Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 17.

Miss Altifiorla Rises in the World.

During this time a correspondence, more or less regular, was maintained between Miss Altifiorla and Sir Francis Geraldine. Sir Francis had gone to Scotland for the shooting, and rather liked the interest of Miss Altifiorla’s letters. It must be understood that it had commenced with the lady rather than the gentleman. But that was a fact of which he was hardly aware. She had written him a short note in answer to some questions he had asked respecting Mrs. Western when he had been in Exeter, and this she had done in such a manner as to make sure of the coming of a further letter. The further letter had come and thus the correspondence had been commenced. It was no doubt chiefly in regard to Mrs. Western; or at first pretended to be so. Miss Altifiorla thought it right to speak always of her old friend with affectionate kindness;—but still with considerable severity. The affectionate kindness might go for what it was worth; but it was the severity, or rather the sarcasm, which gratified Sir Francis. And then Miss Altifiorla gradually adopted a familiar strain into which Sir Francis fell readily enough. In fact Sir Francis found that a young woman who would joke with him, and appear to follow his lead in her joking, was more to his taste than an austere beauty such as had been his last love.

“Lady Grant is here at this moment,” Miss Altifiorla said in one of her letters. She had by this time fallen into that familiar style of writing which hardly declared whether it belonged to a man’s letter or a woman’s. “I suppose you know who Lady Grant is. She is your fortunate rival’s magnificent widowed sister, and has come here I presume to endeavour to set matters right. Whether she will succeed may be doubtful. She is the exact ditto of her brother, who of all human beings gives himself the finest airs. But Cecilia since her separation has given herself airs too, and now leads her lonely life with her nose high among the stars. Poor dear Cecilia! her misfortunes do not become her, and I think they have hardly been deserved. They are all the result of your bitter vengeance, and though I must say that she in sort deserves it, I think that you might have spared her. After all she has done you no harm. Consider where you would be with Cecilia Holt for your wife and guardian. Hard though you are, I do not think you would have been hard enough to treat her as he has done. Indeed there is an audacity about his conduct to which I know no parallel. Fancy a man marrying a wife and then instantly bidding her go home to her mother because he finds that she once liked another man better than himself! I wonder whether the law couldn’t touch him! But you have escaped from all that, and I really can’t understand why you should be so awfully cruel to the poor girl.” Then she signed herself “Yours always, F. A.” as though she had not been a woman at all.

In all this there was much guile. She had already taken the length of his foot, and knew how to flatter him, and to cheat him at the same time. “That poor young woman of mine seems to have got into difficulties,” he said to Dick Ross, who had gone down with him to Scotland.

“You have made the difficulties for her,” said Dick.

“Well; I paved the way perhaps. That was only justice. Did she think that she was going to hit me and that she wasn’t to be hit in return?”

“A woman,” growled Dick.

“Women are human beings the same as men, and when they make themselves beasts have got to be punished. You can’t horsewhip a woman; but if you look at it all round I don’t see that she ought to get off so much better than a man. She is a human creature and ought to be made to feel as a man feels.”

But this did not suit Dick’s morality or his sense of chivalry. According to his thinking a woman in such matters ought to be allowed to do as she pleased, and the punishment, if punishment there is to be, must come from the outside. “I shouldn’t like to have done it; that’s all.”

“You’ve always treated women well; haven’t you?”

“I don’t say that. I don’t know that I’ve ever treated anybody particularly well. But I never set my wits to work to take my revenge on a woman.”

“Look here, old fellow,” said Sir Francis. “You had better contrive to make yourself less disagreeable or else you and I must part. If you think that I am going to be lectured by you, you’re mistaken.”

“You ask me, and how can I help answering you? It was a shabby trick. And now you may bluster as much as you please.” Then the two sat together, smoking in silence for five minutes. It was after breakfast on a rainy day, such as always made Dick Ross miserable for the time. He had to think of creditors whom he could not pay, and of his future life which did not lie easily open before him, and of all the years which he had misused. Circumstances had lately thrown him much into the power of this man whom he heartily disliked and despised, but at whose hands he had been willing to accept many of the luxuries of his life. But still he resolved not to be put down in the expression of his opinions, although he might in truth be turned off at a moment’s notice. “You are corresponding with that old woman now?”

“What do you know about my correspondence?”

“I know just what you told me. That letter there is from the lady with the Italian name. She has more mischief even than you have, I believe.” At hearing this Sir Francis only laughed. “If you don’t take care she’ll make you marry her, and then where will you be?”

“Where would you be, old fellow?”

“It don’t much matter where I should be,” said poor Dick. “There’s a revolver up-stairs and I sometimes think that I had better use it. I’ve nothing but myself to look after. I’ve no baronetcy and no estate, and can destroy none but myself. You can’t hurt me very much. I’ll tell you what it is, Geraldine. You want a wife so that you may cut out your cousin from the property. You’re a good-looking fellow and you can talk, and, as chance would have it, you had, I imagine, got hold of a true lady. But she found you out.”

“What did she find out?”

“The sort of fellow that you are. She met you among the Dean’s people, and had to find you out before she knew you. However she did before it was too late, and she gave you the sack.”

“That’s your idea.”

“She did,” said Dick boldly. “And there should have been an end of it. I don’t say but what it might have been as well for you as for her. But it suited you to have your revenge, and you’ve had it.”

“I rather think I have,” said Sir Francis.

“But you’ve got a woman to help you in getting it who seems to have been as spiteful as you, without any excuse. I shouldn’t think that she’d make a good wife. But if you don’t take care she’ll be yours.” Then Dick got up and walked out of the room with his pipe in his mouth, and went into his bedroom, thinking that it might be as well for him to pack up and take his departure. The quarters they were in were, as he declared to himself, “beastly” in wet weather; but his shirts hadn’t come from the wash, and he had no vehicle to take him to the railway station without sending for a fly. And after all what he had said to Sir Francis was not much worse than what had often been said before. So he chucked off his slippers, and threw himself upon the bed, thinking that he might as well endeavour to get through the morning by going to sleep.

Sir Francis when he found himself alone began to think over all the circumstances of his present position. Among those circumstances Dick Ross was one. When he had intended to marry Miss Holt he had determined to get rid of Dick. Indeed Dick had been got rid of partially, and had begun to talk of going to Canada or the Cannibal Islands, by way of beginning the work of his life. Then Sir Francis had been jilted, and Dick had again become indispensable to him. But Dick had ever had a nasty way of speaking his mind and blowing up his patron, which sometimes became very oppressive to the Baronet. And now at the present moment he was more angry with him for what he had said as to Miss Altifiorla than for his remarks as to his conduct to the other lady. All that was simply severe in Dick’s words he took for a compliment. If Dick found fault with his practice he at any rate acknowledged his success. But his remarks as to the second lady had been very uncourteous. He had declared that she with the Italian name was a worse devil even than himself, and had warned him not to marry the fiend. Now he had nearly made up his mind that he would marry her. With all the ladies with whom he had hitherto been connected he had become aware that, in marrying them, he must more or less alter his manner of life. With Miss Altifiorla no such alteration would be necessary. He attributed a certain ease which she possessed to her Italian blood, and thought that he would be able to get on with her very comfortably. To marry was imperative with him,—because of his cousin. But he thought that were he to marry Miss Altifiorla he might continue to live his ordinary life almost without interruption. He had considered that in doing so he need not even dismiss Dick Ross. But now, in consequence partly of the great discourtesy of Dick’s remarks and partly from his strong inclination for Miss Altifiorla, he began to think that after all Dick had better go. Just at this moment Dick’s fortunes were, he knew, very low. One sum of money had been lost at cards, and another sum of money had not come. Dick’s funds were almost absolutely worn out. But that was only a reason the more for parting with him. He did not care to have to deal with a man who had to wear out his old clothes in his house because he had not credit with his tailor to get a new coat and trousers. He thought that he would part with Dick; but he had not quite made up his mind when he sat down to write his letter to Miss Altifiorla.

“My dear Miss Altifiorla,” he said. “I really don’t see that you have any reason to blow me up as you do about ‘poor Cecilia.’ I do not think that poor Cecilia has had it at all hotter than she has deserved; and when you tell me that I have been awfully cruel to the poor girl, you seem to forget that the poor girl began the war by being awfully cruel to me. If you and I should ever come to know each other, you may be sure that I shall never treat any woman well because she has treated me badly. It’s a kind of gallantry I cannot understand, and must make a man’s conduct quite indifferent to the sex generally. If you’re to treat all alike, whether they run straight or bolt, why shouldn’t they all bolt? It would come to the same thing in the end. There is Dick Ross been making himself uncommonly disagreeable on the same subject. I don’t mind your lecturing me a little,—chiefly because you don’t think it; but I’ll be hanged if I take it from him. He has not done so very well himself that he is entitled to blow up anyone.

“Mind you write and tell me what happens over at St. David’s.” (Mrs. Holt lived in Exeter at St. David’s.) “I shall be glad to know whether that respectable person, Mr. Western, comes back again. I don’t think she’ll have a good time if he does, and if he don’t I sha’n’t break my heart.” Then he put his pen down and sat for a while thinking what should be his last paragraph. Should he put an end to all his doubts and straightway make his offer, or should he dally a little longer and still keep the power in his own hands? At last he said to himself that even if he wrote it his letter would not go till to-morrow morning, and he would have the night to think about it. This consideration got the better of his prudence and he did write it, simply beginning a new sentence on the page. “Don’t you think that you and I know each other well enough to make a match of it? There is a question for you to answer on your own behalf, instead of blowing me up for any cruelty to Cecilia Holt.”

Then he signed his name, “Yours ever, F. G.”

Miss Altifiorla when she received the letter was surprised, but not startled. She had expected that it would come, but not so quickly; and it may be said of her that she had quite made up her mind as to the final answer to be given if it should come. But still she had to think much about it before she wrote her reply. It might be very well for him to be sudden, but any over-suddenness on her part would put him on his guard. If he should be made to feel alarmed at what he had done, if he should be once frightened at his own impetuousness and hers, he would soon find his way back again out of the difficulty. But still she must flatter him, still she must make him think that she loved him. It would not at all do for her to write as though the thing were impossible. Then in a pleasant reverie she gave herself up for a while to meditating over the sudden change which had come upon her views of life. She remembered how strong she had been in recommending Cecilia not to marry this man, and how she had congratulated her when she found that she had escaped. And she remembered the severe things she had said about Mr. Western. But in her thoughts there was nothing of remorse or even of regret. “Well, well; that it should have come to this! That he should have escaped from Cecilia and have chosen me! Upon the whole it will be much better for him. I shall tread on his corns less than she would, and be less trodden upon, too, than she. It may be that I must tread on his corns a little, but I will not begin till after my marriage.” Such was the nature of her thoughts. Perhaps an idea did creep in as to some awkwardness when she should meet Cecilia. But they could never see much of each other, and it might be that there would be no such meeting. “What does it matter?” she said, as she turned to her writing-table.

But this was not till three days had passed after the receipt of the proposal. Three days, she thought, was a fitting time to show that, though hurried by an affair of so much moment, she was not too much hurried. And then she wrote as follows:—

My dear Sir Francis,

Your letter has almost taken away my breath. Why, you know nothing or little about me! And since we have been acquainted with each other our conversation has chiefly been about another lady to whom you were engaged to be married. Now you ask me to be your wife; at least, if I understand your letter, that is its purport. If I am wrong, of course you will tell me so.

But of course I know that I am not wrong; and of course I am flattered, and of course pleased. What I have seen of you I have altogether liked, and I do not know why we should not be happy together. But, marriage! marriage is a most important step,—as, no doubt, you are well aware. Though I am quite earnest in what I am saying, still I cannot but smile, and can fancy that you are smiling, as though after all it were but a joke. However, give me but one week to think of it all, and then I will answer you in sober earnest.

Yours ever (as you sign yourself),

F. A.

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