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Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman

Wilkie Collins

  Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by

  My brother, the clergyman, looked over my shoulder before I was aware of him, and discovered that the volume which completely absorbed my attention was a collection of famous Trials, published in a new edition and in a popular form.

  He laid his finger on the Trial which I happened to be reading at the moment. I looked up at him; his face startled me. He had turned pale. His eyes were fixed on the open page of the book with an expression which puzzled and alarmed me.

  ‘My dear fellow,’ I said, ‘what in the world is the matter with you?’

  He answered in an odd absent manner, still keeping his finger on the open page.

  ‘I had almost forgotten,’ he said. ‘And this reminds me.’

  ‘Reminds you of what?’ I asked. ‘You don’t mean to say you know anything about the Trial?’

  ‘I know this,’ he said. ‘The prisoner was guilty.’

  ‘Guilty?’ I repeated. ‘Why, the man was acquitted by the jury, with the full approval of the judge! What can you possibly mean?’

  ‘There are circumstances connected with that Trial,’ my brother answered, ‘which were never communicated to the judge or the jury—which were never so much as hinted or whispered in court. I know them—of my own knowledge, by my own personal experience. They are very sad, very strange, very terrible. I have mentioned them to no mortal creature. I have done my best to forget them. You—quite innocently—have brought them back to my mind. They oppress, they distress me. I wish I had found you reading any book in your library, except that book!’

  My curiosity was now strongly excited. I spoke out plainly.

  ‘Surely,’ I suggested, ‘you might tell your brother what you are unwilling to mention to persons less nearly related to you. We have followed different professions, and have lived in different countries, since we were boys at school. But you know you can trust me.

  He considered a little with himself.

  ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know I can trust you.’ He waited a moment; and then he surprised me by a strange question.

  ‘Do you believe,’ he asked, ‘that the spirits of the dead can return to earth, and show themselves to the living?’

  I answered cautiously—adopting as my own the words of a great English writer, touching the subject of ghosts.

  ‘You ask me a question,’ I said, ‘which, after five thousand years, is yet undecided. On that account alone, it is a question not to be trifled with.’

  My reply seemed to satisfy him.

  ‘Promise me,’ he resumed, ‘that you will keep what I tell you a secret as long as I live.

  After my death I care little what happens. Let the story of my strange experience be added to the published experience of those other men who have seen what I have seen, and who believe what I believe. The world will not be the worse, and may be the better, for knowing one day what I am now about to trust to your ear alone.’

  My brother never again alluded to the narrative which he had confided to me, until the later time when I was sitting by his death-bed. He asked if I still remembered the story of Jéromette. ‘Tell it to others,’ he said, ‘as I have told it to you.

  I repeat it, after his death—as nearly as I can in his own words.


  On a fine summer evening, many years since, I left my chambers in the Temple, to meet a fellow-student, who had proposed to me a night’s amusement in the public gardens at Cremorne.

  You were then on your way to India; and I had taken my degree at Oxford. I had sadly disappointed my father by choosing the Law as my profession, in preference to the Church. At that time, to own the truth, I had no serious intention of following any special vocation. I simply wanted an excuse for enjoying the pleasures of a London life. The study of the Law supplied me with that excuse. And I chose the Law as my profession accordingly.

  On reaching the place at which we had arranged to meet, I found that my friend had not kept his appointment. After waiting vainly for ten minutes, my patience gave way, and I went into the Gardens by myself.

  I took two or three turns round the platform devoted to the dancers, without discovering my fellow-student, and without seeing any other person with whom I happened to be acquainted at that time.

  For some reason which I cannot now remember, I was not in my usual good spirits that evening. The noisy music jarred on my nerves, the sight of the gaping crowd round the platform irritated me, the blandishments of the painted ladies of the profession of pleasure saddened and disgusted me. I opened my cigar-case, and turned aside into one of the quiet by-walks of the Gardens.

  A man who is habitually careful in choosing his cigar has this advantage over a man who is habitually careless. He can always count on smoking the best cigar in his case, down to the last. I was still absorbed in choosing my cigar, when I heard these words behind me—spoken in a foreign accent and in a woman s voice:

  ‘Leave me directly, sir! I wish to have nothing to say to you.’

  I turned round and discovered a little lady very simply and tastefully dressed, who looked both angry and alarmed as she rapidly passed me on her way to the more frequented part of the Gardens. A man (evidently the worse for the wine he had drunk in the course of the evening) was following her, and was pressing his tipsy attentions on her with the coarsest insolence of speech and manner. She was young and pretty, and she cast one entreating look at me as she went by, which it was not in manhood—perhaps I ought to say, in young-manhood—to resist.

  I instantly stepped forward to protect her, careless whether I involved myself in a discreditable quarrel with a blackguard or not. As a matter of course, the fellow resented my interference, and my temper gave way. Fortunately for me, just as I lifted my hand to knock him down, a policeman appeared who had noticed that he was drunk, and who settled the dispute officially by turning him out of the Gardens.

  I led her away from the crowd that had collected. She was evidently frightened—I felt her hand trembling on my arm—but she had one great merit: she made no fuss about it.

  ‘If I can sit down for a few minutes,’ she said in her pretty foreign accent, ‘I shall soon be myself again, and I shall not trespass any farther on your kindness. I thank you very much, sir, for taking care of me.’

  We sat down on a bench in a retired part of the Gardens, near a little fountain. A row of lighted lamps ran round the outer rim of the basin. I could see her plainly.

  I have said that she was ‘a little lady.’ I could not have described her more correctly in three words.

  Her figure was slight and small: she was a well-made miniature of a woman from head to foot. Her hair and her eyes were both dark. The hair curled naturally; the expression of the eyes was quiet, and rather sad; the complexion, as I then saw it, very pale; the little mouth perfectly charming. I was especially attracted, I remember, by the carriage of her head; it was strikingly graceful and spirited; it distinguished her, little as she was and quiet as she was, among the thousands of other women in the Gardens, as a creature apart. Even the one marked defect in her—a slight ‘cast’ in the left eye—seemed to add, in some strange way, to the quaint attractiveness of her face. I have already spoken of the tasteful simplicity of her dress. I ought now to add that it was not made of any costly material, and that she wore no jewels or ornaments of any sort. My little lady was not rich: even a man’s eye could see that.

  She was perfectly unembarrassed and unaffected. We fell as easily into talk as if we had been friends instead of strangers.

  I asked how it was that she had no companion to take care of her. ‘You are too young and
too pretty,’ I said in my blunt English way, ‘to trust yourself alone in such a place as this.’

  She took no notice of the compliment. She calmly put it away from her as if it had not reached her ears.

  ‘I have no friend to take care of me,’ she said simply. ‘I was sad and sorry this evening, all by myself, and I thought I would go to the Gardens and hear the music, just to amuse me. It is not much to pay at the gate; only a shilling.’

  ‘No friend to take care of you?’ I repeated. ‘Surely there must be one happy man who might have been here with you to-night?’

  ‘What man do you mean?’ she asked.

  ‘The man,’ I answered thoughtlessly, ‘whom we call, in England, a Sweetheart.’

  I would have given worlds to have recalled those foolish words the moment they passed my lips. I felt that I had taken a vulgar liberty with her. Her face saddened; her eyes dropped to the ground. I begged her pardon.

  ‘There is no need to beg my pardon,’ she said. ‘If you wish to know, sir—yes, I had once a sweetheart, as you call it in England. He has gone away and left me. No more of him, if you please. I am rested now. I will thank you again, and go home.’

  She rose to leave me.

  I was determined not to part with her in that way. I begged to be allowed to see her safely back to her own door. She hesitated. I took a man’s unfair advantage of her, by appealing to her fears. I said, ‘Suppose the blackguard who annoyed you should be waiting outside the gates?’ That decided her. She took my arm. We went away together by the bank of the Thames, in the balmy summer night.

  A walk of half an hour brought us to the house in which she lodged—a shabby little house in a by-street, inhabited evidently by very poor people.

  She held out her hand at the door, and wished me good-night. I was too much interested in her to consent to leave my little foreign lady without the hope of seeing her again. I asked permission to call on her the next day. We were standing under the light of the street-lamp. She studied my face with a grave and steady attention before she made any reply.

  ‘Yes,’ she said at last. ‘I think I do know a gentleman when I see him. You may come, sir, if you please, and call upon me to-morrow.’

  So we parted. So I entered—doubting nothing, foreboding nothing—on a scene in my life, which I now look back on with unfeigned repentance and regret.


  I am speaking at this later time in the position of a clergyman, and in the character of a man of mature age. Remember that; and you will understand why I pass as rapidly as possible over the events of the next year of my life—why I say as little as I can of the errors and the delusions of my youth.

  I called on her the next day. I repeated my visits during the days and weeks that followed, until the shabby little house in the by-street had become a second and (I say it with shame and self-reproach) a dearer home to me.

  All of herself and her story which she thought fit to confide to me under these circumstances may be repeated to you in few words.

  The name by which letters were addressed to her was ‘Mademoiselle Jéromette.’

  Among the ignorant people of the house and the small tradesmen of the neighbourhood—

  who found her name not easy of pronunciation by the average English tongue—she was known by the friendly nickname of ‘The French Miss.’ When I knew her, she was resigned to her lonely life among strangers. Some years had elapsed since she had lost her parents, and had left France. Possessing a small, very small, income of her own, she added to it by colouring miniatures for the photographers. She had relatives still living in France; but she had long since ceased to correspond with them. ‘Ask me nothing more about my family,’ she used to say. ‘I am as good as dead in my own country and among my own people.’

  This was all—literally all—that she told me of herself. I have never discovered more of her sad story from that day to this.

  She never mentioned her family name—never even told me what part of France she came from, or how long she had lived in England. That she was, by birth and breeding, a lady, I could entertain no doubt; her manners, her accomplishments, her ways of thinking and speaking, all proved it. Looking below the surface, her character showed itself in aspects not common among Young women in these days. In her quiet way, she was an incurable fatalist, and a firm believer in the ghostly reality of apparitions from the dead.

  Then again, in the matter of money, she had strange views of her own. Whenever ‘fly purse was in my hand, she held me resolutely at a distance from first to last. She refused to move into better apartments; the shabby little house was clean inside, and the poor people who lived in it were kind to her—and that was enough. The most expensive present that she ever permitted me to offer her was a little enamelled ring, the plainest and cheapest thing of the kind in the jeweller’s shop. In all her relations with me she was

  sincerity itself. On all occasions, and under all circumstances, she spoke her mind (as the phrase is) with the same uncompromising plainness.

  ‘I like you,’ she said to me; ‘I respect you; I shall always be faithful to you while you are faithful to me. But my love has gone from me. There is another man who has taken it away with him, I know not where.’

  Who was the other man?

  She refused to tell mc. She kept his rank and his name strict secrets from me. I never discovered how he had met with her, or why he had left her, or whether the guilt was his of making her an exile from her country and her friends. She despised herself for still loving him; but the passion was too strong for her—she owned it and lamented it with the frankness which was so pre-eminently a part of her character. More than this, she plainly told me, in the early days of our acquaintance, that she believed he would return to her. It might be to-morrow, or it might be years hence. Even if he failed to repent of his own cruel conduct, the man would still miss her, as something lost out of his life; and, sooner or later, he would come back.

  ‘And will you receive him if he does come back?’ I asked.

  ‘I shall receive him,’ she replied, ‘against my own better judgment—in spite of my own firm persuasion that the day of his return to me will bring with it the darkest days of my life.’

  I tried to remonstrate with her.

  ‘You have a will of your own,’ I said. ‘Exert it, if he attempts to return to you.

  ‘I have no will of my own,’ she answered quietly, ‘where he is concerned. It is my misfortune to love him.’ Her eyes rested for a moment on mine, with the utter self-abandonment of despair. ‘We have said enough about this,’ she added abruptly. ‘Let us say no more.

  From that time we never spoke again of the unknown man. During the year that followed our first meeting, she heard nothing of him directly or indirectly. He might be living, or he might be dead. There came no word of him, or from him. I was fond enough of her to be satisfied with this—he never disturbed us.


  The year passed—and the end came. Not the end as you may have anticipated it, or as I might have foreboded it.

  You remember the time when your letters from home informed you of the fatal termination of our mother’s illness? It is the time of which I am now speaking. A few hours only before she breathed her last, she called me to her bedside, and desired that we might be left together alone. Reminding me that her death was near, she spoke of my prospects in life; she noticed my want of interest in the studies which were then supposed to be engaging my attention, and she ended by entreating me to reconsider my refusal to enter the Church.

  ‘Your father’s heart is set upon it,’ she said. ‘Do what I ask of you, my dear, and you will help to comfort him when lam gone.’

  Her strength failed her: she could say no more. Could I refuse the last request she would ever make to mc? I knelt at the bedside, and took her wasted hand in mine, and solemnly promised her the respect which a son owes to his mother’s last wishes.

  Having bound myself by this sacred engagement, I had no choice but
to accept the sacrifice which it imperatively exacted from mc. The time had come when I must tear myself free from all unworthy associations. No matter what the effort cost me, I must separate myself at once and for ever from the unhappy woman who was not, who never could be, my wife.

  At the close of a dull foggy day I set forth with a heavy heart to say the words which were to part us for ever.

  Her lodging was not far from the banks of the Thames. As I drew near the place the darkness was gathering, and the broad surface of the river was hidden from me in a chill white mist. I stood for a while, with my eyes fixed on the vaporous shroud that brooded over the flowing water—I stood, and asked myself in despair the one dreary question:

  ‘What am I to say to her?’

  The mist chilled me to the bones. I turned from the river-bank, and made my way to her lodgings hard by. ‘It must be done!’ I said to myself, as I took out my key and opened the house door.

  She was not at her work, as usual, when I entered her little sitting-room. She was standing by the fire, with her head down, and with an open letter in her hand.

  The instant she turned to meet me, I saw in her face that something was wrong. Her ordinary manner was the manner of an unusually placid and self-restrained person. Her temperament had little of the liveliness which we associate in England with the French nature. She was not ready with her laugh; and, in all my previous experience, I had never yet known her to cry. Now, for the first time, I saw the quiet face disturbed; I saw tears in the pretty brown eyes. She ran to meet mc, and laid her head on my breast, and burst into a passionate fit of weeping that shook her from head to foot.

  Could she by any human possibility have heard of the coming change in my life? Was she aware, before I had opened my lips, of the hard necessity which had brought me to the house?

  It was simply impossible; the thing could not be.

  I waited until her first burst of emotion had worn itself out. Then I asked—with an uneasy conscience, with a sinking heart—what had happened to distress her.