Kept in the Dark, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 9.

Miss Altifiorla’s Departure.

The fortnight was nearly gone, and Miss Altifiorla was to start early on the following morning. Cecilia had resolved that she would tell her story to her husband as soon as they were alone together, and make a clean breast. She would tell him everything down as far as she could, to the little feelings which had prevented her from speaking before, to Miss Altifiorla’s abominable interference, and to Lady Grant’s kind advice. She would do this as soon as Miss Altifiorla was out of the house. But she could not quite bring herself to determine on the words she would use. She was resolved, however, that in owning her fault she would endeavour to disarm his wrath by special tenderness. If he were tender;—oh, yes, then she would be tender in return. If he took it kindly then she would worship him. All the agony she endured should be explained to him. Of her own folly, she would speak very severely,—if he treated it lightly. But she would do nothing to seem to deprecate his wrath. As to all this she was resolved. But she had not yet settled on the words with which she would commence her narrative.

The last day wore itself away very tediously. Miss Altifiorla was in her manner more objectionable than ever. Mr. Western had evidently disliked her though he had hardly said so. During the days he had left the two women much together, and had remained in his study or had wandered forth alone. In this way he had increased his wife’s feeling of anger against her visitor, and had made her look forward to her departure with increasing impatience. But an event happened which had at once disturbed all her plans. She was sitting in the drawing-room with Miss Altifiorla at about five in the evening, discussing in a most disagreeable manner the secrecy of her first engagement. That is to say, Miss Altifiorla was persisting in the discussion, whereas Mrs. Western was positively refusing to make it a subject of conversation. “I think you are demanding too much from me,” said Miss Altifiorla. “I have given way, I am afraid wrongly as to your husband. But I should not do my duty by you were I not to insist on giving you my advice with my last breath. Let me tell it. I shall know how to break the subject to him in a becoming manner.” At this moment the door was opened and the servant announced Sir Francis Geraldine.

The disturbance of the two women was complete. Had the dead ancestor of either of them been ushered in they could not have received him with more trepidation. Miss Altifiorla rose with a look of awe, Mrs. Western with a feeling of anger that was almost dominated by fear. But neither of them for a moment spoke a word, nor gave any sign of making welcome the new guest. “As I am living so close to you,” said the baronet, putting on that smile which Mrs. Western remembered so well, “I thought that I was in honour bound to come and renew our acquaintance.”

Mrs. Western was utterly unable to speak. “I don’t think that we knew that you were living in the neighbourhood,” said Miss Altifiorla.

“Oh, yes; I have the prettiest, funniest, smallest little cottage in the world just about two miles off. The Criterion it is called.”

“What a very odd name!” said Miss Altifiorla.

“Yes, it is rather odd. I won the race once and bought the place with the money. The horse was called Scratch’em, and I couldn’t call my house Scratch’em. I have built a second cottage, so that it is not so very small, and as it is only two miles off I hope that you and Mrs. Western will come and see it.”

This was addressed exclusively to Cecilia, and made an answer of some kind absolutely necessary. “I fear that we are going to Scotland very shortly,” she said; “and my husband is not much in the habit of visiting.”

This was uncivil enough, but Sir Francis did not take it amiss. He sat there for twenty minutes, and even made allusion to their former intimacy at Exeter.

“I am quite well aware how happily all that has ended,” he said;—“at any rate on your side of the question. You have done very well and very wisely. And I,”—he laughed as he said this,—“have succeeded in getting over it better than might have been expected. At any rate I hope that there will be no ill-will. I shall do myself the honour of asking you and Mr. Western to come and dine with me at the Criterion. It is the little place that Lord Tomahawk had last year.” Then he departed without another word from Cecilia Western.

“Now he must be told,” whispered Miss Altifiorla the moment the door was closed. “My dear, if you will think of it all round you will perceive that this can be done by no one so well as by myself. I will go to Mr. Western the moment he comes in, and get through it all in half an hour.”

“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Mrs. Western.

“Let me pray you. Let me implore you. Let me beseech you.”

“You will do nothing of the kind. I will admit of no interference in the matter.”

“Interference! You cannot call it interference.”

“I will not have you to speak to my husband on the subject.”

“But what will you do?”

“Whatever I do shall be done by myself alone.”

“But you must tell him instantly. You cannot allow this man to come and call and yet say nothing about it. And he would not have called without some previous acquaintance. This you will have to describe, and if you say that you merely knew him at Exeter, there will be in that case an additional fib.” The use of such words applied to herself by this woman was intolerable. But she could only answer them by an involuntary frown upon her brow. “And then,” continued Miss Altifiorla, “of course he will refer to me. He will conclude that as you knew Sir Francis at Exeter I must have known him. I cannot tell a fib.”

She could not tell a fib! And that was uttered in such a way as to declare that Mrs. Western had been fibbing. I cannot tell a fib! “You will leave me at any rate to mind my own business,” said Cecilia in an indignant tone as she left the room.

But Mr. Western was at the hall door, and the coming of Sir Francis had to be explained at once. That could not be left to be told when Miss Altifiorla should have gone,—not even though she were going to-morrow. “Sir Francis Geraldine has been here,” she said almost before he had entered the room. She was immediately aware that she had been too sudden, and had given by her voice too great an importance to her idea of the visit.

But he was not surprised at that and did not notice it. “Sir Francis Geraldine! A man whom I particularly do not wish to know! And what has brought him here?”

“He came to call. He is a Devonshire man, and he knew us at Exeter.”

“He is the Dean’s brother-in-law. I remember. And when he came what did he say? Unless you and he were very intimate I think he might as well have remained away. There are some stories here not altogether to his credit. I do not know much about his business, but he is not a delectable acquaintance.”

“We were intimate,” said Cecilia. “Maude Hippesley, his niece, was my dearest friend.” The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she was aware that she had fibbed. Miss Altifiorla was justified. Why had she not stopped at the assurance of her intimacy with Sir Francis, and leave unexplained the nature of it? Every step which she took made further steps terribly difficult!

After dinner, Mr. Western, as a matter of course, brought up the subject of Sir Francis Geraldine. “Did you know him, Miss Altifiorla?”

“Oh, yes!” said that lady, looking at Cecilia with peculiar eyes. Only that Mr. Western was a man and not a woman, and among men the least suspicious till his suspicion was aroused, he would have discovered at once from Miss Altifiorla’s manner that there was a secret.

“He seems to have lived in very good clerical society down in Exeter,—a very different class from those with whom he has been intimate here.”

“Of course he was staying at the Deanery,” said Cecilia.

“And the Dean, I know, is a very pearl of Church propriety. It is odd what different colours men show at different places. Down here, where he is well known, a great many even of the racing men fight shy of him. But I beg your pardon if he be a particular friend of yours, Miss Altifiorla.”

“Oh dear, no, not of mine at all. I should never have known him to speak to but for Cecilia.” Her words no doubt were true; but again she looked as though endeavouring to tell all she could without breaking her promise.

“He is one of our Devonshire baronets,” said Cecilia, “and of course we like to stand by our own. At any rate he is going to ask us to dinner.”

“We cannot dine with him.”

“That’s as you please. I don’t want to dine with him.”

“I look upon it as very impertinent. He knows that I should not dine with him. There has never been any actual quarrel, but there has been no acquaintance.”

“The acquaintance has been on my part,” said Cecilia, who felt that at every word she uttered she made the case worse for herself hereafter.

“When a woman marries, she has to put up with her husband’s friends,” said Mr. Western gravely.

“He is nothing on earth to me. I never wish to see him again as long as I live.”

“It is unfortunate that he should have turned out to be so near a neighbour,” said Miss Altifiorla. Then for the moment Sir Francis Geraldine was allowed to be forgotten.

“I did not like to say it before her,” he said afterwards in their own room;—and now Cecilia was able to observe that his manner was altogether altered,—“but to tell the truth that man behaved very badly to me myself. I know nothing about racing, but my cousin, poor Jack Western, did. When he died, there was some money due to him by Sir Francis, and I, as his executor, applied for it. Sir Francis answered that debts won by dead men were not payable. But Jack had been alive when he won this, and it should have been paid before. I know nothing about debts of honour as they are called, but I found out that the money should have been paid.”

“What was the end of it?” asked Cecilia.

“I said no more about it. The money would have come into my pocket and I could afford to lose it. But Sir Francis must know what I think of the transaction, and, knowing it, ought not to talk of asking me to dinner.”

“But that was swindling.”

“For the matter of that it’s all swindling as far as I can see. One strives to get the money out of another man’s pocket by some juggling arrangement. For myself I cannot understand how a gentleman can condescend to wish to gain another man’s money. But I leave that all alone. It is so; and when I meet a man who is on the turf as they call it, I keep my own feelings to myself. He has his own laws of conduct and I have mine. But here is a man who does not obey his own laws; and puts money in his pocket by breaking them. He can do as he pleases. It is nothing to me. But he ought not to come and call upon my wife.” In this way he talked himself into a passion; but the passion was now against Sir Francis Geraldine and not against his wife.

On the next morning Miss Altifiorla was despatched by an early train so that she might be able to get down to Exeter, viâ London, early in the day. It behoved her to go to London on the route. She had things to buy and people to see, and to London she went. “Good-bye, my dear,” she said, seeming to include the husband as well as the wife in the address. “I have spent a most pleasant fortnight, and have been most delighted to become acquainted with your husband. You are Cecilia Holt no longer. But it would have been sad indeed not to know him who has made you Cecilia Western.” Then she put out her hand, and getting hold of that of the gentleman squeezed it with the warmest affection. But her farewell address made to Mrs. Western in her own room was quite different in its tone. “Now I am going, Cecilia,” she said, “and am leaving you in the midst of terrible dangers.”

“I hope not,” said Cecilia.

“But I am. They would have been over now and passed if you would have allowed me to obey my reason, and to tell him the whole story of your former love.”

“Why you?”

“Because I am your most intimate friend. And I think I should have told it in such a manner as to disarm his wrath.”

“It is out of the question. I will tell him.”

“Do so. Do so. But I doubt your courage. Do so this very morning. And remember that at any rate Francesca Altifiorla has been true to her promise.”

That such a promise should have been needed and should have been boasted of with such violent vulgarity was almost more than Mrs. Western could stand. She came down-stairs and then underwent the additional purgatory of listening to the silver-tongued farewell. That she, she with her high ideas of a woman’s duty and a woman’s dignity, should have put herself into such a condition was a marvel to herself. Had some one a year since told her that she should become thus afraid of a fellow-creature and of one that she loved best in all the world, she would have repelled him who had told her with disdain. But so it was. How was she to tell her husband that she had been engaged to one whom he had described to her as a gambler and a swindler?

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