The Woman in WhiteWilkie Collins
It was on a Thursday in the week, and nearly at the end of the thirdmonth of my sojourn in Cumberland.
In the morning, when I went down into the breakfast-room at the usualhour, Miss Halcombe, for the first time since I had known her, wasabsent from her customary place at the table.
Miss Fairlie was out on the lawn. She bowed to me, but did not comein. Not a word had dropped from my lips, or from hers, that couldunsettle either of us--and yet the same unacknowledged sense ofembarrassment made us shrink alike from meeting one another alone. Shewaited on the lawn, and I waited in the breakfast-room, till Mrs. Veseyor Miss Halcombe came in. How quickly I should have joined her: howreadily we should have shaken hands, and glided into our customarytalk, only a fortnight ago.
In a few minutes Miss Halcombe entered. She had a preoccupied look,and she made her apologies for being late rather absently.
"I have been detained," she said, "by a consultation with Mr. Fairlieon a domestic matter which he wished to speak to me about."
Miss Fairlie came in from the garden, and the usual morning greetingpassed between us. Her hand struck colder to mine than ever. She didnot look at me, and she was very pale. Even Mrs. Vesey noticed it whenshe entered the room a moment after.
"I suppose it is the change in the wind," said the old lady. "Thewinter is coming--ah, my love, the winter is coming soon!"
In her heart and in mine it had come already!
Our morning meal--once so full of pleasant good-humoured discussion ofthe plans for the day--was short and silent. Miss Fairlie seemed tofeel the oppression of the long pauses in the conversation, and lookedappealingly to her sister to fill them up. Miss Halcombe, after onceor twice hesitating and checking herself, in a most uncharacteristicmanner, spoke at last.
"I have seen your uncle this morning, Laura," she said. "He thinks thepurple room is the one that ought to be got ready, and he confirms whatI told you. Monday is the day--not Tuesday."
While these words were being spoken Miss Fairlie looked down at thetable beneath her. Her fingers moved nervously among the crumbs thatwere scattered on the cloth. The paleness on her cheeks spread to herlips, and the lips themselves trembled visibly. I was not the onlyperson present who noticed this. Miss Halcombe saw it, too, and at onceset us the example of rising from table.
Mrs. Vesey and Miss Fairlie left the room together. The kind sorrowfulblue eyes looked at me, for a moment, with the prescient sadness of acoming and a long farewell. I felt the answering pang in my ownheart--the pang that told me I must lose her soon, and love her themore unchangeably for the loss.
I turned towards the garden when the door had closed on her. MissHalcombe was standing with her hat in her hand, and her shawl over herarm, by the large window that led out to the lawn, and was looking atme attentively.
"Have you any leisure time to spare," she asked, "before you begin towork in your own room?"
"Certainly, Miss Halcombe. I have always time at your service."
"I want to say a word to you in private, Mr. Hartright. Get your hatand come out into the garden. We are not likely to be disturbed thereat this hour in the morning."
As we stepped out on to the lawn, one of the under-gardeners--a merelad--passed us on his way to the house, with a letter in his hand.Miss Halcombe stopped him.
"Is that letter for me?" she asked.
"Nay, miss; it's just said to be for Miss Fairlie," answered the lad,holding out the letter as he spoke.
Miss Halcombe took it from him and looked at the address.
"A strange handwriting," she said to herself. "Who can Laura'scorrespondent be? Where did you get this?" she continued, addressingthe gardener.
"Well, miss," said the lad, "I just got it from a woman."
"A woman well stricken in age."
"Oh, an old woman. Any one you knew?"
"I canna' tak' it on mysel' to say that she was other than a strangerto me."
"Which way did she go?"
"That gate," said the under-gardener, turning with great deliberationtowards the south, and embracing the whole of that part of England withone comprehensive sweep of his arm.
"Curious," said Miss Halcombe; "I suppose it must be a begging-letter.There," she added, handing the letter back to the lad, "take it to thehouse, and give it to one of the servants. And now, Mr. Hartright, ifyou have no objection, let us walk this way."
She led me across the lawn, along the same path by which I had followedher on the day after my arrival at Limmeridge.
At the little summer-house, in which Laura Fairlie and I had first seeneach other, she stopped, and broke the silence which she had steadilymaintained while we were walking together.
"What I have to say to you I can say here."
With those words she entered the summer-house, took one of the chairsat the little round table inside, and signed to me to take the other.I suspected what was coming when she spoke to me in the breakfast-room;I felt certain of it now.
"Mr. Hartright," she said, "I am going to begin by making a frankavowal to you. I am going to say--without phrase-making, which Idetest, or paying compliments, which I heartily despise--that I havecome, in the course of your residence with us, to feel a strongfriendly regard for you. I was predisposed in your favour when youfirst told me of your conduct towards that unhappy woman whom you metunder such remarkable circumstances. Your management of the affairmight not have been prudent, but it showed the self-control, thedelicacy, and the compassion of a man who was naturally a gentleman.It made me expect good things from you, and you have not disappointedmy expectations."
She paused--but held up her hand at the same time, as a sign that sheawaited no answer from me before she proceeded. When I entered thesummer-house, no thought was in me of the woman in white. But now,Miss Halcombe's own words had put the memory of my adventure back in mymind. It remained there throughout the interview--remained, and notwithout a result.
"As your friend," she proceeded, "I am going to tell you, at once, inmy own plain, blunt, downright language, that I have discovered yoursecret--without help or hint, mind, from any one else. Mr. Hartright,you have thoughtlessly allowed yourself to form an attachment--aserious and devoted attachment I am afraid--to my sister Laura. Idon't put you to the pain of confessing it in so many words, because Isee and know that you are too honest to deny it. I don't even blameyou--I pity you for opening your heart to a hopeless affection. Youhave not attempted to take any underhand advantage--you have not spokento my sister in secret. You are guilty of weakness and want ofattention to your own best interests, but of nothing worse. If you hadacted, in any single respect, less delicately and less modestly, Ishould have told you to leave the house without an instant's notice, oran instant's consultation of anybody. As it is, I blame the misfortuneof your years and your position--I don't blame YOU. Shake hands--Ihave given you pain; I am going to give you more, but there is no helpfor it--shake hands with your friend, Marian Halcombe, first."
The sudden kindness--the warm, high-minded, fearless sympathy which metme on such mercifully equal terms, which appealed with such delicateand generous abruptness straight to my heart, my honour, and mycourage, overcame me in an instant. I tried to look at her when shetook my hand, but my eves were dim. I tried to thank her, but my voicefailed me.
"Listen to me," she said, considerately avoiding all notice of my lossof self-control. "Listen to me, and let us get it over at once. It isa real true relief to me that I am not obliged, in what I have now tosay, to enter into the question--the hard and cruel question as I thinkit--of social inequalities. Circumstances which will try you to thequick, spare me the ungracious necessity of paining a man who has livedin friendly intimacy under the same roof with myself by any humiliatingreference to matters of rank and station. You must leave LimmeridgeHouse, Mr. Hartright, before more harm is done. It is my duty to saythat to you; and it would be equally my duty to say it, under precis
elythe same serious necessity, if you were the representative of theoldest and wealthiest family in England. You must leave us, not becauseyou are a teacher of drawing----"
She waited a moment, turned her face full on me, and reaching acrossthe table, laid her hand firmly on my arm.
"Not because you are a teacher of drawing," she repeated, "but becauseLaura Fairlie is engaged to be married."
The last word went like a bullet to my heart. My arm lost allsensation of the hand that grasped it. I never moved and never spoke.The sharp autumn breeze that scattered the dead leaves at our feet cameas cold to me, on a sudden, as if my own mad hopes were dead leavestoo, whirled away by the wind like the rest. Hopes! Betrothed, or notbetrothed, she was equally far from me. Would other men have rememberedthat in my place? Not if they had loved her as I did.
The pang passed, and nothing but the dull numbing pain of it remained.I felt Miss Halcombe's hand again, tightening its hold on my arm--Iraised my head and looked at her. Her large black eyes were rooted onme, watching the white change on my face, which I felt, and which shesaw.
"Crush it!" she said. "Here, where you first saw her, crush it! Don'tshrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot likea man!"
The suppressed vehemence with which she spoke, the strength which herwill--concentrated in the look she fixed on me, and in the hold on myarm that she had not yet relinquished--communicated to mine, steadiedme. We both waited for a minute in silence. At the end of that time Ihad justified her generous faith in my manhood--I had, outwardly atleast, recovered my self-control.
"Are you yourself again?"
"Enough myself, Miss Halcombe, to ask your pardon and hers. Enoughmyself to be guided by your advice, and to prove my gratitude in thatway, if I can prove it in no other."
"You have proved it already," she answered, "by those words. Mr.Hartright, concealment is at an end between us. I cannot affect tohide from you what my sister has unconsciously shown to me. You mustleave us for her sake, as well as for your own. Your presence here,your necessary intimacy with us, harmless as it has been, God knows, inall other respects, has unsteadied her and made her wretched. I, wholove her better than my own life--I, who have learnt to believe in thatpure, noble, innocent nature as I believe in my religion--know but toowell the secret misery of self-reproach that she has been sufferingsince the first shadow of a feeling disloyal to her marriage engagemententered her heart in spite of her. I don't say--it would be useless toattempt to say it after what has happened--that her engagement has everhad a strong hold on her affections. It is an engagement of honour,not of love; her father sanctioned it on his deathbed, two years since;she herself neither welcomed it nor shrank from it--she was content tomake it. Till you came here she was in the position of hundreds ofother women, who marry men without being greatly attracted to them orgreatly repelled by them, and who learn to love them (when they don'tlearn to hate!) after marriage, instead of before. I hope moreearnestly than words can say--and you should have the self-sacrificingcourage to hope too--that the new thoughts and feelings which havedisturbed the old calmness and the old content have not taken root toodeeply to be ever removed. Your absence (if I had less belief in yourhonour, and your courage, and your sense, I should not trust to them asI am trusting now) your absence will help my efforts, and time willhelp us all three. It is something to know that my first confidence inyou was not all misplaced. It is something to know that you will notbe less honest, less manly, less considerate towards the pupil whoserelation to yourself you have had the misfortune to forget, thantowards the stranger and the outcast whose appeal to you was not madein vain."
Again the chance reference to the woman in white! Was there nopossibility of speaking of Miss Fairlie and of me without raising thememory of Anne Catherick, and setting her between us like a fatalitythat it was hopeless to avoid?
"Tell me what apology I can make to Mr. Fairlie for breaking myengagement," I said. "Tell me when to go after that apology isaccepted. I promise implicit obedience to you and to your advice."
"Time is every way of importance," she answered. "You heard me referthis morning to Monday next, and to the necessity of setting the purpleroom in order. The visitor whom we expect on Monday----"
I could not wait for her to be more explicit. Knowing what I knew now,the memory of Miss Fairlie's look and manner at the breakfast-tabletold me that the expected visitor at Limmeridge House was her futurehusband. I tried to force it back; but something rose within me atthat moment stronger than my own will, and I interrupted Miss Halcombe.
"Let me go to-day," I said bitterly. "The sooner the better."
"No, not to-day," she replied. "The only reason you can assign to Mr.Fairlie for your departure, before the end of your engagement, must bethat an unforeseen necessity compels you to ask his permission toreturn at once to London. You must wait till to-morrow to tell himthat, at the time when the post comes in, because he will thenunderstand the sudden change in your plans, by associating it with thearrival of a letter from London. It is miserable and sickening todescend to deceit, even of the most harmless kind--but I know Mr.Fairlie, and if you once excite his suspicions that you are triflingwith him, he will refuse to release you. Speak to him on Fridaymorning: occupy yourself afterwards (for the sake of your own interestswith your employer) in leaving your unfinished work in as littleconfusion as possible, and quit this place on Saturday. It will betime enough then, Mr. Hartright, for you, and for all of us."
Before I could assure her that she might depend on my acting in thestrictest accordance with her wishes, we were both startled byadvancing footsteps in the shrubbery. Some one was coming from thehouse to seek for us! I felt the blood rush into my cheeks and thenleave them again. Could the third person who was fast approaching us,at such a time and under such circumstances, be Miss Fairlie?
It was a relief--so sadly, so hopelessly was my position towards herchanged already--it was absolutely a relief to me, when the person whohad disturbed us appeared at the entrance of the summer-house, andproved to be only Miss Fairlie's maid.
"Could I speak to you for a moment, miss?" said the girl, in rather aflurried, unsettled manner.
Miss Halcombe descended the steps into the shrubbery, and walked asidea few paces with the maid.
Left by myself, my mind reverted, with a sense of forlorn wretchednesswhich it is not in any words that I can find to describe, to myapproaching return to the solitude and the despair of my lonely Londonhome. Thoughts of my kind old mother, and of my sister, who hadrejoiced with her so innocently over my prospects inCumberland--thoughts whose long banishment from my heart it was now myshame and my reproach to realise for the first time--came back to mewith the loving mournfulness of old, neglected friends. My mother andmy sister, what would they feel when I returned to them from my brokenengagement, with the confession of my miserable secret--they who hadparted from me so hopefully on that last happy night in the Hampsteadcottage!
Anne Catherick again! Even the memory of the farewell evening with mymother and my sister could not return to me now unconnected with thatother memory of the moonlight walk back to London. What did it mean?Were that woman and I to meet once more? It was possible, at the least.Did she know that I lived in London? Yes; I had told her so, eitherbefore or after that strange question of hers, when she had asked me sodistrustfully if I knew many men of the rank of Baronet. Either beforeor after--my mind was not calm enough, then, to remember which.
A few minutes elapsed before Miss Halcombe dismissed the maid and cameback to me. She, too, looked flurried and unsettled now.
"We have arranged all that is necessary, Mr. Hartright," she said. "Wehave understood each other, as friends should, and we may go back atonce to the house. To tell you the truth, I am uneasy about Laura.She has sent to say she wants to see me directly, and the maid reportsthat her mistress is apparently very much agitated by a letter that shehas received this morning--the same letter, no doubt, which I sent o
nto the house before we came here."
We retraced our steps together hastily along the shrubbery path.Although Miss Halcombe had ended all that she thought it necessary tosay on her side, I had not ended all that I wanted to say on mine.From the moment when I had discovered that the expected visitor atLimmeridge was Miss Fairlie's future husband, I had felt a bittercuriosity, a burning envious eagerness, to know who he was. It waspossible that a future opportunity of putting the question might noteasily offer, so I risked asking it on our way back to the house.
"Now that you are kind enough to tell me we have understood each other,Miss Halcombe," I said, "now that you are sure of my gratitude for yourforbearance and my obedience to your wishes, may I venture to askwho"--(I hesitated--I had forced myself to think of him, but it washarder still to speak of him, as her promised husband)--"who thegentleman engaged to Miss Fairlie is?"
Her mind was evidently occupied with the message she had received fromher sister. She answered in a hasty, absent way--
"A gentleman of large property in Hampshire."
Hampshire! Anne Catherick's native place. Again, and yet again, thewoman in white. There WAS a fatality in it.
"And his name?" I said, as quietly and indifferently as I could.
"Sir Percival Glyde."
SIR--Sir Percival! Anne Catherick's question--that suspicious questionabout the men of the rank of Baronet whom I might happen to know--hadhardly been dismissed from my mind by Miss Halcombe's return to me inthe summer-house, before it was recalled again by her own answer. Istopped suddenly, and looked at her.
"Sir Percival Glyde," she repeated, imagining that I had not heard herformer reply.
"Knight, or Baronet?" I asked, with an agitation that I could hide nolonger.
She paused for a moment, and then answered, rather coldly--
"Baronet, of course."