Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 4.

Mr. Western.

The Holts travelled about during the whole of that year, passing the summer in Switzerland and the autumn in the north of Italy, and found themselves at Rome in November, with the intention of remaining there for the winter. One place was the same to them as another, and it was necessary that they should at any rate exist until the term had expired for which they had let their house. Mrs. Holt had I think enjoyed her life. She had been made more of than at home, and had been happy amidst the excitement. But with Cecilia it had been for many months as though all things had been made of leather and prunello. She had not cared, or had not seemed to care, for scenery or for cities. In that last episode of her life she had aspired to a new career, and had at first been fairly successful. And she had loved the man honestly for a time, and had buoyed herself up with great intentions as to the future duties of her life. Then had come her downfall, in which it was commonly said of her that she had been jilted by her lover. Even when the mountains of Switzerland had been so fine before her eyes as in truth to console her by their beauty, she had not admitted that she was consoled. The Campanile at Florence had filled her with that satisfaction which comes from supreme beauty. But still when she went home to her hotel she thought more of Sir Francis Geraldine than of the Campanile. To have been jilted would be bad, but to have it said of her that she had been jilted when she was conscious that it was untrue was a sore provocation. And yet no one could say but that she had behaved well and been instigated by good motives. She had found that her lover was ignoble, and did not love her. And she had at once separated herself from him. And, since that, in all her correspondence with her friends she had quietly endured the idea which would continually crop up that she had been jilted. She never denied it; but it was the false accusation rather than the loss of all that her marriage had promised her which made her feel the Matterhorn and the Campanile to be equally ineffective. Then there gradually came to her some comfort from a source from which she had certainly not expected it. On their travels they had become acquainted with a Mr. Western, a silent, shy, almost middle-aged man, whom they had sat next to at dinner for nearly a week before they had become acquainted with him. But they had passed on from scenery to city, and, as had been their fortune, Mr. Western had passed on with them. Who does not know the way in which some strange traveller becomes his friend on a second or a third meeting in some station or hotel saloon? In this way Mrs. Holt and Cecilia had become acquainted with Mr. Western, and on parting with him at Venice in October had received with gratification the assurance that he would again “turn up” in Rome.

“He is a very good sort of man,” said Mrs. Holt to her daughter that night. Cecilia agreed, but with perhaps less enthusiasm than her mother had displayed. For Mrs. Holt the assertion had been quite enthusiastic. But Cecilia did think that Mr. Western had made himself agreeable. He was an unmarried man, however, and there had been something in the nature of a communication which he had made to her, that had prevented her from being loud in his praise. Not that the communication had been one which had in any way given offence; but it had been unexpected, confidential, and of such a nature as to create much thought. No doubt an intimacy had sprung up between them. But yet it was singular that a man apparently so reticent as Mr. Western should make such a communication. How the intimacy had grown by degrees need not here be explained, but that it had grown to be very close will appear from the nature of the story told.

The story was one of Mr. Western’s own life and was as follows. He was a man of good but not of large fortune. He had been to Oxford and had there distinguished himself. He had been called to the bar but had not practised. He had gone into Parliament, but had left it, finding that the benches of the House of Commons were only fitted for the waste of time. He had joined scientific societies to which he still belonged, but which he did not find to be sufficient for his happiness. During these attempts and changes he had taken a house in London, and having a house had thought it well to look for a wife. He had become engaged to a certain Miss Mary Tremenhere, and by her he had been—jilted. Since that, for twelve months he had been travelling abroad in quest, he said, not of consolation, but of some mitigation of his woe. Cecilia, when she heard this, whispered to him one little question, “Do you love her?” “I thought I did,” he answered. And then the subject was dropped.

It was a most singular communication for him to make. Why should he, an elderly man as she at first took him to be, select her as the recipient for such a tale? She took him to be an elderly man, till she found by the accidents of conversation that he was two years younger than Sir Francis Geraldine. Then she looked into his face and saw that that appearance of age had come upon him from sorrow. There was a tinge of grey through his hair, and there were settled lines about his face, and a look of steadied thought about his mouth, which robbed him of all youth. But when she observed his upright form, and perceived that he was a strong stalwart man, in the very pride of manhood as far as strength was concerned,—then she felt that she had wronged him. Still he was one who had suffered so much as to be entitled to be called old. She felt the impossibility of putting him in the same category among men as that filled by Sir Francis Geraldine. The strength of manhood was still there, but not the salt of youth. But why should he have told her,—her who had exactly the same story to tell back again, if only she could tell it? Once or twice there came to her an idea that she would tell it. He had sought for sympathy, not under the assurance of secrecy but with the full conviction, as she felt it, that his secret would be safe. Why should not she do the same? That there would be great comfort in doing so she was well aware. To have some one who would sympathise with her! Hitherto she had no one. Even her mother, who was kindness, even obedience itself, who attended to her smallest wish, even her mother regretted the baronet son-in-law. “And yet she would have been left all alone,” she said to herself, marvelling at the unselfish fondness of a mother. Mr. Western would be bound to sympathise. Having called upon her for sympathy, his must be ready. But when she had thought of it thrice she did not do it. Were she to tell her story it would seem as though she were repeating to him back his own. “I too have been in love, and engaged, and have jilted a gentleman considerably my senior in age.” She would have to say that, likening herself to the girl who had jilted him,—or else to tell the other story, the untrue story, the story which the world believed, in order that she might be on a par with him. This she could not do. If she told any she must tell the truth, and the truth was not suitable to be told. Therefore she kept her peace, and sympathised with a one-sided sympathy.

In Rome they did again meet, and on this occasion they met as quite old friends. He called upon them at their hotel and sat with them, happier than usual in his manner, and, for him, almost light and gay of heart. Parties were made to St. Peter’s, and the Coliseum, and the Capitol. When he left on that occasion Cecilia remarked to her mother how much less triste he was than usual. “Men, I suppose,” she said to herself, “get over that kind of thing quicker than women.”

In Rome it seemed to Cecilia that Mr. Western, when alone with her, had no other subject for conversation than the ill-treatment he had received from Mary Tremenhere. His eagerness in coming back to the subject quite surprised her. She herself was fascinated by it, but yet felt it would be better were she to put a stop to it. There was no way of doing this unless she were to take her mother from Rome. She could not tell him that on that matter he had said enough, nor could she warn him that so much of confidential intercourse between them would give rise in the minds of others to erroneous ideas. Her mother never seemed to see that there was anything peculiar in their intercourse. And so it went on from day to day and from week to week.

“You asked me once whether I loved her,” he said one day. “I did; but I am astonished now that it should have been so. She was very lovely.”

“I suppose so.”

“The most perfect complexion that was ever seen on a lady’s cheek.” Cecilia remembered that her complexion too had been praised before this blow had fallen upon her. “The colour would come and go so rapidly that I used to marvel what were the thoughts that drove the blood hither and thither. There were no thoughts,—unless of her own prettiness and her own fortunes. She accepted me as a husband because it was necessary for her to settle in life. I was in Parliament, and that she thought to be something. I had a house in Chester Square, and that was something. She was promised a carriage, and that conquered her. As the bride I had chosen for myself she became known to many, and then she began to understand that she might have done better with herself. I am old, and not given to many amusements. Then came a man with a better income and with fewer years; and she did not hesitate for a moment. When she took me aside and told me that she had changed her mind, it was her quiescence and indifference that disturbed me most. There was nothing of her new lover; but simply that she did not love me. I did not stoop for a moment to a prayer. I took her at her word, and left her. Within a week she was acknowledged to be engaged to Captain Geraldine.”

The naming of the name of course struck Cecilia Holt. She remembered to have heard something of the coming marriage by her lover’s cousin, and something, too, of the story of the girl. But it had reached her ear in the lightest form, and had hardly remained in her memory. It was now of no matter, as she had determined to keep her own history to herself. Therefore she made no exclamation when the name of Geraldine was mentioned.

“How could I love her after that?” he continued, betraying the strong passion which he felt. “I had loved a girl whose existence I had imagined, and of whom I had seen merely the outward form, and had known nothing of the inner self. What is it that we love?” he continued. “Is it merely the coloured doll, soft to touch and pleasant to kiss? Or is it some inner nature which we hope to discover, and of which we have found the outside so attractive? I had found no inner self which it had been possible that I could love. He was welcome to the mere doll who was wanted simply that she should grace his equipage. I have asked myself, Why is it that I am so sorely driven, seeing that in truth I do not love her? I would not have her now for all the world. I know well how providential has been my escape. And yet I go about like a wounded animal, who can find none to consort with him. Till I met you, and learnt to talk to you, I was truly miserable. And why? Because I had been saved from falling when standing on a precipice! Because the engine had not been allowed to crush me when passing along on its iron road! Ought I not to rejoice and be thankful rather, as I think of what I have escaped? But in truth it is the poor weakness of human nature. People say that I have been—jilted. What matters it to me what people say? I have been saved, and as time goes on I shall know it and be thankful.”

Every word of it came home to her and gave her back her own story. There was her own soreness, and her own salvation. There was the remembrance of what the people in Exeter were saying of her, only slightly relieved by the conviction that she had been preserved from a life of unhappiness. But she had never been able to look at it quite as he did. He knew that the better thing had happened to him; but she, though she knew it also, was sore at heart because people told the story, as she thought, to her discredit. There was, indeed, this difference between them. It was said truly of him that the girl had jilted him, but falsely of her that she had been jilted.

She, however, told him nothing of her own life. There had come moments in which she was sorely tempted. But she had allowed them to pass by, telling herself on each occasion that this at any rate was not the moment. She could not do it now,—or now,—or now, lest there should seem to be some peculiar motive on her own part. And so the matter went on till there had arisen a feeling of free confidence on the one side, and of absolute restraint on the other. She could not do it, she said to herself. Much as she trusted Mr. Western, deeply as she regarded him as her friend, strongly as she wished that the story had been told to him at some former passage of their intimacy, the proper time had passed by, she said, and he must be left in his ignorance.

Then one day there happened that which the outside world at Rome had long expected; and among the number Mrs. Holt. George Western proposed to marry Cecilia Holt. Of all the world at Rome who had watched the two together she probably was the last who thought of any such idea. But even to her the idea must surely have come in some shape before the proposal. He had allowed her to feel that he was only happy in her company, and he had gradually fallen into the habit of confiding to her in everything. He had told her of his money, and of his future life. He had consulted her about his books, and pictures he had bought, and even about the servants of his establishment. She cannot but have expected it. But yet when the moment came she was unable to give him an answer.

It was not that she did not think that she liked him. She had been surprised to find how fond she had gradually become of him;—how Sir Francis had faded in her memory, and had become a poor washed-out daub of a man while this other had grown into the proportions of a hero. She did not declare to herself that she loved him, but she was sure that she could do so. But two reasons did for a while make her feel that she could not accept him. The one was weak as water, but still it operated with her. Since she had been abroad she had corresponded regularly with Miss Altifiorla, and Miss Altifiorla in her letters had been very strong in her aversion to matrimony. Many things had been said apparently with the intention of comforting Cecilia, but written in truth with the view of defending herself. “I have chosen the better side, and have been true to it without danger of stumbling.” So it was that Miss Altifiorla put it. “You, dearest Cecilia, have had an accident, but have recovered and stand once more upon the solid ground. Take care, oh, take care, that you do not fall!” Cecilia did not remember that any chance of stumbling had come in Miss Altifiorla’s way; and was upon the whole disgusted by the constancy of her friend’s arguments. But still they did weigh, and drove her to ask herself whether, in truth, an unmarried life was not the safer for a woman. But the cause which operated the strongest with her was the silence which she had herself maintained. There was indeed no reason why she should not at once begin and tell her story. But in doing so it would appear that she had been induced to do it only by Mr. Western’s offer. And she cheated herself by some vague idea that she would be telling the secrets of another person. “Had it been for myself only,” she said to herself, “I would have done it long since. But that which made it improper then would make it still more improper now.” And so she held her peace and told Mr. Western nothing of the story.

He came to her the day after his offer and demanded her answer. But she was not as yet able to give it to him. She had in the meantime told her mother, and had received from her that ready, willing, quick assurance of her sanction which was sure to operate in a different way than that intended. Her mother was thinking only of her material interests,—of a comfortable house and a steady, well-to-do life’s companion. Of what more should she have thought? the reader will say. But Cecilia had still in her head undefined, vague notions of something which might be better than that,—of some companion who might be better than the companions which other girls generally choose for themselves. She dreamed of some one who should sit with her during the long mornings and read Dante to her,—when she should have taught herself to understand it; of some one with a hidden nobility of character which should be all but divine. Her invectives against matrimony had all come from a fear lest the man with the hidden nobility should not be forthcoming. She had tried, or had nearly tried, Sir Francis Geraldine, and had made one hideous mistake. Was or was not this Mr. Western a man with all such hidden nobility? If so she thought that she might love him.

She required a week, and gave her whole thoughts to the object. Should she or should she not abandon that mode of life to which she had certainly pledged herself? In the first days of the misery created by the Geraldine disruption she had declared that she would never more open her ears or her heart to matrimonial projects. The promise had only been made to Miss Altifiorla,—to Miss Altifiorla and to herself. At the present moment she did not greatly regard Miss Altifiorla;—but the promise made to herself and corroborated by her assurance to another, almost overcame her. And then there was that story which she could not now tell to Mr. Western. She could not say to him:—“Yes, I will accept you, but you must first hear my tale;” and then tell him the exact copy of his own to her. And yet it was necessary that he should know. The time must come,—some day. Alas! she did not remember that no day could be less painful,—less disagreeable than the present. If he did not like the story now he could tell her so, and have done with it. There could be no fault found with her. It had hitherto been free to her to tell it or not as she pleased. “I had not meant to have disclosed my secret, but now it is necessary.” Even had he fancied that she had “invented it” in part and made it like to his own, no harm,—no dangerous harm would come from that. He could but be angry and recede from his offer. But she found that she did not wish him to recede. Her objections to matrimony had all been cured. She told herself at the last moment that she was not able to undergo the absurdity of such a revelation,—and she accepted him.

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