Herman Ludolphus Prior.

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

. (page 7 of 15)
Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

tection to the young ladies."

" And as to the first," said Charles, " it is a
complete myth : we can get up the stream as easily as
possible now the water is so low. There is a regular
turnpike road in the rock all along. You needn't go
on the bank at all."

I rather fancied the scramble, and joined Charles
and Mr. Fortescue, who was also content to try it.
So we started.

Here and there the bed of the stream became
impassable, and we had to struggle as we could
through the bushes and underwood on the side.
But for the most part, it justified Charles's under-
taking. Better than the fall itself did when reached.
It was altogether infantine ; the height considerably
lower than even Old Roar, and the water dwindled to


a few drops. But there was something shapely and
picturesque about the place, and we sat enjoying it.
The more so, as the day was exceedingly warm ;
August rather than October; and our seat was in

Apparently our satisfaction in this retirement was
largely shared by certain of the lower members of
creation. Late as the time of year was, the air was
vocal with insects ; one or two gaudy butterflies
hovered round us ; birds twittered in the still closely-
massed foliage. One creature was peculiarly demon-
strative ; a lively little frog, which seemed to be
gamboling on the edge of the pool or basin formed
at the foot of the miniature waterfall. A singular
kind of gambol too ; hardly referable to anything in
the animal's own constitution, but apparently excited
by some external but unseen cause. Much as the
puppet obeys the direction of the hand that guides it
underneath, or the magnetic needle swings round to
its pole. And, when we came to examine it, the
movement did not look so much like gamboling,
either ; it more resembled the action of involuntary
and spasmodic terror.

" That's an awfully eccentric frog," said Charles.


"What on earth is he adoing of? Do look, he's
spinning round like a dancing dervish. I say, what
game's up now ? " continued the speaker, as the
animal gave a frantic hop across his boot.

The question was answered by that appeal to the
senses which, once heard, is never afterwards forgotten
or mistaken. A palpitating rustle among the dry
leaves. A slithering motion, half sight, and half
sound, shooting through the grass ; and then, out
darted a large snake, and, clearing the open space in
front of us, buried itself in the brushwood opposite.

" Pop goes the weasel," said Charles, as he went
off in chase ; " we haven't done with you yet, governor.
I say, here he is; come and look, Miss Secretan.
He thinks I can't see him, but he's labouring under
an entire delusion ; ain't you, you wicked animal ?
Now you stand on one side, Miss Secretan ; he can't
hurt you. I'll exterminate the viper."

" Oh ! don't, Mr. Charles," I cried, eagerly. " I
am sure it's not a viper, it's much too long for one,
and differently marked. Even if it were, I don't see
why it should be killed. Please let it go."

"Very well, if you wish it. Cut then," said
Charles, making a poke at the creature's tail which


led to its immediate and final disappearance. " There,
he's absquatulated now. But you don't really mean,
Miss Secretan, that you like snakes ? "

" I don't know about liking ; but I can't under-
stand the antipathy people generally have to them.
Of course, I shouldn't care to find a cobra under my
pillow, or even an English adder, for that matter. I
should dislike anything that was going to bite and
hurt me. But I have no rooted objection to a snake
as such."

"Haven't you," said Charles, wonderingly. "Why,
I hate the sight of one, whatever kind it is. I thought
everybody did."

" I know everybody does, or nearly so ; and that's
what is so unjust. I consider snakes a very ill-used
race. They are the most beautiful creatures in the
world ; and so intelligent and tameable, too. Only
compare them with pigs ; or with Miss Bowles's

" Oh ! but then pigs and poodle-dogs are honest
animals in their way ; even Miss Bowles's, although
you do find its teeth in the fleshy part of your calf
more frequently than is desirable. But snakes are
such malignant brutes. Look at their head, when


they're going to strike ; or at the way they worry a
bird or rabbit. I think they're perfect devils."

" Exactly so. People associate them with some-
thing fiendish and Satanic, and then persecute them
accordingly. It is only that they are more keen-
witted than other creatures, and have such dispro-
portionate force for their size. There is something
weird-like about that ; and, perhaps too, about their
being so fond of music, and such noiseless and
refined animals generally ; but it makes them all the
more interesting. I shouldn't at all mind ..."

I stopped abruptly, and, I was conscious, very
awkwardly. I stopped, from the strange perception
one has, even when one's own eyes are otherwise
occupied, that some other eyes are fastened upon
you. I turned slightly, and saw whose the eyes were.

Mr. Fortescue's. They were now fixed upon me
with an expression which I had never before seen in

He had often before observed, watched me ; looked
me through and through. I have already mentioned
it. I had rarely of late met him without his doing
so. But the painfully humbled manner which he
usually wore at such times was now absent. In its


place was a look of intense relief. It is the only
term for it. It was too earnest for excitement ; too
sad and touching for mere pleasure. But it was an
expression of extreme rest. Hitherto, his scrutiny
of me had been inquiring, anxious, unrequiting.
Now, it seemed to have resulted in some definite

Those marvellous eyes ! Full of tenderness and
intellect as they always were, they had now something
heyond this. A light seemed to well up in them,
in their extreme depths, far behind the pupil, and
bringing one into actual rapport with the speaking
soul itself !

I had not much leisure for these observations ;
as usual Mr. Fortescue's look at once fell, on
encountering mine. I had still less inclination.
For, now again, now for the third time, that
inexplicable terror passed over me. For the third
time; but this time, with a vividness tenfold of
either previous experience. Hot as the day was, my
teeth almost chattered. I was shivering, from head
to foot !

I could not let my folly be seen, and made some
excuse which hastened our return to the rest of the


party. The topic we had just been discussing was
not resumed. In fact, the path back to Old Roar
was too rough to allow of it. Afterwards, on the
way home, the conversation became general, but
offered nothing to record ; Mr. Fortescue seeming
less pre-occupied than when we started, and joining

in it with some animation.

* * * *

In my dreams, through the long night, travelled
a star in heaven ; mild and silvery at its rising, but
discoloured as it clomb to the meridian, and flashing
an angry and intolerable light. Beneath it stretched
an expanse of sea ; and where the light fell, the sea
was troubled and surged in eddies. There was a
ship there; the only object visible; and this, as I
thought, steered incessantly towards the luminous
surface. I longed to warn it; for the eddies now
swam fiercely, and deepened into a whirlpool. But
my utterance was choked ; and my arms, when I
would have beckoned, seemed numbed into icicles.

Unsuspectingly the ship drove onward. On the
deck were voices and music ; the steersman was at
the tiller ; the crew handled the ropes and unfurled
the sails. I saw their faces when the bow dipped


first into the whirlpool, and the bark spun round and
round in its crazed dance. I averted my gaze, as
their voices rose in the deprecation of the death-


When I again looked, the eddies had subsided.
In the spot they had occupied, a woman's form, a
young girl, was visible ; floating on a solitary spar
seaward. Floating, wan and lifeless, in the phantom
light of that unholy star !



A FORTNIGHT had passed since our walk to " Old

Faded out of the year the late, lingering summer,
replacing the brightness of the previous October
weather with a monotony of leaden skies or gusty rain.

Faded too, as it seemed, week by week and day
by day, the young, although hitherto unattractive life
of the sufferer whose accident had disturbed our
routine existence at the Villa.

Fred had never properly rallied. The broken
limb was doing well ; but the confinement, or other
causes, had prostrated the general system; and he
was still a prisoner in his room when he should have
been an active convalescent. The prostration too
was increasing. Every day the boy seemed feebler.
He cared less for either playthings or meals, in the


latter of which he had hitherto manifested a powerful
interest. Apparently, he cared little for anything
excepting Mr. Fortescue's tendance and society.
These were granted him as freely as ever.

Meanwhile, one decided change for the better had
taken place in the invalid. I have already hinted at
this. No human being could be in daily contact with
a nature like Mr. Fortescue's without exhibiting
some assimilation to it. Gradually Fred's angu-
larities were getting smoothed out. He became
patient in the matter of medicine and bandages ;
answered the doctor civilly, obeyed orders, and
tolerated his nurses.

In fact, he did more. I became conscious of a
twinge of feeling, half sympathy and half remorse,
when, one day, in requital for some trifling service,
the child said to me in his broken speech, " Tank
'oo, Miss Sec'can ; Fed like 'oo very much." Espe-
cially when this announcement was followed by the
weary little head sinking back on the pillow ; while
the hand which lay outside the coverlet, white and
attenuated with illness, lifted itself to put two small
fingers into my palm.

During this fortnight I was more frequently in


the sick-room than ever. Much more than I should
have cared to be, but for Mrs. Armitage's express
and particular request. For Mr. Fortescue's manner
to me now not only puzzled me, as before, but began
to make me uncomfortable. The sort of watching,
the fixed, earnest scrutiny I have before described, I
now saw little of. It seemed to have come to an end ;
to be replaced by a manner and look which, in an
undefinable way, implied the existence of some rela-
tion between us. Nothing to complain of or resent ;
nothing which any other person than myself could
even have noticed ; even to myself, who did notice it,
for some time wholly unsuggestive. Beyond its
singularity, no thought in connection with it, no
image of anything ulterior, ever, for many days,
crossed my brain. Not, until that day fortnight
of the Old Roar walk.

We sate by the child's bed ; I at the foot, Mr.
Fortescue at the upper end, amusing him with talk
and such light play as he could bear. Fred was in
a sufficiently gracious mood to-day, and somewhat
stronger. He was asking Mr. Fortescue about the
West Cliff " caverns" already spoken of; some-
thing had led them, to this topic.


"Very'oottoo light there, Mr. Forcoo?" asked
Fred. " Oottoo " was little ; one of the specialities
of the Freddian dialect.

" Very little, Fred. When they open the door,
you see in a short distance ; but then it is all dark."

"Fed be 'faid go in there."

"Oh! no, you wouldn't, Fred; not when the
candles are lighted. They have them all ready
beforehand, stuck in sconces round the sides of the
cave. Then a man goes round with a taper, and
lights them up one after the other. And for every
candle that is lighted you seem to see a new room or
passage ; there are so many of them. Fred would
be quite lost if he went playing in there."

" Is childs often lost there, Mr. Forcoo ? "

"No, I never heard of any, Fred; or grown
people either. But there are other places where they
are. There are what they call the catacombs at
Borne, where an officer went down one day and
lost his way. He wandered about until his light
went out ; and then he sate down by a pillar, and, I
am sorry to say, the rats attacked him. He defended
himself with his sword for a long time, and, when
he was found, there were hundreds of the creatures


lying killed round him. But they overpowered him
at last."

" That was 'oo, Mr. Forcoo ? "

" Oh ! no, not me, Fred. The rats ate him up
completely, poor man. But I have been there, taking
care to have a guide with me. And I have been in
the great caves in India, which they call Salsette
and Elephanta, where you see the old Hindoo gods
carved on the walls."

"Mr. Forcoo great seer," said Fred, addressing
me, with an amiable desire to make the conversation
general. " See tattaoons and Anta, and old gods.
Why 'oo no go with him ? "

" You want to get rid of me then, Fred, do you ? "
I replied, feeling that the question hardly admitted a
direct answer.

" No, Miss Sec'can ; Fed like 'oo. But Fed not
here long, and then you go with Mr. Forcoo."

" To be sure, Fred," I said; "you won't be here
much longer now, I hope. You will soon get strong
and well, and be able to play about the lawn, and go
for donkey-rides again. How glad Flo' and Louisa
will be to have you out with them."

" Yes," said Fred, repeating my words ; but

VOL. i. 10


rather mechanically than with interest. " Fed play
lawn, and go ride donkey. 'Oo think Flo' miss me,
Miss Sec'can ? "

" Of course she does, and Louisa too."

" Flo' be high, then ; tall 'ooman ; oh ! so high,"
said Fred, stretching up the little wasted hand above
his head to express some impossible altitude. " Flo'
not 'member me then."

" Yes, she will, Fred. You won't want remem-
bering. You'll be a high, tall man yourself then ;
so high," I said, imitating his gesture. " Flo' will
be married, and have a house of her own ; and you
will have one next to it, with two doors and fifteen
windows and four chimneys, and a rabbit-hutch, and
a cage for canaries, and a pussy-cat, and a big New-
foundland dog, and "

" Poor doggy die," said Fred, unexpectedly
changing the topic. " Nasty man run over him. 'Oo
bury poor dog, Miss Sec'can ; 'oo and Charles ? "

" Yes, Fred ; you shall see his grave when you
get well."

" Fed afaid of gave. Nothing at all there ; only
all cold and dark. And 'oo and Mr. Forcoo won't
come to me then ; 'oo be 'way together."


" Well, Fred, we mustn't talk any more now," I
said. "You've one little dose to take, not at all an
unpleasant one. One of those effervescing powders
which you like, you know. And then I must go

I hurried from the room as quickly as possible.

I was touched, more than I might have cared to
own, by the boy's softened manner ; and by some-
thing in his words which rung mournfully, and
seemed to forecast more than the child himself was
capable of apprehending.

But, this was not why I fled with such pre-

I fled ; because now, for the first time, there had
broken in upon me very distantly and faintly, but
still in a way which I could not mistake, a new

Let me pause for a few seconds over that " now ; "
that time. It held the issues of many lives.

A flirt ; a schemer ; an adventuress, as I have
said ; was I any of these ? I think I must have
been their exact opposite. It is not much good that
I know of myself, but I do know this much. Here
had I been, for days and weeks, with a possibility


almost forcing itself upon my sight; and yet I had
not seen it. I had seen Mr. Fortescue's singular
watching, as I have called it. I had seen, and even
been troubled by, the more recent phase of this of
which I have spoken. But it had never, even in the
faintest intuition of heart or brain, crossed my
thoughts that this might lead to something. That
it might lead to something for which my whole
nature craved so hungrily : so much more hungrily
than it did, or ever could do, for love, for rest, for
goodness ; for anything else besides itself, in the
whole present and the whole future ! So hungrily,
that even when furthest banished from sight, I knew
it was there ; felt its tooth even when giving to
others interest, service, love ; bore it about with
me, as persons have borne about from their cradle
some fatal disorder ; some plague of vein or nerve,
which may be concealed for years, but is certain,
sooner or later, to break murderously into the house
of life !

No : never yet had this new possibility presented
itself to me. But it did so now. Something arising
from Fred's words ; some look or gesture of the
figure seated at the bed's head ; some expression of


a mutual interest between it and myself, hardly
passing by a hair's breadth those which had pre-
viously struck me, but yet passing them so as to
suggest a difference in kind as well as degree ; some-
thing unspoken, undefinable, but from the logic of
which there was no escape, now forced itself upon
me with a conviction which could not be overlooked.

Oh ! reader, I was not all bad ; all heartless ! I
could not gainsay that long-nursed craving of my
soul, that wealth's-greed, the right for which it had
now claimed prescriptive usage. But I did not, did
not welcome it. In this, the first moment when it
ventured openly to assert its right, I fled from it ; I
dashed it from me. "I am no traitress," I cried ; " it
is a lie ; a cheat. He means nothing ; if he does, I
cannot do this thing. Betray Helen ? I will not.
Let me go to her this instant. The temptation, if
such it be, will at least be powerless there."

A latticed room, from the open windows of which
came the fragrance of jessamine and late roses ; while
a light sea-breeze, more summerlike than we had
lately been experiencing, rustled in their leaves, and
stirred the white draperies of the bed within. A fair
young face oh ! how fair, how innocent-looking that


day, I thought resting on one hand ; the arm on
the window-sill, and the face itself gazing out over
the bright perspective of land and water in front.

But bright as this was, the gazer's eyes were
swollen and weary. There was an open volume on
Helen's lap ; but the fatigue was palpably not charge-
able there. My entrance roused her, and the weary
look passed for a minute.

" Maria, dearest ? I was at that moment think-
ing of you. Now do not tell me you are not come
to stay, for you positively must ; I have hardly even
seen you since Monday."

"Nothing I shall enjoy more, Helen. I reckoned
on finding you in when I came. I have been with

" I hope that is not very irksome. Mamma seems
to wish it so much ; and you know you are a model
nurse and companion. It is your own fault if you
are put upon."

" Oh ! I am not put upon, my dear. As to Fred,
I am becoming quite fond of him. What book are
you reading ? "

" Reading ? Only . . . Dear me, how stupid to
forget the name. How you will laugh at me; so


unlike your clever self. Oh ! of course ; e Washing-
ton and New Orleans.' I could not think of it just

"'I am afraid, young ladies/" I said, "'we
have not heen pursuing our studies with quite so
much attention as might have been expected.' "

Helen looked wistfully at me for a minute with-
out replying. Then she looked out at the view again,
while the large drops started to her eyes. The poor
child tried to force them hack, but it would not do ;
and then she threw herself on my breast sobbing.

Somehow I had not calculated upon this. I had
come to Helen's room as a safeguard to myself; tem-
porary enough, but still something for the present :
something to interpose between that self and its
miserable consciousness. I had forgotten the calls
her grief might have upon my friendship.

But there was no help for it now. I must hear
her ; console, soothe, encourage her. Before that
guilty knowledge had shaped itself in word or act, or
had found the opportunity of doing so while I still
refused it, thrust it back, fled from it even in this
embryo and nascent stage, I had to begin my task of
deception : to play the hypocrite with the one crea-


ture in the world that I loved ; and to know that I
was doing so !

" Poor little bird," I said. "It is very sad and
very weary. Let it come and nestle then here for a
wee bit of comfort. Of course I know what it's
about, Leenie dear," I added, after caressing the
bright hair for a minute; "you needn't tell me."

" It's so foolish and wicked of me," said Helen.

" Not wicked, child."

" Yes, it is. He has never said anything to me,
and I have no business even to think of him. But I
cannot help it. Oh ! Maria, darling ; don't despise
me. I was so happy, so very happy all those weeks.
And now it's all so changed. And I can't think why
it is, Maria. I am quite certain that he ... he did
like me. It is not his fault in any way, that I am
sure of; but I cannot even guess why it is. It's
something ever since Fred's accident."

" Yes," I said. " I won't pretend not to have
noticed that you have been less together ; and he has
seemed more taken up with Fred than I can see any
reason for. But it will all come right. Mr. Fortes-
cue is so very different to other people ; so reserved,
and yet with such extraordinary sensibility. His


carrying Fred borne that day may have made him
feel some interest, which, with his depth of cha-
racter, has become absorbing. There may be twenty
causes for it. At any rate, I know it will be all

" Oh ! no, Maria, it cannot be; his manner is so
changed even when we do meet, which is not once a
week now. He is always gentlemanly, and that sort
of thing; but that is not what I care for. And
sometimes too, now, he looks at me so strangely, in
a kind of pitying way ; as if I had done something
dreadful. Oh ! why did he make me love him so ?
I have given him my whole heart, Maria, and now he
finds it is not worth his having. I wish he had liked
you, or some clever girl ; some one who would have
been more equal to him. He is so great and good,
and has so much knowledge and conversation ; and I
am such a stupid silly little thing. I ought to have
known that he could never really care for me."

" But he does, he does, Helen," I said. " You
must get over these fancies. What should make him
see less in you now than he did at first ? You will
get moody if you attach so much importance to this
sort of pre-occupation he has upon him at present,


or to some trifling accident of look or manner. You
should try, and force yourself to look at it cheer-

" I do try," said the poor girl, " but the cheer-
fulness will not come. My heart seems quite to have
died out with this grief; and my head feels too, at
times, oh ! so weary. Worse than weary. I am
afraid that I am getting, as you say, moody with
all this ; that I am losing my self-command. That
was why I wanted so much to see you. Maria, I
want to ask you a question, only I hardly like to ;
you will despise me so."

" I don't think that very likely," I said. " But
what is the question ? "

"Maria," said Helen, putting her lips close to
my ear, "is it wicked to have bad thoughts? I
mean, of course, if you do not give way to them."

" Bad thoughts ! " I echoed, in some amazement.

" Yes. Bad, passionate thoughts ; of anger, of
unkindness, and oh ! Maria dear, actually of hatred.
And all towards some one who has done nothing what-
ever to deserve them ! I detest these thoughts ; I
detest myself for having them : but they will come."

" My dear Helen," I said, " you really must be


getting morbid. Of course, there can be nothing
wrong in such feelings as you mention, unless they
are encouraged. Hundreds of wild thoughts sweep
across one's heart and brain in the twenty-four
hours, for which we are not responsible in any
way. But who is the unfortunate object of these
animosities ? "

" Fred," answered Helen, again hiding her face
on my arm. " Something is always suggesting to
me that the poor child has come between me and
and him. And then, at such times, I feel actually
tempted to hate Fred for it ; as if it was his fault
in any way ! I can't bear myself for having such

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 15)