Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 8.

Lady Grant.

It is literally true that the tongue will itch with a desire to tell a secret. Miss Altifiorla’s tongue did itch. But upon the whole she endured her suffering, and kept her promise. She did not say a word in Mr. Western’s hearing which led to Sir Francis Geraldine as a topic of conversation. But in reward for this she exacted from Mrs. Western an undertaking to keep her at Durton Lodge for a fortnight. The bargain was not exactly struck in those words, but it was so made that Mrs. Western understood how great was the price she paid, and how valuable the article she received in return. “A fortnight!” Mr. Western said, when his wife told him of the promise she had made. “I thought that three days would have been too much for you.”

“Three hours are too much,—as interrupting our happiness. But as she is here, and as we have been very intimate for many years, and as she herself has named the time, I have not liked to contradict her.”

“So be it. She will interfere much more with you than with me, and I suppose that the coming will not be frequently repeated.”

Two days after this another guest proposed to visit them. But this was only for two nights, and her coming had in fact been expected from a period before the marriage. Lady Grant was Mr. Western’s younger sister, and the person of whom in all the world he seemed to think the most. Indeed he had assured his wife that next to herself she was the nearest and the dearest to him. She was a widow, and went but little into society. According to his account she was clever, agreeable, and beautiful. She lived altogether in Scotland, where her time was devoted to her children, and was now coming up to England chiefly with the purpose of seeing her brother’s wife. She was to be at Durton Lodge now only for a couple of nights, and then to return and remain with the understood purpose of taking them with her back to Scotland. Of Lady Grant Cecilia had become much afraid, as thinking it more than probable that her secret might be known. But it had seemed that as yet Lady Grant knew nothing of it. She corresponded frequently with her brother, and, as far as Cecilia could tell, the subject had not yet been mentioned between them. Could it be possible that all this time the secret was known to her husband and to her husband’s sister? If so his silence to her was almost cruel.

Up to the morning of her coming Miss Altifiorla had certainly kept her promise. She had kept her promise though there had been twenty little openings as to which it would have been so easy for her to lead the way to the matter as to which her tongue longed to be speaking. When any mention was made of baronets either married or unmarried, of former lovers, of broken vows, or of second engagements, Miss Altifiorla would look with a meaning glance at her hostess. But of these glances Cecilia would apparently take no heed. She had soon got to know that Miss Altifiorla’s promise would be kept unless she were led by some other person into an indirect breach of it. Cecilia’s life during the period was one of great agony. But still she endured it without allowing her husband to perceive that it was so.

Now, on the coming of Lady Grant, what steps should she take? Should she ask her friend to be silent also to this second person or should she presume the promise to be so extended? She could not bring herself to make a second request. The task of doing so was too ponderous. Miss Altifiorla’s manner of receiving the request made it such a burden that she could not submit herself to it. The woman looked at her and spoke to her in a manner which she was obliged to endure without seeming to endure aught that was unnatural. She looked back to her own struggles during that evening in the bedroom, and could see the woman as she sat struggling, in her pale pink dressing-gown, to escape from the necessity of promising. She could not have another such scene as that. But she thought that perhaps with one added word the promise might be made to suffice.

When they were alone together Miss Altifiorla would constantly refer to the Geraldine affair. This was to be expected and to be endured. There would come an end to the fortnight and the woman would be gone. “Do you think that Lady Grant knows?” she said, in the whisper that had become usual to her on such occasions.

“I am sure she knows nothing about it,” said Cecilia.

“How can you be sure? You do not know her and have never seen her. It will be very odd if she has not heard.”

“At any rate nothing need be said to her in this house. No hint need be made to her either by you or me.”

“I think she must have heard it. I happen to know that she has a great correspondence. Laws! when you think of who Sir Francis is and of the manner in which he lives, it is almost impossible to conceive that a person should not have heard of it.”

“We need not tell her.”

“You are quite safe with me. I have given you my word, and that ought to be enough. Nobody could have been more studious to avoid the matter;—though, indeed, it has sometimes been difficult. And then there has been my feeling of doubt whether my duty ought not to make me divulge it.” There was something in this which was peculiarly painful to Cecilia. The duty of this woman to her husband, to him whom she loved so truly, to him with whom it was in the very core of her heart to have everything in common! Francesca Altifiorla to speak of her duty to him! But even this had to be borne. “Indeed, I feel every day that I am staying here that I am sacrificing duty to friendship.” Oh, into what trouble had she fallen without any sin of her own,—as she told herself;—without, at least, any great sin! When was the moment at which she ought to have told the story? She thought that she could remember the exact moment; when he had come back to her for her answer at the end of that week. And then she had not told him, simply from her dislike to repeat back to him the story which she had heard from himself!

Lady Grant came, and nothing could be sweeter or more gracious than the meeting. Miss Altifiorla was not there, and the two ladies, in the presence of the husband and brother, received each other with that quick intimacy and immediate loving friendship which it is given only to women to entertain. Lady Grant was ten years the senior and a widow, and had that air of living through the evening of her life instead of still enjoying the morning, which is peculiar to widows who have loved their husbands. She was very lovely, even in her mitigated widow’s weeds, with a tall figure, and pale oval face, rather thin, but not meagre or attenuated. And Cecilia thought that she saw in her a determination to love her,—and she on her side at once determined that she would return Lady Grant’s affection. But not for that reason was her secret to be known. She looked on Lady Grant as one whom she would so willingly have made her friend in all things, but still as one whom, as to that single matter, she could not but regard as her enemy.

They sat together for a couple of hours before dinner, and then at night there was another sitting from which Miss Altifiorla was again banished. And there were some joking questions asked and answers given as to Miss Altifiorla’s presence. There was a something in the manner and gait of Lady Grant which made Cecilia almost ashamed of her Exeter friend. It was not that Miss Altifiorla was ignorant, or unladylike, or ill-dressed; but that she knew her friend too well. Miss Altifiorla was little and mean, whereas Cecilia was ready to accept her sister-in-law as great and noble. Miss Altifiorla was not therefore spoken of in the highest terms, and the mode of her coming to Durton Lodge without an invitation was subjected to some little ridicule.

But Mrs. Western when she went to her room was comforted at any rate in thinking that Lady Grant did not know her secret. How poor must have been her state of comfort may be judged from the fact that this could add to it. On the following morning they met at breakfast, and all went well. But Lady Grant could not but notice that the young lady from Devonshire seemed to exercise an authority incommensurate with the tone in which she had been described. The day passed by happily enough, and Cecilia was strong in hope that Lady Grant might take her departure without a reference to her one subject of sorrow.

That night, however, her comfort, such as it was, was brought to an end. As they were sitting together in Lady Grant’s bedroom Cecilia’s ears were suddenly wounded by the mention of the name of Sir Francis Geraldine. In her immediate agony she could hardly tell how it occurred, but she was rapidly asked a question as to her former engagement. In the asking of it there was nothing rough, nothing unkind, nothing intended to wound, nothing to show a feeling that it should not be so;—but the question had been asked. There was the fact that Lady Grant knew the whole story.

But there was the fact also that her husband did not know it, or else that other fact which she would have given the world to know to be a fact,—that he knew it, and had willingly held his peace respecting it, even to his sister. If that could be so, then she could be happy; if that could be so,—if she could know that it was so, then could she afford to despise Miss Altifiorla and her tyranny. But though the word had been not yet a moment uttered, she could not at first remember how it had been said. There was simply the knowledge that the name of Sir Francis Geraldine had been used, and that it had been declared that she had been engaged to him. Up to this moment she had been very brave, and very powerful, too, over herself. Up to this she had never betrayed herself. But now her courage gave way, the colour came to her cheeks and forehead and neck, and then passed rapidly away,—and she betrayed herself. “Does not he know it?” asked Lady Grant. As she said the words she put out her hand and pressed Cecilia’s in her own; and the tone of her voice was loving, and friendly, and sisterly. Though there was reproach in it, it was not half so bitter as that which Cecilia was constantly addressing to herself. The reproach was in her ears and not in Lady Grant’s voice. But the words were repeated before Cecilia could answer them. “Does not he know it?”

All her hope was thus abolished. Almost from the moment of Lady Grant’s coming into the house she had taught herself to think that he must know it. It was impossible that the two should be ignorant, and impossible also as she thought that the sister should know it and that he should not. But all that was now at an end. It was necessary that she should answer her sister’s question, and yet so difficult to find words in which to do so. She attempted to speak but the word would not come. Even the one word, “No,” would not form itself on her lips. She fell upon her knees and, burying her face in Lady Grant’s lap, thus told her secret.

“He has never heard of it?” again asked Lady Grant. “Oh, my dear. That should not have been so;—must not be so.”

“If I could tell you! If I could tell you!”

“Tell me what? I am sure there is nothing for you to tell which you need blush to speak.”

“No, no. Nothing, nothing.”

“Then why should he not know? Why should he not have known? Cecilia, you will tell him to-night before he goes to his rest?”

“No,—no. Not to-night. It is impossible. I must wait till that woman has gone.”

“Miss Altifiorla knows it?”

“Oh, yes!”

“She knows, too, that he does not know it?” This question Cecilia answered only by some sign. “I fancied that it might be so. I thought that there was something between you which had been kept from him. Why, why have you been,—shall I say so foolish?”

“Yes. Yes. Yes; foolish;—oh, yes! But it has been only that. There is nothing, nothing that is not known to all the world. The marvel is that he should not have known it. It was in all the newspapers. But he never thinks of trifles such as that.”

“But why did you keep it from him?”

“Shall I tell you? You know the story of his own engagement.”

“To Miss Tremenhere? Oh, yes, I know the story.”

“And how badly she behaved to him, receiving the attention of another man, absolutely while she was engaged to him.”

“She was very pretty;—but a flighty, inconstant little girl. I felt that George had had a great escape.”

“But such was the story. Well;—he told it me. He told it before he had thought of me. We were together and had become intimate; and out of the full heart the mouth speaks.”

“I can understand that he should have told it you.”

“He did not think of loving me then. Well;—he told me his story, but I kept mine to myself.”

“That was natural,—then.”

“But, when he came to me with the other story and asked me to love him, was I to give him back his own tale and tell him the same thing of myself? I too have had a lover, and I have—jilted him, if you please to call it so. Was I to tell him that?”

“It would hardly have been true, I think.”

“It would have been true,—true to the letter,” said Cecilia, determined that Sir Francis Geraldine’s lie should not prevail at this moment. “I had done to Sir Francis just what the girl had done to your brother. I was guided by other motives and had, I think, behaved properly. Was I to tell it to him then?”

“Why not?”

“His own story, back again? I could not do it, and then, after that, from time to time the occasions have gone by. Words have been said by him which have made it impossible. Twenty times I have determined to do it, and twenty times the opportunity has been lost. I was obliged to tell this woman not to mention it in his presence.”

“He must know it.”

“I wish he did.”

“He is a man who will not bear to be kept in the dark on such a question.”

“I know it. I have read his character and I know it.”

“You cannot know him as I do,” said Lady Grant. “Though you are his wife you have not been so long enough to know him; how true he is, how affectionate, how honest; but yet how jealous! Were I to say that he is unforgiving I should belie him. Without many thoughts he could forgive the man who had robbed him of his fortune, or his health. But it is hard for him to forgive that which he considers to be an offence against his self-love.”

“I know it all.”

“The longer he is kept in the dark the deeper will be the wound. Of such a man it is impossible to say what he suspects. He will not think that you have loved him the less or that you are less true to him; but there will be something that will rankle, and which he will not endeavour to define. He is the noblest man on earth, and the most generous—till he be offended. But then he is the most bitter.”

“You describe his character just as I have read it.”

“If it be so you must be careful that he learn this from yourself, and not from others. If it come from you he will be angry, that it has come so late. But his anger will pass by and he will forgive you. But if he hears it from the world at large, if it be told of you, and not by you, then I can understand, that his wrath should be very great.”

“Why has he not heard it already?” asked Mrs. Western after a pause. “Why has he not been like all the world who have read it in the newspapers? It was talked of so much, that it was hardly necessary that I should tell it myself.”

“You yourself have said that he does not think of trifles. Paragraphs about the loves and marriages of other people he would never read. You may be sure at any rate of this,—that your engagement with Sir Francis Geraldine he has never read.”

“I have sometimes hoped,” said Mrs. Western, “that he knew it all.” Lady Grant shook her head. “I have sometimes thought that he knew it all, and regarded it as a matter on which nothing need be said between us. Should I have been angry with him had he not told me of Miss Tremenhere?”

“Do you measure the one thing by the other,” said Lady Grant; “a man’s desires by a woman’s, a man’s sense of honour by what a woman is supposed to feel? Though a man keep such secrets deep in his bosom through long years of married life, the woman is not supposed to be injured. She may know, or may not know, and may hear the tale at any period of her married life, and no harm will follow. But a man expects to see every thought in the breast of the woman to whose love be trusts, as though it were all written there for him in the clear light, but written in letters which no one else shall read.”

“I have nothing that he may not read,” said Mrs. Western.

“But there is something that he has not read, something that he has not been invited to read. Let it not remain so. Tell it to him all even though you may have to support his anger, and for a time to pine in the shadow of his displeasure.”

Mrs. Western as she went away to her own room felt some relief at any rate in the conviction that with Lady Grant her secret would be safe. Strong as was the bond which bound her to her brother, there would be on her tongue no itching desire to tell the secret simply because it was there to be told. She had not threatened, or spoken of her duty, or boasted of her friendship, but had simply given her advice in the strongest language which it was within her power to use. On the next morning she took her leave, and started on her journey without showing even by a glance that she was possessed of any secret.

“Does she know?” asked Miss Altifiorla as soon as the two were in the drawing-room together, using a kind of whisper which had now become habitual to her.

It may almost be said that Mrs. Western had come to hate her friend. She looked forward to the time of her going as a liberation from misery. Miss Altifiorla’s intrusion at Durton Lodge was altogether unpalatable to her. She certainly no longer loved her friend, and knew well that her friend knew that it was so. But still she could not risk the open enmity of one who knew her secret. And she was bound to answer the question that was asked her. “Yes, she does know it.”

“And what does she say?”

“It matters not what she says. My request to you is that you should not speak of it.”

“But to yourself!”

“No, not to myself or to any other person here.” Then she was silent; and Miss Altifiorla, pursing up her lips, bethought herself whether the demands made upon her friendship were not too heavy. But there still remained five days of the visit.

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