Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 7.

Miss Altifiorla’s Arrival.

Yes;—Sir Francis Geraldine was a beast for mischief! Thinking the matter over, he resolved that Mr. Western should not be left in the dark as to his wife’s episode. And he determined that Mr. Western would think more of the matter if it were represented to him that his wife had been jilted, and had been jilted unmistakably before they two had met each other on the Continent. He was right in this. According to the usages of the world the lady would have less to say for herself if that were the case and would have more difficulty in saying it. Therefore the husband would be the more bound to hear it. Sir Francis was a beast for mischief, but he knew what he was about.

But so did not Mrs. Western when she allowed those opportunities to pass by her which came to her for telling her story before her marriage. In very truth she had had no reason for concealing it but that his story had been so nearly the same. On this account she had put it off, and put it off,—and then the fitting time had passed by. When she was with him alone after their marriage she could not do it,—without confessing her fault in that she had not done it before. She could not bring herself to do so. Standing so high in his esteem as she did, and conscious that he was thoroughly happy in his appreciation of her feminine merit, she could not make him miserable by descending from her pedestal to the telling of a story, which was disgraceful in that it had not been told before.

And there was a peculiarity of manner in him of which she became day by day more conscious. He could be very generous for good conduct to those dependent on him, but seemed to be one who could with difficulty forgive an injury. He wished to have everything about him perfect, and then life should go as soft as a summer’s day. He was almost idolatrous to her in these first days of their marriage, but then he had found nothing out. Cecilia knowing his character asked herself after all what there was to be found out. How often that question must occur to the girl just married. But there was nothing. He was pleased with her person; pleased with her wit; pleased that money should have been offered to him, and pleased that for the present he should have declined it. He liked her dress and her willingness to change any portion of it at his slightest hint. He liked her activity and power of walking, and her general adaptability to himself. He was pleased with everything. But she had the secret at her heart.

“I wonder that you should have lived so long, and never have been in love before,” he said to her one day as they were coming home.

“How do you know?” She blushed as she answered him, but it was a matter as to which any girl might blush.

“I am sure you were not. I should have heard it.” And yet she was silent. She felt at the moment that the time had come,—the only possible time. But she let the moment pass by. Though she was ever thinking of her secret, and ever wishing that she could tell it, longing that it had been told, she could not bear that it should be surprised from her in this way. “I think it nicer as it is,” he added as he left the room.

Then she got up and stood alone on the floor, thinking of it all. There she stood for ten minutes thinking of it. She would follow him and, not throwing herself on her knees—but standing boldly before him, tell him all. There was no disgrace in it,—to have loved that other man. Of her own conduct she was confident before all the world. There had been so little secrecy about it that she almost had a right to suppose that it had been known to all men. The more she tried to bring herself to follow him and tell him, the more she assured herself that there should be no necessity. How ought she to have told him, and when? At every point of his story should she have made known to him the same point in hers? “It was exactly the same with me.” “I wouldn’t have my young man because he was indifferent.” “With yours there was another lover ready. That has yet to come with me.” “You have come abroad for consolation. So have I.” It would have been impossible;—was impossible. “I think it nicer as it is,” he had said, and she could not do it.

There was some security while they were travelling, and she wished that they might travel for ever. She was happy while with him alone; and so too was he. But for her secret she was completely happy. Let him only be kept in the dark and he would be happy always. She idolised him as her own. She loved him the better for thinking that “it was nicer as it is;"—or would have done, had it been so. Why should they go where some sudden tidings might mar his joy;—where some sudden tidings certainly would do so sooner or later? Still they went on and on till in May they reached his house in Berkshire,—he with infinite joy at his heart, and she with the load upon hers.

Early in May they reached Durton Lodge, in Berkshire, and there they stayed during the summer. Mr. Western had his house in London, and there was a question whether they would not go there for the season. But Cecilia had begged to be taken to her house in the country, and there she remained. Durton Lodge was little more than a cottage, but it was very pretty and prettily situated. When the Ascot week came he offered to take her there, but offered it with a smile which she understood to mean that his proposal should not be accepted. Indeed she had no wish for Ascot or for any place in which he or she must meet their old friends. Might it not be possible if they both could be happy at Durton that there they might remain with some minimum of intercourse with the world? Six months had now passed by since they had become engaged and no good-natured friend had as yet told him the truth. Might it not be possible that the same silence should be as yet preserved? If years could be made to run on then he would have become used to her, and the telling of the secret would not be so severe.

But there came to her a great trouble in regard to her letters from Exeter. Miss Altifiorla would fill hers with long statements about Sir Francis which had no interest whatsoever, but which required to be at once destroyed. She soon learnt in her married life that her husband had no wish to see her letters. She would so willingly have shown them to him, would have taken such a joy in asking for his sympathy, such a delight in exposing Miss Altifiorla’s peculiar views of life, that she lost much by her constrained reticence. But this necessity of destroying papers was very grievous to her. Though she knew that he would not read the letters without her permission, still she must destroy them. In every possible way she endeavoured to silence her correspondent, not answering her at first; and then giving her such answers as were certainly not affectionate. But in no way would Miss Altifiorla be “snubbed.” Then after a while she proposed to come and stay a week at Durton Lodge. This was not to be endured. The very thought of it filled poor Mrs. Western’s heart with despair. And yet she did not like to refuse without telling her husband. Of Miss Altifiorla she had already made mention, and Mr. Western had been taught to laugh at the peculiarities of the old maid. “Pray do not have her,” she said to him. “She will make you very uncomfortable, and my life will be a burden to me.”

“But what can you say to her?”

“No room,” suggested Cecilia.

“But there are two rooms.”

“I know there are. But is one to be driven by a strict regard for literal truth to entertain an unwelcome friend? Miss Altifiorla thought that I ought not to have married you, and as I thought I ought we had some words about it.”

“Whom did she want you to marry?” asked Mr. Western with a laugh.

“Nobody. She is averse to marriage altogether.”

“Unless she was the advocate of some other suitor, I do not see that I need quarrel with her. But she is your friend and not mine, and if you choose to put her off of course you can do so. I would advise you to find something more probable than the want of a bedroom in a house in which one is only occupied.”

There was truth in this. What reason could she find? Knowing her husband’s regard to truth she did not dare to suggest any reason to her friend more plausible than the want of a room, but still essentially false. She was driven about thinking that she would get her husband to take her away from home for awhile—for two or three days. The letter remained unanswered, when her husband suggested to her that she had better write. “Could we not go somewhere?” she replied with a look of trouble on her brow.

“Run away from home on account of Miss Altifiorla?” said he. She was beginning to be afraid of him and knew that it was so. She did not dare to declare to him her thoughts and was afraid at every moment that he should read them.

“Then I must just tell her that we can’t have her.”

“That will be best,—if you have made up your mind. As far as I am concerned she is welcome. Any friend of yours would be welcome.”

“Oh, George, she would bore you out of your life!”

“I am not so easily bored. I am sure that any intimate friend of yours would have something to say for herself.”

“Oh, plenty.”

“And as for her having been an advocate for single life, she had not seen me and therefore her reasons could not have been personal. There are a great many young women, thirty years old and upwards, who take up the idea. They do not wish to subject themselves,—perhaps because they have not been asked by the right person.”

“I don’t think there have been any persons here. Not that she is bad looking.”

“Perhaps you think I shall fall in love with her.”

“I’d have her directly. But she is the last person in the world I should think of.”

“I can get on very well with anyone who has an idea. There is at any rate something to strike at. The young lady who agrees with everything and suggests nothing, is to me the most intolerable. At any rate you had better make up your mind at once or you’ll have her here before you know where you are.”

It was this which did, indeed, happen. On the day after the last conversation Mrs. Western wrote her letter. In it she expressed her sorrow that engagements for the present prevented her from having the power to entertain her friend. No doubt the letter was cold and unfriendly. As she read it over to herself she declared that she would have been much hurt to have received such a letter from her friend. But she declared again that under no circumstances could she have offered herself as Miss Altifiorla had done. Nevertheless she felt ashamed of the letter. All of which, however, became quite unnecessary, when, in the course of the afternoon, Miss Altifiorla appeared at Durton Lodge. She arrived with a torrent of reasons. She had come up to London on business which admitted of no excuse. She was sure that her friend’s letter must have gone astray,—that letter which for the last three days she had been expecting. To return from London to Exeter without seeing her dear friend would be so unfeeling and unnatural! She must have come to Durton Lodge or must have returned to Exeter. In fact, she so put it as to make it appear impossible that she should not have come.

“My dear Miss Altifiorla,” said Mr. Western, “I am sure that Cecilia is delighted to see you. And as for me, you are quite welcome.” But, as a fact, there she was. There was no sending her away again;—no getting her out of the house without a sojourn of some days. Whatever mischief she might do might be done at once. There could be no doubt that she would begin to talk of Sir Francis Geraldine and declare the secret which it was now the one care of Cecilia’s mind to keep away from her husband. It mattered not that her presence there showed her to be vulgar, impertinent, and obtrusive. There she was, and must be dealt with as a friend, or as an enemy. Again Cecilia almost made up her mind as to the better course. Let her go to her husband and tell him all, and tell him also why it was that she told him now. Let her endure his anger, and then there would be an end of it. There was nothing else as to which she had need to dread him.

But again, when she found herself with him, he was happy, and jocund, and jested with her about her friend. She could not get him into the humour in which it was proper that he should be told. She did not tell him, and went down to dinner with the terrible load about her heart. Three or four times during the evening the conversation was on the point of turning to matters in which the name of Sir Francis Geraldine would surely be mentioned. With infinite care, but without showing her care, she contrived to master the subject, and to force her friend and her husband to talk of other things. But the struggle was very great, and she was aware that it could not be repeated. The reader will remember, perhaps, the stern thoughts which Miss Holt had entertained as to her friend when her friend had thought proper to give her some idea of what her duty ought to be in regard to her present husband. She remembered well that Miss Altifiorla had written to her, asking whether Mr. Western had forgiven “that episode.” And her mother, too, had in writing dropped some word,—some word intended to be only half intelligible as to the question which Miss Altifiorla had asked after the wedding breakfast. She knew well what had been in the woman’s mind, and knew also what had been in her own! She remembered how proudly she had disdained the advice of this woman when it had been given to her. And yet now she must go to her and ask for mercy. She saw no other way out of her immediate trouble. She did not believe but that her friend would be silent when told to be silent; but yet how painfully disgraceful to her, the bride, would be the telling.

She went up to Miss Altifiorla’s room after she had gone for the night, and found her friend getting into bed, happy with the assistance of a strange maid. “Oh, my dear,” said Miss Altifiorla, “my hair is not half done yet; are you in a hurry for Mary?”

“I will go to my own room,” said Mrs. Western, “and when Mary will tell me that you are ready I will come to you. There is something I have to tell you.” She had not been five minutes in her own room before Mary summoned her. The “something to be told” took immediate hold of Miss Altifiorla’s imagination, and induced her to be ready for bed with her hair, we may suppose, “half done.”

“Francesca,” said Mrs. Western, as soon as she entered the room, “I have a favour to ask you.”

“A favour?”

“Yes, a favour.” She had come prepared with her request down to the very words in which it should be uttered. “I do not wish you, while you remain here, to make any allusion to Sir Francis Geraldine.” Miss Altifiorla almost whistled as she heard the words spoken. “You understand me, do you not? I do not wish any word to be said which may by chance lead to the mention of Sir Francis Geraldine’s name. If you will understand that, you will be able to comply with my wishes.” Her request she made almost in the stern words of an absolute order. There was nothing humble in her demeanour, nothing which seemed to tell of a suppliant. And having given her command she remained quiet, waiting for an answer.

“Then this was the reason why you didn’t answer me. You did not want to see me, and therefore remained silent.”

“I did not want to see you. But it was not on that account that I remained silent. I should have written to you. Indeed I have written to you, and the letter would have gone to-day. I wrote to you putting you off. But as you are here I have to tell you my wishes. I am sure that you will do as I would have you.”

“I have to think of my duty,” said Miss Altifiorla.

Then there came a black frown on Mrs. Western’s brow. Duty! What duty could she have in such a matter, except to her? She suspected the woman of a desire to make mischief. She felt confident that the woman would do so unless repressed by the extraction from her of a promise to the contrary. She did believe that the woman would keep her word,—that she would feel herself bound to preserve herself from the accusation of direct falsehood; but from her good feeling, from her kindness, from her affection, from that feminine bond which ought to have made her silent, she expected nothing. “Your duty, Francesca, in this matter is to me,” said Mrs. Western, assuming a wonderful severity of manner. “You have known me many years and are bound to me by many ties. I tell you what my wishes are. I cannot quite explain my reasons, but I do not doubt that you will guess them.”

“You have kept the secret?” said Miss Altifiorla with a devilish mixture of malice, fun, and cunning.

“It does not matter what I have done. There are reasons, which made me wish to avoid your immediate coming. At the present moment it would interfere gravely with his happiness and with mine were he to learn the circumstances of Sir Francis Geraldine’s courtship. Of course it is painful to me to have to say this to you. It is so painful that to avoid it I have absolutely written to you telling you not to come. This I have done not to avoid your coming, which would otherwise have been a pleasure to me, but to save myself from this great pain. Now you know it all, and know also what it is that I expect from you.”

Miss Altifiorla listened to this in silence. She was seated in an easy bedroom chair, clothed from head to foot in a pale pink dressing-gown, from which the colour was nearly washed out; and her hair as I have said was “half done.” But in her trouble to collect her thoughts she became quite unaware of all accessories. Her dear friend Cecilia had put the matter to her so strongly that she did not quite dare to refuse. But yet what a fund of gratification might there not be in telling such a story under such circumstances to the husband! She sat silent for a while meditating on it, till Mrs. Western roughly forced a reply from her lips. “I desire to have your promise,” said Mrs. Western.

“Oh, yes, of course.”

“You will carefully avoid all allusion to the subject.”

“Since you wish it, I will do so.”

“That is sufficient. And now good-night.”

“I know that I am doing wrong,” said Miss Altifiorla.

“You would indeed be doing wrong,” said Mrs. Western, “if you were to take upon yourself to destroy my happiness on such a matter after having been duly warned.”

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