The Woman in White, Page 48Wilkie Collins
4. THE NARRATIVE OF THE TOMBSTONE
Sacred to the Memory of Laura, Lady Glyde, wife of Sir Percival Glyde,Bart., of Blackwater Park, Hampshire, and daughter of the late PhilipFairlie, Esq., of Limmeridge House, in this parish. Born March 27th,1829; married December 22nd, 1849; died July 25th, 1850.
5. THE NARRATIVE OF WALTER HARTRIGHT
Early in the summer of 1850 I and my surviving companions left thewilds and forests of Central America for home. Arrived at the coast,we took ship there for England. The vessel was wrecked in the Gulf ofMexico--I was among the few saved from the sea. It was my third escapefrom peril of death. Death by disease, death by the Indians, death bydrowning--all three had approached me; all three had passed me by.
The survivors of the wreck were rescued by an American vessel bound forLiverpool. The ship reached her port on the thirteenth day of October1850. We landed late in the afternoon, and I arrived in London thesame night.
These pages are not the record of my wanderings and my dangers awayfrom home. The motives which led me from my country and my friends toa new world of adventure and peril are known. From that self-imposedexile I came back, as I had hoped, prayed, believed I should comeback--a changed man. In the waters of a new life I had tempered mynature afresh. In the stern school of extremity and danger my will hadlearnt to be strong, my heart to be resolute, my mind to rely onitself. I had gone out to fly from my own future. I came back to faceit, as a man should.
To face it with that inevitable suppression of myself which I knew itwould demand from me. I had parted with the worst bitterness of thepast, but not with my heart's remembrance of the sorrow and thetenderness of that memorable time. I had not ceased to feel the oneirreparable disappointment of my life--I had only learnt to bear it.Laura Fairlie was in all my thoughts when the ship bore me away, and Ilooked my last at England. Laura Fairlie was in all my thoughts whenthe ship brought me back, and the morning light showed the friendlyshore in view.
My pen traces the old letters as my heart goes back to the old love. Iwrite of her as Laura Fairlie still. It is hard to think of her, it ishard to speak of her, by her husband's name.
There are no more words of explanation to add on my appearance for thesecond time in these pages. This narrative, if I have the strength andthe courage to write it, may now go on.
My first anxieties and first hopes when the morning came centred in mymother and my sister. I felt the necessity of preparing them for thejoy and surprise of my return, after an absence during which it hadbeen impossible for them to receive any tidings of me for months past.Early in the morning I sent a letter to the Hampstead Cottage, andfollowed it myself in an hour's time.
When the first meeting was over, when our quiet and composure of otherdays began gradually to return to us, I saw something in my mother'sface which told me that a secret oppression lay heavy on her heart.There was more than love--there was sorrow in the anxious eyes thatlooked on me so tenderly--there was pity in the kind hand that slowlyand fondly strengthened its hold on mine. We had no concealments fromeach other. She knew how the hope of my life had been wrecked--sheknew why I had left her. It was on my lips to ask as composedly as Icould if any letter had come for me from Miss Halcombe, if there wasany news of her sister that I might hear. But when I looked in mymother's face I lost courage to put the question even in that guardedform. I could only say, doubtingly and restrainedly--
"You have something to tell me."
My sister, who had been sitting opposite to us, rose suddenly without aword of explanation--rose and left the room.
My mother moved closer to me on the sofa and put her arms round myneck. Those fond arms trembled--the tears flowed fast over thefaithful loving face.
"Walter!" she whispered, "my own darling! my heart is heavy for you.Oh, my son! my son! try to remember that I am still left!"
My head sank on her bosom. She had said all in saying those words.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was the morning of the third day since my return--the morning of thesixteenth of October.
I had remained with them at the cottage--I had tried hard not toembitter the happiness of my return to THEM as it was embittered to ME.I had done all man could to rise after the shock, and accept my liferesignedly--to let my great sorrow come in tenderness to my heart, andnot in despair. It was useless and hopeless. No tears soothed myaching eyes, no relief came to me from my sister's sympathy or mymother's love.
On that third morning I opened my heart to them. At last the wordspassed my lips which I had longed to speak on the day when my mothertold me of her death.
"Let me go away alone for a little while," I said. "I shall bear itbetter when I have looked once more at the place where I first sawher--when I have knelt and prayed by the grave where they have laid herto rest."
I departed on my journey--my journey to the grave of Laura Fairlie.
It was a quiet autumn afternoon when I stopped at the solitary station,and set forth alone on foot by the well-remembered road. The waning sunwas shining faintly through thin white clouds--the air was warm andstill--the peacefulness of the lonely country was overshadowed andsaddened by the influence of the falling year.
I reached the moor--I stood again on the brow of the hill--I looked onalong the path--and there were the familiar garden trees in thedistance, the clear sweeping semicircle of the drive, the high whitewalls of Limmeridge House. The chances and changes, the wanderings anddangers of months and months past, all shrank and shrivelled to nothingin my mind. It was like yesterday since my feet had last trodden thefragrant heathy ground. I thought I should see her coming to meet me,with her little straw hat shading her face, her simple dress flutteringin the air, and her well-filled sketch-book ready in her hand.
Oh death, thou hast thy sting! oh, grave, thou hast thy victory!
I turned aside, and there below me in the glen was the lonesome greychurch, the porch where I had waited for the coming of the woman inwhite, the hills encircling the quiet burial-ground, the brook bubblingcold over its stony bed. There was the marble cross, fair and white,at the head of the tomb--the tomb that now rose over mother anddaughter alike.
I approached the grave. I crossed once more the low stone stile, andbared my head as I touched the sacred ground. Sacred to gentleness andgoodness, sacred to reverence and grief.
I stopped before the pedestal from which the cross rose. On one sideof it, on the side nearest to me, the newly-cut inscription met myeyes--the hard, clear, cruel black letters which told the story of herlife and death. I tried to read them. I did read as far as the name."Sacred to the Memory of Laura----" The kind blue eyes dim withtears--the fair head drooping wearily--the innocent parting words whichimplored me to leave her--oh, for a happier last memory of her thanthis; the memory I took away with me, the memory I bring back with meto her grave!
A second time I tried to read the inscription. I saw at the end thedate of her death, and above it----
Above it there were lines on the marble--there was a name among themwhich disturbed my thoughts of her. I went round to the other side ofthe grave, where there was nothing to read, nothing of earthly vilenessto force its way between her spirit and mine.
I knelt down by the tomb. I laid my hands, I laid my head on the broadwhite stone, and closed my weary eyes on the earth around, on the lightabove. I let her come back to me. Oh, my love! my love! my heart mayspeak to you NOW! It is yesterday again since we parted--yesterday,since your dear hand lay in mine--yesterday, since my eyes looked theirlast on you. My love! my love!
* * * * * * * * * *
Time had flowed on, and silence had fallen like thick night over itscourse.
The first sound that came after the heavenly peace rustled faintly likea passing breath of air over the grass of the burial-ground. I heard itnearing me slowly, until it came changed to my ear--came likefootsteps moving onward--then stopped.
I looked up.
The sunset was near at hand. The clouds had parted--the slanting lightfell mellow over the hills. The last of the day was cold and clear andstill in the quiet valley of the dead.
Beyond me, in the burial-ground, standing together in the coldclearness of the lower light, I saw two women. They were lookingtowards the tomb, looking towards me.
They came a little on, and stopped again. Their veils were down, andhid their faces from me. When they stopped, one of them raised herveil. In the still evening light I saw the face of Marian Halcombe.
Changed, changed as if years had passed over it! The eyes large andwild, and looking at me with a strange terror in them. The face wornand wasted piteously. Pain and fear and grief written on her as with abrand.
I took one step towards her from the grave. She never moved--she neverspoke. The veiled woman with her cried out faintly. I stopped. Thesprings of my life fell low, and the shuddering of an unutterable dreadcrept over me from head to foot.
The woman with the veiled face moved away from her companion, and cametowards me slowly. Left by herself, standing by herself, MarianHalcombe spoke. It was the voice that I remembered--the voice notchanged, like the frightened eyes and the wasted face.
"My dream! my dream!" I heard her say those words softly in the awfulsilence. She sank on her knees, and raised her clasped hands toheaven. "Father! strengthen him. Father! help him in his hour ofneed."
The woman came on, slowly and silently came on. I looked at her--ather, and at none other, from that moment.
The voice that was praying for me faltered and sank low--then rose on asudden, and called affrightedly, called despairingly to me to come away.
But the veiled woman had possession of me, body and soul. She stoppedon one side of the grave. We stood face to face with the tombstonebetween us. She was close to the inscription on the side of thepedestal. Her gown touched the black letters.
The voice came nearer, and rose and rose more passionately still. "Hideyour face! don't look at her! Oh, for God's sake, spare him----"
The woman lifted her veil.
"Sacred to the Memory of Laura, Lady Glyde----"
Laura, Lady Glyde, was standing by the inscription, and was looking atme over the grave.
[The Second Epoch of the Story closes here.]
THE THIRD EPOCH