Herman Ludolphus Prior.

Six months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) online

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from Hastings, I believe, since the archery day.
Somehow, without much special reason why unless


it were Helen's alleged liking for him my fancy had
been a good deal occupied with Mr. Fortescue. The
result, or mental photograph, produced was, I remem-
ber, of the conventional picnic and boating party type.
I had depicted something ruddy, bushy-whiskered,
attentive to ladies, easy-going, abhorrent of enthu-
siasms. I now looked up, and saw perfect male

Ever, even as to the existence of this, had I been
most fastidious, nay, sceptical. But there was no
doubt about it now. The figure that stood before
me in the schoolroom door was slight, tall, indi-
cating twenty-eight years or thereabouts ; the features
faultlessly regular, but without a suspicion of weak-
ness; grave, and rather pallid ; the brow stamped
with intellect ; and the eyes. Such eyes ! Brown,
as far as colour went, but orbs of such infinite depth
and light ! Not the keen eye which looks you
through and through ; or the glistening eye, which
fixes and fascinates ; or the flashing eye scaring with
its pride and fire ; but eyes of such intense love and
tenderness ! As if the material organ were the mere
vestibule, and the soul within looked palpably forth
from it !


"You mean that you fell in love with Mr. For-
tescue at first sight ? "

No, gentle reader ; I did not ; either at first
sight or at any sight. At first sight, I fell into no
emotion but one ; a wholly unaccountable terror.
Rapid as thought ; rapid as the glance which enabled
me to take in the particulars I have just sketched ;
rapid as the surprise and admiration with which they
filled me, came that other feeling ; that strange,
vague terror !

What ; and wiry, was it ?

I had no leisure then to analyze. I bowed slightly.
Mr. Fortescue apologised for his intrusion, but did
not at once leave the room, notwithstanding. The
Villa never could prevail upon itself to do that, when
it had once gained admission ; it was a crucial test,
under which mere politeness and the like social
virtues failed absolutely.

Meanwhile, I found that Mr. Fortescue's voice
struck me no less than his exterior. In other mouths
the tones might have seemed wanting in force ; the
utterance slow, even timid. But this was not the
case here. Far from indicating a defect, the impres-
sion was that of infinite tendresse ; not the mere


negation of an opposite quality, but something posi-
tive, which soothed the ear and touched the emotional
system like the chime of bells on a harvest noon.
Soothing and touching ; and yet with an indescribable
sadness about it, too. The sadness was, in fact, its
most noticeable expression. But enough of all

" You're coming to bathe to-day, are you not,
Mr. Fortescue?" asked Charles. It was always
" Mr. Fortescue," I noticed, in his presence; "For-
tescue " only, at other times. " We've a new place,
out under the East Cliff; you can get there, even at
high tide, by climbing."

" I don't find it so oppressively sultry, Charles."

" Oh ! you'd better come. You'll only be wasting
the afternoon singing duets with Helen ; at least, if
that young cub Fred lets you."

" Now, attend, Florence," I interposed, endeavour-
ing to resume lessons. " Pekin contains, how many
inhabitants by the last census ? "

" Twice as many as Canton, and half as many
again as Nankin. Try that, Flo'," said Charles.
" Come, you didn't mind my saying that about Fred,
old woman ? You know somehow he always does


contrive to be took worse just when Mr. Fortescue
and Helen are singing. It's too much for his sensi-
tive disposition, I suppose."

"I have no doubt, Charles," said Mr. Fortescue,
" you were quite as troublesome a subject yourself,
before you developed into the accomplished member
of society you now are. Do you not think so, Miss
Secretan ? "

" Certainly, as far as the schoolroom is concerned,
he is very difficult to manage indeed. I do assure
you, Mr. Charles, our geography lesson has been
seriously hindered."

" Ah ! but what does it signify, Miss Secretan ?
When a fellow comes making love to our pretty Flo'
here, do you think he'll ask her how many people
there are in Pekin ? I am sure I hate geography ;
also globes and Euclid ; and as to "

" Come, Charles," interposed Mr. Fortescue ;
" we really must not try Miss Secretan's patience too
far. See if you can make out the geography to the
drawing-room. And I don't think I shall bathe to-

" All right, here goes. I'll tell Helen you are


" Pray do not trouble Miss Armitage ; I would
on no account trespass upon her. At least, unless
she is quite disengaged, and would like to try one or
two pieces."

" Ah ! she hasn't got to learn geography, thank
goodness : and as to trouble, that's as people find it.
I never noticed any preternatural exhaustion about
Helen ; sl}e seems pretty hardy. There, I told you

The lessons were clearly doomed for that morning.
As Charles spoke, a light touch rested on our brass,
or staircase, door-handle very different from his
own impetuous wrench and Helen entered.

Notwithstanding Charles' insinuations, she had
clearly not expected to find Mr. Fortescue there ; and
the flush of pleasure with which she did so was as
unmistakable as the surprise.

Of course the newcomer acted as became her age
and sex under the circumstances. That is to say,
she shook hands with Mr. Fortescue ; apologised to
me ; scolded Charles for interrupting the lessons ;
and stopped in the room herself. The pleased
flush did not pass away by any means so rapidly as it
came. It was probably some consciousness of this


which reminded Helen that what she had come into
the room to fetch must be in one of the cupboards.

" Oh ! don't, Helen ; those are my copy-books
you're upsetting," Louisa broke out. " And don't
oh ! please, Miss Secretan, Helen will get all my
books wrong. Oh ! I wish she wouldn't."

" Can I assist Miss Armitage ? " asked Fortescue,
moving to the cupboard.

" Oh ! no, thank you. It was only a German
dictionary I am looking for, and I daresay it's up-

" Then you had better let it stop there," said
Charles, " and ask Mr. Fortescue your words. He is
a walking dictionary of European tongues, not to
mention Arabic and Cochin Chinese, which must be
a blessed language, judging by the way their cocks
crow. Is there any place in the 'abbitable globe, as
Miss Baskcombe used to call it, where you haven't
been, Mr. Fortescue ?"

" Well, I have never been to Pekin, for instance.
Or, for that matter, to Baffin's Bay either."

" Bowles says you've been to Sarawak, and up
Mount Ararat, and the Macaroon mountains."

" Camaroon, Charles, not Macaroon," corrected


Helen. "And they're nothing to do with Mount
Ararat ; they're on the west coast of Africa."

"All right, I know. Out by Madagascar, and
those places. Wasn't it there, Mr. Fortescue, you
had that adventure with the nigger woman ? "

" Oh ! Charles, do tell us," said Louisa, who was
as eager for a story as Scheherazade's- husband.

" I suppose I may as well, for Mr. Fortescue
never would himself. He was sketching there or
something, when he saw a little boy, dressed in the
extreme of nigger fashion, cutting away from two
Yankees. They wanted to steal him, and had no
end of bowie-knives and things. However, Mr. For-
tescue didn't mind, but closed with them ; and he
got one of the parties down and got his knife, and
then the other ran for it, and the nigger boy ran
away too, to his own locations.' But there was a
nest of the Yankees there, and they got Mr. Fortes-
cue afterwards, when he wasn't on the look-out.
They didn't care to kill him out and out, but dragged
him some miles on horseback, and then tied him to
a stump, and left him in the sun, with no water or
feed or anything. So he thought it was all U. P.
with him, and so of course it would have been, if it


hadn't been for the young nigger's mamma. She
had found out by some means inscrutable to the
senses what the Yankees were up to } and managed
to keep them in sight all the way, making a reptile
of herself in the long grass. So when their back
was turned, she advances upon the stage and unties
Mr. Fortescue, which there was no time to be lost,
he being almost cooked. And then he got away
down to some English place on the coast. Wasn't
that the story, sir ? "

" Something like it. But we positively must
give the lessons some chance. Miss Arrnitage, will
you sing ' La ci darem ' ? "

Helen offered no objection, and the schoolroom
was cleared. I had heard little from Mr. Fortescue
beyond monosyllables; and I was vexed, for he
interested and puzzled me. But when Charles took
the talking upon himself, there was scant room for
any one else.

By-and-by, the notes of the Mozart duet reached
me from the drawing-room. And the duet, as was
to be expected, paved the way for various others.
Helen's voice rang with a clear joyous note, like a
bird's carol. Mr. Fortescue's tones, earnest and"


impassioned, wailed in contrast with it, coinciding
without blending. I gathered a feeling of intense
raournfulness from the distant sound. It was the
child's prattling by the fatal eddies of Cocytus ; the
music of the bridal, echoed in the charnel-house of
widowhood and a<?e.



I WAS by no means ill-treated at Harcourt Villa.
Mrs. Armitage, as the reader may have divined, was
no lady, nor desirable in any way ; and I had
anticipated much vulgar insolence from her. But
it did not come ; rather the contrary. Apparently,
the ill-humour she expended upon Helen served as a
safety-valve for myself.

One has come to discredit the conventional type
of a step-mother as something associated with fairy
tale and melodrame. I believe this to be an entire
mistake. Here and there, the wife of the second
marriage identifies herself so far with her husband's
past life as to make his children her own. But what
a rare unselfishness this implies ! The instincts are
all the other way; and if the character is simply
natural, simply an indifferent or every -day one, the


instinct becomes dominant. How much more where
there is not a negative character merely, but a bold,
scheming, imperious one ; a tyranny of strength
over feebleness, of greed over unsuspicion !

Poor Mr. Arrnitage ! When he buried out of
sight that other Helen, the poetry of his boy-dreams,
the wife of his manhood, he had far better have
buried himself too ! Happier to sleep among the
hill-side graves of " All Saints," under the shadow
of its battered tower, than to live his existing life
in death ! Heaven only IUIOAVS what element of
attraction he had detected in the umquhile Mrs.
Poynder. She had neither youth nor passable looks ;
neither money nor wit, nor accomplishments. My
own belief is that the union was a deliberate plot
upon the woman's side. How conceived or executed

I never exactly learnt, but entirely successful ; a

brilliant coup de main, as the indecorous haste of

the marriage itself indicated.

However, this was past and gone, and may be
left in its obscurity. What is material to the present,
purpose, and what I discovered before my residence
at Harcourt Villa was many weeks old, was that the
wife and step-mother was unquestionably plotting still.

VOL. i. 3


The dramatis personae stood thus. Mr. Armitage.
A student, a refined and courteous gentleman, but
living wholly abstracted from society, and so shattered
in health that it could not be long before the hand-
some fortune at his disposal would pass into other
hands. Mr. Armitage's children. Charles and
Helen ; entitled to some trifling property from their
own mother, and the natural successors to that of
their father. Mrs. Armitage's children. My two
pupils, and the engaging Fred ; inheriting neith-er
from her nor from the defunct Poynder, possession or
reversion of any kind ; and, most certainly, unless
by some wholly unnatural perversion, having nothing
to do with any succession from Mr. Armitage.

And yet, it was precisely this perversion which
Mr. Armitage's present wife, the remaining actor in
this domestic drama, was unmistakably plotting to
bring about.

Two short questions, with their answers, and I
may then dismiss the reader from this preliminary
but necessary phase in my narrative. How did I
discover there was any such plot ? And, what were
its chances of success ?

To take the latter first. It seemed to me the


chances were actually good ; even although, as I
quickly saw, the effort was being made for the least
promising of its three possible subjects. For it was
Fred who absorbed the maternal solicitudes; Fred,
for whom at least the lion's share, if any, was
destined. Monstrous as this appeared, it was
assuredly not hopeless. It will be more correct to
say that, given a few months longer and the neces-
sary opportunities, and it was almost a certainty !

Never in this world was subjugation more com-
plete than that of Mr. Armitage to his present wife.
It passed belief or rational explanation. Passed both
so far that, had it arisen from any enfeeblement of
the mere intellectual element it might have been of
little use to the wife's scheme; the law could not
have given effect to any disposition of property she
might thus have obtained. But there was no trace
of such enfeeblement. Mr. Armitage's mind, as
such, was as clear and vigorous as ever. His study,
which he frequently never quitted for days together,
bore evidences of close and sustained thought. He
was still the contributor, and a successful one, to
more than one periodical of literary note. But oh !
how painfully prostrate was the man himself, the


real life of will and action ! There were many times
when I saw husband and wife together. She was
never excited, never peremptory. There was no
struggle in which the man resisted and yet failed ;
he was neither snuhbed nor hen-pecked, neither
frowned at nor paralyzed into submission. What he
did undergo was a possession ; it is the only term
for it. The stronger nature had so entirely con-
quered, that its antagonist* was, so to speak, extermi-
nated ; the volition of one mind had become the
volition of the other ; the less worthy, of the
worthier !

What strife and suffering and cowardice, what
moral hard blows and starvation in the past this
state of things might represent, I could no more tell
than I could account for the obedience of a trained
animal; but there was the fact in the present.
Indeed, the mastery acquired was so complete that
Mr. Armitage would occasionally be as tenacious in
carrying out the decisions thus imposed upon him as
if they had been his own. A casual observer might
have left the house with the impression that he was a
man of singular obstinacy and pith !

Oh ! no. The plot was only too hopeful. Already


the wife held in her hand one of the main pullies of
the game; she had almost wholly estranged her
husband's mind both from Charles and Helen. There
were traces of a deep-seated misery in himself, now
and then, some touch of natural affection for them ;
but these became daily rarer. The alienation of
feeling was fast progressing, and the alienation of
substance would be a comparative trifle afterwards.
Hardly a fatuity or a crime greater than the father's
own second marriage !

I have still shortly to answer my own further
question, how I became aware of what was going on ?
Certainly not through my own clear-sightedness.
Whether I might eventually have blundered on the
discovery I cannot say : but the fact is, I was let into
the plot by the chief actor. Mrs. Armitage herself,
unsolicited, and greatly to my surprise, made me the
recipient of various confidences which enlightened
even my girlish brains. The pieces of the puzzle
were shown me separately, but I must have been a
baby if I could not have put them together. For
instance, one favourite topic, constantly presented to
me in chance conversations, was the state of Mr.
Armitage's health. Had his wife been watching the


operation of a slow poison the diagnosis could not
have been made with more exactness. "You see,
Miss Secretan," she would say, "there is a general
failing in him. It would not be perceptible to a
stranger ; but watching him as I do, from month to
month, it strikes me very painfully. I believe the
doctors call it a deficiency of vital power. He sleeps
worse, eats less, becomes less capable of exertion,
every day. His pulse this morning was only sixty ;
so unlike the full pulse of health and vigour, Miss
Secretan. It is impossible for me not to feel that I
may not have him much longer with me."

This, or something to this effect, would be piece
No. 1. No. 2 would perhaps be as follows : "I fear
you find Charles very troublesome in the house, Miss
Secretan. I can assure you he is a great trial to his
father ; he hardly knows how to arrange for him. I
need not tell you that my husband's property is very
handsome ; and if anything should happen to him,
the bulk of it would of course go to Charles, after
providing suitably for his sister. But Mr. Armitage
is very uneasy about it. Charles is so impetuous, the
merest creature of impulse ; and you never know
what may take possession of him. Just now, he has


got some idea he would like to be a missionary, or
something of the kind " (I did rather open my eyes
at this ;) " and, if so, what his father left him
would be squandered in six months on societies and
impostors of all kinds. In fact, squandered it is
certain to be, in any case. It is so very difficult to
know what to do."

Then would come piece No. 3. " You see, Miss
Secretan, coming as I did to take the head of Mr.
Armitage's household, I had no right to expect the
indulgence he has shown me. I do not refer to my
settlements, although I am sure they were of the
handsomest description. But I am so touched with
his kindness to the dear children. I assure you he is
as fond of my darling Fred as if he were his own ;
and dear Freddy entirely responds to it. He is never
so well pleased as Avhen he is allowed to be in Papa's
study. And I think some of the easiest moments
Mr. Armitage knows are when he relaxes in his lite-
rary pursuits, and listens to the dear child's innocent
prattle. I take care, of course, never to let him tres-
pass on his Papa ; but they are really quite attached
to each other. And Mr. Armitage is so exceedingly
good in speaking of the future. He has assured me


repeatedly that the dear boy shall net be forgotten ;
that I shall be quite satisfied with what he intends to
do for him. Not that I am looking forward to any-
thing of the kind, or should at all wish it for him,
excepting as an evidence of his Papa's kindness.
You see, Miss Secretan, you have so completely
made yourself one of us that I do not mind telling
you these things. I need not add, in strict confi-

And so on, with other similar revelations. Why
I was thus favoured I find it hard to understand.
Mrs. Armitage never endeavoured to make an accom-
plice of me, and would have reaped small advantage
in doing so ; even if the warm attachment which
Helen speedily formed for me, and which I fully
returned, had not forbidden the idea. Possibly, she
rated my penetration in such matters even lower than
it deserved. Or she may have wished to sound
Helen and Charles through me. Or may have
thought it desirable, in case of success, to have
secured some evidence of the spontaneous character
of Mr. Armitage's acts. Or, after all, it may have
been mere temperament. Some natures must live
out loud. Their grief and joy, their anxieties and


hopes and schemes and projects, are in the eyes and
ears of their fellow-men. While, with others, the
emotions are huried under what piled Alps ! in
what abysses of cavernous reserve !

Be this as it may, it was impossible not to see
that, if the conditions should serve as they had
hitherto done, there would be a fair prospect, at
least, of Charles and Master Fred changing places in
Mr. Armitage's will. Whether such a document
existed, and would require to be altered ; or did not
exist, and would require to be made, I could not so
well discover. It struck me that Mrs. Armitage was
not quite sure herself.

Let it suffice to have premised thus much in
reference to this lady and her machinations. After
all, it is principally in their results, more or less
direct, that they have a bearing on my story.



" MY attachment to Helen ! " I wrote thus in the
preceding chapter. But what a dreain the words
sound now !

A dream ?

Yes. If the assassin may call that a dream
during which he sat, then perhaps little anticipating
the future, at the same board with his victim of a
later date ; drank out of the same cup with him ;
shared his trust, his hour of weakness and unreserve !
Yes. If the tiger-cub dreams, during the months
for which he is the plaything of the house, and
before he has torn from its socket the arm which fed
him !

No, indeed. It is very well for the innocent to
put that bright old dreamland on the canvas, and
contrast it, soothingly and tenderly, with some soberer


hue in the present. But what the guilty feel in this
" past " and " present " is the pang of two sharp
realities. The one what they have been : loving,
happy, all-befriended. The other what they are :
self-exiled, self-doomed ; outlaws from all love, from
all joy !

" My attachment to Helen ! " No, indeed, it was
no dream ; it was only too true. A frank, hearty
attachment enough. As she merited. As our position
and age, in which we were so nearly matched, naturally
suggested. As even my evil nature was then in
some measure capable of.

Let me recall Helen as she was in those times,
before my fatal companionship crossed her path. In
looking at her, I always felt as if I was looking at a
flower ; I do not mean in any metaphorical or con-
ventional sense, but literally. What the flower was,
I never analysed ; probably nothing more recondite
than a primrose or wood anemone ; it matters not.
What I mean is, that a face and form so tenderly
innocent, excluded all association with the wear and
tear of a work-day existence. They were too spring-
like, too fresh, to suggest that their vocation in life
should' extend beyond that of gladdening the heart


and eye that rested on them. Having premised which,
let me entreat the reader not to infer that Helen
Armitage was a doll. The fair brow and exquisitely
fair it was arched often enough with the lines of
humour ; the eye could twinkle, and, now and then,
the lip pout ; and there was a bright calm intelligence
in the whole face, as in the character itself. But the
impression which it left longest upon you was that
of its rare purity and innocence ; as I have said, of
the flower. Not this or that brilliant garden queen,
but the blossom one stumbles upon in some nook of
the woods, and leaves untouched in very worship of
its simple beauty.

Small toil was it to win from that trusting heart
its one secret. If Mr. Fortescue loved, he would
not have to ask in vain. That was clear enough,
without telling. But I had not to wait long before
the lip-confession came also. The secret struggled
into light, and became objective and articulate.
Fenced indeed, even then, almost from its posses-
sor's own consciousness, with all maidenly reserve :
whispered on my shoulder, with a flushed cheek and
a throbbing heart ; in the tender twilight of stars, by
the ripple of the full tide, on the pebble terraces of


the beach. But still, the old tale, always new. Old
as woman's heart, with its unsuspicion, its tender-
ness, its self-sacrifice. New and fresh as the dews
and fern-fronds ; as the sound and fragrance of the
day's uprising, which make a child again of world-
worn eighty !

" If Mr. Fortescue loved Helen." Did he do so?

Apparently yes. His exclusive attention to her
was hardly compatible with any other belief; and
matters were fast reaching a point at which it must
either be discontinued, or lead to its presumable

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Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 15)