know that I have come here. Perhaps you may be called upon to say or do something in the matter."
"I suppose it cannot be helped," said Miss Altifiorla with a sigh.
"It cannot," he replied.
"Poor dear Cecilia. She has brought it on her own head. I must get into my train now, as we are just off. I am so much obliged to you for coming to see me start."
"We shall meet each other before long," he said, as she again kissed her hand and took her departure. Miss Altifiorla could not but think what a happy chance it was that prevented his marriage with Cecilia Holt.
MR. WESTERN HEARS THE STORY.
It was the custom for Mr. Western to come down into the library before breakfast, and there to receive his letters. On the morning after Miss Altifiorla's departure he got one by which it may be said that he was indeed astonished. It can seldom be the case that a man shall receive a letter by which he is so absolutely lifted out of his own world of ordinary contentment into another absolutely different. And the world into which he was lifted was one black with unintelligible storms and clouds. It was as though everything were suddenly changed for him. The change was of a nature which altogether unmanned him. Had he been ruined that would have been as nothing in comparison. The death of no friend,—so he told himself in the first moment of his misery,—could have so afflicted him. He read the letter through twice and thrice, and then sat silent with it in his hand thinking of it. There could be but one relief, but that relief must surely be forthcoming. The letter could not be true. How to account for its falsehood, how to explain to himself that such a letter should have been written to him without any foundation for it, without any basis on which such a story could be constructed, he could not imagine to himself. But he resolved not to believe it. He saw that were he to believe it, and to have believed it wrongly, the offence given would be ineffable. He should never dare to look his wife in the face again. It was at any rate infinitely safer for him to disbelieve it. He sat there mute, immovable, without a change of countenance, without even a frown on his brow, for a quarter of an hour; and at the end of that time he got up and shook himself. It was not true. Whatever might be the explanation, it could not be true. There was some foul plot against his happiness; but whatever the nature of the plot might be, he was sure that the story as told to him in that letter was not true. And yet it was with a very heavy heart that he rose and walked off to his wife's room.