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The Woman in White, Page 52

Wilkie Collins

  As early as the end of October the daily course of our lives hadassumed its settled direction, and we three were as completely isolatedin our place of concealment as if the house we lived in had been adesert island, and the great network of streets and the thousands ofour fellow-creatures all round us the waters of an illimitable sea. Icould now reckon on some leisure time for considering what my futureplan of action should be, and how I might arm myself most securely atthe outset for the coming struggle with Sir Percival and the Count.

  I gave up all hope of appealing to my recognition of Laura, or toMarian's recognition of her, in proof of her identity. If we had lovedher less dearly, if the instinct implanted in us by that love had notbeen far more certain than any exercise of reasoning, far keener thanany process of observation, even we might have hesitated on firstseeing her.

  The outward changes wrought by the suffering and the terror of the pasthad fearfully, almost hopelessly, strengthened the fatal resemblancebetween Anne Catherick and herself. In my narrative of events at thetime of my residence in Limmeridge House, I have recorded, from my ownobservation of the two, how the likeness, striking as it was whenviewed generally, failed in many important points of similarity whentested in detail. In those former days, if they had both been seentogether side by side, no person could for a moment have mistaken themone for the other--as has happened often in the instances of twins. Icould not say this now. The sorrow and suffering which I had onceblamed myself for associating even by a passing thought with the futureof Laura Fairlie, HAD set their profaning marks on the youth and beautyof her face; and the fatal resemblance which I had once seen andshuddered at seeing, in idea only, was now a real and livingresemblance which asserted itself before my own eyes. Strangers,acquaintances, friends even who could not look at her as we looked, ifshe had been shown to them in the first days of her rescue from theAsylum, might have doubted if she were the Laura Fairlie they had onceseen, and doubted without blame.

  The one remaining chance, which I had at first thought might be trustedto serve us--the chance of appealing to her recollection of persons andevents with which no impostor could be familiar, was proved, by the sadtest of our later experience, to be hopeless. Every little cautionthat Marian and I practised towards her--every little remedy we tried,to strengthen and steady slowly the weakened, shaken faculties, was afresh protest in itself against the risk of turning her mind back onthe troubled and the terrible past.

  The only events of former days which we ventured on encouraging her torecall were the little trivial domestic events of that happy time atLimmeridge, when I first went there and taught her to draw. The daywhen I roused those remembrances by showing her the sketch of thesummer-house which she had given me on the morning of our farewell, andwhich had never been separated from me since, was the birthday of ourfirst hope. Tenderly and gradually, the memory of the old walks anddrives dawned upon her, and the poor weary pining eyes looked at Marianand at me with a new interest, with a faltering thoughtfulness in them,which from that moment we cherished and kept alive. I bought her alittle box of colours, and a sketch-book like the old sketch-book whichI had seen in her hands on the morning that we first met. Onceagain--oh me, once again!--at spare hours saved from my work, in thedull London light, in the poor London room, I sat by her side to guidethe faltering touch, to help the feeble hand. Day by day I raised andraised the new interest till its place in the blank of her existencewas at last assured--till she could think of her drawing and talk ofit, and patiently practise it by herself, with some faint reflection ofthe innocent pleasure in my encouragement, the growing enjoyment in herown progress, which belonged to the lost life and the lost happiness ofpast days.

  We helped her mind slowly by this simple means, we took her out betweenus to walk on fine days, in a quiet old City square near at hand, wherethere was nothing to confuse or alarm her--we spared a few pounds fromthe fund at the banker's to get her wine, and the delicatestrengthening food that she required--we amused her in the eveningswith children's games at cards, with scrap-books full of prints whichI borrowed from the engraver who employed me--by these, and othertrifling attentions like them, we composed her and steadied her, andhoped all things, as cheerfully as we could from time and care, andlove that never neglected and never despaired of her. But to take hermercilessly from seclusion and repose--to confront her with strangers,or with acquaintances who were little better than strangers--to rousethe painful impressions of her past life which we had so carefullyhushed to rest--this, even in her own interests, we dared not do.Whatever sacrifices it cost, whatever long, weary, heartbreaking delaysit involved, the wrong that had been inflicted on her, if mortal meanscould grapple it, must be redressed without her knowledge and withouther help.

  This resolution settled, it was next necessary to decide how the firstrisk should be ventured, and what the first proceedings should be.

  After consulting with Marian, I resolved to begin by gathering togetheras many facts as could be collected--then to ask the advice of Mr.Kyrle (whom we knew we could trust), and to ascertain from him, in thefirst instance, if the legal remedy lay fairly within our reach. Iowed it to Laura's interests not to stake her whole future on my ownunaided exertions, so long as there was the faintest prospect ofstrengthening our position by obtaining reliable assistance of any kind.

  The first source of information to which I applied was the journal keptat Blackwater Park by Marian Halcombe. There were passages in thisdiary relating to myself which she thought it best that I should notsee. Accordingly, she read to me from the manuscript, and I took thenotes I wanted as she went on. We could only find time to pursue thisoccupation by sitting up late at night. Three nights were devoted tothe purpose, and were enough to put me in possession of all that Mariancould tell.

  My next proceeding was to gain as much additional evidence as I couldprocure from other people without exciting suspicion. I went myself toMrs. Vesey to ascertain if Laura's impression of having slept there wascorrect or not. In this case, from consideration for Mrs. Vesey's ageand infirmity, and in all subsequent cases of the same kind fromconsiderations of caution, I kept our real position a secret, and wasalways careful to speak of Laura as "the late Lady Glyde."

  Mrs. Vesey's answer to my inquiries only confirmed the apprehensionswhich I had previously felt. Laura had certainly written to say shewould pass the night under the roof of her old friend--but she hadnever been near the house.

  Her mind in this instance, and, as I feared, in other instancesbesides, confusedly presented to her something which she had onlyintended to do in the false light of something which she had reallydone. The unconscious contradiction of herself was easy to account forin this way--but it was likely to lead to serious results. It was astumble on the threshold at starting--it was a flaw in the evidencewhich told fatally against us.

  When I next asked for the letter which Laura had written to Mrs. Veseyfrom Blackwater Park, it was given to me without the envelope, whichhad been thrown into the wastepaper basket, and long since destroyed.In the letter itself no date was mentioned--not even the day of theweek. It only contained these lines:--"Dearest Mrs. Vesey, I am insad distress and anxiety, and I may come to your house to-morrow night,and ask for a bed. I can't tell you what is the matter in thisletter--I write it in such fear of being found out that I can fix mymind on nothing. Pray be at home to see me. I will give you athousand kisses, and tell you everything. Your affectionate Laura."What help was there in those lines? None.

  On returning from Mrs. Vesey's, I instructed Marian to write (observingthe same caution which I practised myself) to Mrs. Michelson. She wasto express, if she pleased, some general suspicion of Count Fosco'sconduct, and she was to ask the housekeeper to supply us with a plainstatement of events, in the interests of truth. While we were waitingfor the answer, which reached us in a week's time, I went to the doctorin St. John's Wood, introducing myself as sent by Miss Halcombe tocollect, if possible, more particulars of her sister's la
st illnessthan Mr. Kyrle had found the time to procure. By Mr. Goodricke'sassistance, I obtained a copy of the certificate of death, and aninterview with the woman (Jane Gould) who had been employed to preparethe body for the grave. Through this person I also discovered a meansof communicating with the servant, Hester Pinhorn. She had recentlyleft her place in consequence of a disagreement with her mistress, andshe was lodging with some people in the neighbourhood whom Mrs. Gouldknew. In the manner here indicated I obtained the Narratives of thehousekeeper, of the doctor, of Jane Gould, and of Hester Pinhorn,exactly as they are presented in these pages.

  Furnished with such additional evidence as these documents afforded, Iconsidered myself to be sufficiently prepared for a consultation withMr. Kyrle, and Marian wrote accordingly to mention my name to him, andto specify the day and hour at which I requested to see him on privatebusiness.

  There was time enough in the morning for me to take Laura out for herwalk as usual, and to see her quietly settled at her drawingafterwards. She looked up at me with a new anxiety in her face as Irose to leave the room, and her fingers began to toy doubtfully, in theold way, with the brushes and pencils on the table.

  "You are not tired of me yet?" she said. "You are not going awaybecause you are tired of me? I will try to do better--I will try to getwell. Are you as fond of me, Walter as you used to be, now I am sopale and thin, and so slow in learning to draw?"

  She spoke as a child might have spoken, she showed me her thoughts as achild might have shown them. I waited a few minutes longer--waited totell her that she was dearer to me now than she had ever been in thepast times. "Try to get well again," I said, encouraging the new hopein the future which I saw dawning in her mind, "try to get well again,for Marian's sake and for mine."

  "Yes," she said to herself, returning to her drawing. "I must try,because they are both so fond of me." She suddenly looked up again."Don't be gone long! I can't get on with my drawing, Walter, when youare not here to help me."

  "I shall soon be back, my darling--soon be back to see how you aregetting on."

  My voice faltered a little in spite of me. I forced myself from theroom. It was no time, then, for parting with the self-control whichmight yet serve me in my need before the day was out.

  As I opened the door, I beckoned to Marian to follow me to the stairs.It was necessary to prepare her for a result which I felt might sooneror later follow my showing myself openly in the streets.

  "I shall, in all probability, be back in a few hours," I said, "and youwill take care, as usual, to let no one inside the doors in my absence.But if anything happens----"

  "What can happen?" she interposed quickly. "Tell me plainly, Walter,if there is any danger, and I shall know how to meet it."

  "The only danger," I replied, "is that Sir Percival Glyde may have beenrecalled to London by the news of Laura's escape. You are aware thathe had me watched before I left England, and that he probably knows meby sight, although I don't know him?"

  She laid her hand on my shoulder and looked at me in anxious silence.I saw she understood the serious risk that threatened us.

  "It is not likely," I said, "that I shall be seen in London again sosoon, either by Sir Percival himself or by the persons in his employ.But it is barely possible that an accident may happen. In that case,you will not be alarmed if I fail to return to-night, and you willsatisfy any inquiry of Laura's with the best excuse that you can makefor me? If I find the least reason to suspect that I am watched, I willtake good care that no spy follows me back to this house. Don't doubtmy return, Marian, however it may be delayed--and fear nothing."

  "Nothing!" she answered firmly. "You shall not regret, Walter, thatyou have only a woman to help you." She paused, and detained me for amoment longer. "Take care!" she said, pressing my handanxiously--"take care!"

  I left her, and set forth to pave the way for discovery--the dark anddoubtful way, which began at the lawyer's door.