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The Woman in White, Page 2

Wilkie Collins


  Pesca's face and manner, on the evening when we confronted each otherat my mother's gate, were more than sufficient to inform me thatsomething extraordinary had happened. It was quite useless, however,to ask him for an immediate explanation. I could only conjecture,while he was dragging me in by both hands, that (knowing my habits) hehad come to the cottage to make sure of meeting me that night, and thathe had some news to tell of an unusually agreeable kind.

  We both bounced into the parlour in a highly abrupt and undignifiedmanner. My mother sat by the open window laughing and fanning herself.Pesca was one of her especial favourites and his wildest eccentricitieswere always pardonable in her eyes. Poor dear soul! from the firstmoment when she found out that the little Professor was deeply andgratefully attached to her son, she opened her heart to himunreservedly, and took all his puzzling foreign peculiarities forgranted, without so much as attempting to understand any one of them.

  My sister Sarah, with all the advantages of youth, was, strangelyenough, less pliable. She did full justice to Pesca's excellentqualities of heart; but she could not accept him implicitly, as mymother accepted him, for my sake. Her insular notions of proprietyrose in perpetual revolt against Pesca's constitutional contempt forappearances; and she was always more or less undisguisedly astonishedat her mother's familiarity with the eccentric little foreigner. Ihave observed, not only in my sister's case, but in the instances ofothers, that we of the young generation are nothing like so hearty andso impulsive as some of our elders. I constantly see old peopleflushed and excited by the prospect of some anticipated pleasure whichaltogether fails to ruffle the tranquillity of their serenegrandchildren. Are we, I wonder, quite such genuine boys and girls nowas our seniors were in their time? Has the great advance in educationtaken rather too long a stride; and are we in these modern days, justthe least trifle in the world too well brought up?

  Without attempting to answer those questions decisively, I may at leastrecord that I never saw my mother and my sister together in Pesca'ssociety, without finding my mother much the younger woman of the two.On this occasion, for example, while the old lady was laughing heartilyover the boyish manner in which we tumbled into the parlour, Sarah wasperturbedly picking up the broken pieces of a teacup, which theProfessor had knocked off the table in his precipitate advance to meetme at the door.

  "I don't know what would have happened, Walter," said my mother, "ifyou had delayed much longer. Pesca has been half mad with impatience,and I have been half mad with curiosity. The Professor has broughtsome wonderful news with him, in which he says you are concerned; andhe has cruelly refused to give us the smallest hint of it till hisfriend Walter appeared."

  "Very provoking: it spoils the Set," murmured Sarah to herself,mournfully absorbed over the ruins of the broken cup.

  While these words were being spoken, Pesca, happily and fussilyunconscious of the irreparable wrong which the crockery had suffered athis hands, was dragging a large arm-chair to the opposite end of theroom, so as to command us all three, in the character of a publicspeaker addressing an audience. Having turned the chair with its backtowards us, he jumped into it on his knees, and excitedly addressed hissmall congregation of three from an impromptu pulpit.

  "Now, my good dears," began Pesca (who always said "good dears" when hemeant "worthy friends"), "listen to me. The time has come--I recite mygood news--I speak at last."

  "Hear, hear!" said my mother, humouring the joke.

  "The next thing he will break, mamma," whispered Sarah, "will be theback of the best arm-chair."

  "I go back into my life, and I address myself to the noblest of createdbeings," continued Pesca, vehemently apostrophising my unworthy selfover the top rail of the chair. "Who found me dead at the bottom ofthe sea (through Cramp); and who pulled me up to the top; and what didI say when I got into my own life and my own clothes again?"

  "Much more than was at all necessary," I answered as doggedly aspossible; for the least encouragement in connection with this subjectinvariably let loose the Professor's emotions in a flood of tears.

  "I said," persisted Pesca, "that my life belonged to my dear friend,Walter, for the rest of my days--and so it does. I said that I shouldnever be happy again till I had found the opportunity of doing a goodSomething for Walter--and I have never been contented with myself tillthis most blessed day. Now," cried the enthusiastic little man at thetop of his voice, "the overflowing happiness bursts out of me at everypore of my skin, like a perspiration; for on my faith, and soul, andhonour, the something is done at last, and the only word to say nowis--Right-all-right!"

  It may be necessary to explain here that Pesca prided himself on beinga perfect Englishman in his language, as well as in his dress, manners,and amusements. Having picked up a few of our most familiar colloquialexpressions, he scattered them about over his conversation wheneverthey happened to occur to him, turning them, in his high relish fortheir sound and his general ignorance of their sense, into compoundwords and repetitions of his own, and always running them into eachother, as if they consisted of one long syllable.

  "Among the fine London Houses where I teach the language of my nativecountry," said the Professor, rushing into his long-deferredexplanation without another word of preface, "there is one, mightyfine, in the big place called Portland. You all know where that is?Yes, yes--course-of-course. The fine house, my good dears, has gotinside it a fine family. A Mamma, fair and fat; three young Misses,fair and fat; two young Misters, fair and fat; and a Papa, the fairestand the fattest of all, who is a mighty merchant, up to his eyes ingold--a fine man once, but seeing that he has got a naked head and twochins, fine no longer at the present time. Now mind! I teach thesublime Dante to the young Misses, and ah!--my-soul-bless-my-soul!--itis not in human language to say how the sublime Dante puzzles thepretty heads of all three! No matter--all in good time--and the morelessons the better for me. Now mind! Imagine to yourselves that I amteaching the young Misses to-day, as usual. We are all four of us downtogether in the Hell of Dante. At the Seventh Circle--but no matterfor that: all the Circles are alike to the three young Misses, fair andfat,--at the Seventh Circle, nevertheless, my pupils are sticking fast;and I, to set them going again, recite, explain, and blow myself upred-hot with useless enthusiasm, when--a creak of boots in the passageoutside, and in comes the golden Papa, the mighty merchant with thenaked head and the two chins.--Ha! my good dears, I am closer than youthink for to the business, now. Have you been patient so far? or haveyou said to yourselves, 'Deuce-what-the-deuce! Pesca is long-windedto-night?'"

  We declared that we were deeply interested. The Professor went on:

  "In his hand, the golden Papa has a letter; and after he has made hisexcuse for disturbing us in our Infernal Region with the common mortalBusiness of the house, he addresses himself to the three young Misses,and begins, as you English begin everything in this blessed world thatyou have to say, with a great O. 'O, my dears,' says the mightymerchant, 'I have got here a letter from my friend, Mr.----'(the namehas slipped out of my mind; but no matter; we shall come back to that;yes, yes--right-all-right). So the Papa says, 'I have got a letter frommy friend, the Mister; and he wants a recommend from me, of adrawing-master, to go down to his house in the country.'My-soul-bless-my-soul! when I heard the golden Papa say those words, ifI had been big enough to reach up to him, I should have put my armsround his neck, and pressed him to my bosom in a long and grateful hug!As it was, I only bounced upon my chair. My seat was on thorns, and mysoul was on fire to speak but I held my tongue, and let Papa go on.'Perhaps you know,' says this good man of money, twiddling his friend'sletter this way and that, in his golden fingers and thumbs, 'perhapsyou know, my dears, of a drawing-master that I can recommend?' Thethree young Misses all look at each other, and then say (with theindispensable great O to begin) "O, dear no, Papa! But here is Mr.Pesca' At the mention of myself I can hold no longer--the thought ofyou, my good dears, mounts like blood to my head--I start
from my seat,as if a spike had grown up from the ground through the bottom of mychair--I address myself to the mighty merchant, and I say (Englishphrase) 'Dear sir, I have the man! The first and foremostdrawing-master of the world! Recommend him by the post to-night, andsend him off, bag and baggage (English phrase again--ha!), send himoff, bag and baggage, by the train to-morrow!' 'Stop, stop,' saysPapa; 'is he a foreigner, or an Englishman?' 'English to the bone ofhis back,' I answer. 'Respectable?' says Papa. 'Sir,' I say (for thislast question of his outrages me, and I have done being familiar withhim--) 'Sir! the immortal fire of genius burns in this Englishman'sbosom, and, what is more, his father had it before him!' 'Never mind,'says the golden barbarian of a Papa, 'never mind about his genius, Mr.Pesca. We don't want genius in this country, unless it is accompaniedby respectability--and then we are very glad to have it, very gladindeed. Can your friend produce testimonials--letters that speak tohis character?' I wave my hand negligently. 'Letters?' I say. 'Ha!my-soul-bless-my-soul! I should think so, indeed! Volumes of lettersand portfolios of testimonials, if you like!' 'One or two will do,'says this man of phlegm and money. 'Let him send them to me, with hisname and address. And--stop, stop, Mr. Pesca--before you go to yourfriend, you had better take a note.' 'Bank-note!' I say, indignantly.'No bank-note, if you please, till my brave Englishman has earned itfirst.' 'Bank-note!' says Papa, in a great surprise, 'who talked ofbank-note? I mean a note of the terms--a memorandum of what he isexpected to do. Go on with your lesson, Mr. Pesca, and I will give youthe necessary extract from my friend's letter.' Down sits the man ofmerchandise and money to his pen, ink, and paper; and down I go onceagain into the Hell of Dante, with my three young Misses after me. Inten minutes' time the note is written, and the boots of Papa arecreaking themselves away in the passage outside. From that moment, onmy faith, and soul, and honour, I know nothing more! The gloriousthought that I have caught my opportunity at last, and that my gratefulservice for my dearest friend in the world is as good as done already,flies up into my head and makes me drunk. How I pull my young Missesand myself out of our Infernal Region again, how my other business isdone afterwards, how my little bit of dinner slides itself down mythroat, I know no more than a man in the moon. Enough for me, thathere I am, with the mighty merchant's note in my hand, as large aslife, as hot as fire, and as happy as a king! Ha! ha! ha!right-right-right-all-right!" Here the Professor waved the memorandumof terms over his head, and ended his long and voluble narrative withhis shrill Italian parody on an English cheer."

  My mother rose the moment he had done, with flushed cheeks andbrightened eyes. She caught the little man warmly by both hands.

  "My dear, good Pesca," she said, "I never doubted your true affectionfor Walter--but I am more than ever persuaded of it now!"

  "I am sure we are very much obliged to Professor Pesca, for Walter'ssake," added Sarah. She half rose, while she spoke, as if to approachthe arm-chair, in her turn; but, observing that Pesca was rapturouslykissing my mother's hands, looked serious, and resumed her seat. "Ifthe familiar little man treats my mother in that way, how will he treatME?" Faces sometimes tell truth; and that was unquestionably thethought in Sarah's mind, as she sat down again.

  Although I myself was gratefully sensible of the kindness of Pesca'smotives, my spirits were hardly so much elevated as they ought to havebeen by the prospect of future employment now placed before me. Whenthe Professor had quite done with my mother's hand, and when I hadwarmly thanked him for his interference on my behalf, I asked to beallowed to look at the note of terms which his respectable patron haddrawn up for my inspection.

  Pesca handed me the paper, with a triumphant flourish of the hand.

  "Read!" said the little man majestically. "I promise you my friend,the writing of the golden Papa speaks with a tongue of trumpets foritself."

  The note of terms was plain, straightforward, and comprehensive, at anyrate. It informed me,

  First, That Frederick Fairlie, Esquire, of Limmeridge House.Cumberland, wanted to engage the services of a thoroughly competentdrawing-master, for a period of four months certain.

  Secondly, That the duties which the master was expected to performwould be of a twofold kind. He was to superintend the instruction oftwo young ladies in the art of painting in water-colours; and he was todevote his leisure time, afterwards, to the business of repairing andmounting a valuable collection of drawings, which had been suffered tofall into a condition of total neglect.

  Thirdly, That the terms offered to the person who should undertake andproperly perform these duties were four guineas a week; that he was toreside at Limmeridge House; and that he was to be treated there on thefooting of a gentleman.

  Fourthly, and lastly, That no person need think of applying for thissituation unless he could furnish the most unexceptionable referencesto character and abilities. The references were to be sent to Mr.Fairlie's friend in London, who was empowered to conclude all necessaryarrangements. These instructions were followed by the name and addressof Pesca's employer in Portland Place--and there the note, ormemorandum, ended.

  The prospect which this offer of an engagement held out was certainlyan attractive one. The employment was likely to be both easy andagreeable; it was proposed to me at the autumn time of the year when Iwas least occupied; and the terms, judging by my personal experience inmy profession, were surprisingly liberal. I knew this; I knew that Iought to consider myself very fortunate if I succeeded in securing theoffered employment--and yet, no sooner had I read the memorandum than Ifelt an inexplicable unwillingness within me to stir in the matter. Ihad never in the whole of my previous experience found my duty and myinclination so painfully and so unaccountably at variance as I foundthem now.

  "Oh, Walter, your father never had such a chance as this!" said mymother, when she had read the note of terms and had handed it back tome.

  "Such distinguished people to know," remarked Sarah, straighteningherself in the chair; "and on such gratifying terms of equality too!"

  "Yes, yes; the terms, in every sense, are tempting enough," I repliedimpatiently. "But before I send in my testimonials, I should like alittle time to consider----"

  "Consider!" exclaimed my mother. "Why, Walter, what is the matter withyou?"

  "Consider!" echoed my sister. "What a very extraordinary thing to say,under the circumstances!"

  "Consider!" chimed in the Professor. "What is there to consider about?Answer me this! Have you not been complaining of your health, and haveyou not been longing for what you call a smack of the country breeze?Well! there in your hand is the paper that offers you perpetual chokingmouthfuls of country breeze for four months' time. Is it not so? Ha!Again--you want money. Well! Is four golden guineas a week nothing?My-soul-bless-my-soul! only give it to me--and my boots shall creaklike the golden Papa's, with a sense of the overpowering richness ofthe man who walks in them! Four guineas a week, and, more than that,the charming society of two young misses! and, more than that, yourbed, your breakfast, your dinner, your gorging English teas and lunchesand drinks of foaming beer, all for nothing--why, Walter, my dear goodfriend--deuce-what-the-deuce!--for the first time in my life I have noteyes enough in my head to look, and wonder at you!"

  Neither my mother's evident astonishment at my behaviour, nor Pesca'sfervid enumeration of the advantages offered to me by the newemployment, had any effect in shaking my unreasonable disinclination togo to Limmeridge House. After starting all the petty objections that Icould think of to going to Cumberland, and after hearing them answered,one after another, to my own complete discomfiture, I tried to set up alast obstacle by asking what was to become of my pupils in London whileI was teaching Mr. Fairlie's young ladies to sketch from nature. Theobvious answer to this was, that the greater part of them would be awayon their autumn travels, and that the few who remained at home might beconfided to the care of one of my brother drawing-masters, whose pupilsI had once taken off his hands under similar circumstances. My sisterreminded me that this g
entleman had expressly placed his services at mydisposal, during the present season, in case I wished to leave town; mymother seriously appealed to me not to let an idle caprice stand in theway of my own interests and my own health; and Pesca piteouslyentreated that I would not wound him to the heart by rejecting thefirst grateful offer of service that he had been able to make to thefriend who had saved his life.

  The evident sincerity and affection which inspired these remonstranceswould have influenced any man with an atom of good feeling in hiscomposition. Though I could not conquer my own unaccountableperversity, I had at least virtue enough to be heartily ashamed of it,and to end the discussion pleasantly by giving way, and promising to doall that was wanted of me.

  The rest of the evening passed merrily enough in humorous anticipationsof my coming life with the two young ladies in Cumberland. Pesca,inspired by our national grog, which appeared to get into his head, inthe most marvellous manner, five minutes after it had gone down histhroat, asserted his claims to be considered a complete Englishman bymaking a series of speeches in rapid succession, proposing my mother'shealth, my sister's health, my health, and the healths, in mass, of Mr.Fairlie and the two young Misses, pathetically returning thankshimself, immediately afterwards, for the whole party. "A secret,Walter," said my little friend confidentially, as we walked hometogether. "I am flushed by the recollection of my own eloquence. Mysoul bursts itself with ambition. One of these days I go into yournoble Parliament. It is the dream of my whole life to be HonourablePesca, M.P.!"

  The next morning I sent my testimonials to the Professor's employer inPortland Place. Three days passed, and I concluded, with secretsatisfaction, that my papers had not been found sufficiently explicit.On the fourth day, however, an answer came. It announced that Mr.Fairlie accepted my services, and requested me to start for Cumberlandimmediately. All the necessary instructions for my journey werecarefully and clearly added in a postscript.

  I made my arrangements, unwillingly enough, for leaving London earlythe next day. Towards evening Pesca looked in, on his way to adinner-party, to bid me good-bye.

  "I shall dry my tears in your absence," said the Professor gaily, "withthis glorious thought. It is my auspicious hand that has given thefirst push to your fortune in the world. Go, my friend! When your sunshines in Cumberland (English proverb), in the name of heaven make yourhay. Marry one of the two young Misses; become Honourable Hartright,M.P.; and when you are on the top of the ladder remember that Pesca, atthe bottom, has done it all!"

  I tried to laugh with my little friend over his parting jest, but myspirits were not to be commanded. Something jarred in me almostpainfully while he was speaking his light farewell words.

  When I was left alone again nothing remained to be done but to walk tothe Hampstead cottage and bid my mother and Sarah good-bye.