Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 15.

Once More at Exeter.

Three weeks had passed and much had been done for Mrs. Western to fix her fate in life. It was now August, and she was already living at Exeter as a wife separated from her husband. Of much she had had to think and much to determine before she had found that haven of rest. Twice during the time she had received letters from her husband, but each letter had been short, and, though not absolutely without affection in its language, each letter had been absolutely obdurate. He had been made quite sure that it was not for the benefit of either of them that they should attempt to live together. Having come to that decision, which he represented as unchangeable, he was willing, he said, to do anything which she might demand for her future satisfaction and comfort. “There is nothing you can do,” she had said when she had written last, “as you have refused to do your duty.” This had made him again angry. “What right had she to talk to me of my duty seeing that she has so grossly neglected her own?” he said to himself. Then he had suddenly gone from England, leaving no address even with his sister or with his lawyer. But during this time his mind was not quiet for one instant. How could she have treated him so, him, who had been so absolutely devoted to her, who had so entirely given himself up to her happiness?

Lady Grant, when she had heard what was to be done, had hurried up to London but had not found them. She had gone to Exeter and there she had in vain endeavoured to comfort Cecilia. She had declared that her brother would in time forgive. But Cecilia’s whole nature had by this time apparently been changed. “Forgive!” she had said. “What will he forgive? There is nothing that he can forgive; nothing that can be spoken of in the same breath with his perfidy and cruelty. Can I forgive? Ask yourself that, Lady Grant. Is it possible that I should forgive?” After two days spent in conversations such as these, Lady Grant went back to town and discussed the matter with Mr. Gray. They did not at present know her brother’s address; but still there was a hope that she might induce him to hear reason and again to consent to live with his wife. “Of all men,” she said to the lawyer, “he is the most honest and the most affectionate; but of all men the most self-willed and obstinate. An injustice is with him like a running sore; and, alas, it is not always an injustice, but a something that he has believed to be unjust.”

Cecilia had written at great length to her mother, telling her with all details the story as it was to be told, and sparing herself in nothing. “That wicked man has contrived it all. But, oh, that such a one as my husband should have been weak enough to have fallen into a pit so prepared!” Then Mrs. Holt had come up to town and taken her daughter back with her to Exeter. Now, at last, on this occasion, the old lady was both energetic and passionate. There had been much discussion before they had both decided that they would again venture to live together among their old friends in their old home. But here Cecilia had shown herself to be once again stronger than her mother. “Why not?” she said. “What have I done to make it necessary that you should be torn away from your house? I am not at all ashamed of what I have done.” In this she had blazoned forth her courage with almost a false conviction. She knew that she had done wrong;—that she had done that of which among wives she ought to be ashamed. But her sin had been so small in comparison with the punishment inflicted upon her that it sunk to nothing even in her own eyes. She felt that she had been barbarously used. The people of Exeter, or the people of the world at large, might sympathise with her or not as they pleased. But under such a mountain of wrong as she had endured, she would not show by any conduct of her own that she could have in the least deserved it. “No, mamma,” she said; “let them stay away or let them come, I shall be ready for either. I am a poor, wretched woman, whom to crush utterly has been within the power of the man she has loved. He has chosen to exercise it, and I must suffer. But he shall not make me ashamed. I have done nothing to deserve his cruelty.”

And then when she had been at Exeter but a few days there came another source of trouble,—though not of unmitigated trouble. She told her mother that in due course of time her cruel husband would become the father of a child. She would not write to him. He had not chosen to let her know his address; nor was it fitting to her feelings to communicate such a fact in a letter which she must address secretly to his banker or to his club. Yet the fact was of such a nature that it was imperative that he should know it. At last it was told by Mrs. Holt to Lady Grant. Cecilia had herself attempted it, but had found that she could not do it. She could not write the letter without some word of tenderness, and she was resolved that no word of tenderness should go from her to him. It would seem as though she were asking for money, and were putting forward the coming of the little stranger as a plea for it. She would ask for no money. She had appealed to his love, and had appealed in vain. If he were hard, she would be so too. In her heart of hearts she probably entertained the idea of some possible future in which she might yet put the child into its father’s arms;—but it should be done not at her request. It should be at his prayer. At least there was this comfort to her,—that she no longer dreaded his power. He had so contrived that to her thinking the fault was altogether on his side. Forgive! Oh yes; she would forgive! Oh yes; she would forgive, so readily, so sweetly, with the full determination that it should all be like a blank nightmare that had come between them and troubled their joys. But in the bottom of the heart of each it must be understood that it had been hers to pardon and his to be pardoned. Or if not so, then she must continue to live her widowed life at Exeter.

Mrs. Holt was energetic and passionate rather than discreet. She would not admit that her child had done any wrong, and could not be got to understand but that the law should make a husband live with his wife in the proper way. It was monstrous to her thinking that her daughter should be married and taken away, and then sent back, without any offence on her part. In the resentment which she felt against Mr. Western she filled quite a new part among the people of Exeter. “Oh, mamma; you are so loving, so good,” said her daughter; “but do not let us talk about it! Cannot you understand that, angry as I am, I cannot endure to have him abused?” “Abused!” said Mrs. Holt, kindling in her wrath. “I cannot hold myself without abusing him.” But it very soon did come to pass that Mr. Western’s name was not mentioned between them. Mrs. Holt would now and again clench her fist and shake her head, and Cecilia knew that in her thoughts she was executing some vengeance against Mr. Western; but there was a truce to spoken words. Cecilia indeed often executed her vengeance against her husband after some fashion of her own, but her mother did not perceive it.

Among their Exeter friends there soon came to be an actual breach with Miss Altifiorla. Miss Altifiorla, as soon as it was known that Mrs. Western had reappeared in Exeter, had rushed down to greet her friend. There she had been received coldly by Cecilia, and more than coldly by Cecilia’s mother. “My dear Cecilia,” she had said, attempting to take hold of her friend’s hand, “I told you what would come of it.”

“There need be nothing said about it,” said Mrs. Western.

“Not after the first occasion,” said Miss Altifiorla. “A few words between us to show that each understands the other will be expedient.”

“I do not see that any words can be of service,” said Mrs. Western.

“Not in the least,” said Mrs. Holt. “Why need anything be said? You know that she has been cruelly ill-used, and that is all you need know.”

“I do know the whole history of it,” said Miss Altifiorla, who had taken great pride to herself among the people of Exeter in being the best-informed person there as to Mrs. Western’s sad affairs. “I was present up to the moment, and I must say that if Cecilia had then taken my advice things would have been very different. I am not blaming her.”

“I should hope not,” said Mrs. Holt.

“But things would have been very different. Cecilia was a little timid at telling her husband the truth. And Mr. Western was like other gentlemen. He did not like to be kept in the dark by his wife. You see that Cecilia has given mortal cause for offence to two gentlemen.”

This was not to be endured. Cecilia did not exactly know all the facts as they had occurred,—between Miss Altifiorla and Sir Francis,—and certainly knew none of those which were now in process of occurring; but she strongly suspected that something had taken place, that some conversation had been held, between her friend and Sir Francis Geraldine. She had been allowed to read the letter from Sir Francis to her husband, and she remembered well the meaning of it. But she could not remember the terms which he had used. She had, however, thought that something which had passed between himself and Miss Altifiorla had been the immediate cause of the writing of that letter. She did think that Miss Altifiorla had, as it were, gone over to the enemy. That she had been prepared to pardon. The enemy had in fact told no falsehood in his letter. It had been her misfortune that the story which he had told had been true;—and her further misfortune that her husband should have believed so much more than the truth. For all that she did not hold Miss Altifiorla to be responsible. But when she was told that she had given cause for mortal offence to two gentlemen, there was something in the phrase which greatly aggravated her anger. It was as though this would-be friend was turning against her for her conduct towards Sir Francis. And she was just as angry that the friend should turn against her for her conduct to her husband. “Miss Altifiorla,” she said, “I must request that there be no further conversation between us in reference to the difference between me and my husband.”

“Miss Altifiorla!” said the lady. “Is it to come to that, Cecilia;—between you and me who have enjoyed so much sweet friendship?”

“Certainly, if you make yourself so offensive,” said Mrs. Holt.

“It is the only mode by which I can show that I am in earnest,” said Cecilia. “If it does not succeed, I must declare that I shall be unwilling to meet you at all. I told you to be silent, and you would not.”

“Oh, very well! If you like to quarrel it will quite suit me. But in your present condition I hardly think that you are wise in throwing off your old friends. It is just the time when you ought to cling to those who would be true to you.”

This was more than Cecilia could bear. “I shall cling to those who are true to me,” she said, leaving the room.

“Oh, very well! Then I shall know how to conduct myself.” This was addressed to Mrs. Holt.

“I hope you will conduct yourself, as you call it, somewhere away from here. You’re very fond of meddling, that’s the truth; and Cecilia in her present condition does not want to be meddled with. Oh, yes; you can go away as soon as ever you please.” Thereupon Miss Altifiorla left the room and withdrew.

It must be explained that this lady, since she was last upon the scene, had learned to entertain new hopes, very exalted in their nature. It had first occurred to her during those ten minutes at the Paddington railway station, that it might possibly be so if she played her cards well. And then how glorious would be the result! Sir Francis Geraldine had squeezed her hand. If he might be made to go on squeezing her hand sufficiently, how great might be the effect produced! Lady Geraldine! How beautiful was the sound! She thought that within all the bounds of the English peerage,—and she believed that she knew that those bounds included the Baronets,—there was no sweeter, no more glorious, no more aristocratic appellation. Lady Geraldine! What a change, what a blissful change would that be!

When she thought of the chill of her present life, of its want of interest, of its insipid loneliness, and then told herself what might be in store for her should she live to become Lady Geraldine, she declared to herself that even though the chance might be very small, the greatness of the reward if gained would justify the effort. Lady Geraldine! And she saw no reason why her chance should be so very small. She had a cousin with a pedigree longer than even that of Sir Francis,—Count Altifiorla, who, indeed, had no money, but was a genuine Count. She herself had a nice little sum of money, quite enough to be agreeable to a gentleman who might be somewhat out at elbows from the effects of Newmarket. And she did not think too little of her own personal appearance. She knew that she had a good wearing complexion, and that her features were of that sort which did not yield very readily to the hand of time. There were none of the endearing dimples of early youth, none of the special brightness of English feminine loveliness, none of the fresh tints of sweet girlhood; but Miss Altifiorla boasted to herself that she would look the British aristocratic matron very well. She certainly had not that Juno beauty which Cecilia Holt could boast, that beauty which could be so severe to all chance comers, but which could melt at once and become soft and sweet and easy to one favoured individual. Miss Altifiorla acknowledged to herself that it was her nature always to remain outwardly the same to all men. But then dress and diamonds, and all the applied paraphernalia of aristocracy would, she felt, go far with her.

If Sir Francis could be once got to admire her, she was sure that Sir Francis would never be driven to repent of his bargain from any falling off on her part. She thought that she would know how to be the master; but this would be an after consideration, and one as to which she need not at present pay especial attention. Sir Francis had squeezed her hand most affectionately, and there had been a subsequent meeting at Exeter, where he had stayed a couple of hours as he went through to his own property. And she was sure that he had stayed for the purpose of meeting her. Since that affair with Cecilia Holt he had not been made warmly welcome at the Deanery. Yet he had stayed and had absolutely called upon Miss Altifiorla. He had found her and had discussed Mr. and Mrs. Western with much sarcastic humour. “Now you haven’t!” Miss Altifiorla had said, when he told her of the letter he had written. “How could you be so hard upon the poor man?” “Perhaps the lady may think that I have been hard upon her,” Sir Francis had replied. “Perhaps she will know the meaning of tit for tat. Perhaps she will understand now that one good turn deserves another. It was not that I cared so much for her,” he said. “I’d got to feel that she was far too virtuous for me, too stuck up, you’ll understand. I wasn’t at all disappointed when she played me that trick. She didn’t turn out the sort of girl that I had taken her for. I knew that I had had an escape. But, nevertheless, tit for tat is fair on both sides. She played me a trick, and now I’ve played her one and we are even. We can each go to work again. She began a little too soon, perhaps, for her own comfort; but that’s her affair and not mine.”

In answer to all this, Miss Altifiorla had only laughed and smiled and declared that Cecilia had been served right, though she thought,—she said that she thought,—that Sir Francis had been almost too hard. “That’s my way of doing business,” he had added. “If anyone wants me to run straight, they must begin by running straight themselves. I can be as sweet as new milk if I’m well treated.” Then there had been a moment in which Miss Altifiorla had almost expected that he was going to do something preparatory to declaring himself. She was convinced that he was about to kiss her; but at the very moment at which the event had been expected, Mrs. Green had been announced and the kiss did not, alas, come off. She could hardly bring herself to be civil to Mrs. Green when Sir Francis declared that he must go to the station.

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