The Woman in WhiteWilkie Collins
A week passed, after my return to London, without the receipt of anycommunication from Miss Halcombe.
On the eighth day a letter in her handwriting was placed among theother letters on my table.
It announced that Sir Percival Glyde had been definitely accepted, andthat the marriage was to take place, as he had originally desired,before the end of the year. In all probability the ceremony would beperformed during the last fortnight in December. Miss Fairlie'stwenty-first birthday was late in March. She would, therefore, by thisarrangement, become Sir Percival's wife about three months before shewas of age.
I ought not to have been surprised, I ought not to have been sorry, butI was surprised and sorry, nevertheless. Some little disappointment,caused by the unsatisfactory shortness of Miss Halcombe's letter,mingled itself with these feelings, and contributed its share towardsupsetting my serenity for the day. In six lines my correspondentannounced the proposed marriage--in three more, she told me that SirPercival had left Cumberland to return to his house in Hampshire, andin two concluding sentences she informed me, first, that Laura wassadly in want of change and cheerful society; secondly, that she hadresolved to try the effect of some such change forthwith, by taking hersister away with her on a visit to certain old friends in Yorkshire.There the letter ended, without a word to explain what thecircumstances were which had decided Miss Fairlie to accept SirPercival Glyde in one short week from the time when I had last seen her.
At a later period the cause of this sudden determination was fullyexplained to me. It is not my business to relate it imperfectly, onhearsay evidence. The circumstances came within the personalexperience of Miss Halcombe, and when her narrative succeeds mine, shewill describe them in every particular exactly as they happened. Inthe meantime, the plain duty for me to perform--before I, in my turn,lay down my pen and withdraw from the story--is to relate the oneremaining event connected with Miss Fairlie's proposed marriage inwhich I was concerned, namely, the drawing of the settlement.
It is impossible to refer intelligibly to this document without firstentering into certain particulars in relation to the bride's pecuniaryaffairs. I will try to make my explanation briefly and plainly, and tokeep it free from professional obscurities and technicalities. Thematter is of the utmost importance. I warn all readers of these linesthat Miss Fairlie's inheritance is a very serious part of MissFairlie's story, and that Mr. Gilmore's experience, in this particular,must be their experience also, if they wish to understand thenarratives which are yet to come.
Miss Fairlie's expectations, then, were of a twofold kind, comprisingher possible inheritance of real property, or land, when her uncledied, and her absolute inheritance of personal property, or money, whenshe came of age.
Let us take the land first.
In the time of Miss Fairlie's paternal grandfather (whom we will callMr. Fairlie, the elder) the entailed succession to the Limmeridgeestate stood thus--
Mr. Fairlie, the elder, died and left three sons, Philip, Frederick,and Arthur. As eldest son, Philip succeeded to the estate, if he diedwithout leaving a son, the property went to the second brother,Frederick; and if Frederick died also without leaving a son, theproperty went to the third brother, Arthur.
As events turned out, Mr. Philip Fairlie died leaving an only daughter,the Laura of this story, and the estate, in consequence, went, incourse of law, to the second brother, Frederick, a single man. Thethird brother, Arthur, had died many years before the decease ofPhilip, leaving a son and a daughter. The son, at the age of eighteen,was drowned at Oxford. His death left Laura, the daughter of Mr.Philip Fairlie, presumptive heiress to the estate, with every chance ofsucceeding to it, in the ordinary course of nature, on her uncleFrederick's death, if the said Frederick died without leaving maleissue.
Except in the event, then, of Mr. Frederick Fairlie's marrying andleaving an heir (the two very last things in the world that he waslikely to do), his niece, Laura, would have the property on his death,possessing, it must be remembered, nothing more than a life-interest init. If she died single, or died childless, the estate would revert toher cousin, Magdalen, the daughter of Mr. Arthur Fairlie. If shemarried, with a proper settlement--or, in other words, with thesettlement I meant to make for her--the income from the estate (a goodthree thousand a year) would, during her lifetime, be at her owndisposal. If she died before her husband, he would naturally expect tobe left in the enjoyment of the income, for HIS lifetime. If she had ason, that son would be the heir, to the exclusion of her cousinMagdalen. Thus, Sir Percival's prospects in marrying Miss Fairlie (sofar as his wife's expectations from real property were concerned)promised him these two advantages, on Mr. Frederick Fairlie's death:First, the use of three thousand a year (by his wife's permission,while she lived, and in his own right, on her death, if he survivedher); and, secondly, the inheritance of Limmeridge for his son, if hehad one.
So much for the landed property, and for the disposal of the incomefrom it, on the occasion of Miss Fairlie's marriage. Thus far, nodifficulty or difference of opinion on the lady's settlement was at alllikely to arise between Sir Percival's lawyer and myself.
The personal estate, or, in other words, the money to which MissFairlie would become entitled on reaching the age of twenty-one years,is the next point to consider.
This part of her inheritance was, in itself, a comfortable littlefortune. It was derived under her father's will, and it amounted tothe sum of twenty thousand pounds. Besides this, she had alife-interest in ten thousand pounds more, which latter amount was togo, on her decease, to her aunt Eleanor, her father's only sister. Itwill greatly assist in setting the family affairs before the reader inthe clearest possible light, if I stop here for a moment, to explainwhy the aunt had been kept waiting for her legacy until the death ofthe niece.
Mr. Philip Fairlie had lived on excellent terms with his sisterEleanor, as long as she remained a single woman. But when her marriagetook place, somewhat late in life, and when that marriage united her toan Italian gentleman named Fosco, or, rather, to an Italiannobleman--seeing that he rejoiced in the title of Count--Mr. Fairliedisapproved of her conduct so strongly that he ceased to hold anycommunication with her, and even went the length of striking her nameout of his will. The other members of the family all thought thisserious manifestation of resentment at his sister's marriage more orless unreasonable. Count Fosco, though not a rich man, was not apenniless adventurer either. He had a small but sufficient income ofhis own. He had lived many years in England, and he held an excellentposition in society. These recommendations, however, availed nothingwith Mr. Fairlie. In many of his opinions he was an Englishman of theold school, and he hated a foreigner simply and solely because he was aforeigner. The utmost that he could be prevailed on to do, in afteryears--mainly at Miss Fairlie's intercession--was to restore hissister's name to its former place in his will, but to keep her waitingfor her legacy by giving the income of the money to his daughter forlife, and the money itself, if her aunt died before her, to her cousinMagdalen. Considering the relative ages of the two ladies, the aunt'schance, in the ordinary course of nature, of receiving the ten thousandpounds, was thus rendered doubtful in the extreme; and Madame Foscoresented her brother's treatment of her as unjustly as usual in suchcases, by refusing to see her niece, and declining to believe that MissFairlie's intercession had ever been exerted to restore her name to Mr.Fairlie's will.
Such was the history of the ten thousand pounds. Here again nodifficulty could arise with Sir Percival's legal adviser. The incomewould be at the wife's disposal, and the principal would go to her auntor her cousin on her death.
All preliminary explanations being now cleared out of the way, I comeat last to the real knot of the case--to the twenty thousand pounds.
This sum was absolutely Miss Fairlie's own on her completing hertwenty-first year, and the whole future disposition of it depended, inthe first instance, on the conditions I could obtain for her in hermarriag
e-settlement. The other clauses contained in that document wereof a formal kind, and need not be recited here. But the clauserelating to the money is too important to be passed over. A few lineswill be sufficient to give the necessary abstract of it.
My stipulation in regard to the twenty thousand pounds was simply this:The whole amount was to be settled so as to give the income to the ladyfor her life--afterwards to Sir Percival for his life--and theprincipal to the children of the marriage. In default of issue, theprincipal was to be disposed of as the lady might by her will direct,for which purpose I reserved to her the right of making a will. Theeffect of these conditions may be thus summed up. If Lady Glyde diedwithout leaving children, her half-sister Miss Halcombe, and any otherrelatives or friends whom she might be anxious to benefit, would, onher husband's death, divide among them such shares of her money as shedesired them to have. If, on the other hand, she died leavingchildren, then their interest, naturally and necessarily, supersededall other interests whatsoever. This was the clause--and no one whoreads it can fail, I think, to agree with me that it meted out equaljustice to all parties.
We shall see how my proposals were met on the husband's side.
At the time when Miss Halcombe's letter reached me I was even morebusily occupied than usual. But I contrived to make leisure for thesettlement. I had drawn it, and had sent it for approval to SirPercival's solicitor, in less than a week from the time when MissHalcombe had informed me of the proposed marriage.
After a lapse of two days the document was returned to me, with notesand remarks of the baronet's lawyer. His objections, in general,proved to be of the most trifling and technical kind, until he came tothe clause relating to the twenty thousand pounds. Against this therewere double lines drawn in red ink, and the following note was appendedto them--
"Not admissible. The PRINCIPAL to go to Sir Percival Glyde, in theevent of his surviving Lady Glyde, and there being no issue."
That is to say, not one farthing of the twenty thousand pounds was togo to Miss Halcombe, or to any other relative or friend of LadyGlyde's. The whole sum, if she left no children, was to slip into thepockets of her husband.
The answer I wrote to this audacious proposal was as short and sharp asI could make it. "My dear sir. Miss Fairlie's settlement. I maintainthe clause to which you object, exactly as it stands. Yours truly."The rejoinder came back in a quarter of an hour. "My dear sir. MissFairlie's settlement. I maintain the red ink to which you object,exactly as it stands. Yours truly." In the detestable slang of theday, we were now both "at a deadlock," and nothing was left for it butto refer to our clients on either side.
As matters stood, my client--Miss Fairlie not having yet completed hertwenty-first year--Mr. Frederick Fairlie, was her guardian. I wrote bythat day's post, and put the case before him exactly as it stood, notonly urging every argument I could think of to induce him to maintainthe clause as I had drawn it, but stating to him plainly the mercenarymotive which was at the bottom of the opposition to my settlement ofthe twenty thousand pounds. The knowledge of Sir Percival's affairswhich I had necessarily gained when the provisions of the deed on HISside were submitted in due course to my examination, had but tooplainly informed me that the debts on his estate were enormous, andthat his income, though nominally a large one, was virtually, for a manin his position, next to nothing. The want of ready money was thepractical necessity of Sir Percival's existence, and his lawyer's noteon the clause in the settlement was nothing but the frankly selfishexpression of it.
Mr. Fairlie's answer reached me by return of post, and proved to bewandering and irrelevant in the extreme. Turned into plain English, itpractically expressed itself to this effect: "Would dear Gilmore be sovery obliging as not to worry his friend and client about such a trifleas a remote contingency? Was it likely that a young woman of twenty-onewould die before a man of forty five, and die without children? On theother hand, in such a miserable world as this, was it possible toover-estimate the value of peace and quietness? If those two heavenlyblessings were offered in exchange for such an earthly trifle as aremote chance of twenty thousand pounds, was it not a fair bargain?Surely, yes. Then why not make it?"
I threw the letter away in disgust. Just as it had fluttered to theground, there was a knock at my door, and Sir Percival's solicitor, Mr.Merriman, was shown in. There are many varieties of sharppractitioners in this world, but I think the hardest of all to dealwith are the men who overreach you under the disguise of inveterategood-humour. A fat, well fed, smiling, friendly man of business is ofall parties to a bargain the most hopeless to deal with. Mr. Merrimanwas one of this class.
"And how is good Mr. Gilmore?" he began, all in a glow with the warmthof his own amiability. "Glad to see you, sir, in such excellenthealth. I was passing your door, and I thought I would look in in caseyou might have something to say to me. Do--now pray do let us settlethis little difference of ours by word of mouth, if we can! Have youheard from your client yet?"
"Yes. Have you heard from yours?"
"My dear, good sir! I wish I had heard from him to any purpose--I wish,with all my heart, the responsibility was off my shoulders; but he isobstinate--or let me rather say, resolute--and he won't take it off.'Merriman, I leave details to you. Do what you think right for myinterests, and consider me as having personally withdrawn from thebusiness until it is all over.' Those were Sir Percival's words afortnight ago, and all I can get him to do now is to repeat them. I amnot a hard man, Mr. Gilmore, as you know. Personally and privately, Ido assure you, I should like to sponge out that note of mine at thisvery moment. But if Sir Percival won't go into the matter, if SirPercival will blindly leave all his interests in my sole care, whatcourse can I possibly take except the course of asserting them? Myhands are bound--don't you see, my dear sir?--my hands are bound."
"You maintain your note on the clause, then, to the letter?" I said.
"Yes--deuce take it! I have no other alternative." He walked to thefireplace and warmed himself, humming the fag end of a tune in a richconvivial bass voice. "What does your side say?" he went on; "now praytell me--what does your side say?"
I was ashamed to tell him. I attempted to gain time--nay, I did worse.My legal instincts got the better of me, and I even tried to bargain.
"Twenty thousand pounds is rather a large sum to be given up by thelady's friends at two days' notice," I said.
"Very true," replied Mr. Merriman, looking down thoughtfully at hisboots. "Properly put, sir--most properly put!"
"A compromise, recognising the interests of the lady's family as wellas the interests of the husband, might not perhaps have frightened myclient quite so much," I went on. "Come, come! this contingencyresolves itself into a matter of bargaining after all. What is theleast you will take?"
"The least we will take," said Mr. Merriman, "is nineteen-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-pounds-nineteen-shillings-and-elevenpence-three-farthings. Ha! ha! ha! Excuse me, Mr. Gilmore.I must have my little joke."
"Little enough," I remarked. "The joke is just worth the odd farthingit was made for."
Mr. Merriman was delighted. He laughed over my retort till the roomrang again. I was not half so good-humoured on my side; I came back tobusiness, and closed the interview.
"This is Friday," I said. "Give us till Tuesday next for our finalanswer."
"By all means," replied Mr. Merriman. "Longer, my dear sir, if youlike." He took up his hat to go, and then addressed me again. "By theway," he said, "your clients in Cumberland have not heard anything moreof the woman who wrote the anonymous letter, have they?"
"Nothing more," I answered. "Have you found no trace of her?"
"Not yet," said my legal friend. "But we don't despair. Sir Percivalhas his suspicions that Somebody is keeping her in hiding, and we arehaving that Somebody watched."
"You mean the old woman who was with her in Cumberland," I said.
"Quite another party, sir," answered Mr. Merriman. "We don't
happen tohave laid hands on the old woman yet. Our Somebody is a man. We havegot him close under our eye here in London, and we strongly suspect hehad something to do with helping her in the first instance to escapefrom the Asylum. Sir Percival wanted to question him at once, but Isaid, 'No. Questioning him will only put him on his guard--watch him,and wait.' We shall see what happens. A dangerous woman to be atlarge, Mr. Gilmore; nobody knows what she may do next. I wish yougood-morning, sir. On Tuesday next I shall hope for the pleasure ofhearing from you." He smiled amiably and went out.
My mind had been rather absent during the latter part of theconversation with my legal friend. I was so anxious about the matterof the settlement that I had little attention to give to any othersubject, and the moment I was left alone again I began to think overwhat my next proceeding ought to be.
In the case of any other client I should have acted on my instructions,however personally distasteful to me, and have given up the point aboutthe twenty thousand pounds on the spot. But I could not act with thisbusiness-like indifference towards Miss Fairlie. I had an honestfeeling of affection and admiration for her--I remembered gratefullythat her father had been the kindest patron and friend to me that everman had--I had felt towards her while I was drawing the settlement as Imight have felt, if I had not been an old bachelor, towards a daughterof my own, and I was determined to spare no personal sacrifice in herservice and where her interests were concerned. Writing a second timeto Mr. Fairlie was not to be thought of--it would only be giving him asecond opportunity of slipping through my fingers. Seeing him andpersonally remonstrating with him might possibly be of more use. Thenext day was Saturday. I determined to take a return ticket and joltmy old bones down to Cumberland, on the chance of persuading him toadopt the just, the independent, and the honourable course. It was apoor chance enough, no doubt, but when I had tried it my consciencewould be at ease. I should then have done all that a man in myposition could do to serve the interests of my old friend's only child.
The weather on Saturday was beautiful, a west wind and a bright sun.Having felt latterly a return of that fulness and oppression of thehead, against which my doctor warned me so seriously more than twoyears since, I resolved to take the opportunity of getting a littleextra exercise by sending my bag on before me and walking to theterminus in Euston Square. As I came out into Holborn a gentlemanwalking by rapidly stopped and spoke to me. It was Mr. Walter Hartright.
If he had not been the first to greet me I should certainly have passedhim. He was so changed that I hardly knew him again. His face lookedpale and haggard--his manner was hurried and uncertain--and his dress,which I remembered as neat and gentlemanlike when I saw him atLimmeridge, was so slovenly now that I should really have been ashamedof the appearance of it on one of my own clerks.
"Have you been long back from Cumberland?" he asked. "I heard fromMiss Halcombe lately. I am aware that Sir Percival Glyde's explanationhas been considered satisfactory. Will the marriage take place soon? Doyou happen to know Mr. Gilmore?"
He spoke so fast, and crowded his questions together so strangely andconfusedly, that I could hardly follow him. However accidentallyintimate he might have been with the family at Limmeridge, I could notsee that he had any right to expect information on their privateaffairs, and I determined to drop him, as easily as might be, on thesubject of Miss Fairlie's marriage.
"Time will show, Mr. Hartright," I said--"time will show. I dare sayif we look out for the marriage in the papers we shall not be farwrong. Excuse my noticing it, but I am sorry to see you not looking sowell as you were when we last met."
A momentary nervous contraction quivered about his lips and eyes, andmade me half reproach myself for having answered him in such asignificantly guarded manner.
"I had no right to ask about her marriage," he said bitterly. "I mustwait to see it in the newspapers like other people. Yes,"--he went onbefore I could make any apologies--"I have not been well lately. I amgoing to another country to try a change of scene and occupation. MissHalcombe has kindly assisted me with her influence, and my testimonialshave been found satisfactory. It is a long distance off, but I don'tcare where I go, what the climate is, or how long I am away." He lookedabout him while he said this at the throng of strangers passing us byon either side, in a strange, suspicious manner, as if he thought thatsome of them might be watching us.
"I wish you well through it, and safe back again," I said, and thenadded, so as not to keep him altogether at arm's length on the subjectof the Fairlies, "I am going down to Limmeridge to-day on business.Miss Halcombe and Miss Fairlie are away just now on a visit to somefriends in Yorkshire."
His eyes brightened, and he seemed about to say something in answer,but the same momentary nervous spasm crossed his face again. He tookmy hand, pressed it hard, and disappeared among the crowd withoutsaying another word. Though he was little more than a stranger to me,I waited for a moment, looking after him almost with a feeling ofregret. I had gained in my profession sufficient experience of youngmen to know what the outward signs and tokens were of their beginningto go wrong, and when I resumed my walk to the railway I am sorry tosay I felt more than doubtful about Mr. Hartright's future.