Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 11.

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.

The letter ran as follows:—

My dear Mr. Western,—I think it is necessary that I should allude to a former little incident in my past life,—one that took place in the course of the last year only,—to account for the visit which I made to your house the other day, and which was not, I think, very well taken. I have no reason to doubt but that you are acquainted with all the circumstances. Indeed I look upon it as impossible that you should not be so. But, taking that for granted, I have to explain my own conduct.

It seems but the other day that Cecilia Holt and I were engaged to be married.

Mr. Western, when he came to this passage, felt for a moment as though he had received a bullet in his heart.

All Exeter knew of the engagement, and all Exeter seemed to be well pleased. I was staying with my brother-in-law, the Dean, and had found Miss Holt very intimate at the Deanery. It is not for me now to explain the way in which our engagement was broken through, but your wife, I do not doubt, in telling you of the affair, will have stated that she did not consider herself to have been ill-used. I am quite certain that she can never have said so even to yourself. I do not wish to go into the matter in all its details, but I am confident that she cannot have complained of me.

Under these circumstances, when I found myself living close to you, and to her also, I thought it better to call and to offer such courtesies as are generally held to be pleasant in a neighbourhood. It would, I thought, be much pleasanter to meet in that frank way than to go on cutting each other, especially as there was no ground for a quarrel on either side. I have, however, learned since that something has been taken amiss. What is it? If it be that I was before you, that is too late to be mended. You, at any rate, have won the prize, and ought to be contented. You also were engaged about the same time, and my cousin has got your young lady. It is I that am left out in the cold, and I really do not see that you have any reason to be angry. I have no wish to force myself upon you, and if you do not wish to be gracious down at Ascot, then let there be an end of it.

Yours truly,

Francis Geraldine.

He arose and went slowly up-stairs to his wife’s bedroom. It was just the time when she would come down to breakfast, and as his hand was on the lock of the door she opened it to come out. The moment she saw him she knew that her secret had been divulged. She knew that he knew it, and yet he had endeavoured to eradicate all show of anger from his face, as all reality of it from his heart. He was sure,—was sure,—that the story was an infamous falsehood! His wife, his chosen one, his Cecilia to have been engaged, a year ago, to such a one as Sir Francis Geraldine,—to so base, so mean a creature,—and then to have married him without telling a word of it all! To have kept him wilfully, carefully, in the dark, with studied premeditation so as to be sure of effecting her own marriage before he should learn it, and that too when he had told her everything as to himself! It certainly could not be, and was not true!

She stood still holding the door open when she saw him there with the letter in his hand. There was an instant certainty that the blow had come and must be borne even should it kill her. It was as though she were already crushed by the weight of it. Her own conduct appeared to her black with all its enormity. Though there had been so little done by her which was really amiss, yet she felt that she had been guilty beyond the reach of pardon. Twelve months since she could have declared that she knew herself so well as to be sure that she could never tremble before anyone. But all that was changed with her. Her very nature was changed. She felt as though she were a guilty, discovered, and disgraced criminal. She stood perfectly still, looking him in the face, but without a word.

And he! His perceptions were not quick as hers, and he still was determined to disbelieve. “Cecilia!” he said, “I have got a letter.” And he passed on into the room. She followed him and stood with her hand resting on the shoulder of the sofa. “I have got a letter from Sir Francis Geraldine.”

“What does Sir Francis Geraldine say of me?” she replied.

Had he been a man possessed of quick wit, he would have perceived now that the letter was true. There was confession in the very tone of her voice. But he had come there determined that it was not true, determined at any rate to act as though it were not true; and it was necessary that he should go through the game as he had arranged to play it. “It is a base letter,” he said. “A foul, lying letter. But there is some plot in it of which I know nothing. You can perhaps explain the plot.”

“Maybe the letter is true,” she said standing there, not submissive before him, but still utterly miserable in her guilt.

“It is untrue. It cannot possibly be true. It contains a damnable lie. He says that twelve months since you were engaged to him as his wife. Why does he lie like that?” She stood before him quite quiet without the change of a muscle of her face. “Do you understand the meaning of it all?”

“Oh, yes.”

“What is the meaning? Speak to me and explain it.”

“I was engaged to marry Sir Francis Geraldine just before I knew you. It was broken off and then we went upon the Continent. There I met you. Oh, George, I have loved you so well! I do love you so truly.” As she spoke she endeavoured to take his hand in hers. She made that one effort to be tender in obedience to her conscience, but as she made it she knew that it would be in vain.

He rejected her hand, without violence indeed but still with an assured purpose, and walked away from her to the further side of the chamber. “It is true then?”

“Yes; it is true. Why should it not be true?”

“God in Heaven! And I to hear about it for the first time in such a fashion as this! He comes to see you, and because something does not go as he would have it, he turns round and tells me his story. But that he has quarrelled with you now, I should never have heard a syllable.” He had come up to her room determined not to believe a word of it. And now, suddenly, there was no fault of which in his mind he was not ready to accuse her. He had been deceived, and she was to him a thing altogether different from that which he had believed her.

But she, too, was stung to wrath by the insinuation which his words contained. She knew herself to be absolutely innocent in every respect, except that of reticence to her husband. Though she was prepared to bear the weight of the punishment to which her silence had condemned her, yet she was sure of the purity of her own conduct. Knowing his disposition, she did not care to make light of her great fault, but now something was added, she hardly knew what, of which she knew herself to be innocent. Something was hinted as to the friendship remaining between her and this man, of which her husband, in his pride, should not have accused her. What! Did he think that she had willingly received her late lover as her friend in his house and without his knowledge? If he thought that, then, indeed, must all be over between them. “I do not know what it is that you suspect. You had better say it out at once.”

“Is this letter true?” and he held the letter up in his hand.

“I suppose it to be true. I do not know what it contains, but I presume it to be true.”

“You can read it,” and he threw the letter on the table before her.

She took it up and slowly passed her eyes over the words, endeavouring, as she did so, to come to some determination as to what her conduct should be. The purport of the words she did not fully comprehend, so fully was her mind occupied with thinking of the condition of her husband’s mind; but they left upon her an impression that in the main Sir Francis Geraldine had told his story truly. “Yes,” she said, “it is true. Before I had met you I was engaged to marry this other man. Our engagement was broken off, and then mamma and I travelled abroad together. We there met you, and then you know the rest.”

“And you thought it proper that I should be kept in the dark!” She remained silent. She could not apologise to him after hearing the accusation which rankled in his bosom. She could not go about to explain that the moment fittest for an explanation had never come. She could not endeavour even to make him understand that because her story was so like his own, hers had not been told. She knew the comparative insignificance of her own fault, and yet circumstances had brought it about that she must stand oppressed with this weight of guilt in his eyes. As he should be just or unjust, or rather merciful or unmerciful, so must she endure or be unable to endure her doom. “I do not understand it,” he said, with affected calm. “It is the case, then, that you have brought me into this position with premeditated falsehood, and have wilfully deceived me as to your previous engagement?”

“No!”

“How then?”

“There has been no wilful deceit,—no cause for deceit whatsoever. You were engaged to marry the lady who is now Mrs. Geraldine. I was engaged to marry Sir Francis.”

“But I told you all.”

“You did.”

“It would have been impossible that I should have asked you to be mine without telling you the whole story.” She could not answer him. She knew it to be true,—that he had told her and must have told her. But for herself it had been so improbable that he had not known of her engagement! And then there had been no opportunity,—no fitting opportunity. She knew that she had been wrong, foolish, ill-judging; but there had been nothing of that premeditated secrecy,—that secrecy with a cause, of which he had hinted that she was guilty. “I suppose that I may take it as proved that I have been altogether mistaken?” This he said in the severest tone which he knew how to assume.

“How mistaken?”

“I have believed you to be sweet, and pure, and innocent, and true;—one in whom my spirit might refresh itself as a man bathes his heated limbs in the cool water. You were to have been to me the joy of my life,—my great treasure kept at home, open to no eyes but my own; a thing perfect in beauty, to think of when absent and to be conscious of when present, without even the need of expression. ‘Let the wind come and the storm,’ I said to myself, ‘I cannot be unhappy, because my wife is my own.’ There is an external grace about you which was to my thinking only the culture of the woman within.”

“Well;—well.”

“It was a dream. I had better have married that little girl. She was silly, and soon loved some one better. But she did not deceive me.”

“And I,—have I deceived you?”

He paused before he answered her, and then spoke as though with much thought, “Yes,” he said; “yes.”

“Where? How?”

“I do not know. I cannot pretend even to guess. I shall probably never know. I shall not strive to know. But I do know that you have deceived me. There has been, nay, there is, a secret between you and one whom I regard as among the basest of men, of which I have been kept purposely in ignorance.”

“There is no such secret.”

“You were engaged to be his wife. That at any rate has been kept from me. He has been here as your friend, and when he came,—into my house,—the purport of his visit was kept from me. He asked for something, which was refused, and consequently he has written to me. For what did he ask?”

“Ask! For nothing! What was there for him to ask?”

“I do not know. I cannot even pretend to guess. As I read his letter there must have been something. But it does not matter. While you have seemed to me to be one thing, you have been another. You have been acting a part from the first moment in which we met, and have kept it up all through with admirable consistency. You are not that sweetly innocent creature which I have believed you to be.”

She knew that she was all that he had fancied her, but she could not say so. She had understood him thoroughly when he had told her that she had been to him the cool water in which the heated man might bathe his limbs; that she was the treasure to be kept at home. Even in her misery, something of delight had come to her senses as she heard him say that. The position described to her had been exactly that which it had been her ambition to fill. She knew that in spite of all that had come and gone she was still fit to fill it. There had been nothing,—not a thought to mar her innocence, her purity, her woman’s tenderness. She was all his, and he was certain to know every thought of her mind and every throb of her heart. She did believe that if he could read them all, he would be perfectly satisfied. But she could not tell him that it was so. Words so spoken will be the sweetest that can fall into a man’s ear,—if they be believed. But let there come but the shadow of a doubt over the man’s mind, let him question the sincerity of a tone, and the words will become untrue, mawkish and distasteful. A thing perfect in beauty! How was she to say that she would be that to him? And yet, understanding her error as she had done with a full intelligence, she could have sworn that it should be so. The beauty he had spoken of was not simply the sheen of her loveliness, nor the grace of her form. It was the entirety of her feminine attraction, including the purity of her soul, which was in truth still there in all its perfection. But she could not tell him that he was mistaken in doubting her. Now he had told her that she was not that innocent creature which he had believed her to be. What was she to do? How was she to restore herself to his favour? But through it all there was present to her an idea that she would not humble herself too far. To the extent of the sin which she had committed she would humble herself if she knew how to do that without going beyond it. But further than that in justice both to him and to herself she would not go. “If you have condemned me,” she said, “there must be an end of it,—for the present.”

“Condemned you! Do you not condemn yourself? Have you attempted any word of excuse? Have you given any reason why I should have been kept in the dark? Your friend Miss Altifiorla knew it all I presume?”

“Yes, she knew it all.”

“And you would not have had her here if you could have avoided it lest she should tell me?”

“That is true. I wished to be the first to tell you myself.”

“And yet you had never whispered a word of it. Miss Altifiorla and Sir Francis it seems are friends.” Cecilia only shook her head. “I heard yesterday at the station that they had gone to London together. I presume they are friends.”

Quickly the idea passed through Mrs. Western’s mind that Miss Altifiorla had been untrue to her. She had kept her word to the letter in not having told the secret to her husband but she had discussed the whole matter with Sir Francis, and the letter which Sir Francis had written was the result. “I do not know,” she said. “If they be more to each other than chance acquaintance I do not know it. From week to week and from day to day before our marriage the thing went on and the opportunity never came. Something would always fall from you which made me afraid to speak at that moment. Then we were married, and I found how wrong I had been. I still resolved to tell you, but put it off like a coward from day to day. Your sister had heard of my first engagement.”

“Did Bertha know it?”

“Yes; and like myself she was surprised that you should be so ignorant.”

“She might well be surprised.”

“Then I resolved to tell you. I would not do it till that other woman had left the house. I would not have her by to see your anger.”

“And now this is the way in which the history of your former life has reached my ears!” As he said this he held out in his hand the fatal letter. “This is the manner in which you have left me to be informed of a subject so interesting! I first hear from Sir Francis Geraldine that he and you a twelvemonth since were engaged together as man and wife.” Here she stood quite silent. She did not care to tell him that it was more than twelve months since. “That you think to be becoming.”

“I do not think so.”

“That you feel to be compatible with my happiness!” Here, again, there was a pause, during which she looked full into his face. “Such is not my idea. My happiness is wrecked. It is gone.” Here he made a motion with his hand, as though to show that all his bliss had flown away from him.

“Oh, George, if you love me, do not speak like that!”

“Love you! Yes I love you. I do not suppose that love can be made to go at once, as I find that esteem may do, and respect, and veneration.”

“Oh, George, those are hard words!”

“Is it not so? This morning you were to me of all God’s creatures the brightest and the best. When I entered your room just now it was so that I regarded you. Can you now be the brightest and the best? Has not all that romance been changed at a moment’s notice? But, alas! love does not go after the same fashion.” Then he turned shortly round and left the room.

She remained confounded and awe-stricken. There had been that about him which seemed to declare a settled purpose—as though he had intended to leave her for ever. She sat perfectly still, thinking of it, thinking of the injustice of the sentence that had been pronounced upon her. Though she had deserved much, she had not deserved this. Though she had expected punishment, she had not expected punishment so severe. In about twenty minutes her maid came up to her, and with a grave face asked whether she would wish that breakfast should be sent to her in her own room. Mr. Western had sent to ask the question. “Yes,” said she,—“if he pleases.” There could be no good in attempting to conceal from the servants a misery so deep and so lasting as this.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01