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within sight of him. I could fancy that, from time
to time, he cast an uneasy glance back into that room
behind him; like one who has been drilled in his
part, and is going through it under the tutor's eye.
And yet, so well acted was it, that no one but those
who, like myself, were behind the scenes, could
possibly have suspected the prompter's presence !

" What does this mean, Charles ?" said his father.
(I had taken in the look and manner I have described
in one glance, although it has occupied some time in
the telling.) " Have we not enough of these absurdi-
ties in the streets that you must shout them thus all
over our own house ? You care little for my wishes,
I dare say; but you might consider my state of



200 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

health, as well as that of the poor little child in the
room opposite."

" I'm awfully sorry, Papa," said Charles ; " I am
indeed. Papa, why do you speak and look at me like
that ? " he continued, after a minute's pause. " You
know I do care for you. I and Helen would sit with
you, and read to you, and do your writing; do
anything and everything for you if you would only
let us."

" You do not show much of your dutifulness,
Charles," replied his father.

" How can we, Papa ? You never send for us to-
the study ; and you know you would not like us to
come without. I'm sure I'd cut my head off sooner
than make a row or disturb you in any way, if I only
thought of it."

" That thoughtlessness is just what I deplore,
Charles. It makes me wretched. So very wretched ;
so very wretched," repeated the sick man, helplessly,

I saw in an instant what was happening. The
counterfeit resentment was dying out ; and there was
some risk of 4he real utterances making themselves
heard. He was losing his cue /

The next minute showed me that my supposi-



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 201

tion was correct. The prompter came on the stage
now.

" The fact is, Charles," said Mrs. Armitage,
moving forward to the doorway, " that your father is
deeply offended by your conduct to him during these
past months. You know the gentleness of his dis-
position, and how very much it would take to make
him feel hardly to any one, especially to his own
children. But you have effectually succeeded in
doing it."

" Indeed, Ma'am," said Charles, " I do not know
what I have done."

" It is of course very difficult for me to speak of
it, Charles," replied the lady. " Nothing should in-
duce me to do so were it not that I saw the grief it is
causing your father. Oh ! Mr. Armitage, why did
you press so for our union ? I could not but admire
one so good ; but I was contented in my solitary lot,
and you were happy with your children here. Now
it is all changed. I am the barrier between you.
They grudge you my poor affection, spontaneous as it
is. Oh ! why did I ever come to this" house ? I
cannot bear it, Mr. Armitage ; I cannot indeed."
And here the crocodile produced some really respect-



202 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

ably-sized drops, which had been composing during
the latter part of this oration.

" Calm yourself, my dear," said the husband.
Under which suggestion, the lady of course sobbed
more violently than ever.

" Clara, dearest," said Mr. Armitage again,
" pray do not agitate yourself in this way. I am
glad that you have spoken ; it is high time we should
have some understanding about this. As Mrs. Armi-
tage says, Charles," continued the poor gentleman,
who was now effectively wound up and set going again,
" I have been deeply pained by your conduct to her.
I suppose you consider, sir, that I was not at liberty
to marry ? No doubt, you and Helen would greatly
have preferred that I should have continued to lead
the solitary life I was doing. As long as you had the
house to yourselves, you would not have minded any
deprivation I might undergo. I am much obliged
to you both ; but you see I have decided for myself,
old and ill as I am. I have met with a most kind
and estimable partner ; one who contributes largely to
such comfort as my wretched health admits of, and
whom I am determined you shall respect accordingly :
if not for my sake, at any rate for your own."



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 203

" I have not shown Mrs. Armitage any disrespect,
sir," said Charles.

" Oh ! Mr. Armitage," interposed the lady, " pray
do not be angry with Charles on my account. I
should never have complained if you had not first
mentioned it ; I should not indeed. Certainly,
Charles's manner has pained and wounded me very
much. I did expect that when he saw me devoting
my whole life, as I am sure I try to do, to your
happiness, he would at least behave to me with
common civility. But I can quite put up with it;
I can quite forgive him."

" You shall not be required to do so, Clara,"
replied the husband. " Charles, you will understand,
once for all, that this does not occur again. You
may succeed in driving- me into my grave, you and
Helen ; but perhaps you will find that you are neither
of you the better for it."

" I hardly understand you, sir," said Charles.
"As to Mrs. Armitage, I defy her to say that I have
ever done or said anything rude to her."

" I know pretty well, Charles," said the lady,
" what's said and done behind my back, if not to my
face. I do not ask for affection ; that I am aware I



204 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

have no claim to. But it is very painful to me to
feel that the poor children and myself are per-
petually being jeered at and abused, as if we were
interlopers. You will think me very foolish,
Robert ; but it does wound me to the quick that he
should always speak of me as 'Mrs. Armitage.'
Just as if I was some stranger here, and not your
wife."

And then the sobs began again, more irrepressibly
than ever. I saw the game in an instant. This
matter of the name had been selected, either by
previous design or on the spur of the moment, as the
battle-field by which Charles and his fortunes were
to stand or fall. It was a hazardous game ; very
hazardous. But it was entirely successful.

" That shall be put right at any rate," said the
husband. " Now, Charles, you will understand me
if you please. That you have behaved shamefully to
the lady, whom I have brought here as my wife and
the head of my house, I have no doubt. I can see
it by the evident pain she has in speaking of your
conduct, even while her kind and generous nature
prompts her to suppress the worst features. But
there must be a total alteration for the future. And



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 205

the proof of your compliance will be that you hence-
forth address my wife, as she very properly wishes,
and as you most unquestionably should do, by the
corresponding term to myself. You will speak of,
and to her, as ' Mamma,' in future : not as
' Mrs. Armitage.' "

" I cannot, sir," said Charles, in a low voice.
" Oh, Papa," he continued, " do not ask this.
Think of our own dear, dear mother ! how could I
ever bear to call a stranger by the same name ?
Indeed I will do all that you wish, excepting this.
Neither you nor Mrs. Armitage shall have the least
complaint to make of any want of respect in future.
But I cannot do this ; I cannot indeed : it would be
like tearing our real mother out of our heart. Papa !
do not ask this ! "

" That is to say, Charles," replied his father,
" you will comply with my wishes as far as it is
agreeable to yourself, but no farther. As to ' asking,'
I was not aware that a father and son were on that
footing ; at any rate, we are not. Command is the
word, if you please, in this matter ; not ask. If you
choose to obey, well and good ; if not, you must take
the consequences. You will find them pretty heavy.



206 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

You seem to forget that my property is absolutely
at my own disposal."

Charles's brow flushed to a dark crimson. He
looked his father full in the face. "If I cannot
obey you for the sake of your own wishes, sir," he
.said, "I shall certainly not be driven to do so for
the sake of any fortune you may leave me. I must
disobey you, Papa ; I cannot do this thing : my
tongue would not say the word. Oh! Papa, how
can you ask me ? "

Without seeming to observe the old man, I had
in fact done so, closely and narrowly. It was piteous
enough. Deep down, under this counterfeited harsh-
ness, I saw, as I had already noticed more than
once, the traces of a deep wretchedness ; the unfor-
gotten loves of the past rising up in rebellion against
the cruel servitude now imposed upon them. Very
far back, in the hollow of the sunken eyes I saw the
gathering of a large hot tear. Mrs. Armitage had
seen it also.

" Do not stay here to agitate yourself, Mr. Armi-
tage," she said. " I arn grieved that Charles is so
wilful : deeply grieved. The matter itself is nothing ;
I could easily overlook his persistent slight to me.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 207

But the more trivial it is, the worse it makes his
undutifulness in not complying with your wish. Let
me give you my arm to the study, Mr. Armitage."

And the unfortunate performer, having played
out his part, was walked off the stage accordingly
without further ceremony. Charles dashed out of the .
room, and did not appear again until dinner-time.

During the interval, two strangers had paid the
Villa a somewhat lengthened visit. They were
received by Mrs. Armitage on entering ; and then
ushered into Mr. Armitage's study, where they
remained closeted with him for some hours.

They were Mr. Rigwell, the principal solicitor in
Hastings, and his managing clerk.

The occurrence just mentioned took place, as I
have said, on the fifth of November. The second of
the three recollections connected with this closing
period of my Hastings' life dates a few days later ;
the exact day I have forgotten. It was nothing of
special moment ; only a conversation with Mr.
Latrobe, who joined my pupils and myself on the
esplanade, where we were taking a short stroll. The
weather had become too unsettled for long walks.

" Have you seen anything of Charles this after-



208 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

noon," asked the curate, after the preliminary cour-
tesies of our meeting. "I am afraid he has not
been well lately. He has come for his work with
me every day, but I have not got hold of him at
other times, as I generally do. Even at his work
he seemed out of sorts."

" I have not heard of his being ill," I said.
" But I have hardly seen him myself since the
fifth."

" He seems to me moody," continued Mr. La-
trobe ; " a wholly unusual phase with him. Ailing
in mind and body both. Perhaps he misses his
friend Mr. Fortescue, who, I find, has left Hastings.
Have you heard whether he intends to return ? "

" I suppose so," I answered, somewhat confused.
It was one of the petty scrapes that my personated
life was getting me into twenty times a day : and I
had not yet made much progress in dissimulation.
The real truth ; the secret ; seemed to me of such
paramount magnitude that it gave undue proportions
to anything bearing upon it. So that even very
simple questions perplexed me.

" Mr. Fortescue's seems a purposeless life at
present," continued the curate. "It is a thousand



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 209



pities. He has all the nobility of a high-class
nature : ' first-chop,' as the Chinese would call it ;
and, grave and reserved as he is, it is impossible
not to feel interested in him. I suppose the mar-
riage will be soon," Mr. Latrobe added, after a short
pause, during which he was digging out a pebble
from the gravel- walk with his stick.

The marriage ! The very thing that was upper-
most in my own thoughts, night and day ! " Early
next month, I hope," was on my lips to answer.
But I saved myself by a spasmodic effort of memory,
which showed me that I was being " pumped," and,
at the same time, explained why the gravel-walk had
been victimized.

"The marriage?" I said. "Is Mr. Fortescue
going to be married?"

" Oh ! I only repeat the on dits," answered the
curate. " The Hastings' people seem quite to have
arranged matters between him and the young lady."

Too indifferent by half, my friend, I thought to
myself. Even if I did not know your secret, which
I do, I should have guessed it now. That's not your
natural tone ; nor is it the least natural to your Irish
blood to be fidgeting and looking sheepish in that

VOL. i. 14



210 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

way. However, you shall have a little comfort ; a
ray of hope let in upon you.

" I suppose you mean Miss Armitage ? " I said.

" Of course. But mind, I am not to be quoted,
Miss Secretan. I am only following the gossips."

" The gossips are mistaken sometimes," I said.
" So far from Miss Helen's marriage being immi-
nent, I am not aware that she is even engaged. Are
you ? "

" Well, yes ; that is, you know," he answered,
stammeringly enough, " I took it for granted. It
seemed a settled thing, two or three months since.
They were constantly together, and she seemed . . .
that is, I suppose Miss Armitage liked him very
much. Did she not ? "

"Oh! you mustn't ask me," I said. "I am
blind as a beetle An such matters. Besides, young
ladies do not always know their own minds ; or gen-
tlemen either, for that matter. He may not have
liked her."

" Then he's a scoundrel," said the curate, indig-
nantly. " Why they were always together, singing
Italian music and I don't know what. What busi-
ness had he to lead her on in that way, if he meant



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 211

nothing ? I know that he has won her love, well
enough; and if he was only trifling with her, and
amusing himself with a passing flirtation, he's a
base-hearted villain."

" Not such a type of nobility then, after all," I
said. " But you must not be so vehement, Mr.
Latrobe. I only said that there might have been a
want of liking on the gentleman's side. As to being
together, they have not seen much of each other since
Fred's accident. Mr. Fortescue has been almost
constantly in the sick room. By the way," I added,
" have you heard how much better the little boy is ? "

" No ; really ? I am exceedingly glad."

" A fortnight ago he seemed rapidly sinking ; but
his constitution has rallied, and there now seems
little doubt of his recovery. I suppose it is the
good nursing he has had. I claim some share in it,
for I have been most assiduous. But see, here is
Mr. Charles coming. He seems in sufficiently good
spirits."

Charles had, in fact, brightened up to-day, and-
joined us with something of his old manner. Some-
thing, only ; the life and buoyancy of it were still
sadly wanting.



212 " SIX MONTHS HEXCE."

"You need not speak to him about home
matters," I whispered to Mr. Latrobe as he came
up. " There has been a little unpleasantness there."

" Ah ! yes, I understand,", said the curate.
"Well, Charles, how do you intend employing your-
self this afternoon ? There is not much to be done
out of doors. You will be reduced to billiards."

"I don't care for -the table down here. I wish
our own was in order. Not that it is of much conse-
quence, for there is no one to play with, now For-
tescue is gone. I think I shall walk out by the
Martello towers, and try for a shot at some gulls."

" You are always committing murder, Mr.
Charles," I said.

" How so, Miss Secretan ? "

" Why, the last time we had a walk together, you
wanted to kill a poor reptile who was doing no harm
to any one by living, and would be of no good to
any one when dead; and now you are determined
not to let these birds live : and equally without
reason."

" Quite useless trying to excuse yourself, Charles,"
said Mr. Latrobe. " You had better retort upon
Miss Secretan, and tell her that she is always com-



"SIX MONTHS HENCE." 213

mitting murder too. Her victims during the last
twa or three months have been counted by scores, I
make no doubt."

" You see, sir, I have not your Irish genius for a
compliment. By the way, Mr. Latrobe, how do you
come to be an Irishman ? "

" I suppose the same way that a man comes to be
a Grim Tartar. I could not help myself."

" No, but I mean how is it you are not a French-
man ? "

" Well, I suppose for the same reason that I have
not two heads. Nature made me so. Why should I
be a Frenchman ? "

"Your name is French, Christian and surname.
And the latter, at any rate, must have been your
father's."

" Ah ! I see your difficulty. My father was a
refugic, Mr. Charles ; that is the explanation of it.
He settled in Ireland, and fell in love there with and
married my mother, who must have been a beautiful
creature, by her pictures. I have no recollection of
her. My father I do remember, although he too died
when I was quite young. I was taken charge of by
my mother's family, who lived near Limerick, and



214 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

brought me up there ; thus producing the accom-
plished member of society you see."

" Do you ever pay them a visit now ? " I asked.

" I am going over there the first thing after
Christmas. I shall get six or seven weeks before
Lent begins. I must be back for that, as we have
additional services. Poor Mrs. Graves ! she says her
idea of Lent is perpetually going to church in an east
wind."

" What happens to the ' Curate's lodgings '
while you are away, sir," asked Charles.

" "Why ? Have you any thought of engaging
them ? You are quite welcome ! Oh ! they get
locked up, or something : I don't know. I know
that if I happen to leave any papers or books about,
they have always been ' put into their places ' by the
time I return ; which means, put into odd shelves
and cupboards according to a Gravesian theory of the
eternal fitness of things, highly ingenious in itself,
but wholly incomprehensible to the rest of mankind.
It takes me a month or two sometimes to re-collect
the ' disjecta membra.' "

"Can you not indoctrinate the housemaid?" I
asked.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 215

"No; the old lady always does it herself. How-
ever, I suspect these revolutionary proceedings are
generally completed the first day or two after my
departure ; and after that the rooms are left pretty
much unentered until my impending return is
announced. Once or twice, when I have come back
unexpectedly, I have found an upper stratum of dust
on which Mr. Car stairs might teach his pupils writing.
Between ourselves," continued the curate, " I have
rather a suspicion that Mrs. Graves considers the
rooms not quite canny, and would not care to go
there except in the broadest sunlight. They are an
immense distance from the rest of the premises ; and
I might have a supper-party there, or kill pigs
there, or indulge in any other satisfactions of the
kind, however noisy, without the household in general
being a bit the wiser."

"I wonder, sir," said Charles, "that you are not
afraid of your rooms being robbed, leaving them so
unprotected during your absence."

" You ought to recollect your Juvenal better than
that, Charles. ' Cantabit vacuus,' you know. The
most valuable thing the thieves could take would be
my Origen ; and I doubt even then whether the



216 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

results would pay them for carting away eleven thick
folios. There is no melting-pot for Divinity, fortu-
nately. To tell the very real honest truth, Miss
Secretan," added the curate, " there is not even a
lock to the place."

" Not even a lock ! " I said.

"Nothing deserving the name. The door of my
actual sitting-room never had any ; and the one on
the outside door, that of the separate staircase, you
know, won't act. That is to say, you turn the key
all right, and something goes on with the bolt ; but
for any practical purposes you might have saved
yourself the trouble. Any one who happened to
know about it might walk in and occupy the rooms at
any hour of the day or night."

" I am afraid you must be considered a very care-
less housekeeper, Mr. Latrobe," I said.

" "Well, yes. I suppose it's my Irish blood again.
We don't trouble bars and bolts much there, unless
you're a proscribed man. Even then they wouldn't
rob you ; they'd only put a couple of slugs into your
thorax. But mind, Miss Secretan, please ; and you,
Charles, this is a profound secret from my landlady."

"By the way," I said, "I hope your explorations



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 217

underground have not been detected. You remember
this is the second secret you have entrusted us
with."

" Nothing discovered, I am happy to say. Mrs.
Graves was very ' warm ' the other day, as we used to
say in hide and seek. She was dusting near the place,
and certainly seemed struck by the peculiar character
of the carpentering there ; and no wonder, for I never
could drive a nail in properly in my life. However,
I started some topic which took the worthy lady
straight into the memory of her poor departed saint,
as she usually terms the late Mr. Graves I have no
doubt he was an excellent man and this made her
forget all about the board, and saved my pocket. So
I trust the danger has blown over. I shall never
trouble the ' csecae fores ' again. I was a mass of
cobwebs after them ; and from the look of the place, I
should say neither Mrs. Graves nor any other human
being knew of its existence : it must have been closed
up for years. So if fortune befriends me, I trust to
remain undetected to the end of the chapter. But
come, Charles," the curate added, "if you are really
going after the gulls you may give me your arm
down the street. I have a call to make at the further



218 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

end. Good afternoon, Miss Secretan ; good-bye,
little people." And with a kiss apiece to my pupils,
our genial curate took his leave. And so ends my
second reminiscence of these, my last days at
Hastings. One more ; and then events begin their
forward march again.

This last memory fixes itself at the villa, once
more ; in Helen's room. It must have been a fort-
night after the chance talk with Mr. Latrobe just
narrated; a gloomy day at the fag-end of November,
moaning with wind and rain, and darkening the
sky with auguries of the coming winter.

At first, after my secret engagement to Mr.
Fortescue, I had shunned Helen's society. It seemed
impossible - that I could face her. And the more I
felt this, the stronger grew my dislike for the inno-
cent cause of the uneasiness I thus suffered. Dislike !
why do I shrink from the true word ; hatred ! I
have already called it so.

But gradually this brought its own cure. As I
grew harder in other ways, I felt less pain in these
meetings ; I even began to feel a wicked pleasure in
them. There was one dark spot, one only, on my
now bright future ; and that was identified with the



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 219

unconscious girl I had wronged. "Why was I to
suffer without retaliation ? What was her love-
sickness to rne ? I rather enjoyed watching it now.
Not indeed that the subject was often brought forward.
Never assuredly, when I could help it. I should have
quite a long enough reckoning for the dissimulation
of these weeks, quite uncomfortableness enough to
bear when the truth did come out in December, with-
out purposely adding to it. As for Helen, she also
usually avoided any reference to the past. After her
agony of grief at our last talk together/ the poor
child's maidenly feeling seemed to forbid her dwelling,
even in recollection, upon the love-episode which had
troubled that young life. Wrench it from her heart
she could not, and would not ; but I could see that it
was watchfully shut out from speech and thought.

This day however Helen herself referred to the
topic.

." Maria, dear," she said, " I was so needing your
love and counsel ; needing them both so very sorely.
I am so frightened at myself, Maria. Such terrible
thoughts do come to me now ; I can hardly bear
them. Oh ! dearest, I hope my reason is not leaving
me ; I am really afraid of it sometimes."



220 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

Again, in my wickedness, I caressed the trem-
bling, girlish form, which I had once loved so
tenderly. But Helen was not weeping now. Her
eye had deep trouble in it : the feverish look caused
by sleepless nights, and by the overstrain which the
mind undergoes when it has been dwelling unduly on
one subject.

" It is very hard and bitter for you, Helen," I
said ; " but you must try and forget it. I mustn't tell
you that I think it will come all right now, for this
absence of his is ... is, of course, unaccountable.
But you may forget the past. Some other prospect
may open out for you ; as bright, or brighter."

" Yes. But it is not that only, Maria dear. I
do try to forget ; to forget him, hard as it is : so
very hard. You have never loved yet ; you do not
know how the old times force themselves back upon


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Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 15)