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The Woman in White, Page 7

Wilkie Collins


  My conductor led me upstairs into a passage which took us back to thebedchamber in which I had slept during the past night; and opening thedoor next to it, begged me to look in.

  "I have my master's orders to show you your own sitting-room, sir,"said the man, "and to inquire if you approve of the situation and thelight."

  I must have been hard to please, indeed, if I had not approved of theroom, and of everything about it. The bow-window looked out on thesame lovely view which I had admired, in the morning, from my bedroom.The furniture was the perfection of luxury and beauty; the table in thecentre was bright with gaily bound books, elegant conveniences forwriting, and beautiful flowers; the second table, near the window, wascovered with all the necessary materials for mounting water-colourdrawings, and had a little easel attached to it, which I could expandor fold up at will; the walls were hung with gaily tinted chintz; andthe floor was spread with Indian matting in maize-colour and red. Itwas the prettiest and most luxurious little sitting-room I had everseen; and I admired it with the warmest enthusiasm.

  The solemn servant was far too highly trained to betray the slightestsatisfaction. He bowed with icy deference when my terms of eulogy wereall exhausted, and silently opened the door for me to go out into thepassage again.

  We turned a corner, and entered a long second passage, ascended a shortflight of stairs at the end, crossed a small circular upper hall, andstopped in front of a door covered with dark baize. The servant openedthis door, and led me on a few yards to a second; opened that also, anddisclosed two curtains of pale sea-green silk hanging before us; raisedone of them noiselessly; softly uttered the words, "Mr. Hartright," andleft me.

  I found myself in a large, lofty room, with a magnificent carvedceiling, and with a carpet over the floor, so thick and soft that itfelt like piles of velvet under my feet. One side of the room wasoccupied by a long book-case of some rare inlaid wood that was quitenew to me. It was not more than six feet high, and the top was adornedwith statuettes in marble, ranged at regular distances one from theother. On the opposite side stood two antique cabinets; and betweenthem, and above them, hung a picture of the Virgin and Child, protectedby glass, and bearing Raphael's name on the gilt tablet at the bottomof the frame. On my right hand and on my left, as I stood inside thedoor, were chiffoniers and little stands in buhl and marquetterie,loaded with figures in Dresden china, with rare vases, ivory ornaments,and toys and curiosities that sparkled at all points with gold, silver,and precious stones. At the lower end of the room, opposite to me, thewindows were concealed and the sunlight was tempered by large blinds ofthe same pale sea-green colour as the curtains over the door. Thelight thus produced was deliciously soft, mysterious, and subdued; itfell equally upon all the objects in the room; it helped to intensifythe deep silence, and the air of profound seclusion that possessed theplace; and it surrounded, with an appropriate halo of repose, thesolitary figure of the master of the house, leaning back, listlesslycomposed, in a large easy-chair, with a reading-easel fastened on oneof its arms, and a little table on the other.

  If a man's personal appearance, when he is out of his dressing-room,and when he has passed forty, can be accepted as a safe guide to histime of life--which is more than doubtful--Mr. Fairlie's age, when Isaw him, might have been reasonably computed at over fifty and undersixty years. His beardless face was thin, worn, and transparentlypale, but not wrinkled; his nose was high and hooked; his eyes were ofa dim greyish blue, large, prominent, and rather red round the rims ofthe eyelids; his hair was scanty, soft to look at, and of that lightsandy colour which is the last to disclose its own changes towardsgrey. He was dressed in a dark frock-coat, of some substance muchthinner than cloth, and in waistcoat and trousers of spotless white.His feet were effeminately small, and were clad in buff-coloured silkstockings, and little womanish bronze-leather slippers. Two ringsadorned his white delicate hands, the value of which even myinexperienced observation detected to be all but priceless. Upon thewhole, he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look--somethingsingularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man,and, at the same time, something which could by no possibility havelooked natural and appropriate if it had been transferred to thepersonal appearance of a woman. My morning's experience of MissHalcombe had predisposed me to be pleased with everybody in the house;but my sympathies shut themselves up resolutely at the first sight ofMr. Fairlie.

  On approaching nearer to him, I discovered that he was not so entirelywithout occupation as I had at first supposed. Placed amid the otherrare and beautiful objects on a large round table near him, was a dwarfcabinet in ebony and silver, containing coins of all shapes and sizes,set out in little drawers lined with dark purple velvet. One of thesedrawers lay on the small table attached to his chair; and near it weresome tiny jeweller's brushes, a wash-leather "stump," and a littlebottle of liquid, all waiting to be used in various ways for theremoval of any accidental impurities which might be discovered on thecoins. His frail white fingers were listlessly toying with somethingwhich looked, to my uninstructed eyes, like a dirty pewter medal withragged edges, when I advanced within a respectful distance of hischair, and stopped to make my bow.

  "So glad to possess you at Limmeridge, Mr. Hartright," he said in aquerulous, croaking voice, which combined, in anything but an agreeablemanner, a discordantly high tone with a drowsily languid utterance."Pray sit down. And don't trouble yourself to move the chair, please.In the wretched state of my nerves, movement of any kind is exquisitelypainful to me. Have you seen your studio? Will it do?"

  "I have just come from seeing the room, Mr. Fairlie; and I assureyou----"

  He stopped me in the middle of the sentence, by closing his eyes, andholding up one of his white hands imploringly. I paused inastonishment; and the croaking voice honoured me with this explanation--

  "Pray excuse me. But could you contrive to speak in a lower key? Inthe wretched state of my nerves, loud sound of any kind isindescribable torture to me. You will pardon an invalid? I only say toyou what the lamentable state of my health obliges me to say toeverybody. Yes. And you really like the room?"

  "I could wish for nothing prettier and nothing more comfortable," Ianswered, dropping my voice, and beginning to discover already that Mr.Fairlie's selfish affectation and Mr. Fairlie's wretched nerves meantone and the same thing.

  "So glad. You will find your position here, Mr. Hartright, properlyrecognised. There is none of the horrid English barbarity of feelingabout the social position of an artist in this house. So much of myearly life has been passed abroad, that I have quite cast my insularskin in that respect. I wish I could say the same of thegentry--detestable word, but I suppose I must use it--of the gentry inthe neighbourhood. They are sad Goths in Art, Mr. Hartright. People, Ido assure you, who would have opened their eyes in astonishment, ifthey had seen Charles the Fifth pick up Titian's brush for him. Do youmind putting this tray of coins back in the cabinet, and giving me thenext one to it? In the wretched state of my nerves, exertion of anykind is unspeakably disagreeable to me. Yes. Thank you."

  As a practical commentary on the liberal social theory which he hadjust favoured me by illustrating, Mr. Fairlie's cool request ratheramused me. I put back one drawer and gave him the other, with allpossible politeness. He began trifling with the new set of coins andthe little brushes immediately; languidly looking at them and admiringthem all the time he was speaking to me.

  "A thousand thanks and a thousand excuses. Do you like coins? Yes. Soglad we have another taste in common besides our taste for Art. Now,about the pecuniary arrangements between us--do tell me--are theysatisfactory?"

  "Most satisfactory, Mr. Fairlie."

  "So glad. And--what next? Ah! I remember. Yes. In reference to theconsideration which you are good enough to accept for giving me thebenefit of your accomplishments in art, my steward will wait on you atthe end of the first week, to ascertain your wishes. And--what next?Curious, is it
not? I had a great deal more to say: and I appear tohave quite forgotten it. Do you mind touching the bell? In thatcorner. Yes. Thank you."

  I rang; and a new servant noiselessly made his appearance--a foreigner,with a set smile and perfectly brushed hair--a valet every inch of him.

  "Louis," said Mr. Fairlie, dreamily dusting the tips of his fingerswith one of the tiny brushes for the coins, "I made some entries in mytablettes this morning. Find my tablettes. A thousand pardons, Mr.Hartright, I'm afraid I bore you."

  As he wearily closed his eyes again, before I could answer, and as hedid most assuredly bore me, I sat silent, and looked up at the Madonnaand Child by Raphael. In the meantime, the valet left the room, andreturned shortly with a little ivory book. Mr. Fairlie, after firstrelieving himself by a gentle sigh, let the book drop open with onehand, and held up the tiny brush with the other, as a sign to theservant to wait for further orders.

  "Yes. Just so!" said Mr. Fairlie, consulting the tablettes. "Louis,take down that portfolio." He pointed, as he spoke, to severalportfolios placed near the window, on mahogany stands. "No. Not theone with the green back--that contains my Rembrandt etchings, Mr.Hartright. Do you like etchings? Yes? So glad we have another taste incommon. The portfolio with the red back, Louis. Don't drop it! Youhave no idea of the tortures I should suffer, Mr. Hartright, if Louisdropped that portfolio. Is it safe on the chair? Do YOU think it safe,Mr. Hartright? Yes? So glad. Will you oblige me by looking at thedrawings, if you really think they are quite safe. Louis, go away.What an ass you are. Don't you see me holding the tablettes? Do yousuppose I want to hold them? Then why not relieve me of the tabletteswithout being told? A thousand pardons, Mr. Hartright; servants aresuch asses, are they not? Do tell me--what do you think of thedrawings? They have come from a sale in a shocking state--I thoughtthey smelt of horrid dealers' and brokers' fingers when I looked atthem last. CAN you undertake them?"

  Although my nerves were not delicate enough to detect the odour ofplebeian fingers which had offended Mr. Fairlie's nostrils, my tastewas sufficiently educated to enable me to appreciate the value of thedrawings, while I turned them over. They were, for the most part,really fine specimens of English water-colour art; and they haddeserved much better treatment at the hands of their former possessorthan they appeared to have received.

  "The drawings," I answered, "require careful straining and mounting;and, in my opinion, they are well worth----"

  "I beg your pardon," interposed Mr. Fairlie. "Do you mind my closingmy eyes while you speak? Even this light is too much for them. Yes?"

  "I was about to say that the drawings are well worth all the time andtrouble----"

  Mr. Fairlie suddenly opened his eyes again, and rolled them with anexpression of helpless alarm in the direction of the window.

  "I entreat you to excuse me, Mr. Hartright," he said in a feebleflutter. "But surely I hear some horrid children in the garden--myprivate garden--below?"

  "I can't say, Mr. Fairlie. I heard nothing myself."

  "Oblige me--you have been so very good in humouring my poornerves--oblige me by lifting up a corner of the blind. Don't let thesun in on me, Mr. Hartright! Have you got the blind up? Yes? Then willyou be so very kind as to look into the garden and make quite sure?"

  I complied with this new request. The garden was carefully walled in,all round. Not a human creature, large or small, appeared in any partof the sacred seclusion. I reported that gratifying fact to Mr.Fairlie.

  "A thousand thanks. My fancy, I suppose. There are no children, thankHeaven, in the house; but the servants (persons born without nerves)will encourage the children from the village. Such brats--oh, dear me,such brats! Shall I confess it, Mr. Hartright?--I sadly want a reformin the construction of children. Nature's only idea seems to be tomake them machines for the production of incessant noise. Surely ourdelightful Raffaello's conception is infinitely preferable?"

  He pointed to the picture of the Madonna, the upper part of whichrepresented the conventional cherubs of Italian Art, celestiallyprovided with sitting accommodation for their chins, on balloons ofbuff-coloured cloud.

  "Quite a model family!" said Mr. Fairlie, leering at the cherubs. "Suchnice round faces, and such nice soft wings, and--nothing else. Nodirty little legs to run about on, and no noisy little lungs to screamwith. How immeasurably superior to the existing construction! I willclose my eyes again, if you will allow me. And you really can managethe drawings? So glad. Is there anything else to settle? if there is,I think I have forgotten it. Shall we ring for Louis again?"

  Being, by this time, quite as anxious, on my side, as Mr. Fairlieevidently was on his, to bring the interview to a speedy conclusion, Ithought I would try to render the summoning of the servant unnecessary,by offering the requisite suggestion on my own responsibility.

  "The only point, Mr. Fairlie, that remains to be discussed," I said,"refers, I think, to the instruction in sketching which I am engaged tocommunicate to the two young ladies."

  "Ah! just so," said Mr. Fairlie. "I wish I felt strong enough to gointo that part of the arrangement--but I don't. The ladies who profitby your kind services, Mr. Hartright, must settle, and decide, and soon, for themselves. My niece is fond of your charming art. She knowsjust enough about it to be conscious of her own sad defects. Pleasetake pains with her. Yes. Is there anything else? No. We quiteunderstand each other--don't we? I have no right to detain you anylonger from your delightful pursuit--have I? So pleasant to havesettled everything--such a sensible relief to have done business. Doyou mind ringing for Louis to carry the portfolio to your own room?"

  "I will carry it there myself, Mr. Fairlie, if you will allow me."

  "Will you really? Are you strong enough? How nice to be so strong! Areyou sure you won't drop it? So glad to possess you at Limmeridge, Mr.Hartright. I am such a sufferer that I hardly dare hope to enjoy muchof your society. Would you mind taking great pains not to let thedoors bang, and not to drop the portfolio? Thank you. Gently with thecurtains, please--the slightest noise from them goes through me like aknife. Yes. GOOD morning!"

  When the sea-green curtains were closed, and when the two baize doorswere shut behind me, I stopped for a moment in the little circular hallbeyond, and drew a long, luxurious breath of relief. It was like comingto the surface of the water after deep diving, to find myself once moreon the outside of Mr. Fairlie's room.

  As soon as I was comfortably established for the morning in my prettylittle studio, the first resolution at which I arrived was to turn mysteps no more in the direction of the apartments occupied by the masterof the house, except in the very improbable event of his honouring mewith a special invitation to pay him another visit. Having settledthis satisfactory plan of future conduct in reference to Mr. Fairlie, Isoon recovered the serenity of temper of which my employer's haughtyfamiliarity and impudent politeness had, for the moment, deprived me.The remaining hours of the morning passed away pleasantly enough, inlooking over the drawings, arranging them in sets, trimming theirragged edges, and accomplishing the other necessary preparations inanticipation of the business of mounting them. I ought, perhaps, tohave made more progress than this; but, as the luncheon-time drew near,I grew restless and unsettled, and felt unable to fix my attention onwork, even though that work was only of the humble manual kind.

  At two o'clock I descended again to the breakfast-room, a littleanxiously. Expectations of some interest were connected with myapproaching reappearance in that part of the house. My introduction toMiss Fairlie was now close at hand; and, if Miss Halcombe's searchthrough her mother's letters had produced the result which sheanticipated, the time had come for clearing up the mystery of the womanin white.