Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 23.

Sir Francis’ Escape.

When she had told the Dean’s family, and Mrs. Green, and Cecilia, Miss Altifiorla began to feel that there was no longer a secret worth the keeping. And indeed it became necessary to her happiness to divulge this great step in life which she was about to take. She had written very freely, and very frequently to Sir Francis, and Sir Francis, to tell the truth, had not responded in the same spirit. She had received but two answers to six letters, and each answer had been conveyed in about three lines. There had been no expressions from him of confiding love, nor any pressing demands for an immediate marriage. They had all been commenced without even naming her, and had been finished by the simple signature of his initials. But to Miss Altifiorla they had been satisfactory. She knew how silly she would be to expect from such an one as her intended husband long epistles such as a school girl would require, and, in order to keep him true to her, had determined to let him know how little exacting she was inclined to be. She would willingly do all the preliminary writing if only she could secure her position as Lady Geraldine. She wrote such letters, letters so full of mingled wit and love and fun, that she was sure that he must take delight in reading them. “Easy reading requires hard writing,” she said to herself as she copied for the third time one of her epistles, and copied it studiously in such handwriting that it should look to have been the very work of negligence. In all this she had been successful as she thought, and told herself over and over again how easy it was for a clever woman to make captive a man of mark, provided that she set herself assiduously to the task.

She soon descended from her friends to the shopkeepers, and found that her news was received very graciously by the mercantile interests of the city. The milliners, the haberdashers, the furriers and the bootmakers of Exeter received her communication and her orders with pleased alacrity. With each of them she held a little secret conference, telling each with a smiling whisper what fate was about to do for her. To even the upholsterers, the bankers, the hotel-keepers and the owners of post-horses she was communicative, making every one the gratified recipient of her tidings. Thus in a short time all Exeter knew that Sir Francis Geraldine was about to lead to the hymeneal altar Miss Altifiorla, and it must be acknowledged that all Exeter expressed various opinions on the subject. They who understood that Miss Altifiorla was to pay for the supplies ordered out of her own pocket declared for the most part how happy a man was Sir Francis. But those who could only look to Sir Francis for possible future custom were surprised that the Baronet should have allowed himself to be so easily caught. And then the aristocracy expressed its opinion which it must be acknowledged was for the most part hostile to Miss Altifiorla. It was well known through the city that the Dean had declared that he would never again see his brother-in-law at the deanery. And it was whispered that the Reverend Dr. Pigrum, one of the canons, had stated “that no one in the least knew where Miss Altifiorla had come from.” This hit Miss Altifiorla very hard,—so much so, that she felt herself obliged to write an indignant letter to Dr. Pigrum, giving at length her entire pedigree. To this Dr. Pigrum made a reply as follows: “Dr. Pigrum’s compliments to Miss Altifiorla, and is happy to learn the name of her great grandmother.” Dr. Pigrum was supposed to be a wag, and the letter soon became the joint property of all the ladies in the Close.

This interfered much with Miss Altifiorla’s happiness. She even went across to Cecilia, complaining of the great injustice done to her by the Cathedral clergymen generally. “Men from whom one should expect charity instead of scandal, but that their provincial ignorance is so narrow!” Then she went on to remind Cecilia how much older was the Roman branch of her family than even the blood of the Geraldines. “You oughtn’t to have talked about it,” said Cecilia, who in her present state of joy did not much mind Miss Altifiorla and her husband. “Do you suppose that I intend to be married under a bushel?” said Miss Altifiorla grandly. But this little episode only tended to renew the feeling of enmity between the ladies.

But there appeared a paragraph in the “Western Telegraph” which drove Miss Altifiorla nearly mad: “It is understood that one of the aristocracy in this county is soon about to be married to a lady who has long lived among us in Exeter. Sir Francis Geraldine is the happy man, and Miss Altifiorla is the lady about to become Lady Geraldine. Miss Altifiorla is descended from an Italian family of considerable note in its own country. Her great grandmother was a Fiasco, and her great great grandmother a Disgrazia. We are delighted to find that Sir Francis is to ally himself to a lady of such high birth.” Now Miss Altifiorla was well aware that there was an old feud between Sir Francis and the “Western Telegraph,” and she observed also that the paper made allusion to the very same relatives whom she had named in her unfortunate letter to Dr. Pigrum. “The vulgarity of the people of this town is quite unbearable,” she exclaimed to Mrs. Green. But when she was left alone she at once wrote a funnier letter than ever to Sir Francis. It might be that Sir Francis should not see the paragraph. At any rate she did not mention it.

But unfortunately Sir Francis did see the paragraph; and, unfortunately also, he had not appreciated the wit of Miss Altifiorla’s letters. “Oh, laws!” he had been heard to ejaculate on receipt of a former letter.

“It’s the kind of thing a man has to put up with when he gets married,” said Captain McCollop, a gentleman who had already in some sort succeeded Dick Ross.

“I don’t suppose you think a man ever ought to be married.”

“Quite the contrary. When a man has a property he must be married. I suppose I shall have the McCollop acres some of these days myself.” The McCollop acres were said to lie somewhere in Caithness, but no one knew their exact locality. “But a man will naturally put off the evil day as long as he can. I should have thought that you might have allowed yourself to run another five years yet.” The flattery did touch Sir Francis, and he began to ask himself whether he had gone too far with Miss Altifiorla. Then came the “Western Telegraph,” and he told himself that he had gone too far.

“By G——, she has told everybody in that beastly hole,” said he. The “beastly hole” was intended to represent Exeter.

“Of course she has. You didn’t suppose but that she would begin to wear her honour and glory as soon as they were wearable.”

“She pledged herself not to mention it to a single soul,” said Sir Francis. Upon this Captain McCollop merely shrugged his shoulders. “I’m d——d if I put up with it. Look here! All her filthy progenitors put into the newspaper to show how grand she is.”

“I shouldn’t care so very much about that,” said the cautious Captain, who began to perceive that he need not be specially bitter against the lady.

“You’re not going to marry her.”

“Well, no; that’s true.”

“Nor am I,” said Sir Francis with an air of great decision. “She hasn’t got a word of mine in writing to show,—not a word that would go for anything with a jury.”

“Hasn’t she indeed?”

“Not a word. I have taken precious good care of that. Between you and me, I don’t mind acknowledging it. But it had never come to more than that.”

“Then in fact you are not bound to her.”

“No; I am not;—not what I call bound. She’s a handsome woman you know,—very handsome.”

“I suppose so.”

“And she’d do the drawing-room well, and the sitting at the top of the table, and all that kind of thing.”

“But it’s such a deuced heavy price to pay,” said Captain McCollop.

“I should not have minded the price,” said Sir Francis, not quite understanding his friend’s remark, “if she hadn’t made me ridiculous in this way. The Fiascos and the Disgrazias! What the devil are they to our old English families? If she had let it remain as it was, I might have gone through with it. But as she has told all Exeter and got that stuff put into the newspapers, she must take the consequences. One is worse than another, as far as I can see.” By this Sir Francis intended to express his opinion that Miss Altifiorla was at any rate quite as bad as Cecilia Holt.

But the next thing to be decided was the mode of escape. Though Sir Francis had declared that he was not what he called bound, yet he knew that he must take some steps in the matter to show that he considered himself to be free; and as the Captain was a clever man, and well conversant with such things, he was consulted. “I should say, take a run abroad for a short time,” said the Captain.

“Is that necessary?”

“You’d avoid some of the disagreeables. People will talk, and your relatives at Exeter might kick up a row.”

“Oh, d—— my relatives.”

“With all my heart. But people have such a way of making themselves disgusting. What do you say to taking a run through the States?”

“Would you go with me?” asked the Baronet.

“If you wish it I shouldn’t mind,” said the Captain considerately. “Only to do any good we should be off quickly. But you must write to some one first.”

“Before I start, you think?”

“Oh, yes;—certainly. If she didn’t hear from you before you went, you’d be persecuted by her letters.”

“There is no end to her letters. I’ve quite made up my mind what I’ll do about them. I won’t open one of them. After all, why should she write to me when the affair is over? You’ve heard of Mrs. Western, I suppose?”

“Yes; I’ve heard of her.”

“I didn’t write to her when that affair was over. I didn’t pester her with long-winded scrawls. She changed her mind, and I’ve changed mine; and so we’re equal. I’ve paid her, and she can pay me if she knows how.”

“I hope Miss Altifiorla will look at it in the same light,” said the Captain.

“Why shouldn’t she? She knew all about it when that other affair came to an end. I wasn’t treated with any particular ceremony. The truth is, people don’t look at these things now as they used to do. Men and women mostly do as they like till they’ve absolutely fixed themselves. There used to be duels and all that kind of nonsense. There is none of that now.”

“No; you won’t get shot.”

“I don’t mind being shot any more than another man; but you must take the world as you find it. One young woman treated me awfully rough, to tell the truth. And why am I not to treat another just as roughly? If you look at it all round, you’ll see that I have used them just as they have used me.”

“At any rate,” said Captain McCollop, after a pause, “if you have made up your mind, you’d better write the letter.”

Sir Francis did not see the expediency of writing the letter immediately, but at last he gave way to his friend’s arguments. And he did so the more readily as his friend was there to write the letter for him. After some attempts on his own part, he put the writing of the letter into the hands of the Captain, and left him alone for an entire morning to perform the task. The letter when it was sent, after many corrections and revises, ran as follows:—

My dear Miss Altifiorla,—I think that I am bound in honour without a moment’s delay to make you aware of the condition of my mind in regard to marriage. I ain’t quite sure but what I shall be better without it altogether.—

“I’d rather marry her twice over than let my cousin have the title and the property,” said the Baronet with energy. “You needn’t tell her that,” said McCollop. “Of course when you’ve cleared the ground in this quarter you can begin again with another lady.”

—I think that perhaps I may have expressed myself badly so as to warrant you in understanding more than I have meant. If so, I am sure the fault has been mine, and I am very sorry for it. Things have turned up with which I need not perhaps trouble you, and compel me to go for a while to a very distant country. I shall be off almost before I can receive a reply to this letter. Indeed, I may be gone before an answer can reach me. But I have thought it right not to let a post go by without informing you of my decision.

I have seen that article in the Exeter newspaper respecting your family in Italy, and think that it must be very gratifying to you. I did understand, however, that not a word was to have been spoken as to the matter. Nothing had escaped from me, at any rate. I fear that some of your intimate friends at Exeter must have been indiscreet.

Believe me yours,
With the most sincere admiration,

Francis Geraldine.

He was not able to start for America immediately after writing this, but he quitted his Lodge in Scotland, leaving no immediate address, and hid himself for a while among his London clubs, where he trusted that the lady might not find him. In a week’s time he would be off to the United States.

Who shall picture the rage of Miss Altifiorla when she received this letter? This was the very danger which she had feared, but had hardly thought it worth her while to fear. It was the one possible break-down in her triumph; but had been, she thought, so unlikely as to be hardly possible. But now on reading the letter she felt that no redress was within her reach. To whom should she go for succour? Though her ancestors had been so noble, she had no one near her to take up the cudgels on her behalf. With her friends in Exeter she had become a little proud of late, so that she had turned from her those who might have assisted her. “The coward!” she said to herself, “the base coward! He dares to treat me in this way because he knows that I am alone.” Then she became angry in her heart against Cecilia, who she felt had set a dangerous example in this practice of jilting. Had Cecilia not treated Sir Francis so unceremoniously he certainly would not have dared so to treat her. There was truth in this, as in that case Sir Francis would at this moment have been the husband of Mrs. Western.

But what should she do? She took out every scrap of letter that she had received from the man, and read each scrap with the greatest care. In the one letter there certainly was an offer very plainly made, as he had intended it; but she doubted whether she could depend upon it in a court of law. “Don’t you think that you and I know each other well enough to make a match of it?” It was certainly written as an offer, and her two answers to him would make it plain that it was so. But she had an idea that she would not be allowed to use her own letters against him. And then to have her gushing words read as a reply to so cold a proposition would be death to her. There was not another syllable in the whole correspondence written by him to signify that he had in truth intended to become her husband. She felt sure that he had been wickedly crafty in the whole matter, and had lured her on to expose herself in her innocence.

But what should she do? Should she write to him an epistle full of tenderness? She felt sure that it would be altogether ineffectual. Should she fill sheets with indignation? It would be of no use unless she could follow up her indignation by strong measures. Should she let the thing pass by in silence, as though she and Sir Francis had never known each other? She would certainly do so, but that she had allowed her matrimonial prospects to become common through all Exeter. She must also let Exeter know how badly Sir Francis intended to treat her. To her, too, the idea of a prolonged sojourn in the United States presented itself. In former days there had come upon her a great longing to lecture at Chicago, at Saint Paul’s, and Omaha, on the distinctive duties of the female sex. Now again the idea returned to her. She thought that in one of those large Western halls, full of gas and intelligence, she could rise to the height of her subject with a tremendous eloquence. But then would not the name of Sir Francis travel with her and crush her?

She did resolve upon informing Mrs. Green. She took three days to think of it, and then she sent for Mrs. Green. “Of all human beings,” she said, “you, I think, are the truest to me.” Mrs. Green of course expressed herself as much flattered. “And therefore I will tell you. No false pride shall operate with me to make me hold my tongue. Of all the false deceivers that have ever broken a woman’s heart, that man is the basest and the falsest.”

In this way she let all Exeter know that she was not to be married to Sir Francis Geraldine; and another paragraph appeared in the “Western Telegraph,” declaring that after all Sir Francis Geraldine was not to be allied to the Fiascos and Disgrazias of Rome.

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