Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 24.

Conclusion.

Though the news of Miss Altifiorla’s broken engagement did reach Mrs. Western at St. David’s, she was in a state of mind which prevented her almost from recognising the fact. It was the very day on which her husband was to come to her. And her joy was so extreme as almost to have become painful. “Mamma,” she said, “I shall not know what to say to him.”

“Just let him come and receive him quietly.”

“Receive him quietly! How can I be quiet when he will have come back to me? I think you do not realise the condition I have been in during the last three months.”

“Yes, my dear, I do. You have been deserted, and it has been very bad.”

But Mrs. Western did not approve of the word used, as it carried a strong reproach against her husband. She was anxious now to take upon herself the whole weight of the fault which had produced their separation, and to hold him to have been altogether sinless. And as yet she was not quite sure that he would again take her to his home. All she knew was that he would be that day in Exeter, and that then so much might depend on her own conduct. Of this she was quite sure,—that were he to reject her she must die. In her present condition, and with the memory present to her of the dreams she had dreamed, she could not live alone at Exeter, divided from him, and there give birth to her child. But he must surely intend to take her into his arms when he should arrive. It could not be possible that he should again reject her when he had once seen her.

Then she became fidgety about her personal appearance,—a female frailty which had never much prevailed with her,—and was anxious even about her ribbons and her dress. “He does think so much about a woman being neat,” she said to her mother.

“I never perceived it in him, my dear.”

“Because you have not known him as I have done. He does not say much, but no one’s eye is so accurate and so severe.” All this arose from a certain passage which dwelt in her remembrance, when he had praised the fit of her gown, and had told her with a kiss that no woman ever dressed so well as she did.

“I think, my dear,” continued Mrs. Holt, “that if you wear your black silk just simply, it will do very well.”

Simply! Yes; she must certainly be simple. But it is so hard to be simple in such a way as to please a man’s eye. And yet, even when the time came near, she did not dare to remain long in her bedroom lest her own maid should know the source of her anxiety. At one time she had declared that she would go down to the station to meet him, but that idea had been soon abandoned. The first kiss she would give him should not be seen by strangers.

But if she were perplexed as to how she would bear herself on the coming occasion he was much more so. It may be said of him, that through his whole journey home from Dresden he was disturbed, unhappy, and silent. And that when his sister left him in London, and that he had nothing immediately before him but the journey down to Exeter, he was almost overwhelmed by the difficulties of the situation. His case as a man was so much worse than hers as a woman. The speaking must all be done by him, and what was there that he could say? There was still present to him a keen sense of the wrong that he had endured; though he owned to himself that the punishment which at the spur of the moment he had resolved upon inflicting was too severe,—both upon her and upon himself. And though he felt that he had been injured, he did gradually acknowledge that he had believed something worse than the truth. How to read the riddle he did not know, but there was a riddle which he had not read aright. If Cecilia should still be silent, he must still be left in the dark. But he did understand that he was to expect no confession of a fault, and that he was to exact no show of repentance.

When the train arrived at Exeter he determined to be driven at once to the Hotel. It made him unhappy to think that everyone around him should be aware that he was occupying rooms at an inn while his wife was living in the town; but he did not dare to take his portmanteau to Mrs. Holt’s house and hang up his hat in her hall as though nothing had been the matter. “Put it into a cab,” he said to a porter as the door was opened, “and bid him drive to the Clarence.”

But a man whose face he remembered had laid his hand upon his valise before it was well out of the railway carriage. “Please, Sir,” said the man, “you are to go up to the house, and I’m to carry your things. I am Sam Barnet, the gardener.”

“Very well, Sam,” said Mr. Western. “Go on and I’ll follow you.” Now, as he well knew, the house at St. David’s was less than half a mile from the railway station.

He felt that his misery would be over in ten minutes, and yet for ten minutes how miserable a man he was! Whilst she was trembling with joy, a joy that was only dashed by a vague fear of his possible sternness, he was blaming his fate as it shortened by every step the distance between him and his wife. At last he had entered the path of the little garden, and the door of the house was open before him. He ventured to look, but did not see her. He was in the hall, but yet he did not see her. “Cecilia is in the breakfast parlour,” said the voice of Mrs. Holt, whom in his confusion he did not notice. The breakfast parlour was in the back part of the house, looking out into the garden, and thither he went. The door was just ajar and he passed in. In a second the whole trouble was over. She was in his arms at once, kissing his face, stroking his hair, leaning on his bosom, holding his arm round her own waist as though to make sure that he should not leave her; crying and laughing at the same moment. “Oh, George, my own George! It has all been my doing; but you will forgive me! Say that one word that I am ‘forgiven.’” Then there came another storm of kisses which frustrated the possibility of his speaking to her.

What a wife she was to possess! How graceful, how gracious, how precious were her charms,—charms in which no other woman surely ever approached her! How warm and yet how cool was the touch of her lips; how absolutely symmetrical was the sweet curve of her bust; what a fragrance came from her breath! And the light of her eyes, made more bright by her tears, shone into his with a heavenly brightness. Her soft hair as he touched it filled him with joy. And once more she was all his own. Let the secret be what it might, he was quite sure that she was his own. As he bent down over her she pressed her cheek against his and again drew his arm tighter round her waist. “George, if you wished to know how I love you, you have taken the right step. I have been sick for you, but now I shall be sick no longer. Oh, George, it was my fault; but say that you have forgiven me.”

He could not bring himself to speak so much of an accusation as would be contained in that word “forgive.” How was he to pardon one whose present treatment to him was so perfect, so loving, and so lovely? “Sit down, George, and let me tell you how it was. Of course I was wrong, but I did not mean to be wrong.”

“No, no,” he said. “There shall be no wrong.” And yet why had not his sister told him that it would be like this? Why had she so stoutly maintained that Cecilia would confess nothing. Here she was acknowledging everything with most profuse confession. What could any man desire more? “Do not speak of it;—at any rate now. Let me be happy as I have got you.”

Then there was another storm of kisses, but she was not to be put off from her purpose. “You must know it all. Sit down;—there, like that.” And she seated herself, leaning back upon him on the sofa. “Before we had been abroad I had been engaged to that man.”

“Yes;—I understand that.”

“I had been engaged to him,—without knowing him. Then when I found that he was not what I thought him, I made up my mind that it would be better to throw him over than make us both miserable for life.”

“Certainly.”

“And I did so. I made a struggle and did it. From that time to this I have had nothing to say to him,—nor he to me. You may say that I treated him badly.”

“I don’t say so. I, at any rate, do not say so.”

“My own, own man. Then we went abroad, and as good fortune would have it you came in our way. It was not long before you made me love you. That was not my fault, George. I loved you so dearly when you were telling me that story about the other girl;—but, somehow, I could not tell you then a similar story about myself. It seemed at first so odd that my story should be the same, and then it looked almost as though I were mocking you. Had you had no story to tell, you would have known all my own before I had allowed myself to be made happy by your love. Do you not perceive that it was so?”

“Yes,” he said, slowly, “I can understand what you mean.”

“But it was a mistake; for from day to day the difficulty grew upon me, and when once there was a difficulty, I was not strong enough to overcome it. There never came the moment in which I was willing to mar my own happiness by telling you that which I thought would wound yours. I had not dreamed beforehand how much more difficult it would become when I should once be absolutely your wife. Then your sister came and she told me. She is better than anybody in the world except yourself.”

“All women are better than I am,” he said. “It is their nature to be so.”

Some half-ludicrous idea of Miss Altifiorla and her present difficulties came across her mind, as she contradicted his assertion with another shower of kisses. “She told me,” continued Cecilia, “that I was bound to let you know all the truth. Of course I knew that; of course I intended it. But that odious woman was in the house, and I could not tell you till she was gone. Then he came.”

“Why did he come?”

“He had no right to come. No man with the smallest spirit would have shown himself at your door. I have thought about it again and again, and I can only imagine that it has been his intention to revenge himself. But what matter his intentions so long as they do not come between you and me? I want you to know all the truth, but not to imagine more than the truth. Since the day on which I had told him that he and I must part, there has been no communication between us but what you know. He came to Durton and made his way into the house, and Miss Altifiorla was there and saw it all; and then you were told.”

“He is a mean brute.”

“But I am not a brute. Am I a brute? Say that I am nice once more. You know everything now,—everything, everything. I do own that I have been wrong to conceal it. My very soul should be laid bare to you.”

“Cecilia, I will never be hard to you again.”

“I do not say that you have been hard. I do not accuse you. I know that I have been wrong, and I am quite content that we should again be friends. Oh, George, just at this moment I think it is sweeter than if you had never sent me away.”

And so the reconciliation was made, and Mr. Western and Cecilia were once more together. But no doubt to her mind, as she thought of it all, there was present the happy conviction that she had been more sinned against than sinning. She had forgiven, whereas she might have exacted forgiveness. She had been gracious, whereas she might have followed her mother’s advice and have been repellent till she had brought him to her feet. As it was, her strong desire to have him once again had softened her, and now she had the double reward. She had what she wanted, and was able to congratulate herself at the same time on her virtue. But he, though he had too what he wanted, became gradually aware that he had been cruel, stiff-necked, and obdurate. She was everything that he desired, but he was hardly happy because he was conscious that he had been unjust. And he was a man that loved justice even against himself, and could not be quite happy till he had made restitution.

He stayed a week with her at Exeter, during which time he so far recovered himself as to be able to dine at the deanery, and return Dr. Pigrum’s call. Then he was to start for his own house in Berkshire, having asked Mrs. Holt to come to them a fortnight before Christmas. He would have called on Miss Altifiorla had he not understood that Miss Altifiorla in her present state of mind received no visitors. She gave it out that since men had been men and women had been women, no woman had been so basely injured as herself. But she intended to redress the wrongs of her sex by a great movement, and was devoting herself at present to hard study with that object. She used to be seen daily walking two miles and back on the Crediton Road, it being necessary to preserve her health for the sake of the great work she had in hand. But it was understood that no one was to accost her, or speak to her on these occasions, and at other times it was well known that she was engaged upon the labours of her task.

“And to-morrow we will go back to Durton,” said Mr. Western to his wife.

“Dear Durton, how happy I shall be to see it once again!”

“And how happy I shall be to take you again to see it! But before we go it is necessary that I should say one thing.”

This he spoke in so stern a voice that he almost frightened her. Was it possible that after all he should find it necessary to refer again to the little fault which she had so cordially avowed?

“What is it, George?”

“I have made a mistake.”

“No, George, no, don’t say so. There has been no mistake. A man should own nothing. I have thought about it and am sure of it.”

“Let a man commit no fault, and then what you say will be true. I made a mistake, and allowed myself to be so governed by it as to commit a great injustice. I am aware of it, and I trust I may never repeat it. Such a mistake as that I think that I shall never commit again. But I did it, and I ask you to forgive me.” In answer to this she could only embrace him and hang upon him, and implore him in silence to spare her. “So it has been, and I ask your pardon.”

“No, George, no; no.”

“Will you not pardon me when I ask you?”

“I cannot bring myself to say such a word. You know that it is all right between us. I cannot speak the word which you shall never be made to hear. I am the happiest woman now in all England, and you must not force me to say that which shall in any way lessen my glory.”

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