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The Two Destinies

Wilkie Collins

  Produced by James Rusk


  By Wilkie Collins

  The Prelude.


  MANY years have passed since my wife and I left the United States to payour first visit to England.

  We were provided with letters of introduction, as a matter of course.Among them there was a letter which had been written for us by my wife'sbrother. It presented us to an English gentleman who held a high rank onthe list of his old and valued friends.

  "You will become acquainted with Mr. George Germaine," my brother-in-lawsaid, when we took leave of him, "at a very interesting period of hislife. My last news of him tells me that he is just married. I knownothing of the lady, or of the circumstances under which my friendfirst met with her. But of this I am certain: married or single, GeorgeGermaine will give you and your wife a hearty welcome to England, for mysake."

  The day after our arrival in London, we left our letter of introductionat the house of Mr. Germaine.

  The next morning we went to see a favorite object of American interest,in the metropolis of England--the Tower of London. The citizens of theUnited States find this relic of the good old times of great use inraising their national estimate of the value of republican institutions.On getting back to the hotel, the cards of Mr. and Mrs. Germaine told usthat they had already returned our visit. The same evening we receivedan invitation to dine with the newly married couple. It was inclosed ina little note from Mrs. Germaine to my wife, warning us that we were notto expect to meet a large party. "It is the first dinner we give, on ourreturn from our wedding tour" (the lady wrote); "and you will only beintroduced to a few of my husband's old friends."

  In America, and (as I hear) on the continent of Europe also, when yourhost invites you to dine at a given hour, you pay him the compliment ofarriving punctually at his house. In England alone, the incomprehensibleand discourteous custom prevails of keeping the host and the dinnerwaiting for half an hour or more--without any assignable reason andwithout any better excuse than the purely formal apology that is impliedin the words, "Sorry to be late."

  Arriving at the appointed time at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Germaine, wehad every reason to congratulate ourselves on the ignorant punctualitywhich had brought us into the drawing-room half an hour in advance ofthe other guests.

  In the first place, there was so much heartiness, and so littleceremony, in the welcome accorded to us, that we almost fanciedourselves back in our own country. In the second place, both husband andwife interested us the moment we set eyes on them. The lady, especially,although she was not, strictly speaking, a beautiful woman, quitefascinated us. There was an artless charm in her face and manner, asimple grace in all her movements, a low, delicious melody in her voice,which we Americans felt to be simply irresistible. And then, it was soplain (and so pleasant) to see that here at least was a happy marriage!Here were two people who had all their dearest hopes, wishes, andsympathies in common--who looked, if I may risk the expression, born tobe man and wife. By the time when the fashionable delay of the halfhour had expired, we were talking together as familiarly and asconfidentially as if we had been all four of us old friends.

  Eight o'clock struck, and the first of the English guests appeared.

  Having forgotten this gentleman's name, I must beg leave to distinguishhim by means of a letter of the alphabet. Let me call him Mr. A. Whenhe entered the room alone, our host and hostess both started, and bothlooked surprised. Apparently they expected him to be accompanied by someother person. Mr. Germaine put a curious question to his friend.

  "Where is your wife?" he asked.

  Mr. A answered for the absent lady by a neat little apology, expressedin these words:

  "She has got a bad cold. She is very sorry. She begs me to make herexcuses."

  He had just time to deliver his message, before another unaccompaniedgentleman appeared. Reverting to the letters of the alphabet, let mecall him Mr. B. Once more, I noticed that our host and hostess startedwhen they saw him enter the room alone. And, rather to my surprise, Iheard Mr. Germaine put his curious question again to the new guest:

  "Where is your wife?"

  The answer--with slight variations--was Mr. A's neat little apology,repeated by Mr. B.

  "I am very sorry. Mrs. B has got a bad headache. She is subject to badheadaches. She begs me to make her excuses."

  Mr. and Mrs. Germaine glanced at one another. The husband's face plainlyexpressed the suspicion which this second apology had roused in hismind. The wife was steady and calm. An interval passed--a silentinterval. Mr. A and Mr. B retired together guiltily into a corner. Mywife and I looked at the pictures.

  Mrs. Germaine was the first to relieve us from our own intolerablesilence. Two more guests, it appeared, were still wanting to completethe party. "Shall we have dinner at once, George?" she said to herhusband. "Or shall we wait for Mr. and Mrs. C?"

  "We will wait five minutes," he answered, shortly--with his eye on Mr. Aand Mr. B, guiltily secluded in their corner.

  The drawing-room door opened. We all knew that a third married lady wasexpected; we all looked toward the door in unutterable anticipation. Ourunexpressed hopes rested silently on the possible appearance of Mrs. C.Would that admirable, but unknown, woman, at once charm and relieveus by her presence? I shudder as I write it. Mr. C walked into theroom--and walked in, _alone_.

  Mr. Germaine suddenly varied his formal inquiry in receiving the newguest.

  "Is your wife ill?" he asked.

  Mr. C was an elderly man; Mr. C had lived (judging by appearances) inthe days when the old-fashioned laws of politeness were still in force.He discovered his two married brethren in their corner, unaccompanied by_their_ wives; and he delivered his apology for _his_ wife with the airof a man who felt unaffectedly ashamed of it:

  "Mrs. C is so sorry. She has got such a bad cold. She does so regret notbeing able to accompany me."

  At this third apology, Mr. Germaine's indignation forced its way outwardinto expression in words.

  "Two bad colds and one bad headache," he said, with ironical politeness."I don't know how your wives agree, gentlemen, when they are well. Butwhen they are ill, their unanimity is wonderful!"

  The dinner was announced as that sharp saying passed his lips.

  I had the honor of taking Mrs. Germaine to the dining-room. Her sense ofthe implied insult offered to her by the wives of her husband's friendsonly showed itself in a trembling, a very slight trembling, of the handthat rested on my arm. My interest in her increased tenfold. Onlya woman who had been accustomed to suffer, who had been broken anddisciplined to self-restraint, could have endured the moral martyrdominflicted on her as _this_ woman endured it, from the beginning of theevening to the end.

  Am I using the language of exaggeration when I write of my hostess inthese terms? Look at the circumstances as they struck two strangers likemy wife and myself.

  Here was the first dinner party which Mr. and Mrs. Germaine had givensince their marriage. Three of Mr. Germaine's friends, all married men,had been invited with their wives to meet Mr. Germaine's wife, and had(evidently) accepted the invitation without reserve. What discoverieshad taken place between the giving of the invitation and the giving ofthe dinner it was impossible to say. The one thing plainly discerniblewas, that in the interval the three wives had agreed in the resolutionto leave their husbands to represent them at Mrs. Germaine's table;and, more amazing still, the husbands had so far approved of thegrossly discourteous conduct of the wives as to consent to make the mostinsultingly trivial excuses for their absence. Could any crueler slurthan this have been cast on a woman at the outs et of her married life,before the face of her husband, and in the pre
sence of two strangersfrom another country? Is "martyrdom" too big a word to use in describingwhat a sensitive person must have suffered, subjected to such treatmentas this? Well, I think not.

  We took our places at the dinner-table. Don't ask me to describe thatmost miserable of mortal meetings, that weariest and dreariest ofhuman festivals! It is quite bad enough to remember that evening--it isindeed.

  My wife and I did our best to keep the conversation moving as easilyand as harmlessly as might be. I may say that we really worked hard.Nevertheless, our success was not very encouraging. Try as we might tooverlook them, there were the three empty places of the three absentwomen, speaking in their own dismal language for themselves. Try as wemight to resist it, we all felt the one sad conclusion which those emptyplaces persisted in forcing on our minds. It was surely too plain thatsome terrible report, affecting the character of the unhappy woman atthe head of the