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The Queen of Hearts

Wilkie Collins

  Produced by James Rusk


  By Wilkie Collins




  AT a time when French readers were altogether unaware of the existenceof any books of my writing, a critical examination of my novels appearedunder your signature in the _Revue des Deux Mondes_. I read thatarticle, at the time of its appearance, with sincere pleasure andsincere gratitude to the writer, and I have honestly done my best toprofit by it ever since.

  At a later period, when arrangements were made for the publication ofmy novels in Paris, you kindly undertook, at some sacrifice of your ownconvenience, to give the first of the series--"The Dead Secret"--thegreat advantage of being rendered into French by your pen. Yourexcellent translation of "The Lighthouse" had already taught me howto appreciate the value of your assistance; and when "The Dead Secret"appeared in its French form, although I was sensibly gratified, I was byno means surprised to find my fortunate work of fiction, not translated,in the mechanical sense of the word, but transformed from a novel thatI had written in my language to a novel that you might have written inyours.

  I am now about to ask you to confer one more literary obligation on meby accepting the dedication of this book, as the earliest acknowledgmentwhich it has been in my power to make of the debt I owe to my critic, tomy translator, and to my friend.

  The stories which form the principal contents of the following pagesare all, more or less, exercises in that art which I have now studiedanxiously for some years, and which I still hope to cultivate, tobetter and better purpose, for many more. Allow me, by inscribing thecollection to you, to secure one reader for it at the outset of itsprogress through the world of letters whose capacity for seeing all awriter's defects may be matched by many other critics, but whose rarerfaculty of seeing all a writer's merits is equaled by very few.




  WE were three quiet, lonely old men, and SHE was a lively, handsomeyoung woman, and we were at our wits' end what to do with her.

  A word about ourselves, first of all--a necessary word, to explain thesingular situation of our fair young guest.

  We are three brothers; and we live in a barbarous, dismal old housecalled The Glen Tower. Our place of abode stands in a hilly, lonesomedistrict of South Wales. No such thing as a line of railway runsanywhere near us. No gentleman's seat is within an easy drive of us. Weare at an unspeakably inconvenient distance from a town, and the villageto which we send for our letters is three miles off.

  My eldest brother, Owen, was brought up to the Church. All the prime ofhis life was passed in a populous London parish. For more years than Inow like to reckon up, he worked unremittingly, in defiance of failinghealth and adverse fortune, amid the multitudinous misery of the Londonpoor; and he would, in all probability, have sacrificed his life to hisduty long before the present time if The Glen Tower had not come intohis possession through two unexpected deaths in the elder and richerbranch of our family. This opening to him of a place of rest and refugesaved his life. No man ever drew breath who better deserved the giftsof fortune; for no man, I sincerely believe, more tender of others,more diffident of himself, more gentle, more generous, and moresimple-hearted than Owen, ever walked this earth.

  My second brother, Morgan, started in life as a doctor, and learned allthat his profession could teach him at home and abroad. He realized amoderate independence by his practice, beginning in one of our largenorthern towns and ending as a physician in London; but, although he waswell known and appreciated among his brethren, he failed to gainthat sort of reputation with the public which elevates a man into theposition of a great doctor. The ladies never liked him. In the firstplace, he was ugly (Morgan will excuse me for mentioning this); in thesecond place, he was an inveterate smoker, and he smelled of tobaccowhen he felt languid pulses in elegant bedrooms; in the third place,he was the most formidably outspoken teller of the truth as regardedhimself, his profession, and his patients, that ever imperiled thesocial standing of the science of medicine. For these reasons, and forothers which it is not necessary to mention, he never pushed his way,as a doctor, into the front ranks, and he never cared to do so. Abouta year after Owen came into possession of The Glen Tower, Morgandiscovered that he had saved as much money for his old age as a sensibleman could want; that he was tired of the active pursuit--or, as hetermed it, of the dignified quackery of his profession; and that it wasonly common charity to give his invalid brother a companion who couldphysic him for nothing, and so prevent him from getting rid of his moneyin the worst of all possible ways, by wasting it on doctors' bills. Ina week after Morgan had arrived at these conclusions, he was settled atThe Glen Tower; and from that time, opposite as their characters were,my two elder brothers lived together in their lonely retreat, thoroughlyunderstanding, and, in their very different ways, heartily loving oneanother.

  Many years passed before I, the youngest of the three--christened by theunmelodious name of Griffith--found my way, in my turn, to the drearyold house, and the sheltering quiet of the Welsh hills. My career inlife had led me away from my brothers; and even now, when we are allunited, I have still ties and interests to connect me with the outerworld which neither Owen nor Morgan possess.

  I was brought up to the Bar. After my first year's study of the law,I wearied of it, and strayed aside idly into the brighter and moreattractive paths of literature. My occasional occupation with my pen wasvaried by long traveling excursions in all parts of the Continent; yearby year my circle of gay friends and acquaintances increased, and I badefair to sink into the condition of a wandering desultory man, withouta fixed purpose in life of any sort, when I was saved by what has savedmany another in my situation--an attachment to a good and a sensiblewoman. By the time I had reached the age of thirty-five, I had done whatneither of my brothers had done before me--I had married.

  As a single man, my own small independence, aided by what littleadditions to it I could pick up with my pen, had been sufficient for mywants; but with marriage and its responsibilities came the necessityfor serious exertion. I returned to my neglected studies, and grappledresolutely, this time, with the intricate difficulties of the law. I wascalled to the Bar. My wife's father aided me with his interest, and Istarted into practice without difficulty and without delay.

  For the next twenty years my married life was a scene of happiness andprosperity, on which I now look back with a grateful tenderness thatno words of mine can express. The memory of my wife is busy at my heartwhile I think of those past times. The forgotten tears rise in my eyesagain, and trouble the course of my pen while it traces these simplelines.

  Let me pass rapidly over the one unspeakable misery of my life; let metry to remember now, as I tried to remember then, that she lived to seeour only child--our son, who was so good to her, who is still so good tome--grow up to manhood; that her head lay on my bosom when she died; andthat the last frail movement of her hand in this world was the movementthat brought it closer to her boy's lips.

  I bore the blow--with God's help I bore it, and bear it still. But itstruck me away forever from my hold on social life; from the purposesand pursuits, the companions and the pleasures of twenty years, whichher presence had sanctioned and made dear to me. If my son George haddesired to follow my profession, I should still have struggled againstmyself, and have kept my place in the world until I had seen h improsperous and settled. But his choice led him to the army; and beforehis mother's death he had obtained his commission, and had entered onhis path in life. No other responsibility remained to claim from me thesacrifice of myself; my brothers had made my place ready for me bytheir firesi
de; my heart yearned, in its desolation, for the friends andcompanions of the old boyish days; my good, brave son promised that noyear should pass, as long as he was in England, without his comingto cheer me; and so it happened that I, in my turn, withdrew from theworld, which had once been a bright and a happy world to me, and retiredto end my days, peacefully, contentedly, and gratefully, as my brothersare ending theirs, in the solitude of The Glen Tower.

  How many years have passed since we have all three been united it is notnecessary to relate. It will be more to the purpose if I briefly recordthat we have never been separated since the day which first saw usassembled together in our hillside retreat; that we have never yetwearied of the time, of the place, or of ourselves; and that theinfluence of solitude on our hearts and minds has not altered them forthe worse, for it has not embittered us toward our fellow-creatures, andit has not dried up in us the sources from which harmless occupationsand innocent pleasures may flow refreshingly to the last over thewaste places of human life. Thus much for our own story, and for thecircumstances which have withdrawn us from the world for the rest of ourdays.

  And now imagine us three lonely old men, tall and lean, andwhite-headed; dressed, more from past habit than from presentassociation, in customary suits of solemn black: Brother Owen, yielding,gentle, and affectionate in look, voice, and manner; brother Morgan,with a quaint, surface-sourness of address, and a tone of dry sarcasm inhis talk, which single him out, on all occasions, as a character in ourlittle circle; brother Griffith forming the link between his two eldercompanions, capable, at one time, of sympathizing with the quiet,thoughtful tone of Owen's conversation, and ready, at another, toexchange brisk severities on life and manners with Morgan--in short,a pliable, double-sided old lawyer, who stands between theclergyman-brother and the physician-brother with an ear ready for each,and with a heart open to both, share and share together.

  Imagine the strange old building in which we live to be really what itsname implies--a tower standing in a glen; in past times the fortress ofa fighting Welsh chieftain; in present times a dreary land-lighthouse,built up in many stories of two rooms each, with a little modern lean-toof cottage form tacked on quaintly to one of its sides; the great hill,on whose lowest slope it stands, rising precipitously behind it; a dark,swift-flowing stream in the valley below; hills on hills all round, andno way of approach but by one of the loneliest and wildest crossroads inall South Wales.

  Imagine such a place of abode as this, and such inhabitants of itas ourselves, and them picture the descent among us--as of a goddessdropping from the clouds--of a lively, handsome, fashionable younglady--a bright, gay, butterfly creature, used to flutter away itsexistence in the broad sunshine of perpetual gayety--a child of the newgeneration, with all the modern ideas whirling together in her prettyhead, and all the modern accomplishments at the tips of her delicatefingers. Imagine such a light-hearted daughter of Eve as this, thespoiled darling of society, the charming spendthrift of Nature'schoicest treasures of beauty and youth, suddenly flashing into the dimlife of three weary old men--suddenly dropped into the place, of allothers, which is least fit for her--suddenly shut out from the worldin the lonely quiet of the loneliest home in England. Realize, if itbe possible, all that is most whimsical and most anomalous in such asituation as this, and the startling confession contained in the openingsentence of these pages will no longer excite the faintest emotionof surprise. Who can wonder now, when our bright young goddess reallydescended on us, that I and my brothers were all three at our wits' endwhat to do with her!