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one. If it was only music, and walks, and reading,
and things like that, I should not care so much ; I
could keep them out of sight. But I cannot help
seeing all the common things about ; and he is
associated with every one of them : the commoner
they are, the more they remind me of him. I see
where he stood ; where he sat ; the things he



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 221

handled; if the door opens, if there is a voice or
step in the hall, it all recalls him."

" I pity you with all my heart," I said. Quite
naturally and pleasantly to myself; no pricking any-
where : no choking. I was getting on !

"I know you pity me, dearest," resumed Helen.
" Not that I deserve it, for I ought not even to think
about that time. But I will try not to ; I did not
mean to have spoken of it now. It is those other
feelings I told you of. Ahout Fred. You would
hate me if you knew how they still haunt me. And
they are so much worse now."

"About Fred!" Ah! I had forgotten that
matter in the pressure of other concerns, since my
last talk with Helen. It occurred to me now that it
might be of use. It would divert the conversation
from Mr. Fortescue, at any rate. " I fancied that
was a very passing trouble," I said. "I know you
mentioned it some weeks ago, but I had no idea it
had taken any hold of you."

" Oh ! such a hold, Maria. That is what frightens
me. Do what I will, and hate them as I am sure I
do, I cannot keep these shameful feelings away from
me. On the contrary, they seem to get worse every



222 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

day. Eesist them I know I always shall ; it is no
struggle to do that. I should die if I thought my
own heart and will had anything to do with them.
But they whirl through my brain until ;t almost
reels again. I am quite afraid to tell you, Maria,"
continued the poor girl, shuddering. " Actually the
other day, when I first heard that Fred would recover,
the most wicked idea flashed across me. A sort of
feeling that I had been wronged ; cheated out of my
revenge ! that he ought to have gone on and died !
I have hardly been able to bear myself since. Why,
Maria, it is being a murderess even to have had such
a thought pass through one's mind."

" My dear Helen," I said, " you would make a
tom-cat laugh : I beg your pardon for being so
vulgar. If Fred does not get put out of the world
until you do it, he will not have had a bad innings,
as Charles would say. I quite agree with you that
our youthful friend is objectionable : at least, he used
to be ; and now that he is getting better, I have no
doubt he will re-appear in his own character. But,
as you say, he has done you no harm. And I don't
think it at all probable that you will do him any. In
fact, I doubt whether you could, even if you tried.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 223

Listen to the young rascal out on the lawn there.
He is getting his lungs and legs again, and would be
a match for you, any day."

I had pointed towards the window ; but Helen
turned away from it with a gesture of terror which
did a little frighten me. Could it be possible that
her disappointment had preyed upon her sufficiently
to give the " morbid ideas " she had spoken of some
hold upon the brain, utterly alien as they were to
everything in her real mind and character ? At any
rate, things had gone far enough.

" Don't be angry with me for laughing at you,
dear," I said. " It was better for you than seeming
to accept your excited feelings as fact. You have
been too much alone ; have been brooding too much
over the past. I will be better company for you in
future, and we will try and forget these old troubles
together. Ah ! there is the lunch-bell. Now you
will have to appear ; and I am told Fred is to come
in for the first time to-day : so comport yourself
civilly, and don't be looking too. feloniously at the
carving-knives. If you must put somebody out of
the way, please operate on Burgess. Fred is an angel
to her, at any rate. There, we feel happier in our



224 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

minds now, do we not? And we won't have any
more of these foolish fancies ? "

Helen kissed me gratefully, and with something
of a smile; but I could see that the snake was
scotched, not killed. However, a little excitement
and distraught demeanour on the part of this girl, as
I now called her to myself, would not come amiss
during the next two or three weeks. It might divert
some measures of public attention from myself upon
the final discovery being made.

As made it must now so soon be !



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 225



CHAPTER XIV.

" EVENTS begin their forward march again," I said in
the last chapter. Ay, truly they do.

It was the fifth of December. I woke in the
morning, counting the days that must yet elapse
before the crowning day of my whole life.

Counting them, as the bride does in tremulous
happiness, half incredulous of the mines of love
opening out for her ? No, indeed. My computation
was that of the greedy heir, measuring out the sands
still to run in some palsied and death- stricken exist-
ence ! I waited, as Tarpeia may have done when she
stood with the Capitol gates unlocked ; waiting for
the Sabine warriors who were to crush her with the
self-chosen meed of her night's work !

The days were getting few enough now : only
ten more ! The programme for our marriage had been
slightly varied. It was to take place in London, as

VOL. i. 15



226 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

before ; Hastings would have been out of the ques-
tion, with the commotion that was certain to ensue on
the announcement of a fact so unexpected. Besides,
I was under age ; and a licence for Hastings could
only have been obtained by Mr. Fortescue's residence
there for some time previously. London therefore it
was still to be. But in his last letter Mr. Fortescue had
decided that he would not return himself to escort me
there. He had engaged an attendant for me, he said ;
an elderly person, highly recommended, whom I could
retain as lady's maid afterwards if I thought fit, and
who would, at any rate, post up with me to town ;
where the marriage could take place on the following
morning. He proposed that I should leave Hastings
on the fifteenth, the maid arriving over night, and
the matter being then broken to Mrs. Arrnitage ; by
letter or otherwise as I might judge best. Our
schoolroom holidays began on that day, which would
smooth over some superficial difficulties. In London,
my attendant and myself were to drive to a first-class
hotel at the West End, which Mr. Fortescue named,
and where he would engage rooms for us. He would
himself meet us on our arrival, and arrange for the
next morning.



" SIX MONTHS HEXCE." 227

These plans suited me well enough. Strange and
abrupt as the whole matter had been, I entertained
no doubt of Mr. Fortescue's entire good faith : it
would have been absurd to have done so. Whatever
risks prudence hinted might be in store for me, I
was convinced they did not include any common-
place deception on his part. As to his not coming
himself to Hastings, I quite agreed with him that it
was best so. His presence would only have added
to the embarrassment of the inevitable scene which
must ensue.

For myself, as may be supposed, these matters had
been food enough for excitement and interest during
the last week or two. But to the rest of the house-
hold the time had passed quietly enough. Charles
and Helen still brooded over their respective sources
of discomfort, but without much outward mark of
doing so. Mr. Armitage was secluded as usual.
His wife divided her time between him and house-
hold cares. The two little girls pursued their lessons -
Fred continued his progress towards convalescence.

Somewhat to my surprise if I may pursue this
recapitulation for a few sentences further the child
did not verify my prophecy as to his future. He



228 " SIX MONTHS HEXCE."

seemed permanently changed since bis illness ; made
noise enough, and was as objectionable about the
premises as boys generally are ; but his old petulance,
or rather, ferocity of character, was quite gone. He
was really now, for his age and sex, rather an en-
gaging little fellow ; frank, obliging, sociable, and so
on. Mr. Fortescue's memory he cherished with never-
failing regard. " When Mr. Forcoo comeback ? " he
would ask Helen or me ; of course procuring little
satisfaction from either of us. " Fed want Mr.
Forcoo tell him 'tories ; tell him about taverns and
tattaooms and bears and lions." But Fred's intel-
lectual cravings had to remain unappeased.

Meanwhile, he had his own way on another point ;
the only one on which the child evinced something
of his former obstinacy. Nothing would induce him
to return to the nursery he had occupied before his
broken arm. No ; he must needs stop where he had
lain so long, in the ci-devant schoolroom : the
ground-floor room adjoining the hall which has been
described in a former chapter, and to which, as also
above narrated, he had been carried on the day of
his accident. Whether he connected this room with
Mr. Fortescue ; or whether his pertinacity on the



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 229

subject was merely some unexorcised portion of the
former self, I cannot say. So it was ; and he was
indulged accordingly. After the holidays, it was
hoped his tastes might alter, or things otherwise get
restored to their normal condition.

These matters, and others, I lay pondering over
for some time after being called on the morning I
have mentioned ; the fifth of December. Not setting
myself to think of them, or of anything else in parti-
cular ; but letting them, as it were, ripple into my
mind and out of it : ripple in and out, in the
leisurely, half-dozing way one does when getting up
is not so immediately the final cause of one's being
called as to involve any great dispatch about it.
And, governess though I was, our morning hours at
the Villa sat lightly on me.

The half-dozing must have deviated into a whole
doze; for I became conscious of going through a
second waking process. And, this time, with an
uneasy sensation of something wrong somewhere. I
raised myself on my elbow, and soon discovered that
the house was in an unusual state of commotion.
Steps were hurrying up and down the stairs ;
doors slamming; voices whispering in corners and



230 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

passages. A few minutes afterwards came a violent
ring at the front door. Ten minutes later, a second.
Then, a third, almost immediately on the back of
the second.

I soon learnt the cause. Mr. Armitage had been
found dead in his bed that morning. Mrs. Armitage,
who occupied a room apart from the invalid, had
discovered what had happened on paying her usual
early visit to the latter.

Silently, and without eye-witness, had the long-
flickering flame of life thus expired in the socket.
Each of the three medical men who arrived at the
Villa in such rapid succession that morning, endorsed
the verdict of his colleagues. " A heart seizure.
Nothing to be done. Life quite extinct." But it
was evident enough without the doctors.

Mrs. Armitage was quite equal to the emergency ;
and there was no special matter for me to see to.
I aided in such arrangements as were necessary ; and
administered such consolations, whether necessary or
not, as seemed to meet the requirements of the case.
Perhaps even that frailest of ties had not snapped
without making itself felt in some remote shape. No
one was ever yet quite bad ; quite callous.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 231

No one, I think ; excepting one. It seems to me
that by this time my heart had completely closed
itself. Closed against all ruth ; all love ; every-
thing, except its own self- worship !

As regards the day of which I write, at any rate,
I cannot recall that I had the vestige of a thought
or interest excepting for myself. How would this
occurrence affect me? would it interfere with the
arrangements for my marriage ? would it lengthen the
time in any way ; that time for which I hungered
like a child for its new toy ? I could have cursed
the poor corpse downstairs if I had thought so !

But apparently not. The funeral was fixed for a
somewhat early day ; the eleventh. The attendant
Mr. Fortescue had hired for me was to come on the
fourteenth. This would leave two clear days for
preparation. The announcement to Mrs. Arnritage I
had now finally decided should be made by letter, to be
placed in her hands as soon as I had left. This could

c

of course be done as if the death had not occurred.

Darkness and solitude. The six days appointed
waiting. The vestibule of the tomb, gloomy with
shadows, trodden with hushed foot-fall and bated
breath !



232 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

And then at the vestibule's end, the chamber of
last rest itself ; opened for one brief hour, and forth-
with closed hermetically for ever. A scant and
small result that for such bulk of preparation ! A
narrow receptacle for what has so toiled and suffered ;
for the head that has planned, and the hand that has
executed, and the heart that has beat so passionately !

After the funeral, the family assembled in the
drawing-room to hear the will of the deceased read
over. I was admitted in right of my pupils.

The will was of some length, but sufficiently
clear ; even my untutored ear took in its provisions.
It bore date exactly a month before the death ; the
fifth of November. After revoking all previous
wills, the testator bequeathed a legacy of 5,OOOZ. to
Helen if she attained 21 years ; the income in the
meantime to be applied for her use. My pupils
had 2,OOOL each on the same terms. Charles was
left a legacy of Wl. " in token," the will said, "of
the testator's displeasure at his undutiful conduct,
and his refusal to comply with his father's express
and reiterated request." Deducting these legacies,
the entire income of the property, land and money,
was given to Mrs. Armitage during her life. At her



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 233

death, both properties'were to devolve to the testator's
step-son ; " Frederick Poynder, the son of my dear
wife, provided he attains the age of 21 years"

Mr. Kigwell, the solicitor, who had had charge of
the will, and was reading it by request of all parties,
paused here for a moment's breath ; and Mrs. Armi-
tage seemed about to make some remark. But the
solicitor politely checked her.

" Pardon me, Madam," he said ; " I shall answer
any question with the greatest pleasure when we have
concluded. But I think it will be best that the docu-
ment should be read through in the first instance."

This was acquiesced in, and Mrs. Armitage
forbore further interruption. Charles, who was
standing by the fire, remained perfectly silent, and
apparently impassive throughout.

The remaining clauses of the will were then read.
They were however merely formal, containing direc-
tions for the application and accumulation of the
income during Fred's minority, in the event of his
surviving his mother ; with other clauses and powers
incident to the dispositions of the will. Mrs- Armitage
was appointed sole executrix.

Mr. Eigwell was polite enough, but he made no



234 "SIX MONTHS HENCE."

pretence of being cordial. Neither he, nor any one
present, offered any congratulation to Mrs. Armitage
on the ample succession thus secured to Fred and
herself. Whether because she was nettled at this, or
from some other feeling, the lady now spoke with
some asperity.

" I have certainly," she said, " no complaint to
make of Mr. Armitage's liberality to me and the
dear children. His dispositions have been as
generous as I could have wished, and as his never-
failing kindness to us prompted. But it appears to
me, Mr. Rigwell, that my husband's intentions have
not been carried out in one particular. I will not affect
to deny that he had made me acquainted beforehand
with the general nature of the arrangements he
intended to make ; but I have no recollection of the
gift to my little boy being made conditional on his
attaining his majority. As I understood Mr. Armi-
tage, it was to be a gift to him out-and-out."

" It is impossible for me, Madam," said the
solicitor, " to enter into any question of what may
have passed between the testator and yourself. The
actual instructions were given to me by Mr. Armitage
himself, and the will was drawn up from them on the



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 235

spot, and signed before niy clerk and myself left the
house, so that any mistake was out of the question.
As to the particular point you refer to, the condition
of the child's attaining twenty-one was inserted from
Mr. Armitage's own mouth. In fact, his attention
was particularly called to it, as I suggested to him
whether the will should not contain what we call ' a
gift over of the property,' in the event of your son's
death occurring under that age. But he thought it
unnecessary to make any change. His words were,
* If so, let it go where the law takes it. ' '

"May I inquire, sir, where that will be?" asked
the lady.

" Unquestionably you may, Madam. In that
event, the land, which forms the great bulk of the
property, will descend to the rightful .... I mean
to Mr. Charles Armitage, as his father's only son.
The personality will be divisible in thirds ; of which
you woulfl yourself take one, and the two others would
be shared between Miss Armitage and Mr. Charles."

" Very well, sir," answered Mrs. Armitage, stiffly.
" I suppose I must be satisfied. You state that there
was another person present besides yourself the whole
time."



236 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

" Certainly, Mrs. Armitage. My clerk was with
me throughout, and wrote out the will. Pray make
any inquiry you may think fit of him, as you seem
hardly disposed to accept my statement. As to being
satisfied with the will, I think I should be so, if I
were you, Mrs. Armitage. If you will take my
advice, you will raise as little question about that
matter as possible. Good morning, Madam." And
Air. Kigwell, who was a more plain-spoken man than
he should have been at times, for his own interest,

bowed himself out of the room.

* * * *

" My dear Miss Secretan," said Mrs. Armitage to
me, the same evening, " the terrible burden of these
new anxieties ! To feel that I am entrusted with the
disposal of such a large income is a most serious
responsibility ; do you not think so, Miss Secretan ?
And then, there is the anxiety about Fred. His
fortune will now, through my poor husband's
munificence, be so very considerable. As to the
condition of his attaining twenty-one, with which
Mr. Rigwell has saddled the gift, I don't know how
my husband came to overlook it ; I am convinced it
was entirely the lawyer's own doing, whatever he may



"SIX MONTHS HENCE." 237

say. However, Fred will disappoint them all, I fancy.
A few weeks ago it might have been different. But
there is no reason now, I am thankful to say, why
the poor child should not live to enjoy his own, in
spite of all they may say and do. Have you seen
anything of Charles since the morning, Miss Secre-
tan ? He did not appear at dinner-time, and the
servant told me he was not in his room."

" I think I heard him go up-stairs half-an-hour
since," I said.

" Ah ! possibly. He seems to me in a very un-
satisfactory state. I hardly know what to do about
him. It was very painful for his father to be com-
pelled to pass him over in the will ; but there was no
help for it. Mr. Arrnitage was most justly incensed
at his disobedience."

I delivered myself of some semi-articulations ;
and the lady continued, "It is so difficult to decide
now about his profession. Of course, he has no strict
claim upon me, and I cannot say that his behaviour
to the children and myself has made me feel much
interest in him. Still, for my poor husband's sake,
I should like to do what was best. You see that,
through his own wilfulness, he will have so little to



238 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

support him now ; nothing but his share in his
mother's property, which is wholly insufficient to
keep him at college. Perhaps I may get him placed
in some counting-house in London, or as a Govern-
ment clerk somewhere. For the present, I suppose
he must remain here, at least as long as we do our-
selves. By the way, Miss Secretan," the lady con-
tinued, " that was one of the reasons I asked you to
be kind enough to come and speak to me. I ought
to let you at once know that there may be some little
uncertainty as to our movements. My own health
has suffered greatly from my attendance on Mr. Armi-
tage, followed by this sad shock ; and I may possibly
go to the continent to recruit in the beginning of next
year, which is now so close upon us. It would be a
great advantage too for the dear children, as they
would learn the languages, and get such excellent
masters. So that, if you please, you will consider
that our engagement terminates this day next month."

" Certainly, Madam," I replied.

"The only difficulty," continued the widow, "is
about the holidays. You see they would begin on
the fifteenth ; and it would be hardly fair to us that
your salary should be going on from that day to the



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 239

end of the notice, when you would in fact be doing
nothing for it. We will arrange, therefore, if you
please, that you shall stop here until the end of
December : say a fortnight from to-day. I am
wholly unequal to have the children with me at
present ; and it would be much better for them to
have some occupation while things are so unsettled."

I could have laughed at the miserliness of the
woman, grudging her governess a scant fraction of
pay, because it would represent some week or two
without equivalent. She might have retained those
paltry pounds, whether entitled to them or not, and
welcome ! But I was startled at her proposition of
my " staying on." A day, an hour, after the fifteenth,
the consummation of so many hopes ! I would not
have it ! My heart had been throbbing with excite-
ment to think that the event was so near ; it was a
wicked thing, an outrage, a sacrilege, to move it
further by a hair's breadth ! And so my secret leapt
from my mouth.

Had I reflected, it would have been perfectly easy
to forfeit the notice, and decline Mrs. Armitage's
proposition, without assigning any reason for it. But
I was too excited for this.



240 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

" I cannot consent to anything of the kind," I
said, trembling violently. " My inaid comes here on
the fourteenth, and I must leave Hastings the first
thing on the morning following."

" Your inaid, Miss Secretan ! Are you in your
senses ? "

" Perfectly in my senses, Mrs. Armitage. I
repeat, my maid will be here on the fourteenth ; and,
on the next day, we shall post up to London, where
Mr. Fortescue will meet me."

" Meet you ? Mr. Fortescue ? "What do you
mean?"

" Simply, Madam, that I am about to be married
to him. We have been engaged for some weeks
past."

I fear they do not use very good language in the
Custom-house ; and that, at that moment, some
expletive derived from the late Mr. Poynder fled
half-way through the barrier of his relict's teeth, as
Homer says. That is, unless Charles used to mis-
quote him.

" Good heavens, Miss Secretan," exclaimed the
widow ; substituting an ejaculation of less question-
able piety.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 241

"I am sorry to have startled you, Mrs. Armitage," I
said, " but so the fact is." The mischief was done, and
I thought I might as well try and make the best of it.

" Engaged ! Married ! Mr. Fortescue ! Bnt he
is paying his addresses to Miss Armitage ! "

" Such matters," I said, " are frequently open to
misconstruction. Too much importance may have
been attached to circumstances which did not warrant
the inference. At any rate, the fact is as I have told
you. The marriage will take place on the sixteenth.
If my remaining here for the next three days will be
attended with any inconvenience to you, I shall be
happy to dispose of myself elsewhere."

Even as I spoke, I saw the wicked gleam of
exultation come into the step-mother's eye. Even I,
felt a momentary pity for Helen, as I thought of this
added sting in the news she must now hear; the
Judas-kisses, the inuendoes, the feigned condolence !
I felt almost terrified. " Will the mind, disturbed
and excited as it already is, survive this ? " I thought.

Mrs. Armitage replied to me coldly, but not with-
out civility. As often before, Helen had been the
scape-goat between us. Besides, Dalernain and
,20,000 a year inspired some deference.

VOL. i. 16



242 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

" You have certainly taken us by surprise, Miss
Secretan," she said ; " but I suppose I must congra-


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Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 11 of 15)