The Woman in WhiteWilkie Collins
Our inquiries at Limmeridge were patiently pursued in all directions,and among all sorts and conditions of people. But nothing came ofthem. Three of the villagers did certainly assure us that they hadseen the woman, but as they were quite unable to describe her, andquite incapable of agreeing about the exact direction in which she wasproceeding when they last saw her, these three bright exceptions to thegeneral rule of total ignorance afforded no more real assistance to usthan the mass of their unhelpful and unobservant neighbours.
The course of our useless investigations brought us, in time, to theend of the village at which the schools established by Mrs. Fairliewere situated. As we passed the side of the building appropriated tothe use of the boys, I suggested the propriety of making a last inquiryof the schoolmaster, whom we might presume to be, in virtue of hisoffice, the most intelligent man in the place.
"I am afraid the schoolmaster must have been occupied with hisscholars," said Miss Halcombe, "just at the time when the woman passedthrough the village and returned again. However, we can but try."
We entered the playground enclosure, and walked by the schoolroomwindow to get round to the door, which was situated at the back of thebuilding. I stopped for a moment at the window and looked in.
The schoolmaster was sitting at his high desk, with his back to me,apparently haranguing the pupils, who were all gathered together infront of him, with one exception. The one exception was a sturdywhite-headed boy, standing apart from all the rest on a stool in acorner--a forlorn little Crusoe, isolated in his own desert island ofsolitary penal disgrace.
The door, when we got round to it, was ajar, and the school-master'svoice reached us plainly, as we both stopped for a minute under theporch.
"Now, boys," said the voice, "mind what I tell you. If I hear anotherword spoken about ghosts in this school, it will be the worse for allof you. There are no such things as ghosts, and therefore any boy whobelieves in ghosts believes in what can't possibly be; and a boy whobelongs to Limmeridge School, and believes in what can't possibly be,sets up his back against reason and discipline, and must be punishedaccordingly. You all see Jacob Postlethwaite standing up on the stoolthere in disgrace. He has been punished, not because he said he saw aghost last night, but because he is too impudent and too obstinate tolisten to reason, and because he persists in saying he saw the ghostafter I have told him that no such thing can possibly be. If nothingelse will do, I mean to cane the ghost out of Jacob Postlethwaite, andif the thing spreads among any of the rest of you, I mean to go a stepfarther, and cane the ghost out of the whole school."
"We seem to have chosen an awkward moment for our visit," said MissHalcombe, pushing open the door at the end of the schoolmaster'saddress, and leading the way in.
Our appearance produced a strong sensation among the boys. Theyappeared to think that we had arrived for the express purpose of seeingJacob Postlethwaite caned.
"Go home all of you to dinner," said the schoolmaster, "except Jacob.Jacob must stop where he is; and the ghost may bring him his dinner, ifthe ghost pleases."
Jacob's fortitude deserted him at the double disappearance of hisschoolfellows and his prospect of dinner. He took his hands out of hispockets, looked hard at his knuckles, raised them with greatdeliberation to his eyes, and when they got there, ground them roundand round slowly, accompanying the action by short spasms of sniffing,which followed each other at regular intervals--the nasal minute gunsof juvenile distress.
"We came here to ask you a question, Mr. Dempster," said Miss Halcombe,addressing the schoolmaster; "and we little expected to find youoccupied in exorcising a ghost. What does it all mean? What has reallyhappened?"
"That wicked boy has been frightening the whole school, Miss Halcombe,by declaring that he saw a ghost yesterday evening," answered themaster; "and he still persists in his absurd story, in spite of allthat I can say to him."
"Most extraordinary," said Miss Halcombe, "I should not have thought itpossible that any of the boys had imagination enough to see a ghost.This is a new accession indeed to the hard labour of forming theyouthful mind at Limmeridge, and I heartily wish you well through it,Mr. Dempster. In the meantime, let me explain why you see me here, andwhat it is I want."
She then put the same question to the schoolmaster which we had askedalready of almost every one else in the village. It was met by thesame discouraging answer Mr. Dempster had not set eyes on the strangerof whom we were in search.
"We may as well return to the house, Mr. Hartright," said MissHalcombe; "the information we want is evidently not to be found."
She had bowed to Mr. Dempster, and was about to leave the schoolroom,when the forlorn position of Jacob Postlethwaite, piteously sniffing onthe stool of penitence, attracted her attention as she passed him, andmade her stop good-humouredly to speak a word to the little prisonerbefore she opened the door.
"You foolish boy," she said, "why don't you beg Mr. Dempster's pardon,and hold your tongue about the ghost?"
"Eh!--but I saw t' ghaist," persisted Jacob Postlethwaite, with a stareof terror and a burst of tears.
"Stuff and nonsense! You saw nothing of the kind. Ghost indeed! Whatghost----"
"I beg your pardon, Miss Halcombe," interposed the schoolmaster alittle uneasily--"but I think you had better not question the boy. Theobstinate folly of his story is beyond all belief; and you might leadhim into ignorantly----"
"Ignorantly what?" inquired Miss Halcombe sharply.
"Ignorantly shocking your feelings," said Mr. Dempster, looking verymuch discomposed.
"Upon my word, Mr. Dempster, you pay my feelings a great compliment inthinking them weak enough to be shocked by such an urchin as that!" Sheturned with an air of satirical defiance to little Jacob, and began toquestion him directly. "Come!" she said, "I mean to know all aboutthis. You naughty boy, when did you see the ghost?"
"Yestere'en, at the gloaming," replied Jacob.
"Oh! you saw it yesterday evening, in the twilight? And what was itlike?"
"Arl in white--as a ghaist should be," answered the ghost-seer, with aconfidence beyond his years.
"And where was it?"
"Away yander, in t' kirkyard--where a ghaist ought to be."
"As a 'ghaist' should be--where a 'ghaist' ought to be--why, you littlefool, you talk as if the manners and customs of ghosts had beenfamiliar to you from your infancy! You have got your story at yourfingers' ends, at any rate. I suppose I shall hear next that you canactually tell me whose ghost it was?"
"Eh! but I just can," replied Jacob, nodding his head with an air ofgloomy triumph.
Mr. Dempster had already tried several times to speak while MissHalcombe was examining his pupil, and he now interposed resolutelyenough to make himself heard.
"Excuse me, Miss Halcombe," he said, "if I venture to say that you areonly encouraging the boy by asking him these questions."
"I will merely ask one more, Mr. Dempster, and then I shall be quitesatisfied. Well," she continued, turning to the boy, "and whose ghostwas it?"
"T' ghaist of Mistress Fairlie," answered Jacob in a whisper.
The effect which this extraordinary reply produced on Miss Halcombefully justified the anxiety which the schoolmaster had shown to preventher from hearing it. Her face crimsoned with indignation--she turnedupon little Jacob with an angry suddenness which terrified him into afresh burst of tears--opened her lips to speak to him--then controlledherself, and addressed the master instead of the boy.
"It is useless," she said, "to hold such a child as that responsiblefor what he says. I have little doubt that the idea has been put intohis head by others. If there are people in this village, Mr. Dempster,who have forgotten the respect and gratitude due from every soul in itto my mother's memory, I will find them out, and if I have anyinfluence with Mr. Fairlie, they shall suffer for it."
"I hope--indeed, I am sure, Miss Halcombe--that you are mistaken," saidthe schoolmaster. "The matter begins and ends wit
h the boy's ownperversity and folly. He saw, or thought he saw, a woman in white,yesterday evening, as he was passing the churchyard; and the figure,real or fancied, was standing by the marble cross, which he and everyone else in Limmeridge knows to be the monument over Mrs. Fairlie'sgrave. These two circumstances are surely sufficient to have suggestedto the boy himself the answer which has so naturally shocked you?"
Although Miss Halcombe did not seem to be convinced, she evidently feltthat the schoolmaster's statement of the case was too sensible to beopenly combated. She merely replied by thanking him for his attention,and by promising to see him again when her doubts were satisfied. Thissaid, she bowed, and led the way out of the schoolroom.
Throughout the whole of this strange scene I had stood apart, listeningattentively, and drawing my own conclusions. As soon as we were aloneagain, Miss Halcombe asked me if I had formed any opinion on what I hadheard.
"A very strong opinion," I answered; "the boy's story, as I believe,has a foundation in fact. I confess I am anxious to see the monumentover Mrs. Fairlie's grave, and to examine the ground about it."
"You shall see the grave."
She paused after making that reply, and reflected a little as we walkedon. "What has happened in the schoolroom," she resumed, "has socompletely distracted my attention from the subject of the letter, thatI feel a little bewildered when I try to return to it. Must we give upall idea of making any further inquiries, and wait to place the thingin Mr. Gilmore's hands to-morrow?"
"By no means, Miss Halcombe. What has happened in the schoolroomencourages me to persevere in the investigation."
"Why does it encourage you?"
"Because it strengthens a suspicion I felt when you gave me the letterto read."
"I suppose you had your reasons, Mr. Hartright, for concealing thatsuspicion from me till this moment?"
"I was afraid to encourage it in myself. I thought it was utterlypreposterous--I distrusted it as the result of some perversity in myown imagination. But I can do so no longer. Not only the boy's ownanswers to your questions, but even a chance expression that droppedfrom the schoolmaster's lips in explaining his story, have forced theidea back into my mind. Events may yet prove that idea to be adelusion, Miss Halcombe; but the belief is strong in me, at thismoment, that the fancied ghost in the churchyard, and the writer of theanonymous letter, are one and the same person."
She stopped, turned pale, and looked me eagerly in the face.
"The schoolmaster unconsciously told you. When he spoke of the figurethat the boy saw in the churchyard he called it 'a woman in white.'"
"Not Anne Catherick?"
"Yes, Anne Catherick."
She put her hand through my arm and leaned on it heavily.
"I don't know why," she said in low tones, "but there is something inthis suspicion of yours that seems to startle and unnerve me. Ifeel----" She stopped, and tried to laugh it off. "Mr. Hartright," shewent on, "I will show you the grave, and then go back at once to thehouse. I had better not leave Laura too long alone. I had better goback and sit with her."
We were close to the churchyard when she spoke. The church, a drearybuilding of grey stone, was situated in a little valley, so as to besheltered from the bleak winds blowing over the moorland all round it.The burial-ground advanced, from the side of the church, a little wayup the slope of the hill. It was surrounded by a rough, low stonewall, and was bare and open to the sky, except at one extremity, wherea brook trickled down the stony hill-side, and a clump of dwarf treesthrew their narrow shadows over the short, meagre grass. Just beyondthe brook and the trees, and not far from one of the three stone stileswhich afforded entrance, at various points, to the churchyard, rose thewhite marble cross that distinguished Mrs. Fairlie's grave from thehumbler monuments scattered about it.
"I need go no farther with you," said Miss Halcombe, pointing to thegrave. "You will let me know if you find anything to confirm the ideayou have just mentioned to me. Let us meet again at the house."
She left me. I descended at once to the churchyard, and crossed thestile which led directly to Mrs. Fairlie's grave.
The grass about it was too short, and the ground too hard, to show anymarks of footsteps. Disappointed thus far, I next looked attentivelyat the cross, and at the square block of marble below it, on which theinscription was cut.
The natural whiteness of the cross was a little clouded, here andthere, by weather stains, and rather more than one half of the squareblock beneath it, on the side which bore the inscription, was in thesame condition. The other half, however, attracted my attention atonce by its singular freedom from stain or impurity of any kind. Ilooked closer, and saw that it had been cleaned--recently cleaned, in adownward direction from top to bottom. The boundary line between thepart that had been cleaned and the part that had not was traceablewherever the inscription left a blank space of marble--sharplytraceable as a line that had been produced by artificial means. Whohad begun the cleansing of the marble, and who had left it unfinished?
I looked about me, wondering how the question was to be solved. No signof a habitation could be discerned from the point at which I wasstanding--the burial-ground was left in the lonely possession of thedead. I returned to the church, and walked round it till I came to theback of the building; then crossed the boundary wall beyond, by anotherof the stone stiles, and found myself at the head of a path leadingdown into a deserted stone quarry. Against one side of the quarry alittle two-room cottage was built, and just outside the door an oldwoman was engaged in washing.
I walked up to her, and entered into conversation about the church andburial-ground. She was ready enough to talk, and almost the firstwords she said informed me that her husband filled the two offices ofclerk and sexton. I said a few words next in praise of Mrs. Fairlie'smonument. The old woman shook her head, and told me I had not seen itat its best. It was her husband's business to look after it, but hehad been so ailing and weak for months and months past, that he hadhardly been able to crawl into church on Sundays to do his duty, andthe monument had been neglected in consequence. He was getting alittle better now, and in a week or ten days' time he hoped to bestrong enough to set to work and clean it.
This information--extracted from a long rambling answer in the broadestCumberland dialect--told me all that I most wanted to know. I gave thepoor woman a trifle, and returned at once to Limmeridge House.
The partial cleansing of the monument had evidently been accomplishedby a strange hand. Connecting what I had discovered, thus far, withwhat I had suspected after hearing the story of the ghost seen attwilight, I wanted nothing more to confirm my resolution to watch Mrs.Fairlie's grave, in secret, that evening, returning to it at sunset,and waiting within sight of it till the night fell. The work ofcleansing the monument had been left unfinished, and the person by whomit had been begun might return to complete it.
On getting back to the house I informed Miss Halcombe of what Iintended to do. She looked surprised and uneasy while I was explainingmy purpose, but she made no positive objection to the execution of it.She only said, "I hope it may end well."
Just as she was leaving me again, I stopped her to inquire, as calmlyas I could, after Miss Fairlie's health. She was in better spirits,and Miss Halcombe hoped she might be induced to take a little walkingexercise while the afternoon sun lasted.
I returned to my own room to resume setting the drawings in order. Itwas necessary to do this, and doubly necessary to keep my mind employedon anything that would help to distract my attention from myself, andfrom the hopeless future that lay before me. From time to time Ipaused in my work to look out of window and watch the sky as the sunsank nearer and nearer to the horizon. On one of those occasions I sawa figure on the broad gravel walk under my window. It was Miss Fairlie.
I had not seen her since the morning, and I had hardly spoken to herthen. Another day at Limmeridge was all that remained to me, and afterthat day my e
yes might never look on her again. This thought wasenough to hold me at the window. I had sufficient consideration forher to arrange the blind so that she might not see me if she looked up,but I had no strength to resist the temptation of letting my eyes, atleast, follow her as far as they could on her walk.
She was dressed in a brown cloak, with a plain black silk gown underit. On her head was the same simple straw hat which she had worn onthe morning when we first met. A veil was attached to it now which hidher face from me. By her side trotted a little Italian greyhound, thepet companion of all her walks, smartly dressed in a scarlet clothwrapper, to keep the sharp air from his delicate skin. She did notseem to notice the dog. She walked straight forward, with her headdrooping a little, and her arms folded in her cloak. The dead leaves,which had whirled in the wind before me when I had heard of hermarriage engagement in the morning, whirled in the wind before her, androse and fell and scattered themselves at her feet as she walked on inthe pale waning sunlight. The dog shivered and trembled, and pressedagainst her dress impatiently for notice and encouragement. But shenever heeded him. She walked on, farther and farther away from me,with the dead leaves whirling about her on the path--walked on, till myaching eyes could see her no more, and I was left alone again with myown heavy heart.
In another hour's time I had done my work, and the sunset was at hand.I got my hat and coat in the hall, and slipped out of the house withoutmeeting any one.
The clouds were wild in the western heaven, and the wind blew chillfrom the sea. Far as the shore was, the sound of the surf swept overthe intervening moorland, and beat drearily in my ears when I enteredthe churchyard. Not a living creature was in sight. The place lookedlonelier than ever as I chose my position, and waited and watched, withmy eyes on the white cross that rose over Mrs. Fairlie's grave.