E-text prepared by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.
KEPT IN THE DARK
Originally published in serial form May through December, 1882, in Good Words and in book form in 1882. Trollope died during the last month of serial publication.
I. CECILIA HOLT AND HER THREE FRIENDS. II. SIR FRANCIS GERALDINE. III. THE END OF THAT EPISODE. IV. MR. WESTERN. V. CECILIA'S SECOND CHANCE. VI. WHAT ALL HER FRIENDS SAID ABOUT IT. VII. MISS ALTIFIORLA'S ARRIVAL. VIII. LADY GRANT. IX. MISS ALTIFIORLA'S DEPARTURE. X. SIR FRANCIS TRAVELS WITH MISS ALTIFIORLA. XI. MR. WESTERN HEARS THE STORY. XII. MR. WESTERN'S DECISION.
XIII. MRS. WESTERN PREPARES TO LEAVE. XIV. TO WHAT A PUNISHMENT! XV. ONCE MORE AT EXETER. XVI. "IT IS ALTOGETHER UNTRUE." XVII. MISS ALTIFIORLA RISES IN THE WORLD. XVIII. A MAN'S PRIDE. XIX. DICK TAKES HIS FINAL LEAVE. XX. THE SECRET ESCAPES. XXI. LADY GRANT AT DRESDEN. XXII. MR. WESTERN YIELDS. XXIII. SIR FRANCIS' ESCAPE. XIV. CONCLUSION.
CECILIA HOLT AND HER THREE FRIENDS.
There came an episode in the life of Cecilia Holt which it is essential should first be told. When she was twenty-two years old she was living with her mother at Exeter. Mrs. Holt was a widow with comfortable means,—ample that is for herself and her daughter to supply them with all required by provincial comfort and provincial fashion. They had a house without the city, with a garden and a gardener and two boys, and they kept a brougham, which was the joint care of the gardener and the boy inside and the boy outside. They saw their friends and were seen by them. Once in the year they left home for a couple of months and went,—wherever the daughter wished. Sometimes there was a week or two in London; sometimes in Paris or Switzerland. The mother seemed to be only there to obey the daughter's behests, and Cecilia was the most affectionate of masters. Nothing could have been less disturbed or more happy than their lives. No doubt there was present in Cecilia's manner a certain looking down upon her mother,—of which all the world was aware, unless it was her mother and herself. The mother was not blessed by literary tastes, whereas Cecilia was great among French and German poets. And Cecilia was aesthetic, whereas the mother thought more of the delicate providing of the table. Cecilia had two or three female friends, who were not quite her equals in literature but nearly so. There was Maude Hippesley, the Dean's daughter, and Miss Altifiorla, the daughter of an Italian father who had settled in Exeter with her maternal aunt,—in poor circumstances, but with an exalted opinion as to her own blood. Francesca Altifiorla was older than her friend, and was, perhaps, the least loved of the three, but the most often seen. And there was Mrs. Green, the Minor Canon's wife, who had the advantage of a husband, but was nevertheless humble and retiring. They formed the elite of Miss Holt's society and were called by their Christian names. The Italian's name was Francesca and the married lady was called Bessy.
Cecilia had no lovers till there came in an evil hour to Exeter one Sir Francis Geraldine. She had somewhat scoffed at love, or at the necessity of having a lover. She and Miss Altifiorla had been of one mind on that subject. Maude Hippesley had a lover and could not be supposed to give her accord. Mrs. Green had had one, but expressed an opinion that it was a trouble well over. A husband might be a comfort, but a lover was a "bother." "It's such a blessing to be able to wear my old gloves before him. He doesn't mind it now as he knows he'll have to pay for the new." But at length there came the lover. Sir Francis Geraldine was a man who had property in the county but had not lately lived upon it. He was of an old family, of which he was very proud. He was an old baronet, a circumstance which he seemed to think was very much in his favour. Good heavens! From what a height did he affect to look down upon the peers of the last twenty years. His property was small, but so singular were his gifts that he was able to be proud of that also. It had all been in the possession of his family since the time of James I. And he was a man who knew everything though only forty, and by no means old in appearance. But, if you were to believe him, he had all that experience of the world which nothing but unlimited years could have given him. He knew all the Courts in Europe, and all the race courses,—and more especially all the Jacks and Toms who had grown into notoriety in those different worlds of fashion. He came to Exeter to stay with his brother-in-law, the Dean, and to look after his property for a while. There he fell in love with Cecilia Holt, and, after a fortnight of prosperous love-making, made her an offer. This the young lady accepted, averse as she was to lovers, and for a month was the happiest and proudest girl in all Exeter. The happiness and pride of a girl in her lover is something wonderful to behold. He is surely the only man, and she the only woman born worthy of such a man. She is to be the depository of all his secrets, and the recipient of all his thoughts. That other young ladies should accept her with submission in this period of her ecstasy would be surprising were it not that she is so truly exalted by her condition as to make her for a short period an object to them of genuine worship. In this way, for a month or six weeks, did Miss Holt's friends submit to her and bear with her. They endured to be considered but as the outside personages of an indifferent outer world, whereas Cecilia herself with her lover were the only two inhabitants of the small celestial empire in which they lived. Then there gradually came to be a change. And it must be acknowledged here that the change commenced with Cecilia Holt herself.
The greater the adoration of the girl the deeper the abyss into which she falls,—if she be doomed to fall at all. A month of imperfection she can bear, even though the imperfections be very glaring. For a month, or perhaps for six weeks, the desire to subject herself to a newly-found superior being supports her spirit against all trials. Neglect when it first comes is not known to be neglect. The first bursts of ill-temper have about them something of the picturesque,—or at any rate of the grotesque. Even the selfishness is displayed on behalf of an object so exalted as to be excusable. So it was with Cecilia Holt. The period of absolute, unmistaken, unreasonable love lasted but for six weeks after her engagement. During those six weeks all Exeter knew of it. There was no reticence on the part of any one. Sir Francis Geraldine had fallen in love with Cecilia Holt and a great triumph had been won. Cecilia, in spite of her general well-known objection to lovers, had triumphed a little. It is not to be supposed that she had miscarried herself outrageously. He is cold-hearted, almost cruel, who does not like to see the little triumph of a girl in such circumstances, who will not sympathise with her, and join with her, if occasion come, in her exaltation. No fault was found with Cecilia among her friends in Exeter, but it was a fact that she did triumph. How it was that the time of her worship then came to an end it would be difficult to say. She was perhaps struck by neglect, or something which appeared to her to be almost scorn. And the man himself, she found, was ignorant. The ill-temper had lost its picturesqueness, and become worse than grotesque. And the selfishness seemed to be displayed on an object not so high as to render it justifiable. Then came a fortnight of vacillating misery, in which she did not dare to tell her discomfort to either of her friends. Her mother, who, though she could not read Schiller, was as anxious for her daughter's happiness as any mother could be, saw something of this and at last ventured to ask a question. "Was not Francis to have been here this morning?"
Cecilia was at that moment thinking of her lover, thinking that he had been untrue to his tryst now for the third time; and thinking also that she knew him to be untrue not with any valid excuse, not with the slightest cause for an excuse, but with a pre-determination to show the girl to whom he was engaged that it did not suit him any longer to be at the trouble of serving her. "Oh, mamma, how foolish you are! How can I tell what Sir Francis Geraldine may be doing?"
"But I thought he was to have been here."
"Mamma, please understand that I do not carry him about tied to my apron-strings. When it pleases him to come he will come." Then she went on with her book and was silent for a minute or two. Then she broke out again. "I am sure there ought to be a rule in life that people when they are engaged should never see each other again till they meet in the church."
"I don't think that would do at all, my dear."
"Perhaps things were different when you were young. The world becomes less simple every day. However, mamma, we must put up with Sir Francis whether he come or whether he remain away."
"The world may be less simple," said Mrs. Holt after a pause, "but I don't think it half so nice. Young men used to think that there was nothing so pleasant as a young lady's company when,—when,—when they were engaged, you know." Then the conversation ended, and the morning passed without the coming of Sir Francis.
After that a week passed,—with great forbearance on the part of Cecilia. She thought herself at least to be forbearing. She thought much of her lover, and had no doubt tried to interest herself in the usual conversation of her friends. But they, by the end of the week, perceived that Sir Francis was never first spoken of by herself. To Maude Hippesley it was very difficult to avoid an expression of her doubts, because Maude was niece to Sir Francis. And Sir Francis was much talked about at the Deanery. "My uncle was not down here this morning," Maude would say:—and then she would go on to excuse the defalcation. He had had business requiring his immediate attention,—probably something as to the marriage settlements. "But of course he will tell you all that." Cecilia saw through the little attempts. Maude was quite aware that Sir Francis was becoming weary of his lover's cares, and made the best excuse she could for them. But Maude Hippesley never had liked her uncle.
"Oh, my dear Maude," said Cecilia, "pray let him do what he pleases with himself in these the last days of his liberty. When he has got a wife he must attend to her,—more or less. Now he is as free as air. Pray let him do as he pleases, and for heaven's sake do not bother him!" Maude who had her own lover, and was perfectly satisfied with him though she had been engaged to him for nearly twelve months, knew that things were not going well, and was unhappy. But at the moment she said nothing further.
"Where is this recreant knight?" said Francesca. There was something in the tone of Miss Altifiorla's voice which grated against Cecilia's ears, and almost made her angry. But she knew that in her present condition it behoved her to be especially careful. Had she resolved to break with her betrothed she would have been quite open on the subject to all her friends. She would have been open to all Exeter. But in her present condition of mind she was resolved,—she thought she was resolved,—to go on with her marriage.
"Why you should call him a recreant knight, I cannot for the life of me understand," she said. "But it seems that Sir Francis, who is not exactly in his first youth, is supposed to be as attentive as a young turtle dove."
"I always used to think," said Miss Altifiorla gravely, "that a gentleman was bound to keep his promise."
"Oh heavens, how grave you all are! A gentleman and his promise! Do you mean to assert that Sir Francis is no gentleman, and does not keep his promises? Because if so I shall be angry." Then there was an end of that conversation.
But she was stirred to absolute anger by what took place with Mrs. Green, though she was unable to express her anger. Mrs. Green's manner to her had always been that of a somewhat humble friend,—of one who lived in lodgings in the High Street, and who accepted dinners without returning them. And since this engagement with Sir Francis had become a fact, her manner had become perhaps a little more humble. She used to say of herself that of course she was poor; of course she had nothing to give. Her husband was only a Minor Canon, and had married her, alas, without a fortune. It is not to be supposed that on this account Cecilia was inclined to ill-treat her friend; but the way of the world is such. People are taken and must be taken in the position they frame for themselves. Mrs. Green was Cecilia Holt's humble friend, and as such was expected to be humble. When, therefore, she volunteered a little advice to Cecilia about her lover, it was not taken altogether in good part. "My dear Cecilia," she said, "I do really think that you ought to say something to Sir Francis."
"Say something!" answered Cecilia sharply. "What am I to say? I say everything to him that comes in my way."
"I think, my dear, he is just a little inattentive. I have gone through it all, and of course know what it means. It is not that he is deficient in love, but that he allows a hundred little things to stand in his way."
"What nonsense you do talk!"
"But, my dear, you see I have gone through it all myself, and I do know what I am talking about."
"Mr. Green—! Do you mean to liken Mr. Green to Sir Francis?"
"They are both gentlemen," said Mrs. Green with a slight tone of anger. "And though Sir Francis is a baronet, Mr. Green is a clergyman."
"My dear Bessie, you know that is not what I meant. In that respect they are both alike. But you, when you were engaged, were about three years younger than the man, and I am nearly twenty years younger than Sir Francis. You don't suppose that I can put myself altogether on the same platform with him as you did with your lover. It is absurd to suppose it. Do you let him go his way, and me go mine. You may be sure that not a word of reproach will ever fall from my lips."—"Till we are married," Cecilia had intended to say, but she did not complete the sentence.
But the words of her comforters had their effect, as no doubt was the case with Job. She had complained to no one, but everybody had seen her condition. Her poor dear old mother, who would have put up with a very moderate amount of good usage on the part of such a lover as Sir Francis, had been aware that things were not as they should be. Her three friends, to whom she had not opened her mouth in the way of expressing her grievance, had all seen her trouble. That Maude Hippesley and Miss Altifiorla had noticed it did not strike her with much surprise, but that Mrs. Green should have expressed herself so boldly was startling. She could not but turn the matter over in her own mind and ask herself whether she were ill-treated. And it was not only those differences which the ladies noticed which struck her as ominous, but a certain way which Sir Francis had when talking to herself which troubled her. That light tone of contempt if begun now would certainly not be dropped after their marriage. He had assumed an easy way of almost laughing at her, of quizzing her pursuits, and, worse still, of only half listening to her, which she felt to promise very badly for her future happiness. If he wanted his liberty he should have it,—now and then. She would never be a drag on her husband's happiness. She had resolved from the very first not to be an exigeant wife. She would care for all his cares, but she would never be a troublesome wife. All that had been matter of deep thought to her. And if he were not given to literary tastes in earnest,—for in the first days of their love-making there had been, as was natural, a little pretence,—she would not harass him by her pursuits. And she would sympathise with his racing and his shooting. And she would interest herself, if possible, about Newmarket,—as to which place she found he had a taste. And, joined to all the rest, there came a conviction that his real tastes did take that direction. She had never before heard that he had a passion for the turf; but if it should turn out that he was a gambler! Had any of her friends mentioned such an idea to her a week ago, how she would have rebuked that friend! But now she added this to her other grievances, and began to tell herself that she had become engaged to a man whom she did not know and whom she already doubted.
Then there came a week of very troubled existence,—of existence the more troubled because she had no one to whom to tell her trouble. As to putting confidence in her mother,—that idea never occurred to her. Her mother among her friends was the humblest of all. To tell her mother that she was going to be married was a matter of course, but she had never consulted her mother on the subject. And now, at the end of the week, she had almost resolved to break with the man without having intimated to any one that such was her intention. And what excuse had she? There was excuse enough to her own mind, to her own heart. But what excuse could she give to him or to the world? He was confident enough,—so confident as to vex her by his confidence. Though he had come to treat her with indifference, like a plaything, she was quite sure that he did not dream of having his marriage broken off. He was secured,—she was sure that this was his feeling,—by her love, by her ambition, by his position in the world. He could make her Lady Geraldine! Was it to be supposed that she should not wish to be Lady Geraldine? He could take what liberties he pleased without any danger of losing her! It was her conviction that such was the condition of his mind that operated the strongest in bringing her to her resolution.
But she must tell some one. She must have a confidante. "Maude," she said one day, "I have made up my mind not to marry your uncle."
"I have. No one as yet has been told, but I have resolved. Should I see him to-morrow, or next day, or the next, I shall tell him."
"You are not in earnest?"
"Is it likely that I should jest on such a subject;—or that if I had a mind to do so I should tell you? You must keep my secret. You must not tell your uncle. It must come to him from myself. At the present moment he does not in the least know me,—but he will."
"And why? Why is there to be this break;—why to be these broken promises?"
"I put it to yourself whether you do not know the why. How often have you made excuses for him? Why have the excuses been necessary? I am prepared to bear all the blame. I must bear it. But I am not prepared to make myself miserable for ever because I have made a mistake as to a man's character. Of course I shall suffer,—because I love him. He will not suffer much,—because he does not love me."
"You know that he does not," said Cecilia, shaking her head. "You know it. You know it. At any rate I know it. And as the thing has to be done, it shall be done quickly." There was much more said between the two girls on the subject, but Maude when she left her friend was sure that her friend was in earnest.
SIR FRANCIS GERALDINE.
On that same afternoon, at about tea time, Sir Francis came up to the house. He had said that he would be there if he could get there,—and he got there. He was shown into the drawing-room, where was sitting Mrs. Holt with her daughter, and began to tell them that he was to leave the Deanery on the following morning and not be back till a day or two before his marriage. "Where are you going?" Cecilia asked, meaning nothing, only gaining time till she should have determined how she should carry out her purpose.
"Well;—if you must know, I am going to Goodwood. I had not thought of it. But some friends have reminded me that as these are to be the last days of my liberty I may as well enjoy them."
"Your friends are very complaisant to me," said Cecilia in a tone of voice which seemed to imply that she took it all in earnest.
"One's friends never do care a straw for the young lady on such an occasion," said Sir Francis. "They regard her as the conquering enemy, and him as the conquered victim."
"And you desire a little relaxation from your fetters."
"Well; just a last flutter." All this had been said with such a mixture of indifferent badinage on his part, and of serious anger on hers, that Mrs. Holt, who saw it all and understood it, sat very uneasy in her chair. "To tell the truth," continued he, "all the instructions have been given to the lawyers, and I really do think that I had better be away during the making of the dresses and the baking of the cake. It has come to pass by this accident of my living at the Deanery that we have already become almost tired of each other's company."
"You might speak for yourself, Sir Francis Geraldine."
"So I do. For to tell the truth, a man does get tired of this kind of thing quicker than a woman, and a man of forty much quicker than a woman of twenty. At any rate I'm off to-morrow."
There was something in the tone of all this which thoroughly confirmed her in her purpose. There should come an end to him of his thraldom. This should not be, by many, the last of his visits to Goodwood. He should never again have to complain of the trouble given to him by her company. She sat silent, turning it all over in her mind, and struggling to think how she might best get her mother out of the room. She must do it instantly;—now at once. She was perfectly resolved that he should not leave that house an engaged man. But she did not see her direct way to the commencement of the difficult conversation. "Mrs. Holt," said Sir Francis, "don't you think a little absence will be best for both of us, before we begin the perilous voyage of matrimony together?"
"I am sure I don't know," said poor Mrs. Holt.
"There can't be a doubt about it," continued the lover. "I have become so stupid, that I hardly know how to put one foot before the other, and Cecilia is so majestical that her dignity is growing to be almost tedious."
"Mamma," said Cecilia after a pause, "as Sir Francis is going to-morrow, would you mind leaving us alone for a few minutes? There is something which I have to say to him."
"Oh, certainly, my dear," said Mrs. Holt, as she got up and left the room.
Now had come the moment, the difficult moment in which Cecilia Holt had to remodel for herself the course of her future life. For the last month or two she had been the affianced bride of a baronet, and of a man of fashion. All Exeter had known her as the future Lady Geraldine. And, more than that, she had learned to regard herself as the owner of the man, and of his future home. Her imagination had been active in drawing pictures for herself of the life she was to live,—pictures which for a time had been rosy-hued. But whatever the tints may have been, and how far the bright colours may have become dimmed, it had been as Lady Geraldine, and not as Cecilia Holt that she had looked in the glass which had shown to herself her future career. Now, within the last four-and-twenty hours,—for the last crowning purpose of her resolution was hardly of longer date,—she had determined to alter it all. But he as yet did not know it. He still regarded her as his affianced bride. Now had come the moment in which the truth must be told to him.
As soon as her mother left the room, she got up from her seat, as did also her lover. He, as soon as the door was closed, at once attempted to put his arm round the girl's waist, as was his undoubted privilege. She with the gentlest possible motion rejected his embrace, and contrived to stand at a little distance from him. But she said nothing. The subject to be discussed was so difficult that words would not come to her assistance. Then he lent her his aid. "You do not mean that you're in a tiff because of what I said just now. Of course it is better that we should not be together for the few days before our marriage."
"I do not think that I am in a tiff, Sir Francis. I hope I am not, because what I have to say is too serious for ill-humour." Then she paused. "What I have got to say is of some importance;—of very great importance. Sir Francis Geraldine, I feel that I have to ask you to forgive me."
"What on earth is the matter?"
"You may well ask. And, indeed, I do not know how to excuse myself. Your friends will say that I am frivolous, and vain, and discontented."
"What the mischief is it all about?" he demanded with an angry voice.
She knew she had not as yet told him. She could perceive that he had not gathered from her first words any inkling of the truth; and yet she did not know how to tell him. If it were once told she could, she thought, defend herself. But the difficulty was to find the words by which she could let him know what was her intention. "Sir Francis, I fear that we have misunderstood each other."
"How misunderstood? Why Sir Francis? Am I to understand that you want to quarrel with me because I am going away? If so speak it out. I shall go just the same."
"Your going has no bearing upon my present purpose. I had made up my mind before I had heard of your going;—only when I did hear of it it became necessary that I should tell you at once."
"But you have told me nothing. I hate mysteries, and secrets, and scenes. There is nothing goes against the grain so much with me as tragedy airs. If you have done anything amiss that it is necessary that I should know let me know it at once." As he said this there came across his brow a look of anger and of hot ill-humour, such as she had never seen there before. The effect was to induce her to respect him rather than to be afraid of him. It was well that a man should have the power and the courage to show his anger.
But it encouraged her to proceed with her task. She certainly was not afraid of him personally, though she did dread what the world might say of her, and especially what might be said by his friends. "I do not know that I have done anything amiss of which I need tell you," she said with quiet dignity. "It is rather that which I intend to do. I fear, Sir Francis, that you and I have made a mistake in this."
"What mistake?" he shouted. "While you beat about the bush I shall never understand you."
"In our proposed marriage."
"I fear that I should not make you happy."
"What on earth do you mean?" Then he paused a moment before he continued, which he did as though he had discovered suddenly the whole secret. "You have got another lover."
There was something in the idea so shocking to Cecilia, so revolting,—so vulgar in the mode of expression, that the feeling at once gave her the strength necessary to go on with her task. She would not condescend to answer the accusation, but at once told her story in plain language. "I think, Sir Francis Geraldine, that you do not feel for me the regard that would make me happy as your wife. Do not interrupt me just at present," she said, stopping him, as some exclamation was escaping from his lips. "Hear me to the end, and, if you have ought to say, I will then hear you. Of my own regard for you I will say nothing. But I think that I have been mistaken as to your nature. In fact, I feel sure that we are neither of us that which the other supposed. It is lamentable that we should have fallen into such an error, but it is well that even yet we can escape from it before it is too late. As my mind is altogether made up, I can only ask your pardon for what I have done to you, expressing myself sure at the same time that I am now best consulting your future happiness."
During this last speech of Cecilia's, Sir Francis had sat down, while she still stood in her old place. He had seated himself on the sofa, assuming as it were a look of profound ease, and arranging the nails of one hand with the fingers of the other, as though he were completely indifferent to the words spoken to him. "Have you done yet?" he said as soon as she was silent.
"Yes, I have done."
"And you are sure that if I begin you will not interrupt me till I have done?"
"I think not,—if there be ought that you have to say."
"Well, considering that ten minutes since I was engaged to make you Lady Geraldine, and that I am now supposed to be absolved from any such necessity, I presume you will think it expedient that I should say something. I suppose that I have not been told the whole truth." Then he stopped, as though in spite of his injunction as to her silence he expected an answer from her. But she made none, though there came a cloud of anger upon her face. "I suppose, I say, that there is something of which it is not considered necessary that I should be informed. There must be something of the kind, or you would hardly abandon prospects which a few days since appeared to you to be so desirable."
"I have not thought it necessary to speak of your temper," she said.
"Nor of your own."
"Nor of my own," she added.
"But there is, I take it, something beyond that. I do not think that my temper, bad as it may be,—nor your own,—would have sufficed to estrange you. There must be something more palpable than temper to have occasioned it. And though you have not thought fit to tell me, you must feel that my position justifies me in asking. Have you another lover?"
"No," she exclaimed, burning with wrath but with head so turned from him that he should not see her.
"Nor have ever had one? I am entitled to ask the question, though perhaps I should have asked it before."
"You are at any rate not entitled to ask it now. Sir Francis Geraldine, between you and me all is over. I can only beg you to understand most positively that all is over."
"My dear Miss Holt, you need not insist upon that, as it is perfectly understood."
"Then there need be no further words. If I have done you any wrong I ask your pardon. You have wronged me only in your thoughts. I must take what consolation I can from the feeling that the injury will fall chiefly upon my head and not upon yours." Then without a further word of farewell she marched out of the room.
Sir Francis, when he found himself alone, shook himself, as it were, as he rose from the sofa, and looked about the room in amazement. It was quite true that she was gone—gone, as far as he was concerned, for ever. It did not occur to him for a moment that there could be any reconciliation between them, and his first feeling undoubtedly was one of amazed disappointment. Then, standing there in Mrs. Holt's drawing-room, he began to bethink himself what could have been the cause of it. Since the first week of his engagement he had begun and had continued to tell himself what great things he was about to do for Cecilia Holt. With her beauty, her grace, her dignity, and her accomplishments he was quite satisfied. It was expedient that he should marry, and he did not know that he could marry much better. Cecilia, when her mother died, would have twenty thousand pounds, and that in his eyes had been sufficient. But he was about to make her Lady Geraldine, and the more that he thought of this, the more grateful it had appeared to him that she should be to him. Then by degrees, while he had expected from her expressions of gratitude, she had rebelled against him! Of the meaning of this he had not been quite conscious, but had nevertheless felt it necessary that he should dominate her spirit. Up to the moment in which this interview had begun he had thought that he was learning to do so. She had not dared to ask him questions which would have been so natural, or to demand from him services to which she was entitled. It was thus that he had regarded her conduct. But he had never feared for a moment but that he was on the road to success. Up to the moment at which he had entered the room he had thought that he was progressing favourably. His Cecilia was becoming tame in his hands, as was necessary. He had then been altogether taken aback and surprised by her statement to him, and could not for some moments get over his feeling of amazement. At last he uttered a low whistle, and then walked slowly out of the house. At the front door he found his horse, and, mounting it, rode back into Exeter. As he did so he began to inquire of himself whether this step which the girl had determined to take was really a misfortune to him or the reverse. He had hardly as yet asked himself any such question since the day on which he had first become engaged to her. He had long thought of marrying, and one girl after another had been rejected by him as he had passed them in review through his thoughts. Then had come Cecilia's turn, and she had seemed to answer the purpose. There had been about her an especial dignity which had suited his views of matrimonial life. She was a young woman as to whom all his friends would say that he had done well in marrying her. But by degrees there had come upon him a feeling of the general encumbrance of a wife. Would she not interfere with him? Would she not wish to hinder him when he chose to lead a bachelor's life? Newmarket for instance, and his London clubs, and his fishing in Norway,—would she not endeavour to set her foot upon them? Would it not be well that he should teach her that she would not be allowed to interfere? He had therefore begun to teach her,—and this had come of it! It had been quite unexpected, but still he felt as though he were released from a burden.
He had accused her of having had another lover. At the moment an idea had passed through his mind that she was suddenly prompted by her conscience to tell him something that she had hitherto concealed. There had been some lover, probably, as to whom everyone had been silent to him. He was a jealous man, and for a moment he had been hurt. He would have said that his heart had been hurt. There was but little of heart in it, for it may be doubted whether he had ever loved her. But there was something pricked him which filled him for the instant with serious thoughts. When he had asked the question he wished to see her at his feet. There had come no answer, and he told himself that he was justified in thinking the surmise to be true. He was justified to himself, but only for the moment, for at the next had come her declaration that all was to be over between them. The idea of the lover became buried under the ruins which were thus made.
So she intended to escape from him! But he also would escape from her. After all, what an infinite trouble would a wife be to him,—especially a wife of whose docility in harness he was not quite assured. But there came upon him as he rode home an idea that the world would say that he had been jilted. Of course he would have been jilted, but there would be nothing in that except as the world might speak of it. It was gall to him to have to think that the world of Exeter should believe that Cecilia Holt had changed her mind, and had sent him about his business. If the world of Exeter would say that he had ill-used the girl, and had broken off the engagement for mere fancy,—as she had done,—that would be much more endurable. He could not say that such was the case. To so palpable a lie the contradiction would be easy and disgraceful. But could he not so tell the story as to leave a doubt on the minds of the people? That question of another lover had not been contradicted. Thinking of it again as he rode home he began to feel that the lover must be true, and that her conduct in breaking off the engagement had been the consequence. There had been some complication in the way of which she had been unable to rid herself. At any rate it was quite out of the question that he should have held himself to such an engagement, complicated as it would have been with such a lover. There would be some truth, therefore, in so telling the story as to leave the matter in doubt, and in doubt he resolved that he would leave it. Before he got back to the Deanery he was, he thought, thoroughly glad that he should have been enabled so easily to slip his neck out of the collar.
THE END OF THAT EPISODE.
Cecilia during the following day told no one what had occurred, nor on the morning of the next. Indeed she did not open her mouth on the subject till Maude Hippesley came to her. She felt that she was doing wrong to her mother by keeping her in the dark, but she could not bring herself to tell it. She had, as she now declared to herself, settled the question of her future life. To live with her mother,—and then to live alone, must be her lot. She had been accustomed, before the coming of Sir Francis, to speak of this as a thing certain; but then it had not been certain, had not been probable, even to her own mind. Of course lovers would come till the acceptable lover should be accepted. The threats of a single life made by pretty girls with good fortunes never go for much in this world. Then in due time the acceptable lover had come, and had been accepted.
And to what purpose had she put him? She could not even now say of what she accused him, having rejected him. What excuse could she give? What answer could she allege? She was more sure than ever now that she could not live with him as his wife. He had said words about some former lover which were not the less painful, in that there had been no foundation for them. There had in truth been nothing for her to tell Sir Francis Geraldine. Out of her milk-white innocency no confession was to be made. But what there was had all been laid bare to him. There had been no lover,—but if there had, then there would have been a lie told. She had said that there had been none, and he had heard her assertion with those greedy ears which men sometimes have for such telling. It was a comfort to him that there had been none; and when something uncomfortable came in his way he immediately thought that she had deceived him. She must bear with all that now. It did not much matter, she assured herself, what he might think of her. But for the moment she could hardly endure to think of it, much less to talk of it. She did not know how to own to her mother that she was simply a jilt without offering anything in excuse. The truth must be told, but, oh, how bitter must the truth be! Even that accusation as to the lover had not been made till after she had resolved to reject him; and she could not bring herself to lie to her mother by pretending that the one had caused the other.
After lunch on the second day Maude Hippesley came down and found her amongst the trees in the shrubbery. It will be remembered that Maude was niece to Sir Francis, and was at the present time living in the same house with him. "Cecilia," she said, "what is this that has happened?"
"He has told you then?"
"What is it? He has told us all that you have quarrelled, and now he has gone away."
"Thank God for that!"
"Yes;—he has gone. But he told us only just as he went. And he has made a mystery of it,—so that I do not know how it has happened,—or why."
"Did I not tell you?"
"Yes;—you told me something—something that made me think you mad. But it is he that has rejected you now!"
"Has he told you that?"
"He has told us all so, just as he was leaving us. After his things were packed up he told us." Cecilia stood still and looked into her friend's face. Maude she knew could say nothing to her that was not true. "He has made a mystery of it, but that has been the impression he has left upon us. At any rate there has been a quarrel."
"Yes;—there has been a quarrel."
"And now our only business is to make it up. It is impossible that two people who have loved each other as you have done should be allowed to part in so absurd a manner. It is like two children who think they are never to be friends again because of some momentary disagreement." Maude Hippesley, who had not lived in the same town with her lover and therefore had never quarrelled with him, was awfully wise. "It is quite out of the question," she continued, "that this thing should go on. I don't think it matters in the least whether you quarrel with him or he with you. But of course you must make it up. And as you are the woman it is only proper that you should begin."
How much had Cecilia to do before she could prove to her friend that no such beginning was possible. In the first place there was the falsehood, the base falsehood, which Sir Francis had told. In order to save himself he had declared that he had rejected her. It was very mean. At this moment its peculiar meanness made her feel doubly sure that the man was altogether unfitted to be her husband. But she would allow the false assertion to pass unnoticed. If he could find a comfort in that let him have it. Perhaps upon the whole it would be better that some such story should go forth in Exeter. It could not be told by her because it was untrue; but for the moment she thought that she might pass it by without notice. "There can be no fresh beginning," she said. "We two have already come to the end of all that is likely to take place between us. Dear Maude, pray do not trouble me. No doubt as time goes by we shall talk of it all again. But just at present, circumstanced as you are with him, nothing but silence between you and me can be fitting. I hope that you and I at any rate will never quarrel."
After that she told her mother and her two other friends. Her mother was for a week or two in despair. She endeavoured by means of the family at the Deanery to bring about some reconciliation. The Dean, who did not in truth like his brother-in-law and was a little afraid of him, altogether refused to interfere in the matter. Mrs. Hippesley was of opinion that the lovers would be sure to "come round" if left to themselves. Maude who, though she had not liked her uncle, had thought much of his position, and had been proud of the idea that he should marry an Exeter girl and her own peculiar friend, was in despair. But the Deanery collectively refused to take active steps in the matter. Mrs. Green was of opinion that Cecilia must have behaved badly. There had been some affair of pride in which she had declined to give way. According to Mrs. Green's ideas a woman could hardly yield too much to a man before marriage, so as to secure him, in order that her time for management might come afterwards. With Miss Altifiorla, Cecilia found for awhile more comfort; but even from this noted hater of the other sex the comfort was not exactly of the kind she wanted. Miss Altifiorla was of opinion that men on the whole are bad, but seemed to think that among men this baronet was not a bad specimen. He did not want a great deal of attention and was fairly able to get about by himself without calling upon his future wife to be always with him. Then he had a title and an income and a house; and was in short one of those who are in a measure compelled to marry. Miss Altifiorla thought it a pity that the match should be broken off, but was quite ready to console her friend as to the misfortune.
There was one point as to which Cecilia was quite decided, and in this Miss Altifiorla bore her out altogether. That question of marriage was now settled once and for ever. Cecilia, much in opposition to her friend's wishes, had tried her hand at it and had failed. She had fallen grievously to the ground and had bruised herself dreadfully in making the attempt. It had perhaps been necessary, as Miss Altifiorla thought. It is not given to all to know their own strength as it had been given to her. They had often discussed these matters, and Miss Altifiorla had always been very firm. So had Cecilia been firm; but then she had given way, had broken down, had consented to regard herself as a mere woman and no stronger than other women. She had given herself to a man in order that she might be the mother of his children and the head servant in his household. She had shown herself to be false for the moment to her great principles. But Providence had intervened. It may be surmised that Miss Altifiorla in discussing the matter with herself did not use the word Providence. Nor was it Chance. And as the rejection had come from the gentleman's hands,—so Miss Altifiorla was taught to believe,—she could not boast that Cecilia had accomplished it. But some mysterious agency had been at work which would not permit so exceptional a young lady as Miss Holt to fall into the common quagmire of marriage. She had escaped,—thanks to the mysterious agency, and must be doubly, trebly, armed with resolution lest she should stumble again. "I think," she said one day to Cecilia, "I think that you have great cause to be thankful that he should have repented of his bargain before it was too late."
Flesh is flesh after all and human nature no stronger than human nature. Cecilia had consented to bear in silence the idea that she had been jilted, and had endured her mother's tender little sympathies on the subject. But there was a difficulty to her in suffering this direct statement from her friend. Why would not her friend let the matter be passed by in silence? "It is well," she said, "that we both repented."
Now the subject had been much discussed in Exeter—whether Sir Francis had jilted Miss Holt or Miss Holt Sir Francis. It had been always present to Miss Hippesley's mind, that her friend had told her of her intention at a time when she was quite sure that Sir Francis had no such notion in his head. And when, on the day but one following, she had told Cecilia of the statement which Sir Francis had made at the Deanery, Cecilia had not contradicted it, but had expressed her surprise. She therefore had resolved to decide the question against her uncle, and had given rise to the party who were on that side. But the outside world were strongly of opinion that Sir Francis had been the first offender. It was so much the more probable. Miss Altifiorla had always taken that side, and had spoken everywhere of him as the great sinner. Still however there was a doubt in her own mind, as to which she was desirous of receiving such solution as Cecilia could give her. She was determined now to push the question. "But," said she, "I suppose it originated with him? It is a great thing for us to feel that you have not been to blame at all in the matter."
"I have been to blame," said Cecilia.
"But how? The man comes here and proposes himself; and is accepted, and then breaks away from his engagement without reason and without excuse. It is a thing to be thankful for, that he should have done so; but we have also to be thankful that the fault has not been on our side." Miss Altifiorla had almost brought herself to believe that the man had made love to her, and proposed to her, that she in a moment of weakness had accepted him, and that she now had been luckily saved by his inconstancy.
"I think we will drop that part of the question," said Miss Holt, showing by her manner that she did not choose to be cross-questioned. "In such cases there is generally fault on both sides." Then there was nothing further said on the subject, but Miss Altifiorla pondered much over her friend's weakness in not being able to confess that she had been jilted.
All this had happened in the summer. During the gala days of the projected wedding plans had been made, of course, for the honeymoon. Sir Francis with his bride were to go here and to go there, and poor Mrs. Holt had been fated to remain at home as though no arrangement had been necessary for her happiness. Indeed none had been necessary. She was quite content to remain at Exeter and expect such excitement as might come to her from letters from Lady Geraldine. To talk to everybody around her about Lady Geraldine would have sufficed for her. And when all these hopes were broken up and it had been really decided that there should be no wedding, when it became apparent that Cecilia Holt was to remain as Cecilia Holt, still there was no autumn tour. Cecilia had declared that in no place would life be so quiet for her as at home. "Mamma," she had said, "let us prepare ourselves for what is to come. You and I mean to live together happily, and our life must be a home life!" Then she applied herself specially to the flowers and the shrubs, and began even to look after the vegetables in the fulness of her energy. In these days she did not see much of her three friends. In August Maude was married and became Mrs. Thorne. Mr. Thorne was the eldest son of a Squire from Honiton for whom things were to be made modestly comfortable during his father's life. Maude's coming marriage had not been counted as much during the days of her friend's high hopes, but had risen in consideration since the fall which had taken place. Between Miss Altifiorla and Cecilia there had come, not a quarrel, but a coolness. The two ladies did continue to see each other occasionally, but there was but little between them to console misery. Miss Altifiorla had attempted to resume her position of equality,—unreasoned and imaginary equality,—with perhaps a slight step in advance to which in their present circumstances she was entitled by their age. Cecilia cared nothing for equality, but would not consent to be held to have lost anything. Though Miss Altifiorla declared that her friend had risen very highly in her sentiments, there was too evidently a depreciation in her manner; and this Cecilia could not endure. Consequently the two ladies were not, at this period, of much comfort one to the other. With Mrs. Green matters might have been different; but Mrs. Green too manifestly thought that Cecilia had been wrong, and still clung to the idea that with proper management the baronet might be made to come back again. With a lady holding such ideas as these there could be no sympathy.
In owning the truth it must be confessed that Cecilia at this period of her life was too self-conscious. She did not think, but felt, that the world all around her was suffused by a Holt-Geraldine aspect and flavour. She could not walk abroad without an idea that the people whom she saw were talking about her. She could not shut herself in her garden without a conviction that the passers-by were saying that the girl living there had been jilted by Sir Francis Geraldine. She had been well aware of the greatness of the position in which she was to have been placed; and though she had abandoned the situation without a doubt as soon as she had learned her mistake as to the man's character, still she felt the fall, and inwardly grieved over it. She had not known herself at first,—how grievous would be her isolation when she found herself alone. Such was the case with her now, so that she fretted and made herself ill. By degrees she confined herself more and more to the house, till her mother seeing it, interfered. She became sick, captious, and querulous. The old family doctor interfered and advised that she should be taken away from Exeter. "For ever?" asked Mrs. Holt. The doctor did not say for ever. Mrs. Holt might probably be able to let the house for a year and go elsewhere for that period. Then there arose questions as to all the pretty furniture, and their household goods. Cecilia herself was most unwilling. But before Christmas came, arrangements had been made, and the house was let, and the first of January saw Mrs. Holt and her daughter comfortably established in a pension at Nice. Mrs. Holt at any rate declared that she was comfortable, though Cecilia on her mother's behalf stated it to be impossible. She herself told herself,—though she had whispered no word on the subject to living ears,—she herself told herself that she had been driven abroad by the falsehood which Sir Francis had told. She could not bear to live in Exeter as the girl that had been jilted.
This is the episode in the life of Cecilia Holt which it is necessary should be first told.
The Holts travelled about during the whole of that year, passing the summer in Switzerland and the autumn in the north of Italy, and found themselves at Rome in November, with the intention of remaining there for the winter. One place was the same to them as another, and it was necessary that they should at any rate exist until the term had expired for which they had let their house. Mrs. Holt had I think enjoyed her life. She had been made more of than at home, and had been happy amidst the excitement. But with Cecilia it had been for many months as though all things had been made of leather and prunello. She had not cared, or had not seemed to care, for scenery or for cities. In that last episode of her life she had aspired to a new career, and had at first been fairly successful. And she had loved the man honestly for a time, and had buoyed herself up with great intentions as to the future duties of her life. Then had come her downfall, in which it was commonly said of her that she had been jilted by her lover. Even when the mountains of Switzerland had been so fine before her eyes as in truth to console her by their beauty, she had not admitted that she was consoled. The Campanile at Florence had filled her with that satisfaction which comes from supreme beauty. But still when she went home to her hotel she thought more of Sir Francis Geraldine than of the Campanile. To have been jilted would be bad, but to have it said of her that she had been jilted when she was conscious that it was untrue was a sore provocation. And yet no one could say but that she had behaved well and been instigated by good motives. She had found that her lover was ignoble, and did not love her. And she had at once separated herself from him. And, since that, in all her correspondence with her friends she had quietly endured the idea which would continually crop up that she had been jilted. She never denied it; but it was the false accusation rather than the loss of all that her marriage had promised her which made her feel the Matterhorn and the Campanile to be equally ineffective. Then there gradually came to her some comfort from a source from which she had certainly not expected it. On their travels they had become acquainted with a Mr. Western, a silent, shy, almost middle-aged man, whom they had sat next to at dinner for nearly a week before they had become acquainted with him. But they had passed on from scenery to city, and, as had been their fortune, Mr. Western had passed on with them. Who does not know the way in which some strange traveller becomes his friend on a second or a third meeting in some station or hotel saloon? In this way Mrs. Holt and Cecilia had become acquainted with Mr. Western, and on parting with him at Venice in October had received with gratification the assurance that he would again "turn up" in Rome.
"He is a very good sort of man," said Mrs. Holt to her daughter that night. Cecilia agreed, but with perhaps less enthusiasm than her mother had displayed. For Mrs. Holt the assertion had been quite enthusiastic. But Cecilia did think that Mr. Western had made himself agreeable. He was an unmarried man, however, and there had been something in the nature of a communication which he had made to her, that had prevented her from being loud in his praise. Not that the communication had been one which had in any way given offence; but it had been unexpected, confidential, and of such a nature as to create much thought. No doubt an intimacy had sprung up between them. But yet it was singular that a man apparently so reticent as Mr. Western should make such a communication. How the intimacy had grown by degrees need not here be explained, but that it had grown to be very close will appear from the nature of the story told.
The story was one of Mr. Western's own life and was as follows. He was a man of good but not of large fortune. He had been to Oxford and had there distinguished himself. He had been called to the bar but had not practised. He had gone into Parliament, but had left it, finding that the benches of the House of Commons were only fitted for the waste of time. He had joined scientific societies to which he still belonged, but which he did not find to be sufficient for his happiness. During these attempts and changes he had taken a house in London, and having a house had thought it well to look for a wife. He had become engaged to a certain Miss Mary Tremenhere, and by her he had been—jilted. Since that, for twelve months he had been travelling abroad in quest, he said, not of consolation, but of some mitigation of his woe. Cecilia, when she heard this, whispered to him one little question, "Do you love her?" "I thought I did," he answered. And then the subject was dropped.
It was a most singular communication for him to make. Why should he, an elderly man as she at first took him to be, select her as the recipient for such a tale? She took him to be an elderly man, till she found by the accidents of conversation that he was two years younger than Sir Francis Geraldine. Then she looked into his face and saw that that appearance of age had come upon him from sorrow. There was a tinge of grey through his hair, and there were settled lines about his face, and a look of steadied thought about his mouth, which robbed him of all youth. But when she observed his upright form, and perceived that he was a strong stalwart man, in the very pride of manhood as far as strength was concerned,—then she felt that she had wronged him. Still he was one who had suffered so much as to be entitled to be called old. She felt the impossibility of putting him in the same category among men as that filled by Sir Francis Geraldine. The strength of manhood was still there, but not the salt of youth. But why should he have told her,—her who had exactly the same story to tell back again, if only she could tell it? Once or twice there came to her an idea that she would tell it. He had sought for sympathy, not under the assurance of secrecy but with the full conviction, as she felt it, that his secret would be safe. Why should not she do the same? That there would be great comfort in doing so she was well aware. To have some one who would sympathise with her! Hitherto she had no one. Even her mother, who was kindness, even obedience itself, who attended to her smallest wish, even her mother regretted the baronet son-in-law. "And yet she would have been left all alone," she said to herself, marvelling at the unselfish fondness of a mother. Mr. Western would be bound to sympathise. Having called upon her for sympathy, his must be ready. But when she had thought of it thrice she did not do it. Were she to tell her story it would seem as though she were repeating to him back his own. "I too have been in love, and engaged, and have jilted a gentleman considerably my senior in age." She would have to say that, likening herself to the girl who had jilted him,—or else to tell the other story, the untrue story, the story which the world believed, in order that she might be on a par with him. This she could not do. If she told any she must tell the truth, and the truth was not suitable to be told. Therefore she kept her peace, and sympathised with a one-sided sympathy.
In Rome they did again meet, and on this occasion they met as quite old friends. He called upon them at their hotel and sat with them, happier than usual in his manner, and, for him, almost light and gay of heart. Parties were made to St. Peter's, and the Coliseum, and the Capitol. When he left on that occasion Cecilia remarked to her mother how much less triste he was than usual. "Men, I suppose," she said to herself, "get over that kind of thing quicker than women."
In Rome it seemed to Cecilia that Mr. Western, when alone with her, had no other subject for conversation than the ill-treatment he had received from Mary Tremenhere. His eagerness in coming back to the subject quite surprised her. She herself was fascinated by it, but yet felt it would be better were she to put a stop to it. There was no way of doing this unless she were to take her mother from Rome. She could not tell him that on that matter he had said enough, nor could she warn him that so much of confidential intercourse between them would give rise in the minds of others to erroneous ideas. Her mother never seemed to see that there was anything peculiar in their intercourse. And so it went on from day to day and from week to week.
"You asked me once whether I loved her," he said one day. "I did; but I am astonished now that it should have been so. She was very lovely."
"I suppose so."
"The most perfect complexion that was ever seen on a lady's cheek." Cecilia remembered that her complexion too had been praised before this blow had fallen upon her. "The colour would come and go so rapidly that I used to marvel what were the thoughts that drove the blood hither and thither. There were no thoughts,—unless of her own prettiness and her own fortunes. She accepted me as a husband because it was necessary for her to settle in life. I was in Parliament, and that she thought to be something. I had a house in Chester Square, and that was something. She was promised a carriage, and that conquered her. As the bride I had chosen for myself she became known to many, and then she began to understand that she might have done better with herself. I am old, and not given to many amusements. Then came a man with a better income and with fewer years; and she did not hesitate for a moment. When she took me aside and told me that she had changed her mind, it was her quiescence and indifference that disturbed me most. There was nothing of her new lover; but simply that she did not love me. I did not stoop for a moment to a prayer. I took her at her word, and left her. Within a week she was acknowledged to be engaged to Captain Geraldine."
The naming of the name of course struck Cecilia Holt. She remembered to have heard something of the coming marriage by her lover's cousin, and something, too, of the story of the girl. But it had reached her ear in the lightest form, and had hardly remained in her memory. It was now of no matter, as she had determined to keep her own history to herself. Therefore she made no exclamation when the name of Geraldine was mentioned.
"How could I love her after that?" he continued, betraying the strong passion which he felt. "I had loved a girl whose existence I had imagined, and of whom I had seen merely the outward form, and had known nothing of the inner self. What is it that we love?" he continued. "Is it merely the coloured doll, soft to touch and pleasant to kiss? Or is it some inner nature which we hope to discover, and of which we have found the outside so attractive? I had found no inner self which it had been possible that I could love. He was welcome to the mere doll who was wanted simply that she should grace his equipage. I have asked myself, Why is it that I am so sorely driven, seeing that in truth I do not love her? I would not have her now for all the world. I know well how providential has been my escape. And yet I go about like a wounded animal, who can find none to consort with him. Till I met you, and learnt to talk to you, I was truly miserable. And why? Because I had been saved from falling when standing on a precipice! Because the engine had not been allowed to crush me when passing along on its iron road! Ought I not to rejoice and be thankful rather, as I think of what I have escaped? But in truth it is the poor weakness of human nature. People say that I have been—jilted. What matters it to me what people say? I have been saved, and as time goes on I shall know it and be thankful."
Every word of it came home to her and gave her back her own story. There was her own soreness, and her own salvation. There was the remembrance of what the people in Exeter were saying of her, only slightly relieved by the conviction that she had been preserved from a life of unhappiness. But she had never been able to look at it quite as he did. He knew that the better thing had happened to him; but she, though she knew it also, was sore at heart because people told the story, as she thought, to her discredit. There was, indeed, this difference between them. It was said truly of him that the girl had jilted him, but falsely of her that she had been jilted.
She, however, told him nothing of her own life. There had come moments in which she was sorely tempted. But she had allowed them to pass by, telling herself on each occasion that this at any rate was not the moment. She could not do it now,—or now,—or now, lest there should seem to be some peculiar motive on her own part. And so the matter went on till there had arisen a feeling of free confidence on the one side, and of absolute restraint on the other. She could not do it, she said to herself. Much as she trusted Mr. Western, deeply as she regarded him as her friend, strongly as she wished that the story had been told to him at some former passage of their intimacy, the proper time had passed by, she said, and he must be left in his ignorance.
Then one day there happened that which the outside world at Rome had long expected; and among the number Mrs. Holt. George Western proposed to marry Cecilia Holt. Of all the world at Rome who had watched the two together she probably was the last who thought of any such idea. But even to her the idea must surely have come in some shape before the proposal. He had allowed her to feel that he was only happy in her company, and he had gradually fallen into the habit of confiding to her in everything. He had told her of his money, and of his future life. He had consulted her about his books, and pictures he had bought, and even about the servants of his establishment. She cannot but have expected it. But yet when the moment came she was unable to give him an answer.
It was not that she did not think that she liked him. She had been surprised to find how fond she had gradually become of him;—how Sir Francis had faded in her memory, and had become a poor washed-out daub of a man while this other had grown into the proportions of a hero. She did not declare to herself that she loved him, but she was sure that she could do so. But two reasons did for a while make her feel that she could not accept him. The one was weak as water, but still it operated with her. Since she had been abroad she had corresponded regularly with Miss Altifiorla, and Miss Altifiorla in her letters had been very strong in her aversion to matrimony. Many things had been said apparently with the intention of comforting Cecilia, but written in truth with the view of defending herself. "I have chosen the better side, and have been true to it without danger of stumbling." So it was that Miss Altifiorla put it. "You, dearest Cecilia, have had an accident, but have recovered and stand once more upon the solid ground. Take care, oh, take care, that you do not fall!" Cecilia did not remember that any chance of stumbling had come in Miss Altifiorla's way; and was upon the whole disgusted by the constancy of her friend's arguments. But still they did weigh, and drove her to ask herself whether, in truth, an unmarried life was not the safer for a woman. But the cause which operated the strongest with her was the silence which she had herself maintained. There was indeed no reason why she should not at once begin and tell her story. But in doing so it would appear that she had been induced to do it only by Mr. Western's offer. And she cheated herself by some vague idea that she would be telling the secrets of another person. "Had it been for myself only," she said to herself, "I would have done it long since. But that which made it improper then would make it still more improper now." And so she held her peace and told Mr. Western nothing of the story.
He came to her the day after his offer and demanded her answer. But she was not as yet able to give it to him. She had in the meantime told her mother, and had received from her that ready, willing, quick assurance of her sanction which was sure to operate in a different way than that intended. Her mother was thinking only of her material interests,—of a comfortable house and a steady, well-to-do life's companion. Of what more should she have thought? the reader will say. But Cecilia had still in her head undefined, vague notions of something which might be better than that,—of some companion who might be better than the companions which other girls generally choose for themselves. She dreamed of some one who should sit with her during the long mornings and read Dante to her,—when she should have taught herself to understand it; of some one with a hidden nobility of character which should be all but divine. Her invectives against matrimony had all come from a fear lest the man with the hidden nobility should not be forthcoming. She had tried, or had nearly tried, Sir Francis Geraldine, and had made one hideous mistake. Was or was not this Mr. Western a man with all such hidden nobility? If so she thought that she might love him.
She required a week, and gave her whole thoughts to the object. Should she or should she not abandon that mode of life to which she had certainly pledged herself? In the first days of the misery created by the Geraldine disruption she had declared that she would never more open her ears or her heart to matrimonial projects. The promise had only been made to Miss Altifiorla,—to Miss Altifiorla and to herself. At the present moment she did not greatly regard Miss Altifiorla;—but the promise made to herself and corroborated by her assurance to another, almost overcame her. And then there was that story which she could not now tell to Mr. Western. She could not say to him:—"Yes, I will accept you, but you must first hear my tale;" and then tell him the exact copy of his own to her. And yet it was necessary that he should know. The time must come,—some day. Alas! she did not remember that no day could be less painful,—less disagreeable than the present. If he did not like the story now he could tell her so, and have done with it. There could be no fault found with her. It had hitherto been free to her to tell it or not as she pleased. "I had not meant to have disclosed my secret, but now it is necessary." Even had he fancied that she had "invented it" in part and made it like to his own, no harm,—no dangerous harm would come from that. He could but be angry and recede from his offer. But she found that she did not wish him to recede. Her objections to matrimony had all been cured. She told herself at the last moment that she was not able to undergo the absurdity of such a revelation,—and she accepted him.
CECILIA'S SECOND CHANCE.
It became at once necessary that Mr. Western should start off for London. That had been already explained. He would go, whether accepted or refused. When she had named a week, he had told her that he should only have just time to wait for her reply. She offered to be ready in five days, but he would not hurry her. During the week she had hardly seen him, but she was aware that he remained silent, moody, almost sullen. She was somewhat afraid of his temper;—but yet she had found him in other respects so open, so noble, so consistent! "It shall be so," she said, putting her hand into his. Then his very nature seemed to have changed. It appeared as though nothing could restrain him in the expression of his satisfaction. Nothing could be more quietly joyous than his manner. He was to have left Rome by a mid-day train, but he would wait for a train at midnight in order that he might once dine with his own wife that was to be. "You will kill yourself with the fatigue," Cecilia said. But he laughed at her. It was not so easy to kill him. Then he sat with her through the long morning, telling her of the doings of his past life, and his schemes for the life to come. He had a great book which he wanted to write,—as to which everybody might laugh at him but she must not laugh. He laughed at himself and his aspiration; but she promised all her sympathy, and she told him of their house at Exeter, and of her mother's future loneliness. He would do anything for her within his power. Her mother should live with them if she wished it. And she spoke of the money which was to be her own, and told him of the offer which her mother had made as to giving up a portion of it. Of this he would have none. And he told her how it must be settled. And he behaved just as a lover should do,—taking upon himself to give directions, but giving all the directions just such as she would have them.
Then he went; and there came upon her a cold, chilling feeling that she had already been untrue to him. It was a feeling as to which she could not speak, even to her mother. But why had not her mother advised her and urged her to tell him everything? Her mother had said not a word to her about it. Why did her mother treat her as though she were one to be feared, and beyond the possibility of advice? But to her mother she said not a word on the subject. From the moment in which Mr. Western had first begun to pay her attention, the name of Sir Francis had never been mentioned between the mother and daughter. And now in all their intercourse Mrs. Holt spoke with an unclouded serenity of their future life. It was to her as though the Geraldine episode had been absolutely obliterated from the memory of them all. Mr. Western to her was everything. She would not accept his magnificent offer of a home, because she knew that an old woman in a man's house could only be considered as in his way. She would divide her income, and give at any rate a third to her daughter. And she did bestow much advice as to the manner in which everything should be done so as to tend to his happiness. His tastes should be adopted, and his ways of life should be studied. His pursuits should be made her pursuits, and his friends her friends. All this was very well. Cecilia knew all that without any teaching from her mother. Her instincts told her as much as that. But what was she to do with this secret which loaded her bosom, but as to which she could not bring herself even to ask her mother's advice?
Then she made up her mind that she would write to her lover and relate the whole story as to Sir Francis Geraldine. And she did write it; but she was alarmed at finding that the story, when told, extended itself over various sheets of paper. And the story would take the shape of a confession,—as though she were telling her lover of some passage in her life of which she had cause to be ashamed. She knew that there was no ground for shame. She had done nothing which she ought not to have done, nothing which she could not have acknowledged to him without a blush. When the letter was completed, she found it to be one which she could not send. It was as though she were telling him something, on reading which he would have to decide whether their engagement should or should not be continued. This was not at all her purpose. Thinking of it all with a view to his happiness, and to his honour, she did not wish him to suppose that there could be a doubt on that subject. It was clear to her that a letter so worded was not fit for the occasion, and she destroyed it. Still she was minded to write to him, but for the moment she postponed her purpose. Of course she wrote to her friends in Exeter. Were she to be silent to them it would appear as though she were ashamed of what she was now doing. She told Maude Hippesley,—or Mrs. Thorne as she was now called; and she told Mrs. Green, and also Miss Altifiorla. Immediate answers came from the three. Those from the two married ladies were in all respects satisfactory. That from Mrs. Thorne was quite enthusiastic in its praises of matrimony. That from Mrs. Green was a little less warm, but was still discreetly happy. She had no doubt in her own mind that a married life was preferable, and that Mr. Western, though perhaps a little old, was upon the whole a well-chosen and deserving consort for life. But the letter from Miss Altifiorla was very different from these, and as it had some effect perhaps in producing the circumstances which are to be told, it shall be given at length:—
"MY DEAR CECILIA,—I am of course expected to congratulate you, and as far as Mr. Western's merits are concerned, I do so with my full heart. He is possessed, I have no doubt, of all those virtues which should adorn a husband, and is in all respects the very opposite to Sir Francis Geraldine. You give me to understand that he is steady, hard-working, and properly ambitious. In spite of the mistake which you made in reference to Sir Francis Geraldine, I will not doubt but that your judgment in respect to Mr. Western will be found correct. If it is to be I dare say it could not be better. But must it be?" "Of course it must," said Cecilia to herself, feeling very angry with Miss Altifiorla for raising the question at such a time and in such a manner. "After all the sweet converse and sweeter resolutions that have passed between us on this matter, must all be abandoned like a breath of summer wind, meaning nothing?" Of what infinitely bad taste was not the woman guilty, in thus raising the question when the only final answer to it had been already given? Cecilia felt ashamed of herself as she thought of this, in that she had admitted the friendship of such a friend. "A breath of summer wind!" she said, repeating with scorn her friend's somewhat high-flown words. "I cannot but say that, like Martha, you have chosen the worser part," continued the letter. "The things of the world, which are in themselves but accidents, have been for a moment all in all to you; but knowing you as I do, I am aware how soon they will fade away, and have no more than their proper weight. Then you will wake some day, and feel that you have devoted yourself to the mending of his stockings and the feeding of his babies." There was something in this which stirred Cecilia to absolute wrath. If there were babies would they not be her babies as well as his? Was it not the intention of the Lord that the world should be populated? The worser part, indeed! Then she took up the cudgels in her own mind on behalf of Martha, as she had often done before. How would the world get on unless there were Marthas? And was it not more than probable that a self-dubbed Mary should fall into idle ways under the pretence that she was filled with special inspiration? Looking at Miss Altifiorla as a Mary, she was somewhat in love with the Marthas.
"I do not doubt that Mr. Western is what he should be," the letter went on, "but even judging him by your letter, I find that he is autocratic and self-opinioned. It is his future life and not yours of which he is thinking, his success and not yours, his doings and not your doings." "How does she know?" exclaimed Cecilia. "She has only my account of him, and not his of me." "And he is right in this," went on the letter, "because the ways of the world allow such privileges to men. What would a man be unless he took the place which his personal strength has obtained for him? For women, in the general, of course matrimony is fit. They have to earn their bread, and think of little else. To be a man's toy and then his slave, with due allowance for food and clothes, suffices for them. But I had dreamed a dream that it would not suffice for you. Alas, alas! I stand alone now in the expression of my creed. You must excuse me if I repine, when I find myself so cruelly deserted."
All this Cecilia felt to be as absurd as it was ill-timed;—and to be redeemed, as it were, from its ill-nature by its ridiculous philosophy. But at last there came a paragraph which admitted of no such excuse. "What has Mr. Western said as to the story of Sir Francis Geraldine? Of course you have told him the whole, and I presume that he has pardoned that episode. In spite of the expression of feelings which I have been unable to control, you must believe, dear Cecilia, that I am as anxious as ever for your happiness, and am,
"Your most affectionate friend,
Cecilia, when she had completed the reading of the letter, believed nothing of the kind. That last paragraph about Sir Francis had turned all her kindly feelings into wrath, and contained one word which she knew not how to endure. She was told that Mr. Western had "pardoned" the Geraldine episode in her life. She had done nothing for which pardon had been necessary. To merit pardon there must have been misconduct; and as this woman had known all her behaviour in that matter, what right had she to talk of pardon? In what had she deserved pardon;—or at any rate the pardon of Mr. Western? There had been a foolish engagement made between her and Sir Francis Geraldine, which had been most wisely dissolved. The sin, if sin there had been, was against Sir Francis, and certainly had never been considered as sin by this woman who now wrote to her. Was it a sin that she had loved before, a matter as to which Mr. Western was necessarily in ignorance when he first came to her? But might it not come to pass that his pardon should be required in that the story had never been told to him? It was the sting which came from that feeling which added fierceness to her wrath. "Of course you have told him the whole, and I presume that he has pardoned that episode!" She had not told Mr. Western the whole, and had thus created another episode for which his pardon might be required. It was this that the woman had intended to insinuate, understanding with her little sharpness, with her poor appreciation of character, how probable it was that Cecilia should not have told him of her previous engagement.
She sat thinking of it all that night till the matter assumed new difficulties in her mind's eyesight. And she began to question to herself whether Mr. Western had a right to her secret,—whether the secret did not belong to two persons, and she was bound to keep it for the sake of the other person. She had committed a wrong, an injury, or at any rate had inflicted a deserved punishment upon Sir Francis; one as to which a man would naturally much dislike that it should be noised about the world. Was she not bound to keep her secret still a secret for his sake? She was angry with herself when she asked the question, but still she asked it. She knew that she owed nothing to Sir Francis Geraldine, and that she owed all to Mr. Western. But still she asked it, because in that way could she best strengthen herself against the telling of the story. The more she turned the matter in her mind, the more impossible to her became the task of telling it. At last she resolved that she would not tell it now. She would not tell it at any rate till she again saw him,—because Miss Altifiorla had told her that she "presumed he had pardoned her that episode."