Copyright
Herman Ludolphus Prior.

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

. (page 8 of 15)
Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 8 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


thoughts, Maria. I kneel down and pray against
them ; and I know that I never really indulge them
for a moment : it would be frightful. But do what
I will, they will come. But there is Charles calling,"
said Helen, suddenly disengaging herself from me.
"What does he want, I wonder? And he will see
that I have been crying."

I added a few words of comfort, and then went
out and spoke with Charles on the landing, leaving
Helen hurriedly bathing her eyes with eau.de Cologne.
Already, even in this short dialogue, this brief acted



15C " SIX MONTHS HEXCE."

lie, I felt that my own heart had grown hard :
strangely hard, in contrast with the self-accusing
nature I had just quitted. A crust was forming over
it, like the sharp needles of ice which one may see in
a frost darting from side to side over a shallow water,
and heginning to form into the mass wilich will soon
cover its entire surface.

" She will come to you directly, Mr. Charles,"
I said. " A pleasant morning, is it not, after the
shocking weather we have had ? " And my step
down-stairs w r as as careless and indifferent as my
words.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 157



CHAPTER XI.

THREE days further passed, without any occurrence
of moment. I dreaded meeting Mr. Fortescue ; and
contrived to escape from attendance in the sick-room,
notwithstanding Mrs. Armitage's wishes on the sub-
ject. Helen's society I half dreaded and half disliked.
Accordingly, I shunned that room also.

The fourth day wore on ; our weekly half-holiday.
Books were shut at one o'clock ; and my two pupils
ran eagerly down the stone steps on to the lawn.
Something recalls them to me on that day espe-
cially. Louisa, coquette as she was, cleared the
steps at one bound, shaking her curls, and clapping
her hands in pursuit of the cat, which had been
sunning itself out of doors, and, on hearing the
children's voices, broke away in the direction of
the shrubberies. Florence descended more sedately,
and stood for a minute or two on the bottom step,



158 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

looking very picturesque under the red masses of the
American creeper. I stood watching them both. I
was leaning out of the window of our present school-
room, which overlooked the lawn, and thinking, with
no very definite purpose, of the various matters con-
nected with my governess life of the last few months.
I thought of the characters of the two little girls, of
the details of our work together, of hap-hazard words
and passing incidents. And then my memory ran
back to the period of my own pupilage. I recalled
the music, the French lessons, the face and voice of
this or that companion, the surroundings of my then
being. I recollected a canary-bird which had escaped
and been brought back after two days' absence ; a
basin in the school-garden covered with the broad
leaves of the water-lily ; the gong that sounded for
meals and lessons. . . .

Ah ! why trifle I, why trifle I, loitering thus on
the gates of utterance ; seeking to win a brief respite
from that which must be told the passage of that
Eubicon, that gulf between my old and new life ?
As if any delay could change the fact ! As if I could
shut out the bitter past from the memory into which
it has burnt itself like a searing-iron.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 159

From the window where I stood I could see the



East Cliff, with the shingle and reefs of black rock
beneath it now uncovered by the tide. My favourite
walk was on top of the cliff; but something to-
day attracted me to the beach in preference. -It was
less frequented than the top, where the gorse-blossom
and fresh breeze usually collected visitors. And to-
day I was disposed for solitude. I took some book
with me, and passing the fisherman's quarter, with
its shingle bay beyond, where the nets were drawn
and their produce marketed, turned a projecting
point of rock, and was as completely alone as I
could desire.

Very lonely that part of the beach was : confined
between the projection I had passed, and a similar
one about a mile distant along the coast. There was
no fear of my being caught like the party in the
> "Antiquary," for the curvature of the space thus
inclosed was very slight, and, if the tide were coming
in, it would have given warning in ample time for
escape round either corner. In fact, although the
cliffs were here lofty and precipitous, there was a
narrow line of debris at their feet, which the sea
would hardly reach except in very rough weather,



160 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

and which would serve as a refuge until the tide
ebbed.

But although the walk was thus secure enough in
itself, it was singularly desolate. Nothing ever
passed there. Shrimpers always took the opposite
direction. The preventive men from the nearest
station preferred the beaten track over the cliff.
There was no sand or chalk to quarry ; no fossil to
attract geologists ; no creature, live or dead, with
the slightest speciality about it. It was simply a
laborious walk over sea-weed and broken rock.
Where the masses of rock were too large and dis-
rupted, you were driven to, the sea-weed. "Where the
sea-weed became too slippery, or was interpolated
with beds of oozy clay, you were driven back to the
rock again.

Such as the place was however, it did me good
service that afternoon. The attention necessary to
keep my footing occupied my mind, and gradually
drew it away from the topic on which it had been
more or less brooding of late. The day was not
particularly fine, but the masses of cloud which
drifted over the sky were lightly stratified, and now
and then admitted a peep of sunshine. Altogether,



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 161

I found my spirits rising, and felt rather disposed to
jest at the subject of my late reveries.

"You are a ridiculous school-girl," I said to my-
self. " One would think you had passed your life in
a circulating library, adapting all the three volume
novels to your own circumstances. Here you are a
governess, and without sixpence in the world, fancy-
ing that one of the most opulent men in the West
Eiding is falling in love with you ! Not only fancy-
ing this, but going through all kinds of moral and
mental tortures in consequence. Lecturing yourself
about it, actually ! Feeling guilty, and treacherous,
and I know not what ! Oh ! pray spare yourself the
trouble ; there is not the least risk. People in his
position do not usually commit themselves so exten-
sively ; even where the young lady is much better-
looking and more attractive than you are.

" Ah ! but you> say, you have not been embarking
in any speculation of this kind. Perhaps not; so
much the better. But then you have been doing
what is more absurd still. Attaching undue import-
ance to some look or manner which you do not quite
understand ; construing it into admiration, or in-
terest, or something of the sort, for yourself.

VOL. i. 11



162 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

" Now, understand, Miss Maria Secretan, there is
to be an end of this. No. 1. You are to go back to
Fred's rooms and make yourself useful there, as and
when you may be desired, and as your duty is in the
capacity of upper slavey, without troubling yourself
whether Mr. Fortescue looks at you or not. He
doesn't want you, that's quite certain. No. 2. You
are to be rather less of a Job's comforter to that poor
girl upstairs. Forsooth, you feel hypocritical and
tongue-tied with her ! While you are persuading
her with your voice that it is all right between her
and her beloved, you are feeling an inward conviction
that it is all wrong ; and that you are the happy
female instead. Pray don't. If you're no worse
hypocrite than that all your life, there will not be
much to answer for."

"No, but seriously," I continued to myself, "I
have been making myself uncomfortable for nothing
at all. This half-holiday has come opportunely to
set me right. Let me enjoy it. What splendid big
rocks these are. And look, the sea has actually
tunnelled out the cliff behind them. I never came
so far as this before."

I had now reached the farther, or easternmost



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 163

projection of tlie bay in which I Was walking. A
more extensive landslip than usual had here, perhaps
centuries before, displaced the upper portion of the
cliff, and sent it tumbling down in huge masses,
which now lay in every variety of grotesque form at
its foot. The tunnel, or cave, which had caught my
eye, lay in the rear of these masses, and could only
be reached by climbing over them. It was an attrac-
tive-looking place, opening with a dark-browed arch,
and showing within a smooth floor paved with spark-
ling white sand. So I decided on the climb. The
sea was coming in, but it was still miles off. And
the passage under the arch would take me through to
the open beach beyond, from which I could quickly
reach the preventive station and return over the cliff.

Easy climbing enough, for some minutes. But
then I came to grief, as Charles would have said : in
fact, the direct route was impracticable. But there
was an alternative. Turn to the right, and I should
reach a low ledge or shelf in which the projecting
cliff in front of the tunnel, or cave, terminated on
the sea-side. Then it was an easy drop into the
cave itself.

All feasible enough. The blocks of fallen rock



164 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

cn route were serious, but by climbing, wriggling
through crevices, and generally circumventing them,
I soon reached my ledge. Or rather, not the ledge,
but one of the masses of rock immediately above it.
But it was a mere step on to the ledge ; too easy to
think about.

So easy, that I made it rather carelessly. The
result was that my foot slipped on the sea-weed, and
I fell : a matter of little consequence beyond a
possible bruise, had I fallen on the ledge or shelf of
rock itself. But I did not do this. When I recovered
from the shock, I found myself in a sitting posture
on the shelf, with one foot, it was the left I
remember jammed into a crevice ; between the
shelf and the rock from which I had just stepped.

I made light enough of this disaster, and hastened
to extricate myself. Somewhat difficult, however, this,
I found. After various trials, and fearing to wrench
my foot, I leant forward and threw one arm over a
portion of the mass of rock I had just quitted. Almost
as I did so, I saw that I had done wrong ; but it was
too late. The portion on which I leant had become
fissured, and was already nearly detached from the
main block ; and the slight leverage exerted by my



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 165

arm completed the separation. Forward dropped
the fragment, throwing me back on my ledge, and
wedging itself into the upper end of the crevice
which confined my foot ; wedging in, as I soon
discovered, the foot too. I was wholly unhurt, and,
in the sitting posture in which I was thus confined,
could raise my knee in an upright direction about
two inches above the crevice. But to raise it above
the two inches, or in any other than an upright
direction, was wholly out of my power ; still less,
to draw out the foot itself through the narrow aper-
ture now left. I almost burst out laughing ; I was
in the stocks.

"When I had sufficiently enjoyed the position,
and had pictured to myself the amusement it would
afford to Charles or any one else who might witness
it, I thought it high time to let myself out of custody.
The fragment was of "no size;" " easy enough to
move it." But, either I had miscalculated the size,
or it had become too firmly wedged in falling.
Move the stone would not : it once slightly yielded,
and then settled down, tighter than ever, into the
crevice. After this, no effort of mine produced the
least effect upon it.



166 " SIX* MONTHS HENCE. 1 '

I became frightened, and recurred to my task
again and again, but wholly without result. There
must have been half-an-hour, or more, of this fruit-
less work. I then felt exhausted, and desisted for
a time. My posture was not painful in itself, and I
could lean back against the rock and rest. I con-
sidered what was to be done.

" It is very stupid and uncomfortable," I thought,
" but there is no absolute harm beyond a few hours'
detention. Some one is sure to pass ; and if they
do not, I shall be missed, and several people saw me
going this way : I suppose I shall be home by tea-
time. It is fortunate the day is no colder. The
only real mischief is this rock ; it is so wet to be
sitting upon. But they say you never get cold
from . . ."

" Sea-water," I was about to have said. But the
words choked in my throat. How was it I had not
thought of that before ? The cliffs in the recess of
the bay, the tide did not reach, I knew : but, how
could it fail to wash the projection where I was con-
fined? " Sea-water ! " Ay, there it was indeed, all
round me : the sea- water of that very morning !
streaming from the dank weed ; lying in briny pools



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 167

in the flat ledge; trickling down its face on to the
shingle. That morning ! Its tide had gone out ;
and now there was another coming in coming in
fast fast !

I snatched my watch from my sash. Three
o'clock. I had started before one, and even then it
was quite the wrong side of low- water ; the tide had
turned. The reefs lying beyond the shingle-beach
had been uncovered, it was true ; but the sea had been
just outside them. I remembered noticing its ripple
at their extremity. Three hours more, at the fur-
thest ; and then it would be high-water !

There was one hope left. With some pain I
turned partially round, and looked at the upper face
of the rock against which I leant. Ah ! wet ; wet ;
dripping wet ! But might not this be a landspring ?
I tasted; and found it salt. About a foot above
my head was a large cavity from which the moisture
was oozing. I reached this with my hand, and
ascertained that it was quite full ; full of that salt-
water.

I had between two and three hours to live !

Again I stooped, and laboured, laboured at the
weary stone. Oh ! how hopelessly ! The perspira-



168 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

tion rained from my forehead, but I could not stir
it a hair's breadth. Sometimes I fancied it had
moved; and then, some mark or the other, some
lichen or dent in the stone, would show me that it
was exactly in its old place.

I became frantic. " Somebody," I cried ; " oh !
somebody ! Somebody must hear me ! Is there
no one ? "

Alas ! how should there be ? The wind had
slightly risen, and the sea was perceptibly nearer,
breaking over the reefs with a din which effectually
drowned my feeble cries.

I became absorbed in watching that rising tide :
it fascinated me like the eye of some deadly reptile.
I sat gazing at it, stupefied ; motionless.

Slowly, but very surely, the water gained ground.
At last, between my prison ledge and the sea there
was no more reef left ; only the bare shingle.
Gradually this became less and less ; a quarter of it
eaten out ; a third ; a half ! Wave by wave, the
tide came in, retiring over the pebbles after each
advance with a dull swash ; sometimes seeming
stationary for a moment, and then, in the next,
flooding a higher level than ever.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 169

For about three feet in front of me the shingle
was flat, after which it went off in a steep slope.
Yes ; yes ; quite a high embankment ; a hill. Ample,
ample time yet; even the base of the slope not
wetted yet : then there is its own height ; and then
the six feet of my ledge. Safe for an hour or more,
at least; at the very least. And somebody must
pass. Was there no one ?

No one Hastings way, the way I had come ; that
was clear : I could see from my ledge along the whole
distance. In fact, the corresponding projection at its
further end could hardly have been passed now.
But the opposite side ; that to the east, where the
preventive station lay? I could not see this side,
but surely some one must come along there. Not
very likely, perhaps ; but it was possible : oh ! it was
possible !

Half-an-hour more gone. The last wave that
came in had risen to the level of the flat shingle
below me ; had passed slightly beyond it. Some
drops were blown in my face ; the spray of this wave.
Or, might they not still be from the water trickling
down above me ?

A lull ; a pause ; and then the next wave. Oh !



170 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

what a fierce and hungry one ! It swept to the very
foot of my ledge ; it covered .the entire shingle-flat.
And, this time, it did not run off again. The
water that lay there was shallow, very shallow; it
would not have floated a child's boat. But there
it lay.

Again, a white mountain of foam ; leaping and run-
ning in, as it seemed, on the back of a dozen smaller
waves. Then, a growl, like that of a savage beast ;
a roar, a dart forward : ah ! there was no mistake
as to the spray this time ! I looked at the foot of
the ledge. The water was ankle-deep there now.

Oh ! but this was intolerable ! To be drowned
by inches, in cold blood ! My stupor was quite gone
now. I shouted again frantically ; more frantically than
before, for I knew now that it was quite hopeless : a
volley of musketry would not have been audible ten
yards from the spot. It was a maniac's cry now, and
I knew it was.

Suddenly a thought struck me. I had an umbrella
with me, within reach : could I not make some signal ?
I got at my handkerchief, and tied it to the end of
the stick ; and this I thrust round the point of rock.
I could not see round it, but my signal might be



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 171

visible. At the same moment, the wind fell, as
suddenly as it had risen, and the waves came in with
less violence. Oh ! there was still, still time. Half-
an-hour more ; twenty minutes, at any rate. I waved
the handkerchief to and fro, passionately. Oh !
would nobody see it ; would nobody come ; nobody ?
Apparently not. I thought I heard some sound,
but it ceased again. My arm ached now, and I was
forced to lower the stick for a time. As I did so, my
eye rested on a yacht some little distance off shore,
the only vessel visible. They might see it. With a
telescope ? Yes, and without ; quite easily. It
was not very rough now ; if they sent in a boat, it
could take me off, quite easily. I raised my wearied
arm, and signalled, and waved, again. To no pur-
pose. Nothing seemed stirring in the yacht. Could
it be anchored ? I thought not. No, indeed : even
as I looked, it tacked and went off in the opposite
direction.

Five minutes of the twenty gone. The water
creeping up the rock stealthily. Pouring into some
cranny of the stone, and then pouring out again ;
only to return and work its way round into some
further and higher aperture. Creeping nearer and



172 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

nearer, every minute. Scaling the citadel of life,
inch by inch !

There was a piece of sea-weed below me, which I
could nearly touch with the umbrella. It had been
dangling above the water just now, swaying back-
wards and forwards as the wind caught it ; when I
again looked at it, it had a different motion : it was
floating.

No hope ? I could not think it : I did not dare
to ! Why, even yet, I could have waded through the
water beneath me, quite easily. There were no waves
now ; no dashing ; the wind had quite fallen. Quite
easily : if only I were free ! I Avedged my arm for
support in a hollow of the stone, and again waved
and shouted. Shouted, not in that wild way now,
but in a high and sustained note ; one which might,
possibly, be audible now, in the greater stillness. It
was my last chance ; my very last ; I would not
throw it away.

An echo ? It could not be that ; it was a man's
voice. I called again, and waved eagerly ; and again
the voice answered. But where ?

From the back of the ledge on which I was
imprisoned the rock rose abruptly, some forty feet or



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 173

so. What was still above this, I could not see, but
it seemed to slant back. I now looked up, and on
the edge of the rock saw Mr. Fortescue.

" Miss Secretau ? " he exclaimed. " Good heaven !
I heard cries- from the top of the cliff, and came
down : there is a kind of path as far as this. But
what can you be doing there ? "

Five words explained the position. " I think
the piece of stone might be moved," I said,
" although my strength will not do it."

" It shall be moved, Miss Secretan. The only
question is the time. I could easily get up the cliff
again, and round by the preventive station, but there
is no time : you would be drowned. Good heaven !
The tide is almost on a level with you already."

I looked down, shuddering. My last passionate
effort had occupied more time than I had imagined.
There were scarcely six inches of the rock uncovered
now. My brain reeled with the swirl of the green
water below me. Mr. Fortescue spoke again. He
had not ceased speaking, in reality ; but fathomless
measures of time and space seemed to lie between
his last words and those which followed.

" I must come down to you at once," he said.



174 "SIX MONTHS HENCE."

As he spoke, he leant forward over the cliff, scanning
its face rapidly but closely.

" It is quite impossible," I cried. " There is not
a projection, not a holding for hand or foot. You
would be dashed to pieces on this rock. Do not
attempt it, Mr. Fortescue," I continued, after a
moment. " Why should two lives be sacrificed ? I
must meet my end as I best may."

Again he looked over the edge. " The other side
is still higher," he said. " Here it must be ; and it
must be at once. I may find some hold."

It was palpable death ! I saw by his face that he
knew it to be so ; but he persevered. He had begun
to lower himself over the edge. Suddenly he started
back with a brightened expression.

" Quick, Miss Secretan," he said. " That water
below you ; out beyond the ledge you are on ; what is
the depth ? "

" From five to six feet," I answered. " I saw it
before the sea came up."

"That will do," he said. He had before taken
off his hat and coat, preparatory to his intended
descent. He now clasped his hands high above his
head and leant forward.



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 175

" Crouch into the rock," he called out ; "I might
strike you. Sit close."

Something that shot before my eyes : a plash in
the green pool below me ; and then Mr. Fortescue,
who had struck the water obliquely so as to carry
him out to some distance, was swimming in rapidly
towards my place of imprisonment. The stone did
give way. Not without a severe effort on the part of
my rescuer, which, in spite of his wetting, beaded the
perspiration heavily on his forehead. I was free.
Somewhat numbed with the long confinement, but
unhurt and well able to move. The water had risen
over the ledge by this time, but the descent from it
on to the beach on the side of the preventive station
was easily effected. I stood on the shingle of the
little bay to which I had so long cried vainly for
succour, liberated and light of heart.

My first impulse was to my deliverer. " Mr.
Fortescue," I said, " you have saved me from a
frightful death. I can never repay you."

The tide was well in now ; and although there
was abundant room for safety, we were compelled to
keep up rather high, near the broken debris of the
cliff. When I spoke, Mr. Fortescue stood still, and



176 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

remained for a minute or two without answering,
resting his arm on one of the fragments of rock.

"You have saved me, Mr. Fortescue," I said
again, " chivalrously and nobly; at the instant peril
of your own life. I can never possibly repay you."

He still did not speak at first. When he did, it
was in a low suppressed tone. " There was no
chivalry, Miss Secretan ; I implore you not to think
of it in that light. Any one accustomed to dive
could easily have done what I did. There was
absolutely no danger; and no very particular skill.
I am only ashamed that it did not occur to me sooner
how I could get to you."

" It is easy for you to be so generous," I said.
" You who are all nobility."

" So generous, Miss Secretan ? You little know
me ! I am about to be most ungenerous ! You
spoke of yourself; you say that I saved your life.
Well, I did so. By this time the water would have
been high above your head ; you must have died,
cruelly, miserably. As you say, I saved you. A
mere hireling, a beggar, a dog, might have done the
same ; still, I did it. And you say you would repay
me!"



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 177

" Repay you," I answered. " Would that I knew
bow ! But I never can do it."

" You can," he said. " I will be the hireling,
the beggar. Maria Secretan, be my wife."

Impulse ! why do we denounce it ? Oh ! that I


1 2 3 4 5 6 8 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 8 of 15)