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had obeyed the impulses of that moment ; had said
what my heart prompted ; what my tongue all but
spoke ; all but ! Could I not have done so ? I had
just been snatched from the jaws of a hideous death.
I had seen the realities of things as one only sees
them at such a moment. There was not a guilty act
in the past, a guilty hope for the future, a. shred or
corner of my own heart which had not stood out in
the plainest characters during the imminence of that
last hour or two. Could I not have told my rescuer,
even in my benediction of him, that I could not do
this great evil ; that I hated it for his sake no less
than my own ; that I implored him to keep his fealty
to Helen, a fealty not pledged in words, but needing
no words to bind it ? That she loved him, while I did
not. That I would pay him any service ; yield him
any sacrifice ; excepting only this of wrong-doing ?
Could I not have said this ; or some portion of
this?

VOL. I. 12



178 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

Oh! yes; yes. The words leapt to my lips;
they clamoured for utterance : they burnt within me
like a quick fire. But they remained unspoken. I
had stopped when Mr. Fortescue did. I stood there
on the beach in front of him, trembling violently.
But I stood silent.

Silent ?

Well ; I did begin to mutter something ; I
know not what. Oh ! the words must have come :
they must have come. I was not wholly, hopelessly
evil. Even my pride must have come to my aid,
revolting against this strange wooing. Strange
indeed ! No passionate entreaties ; no supplication ;
no pretence even of love ; trafficked for, soul and
body, like a creature sold in the shambles ! True,
this was not quite all. Brief and commonplace as
Mr. Fortescue's question had been, he was terribly in
earnest about it ; I could see that : his emotion was
even greater than my own. But still, what girl ever
yielded herself on such terms ? what had he seen in
me, to think that I should do it ?

Oh ! I should, I should have spoken ; should
have saved myself; have saved, to all whom it in-
volved, the miserable future ! I know I should. But,



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 179

even while I delayed, the moment of salvation, of
right choice, passed away from me for ever. The
strain had been too great ; and I fell to the ground
in a swoon.

It was of no long duration. "When I recovered, I
found that I had been carefully placed in a reclining
posture against one of the rocks. Mr. Fortescue was
kneeling by me, and sprinkling some drops of water '
in my face.

Even then, there was nothing of the lover in his
solicitude. No lips pressed to mine, no caress, no
eager inquiries. He tended me carefully and gently ;
watched me with a profound interest ; but made no
nearer demonstration. I was soon able to stand again.

" I have treated you cruelly," Mr. Fortescue
then said. " Agitated and disturbed you, when you
were wholly unequal to it. I will not be so selfish
again. Could you walk now with my support ? "

I was quite equal to this. And, when we reached
the preventive station, I declined his offer of send-
ing to the town for a conveyance. "I would
return with him over the cliff," I said; "it was not
far, and would save much time." Somehow, I did
not care to have my accident known at the Villa.



180 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

It had left no perceptible results ; and if I reached
home by dusk, my absence would be ascribed only to
a more extended walk than usual.

Our return over the cliff took place almost wholly
in silence ; and, wholly, without reference to the
question Mr. Fortescue had so abruptly asked me.
At the Villa gate, he stopped and shook hands with
me.

" You are none the worse ? " he said.

" In noway," I answered. " Somewhat fatigued,
that is all. I shall sleep it off."

"I trust so. And now one word more. I will
not further agitate you to-night or inquire how far I
may interpret your silence favourably. I am not
without hopes that I may. To-morrow, if you will,
you shall tell me. It is Sunday ; and I know that at
the house you go to evening service ; the afternoon
will be your own. If your strength is equal to it, I
will receive your answer then ; in the same spot
where I asked the question. Good-night."



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 181



CHAPTEK XII.

" GOOD-NIGHT." " Sleep it off."

That was not very likely. There was more to
sleep off than a fatiguing confinement, or even a
drowning man's horror. The innocent might sleep
that off well enough. But I and innocence were to
be strangers henceforth.

I went to bed, no doubt. I did not set myself
down, with wraps and candle and studied preparation,
to answer that question. I did not even contemplate
lying awake to think of it. But I did lie awake, and
did think of it.

It seemed to me that all that night the matter
went through a kind of judiciary process in my mind.
I was the judge. I was seated in due form, calm
and deliberate ; hearing the arguments on both sides.
" Maria Secretan ; will you be my wife ?" Yes. Or no.



182 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

The noes were heard first. There were a great
number of them ; crowding together, and edging
forward to make themselves audible.

Conscience. Ah ! that spoke a very loud
" no." But then it had done that before. What
could it say, except the old story? "It is a great
sin ; a sin against God and man. It is a sin to
marry where you do not love. It is a still worse one,
if possible, to marry a man who has induced another
to love him, and then throws her up for you. You
too, whom he does not even pretend to care for ! It
will be an accursed marriage. Dare you do it ? Do
it, with your eyes open ? Do it, at the very moment
when your life was forfeited, but for a special and
most merciful Providence; when you have had the
future face to face with you ? Dare you do it ? "

No doubt, no doubt, Conscience ; but we have
heard all this already. There may be another way
of looking at the matter. Things may not be quite
so serious as you make out. Stand aside, Conscience.
Any one further ?

Oh yes : several. Helen, I think, came next.
Came as I had seen her on that morning four da} r s
before. The sweet young face clouded with grief:



" SIX MONTHS HENCE.'' 183

hiding the face on my sisterly heart : coming to me
for comfort, and I comforting her. The court was a
good deal touched by this. Especially, when the
grief in the young face first changed to an expression
of intense wonder, and then deepened into a look
which in another face would have been scorn, but
in her was divine piety. She did not trouble us long
then. She fled from sight and hearing of me ;
anywhere, so it was out of my contact. And the
court then gradually recovered itself.

Any one else ?

Well. Society had a good deal to say. It used
some strong language ; unparliamentary, as Charles
would have called it. " Treacherous ; false ; base ;
cunning ; heartless ; mercenary." " A thoroughly
bad girl; thoroughly bad." "Never much liked
her ; always something sly and underhand about
her." " Got round Fortescue's weak side." "Hope
he'll like her; I shouldn't." "Picked her up
somewhere ; quite common-looking, and, I don't
think, pretty." Society became so personal here
that the court was compelled to request its with-
drawal. It sketched out for us two or three little
pictures as it left. A tea-table ; spinsters and I



184 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

know not what ; animated conversation, replaced by
dead silence as I entered the room. The bow-
window of a club ; men with eye-glasses, staring
at me impertinently as I passed. A race-course ;
carriage and liveries and myself, all alone up in a
corner. Everyone standing aloof, excepting the
questionables who had come for a champagne lunch.
What ; still one more ? The last, happily,
although a somewhat pertinacious one. It was a
young, motherless girl ; very weak, and erring, and
undisciplined ; shuddering on the brink of a terrible
pitfall, and yet resolute to plunge into it. It was
myself. Not the real, innermost self ; the entity of
entities. But the self in relation to its prospects
and temporalities : the self of prudence, and circum-
spection, and the like. " Pause," it said, for my
sake. Be heartless and treacherous if you will ; I
am not here to discuss that. But do at least con-
sider me. What do you know of this man, this
Mr. Fortescue ? He possesses, you say, what you
have set your whole heart upon ; affluence, position.
Well, we will grant all this ; although, be it observed,
you only know it by hearsay. However, there is
probably little doubt of it. But what else do you



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 185

know of him ? He is brave, gentle-hearted, refined,
you tell me. Yes ; but he has not made you love
him. Love him ? has not nature taught you, almost
by a special instinct, that you never could love him ?
Be superstitious, if nothing better : think of that
singular feeling you have experienced on merely
meeting him; think of his own warning, that
antipathies thus implanted in our nature can never
be really conquered ; that they are not ideas but facts,
integral conditions of our being. Will you in the
face of this sell yourself into this stranger's hands ;
be bound to him hand and foot ; pass your days and
nights with him ? But perhaps he loves you ? why,
he does not even pretend it. He has deserted the
girl whom he did seem to care for ; cut her adrift with-
out remorse ; and what will he do to you ? He may
leave you starving and penniless, and go roving over
half the globe ; as you know he has been doing.
And better that perhaps than your home-life as it
may be : death in life, as it may be, for all you
know to the contrary. How do you know that he
is not a drunkard ; a gambler ; a miserly tyrant,
who will beat you, haggle and starve the very
soul out of you ? Not likely, you say. You



186 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

can't tell. More unlikely things than that have
happened."

But this last speaker was hardly heard out. The
reply began, short enough, hut the more vehemently
from having been so long pent back. The reply
dexterous, consummate advocacy. " Conscience '?
Oh ! really ! One cannot act on those overstrained
notions now-a-days ; the world would stand still.
The future will take care of itself well enough, no
doubt. If you have no worse sins than that to
answer for, you will not do badly. Besides, what
does any one mean by calling it a sin ? Did not
Helen herself say that she thought you the better
suited of the two to Mr. Fortescue ? And it is pretty
clear, I suppose, what he thinks. Not very lover-
like, perhaps ; but you can see that he is entirely
in earnest. Sin, indeed ! In my humble opinion
you would be acting much more wrongly to refuse
him. You might mar the happiness of his life.
Your deliverer, too ; one who, whatever he may say,
incurred a very serious risk to save you. You are
bound to accept him.

" Then as to society. No need to trouble our-
selves much about that, I think. A few hard words ;



"SIX MONTHS HEXCE." 187

a sneer or two ; very little to set off against a mag-
nificent future at our disposal. Better to be envied
than pitied. A London season and a few entertain-
ments at Dalemain will bring things round fast enough.
As to prudential considerations, prudence has cut
the throat of her own argument. Actually, the only
tangible objection she has to allege is that we have
some superstition, it is her own term about Mr.
Fortescuo.; some terror, or palpitations, or some-
thing. I don't think we can give up 20,OOOL a year,
or whatever it is, for that ; can we, Miss Secretan ?
And the rest is all gratuitous talk. ' May be this,'
'may be that.' He 'may be the wandering Jew, at
that rate. I am sure all we have seen of him has
been noble and generous in the extreme.

"As to the poor young lady, of course it is a
great disappointment to her. But still "

Here however the court intimated that it was
satisfied. This remaining topic need not be argued.

Why so ? From shame ; from compassion ; from
some unextinguished embers of love my old love
for Helen ; our pleasant hours together ; the twining
arms, the sisterhood of thought meeting thought, and
heart throbbing against heart ? Love ? A likely



188 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

matter, indeed. I hated Helen. I knew which way
the court would decide before the first voice spoke.
.It had only listened to confirm a foregone conclu-
sion. I knew well enough that I should marry Mr.
Fortescue. And the moment I knew that, I hated
Helen.

Does the reader marvel why ? If he does, he
knows little of himself ; little of others. Has traced
but surface-deep the pathology of wrong-doing ; its
corrosion of heart and brain ; its necessities of
speaking itself fair, and casting blame elsewhere ; its
suppressed pain and stifled conscience, misliking
interference, dreading to be called into activity ;
shrinking from all that threatens to do so ; misliking
and dreading, most of all, the victim of its own
ill-deed : for in that presence conscience will speak
out, and the pain will make itself felt.

Of course I knew that I should accept Mr. For-
tescue. It was a fait accompli, as far as intention
and will went. No need to discuss it further : I
might be allowed to sleep now. No possible need
for further debate of any kind.

And yet, yet, did I not know also, even when
I was saying this, that there was something else



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 189

svliicli ought to have been heard ? Something very
deep down in my heart ? Something which I had,
this night above all, shut down under the hatches,
refusing it egress, refusing it liberty of speech ; for-
bidding it almost to breathe ? Something, which,
if it might and could have spoken, would have told
me that I was shipwrecking, not only Helen's love
but my own ; not only Mr. Fortescue's life, but my
own ? Something which was the only good and true
thing still left about me ; which though it might have
met with no return, might have required to be kept as
a sealed water all my life : was yet a charmed water, a
well-spring from the gates of Paradise ? Something,
which had it spoken, would have shivered into atoms
my base cravings for wealth, my lies and sophistries ;
would have compelled me to say " no," instead of
"yes?" And which for that very reason I had
thrust back into the darkness, and would not let
it speak?

Ah ! I have told my tale but ill if the reader
does not know what this was ! It dated from the
very first hour of my arrival at Harcourt Villa. It
was maidenly, reticent, self-abashed : scantly acknow-
ledged even to myself ; for so beseemed it. It would



190 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

doubtless lead to no result, for there was disparity,
great disparity, in outward circumstances, between
that young life and my own. It was a trembling,
fluttering, half-fledged thing; nothing remarkable
about it in any way ; only the old, old story, that
which has been from the creation, and will be to the
end of all things. But such as it was, there it was.
My heart's one solitary treasure. My love.

And, next to my heart; very often, in fact, and
ever, ever until now in recollection, was some-
thing else. Something which was that love's symbol
and outward emblem ; its visible, tangible, material
presence to me. A thing, commonplace and simple
as the love itself. A stolen thing : stolen from him,
the owner, at unawares ; at a place and time when
we had shared a common interest, already recorded
in these pages ; when it had been left behind, over-
looked. A thing valueless in itself; representing
and conveying nothing from him ; how should it,
when there was nothing to be conveyed ? But to me,
the thief, how inexpressibly dear at all times ; all
times, till now !

Xay, but no more of this at present ; it is too
terrible; I cannot bear it yet. It will tell its own



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 191

tale soon enough; that blameless, that most fatal
theft !

Ah ! me, my woe, my woe ! Long-sufferance of
the Eternal, forbear with me ! Redemption of earth's
blood-guiltiness, assoil my sin !



192 " SIX MONTHS HENCE.'



CHAPTER XIII.

ACCEPTED ? Yes. Engaged ? Yes. Mr. Fortescue
left Hastings the day following.

It was his wish that the engagement should not
be spoken of. It was unquestionably my own.

This was now October, drawing on towards the
end of the month. Early in December he would
return, and claim me as his bride. For the present,
I had better remain at the Villa, where I should hear
from him very shortly. The details of the marriage
should be arranged in all respects as I thought best.
London would probably be most convenient for the
purpose.. It could not be at Hastings ; which of
course it would be desirable for me to leave on
the engagement being announced, and London would
be better than Yorkshire. I was to spare no expense
in my preparations that would in any way give me



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 193

pleasure ; compatibly, that was, with the reticence
thus arranged for the time being.

Six weeks ; seven at the latest ; and then my
reward would come : that for which I had bartered
myself. Notwithstanding Mr. Fortescue's liberality,
I should not have much taste of it beforehand. For
dress, and mere personal adornments, as such, I had
no special instincts. They were not my craving ;
and, if they had been, there would have been no
opportunity for gratifying it at Hastings, in my
present chrysalis state of governess.

So I pursued our stated round of occupation ; did
lessons ; walked and supervised ; attended Fred when
required. Kept up my loving intimacy with Helen.
Oh ! dear me, yes !

How things become easy to us ! I was not pre-
cisely the " shorn lamb ; " but I certainly had looked
forward to my intercourse in that quarter, during the
present probationary period, as a very keen and
searching atmosphere. But it was "tempered" to
me marvellously. Was there not that Aladdin's
palace in the future, glittering with golden imageries,
piled with fruits that were emeralds and rubies ? I
had learnt a vast deal about myself since my be-

VOL. i. 13



194 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

trothal. I used to think I daresay I may have
said so in these pages that the price for which
I knew I was ready to sell soul and body for
which I had now done so charmed me by its
beauty only. Ah ! I knew better now. I knew
now that it was just the old-fashioned story ; the
old vulgar motives display, luxury, life, enjoyment.
I had some trouble at admitting this ; but, the ad-
mission once made, what a field for anticipation !
No dreamy, semi-poetical vision now, but definite,
tangible realities ! The country mansion crowded
with guests ; the town-house ; the opera ; the parks ;
Mrs. Fortescue's receptions in the daily papers;
horses and carriages ; ormolu, and footmen six foot
high. Sheet by sheet I spread out the gay picture
before me, and hungered for it all to begin : I had
no shame with myself now.

And yet, they may have been real enough, those
old day-dreams ! Who knows not how the fairest
fancy, once actuated in wrong-doing, changes, in that
very act, from the hues of beauty to deformity and
shame ? Who shall say that the real poetry of
human emotion there may be a spurious secondary
growth ever survives its innocence ?



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 195

But, once more, enough of this.

From the mental tumult of this transition period,
from the throbbing, passionate excitement within,
covered externally by the hard crust of dissimulation
and routine, emerge two or three landmarks of recol-
lection. Not recollected as being of any special
moment in themselves, or in any way. It is simply
that these in fact have, and that other matters in fact
have not rested on my mind. Let me note them
down as they occurred, and then at once pass to the
close of this intermediate period.

The fifth of November. This is the first day
after my engagement on which I retain a distinct
memory of anything which passed.

" Gunpowder plot " had no ecclesiastical status
in Hastings. The two old churches observed "Wed-
nesdays and Fridays, but they observed nothing
else. St. Mary's sub castle would probably have
been glad enough, in the abstract, to countenance
the state-service of the day, as containing some smart
reflections upon Popery, together with an apotheosis
of the Dutchman whom Lord Macaulay considers the
founder of English liberty. But then, St. Mary's
made a rule of never opening its doors on any week-



196 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

day ; it was a strictly sabbatical institution. And
the principle was too important to be departed from,
even for the satisfaction of" praying at " one's Popish
neighbours.

But if the Church was negligent, the Protestant
cause was vigorously upheld by the Hastings laity ;
at any rate, by the more youthful portion of it. Guy
Fawkes at Hastings was quite a work of art. A very
fastidious critic might have objected that the "blood-
thirstiness" and "hellish malice" so strongly handled
by the state- service were hardly in character with the
ruddy and somewhat jovial face assigned to the arch-
conspirator in this effigy, and which seemed to have
been tinted in from the landlord of the " Three
Farmers." In fact, as far as looks went, one would
have been inclined to refer Guy to the class conven-
tionally known as nobody's enemies but their own.
In other respects however, Guy was a well-appointed
ruffian enough. And when he exploded in the even-
ing, which came off with entire success upon the
Castle hill, there could be no doubt of his satanic
tendencies, or of those of the Roman Catholic faith
generally.

At the Villa, too, we were quite Protestants enougl



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 197

to have an extra half-holiday. And this is how I
come to " remember, remember, the fifth of Novem-
ber," as runs the time-honoured stave, which Charles
uplifted at the top of his voice on his way down to
lunch that afternoon.

A pleasant, musical voice it was ; one, at least,
that I had ever thought so. But something in it cut
me to the heart then, as I sat in the dining-room
waiting for Mrs. Armitage to enter : cut me to the
heart, notwithstanding a day-dream in which I had
the moment before been indulging of an unspeakably
attractive fortnight in the height of the Paris season.
For I had heard from Mr. Fortescue meanwhile, more
than once. If our marriage took place, as it might,
about the middle of December, he proposed, if agree-
able to me, that the honeymoon should be spent in
the French capital. Oh ! it was agreeable enough !
So agreeable, that in its contemplation I totally over-
looked the circumstance that its satisfactions would
be shared by another person besides myself : that I
should be Mr. Fortescue' s wife then !

Meanwhile, mine were not the only ears which
had been regaled by Charles's distich. As he entered
the dining-room, another door opened ; that of the



198 " SIX MONTHS HENCE."

library, which communicated with it. I expected
Mrs. Armitage ; but the person who in fact appeared
was one whom I more rarely saw ; her husband.
This was only the fourth time, or thereabouts, that I
had set eyes upon the master of the house since my
residence in it.

"What I did now see of him shocked and pained
me ; and for two reasons. There was an evident
increase of suffering in the face since it had last met
my eye ; as well as of feebleness in the frame gene-
rally. Now and then, as the extreme end approaches,
nature stamps on the features an unmistakeable hue,
the prevision, rarely fallacious, of a darker shadow :
something which at once says, " This is doomed,"
deepening the furrows of the cheeks, and loading the
brow with a corpse-like pallor. Much as a statuary
might shape out some scarcely defined outline to
serve for the cast of his future work !

And something else there was which shocked me.
It was the father's manner and voice to Charles ; for
it was him the invalid had come in quest of. Again
I was reminded of the sort of possession of which I
have before spoken. The person and voice were those
of Mr. Armitage ; courtly, dignified as ever. But the



" SIX MONTHS HENCE." 199

utterances were his wife's. Even quantitatively, their
force was in startling contrast to the bloodless lips
from which they issued; her force, not his. Not,
indeed, in actual words ; she worked by inuendo and
suggestion, while Mr. Armitage's present bearing was
^that of angry resentment. But the anger was, so to
speak, counterfeit ; acting the obedience to a higher
behest. Mrs. Armitage, as I knew, was seated in the
library from which her husband had just entered;
was within ear- shot, and probably, where she sat,


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Online LibraryHerman Ludolphus PriorSix months hence : being passages from the life of Maria (née) Secretan (Volume 1) → online text (page 9 of 15)