Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 5.

Cecilia’s Second Chance.

It became at once necessary that Mr. Western should start off for London. That had been already explained. He would go, whether accepted or refused. When she had named a week, he had told her that he should only have just time to wait for her reply. She offered to be ready in five days, but he would not hurry her. During the week she had hardly seen him, but she was aware that he remained silent, moody, almost sullen. She was somewhat afraid of his temper;—but yet she had found him in other respects so open, so noble, so consistent! “It shall be so,” she said, putting her hand into his. Then his very nature seemed to have changed. It appeared as though nothing could restrain him in the expression of his satisfaction. Nothing could be more quietly joyous than his manner. He was to have left Rome by a mid-day train, but he would wait for a train at midnight in order that he might once dine with his own wife that was to be. “You will kill yourself with the fatigue,” Cecilia said. But he laughed at her. It was not so easy to kill him. Then he sat with her through the long morning, telling her of the doings of his past life, and his schemes for the life to come. He had a great book which he wanted to write,—as to which everybody might laugh at him but she must not laugh. He laughed at himself and his aspiration; but she promised all her sympathy, and she told him of their house at Exeter, and of her mother’s future loneliness. He would do anything for her within his power. Her mother should live with them if she wished it. And she spoke of the money which was to be her own, and told him of the offer which her mother had made as to giving up a portion of it. Of this he would have none. And he told her how it must be settled. And he behaved just as a lover should do,—taking upon himself to give directions, but giving all the directions just such as she would have them.

Then he went; and there came upon her a cold, chilling feeling that she had already been untrue to him. It was a feeling as to which she could not speak, even to her mother. But why had not her mother advised her and urged her to tell him everything? Her mother had said not a word to her about it. Why did her mother treat her as though she were one to be feared, and beyond the possibility of advice? But to her mother she said not a word on the subject. From the moment in which Mr. Western had first begun to pay her attention, the name of Sir Francis had never been mentioned between the mother and daughter. And now in all their intercourse Mrs. Holt spoke with an unclouded serenity of their future life. It was to her as though the Geraldine episode had been absolutely obliterated from the memory of them all. Mr. Western to her was everything. She would not accept his magnificent offer of a home, because she knew that an old woman in a man’s house could only be considered as in his way. She would divide her income, and give at any rate a third to her daughter. And she did bestow much advice as to the manner in which everything should be done so as to tend to his happiness. His tastes should be adopted, and his ways of life should be studied. His pursuits should be made her pursuits, and his friends her friends. All this was very well. Cecilia knew all that without any teaching from her mother. Her instincts told her as much as that. But what was she to do with this secret which loaded her bosom, but as to which she could not bring herself even to ask her mother’s advice?

Then she made up her mind that she would write to her lover and relate the whole story as to Sir Francis Geraldine. And she did write it; but she was alarmed at finding that the story, when told, extended itself over various sheets of paper. And the story would take the shape of a confession,—as though she were telling her lover of some passage in her life of which she had cause to be ashamed. She knew that there was no ground for shame. She had done nothing which she ought not to have done, nothing which she could not have acknowledged to him without a blush. When the letter was completed, she found it to be one which she could not send. It was as though she were telling him something, on reading which he would have to decide whether their engagement should or should not be continued. This was not at all her purpose. Thinking of it all with a view to his happiness, and to his honour, she did not wish him to suppose that there could be a doubt on that subject. It was clear to her that a letter so worded was not fit for the occasion, and she destroyed it. Still she was minded to write to him, but for the moment she postponed her purpose. Of course she wrote to her friends in Exeter. Were she to be silent to them it would appear as though she were ashamed of what she was now doing. She told Maude Hippesley,—or Mrs. Thorne as she was now called; and she told Mrs. Green, and also Miss Altifiorla. Immediate answers came from the three. Those from the two married ladies were in all respects satisfactory. That from Mrs. Thorne was quite enthusiastic in its praises of matrimony. That from Mrs. Green was a little less warm, but was still discreetly happy. She had no doubt in her own mind that a married life was preferable, and that Mr. Western, though perhaps a little old, was upon the whole a well-chosen and deserving consort for life. But the letter from Miss Altifiorla was very different from these, and as it had some effect perhaps in producing the circumstances which are to be told, it shall be given at length:—

My dear Cecilia,—I am of course expected to congratulate you, and as far as Mr. Western’s merits are concerned, I do so with my full heart. He is possessed, I have no doubt, of all those virtues which should adorn a husband, and is in all respects the very opposite to Sir Francis Geraldine. You give me to understand that he is steady, hard-working, and properly ambitious. In spite of the mistake which you made in reference to Sir Francis Geraldine, I will not doubt but that your judgment in respect to Mr. Western will be found correct. If it is to be I dare say it could not be better. But must it be?” “Of course it must,” said Cecilia to herself, feeling very angry with Miss Altifiorla for raising the question at such a time and in such a manner. “After all the sweet converse and sweeter resolutions that have passed between us on this matter, must all be abandoned like a breath of summer wind, meaning nothing?” Of what infinitely bad taste was not the woman guilty, in thus raising the question when the only final answer to it had been already given? Cecilia felt ashamed of herself as she thought of this, in that she had admitted the friendship of such a friend. “A breath of summer wind!” she said, repeating with scorn her friend’s somewhat high-flown words. “I cannot but say that, like Martha, you have chosen the worser part,” continued the letter. “The things of the world, which are in themselves but accidents, have been for a moment all in all to you; but knowing you as I do, I am aware how soon they will fade away, and have no more than their proper weight. Then you will wake some day, and feel that you have devoted yourself to the mending of his stockings and the feeding of his babies.” There was something in this which stirred Cecilia to absolute wrath. If there were babies would they not be her babies as well as his? Was it not the intention of the Lord that the world should be populated? The worser part, indeed! Then she took up the cudgels in her own mind on behalf of Martha, as she had often done before. How would the world get on unless there were Marthas? And was it not more than probable that a self-dubbed Mary should fall into idle ways under the pretence that she was filled with special inspiration? Looking at Miss Altifiorla as a Mary, she was somewhat in love with the Marthas.

“I do not doubt that Mr. Western is what he should be,” the letter went on, “but even judging him by your letter, I find that he is autocratic and self-opinioned. It is his future life and not yours of which he is thinking, his success and not yours, his doings and not your doings.” “How does she know?” exclaimed Cecilia. “She has only my account of him, and not his of me.” “And he is right in this,” went on the letter, “because the ways of the world allow such privileges to men. What would a man be unless he took the place which his personal strength has obtained for him? For women, in the general, of course matrimony is fit. They have to earn their bread, and think of little else. To be a man’s toy and then his slave, with due allowance for food and clothes, suffices for them. But I had dreamed a dream that it would not suffice for you. Alas, alas! I stand alone now in the expression of my creed. You must excuse me if I repine, when I find myself so cruelly deserted.”

All this Cecilia felt to be as absurd as it was ill-timed;—and to be redeemed, as it were, from its ill-nature by its ridiculous philosophy. But at last there came a paragraph which admitted of no such excuse. “What has Mr. Western said as to the story of Sir Francis Geraldine? Of course you have told him the whole, and I presume that he has pardoned that episode. In spite of the expression of feelings which I have been unable to control, you must believe, dear Cecilia, that I am as anxious as ever for your happiness, and am,

“Your most affectionate friend,

Francesca Altifiorla.”

Cecilia, when she had completed the reading of the letter, believed nothing of the kind. That last paragraph about Sir Francis had turned all her kindly feelings into wrath, and contained one word which she knew not how to endure. She was told that Mr. Western had “pardoned” the Geraldine episode in her life. She had done nothing for which pardon had been necessary. To merit pardon there must have been misconduct; and as this woman had known all her behaviour in that matter, what right had she to talk of pardon? In what had she deserved pardon;—or at any rate the pardon of Mr. Western? There had been a foolish engagement made between her and Sir Francis Geraldine, which had been most wisely dissolved. The sin, if sin there had been, was against Sir Francis, and certainly had never been considered as sin by this woman who now wrote to her. Was it a sin that she had loved before, a matter as to which Mr. Western was necessarily in ignorance when he first came to her? But might it not come to pass that his pardon should be required in that the story had never been told to him? It was the sting which came from that feeling which added fierceness to her wrath. “Of course you have told him the whole, and I presume that he has pardoned that episode!” She had not told Mr. Western the whole, and had thus created another episode for which his pardon might be required. It was this that the woman had intended to insinuate, understanding with her little sharpness, with her poor appreciation of character, how probable it was that Cecilia should not have told him of her previous engagement.

She sat thinking of it all that night till the matter assumed new difficulties in her mind’s eyesight. And she began to question to herself whether Mr. Western had a right to her secret,—whether the secret did not belong to two persons, and she was bound to keep it for the sake of the other person. She had committed a wrong, an injury, or at any rate had inflicted a deserved punishment upon Sir Francis; one as to which a man would naturally much dislike that it should be noised about the world. Was she not bound to keep her secret still a secret for his sake? She was angry with herself when she asked the question, but still she asked it. She knew that she owed nothing to Sir Francis Geraldine, and that she owed all to Mr. Western. But still she asked it, because in that way could she best strengthen herself against the telling of the story. The more she turned the matter in her mind, the more impossible to her became the task of telling it. At last she resolved that she would not tell it now. She would not tell it at any rate till she again saw him,—because Miss Altifiorla had told her that she “presumed he had pardoned her that episode.”

It was arranged that they should be married at Exeter in April. Their house there was not yet vacant, but would be lent to them for a fortnight. After the marriage Mrs. Holt would go into lodgings, and remain there till the house should be ready for her. But they were both to return to Exeter together, and then there would be bustle and confusion till the happy ceremony should have been performed. It was arranged that she should have but two bridesmaids, but she was determined that she would not ask Miss Altifiorla to be one of them. A younger sister of Mrs. Green and a younger sister also of Maude Hippesley were chosen. Miss Altifiorla, when she came to see Cecilia on her return, expressed herself as quite satisfied. “It is best so, dear,” she said. “I was afraid that you would ask me. Of course I should have done it, but my heart would not have been there. You can understand it all, I know.” Cecilia’s wrath had become mitigated by this time, and she answered her friend civilly. “Just so. You think I ought to be an old maid, and therefore do not like to lend a hand at turning me into a young wife. I have got two girls who have no objection on that score.” “You might find a hundred in Exeter,” said Miss Altifiorla proudly, “and yet I may be right in my opinions.”

Mr. Western was to come down to Exeter only on the day before the marriage. The Holts had seen him as they came through London where they slept one night, but as yet the story had not been told. Cecilia expected, almost wished, that the story might reach him from other quarters. It was so natural now that he should talk about the girl whom he intended to marry, and so natural,—as Cecilia thought,—that in doing so he should hear the name of Sir Francis Geraldine. Sir Francis was a man well known to the world of fashion, and many men must have heard of his intended marriage. Cecilia, though she almost hoped, almost feared that it should be so. The figure of Mr. Western asking with an angry voice why he had not been told did alarm her. But he asked no such question, nor, as far as Cecilia knew, had he heard anything of Sir Francis when the Holts passed through London.

Nor did he seem to have heard it when he came down to Exeter. At any rate he did not say a word respecting Sir Francis. He spent the last evening with the Holts in their own house, and Cecilia felt that he had never before made himself so happy with her, so pleasant, and so joyous. It had been the same during their long walk together in the afternoon. He was so full of affairs which were his own, which were so soon to become her own, that there was not a moment for her in which she could tell the story. There are stories for the telling of which a peculiar atmosphere is required, and this was one of them. She could not interrupt him in the middle of his discourse and say:—“Oh, by-the-bye,—there is something that I have got to say to you.” To tell the story she must tune her mind to the purpose. She must begin it in a proper tone, and be sure that he would be ready to hearken to it as it should be heard. She felt that the telling would be specially difficult in that it had been put off so long. But though she had made up her mind to tell it before she had started on her walk, the desirable moment never came. So she again put it off, saying that it should be done late at night when her mother had gone to her bed. The time came when he was alone with her, sitting with his arm around her waist, telling her of all the things she should do for him to make his life blessed;—and how he too would endeavour to do some little things for her in order that her life might be happy. She would not tell it then. Though little might come of it, she could not do it. And yet from day to day the feeling had grown upon her that it was certainly her duty to let him know that one accident in her life. There was no disgrace in it, no cause for anger on his part, nor even for displeasure if it had only been told him at Rome. He could then have taken her, or left her as he pleased. Of course he would have taken her, and the only trouble of her life would have been spared her. What possible reason could there have been that he should not take her? It was not any reason of that kind which had kept her silent. Of that she was quite confident. Indeed now she could not explain to herself why she had held her peace. It seemed to her as though she must have been mad to have let day after day go by at Rome and never to have mentioned to him the name of Sir Francis Geraldine. But such, alas! had been the fact. And now the time had come in which she found it to be impossible to tell the story. As she went for the last time to her solitary bed she endeavoured to console herself by thinking that he must have heard of it from other quarters. But then again she declared that he in his nobility would certainly not have been silent. He would have questioned her and then have told her that all was right between them. But now as she tossed unhappily on her pillow she told herself that all was wrong.

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