Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 20.

The Secret Escapes.

“All right. See you soon. Ever yours, F. G.” Such was the entire response which Miss Altifiorla received from her now declared lover. Sir Francis had told himself that he hated the bother of writing love-letters. But in truth there was with him also an idea that it might be as well that he should not commit himself to declarations that were in their nature very strong. It was not that he absolutely thought of any possible future event in which his letters might be used against him, but there was present to him a feeling that the least said might be the soonest mended.

Miss Altifiorla when she received the above scrawl was quite satisfied with it. She, too, was cautious in her nature, but not quite so clever as her lover. She did, indeed, feel that she had now caught her fish. She would not let him escape by any such folly as that which Cecilia Holt had committed. The Baronet should be allowed his full swing till she was entitled to call herself Lady Geraldine. Then, perhaps, there might be a tussle between them as to which should have his own way,—or hers. The great thing at present was to obtain the position, and she did feel that she had played her cards uncommonly well as far as the game had gone at present.

But there came upon her an irresistible temptation to make her triumph known among her friends at Exeter. All her girl friends had got themselves married. There was Mrs. Green, and Mrs. Thorne, and Mrs. Western. Poor Cecilia had not gained much, but still she was Mrs. Western. Miss Altifiorla did in truth regard herself as Miss Altifiorla with but small satisfaction. She had her theories about women’s rights, and the decided advantages of remaining single, and the sufficiency of a lady to stand alone in the world. There was probably some vague glimmering of truth in her ideas; some half-formed belief in her own doctrine. But still it had ever been an uncomfortable creed, and one which she was ready to desert at the slightest provocation. Her friends had all deserted it, and had left her as we say high and dry on the barren bank, while they had been carried away by the fertilising stream. She, too, would now swim down the river of matrimony with a beautiful name, and a handle to it, as the owner of a fine family property. Women’s rights was an excellent doctrine to preach, but for practice could not stand the strain of such temptation. And though in boasting of her good fortune she must no doubt confess that she had been wrong, still there would be much more of glory than of shame in the confession.

It was chance probably that made her tell her secret in the first instance to Mrs. Thorne. Mrs. Thorne had been Maude Hippesley and was niece to Sir Francis Geraldine. Miss Altifiorla had pledged herself to Sir Francis not to make known her engagement at the Deanery. But such pledges go for very little. Mrs. Thorne was not now an inhabitant of Exeter, and was, so to say, the most bosom-friend left to her,—after her disruption from Mrs. Western. Was it probable that such a secret should be kept from a bosom-friend? Mrs. Thorne who had a large circle of friends in the county would hardly have admitted the claim, but she would be more likely to do so after receiving the intimation. Of course it would be conveyed under the seal of a sacred promise,—which no doubt would be broken as soon as she reached the Deanery. On this occasion she called on Miss Altifiorla to ask questions in reference to “poor Cecilia.” With herself and the Dean and Mrs. Dean there was real sorrow at Cecilia’s troubles. And there was also no mode of acquiring true information. “Do tell me something about poor Cecilia,” said Mrs. Thorne.

“Poor Cecilia, indeed! She is there all alone and sees almost no one. Of course you’ve heard that Lady Grant was here.”

“We thought it so nice of Lady Grant to come all the way from Scotland to see her sister-in-law.”

“Lady Grant of course is anxious to get her brother to take back his wife. They haven’t a great deal of money among them, and when Mrs. Holt dies Cecilia’s fortune would be a nice addition.”

“I don’t think Lady Grant can have thought of that,” said Mrs. Thorne.

“Lady Grant would be quite prudent in thinking of it and like the rest of the world. Her husband was only a regimental officer in India who got knighted for doing something that came in his way. There isn’t any family property among them, and of course she is anxious.”

This solicitude as to “family property” on the part of Miss Altifiorla did strike Mrs. Thorne as droll. But she went on with her inquiries. “And what is Cecilia doing?”

“Not very much,” said Miss Altifiorla. “What is there for her to do? Poor girl! She has played her cards so uncommonly badly, when she took up with Mr. Western after having been dropped by Sir Francis.”

“After dropping Sir Francis!”

Miss Altifiorla smiled. Was it likely that Cecilia Holt should have dropped Sir Francis? “It doesn’t much matter now. If it does her wounded pride good to say so of course she can say it.”

“We always believed that it was so at the Deanery.”

“At any rate she made a mess of it. And now she has to bear the fortune which her fates have sent her. I own that I am a little angry with Cecilia, not for having dropped Sir Francis as you called it, but for managing her matters so badly with Mr. Western. She seems to me to have no idea of the sort of duties which fall to the lot of a wife.”

“I should have thought you’d have liked her the better for that,” said Mrs. Thorne, with a smile.

“Why so? I think you must have misunderstood my theory of life. When a woman elects to marry, and does so from sheer love and regard for the man, she should certainly make her duty to him the first motive of all her actions.”

“What a grand lesson! It is a pity that my husband should not be here to hear it.”

“I have no doubt he finds that you do so.”

“Or Sir Francis Geraldine. I suppose my uncle is still in search of a wife, and if he knew where to find such excellent principles he would be able to make his choice. What a joke it would be should he again try his luck at Exeter?”

“He has again tried his luck at Exeter,” said Miss Altifiorla, in a tone in which some slight shade of ridicule was mixed with the grandiloquence which she wished to assume.

“What on earth do you mean?” said Mrs. Thorne.

“Simply what I seem to mean. I had not intended to have told you at present, though I would sooner tell you than any person living. You must promise me, however, that it shall go no further. Sir Francis Geraldine has done me the honour to ask me to be his wife.” Thus she communicated her good news; and did so in a tone of voice that was very low, and intended to be humble.

“My uncle going to marry you? Good gracious!”

“Is it more wonderful than that he should have thought of marrying Cecilia Holt?”

“Well, yes. Not that I know why it should be, except that Cecilia came first, and that you and she were so intimate.”

“Was he doomed to remain alone in the world because of that?” asked Miss Altifiorla.

“Well, no; I don’t exactly mean that. But it is droll.”

“I hope that the Dean and Mrs. Hippesley will be satisfied with his choice. I do particularly hope that all his friends will feel that he is doing well. But,” she added, perceiving that her tidings had not been received with any strong expression of family satisfaction—“but I trust that, as Lady Geraldine, I may at any rate be the means of keeping the family together.”

There was to Mrs. Thorne almost a joke in this, as she knew that her father did not at all approve of Sir Francis, and was with difficulty induced to have him at the Deanery. And she knew also that the Dean did in his heart greatly dislike Miss Altifiorla, though for the sake of what was generally called “peace within the cathedral precincts,” he had hitherto put up also with her. What might happen in the Dean’s mind, or what determination the Dean might take when the two should be married, she could not say. But she felt that it might probably be beyond the power of the then Lady Geraldine “to keep the family together.” “Well, I am surprised,” said Mrs. Thorne. “And I am to tell nobody.”

“I don’t see any good in publishing the thing in High Street just at present.” Then Mrs. Thorne understood that she need not treat the communication as a strict secret. “In fact, I don’t see why it should be kept specially in the dark. Francis has not enjoined anything like secrecy.” This was the first time that she had allowed herself the use of the Baronet’s name without the prefix. “When it is to be I have not as yet even begun to think. Of course he is in a hurry. Men, I believe, generally are. But in this case there may be some reasons for delay. Arrangements as to the family property must be made, and Castle Gerald must be prepared for our reception. I don’t suppose we can be married just off hand, like some happier folks.” Mrs. Thorne did not know whether to take this to herself, as she had been married herself at last rather in a scramble, or whether it was intended to apply to poor Cecilia, whose husband, though he was in comfortable circumstances, cannot be said to have possessed family property. “And now, dear;” continued Miss Altifiorla, “what am I to do for bridesmaids? You three have all been married before me. There are his two unmarried sisters of course.” Mrs. Thorne was aware that her uncle had absolutely quarrelled with his mother and sisters, and had not spoken to them for years. “I suppose that it will come off in the cathedral, and that your father will perform the ceremony. I don’t know, indeed, whether Francis might not wish to have the Bishop.” Mrs. Thorne was aware that the Bishop, who was a strict man, would not touch Sir Francis Geraldine with a pair of tongs. “But all these things will shake themselves down comfortably no doubt. In the meantime I am in a twitter of ecstatic happiness. You, who have gone through it all, will quite understand what I mean. It seems that as a lover he is the most exigeant of gentlemen. He requires constant writing to, and woe betide me if I do not obey his behests. However, I do not complain, and must confess that I am at the present moment the most happy of young women.”

Mrs. Thorne of course expressed her congratulations, and took her departure without having committed herself to a word as to the other inhabitants of the Deanery. But when she got to her father’s house, where she was for the present staying, she in truth startled them all by the news. The Dean had just come into the drawing-room to have his afternoon tea and a little gossip with his wife and his own sister, Mrs. Forrester, from London. “Who do you think is going to be married, and to whom?” said Mrs. Thorne. “I’ll give you all three guesses apiece, and bet you a pair of gloves all round that you don’t make it out.”

“Not Miss Altifiorla?” said her mother.

“That’s only one. A marriage requires two personages. I still hold good by my bet.”

“Miss Altifiorla going to be married!” said the Dean. “Who is the unfortunate victim?”

“Papa, do not be ill-natured. Why should not Miss Altifiorla be married as well as another?”

“In the first place, my dear,” said Mrs. Forrester, “because I understand that the lady has always expressed herself as being in favour of a single life.”

“I go beyond that,” said the Dean, “and maintain that any single life would be preferable to a marriage with Miss Altifiorla.”

“Considering that she is my friend, papa, I think that you are very unkind.”

“But who is to be the gentleman?” asked her mother.

“Ah! there’s the question! Why don’t you guess?” Then Mrs. Dean did name three or four of the most unpromising unmarried elderly gentlemen in Exeter, and the Dean, in that spirit of satire against his own order which is common among clergymen, suggested an old widowed Minor Canon, who was in the habit of chanting the Litany. “You are none of you near the mark. You ought to come nearer home.”

“Nearer home?” said Mrs. Dean with a look of discomfort in her face.

“Yes, mamma. A great deal nearer home.”

“It can’t be your Uncle Septimus,” said the Dean. Now Uncle Septimus was the unmarried brother of old Mr. Thorne, and was regarded by all the Thorne family as a perfect model of an unselfish, fine old lovable gentleman.

“Good gracious, no!” said Mrs. Thorne. “What a horrible idea! Fancy Uncle Septimus doomed to pass his life in company with Miss Altifiorla! The happy man in question is—Sir Francis Geraldine.”

“No!” said Mrs. Hippesley, jumping from her seat.

“It is impossible,” said the Dean, who, though he greatly disliked his brother-in-law, still thought something of the family into which he had married, and thoroughly despised Miss Altifiorla. “I do not think that Sir Francis could be so silly as that.”

“It cannot be,” said Mrs. Hippesley.

“What has the young lady done to make it impossible?” asked Mrs. Forrester.

“Nothing on earth,” said Mrs. Thorne. “She is my special friend and is in my opinion a great deal more than worthy of my uncle Francis. Only papa, who dislikes them both, would like to make it out that the two of them are going to cut their own throats each by marrying the other. I wish papa could have heard the way in which she said that he would have to marry them,—unless the Bishop should like to come forward and perform the ceremony.”

“I shall do nothing of the kind,” said the Dean angrily.

“If you had heard,” continued his daughter, “all that she had to say about the family name and the family property, and the family grandeur generally, you would have thought her the most becoming young woman in the country to be the future Lady Geraldine.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk of it, my dear,” said Mrs. Hippesley.

“We shall have to talk of it, and had better become used to it among ourselves. I don’t suppose that Miss Altifiorla has invented the story out of her own head. She would not say that she was engaged to marry my uncle if it were not true.”

“It’s my belief,” said the Dean, getting up and walking out of the room in great anger, “that Sir Francis Geraldine will never marry Miss Altifiorla.”

“I don’t think my brother will ever marry Miss Altifiorla,” said Mrs. Dean. “He is very silly and very vicious, but I don’t think he’ll ever do anything so bad as that.”

“Poor Miss Altifiorla!” said Mrs. Thorne afterwards to her Aunt Forrester.

That same evening Miss Altifiorla, feeling that she had broken the ice, and, oppressed by the weight of the secret which was a secret still in every house in Exeter except the Deanery, wrote to her other friend Mrs. Green, and begged her to come down. She had tidings to tell of the greatest importance. So Mrs. Green put on her bonnet and came down. “My dear,” said Miss Altifiorla, “I have something to tell you. I am going to be—”

“Not married!” said Mrs. Green.

“Yes, I am. How very odd that you should guess. But yet when I come to think of it I don’t know that it is odd. Because after all there does come a time in,—a lady’s life when it is probable that she will marry.” Miss Altifiorla hesitated, having in the first instance desired to use the word girl.

“That’s as may be,” said Mrs. Green. “Your principles used to be on the other side.”

“Of course all that changes when the opportunity comes. It wasn’t so much that I disliked the idea of marriage, for myself, as that I was proud of the freedom which I enjoyed. However that is all over. I am free no longer.”

“And who is it to be?”

“Ah, who is it to be? Can you make a guess?”

“Not in the least. I don’t know of anybody who has been spooning you.”

“Oh, what a term to use! No one can say that anyone ever—spooned me. It is a horrible word. And I cannot bear to hear it fall from my own lips.”

“It is what young men do do,” said Mrs. Green.

“That I think depends on the rank in life which the young men occupy;—and also the young women. I can understand that a Bank clerk should do it to an attorney’s daughter.”

“Well; who is it you are going to marry without spooning, which in my vocabulary is simply another word for two young people being fond of each other?” Miss Altifiorla remained silent for a while, feeling that she owed it to herself to awe her present companion by her manner before she should crush her altogether by the weight of the name she would have to pronounce. Mrs. Green had received her communication flippantly, and had probably felt that her friend intended to demean herself by some mere common marriage. “Who is to be the happy swain?” asked Mrs. Green.

“Swain!” said Miss Altifiorla, unable to repress her feelings.

“Well; lover, young man, suitor, husband as is to be. Some word common on such occasion will I suppose fit him?”

Miss Altifiorla felt that no word common on such occasions would fit him. But yet it was necessary that she should name him, having gone so far. And, having again been silent for a minute, so as to bethink herself in what most dignified language this might be done, she proceeded. “I am to be allied,”—again there was a little pause,—“to Sir Francis Geraldine!”

“Him Cecilia Holt rejected!”

“Him who I think was fortunate enough to escape Cecilia Holt.”

“Goodness gracious! It seems but the other day.”

“Cecilia Holt has since recovered from her wounds and married another husband, and is now suffering from fresh wounds. Is it odd that the gentleman should have found some one else to love when the lady has had time not only to love but to marry, and to be separated from another man?”

“Sir Francis Geraldine!” ejaculated Mrs. Green. “Well; I’m sure I wish you all the joy in the world. When is it to be?” But Mrs. Green had so offended Miss Altifiorla by her manner of accepting the news that she could not bring herself to make any further gracious answer. Mrs. Green therefore took her leave, and the fact of Miss Altifiorla’s engagement was soon known all over Exeter.

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