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tulate you. I hope you are acting prudently. You
go to London, you say, on leaving this ; have you
any friends there ? Where will the marriage take
place ? "

" From the hotel," I said. " Friends or kindred
I have absolutely none. I lived in London formerly,
but there is no one there now to take me in. But it
will only be for one night. Mr. Fortescue has
engaged rooms for me at a first-class family hotel ;
one which I know well, at the West End : and I
shall have my maid there with me. The ceremony
will be performed next day, of course quite quietly, at
a church in the neighbourhood ; which I also know
well by sight. I must really apologise, Mrs.
Arrnitage," I added, seeing how far the ruffled
feathers were smoothing down, " for having kept
you in ignorance of the step I contemplated. But
Mr. Fortescue's arrangements could not be completed
earlier ; and there were obvious reasons why the
engagement should not be spoken of meanwhile."

" Certainly," said Mrs. Armitage. " Poor Helen,
I am afraid this will be a serious disappointment to



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 243

her. But really, she has mainly herself to thank for
it. I always disapproved of her allowing Mr. Fortes-
cue to be on such intimate terms with her, unless
there was a positive engagement. He never did say
anything to Helen, I believe, Miss Secretan?"

"Nothing whatever. They were intimate, that
was all."

" Ah ! to be sure. So exceedingly imprudent in
a young woman ! I often felt inclined to speak, but
I should not have been listened to; Helen and
Charles have always had their own way far too much
for that : and now we see the consequences. How-
ever I will not detain you. By all means continue
here until your maid arrives ; in fact, until you leave
Hastings. I am very pleased to be able to give you
the accommodation. Good evening."

Did not I know why the conversation was broken
off ? The step-mother was thirsting to communicate
her news to the heart it would wound so deeply. The
viper-tongues of malice, jealousy, and old rankling
hate, were darting forth, eager to fasten on their
prey!

I retreated, half- frightened, to my own room.
Undo the past ; forfeit the future ? No, indeed. I



244 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

could not do it, even if I would : and, if I could,
most certainly I would not. But I did shudder at
the scene that had to be enacted that night. The
stah the cruel, cruel, treacherous stab ; so unlocked
for, so piercing, so aggravated; and, all of it my
handiwork ! I buried my head deep under the
clothes. I feared that I might hear something : some
outcry, something dreadful, I knew not what.

Sleep surprised me, shutting out the unknown
terror from sight and sound ; and yet, with every
nerve strained, watching for it !

For the remaining three days of my stay at
Hastings I did not quit the schoolroom, except in
passing from it to my own room. Mrs. Arniitage,
at my request, sent me there what I required.

I saw at a glance that every soul in the house
knew what had occurred. Almost every meal was
brought up by a different servant. They came in,
each impatient to satisfy her curiosity ; staring at me
with eager wonder, as if I were a wild beast, or a
criminal, or a lunatic : as if I might be expected
then and there, to perpetrate some act of horror and
frenzy !

The little girls came in for their lessons. I had



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 245

particularly desired this ; it would serve to pass the
time : it would calm down my mind, throbbing
alternately between that spectre-like dread in the
present, and the delirious joy of the future. They
came in to me as if I were a naughty child, locked
upstairs for some offence. Florence, shyly and
timidly, but with a grave look on her face ; a kind of
fear and shrinking from me, which cut me to the
heart. Louisa was simply inquisitive ; inclined, if
I would have let her, to open up the whole subject,
and ask a hundred curious questions. But this I
effectually nipped in the bud.

And then, on one of these three days, in passing
between the two rooms, I met Charles. Oh ! the
look he gave me ! It is cut into my memory like
the engraving of a seal ; its deep, deep scorn !
Why did he look at me like that ? Did he not know
that I loved him ? oh ! I knew now how dearly ;
with my whole heart and soul : I could have kissed
the ground he trod upon ; could have died for him ;
have done eveiything, except give up the golden
future for which I had bartered my own self !

Might I not even do that ? Ah ! the thought
did cross me. Somewhere in my heart there did



246 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

open out, a very little -way, the door of that late
repentance. But it was dashed out of my hand,
even as I stood grasping it. As if the gust of a
hurricane had passed by and torn it from me.
" What, repent ? Alter all now ? Be the byword of
the whole town ? And for what good, too ? Can
Helen marry Mr. Fortescue now, even if you do not ?
Will Charles make up to you ? Childishness ! "

And then I fled back to my room, and buried my
face in my hands, sobbing : sobbing, first for bitter
grief; and then in petulance and anger. " Why did
he look at me like that?" I repeated. " Where was
the use of it ? Had I not thought it all over, and
was it not palpable that it must go on now ? It was
unkind, unjust of him ! "

Which day this meeting occurred I have forgotten.
But the last day of my Hastings sojourn lives freshly
in my recollection. It brought me two visitors.

The first was one whom I had very little expected,
Mr. Latrobe. He asked to see me in the schoolroom,
just as the morning lessons were finished, and the
girls sent to their play. The last lessons now !

Mr. Latrobe looked grave, and I was prepared to
resent his visit accordingly : at least, if it had any



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 247

reference to my engagement. But it was hardly
possible that it should. What had he to do with it ?

" Miss Secretan," he said, " I will not affect to
disguise what I have come ahout. It is only indeed to
ask one question ; and, although I am taking some-
thing of a liberty in doing so, it is not a wholly
unpardonable one under the circumstances. But I
must not say another word without your permission.
Do you grant it ? "

Grave although Mr. Latrobe's manner was, he
spoke gently and even kindly. My heart was bleed-
ing and bruised, and craved for some sympathy. I
could not refuse him.

" My reason for trespassing upon you then, Miss
Secretan," said the curate, " is simply this. I found
Charles Armitage yesterday in great trouble. He has
been so indeed ever since his father's death, aggra-
vated as it was by that cruel will. But yesterday I
saw there was something superadded. I then found
it was on Miss Armitage's account. It was what she
had been told in reference to yourself and Mr. Fortes-
cue : to an engagement between you."

I was about to speak, but Mr. Latrobe gently
held up his hand. " I feared I should offend you,



248 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

Miss Secretan," he said; "but I shall not trespass
on you long. The question I wish to ask is a very
short and simple one. Only, whether the account
we have thus heard is true ? You see it came from a
suspicious quarter. Mrs. Armitage, I am sorry to say,
is a person whom it is impossible to trust ; and, at
present, the fact rests upon her authority only."

" No other is needed," I said, my resentment
beginning to get tbe upper hand again. " It is the
fact that I leave Hastings to-morrow, and my mar-
riage with Mr. Fortescue is arranged to take place
the day after. I presume I am mistress of my own
actions."

" Certainly, Madam," said the curate, rising.
" I will not intrude upon you further. Good morn-
ing." But he came back again from the door.

" Miss Secretan," he said, " we have been some-
thing of friends during your residence here ; do not
let us part in unkindness. I am aware my inquiry
must have seemed strange; but you would pardon
me if you knew all. You probably do not know "
and here a deep flush passed over bis face " that I
was myself once a suitor for Miss Armitage's hand.
A rejected suitor. Mr. Fortescue was preferred."



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 249

" I had heard of this," I said. I had always
liked Mr. Latrobe, and the kindness of his manner
again disarmed me.

" If so," he said, " you will understand me better.
When my fate was announced, I made no complaint.
I sealed up my love for her, for Helen, deep in my
own heart, and believed I had subdued it. I should
have learnt to do so as a Christian man, had the
engagement taken place. Yesterday, I heard for the
first time, this final and absolute reason why it should
not do so. Let me now make a confession, Miss
Secretan," the curate continued. " My first impulse,
when I heard this, was, I grieve to say, that of pas-
sionate joy. Helen then was free ! I had at least a
chance, a possibility ; it was not henceforth quite
hopeless. In my utter selfishness I thought, at first,
nothing of her ; of her sorrow. But, in the evening,
I did. On the few occasions when I had seen her
and Mr. Fortescue together since my own rejection,
I had watched her evident love for him with bitter
jealousy. I could not bear it. But now I began to
think what she must be suffering in the recollections
of this past time. I forced myself to forget my own
interest in the matter ; the renewed hope there might



250 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

thus be for myself. I questioned whether there
might not be some for her; whether the account
- might not be erroneous ; some mis-statement, wilful
or unintentional, of Mrs. Armitage's. And I accord-
ingly came here, trespassing upon you in this way,
just to ask the question ; neither she nor Charles
knowing of my coming here. Miss Secretan,"
he added, " I give you my honour as a man that
your answer has pained me to the soul. It has raised
the cup, possibly to my lips ; but it has dashed it
for ever from hers, poor child. I believe I could
have purchased with my life's blood that it should
have been the other way : that I should have borne
the sorrow ; not her. Can you pardon me now ? "

" There is nothing to pardon," I said. " You
are as generous in this as in all else. Mr. Latrobe,"
I added timidly, after a moment's pause, " you are a
clergyman, a minister of religion. Do you blame
me like all the rest? Have I been so very, very
wicked ? "

"You startle me, Miss Secretan," he said. "I
do not blame you ; I do not presume to do so. I
have been too erring myself, and too recently, to
judge you. Besides, I know little of what has been



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 251

going on. Certainly, your engagement has greatly
surprised me. On Mr. Fortescue's part I have no
hesitation in saying that it is a most dishonourable
act. As to your share in it, the world, I warn
you, will not Jbe over-lenient : how far your own
heart and conscience will acquit you, I cannot tell. I
hope they may. But, Miss Secretan," he continued,
" should there be, as you say, any ' tvickedness ' in the
marriage itself: I do not see how there can be,
whatever may be thought of the engagement; but,
should there be such ; or, should anything, at the last
moment, warn you that it is an ominous and ill-advised
marriage, then, in Heaven's name, thrust it from
you. There is certainly something I do not quite
understand about the matter: something strange and
unaccountable. Look well before you take any irre-
vocable step in it. Do not let it wreck your happi-
ness, as well as Helen's. Do not let it make two
victims. And now farewell."

The day passed ; and I retired to rest with a
troubled heart and aching brow. And then came my
laet visitor. But not to my waking self.

Mr. Latrobe's last words had greatly disturbed
me. Once more, and this time very prominently,



252 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

the singular circumstances of my engagement rose to
my recollection. It was a strange union ! Letters
had passed between Mr. Fortescue and myself during
the last few weeks ; several letters. And yet no-
word of love: no pretence or mimicry. of it even. I
was to be carried to Dalemain like the bride of an
Eastern monarch ; wedded without wooing ; wedded
to I knew not what ; gorgeously tricked out like a
victim for the sacrificial rite. The curate's last words
rung in my ear still. I was filled with a terrible
foreboding ; the renewal of the feeling which had so
often, and so unaccountably seized upon me in Mr.
Fortescue's company.

And now, the companionship was to be for life !

Could I not retract ? Oh ! could I not, even at
this supreme hour ?

No. I could not. I was bound hand and foot :
hurried along in the grooves of a stern necessity.
The teraphim I had set up to worship were now my
gods. I must do their bidding, follow where they
pointed : I could not, even for a moment's conference
with myself, escape from their stony gaze.

Wearied out, I fell asleep : not into a sound
sleep, but one fitful and disturbed ; and in which I



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 253

became from time to time aware of some unusual
sound close at hand. Apparently, it was the sup-
pressed breathing of some one outside the door. I
was too tired to rouse myself for this, or even to
recognise it distinctly as existing; but, whatever it
was, the sound must have gone on for two or three
hours. I then became wholly unconscious, and slept
till morning.

When I awoke and looked round me, I saw that
my dressing-table was not as I had left it overnight.
The articles of toilet had been slightly displaced;
and a paper now lay there, with a small gold trinket
beside it. The latter I at once recognized ; it was
a present I had given Helen on her birthday in the
autumn. The paper, which was not folded, had a
few lines written upon it. Helen's writing, as I at
once saw ; although the manuscript was much
blurred, and in parts hardly legible : very different
to her usual fair neat hand.

The paper ran thus.

" I have heard all. Your gift is restored with
this. My forgiveness I will try to give' you. I dare
not withhold it ; I, who have myself so much to be
forgiven. But I cannot write the word yet. I



254 " SIX MONTHS. HENCE."

cannot write much of anything; my heart seems
crushed out of me. Oh ! will no one pity me ? will
not you, Maria ? No ; no ; you are quite pitiless :
quite without remorse ! Maria, how could you look
at me, and speak to me, and take me in your arms,
knowing all : knowing all, all the time ? How could
you do it ? "

And this scroll the poor girl had watched to place
on my table. Watched through those long chill
hours of the December night. Watched at my door.
Listening furtively until I should sleep, and then
stealing in, in secrecy and silence. Dreading, lest
by some accident I might wake. Dreading, lest she
might ever again hear the voice, ever again meet the
eye which she had taken to her girl's heart so con-
fidingly ; which she had bound up with her own life
and love, only that they might pierce both so traitor-
ously !



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 255



CHAPTER XV.

TOTALLY altered was the aspect of affairs as I drove
away from Hastings next day. It was a bright,
genial morning for the time of year ; and very bright
and genial I felt also. Those past troubles, the
emotions and impressions of the last few days, of the
night previous ; why, they had rolled away as the
night itself had. It was all sunshine now. Every
mile as we drove along the road the cottages looked
trimmer ; the berries in the hedge-rows more ruddy ;
the labourers more cheery at their work. I admired
the dingles, where the warm-tinted leaves had hardly
yet fallen from the boughs ; the curling smoke and
ivy-twined church-porches ; the distant glimpses of
blue sea. I was very happy ; as happy as Moore's
Peri could have been. The gates of Paradise ; were
they not unclosing, very perceptibly, now? And,



256 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

to-morrow they would be wide open, and I should
enter. "Joy! Joy!"

The maid whom Mr. Fortescue had engaged for
me had arrived in due course the day before, and I
at once saw that the selection had been made with
studious regard for my convenience. She was a
somewhat elderly person, aufait in the requirements
of her work, observantly respectful, and wholly devoid
of inquisitiveness or comment as to the somewhat
unusual journey we were to make together ; so that
all difficulties were smoothed on this score.

With Mrs. Armitage I had parted on wholly
amicable terms. She had come to my room in the
morning, before I started, and, without any reference
to the past, or speciality of any kind, had wished me
a safe journey and happiness in my new career. She
added an inquiry as to the hour at which the carriage
was to be at the door. " It may be pleasanter for
you," she said, " to leave the house without meeting
any one ; and I will arrange that servants and others
shall be disposed of out of your way."

All which duly came to pass. What listening
at doors, or peeping from windows there may have
been, I cannot say. No doubt, the suspicion and



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 257

curiosity of the last few days culminated when the
urnquhile governess drove off from the door with pos-
tilion and lady's maid, and a handsome "imperial"
strapped on the roof. No doubt, some other feelings
then culminated too : feelings far enough removed
from imperials and ladies' maids ; the anguish of
a betrayed trust, the desolation of a heart, sore and
stricken unto death ! Psha ! What did I care ?

Within ten minutes after the post-chaise drew
up, I had turned my back on Harcourt Villa and its
occupants. Their grief and their joy; their emo-
tions, and utterances, and surmises, were henceforth
to be all at an end, for me : thrown aside like
lumber; perished as if they had belonged to a pre-
historic race !

Five minutes more took me beyond the last
houses of the town. Painfully the long hill on the
London road was climbed ; more rapidly we drove
by Ore Church. Once again, two or three miles on,
I caught sight of the old Castle ; the East Hill ; the
fishing-smacks. Then, woods intervened. Then, at
Battle, even the names on the milestones changed ;
and, in all human belief and likelihood, Hastings
was to me a thing of the past, for ever !

VOL. i. 17



258 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

We reached London without misadventure. Mr.
Fortescue was at the hotel to receive us. He met
me, neither with embarrassment nor warmth ; but
with a singular gentleness of manner. His manner
indeed had always this quality ; one in striking
contrast with the daring he could exhibit when
required : but it had it now more markedly than
ever ; not a mere Quaker-like placidity ; I do not
mean that ; but a kindness and consideration for me
in act and word, an anxiety to spare me annoyance
or alarm of any kind, which struck me as infinitely
touching. Hard as I had now become, my heart
still vibrated to this chord. I was lonely and unpro-
tected : I felt it now : relying solely on the honour
of a comparative stranger; and this reception of
me, so entirely in harmony with the position, at once
pleased and softened me. Far more so than a more
demonstrative meeting would have done. As there
are some subdued utterances which rivet our atten-
tion more than impassioned speech ; as the romance
may interest us, not from its being sensational, to
use a modern cant phrase, but from the emotional
force in it, without which narrative is certainly not
worth the perusal; so Mr. Fortescue's manner at



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 259

this meeting impressed me with a feeling of deep
pathos. He watched over me and cared for me, as
he would have done for something unbefriended or
suffering. As he had done for Fred, I now remem-
hered. Psha ! what was I thinking of ? My memory
had no business at Hastings now !

Mr. Fortescue saw us ushered to the handsome
drawing-room he had engaged, but would not join me
there himself. He entered into the necessary detail
for the arrangements for the following morning, and
then left me to repose.

I was tired. I had not rested well the night
before. I slept long and sound. Slept far into the
struggling light of the December morning; of my
wedding-day !

Half-past ten was the hour Mr. Fortescue had
fixed. He would meet us at the church-door. He
trusted that would give me time enough for my pre-
parations ; it was rather early, but another marriage
had already been arranged to follow.

Time enough ! Oh ! yes, and to spare, notwith-
standing my late rising. I had no eager eyes to
feast themselves on my dress, beautiful as it was :
no contingent of doubtful guests to come in, late but



260 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

welcome, on the wedding-morning; no sisters or
friends to give the toilette its finishing touches ; no
last words to be spoken ; no tears to shed, or to be
shed for me. Besides, was I not impatient ? Had
not the dawn of promise broken, the resurrection -
life of my obscure past, the avenue of untold happi-
ness? I only feared being late: feared some acci-
dent, some contretemps !

By ten o'clock I was seated quite ready; that
costly fabric of millinery upon me ; those pearls in
niy hair ; that veil thrown over my head. No, there
would be nothing wrong : how could there be,
now ?

Soon after ten, a superb bouquet was handed into
the room, fresh from the hot-house. Mr. Fortescue's
own servant had brought it; and brought another
gift with it : a jewel-case; priceless, radiant. ''The
family diamonds," Mr. Fortescue told me in a short
note. " He had had them reset, and kept them as a
surprise for that morning."

A surprise ! Well, they were that : Aladdin was
surprised enough at the gems which glittered in the
vaults all round him. But they were something else
too. They were the earnest of future satisfactions ;



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 261

the vouchers which Aladdin felt he was transferring
from the brazen coffers to his own keeping. Oh !
no, no : there could be nothing wrong now.

The sound of wheels, too, now ! The carriage,
my maid told me : it had just driven up to the
hotel door.

Through the file of respectfully admiring servants
I was beautiful that morning ; my glass told me
so, and I knew it instinctively Avithout telling
through their bowing ranks ; past the knots ot
visitors to the hotel, whom curiosity had attracted
to the hall ; past the gaping and jostling crowd out-
side ; into the exquisite travelling-carriage, chosen
with such perfect taste, fitted with such appliances of
ease and luxury ! All certain now ! Ay, indeed !
Was I happy ? why, they were fools and dotards
who had ever used the word before !

And was there then no warning; no last hand
stretched out to save me ; no signal-light to scare me
off at the very last, moment : at the very last ? Did
I drift, without star or beacon, on that iron-ribbed
headland, that pitiless surf, those seething breakers ?

Yes, indeed, there was. A circumstance incon-
venient and ominous enough.



262 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

The church where the ceremony was to take
place was at a few streets' distance from the hotel.
The carriage drove rapidly, and we had turned into
one of these thoroughfares before discovering that
it was already otherwise occupied. The long cortege
of a funeral had taken possession of the street, and
was marching down it in gloomy pomp; and the
pace at which we had rounded the corner brought us
into the very heart of this, almost sending our pole
into the back of one of the mourning coaches. The
postilions tried to turn, but it was impossible ; we
had become hopelessly involved with the procession,
and must move forward with it. A long, straight,
narrow street ; no outlet, no chance of escape, before
the bottom !

Ah ! it was ominous enough !

How sick at heart I felt with the sudden change
from our previous brisk pace to that monstrous tar-
diness, that deliberate, lethargic motion ! How I
shuddered even at the carriage before me, its grim
draperies, its mutes, its conductor ! And in what
fascination of horror did I lower the window, and
look at the hearse which headed the procession, its
nodding plumes, its tawdry imageries of death !



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 263

Should we never emerge from this hateful pre-
sence ?

At last ! we did. And the warning passed from
me as it had come. Ominous was it ? What did I
care ? Here we were at the church-door !

I had told Mrs. Armitage that I knew that
church. I did. Nine-tenths of the " distinguished
marriages " in London were celebrated in that
building. Often, in my old obscure life, had I
paused on the opposite side, watching with jealous
curiosity the entry or egress of some brilliant train.


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Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 15)